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

1. 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

2. 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.

Visit the more than century-old adobe Alvino House to see how settlers lived here at the turn of the 20th century, the La Harmonia Store that started out as a U.S. Cavalry barracks, and the Garlick House that now houses the Castolon Visitor Center.

The Rio Grande river in Big Bend National Park

3. 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. For a guided experience, consider the Float the Canyons of the Rio Grande scenic river tour led by Big Bend Boating and Hiking Company.

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

4. 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

5. 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.

Check park conditions before visiting: Conditions at National Parks can change without notice. Be sure to check the latest information about conditions on the Big Bend National Park website when planning a trip.

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Whether you're looking to book a stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, rent a car for your trip into the Chihuahuan Desert, or reserve a guided National Parks tour package, see how AAA can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

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