Big Bend is situated in a wild, sparsely populated section of far west Texas and named after the vast curve in the Rio Grande, where Texas dips down into Mexico. With a mix of prairie land, desert, mountains, and small towns, the whole area feels like the set of an old western movie. The Big Bend has long been on our bucket list for a vanlife adventure, but this was our first opportunity to visit during the cooler winter months when temperatures would be acceptable for Walter, our fluffy Nordic mutt.
We spent over a week in Big Bend Country and it exceeded our expectations in almost every way. It’s an area that we would absolutely recommend to other van travellers and RVers so we’re writing a 3-part post about our experience:
- Part 1 – The Parks
- Part 2 – The Towns
- Part 3 – Dog-Friendly Trails
Route Through Big Bend Country
To be sure we would see everything the area had to offer, we designed a route connects the State Park, National Park, and surrounding towns. Our original plan was to make a loop through the State Park and up to Marfa, but we learned from our camping neighbours that it’s an extremely steep route, so we opted to backtrack and save our van (Sally) the effort (especially since she was making a weird noise… which, eventually caused a breakdown – but that’s another story!)
Big Bend National Park
The National Park is the jewel of the area and has been referred to as the “gift” to Texas. At 800,000 acres, it’s one of the largest National Parks and encompasses a huge variety of geographies and climates, including the evergreen-covered Chisos mountains. It’s also most popular with campers because it has paved roads, flush washrooms, showers, convenience stores, access to water and dump stations, etc.
The downside to Big Bend National Park is that it’s not very dog-friendly. Dogs are allowed in campsites and on paved roads, but that’s about it. As avid hikers, this makes the park much less accessible, and we had planned to skip it in favour of the neighbouring state park. When I explained this to the helpful owner of the Marathon RV Park, he strongly recommended that we visit the National Park, even if just for a day.
We are so glad that we didn’t skip it. We followed the advice we’d received and maximized our day by visiting the best natural features:
- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, with its numerous jaw-dropping look-offs.
- Santa Elena Canyon, a huge, cavernous wall along the Rio Grande that divides the US and Mexico.
- The Chisos Mountains, located in the heart of the park, towering above the surrounding desert landscape.
Our only disappointment of the day was the $30 entrance fee. It’s $30 for the day, or the week… in other words, no cheap daily pass. Being frugal travellers, we almost choked when we discovered the price upon arrival (ya – we should have looked that up ahead of time). To neutralize the cost, we instead bought a Parks America card for $80, which covers the entrance fee for all National Parks for 1 year; we figure we’ll more than make our money back on it.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Big Bend Ranch State Park is the lesser-known little brother, located just to the west of the National Park. From the beginning, we had our sights set on this park. It’s less busy, more dog-friendly, more manageable (smaller) to navigate, and has its own stunning views. It is undoubtedly rugged and not ideal for those who enjoy more luxurious camping experiences. Most of the roads within the park are unpaved and the only flush toilets and showers are at the ranger’s station, buried deep in the east side of the park. We love rugged, wild places, so this park was perfect for us. Our favourite parts of the experience were our campsite, the trails, and the scenic Highway FM 170.
Upper Madera Campground
There are several campgrounds throughout the park. Most are in the north section of the park, accessible only by dirt roads. We were coming from the east entrance and wanted to be near the Rio Grande, so we chose the Upper Madera campground along Highway FM 170. It’s a small 4-site campground overlooking the Rio Grande and we lucked into site #4, the furthest from the entrance with some of the best views. It is hands down one of the best, paid campsites we’ve ever had. A pathway led from our site to Lower Madera, which provided access to the river (for people and canoes) and 2 very clean composting toilets – a luxury in this park! We stayed 3 nights and it was hard to leave our little slice of paradise.
Closed Canyon and Hoodoos Trails
During our stay in the park, we explored the two dog-friendly trails. Both were an easy drive from our campsite, along the Rio Grande.
The Hoodoo Trail features several ‘hoodoos’, which are unique rock formations shaped by millions of years of erosion. It also has a spectacular look-off and an opportunity to walk along the river, just a stone’s throw from Mexico (just don’t wander over to Mexico… apparently that’s frowned upon!)
The Closed Canyon trail was our first ever canyon adventure of this type and it was spectacular. I quite literally took hundreds of photos because: a) I was so enthused by the natural beauty; but also b) the lighting was awfully tricky and it was hard to capture a photo that would do the canyon justice.
Scenic and Spectacular Highway FM 170
Highway FM 170 between Lajitas and Presidio regularly ranks near the top of the most breathtaking and scenic drives in Texas. It cuts through the desert landscape with mountains on one side and canyons containing the Rio Grande on the other. It’s well worth the drive, even if you’re not staying in the park.
Big Bend National Park Vs. Big Bend Ranch State Park
Based on my online reading, this is an oft-debated topic. I don’t think you can go wrong visiting either of these parks and if you have time, I highly recommend visiting both. If you can only visit one, some key considerations are whether you’re traveling with a dog, how many campground services you need, and how much time you have available. We chose to spend most of our time in the state park and for us, it was the best choice. To help you prepare for your adventure in Big Bend, I’ve included links to the resources that we found most helpful.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!
- Big Bend National Park Official Website
- Big Bend Ranch State Park Official Website
- “Which Big Bend?” – a helpful article comparing the National and State Park
- “9 Things I Love About Big Bend Ranch State Park”
5 thoughts on “Vanlife Adventures in Big Bend Texas: Part 1 – The Parks”
Hi Natalie and Mark, Wow what a great review, this has been I my bucket list as well. In fact it we had had a “normal” year I was planning to do this park this year, since we are staying in southern TX. I love your posts and wish I could be following you in the “Roadrunner”, I am planning a trip to BC this summer. I am making up my spare parts list to take with me. Question, Mark would it be possible to install an external electric fuel pump and simply splice it into the fuel line. “Happy trails to you” Cheers Brian & Sheila
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Hi Brian and Sheila, great to hear from you guys. Too bad you weren’t down here this year – we could have explored it together! Marc says it is likely possible to install an external electric fuel pump but you would need an elaborate fuel line setup and may not be worth the trouble. Hope the weather is being good to you in South Texas!