On a road trip from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park, explore the Chihuahuan Desert, visit historic towns, and roam the borderlands of the Rio Grande.
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San Antonio to Big Bend National Park
I was well into a month-long camper van road trip from my home in Central Florida, following a loose itinerary to visit National Park Service sites in Texas and New Mexico.
Along the route, I had spent a day collecting National Parks Passport stamps at locations within the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area. I camped at the lovely McKinney Falls State Park south of Austin, explored LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country, and toured the Alamo and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
My next destination was not on the way to anywhere. It would require making a long haul across West Texas from my campsite near San Antonio to Big Bend National Park. I would be spending three days in the area and staying at a campground in the unincorporated community of Lajitas.
Three hours into the drive along Hwy. 90, I pulled over at the Amistad National Recreation Area visitor center in Del Rio. Even though I knew I would not have a lot of time to explore the park, I thought I might be able to scout a few scenic sites. And of course I would collect a National Parks Passport stamp and unigrid brochure.
There were two rangers on duty. While one ranger was reviewing the park map with me and suggesting sites, the other ranger was eavesdropping. When he overheard that I was driving from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park, he suggested that I waste no time getting back on the road.
Google Maps had predicted a 7-hour drive from start to finish, but there were two factors I had not considered:
1. Although the Big Bend park entrances are open 24/7, fee stations and visitor centers close between 4:00 and 5:00 PM, depending on the season.
2. The reach my campsite, I had routed my drive through the park. That meant a 48-mile drive between the Persimmon Gap entrance and the Maverick Junction entrance, adhering to the 45 mph park speed limit.
On my way out the door, I happened to mention that I now qualified for the NPS America the Beautiful Senior Pass. The ranger offered to sell me one, so I bought it on the spot.
The lifetime senior pass price had jumped from $10 to $80 in 2017, by congressional legislation. But that would not be a problem. I never begrudge contributing to our public lands. That said, I loved knowing my pass would waive future admission fees to virtually all federal recreation sites, not just for myself, but for everyone in my vehicle.
I needed to get back on the road, but I couldn’t leave the Amistad NRA without seeing or doing something. I decided to drive down to the Governor’s Landing to grab some photos of the Amistad Reservoir, created by the nearby Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande.
I liked the perspective of the Governor’s Landing Bridge I would soon be crossing and the adjacent rail trestle above the aquamarine waters.
Many RV enthusiasts abide by the 330 Rule, meaning they drive no more than 330 miles per day and arrive at their destination campsite no later than 3:30 PM.
I know the rule is intended to promote safety, prevent fatigue, build in time cushions, and ensure relaxed travel, but at that point there would be none of that for me.
A few miles up the road I passed through the first of several Border Patrol checkpoints I would encounter during my trip. I am sure the officers know what they are looking for, but driving a black stealth van, I thought they might want to peek inside. Not so. They all just waved me through without barely a slowdown.
With the cruise control set to 80, it was a 3.5-hour drive from Amistad NRA to Persimmon Gap, the northern entrance of Big Bend National Park, and I arrived at 3:00 PM. I don’t recall whether the Persimmon Gap visitor center was closed, but as I write I realize I missed getting its unique passport stamp.
Pulling up to the ranger station, I flashed my brand new park pass, happy to know it would waive the $30 per vehicle entrance fee. Before my trip was over, my pass would pay for itself.
I continued south for 26 miles along the main road toward the Panther Junction visitor center and park headquarters, doing my best to stick to the 45 mph speed limit. I passed the turn-off for the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, understanding that I would not be able to experience every attraction the park had to offer.
The visitor center at Panther Junction was closed to the public, but information tables were set up outside. I collected a passport stamp, chatted with the ranger on duty, and snapped a photo of the Chisos Basin road closure times.
I gassed-up at the nearby Panther Junction Service Station, and yes the prices were exorbitant. Gas is also available inside the park at the Rio Grande Village store.
Back on the road, I headed west for 21 miles and exited the park at Maverick Junction. I continued on Hwy. 118 through Study Butte (no comment) and then turned west on Hwy. 170 past the Terlingua ghost town, arriving at the campground around 5:00 PM.
The entire drive from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park and my campsite beyond had taken about nine hours.
Maverick Ranch RV Park would be my home for the next three nights, and I was immediately impressed with the facilities, the nightly rate, and the friendly associates in the park office.
The RV park is owned by the neighboring Lajitas Golf Resort, and park guests enjoy all of its amenities and activities. I was tired and hungry, so I walked over to the resort’s Thirsty Goat Saloon, pulled up to the bar for a prickly pear margarita and Chop Chop salad.
In conversation with a couple at the bar, I learned that if I had continued on Hwy. 90 for 30 miles to the city of Alpine, rather than heading south at Marathon, I could have avoided driving through the national park.
I compared the two routes on Google Maps, and the actual driving time difference is only three minutes. But it is definitely something to keep in mind when planning a road trip from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park. You have route options.
Lajitas & Terlingua
The next morning I awoke to a stellar view as the sun rose on the hills beyond my campsite.
I had planned to take a day off before returning to explore the national park, and I am so glad I did.
I walked down to the Lajitas General Store, also owned by the resort. A ham, egg, and cheese croissant breakfast sandwich and coffee from the deli hit the spot.
Outside the general store I met up with the current Clay Henry, the world famous beer-drinking goat mayor of Lajitas. The legend of Clay Henry dates to the 1980s and has a twisted history involving contested elections, castration, and murder. I don’t think the newest Clay Henry had been neutered because he was playing quite the paramour with his female companion the day we met.
On my return walk I admired the yellow-blooming palo verde trees and the magenta blooms of desert willow.
