A Big Bend Weekend
It's impossible to enjoy any national park in it's entirety over the course of one weekend. Most national parks are spread out over hundreds of thousands of acres and even a full week of exploration won't suffice. Some people might even tell you it's not worth going if you can only stay for one weekend.
I'm the kind of person that would tell you the 9-hour drive that four of my buddies and I took from Austin for two days of camping, canoeing, and going on adventures in Big Bend National Park was 100% worth it.
Did we get to see everything? Of course not.
But if you're crunched on time and still want to explore Big Bend National Park for a weekend trip, you can still make it an incredible adventure.
After helping plan our two day trip (which was also a bachelor party), here's a few pieces of advice I have for how to make a short trip to Big Bend worth the drive.
1. Look At the Park Map in Advance
Men have a reputation for not reading instructions or asking for directions. Alyssa would argue that I definitely fit into the cliche. I tend to fly by the seat of my pants and make it up as I go. But because we only had two days in Big Bend, I actually did my homework beforehand and looked at the park map (and it paid off).
For a weekend trip in an RV with no tow car, I realized that we'd have to be strategic on finding hikes and activities that were relatively close to where we were camping (because Big Bend is huge!). This way, we could spend significantly less time driving and more time exploring once we were inside the park.
2. Camp Primitive
Big Bend has "primitive backcountry camping spots" that are suitable for RV's and tent campers. The two suitable spots for large RVers are Croton Springs and Government Springs (see map above).
Both of these sites boast beautiful locations and are first come, first serve. I knew that it would make our trip much more of a meaningful experience if we could snag a primitive site VS. camping in an RV park (even though it meant leaving Austin at 4 am to make it in time).
But since it was Memorial Day Weekend, we went ahead and made back up reservations at Big Bend Resort RV Park in Terlingua in case we couldn't grab the primitive campsite inside the park.
We ended up camping at Big Bend Resort for our second night and it was a fairly nice campground for a one or two night stay. But of course, it couldn't compare to the primitive spot where we stayed in Croton Springs.
This definitely made my list of top five all-time favorite camping spots. For $10, you can't beat the view. Since they won't accept upfront reservations for these spots, you'll have to stop at the visitor center on your way into the park to check the availability.
Croton Springs is just a turn off from the main park road that goes back for a mile into a large open area that could easily fit five or six large RV's (but only allows two at a time). Our RV is 33 feet and we had no issues driving back there.
There is another campground inside the park that can accommodate larger RV's. It's called Rio Grande Village and it's located in the southeastern part of the park near the border with Mexico.
3. Know Park Regulations in Advance
While camping in a primitive spot sounded cool in theory, I was a little worried about dry camping during late May weather. It's been hitting consistently over 100 degrees in the park each day.
The first thing the park ranger asked me when I asked her about the availability of the primitive campsites was, "Are you going to need to turn on your generator when it gets to be over 100 degrees outside?"
Judging by her response, she was trying to not-so-subtly hint that using generators inside of Big Bend National Park is strictly prohibited. I was proud to tell her that we would not need to turn on our generator, not because of our fancy solar set up, but because I tore up my in-laws styrofoam cooler and turned it into a homemade air conditioner.
I noticed on Big Bend's website that generators were prohibited, so I started brainstorming ways we could stay cool in the evening and at night. I found this video on Youtube of how to make an $8 homemade air conditioner. It looked easy and cheap enough to try it out (plus a fun team building activity with the guys) so we made it on Thursday before hitting the road.
All in all, it took us less than 10 minutes and did a decent job of helping us cool off the RV in the evening.
Here's all you need:
- Styrofoam ice chest
- Two HVac elbows
- Battery powered fan
- Ice or frozen water bottles
The weather ended up dipping into the low sixties at night and it felt great.
4. Decide What Activities Are Most Important and Only Plan to Do Those
Once we found our campsite, it was time to figure out which activities we could realistically get done in one weekend.
The two things we wanted to do in Big Bend were:
- Canoe the river
When researching rafting companies we found two outside Big Bend in Terlingua, which was roughly 30 minutes away from our primitive campsite at Croton Springs.
Both of these companies were doing limited tours since the Rio Grande is at very low levels. At first they acted like they didn't want to give us reservations, but bribed them with a little extra payment and were able to grab a spot on Far Flung River Tours for a half day canoeing trip. We paid around $100 per head and did a ~3 mile trip.
We were hopeful we'd be able to canoe through the Santa Elena Canyon, but because of low water levels we weren't able to do so. However the views in Big Bend Ranch State Park still had stretches of canyon on either side and the water felt great in the scorching heat.
5. Stay Up Late
Big Bend National Park has the least light pollution out of all of the national parks in the lower 48 states. Camping in Big Bend and not staying up to look at the stars is like going to Disney World and not riding Tower of Terror. You may have went to Disney World, but you wimped out early and didn't ride one of the most exciting rides.
At a quick comparison, in a normal mid-sized city you could potentially see a few hundred stars in the sky. In Big Bend National Park, you can see over 2,000 of them! The national park service in Big Bend goes above and beyond to find innovative solutions to block lighting pollution and at night you can tell.
6. If Hiking The Chisos Mountains Are Important to You, Bring a Tow Car or Rig Under 24 ft
Rigs over 24 feet are not supposed to drive up to the Chisos Mountains (where some of the more popular hikes are located). If hiking up in the Chisos mountains are important to you, I recommend bringing along a tow car so you can make the trip up the mountain in a smaller vehicle.
A few of the most popular hikes in the park are:
However, there are several hikes within the park that you will have access to. We took the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive to the Lower Mesa Pour-off-Trail. It's an easy 1-2 mile hike that leads you through a gravel drainage and ends at the base of a dried up 100 foot waterfall that sometimes floods during summer months.
7. Buy More Than Enough Food and Water
I realize this is a given, but if you have to make a grocery store run it will cut a huge amount of time into your short-lived trip. Make sure you have enough food so you don't have to waste time driving many miles to the nearest grocery store or local restaurant to eat.
If you have the chance, grilling out at your RV with views like this is the way to go.
8. Don't Try to Do Everything
Since we were just there for the weekend, we didn't run ourselves ragged trying to do every hike, hot spring, or restaurant within a 50 mile radius. We would have been exhausted and miserable. Since we already made the 9 hour drive down from Austin, our first night in the park we decided to go for a short hike around our primitive campsite instead of driving around the park.
This allowed us to get the RV set up, chairs, table, games, and just spend the evening relaxing and enjoying ourselves.
In the past, I've gotten flack from fellow RVers when Alyssa and I didn't stay in national parks for longer periods of time.
"You only spend 3 days in The Tetons? You must not have seen anything!"
While in an ideal world, we would spend weeks upon weeks in national parks, we aren't yet at a place in our lives where we have that kind of leisurely time. Instead, sometimes we have to be a bit creative and figure out how we can maximize our weekend trips to national park locations so that we can get the most out of our experiences.
So if you're planning an upcoming trip to Big Bend and only have a couple days to make it work, there are a lot of ways to make the drive well worth your time.
Plus, going to national parks is about more than just exploring every single inch of the park. It's about appreciating the beauty of our great country. It's about taking a couple days to sit outside, stargaze, look at mountains and skimp on showers while your wives aren't around. As long as you do at least a few of these things during your trip to Big Bend, it won't matter if you get to spend two days or two weeks there.
You will have the adventure you came for.