The top 5 things to do at Big Bend National Park

Panoramic view of a vista at Big Bend National Park

It's easy to feel awestruck by Big Bend National Park, with rugged rock formations, river-carved gorges, scenic vistas, tree-cloaked hillsides, and vast tracts of rock-strewn Chihuahuan Desert. 

Big Bend National Park is located in Texas, where it hugs the Rio Grande and takes a sharp turn north along the U.S.-Mexico border. Those who make it to this vast, isolated wonderland are rewarded with one of the top outdoor destinations in Texas. We look at 5 can't-miss attractions for any visitor.

Sagebrush blooming in the Chisos Basin

Start at the Chisos Basin

This scenic basin, with its surrounding hills and multiple trails, is considered by many to be the heart of the park. At these high elevations (the basin is about a mile above sea level, and the surrounding terrain towers above that) you'll see vegetation that's uncommon in other parts of the state, and one of the best spots in the park to see a Texas sunset. You'll also find the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only non-camping accommodation within Big Bend. 

Old equipment in the Castolon Historic District

See the region's human history at Castolon Historic District

The Castolon Historic District is one of the best-preserved areas in Big Bend with rusting farm equipment and historic structures populating the landscape. While Castolon is included on the National Register of Historic Places, ranching and farming continued in the area as late as 1961.

The Rio Grande river in Big Bend National Park

Follow the winding course of the Rio Grande

The river has carved impressive terrain over the course of its meandering journey. Rafting and river tours of the Rio Grande are popular activities at Big Bend. Placid stretches are intermixed with some whitewater fun, and if you've never done a trip such as this, it's an introduction to a new world.

Visitors who bring their own equipment will need a backcountry-use permit. Several outfitters provide rental gear and guide services. See a short list of options. While swimming in the Rio Grande isn't prohibited, it's strongly discouraged: The river may look safe, but strong undercurrents, deep holes, and shallow areas with sharp rocks and tree limbs threaten even experienced swimmers.

 Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande

Hike into a deep chasm on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

This popular hike leads to the banks of the Rio Grande with minimal elevation gain. Hikers on this 1.7-mile round-trip trail will find themselves surrounded by 1,500-foot cliffs—one of Big Bend's most impressive spectacles.

Yucca plants in Dagger Flat

Get to know the desert's plants on the Dagger Flat Auto Trail

Pick up a free guidebook and check on the current road conditions at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center to enhance your self-guided tour of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. As you travel on the 14-mile round-trip trail, watch for giant dagger yuccas and the other desert plants that have uniquely adapted to local conditions. The graded dirt road surface is regularly maintained and is generally passable for high-clearance vehicles.

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Visit a branch to get the free1 Big Bend National Park map

Looking to get the most out of your trip? AAA's Big Bend National Park folding map is a perfect resource for planning. Find points of interest, local campgrounds, activities, lodging, and more, along with information about park rules and how to get around. 

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