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The ultimate guide to Big Bend National Park

Mystery lights, ghost towns, and the Milky Way

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Created by Roadtrippers - December 27th 2020

Texas's Big Bend National Park is quite an interesting park to consider. It's burning hot, it's bone dry, it's in the middle of nowhere—and yet, it's absolutely amazing. The unparalleled beauty of West Texas is on full display. Here are a few of the best things to see and do at Big Bend:

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Some tips for visiting Big Bend National Park:

Big Bend is one of the most remote and least visited parks in the country. It usually sees around 500,000 tourists a year, compared to the 12.5 million people who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the 6 million who visit Grand Canyon National Park. There are pros and cons to visiting a park this remote: There are fewer amenities, but there are also fewer people, meaning you can enjoy the serenity of nature. Just come prepared with extra supplies and plenty of knowledge.

Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park. It is considered the best park in the lower 48 for astronomers—and travelers—to check out the Milky Way. There's barely any light pollution, and you can see over 2,000 stars on any given night, compared to a few hundred in most small cities.

The wildlife in Big Bend is incredibly unique. Prepare to experience it. Wear good shoes, and keep your eyes peeled for snakes.

Closed Canyon Trailhead

There are plenty of great hikes near Big Bend, and the Closed Canyon Trail is one. This slot canyon in nearby Big Bend Ranch takes you down to the Rio Grande and back. It's only 1.4 miles round trip, making for a quick and easy journey. If it has rained recently, prepare to be walking and wading through puddles in the canyon on your way down.

Food Shark

The closest major town to Big Bend is the funky, artsy community of Marfa. One of the most Marfa places you can eat is at Food Shark, a ramshackle food truck that serves up amazing Mediterranean-style grub for lunch. You'll find outdoor seating and light and healthy meals.

Pro tips: Food Shark is cash only and gives change with dollar coins. Also, food is served only until the restaurant runs out. Since this is a super popular joint, get there early.

Pine Canyon Trail

The Pine Canyon Trail is a not-frequently-traversed hiking trail, but after a heavy rain, the payoff can be spectacular, offering views of a waterfall. Most of the year the falls just trickle, but after a downpour, there's a substantial cascade.

Big Bend is famed for its hiking—and, it's also notorious for its extreme heat, which frequently tops out at around 100 degrees. You'll probably want a place to relax and unwind after hiking. Luckily, Big Bend has the perfect spot—a hot spring. The primitive springs are perfect for soaking in after a long hike through the scenic desert, and the water is always at a relaxing 105 degrees.

Marfa Lights Viewing Center

Back in Marfa, you can add a bit of the unexplained to your adventure. The Marfa Lights have been an unsolved mystery for decades. Most often described as an orb or several orbs that glow intensely, these lights reportedly can remain stationary, dart around, or even split into multiple orbs. The lights are usually white or yellow but have been seen as green, blue, and red. They often are first mistaken for car headlights—until they start moving in unnatural ways.

There's an official viewing center off Highway 90 where you have a good chance of experiencing the phenomenon for yourself.

White Buffalo Bar

The Gage Hotel in Marathon is home to the White Buffalo Bar. Its saloon-like ambiance makes it a great place to grab dinner or drinks. The bar menu isn't extensive, as the drinks are the star of the show. You'll find a wide array of margaritas, cocktails, and tequilas. For an upscale meal, visit the 12 Gage Restaurant.

Terlingua Ghost Town

In true Texas fashion, you can find Wild West ghost towns dotted in the region around Big Bend. In Terlingua, a former mining community, you can see the abandoned Chisos Mining Company buildings, where mercury was extracted in the late 19th century.

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One of the shortest—but most impactful hikes—at Big Bend is the trail to the Window. Rocks frame a overlook providing an epic view of the desert landscape. It's a great photo op and an easy trail to hike. Consider going during sunrise or sunset, when soft, colorful light paints the desert in stunning beauty.

The hike to Balanced Rock is relatively easy, although there is some rock scrambling towards the end. The payoff is incredible. You get views of the surreal landscape, dotted with strange rock formations, including a massive balanced rock. Best taken in the morning or late afternoon since there's little shade, this hike is good for kids and adults alike.

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The best representation of Marfa's quirky culture is Prada Marfa. What looks like an abandoned Prada store in the middle of nowhere is actually a strange art installation that has intrigued many. It's a must-see photo op.

Santa Elena Canyon

For kayakers, Santa Elena Canyon is another must. This spot is popular with paddlers looking to spend time exploring the river as it winds through the canyon, with its incredibly huge 1,500 foot walls. You can also paddle upstream to Fern Canyon and then float back to the put-in for a day trip.

Cattail Falls

The lush greenery around Cattail Falls is quite a contrast to the desert landscapes of Big Bend. It's a little tricky to find this hidden oasis, but if you do, you'll likely feel a mixture of triumph and delight.

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The best time of year to visit Big Bend National Park is the spring or the fall. The desert is a land of extremes: Summer brings heat that often reaches 100 degrees, and winter brings snow and temperatures that dip into the 30s. That being said, Big Bend is absolutely worth visiting any time of year, as long as you come prepared.

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