Big Bend National Park County is stark, isolated, and beautiful. It’s roughly the size of Rhode Island and is a world of contrasts. You have the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chisos Mountains, and the Rio Grande River. It’s a mixture of deep canyons and towering peaks, grassy fields, and sandy slopes, and every type of desert wildlife. It’s a trip everyone should make at least once in their life.
This road trip is going to start in Midland, Texas. Why? One is that I grew up around there and have made the trip multiple times, so I have a good understanding of where to start. Two is that with the big oil boom happening out there, more people are probably going to start from Midland than from Abilene. There’s also the Midland International Air and Space Port, which is one of the largest airports in this region. If you are not living in the Midland-Odessa area, it’s an easy flight where you can rent a car and start driving.
Midland to Balmorhea State Park, located in what some call the entrance to the Big Bend Region, is a good two-and-a-half hour of driving. Most of it through remote rural towns and some ghost towns. It’s not your typical drive through forested hills and multiple exits for McDonald’s. So, I’m going to give some helpful tips from a native desert dweller before you hit the road.
Tips Before You Hit the Road
- Do some basic car maintenance. If it is a rental car, you should be fine but still double check. Why? You are driving into some remote areas where cell phone signal is nil. This is especially with some providers. I never had luck with Sprint and had to switch to AT&T, which can still have spotty coverage. You may also be an hour between shops that offer mechanic services. Be prepared.
- Get gas and get gas often. As someone who grew up near this area, my biggest suggestion is always to stop and get gas when you see a (reputable) gas station. There are stretches where you can quickly go 60 miles without a single gas station. That doesn’t sound bad until you realize it’s through steep grades and windy mountain passes.
- Bring water and lots of it. You are driving through the majestic Big Bend and up into the mountains, but you are still in the Chihuahuan desert. You will get dehydrated faster than you think you will. Throw a 12-pack of bottled water (per person) in the back seat or the trunk, and you’ll feel better later. One gallon per person also works. It gets seriously hot ya’ll.
- Expect to lose cell phone coverage. If you are addicted to your cell phone, this might be a good time to decompress. Coverage is spotty in some regions, especially where you drop behind a mountain or in a canyon. In the park itself? Almost no coverage. Luckily, there are ranger stations and people always searching for the area. West Texas is also full of some really friendly people, and most are more than willing to let you borrow their landline if you need it. Just tell people before you leave that you will be not available via cell for a few hours.
- Print out or write down this itinerary. Also, get an Atlas. You can keep it on your phone or put a plan on Google Maps, but again, you will lose service. Then what? Keep an Atlas in the car and also print out this road trip. The Atlas won’t help you with gas stations, so I’m going to try and keep you as full as possible.
How long? About 588 miles or 10 hours, without stops. As I said, this is a weekend trip (because you have to turn around and drive back). A three-day weekend would be perfect to explore and enjoy this vast area. If you genuinely want to white-water raft and go on an outdoor adventure, a full week is perfect!
Time of Year? Spring and the fall are the best times of the year for this trip. You can do it in the summer but check the weather forecast. Some areas near Alpine are noticeably cooler than other parts of West Texas but down in the canyons? It’s hot. However, plenty of people who grew up in West Texas make the trip during the summer months so as long as you take precautions (fuel up often and take water), you’ll be fine.
Map not working on your phone? Try this one.
West Texas and Big Bend Itinerary
Start at Midland International Airport
Midland, Texas, is halfway between Dallas/Fort Worth and El Paso, conveniently located on Interstate 20. It’s a great place to start the somewhat isolated tour as you can find everything that you need in this large (and ever-growing) town.
I’m going to start off this road trip a little differently. Rather than listing places to see, I’m going to start with a list of gas stations near the start of the route at the Midland Airpark. If you already live in Midland, you know where to go and get gas. However, if you flew in and rented a car, you should be good to go. Just stop and get some snacks and water. As you go through the itinerary, you’ll see this little gas icon every time there is an opportunity to get gas.
