My daughter Luz at the top and middle overlooks the Lost Mine Trail in January 2018; baby Luz and her dad Vic hike the Window Trail in 2010.
I grew up in San Antonio, and for all but the four years I attended college in Connecticut I have called this state home. That said, most of my Texas travel for my first two decades of life spanned a one-hour driving radius from my hometown, with the occasional Port Aransas or Austin trip thrown in. Growing up, I had heard of somewhere called Big Bend, but it wasn’t until I was a full-fledged married adult that I first traveled to this magical place.
The first time I visited Big Bend in 2005 I was a broken record, repeating both aloud and to myself, “I can’t believe this is Texas!” every 10 to 15 minutes as our Ford F-150 cruised along the scenic highways in the park. Everything about it felt foreign yet wonderful. Even in the summer, the nights in the Chisos Basin were cool. The stars seemed to go on forever—at any moment I felt they would swallow me up. The vastness and diversity of the park were astounding. Within a couple hundred miles, one can see everything from majestic canyon walls cradling the Rio Grande River to stunning mountain vistas in the Chisos, to relaxing hot springs accessible after meandering down a sandy path surrounded by pictographs and palm trees. I fell in love—so much so that I made plans to move to West Texas within a few years.
In 2009 I was living in Alpine, Texas, when I gave birth to my oldest daughter, Luz. Despite never having hiked as kids with our own parents, Vic and I became mesmerized with the outdoors and fell in love with the beauty of Big Bend, the Davis Mountains, and the entire desert region. A couple months after Luz’s first birthday we went on our first “real” hike in Big Bend as a trio, making our way into the gentle valley of the Window Trail with our newly walking toddler secured in a hiking carrier on my husband’s back. Despite a brief scare when a sharp temperature drop turned my chubby baby into a shivering bundle, we were hooked.
Since moving back to San Antonio in 2012, not only have we welcomed a second daughter, our sweet and feisty Paloma, but we have made it a point to travel to West Texas several times a year and Big Bend at least once a year. With each hike we’ve learned more, including how to make the most of the experience with kids in tow. Together we have gained a familial love of being together outdoors in our favorite part of Texas. My eight-year-old is a hiking pro, and her six-year-old sister is beginning to appreciate it—she now waits a full 20–30 minutes before complaining that she is too tired to continue, instead of starting the complaint chorus within the first 100 yards. I’ll take what I can get with that one!
If you are intrigued but a little intimidated, keep reading, because I promise if two slightly chubby adults and two school-aged kids can do it, so can you. The key is knowing where and when to go, and how to plan and pack accordingly.
First Things First
Timing is everything. Fall through spring is the best time to explore Big Bend. It’s in the desert, so summer can be brutally hot. If you do plan a summer visit, it’s best to stay in Chisos Mountains at higher elevation and stick to shaded, short hikes early in the morning. Some things to keep in mind at all times:
- Extreme temperature fluctuations are the norm. Expect chilly nights and hot days. Wear light layers and pack extra socks.
- Pack like a pro. Don’t forget plenty of water, snacks, hat, sunscreen, and clothing layers.
- Read and understand wildlife warnings. Bears, mountain lions, snakes, and other animals live in the park. Know how to respond (trail heads clearly explain what to do if you catch sight of potentially dangerous animal.)
- Plan ahead. Research your trail and know how long the round-trip journey will take.
- Take time to smell the creosote. Focus on the journey, not the destination.
- Watch the weather. Layer up and be ready to head for home if skies turn dark and stormy or winds pick up.
- Follow REI’s top-notch “Hiking with Kids” tips. Highlights include:
- Keep them dry, warm ,and fed. That seemingly perfect place becomes miserable for everyone when your child’s most basic needs aren’t met.
- Keep them hydrated and cool. Water bottles and backpacks with a refillable bladder are popular options. A spray bottle is handy for quick cool-downs if it gets too hot.
- Triple-check the gear list. REI’s list of 10 essentials makes it easy.
Keep in mind that you are not likely to have cell service while hiking in the park, so make sure you have clearly mapped out your journey and have a plan in case someone gets injured on a trail. As tempting as it may seem to separate, I highly recommend that you stay within eye and earshot of each other, and within a few feet of children six and under.
Finally, it’s important to note that there is only one place to get gas in the entire park, so plan accordingly. From Marathon, it’s an hour’s drive to the gas station; from Study Butter (near Terlingua), it’s about 40 minutes. The single station is located a mile west of the Panther Junction Park headquarters.
Park to Do and See List
You’ve packed up your kids, hit the road, and entered the park. Now what? If you are driving south from Marathon, be sure to stop at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit first, pictured above (along with a view of baby Luz and her dad at the hot springs along the Rio Grande River). The stunning exhibit is in the middle of nowhere, making it all the more intriguing and unexpected. The architecture is gorgeous, and the specimens are top-notch. Expect to spend at least half an hour to an hour looking at the fossils and learning about the changes to Big Bend’s plants and animals, and the world they lived in, through 130 million years of geologic time. Specimens from Big Bend’s remarkable fossil record and vivid artwork illustrate the fascinating story of Big Bend’s ancient life. There is even a small picnic area and short trail, making it a perfect spot to grab a snack and learn about the animals that called Big Bend home for millions of years.