The drive from Midland to Balmorhea State Park is a long and isolated one once you get past Monahans or Pecos. It can also be beautiful in its simplicity and very peaceful.
Side trip! Monahans Sandhills State Park, 2500 E Interstate 20 Exit 86, Monahans, TX 79756
Over 3,800 acres of white sand dunes can be found off I-20 near Monahans in the Monahans Sandhills State Park. It’s very similar to the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and is an excellent place to stop and take pictures.
The drive from Midland International Airport is a little under two and a half hours or 129 miles.
Balmorhea State Park is a welcoming oasis on your drive through the desert. Swimming at the two-acre concrete swimming pool formed by the waters of the San Solomon Springs is a West Texas summer tradition. Locals often learn to swim in a shallow stream that runs down to the pool before moving to the deeper waters with its sand, rock, and native aquatic plant-covered bottom. [As a kid, I thought it was slime. Too much Nickelodeon.] You’ll also be swimming with the fishes as different kinds inhabit the waters. The pool is undergoing renovations in the early part of Summer 2018, but you can always view the area and the springs themselves. It should be open by Spring 2019.
Established in 1854 on the San Antonio-El Paso Road, Fort Davis is located on the bank of Limpia Creek. The fort’s restored buildings include twenty-four roofed buildings and over 100 ruins and foundations. Silhouetted against the red-rock walls of Hospital Canyon and the Fort Davis Mountains, Fort Davis itself is a charming little town. While here, visit the McDonald Observatory [3640 Dark Sky Drive, Fort Davis, TX 79734 ] outside of town to view some stunning views of both the land and the sky. If you like historical downtowns, visit the Hotel Limpia and Masonic Lodge. I stayed at the Hotel Limpia back when doing an article on Prude Ranch (another great stay!) and it was well worth it. The whole town is a little mountain town with historical roots and a peaceful vibe. Also, there is limited cell phone service through the entire town.
Alpine is one of the highest towns in Texas atop several mountains which top 6,000 feet. It’s a perfect spot for getting a bite to eat, viewing the beautiful murals painted around town, or visiting the Museum of the Big Bend, located at Sul Ross State University. Alpine and the surrounding area is a well-known watering hole in the summer as the temperature can be lower by ten degrees or more than the desert around it.
After Alpine, the tour begins going into the mountains of the Big Bend National Park, so if you are even less than a quarter of a tank from full, stop and get gas.
Alon Gas Station, 801 NE 1st St, Marathon, TX 79842
[Has a fully equipped service station in case of tire punctures, etc.]
As you head past Alpine, you’ll enter the Big Bend National Park through the Persimmon Gap, a large mountain pass at the north end of the park. Desert blankets the 800,000-acre park in 98% of it. Over 1,200 different species of plants exist in the vast park as do all types of wildlife, including 400 different types of birds. The diversity of species is the higher than any found at any of the national parks. South of Persimmon Gap are the Chisos Mountains, with its 7,835-foot Emory Peak. These mountains are covered with high-country trees such as Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines.
As the road heads from the entrance towards the Rio Grande Village Visitor’s Center, two of the park’s most prominent peaks can be seen off in the vista. The Elephant Tusk if off in the distance to the south and the Chilicotal Mountains are closer to the road. In the Rio Grande Village area, you can take a short nature trail that loops around the floodplain before climbing to an overlook that looks over the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico and the Rio Grande. The view from this overlook is fantastic at sunset. The river allows easy access to canoeing and kayaking. There are also plenty of bird-watching trails. FYI, the “village” is a campground; you may find it on your map as Rio Grande Village Campground.
Rio Grande Village Store, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834
This store is an excellent place to stop for gas, food, and if you need it, a shower.
The service station is on Gano Springs (Park Route 12), just west of where Main Park and Gano Springs/Route 12 intersect.
Follow the six-mile Chisos Basin Road, which winds over two thousand feet above the desert floor. Not recommended for RVs over 24 feet or trailers longer than 20 feet, the road has steep grades (as much as 15%). Go to the Basin Visitor Center, about 100 yards east of the Chisos Mountains, to view exhibits on native plants, animals, and birds. Permits for visitor’s use are issued during regular business hours, and entrance fees can be paid at the visitor center. If you feel like getting out and walking a trail or two, the Window Trail is a leisurely stroll that gives beautiful vistas through a break in the basin wall.
Heading on Route 188, a turnoff leads south onto the thirty-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The road winds along the Rio Grande with some of the historical and geologic features that Big Bend National Park is best known. The Chisos Mountains loom in the eastern horizon while the Burro Mesa is in the West. The so-called Window is a V-shaped cleft that is a striking view at sunset. The road then takes some sharp curves, and steep turns with a look at Mule Ears Peake. The 1,000-foot-tall Cerro Castellan looms overhead as you near Castolon Historic District, an old army post. Continue driving about eight miles farther to the west to Santa Elena Canyon.
Famous for its white-water rapids trips, Santa Elena Canyon is also known for its dramatically beautiful canyon walls. The Santa Elena’s tall cliffs go up to 1,500 feet. You can arrange white-water trips in nearby towns such as Lajitas. Park and you can wade through the mud into the other side of the canyon but be sure that you have some water to wash off your feet. It’s a short hike to get into the canyon, and the view is gorgeous. Wear hiking shoes. [Side note: if you are at all claustrophobic, skip this venture and move on to Terlingua.]
70 hc, Terlingua, TX 79852
The Barton Warnock Visitor Center is the eastern visitor center for the Big Bend Ranch State Park near Lajitas and Terlingua. The center offers an archeological, historical, and natural history profile of the region. It also provides a two-acre desert garden and an interpretive center. Terlingua is a popular tourist destination and is known for its popular chili cookoffs held throughout the year. The “proper” part of the town is a ghost town with old buildings and historic sites. If you go into the part of the area that extends into Study Butte has some local dining spots and area shopping.
FM 170 from Terlingua to Presidio
One of Texas’ best scenic routes, El Camino del Rio follows the twists and turns of the Rio Grande between Lajitas and Presidio. After you leave the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, you’ll drive down Farm Road 170 to the town of Lajitas, an old west town that has unique shops and is popular with tourists. As you traverse around the road, the views of rugged mountains and dark, lava flows capped with hardened ask are a photographer’s dream. You’ll pass by Madera Canyon, climb a steep grade to the top of Santana and down into Tapado Canyon and Fort Leaton State Historic Park. Note that this road can be a challenge for motorhomes, trailers, and motor coaches. Also, slow down.
Fort Leaton is at the western edge of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. If you love adobe architecture, you will want to stop and view this old pioneer trading post, built in 1848. Plants in the park range from cacti to cottonwoods. There is also a picnic area and public bathrooms. Presidio is also a great little town on the Texas/Mexico border where you can spend the night, eat, and get gas. It also has an airport if you wanted to fly directly into this area.
Twenty miles north of Presidio on Highway 67 is the ghost town of Shafter and the Rio Grande Mining Company. Shafter used to be called “the richest acre in Texas” due to the millions of dollars’ worth of silver from the local mines. Little remains of the town today except for the crumbling ruins.
Known for the mysterious orbs known as the “Marfa Lights,” Marfa is a small city that is currently known as an artist’s hubs. I used to frequent the town in the late 90s, and it has grown exponentially since that time (there’s traffic now!). There is a viewing station 9 miles east of town on Highway 90 towards Alpine where you can see if you can spot the Marfa Ghost Lights on the foothills of the Chinati Mountains. (For the record, I’ve never seen them, so I can’t say too much.) Spend the night at the Hotel Paisano for a little Spanish flair or one of the other hotels in the area. Before you head back, visit the Marfa and Presidio County Museum at the intersection of Highway 67 and San Antonio Road. It’s a museum about local settlers and military history in a 1880s adobe home.
Marfa is the last stop on the tour before you go back through Fort Davis and back towards Midland.
A sense of humor [It’s an adventure these days without a phone] ?
Seriously though, most of all, have fun! It’s one of the untouched areas left in Texas and is breathtaking at any time of year.
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