Next, check into headquarters at Panther Junction—park rangers are there to help you! It’s a great place to refill your water bottles and watch a short movie about the park’s different regions, then sign your kids up for the Junior Ranger challenge. The gift shop has a wonderful selection of quality books and educational materials, as well as fun, kid-sized hiking gear, hats, and more.
At this point you will be ready to hit the trail. The following is my hiking with kids short list. Hope you enjoy!
These are good for families with children of all ages and OK for those with limited hiking experience.
Boquillas Canyon Trail—On the Rio Grande at the southeastern part of Big Bend National Park. Good for families with children of all ages, mostly flat except for a brief climb at the beginning. Near the end of the trail you can picnic along the Rio Grande on the wide, sandy beaches before retracing your steps back to your vehicle.
A short drive from the Boquillas Canyon Trail is the Boquillas point of entry, which has its own access road and parking lot. If you have your passport you can visit Boquillas, Mexico; before you go, check hours of the port of entry, as it is not open daily and closes relatively early, meaning you could easily get stuck in Mexico for a day or two if you aren’t paying attention (I’m actually planning to stay the night on my next visit). Pay $5 for a round-trip boat ride across the Rio Grande and then either walk the one mile into town or rent a burro (another $5 round trip per burro—well worth it if you are feeling adventurous). There are two excellent restaurants in town, though I recommend Jose Falcon’s place (they also rent rooms if you want to spend the night). In town, local village artisans sell handicrafts ranging from beaded scorpions and painted walking sticks to bags embroidered with smiling javelinas and “NO WALL” in all caps. I bought half a dozen of the latter.
Hot Springs—A very short, easy, sandy trail with access to natural hot springs on the river, located on the southeast side of the park past Panther Junction. It is my favorite spot in the park to relax in the evening after a hike. During peak holiday times like Thanksgiving week and around Christmas it can get very crowded, so plan on heading there very early to avoid the crowds.
Basin Loop Trail—See the famous window from the top of the Chisos and enjoy the cooler temps and shade of this high trail.
Indian Head—A short, easy trail, and the kids will love seeing the petroglyphs (rock drawings) and climbing huge boulders.
Burro Mesa—Short, easy trail through mountains with interesting geologic forms and strata to a (usually) dry waterfall. No shade, so plan your hike time accordingly.
Indian head pictured at top, the sandy beaches of the Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon below.
Santa Elena Canyon—On the southwest side of the park on the Rio Grande, with an extremely scenic drive to get there. The hike boasts stunning views and is relatively short, but there are lots of steep steps and winding paths. If you have a daredevil toddler it’s best to keep him/her in a carrier. All kids need to be warned not to run and to stay very close to an adult. I still consider this short, popular hike to be kid-friendly, just make sure your kids are good at following instructions.
These are best for families with kids ages six and up who have some experience hiking and/or babies and toddlers who can tolerate being carried in a pack for a few hours by a fit parent.
Lost Mine Trail—My favorite hike, which includes very steep inclines that lead to an incredible mountaintop with stunning views well into Mexico (see pictures at top of this post). There is a beautiful scenic overlook about halfway to the top, a perfect turnaround spot for less experienced hikers or families who have less than two hours to hike. Four miles round-trip.
The Window—An iconic trail, with an easy hike down into the basin, at which point the trail narrows and gets more interesting with smooth rocks and trickling water as you near “the window” at the end. Five miles round-trip.
Staying the Night
For those who enjoy RV camping, there are two full-service campgrounds open year-round: Rio Grande Village on the southwestern part of BBNP and the Chisos Mountain Campground in the middle of the park. (Cottonwood Campground near Santa Elena Canyon is also open year-round, but it does not have RV hookups.) All of these options offer electricity, water, and public bathrooms and showers, which is not true of the many primitive tent sites located throughout BBNP. Tent campers have countless options, though only a few sites offer water and electricity if that’s important to you.
There is only one lodge with real beds and a restaurant in the park itself, located in the scenic Chisos Mountains. It’s worth booking one of the five private Roosevelt stone cottages, but plan to do so well in advance—all of the lodging books up fast during the high season. If the main spots are fully booked, which happens frequently during the holidays, Study Butte and Terlingua–both just outside the park on the western entrance–offer everything from tent camping to upscale tipi rentals to full-on luxury accommodations in the Terlingua ghost town and farther down the road in Lajitas.
With so many hiking and lodging options, Big Bend National Park is the perfect adventure for families who want to experience the outdoors on a grand scale. While this list only scratches the surface of all the wonderful hikes and trails of Big Bend, it’s a solid intro for those who want to explore the park with children, like my family and I have done over the past eight years.
Bon voyage to Big Bend!