The historic Lajitas Cemetery borders the entrance to the RV park, but it only adds to the charm of the desert community.
Back at the campground I did laundry and booked several campsites for my upcoming itinerary.
For dinner, I drove into the revived ghost town of Terlingua.
In the mid-1880s, the discovery of cinnabar ore attracted miners to the area, eventually reaching a population of 2,000 residents. By 1947, falling prices forced the mines to close. The 2020 census recorded the Terlingua population at 110.
Although the former mining district still reflects its decline, today it is a popular tourist destination.
Terlingua’s greatest claim to fame is the International Championship Chili Cook-off hosted annually on the first Saturday of November. First held in 1967, the event now draws more than 10,000 “chili head” competitors and fans.
Terlingua’s Starlight Theatre was originally built as a movie house in the 1930s. When the mines shut down, the roofing materials were salvaged and sold, leaving only the adobe walls. In the 1960s, the roofless venue became a gathering place for local jam sessions and other open-air events. Hence the name. In fact, the very first chili cook-off was held at this location.
In the 1990s, the Ivey family renovated the building and opened for business as a restaurant and saloon and venue for live music.
I had dinner at the bar, starting with a chili appetizer and margarita and finishing with a Starlight cheeseburger and another margarita.
The original Mayor Clay Henry is supposedly stuffed and on display at the Starlight, but somehow I missed him.
Before leaving Terlingua, I stopped by its historic cemetery where the earliest grave dates to 1903. The burial grounds are still in use by local families, and each year they celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead.
It was nearing sunset by the time I made it back to Lajitas. One of the RV park associates had told me earlier about a spot down the road where there was river access to the Rio Grande. So I decided to check it out
The broad unpaved parking lot was empty. Unsure whether I would have room to turn around, I parked the van and continued down the dirt road on foot.
I admit, it felt a bit spooky as I took the well-worn footpath through the brush. But then the tall desert foliage parted, revealing a stony beach, flowing waters, distant mountains, and the setting sun.
The opposite bank was Mexico, and I could have easily waded across. With all of the divisiveness reported in the news, it was refreshing to view the peaceful open borderlands.
It was a place of utter beauty, and I savored the moment.
Of all the adventures so far on my first solo camper van journey, this walk to a spot on the Rio Grande near my campground had been the coolest.
Big Bend National Park
I would spend one day exploring Big Bend National Park, and I had a plan.
Well, sort of . . . .
I would drive back into the park, and head first along the easternmost drive out to Rio Grande Village. Then I would work my way back west, seeing and doing as much as I could before dark.
I must have slept well because I didn’t depart the campground until 8:15 AM. I stopped by the general store for a repeat breakfast performance before hitting the road.
Big Bend National Park Map
Although it is impossible to read any details at this scale, the Big Bend National Park map provides a birds-eye view of the park for general orientation. Clicking the image or highlighted text opens the map in a separate tab for zooming and panning to view locations up close.
Big Bend National Park shares a border with Mexico that follows the flow of the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River is actually a separate NPS unit, and I have the passport stamps to prove it.
With 801,163 acres of public lands and more than 118 miles of river, many of the 463,832 annual visitors backpack the park’s extensive network of trails, embark on backcountry camping, and take to the river for gentle floats or whitewater rafting.
Rio Grande Village
I passed the Panther Junction visitor center and continued along Park Rt. 12. The 20-mile route through the desert landscape made for a classic national park drive, and I was in my glory.
Because it was closed to the public, I passed the turn-off to Langford Hot Springs. Then I drove through a cool tunnel and pulled over in a small parking lot for a 360° view of the arid terrain.
The Chihuahuan Desert Ecoregion is the largest in North America. Hundreds of endemic plant and animal species make it the most biologically diverse desert in the Western Hemisphere.
Back in the van, I followed the road until it ended at the Boquillas Canyon Overlook.
The overlook offered a panoramic view from the Mexican village of Boquillas in the west to the canyon and Sierra del Carmen mountains in the east.
An assortment of handcrafted souvenirs left by Mexican merchants was on display at the overlook, accompanied by a price list and donation jar. I read on the park website that the items are considered contraband, can be confiscated, and that purchases encourage illegal border crossings. But I got the impression that the laws are not strictly enforced.
I passed the turn-off to Boquillas Crossing where park guests with proper documents can take a rowboat (or wade if the water is low enough) across the river to visit the Mexican village. But traffic cones blocked the entrance, and in the distance a huge iron gate was closed.
Note: As I write, it seems the border crossing has reopened. I suggest reading the official park guidelines in preparation for your visit.
I arrived at the Rio Grande Village visitor center, but it was closed for the season, and there was no way to collect a passport stamp.
Continuing to Daniels Ranch, I was confronted with a sign stating that the Hot Springs Canyon Trail was closed.
My day would be filled with park closures resulting from political pressures and global health issues, as well as road construction. I gave myself a few minutes to pout, and then I forged ahead to utterly enjoy the park’s many scenic and historical sites that were still open and available for exploration.
Daniels Ranch was the site of an early 20th-century homestead. One house from the period has been restored so guests can learn about adobe architecture. Most of the original network of irrigation ditches also remains.
But there is something to be said for in and out routes, as well. Even though you are retracing the miles, it gives you the opportunity to view the landscape from a different perspective and at a different time of day.
Before turning onto Chisos Basin Road, I double-checked the road closures schedule. It was a little after noon, and I determined that I would have plenty of time to drive the 12 miles to the visitor center, collect a passport stamp, and hike a short trail.
The winding road was not recommended for RVs over 24 feet. My camper van was only 21 feet long, so I was good.
Before long, traffic came to a halt due to road construction, so I hopped out and grabbed some photos of the scenic rugged terrain.
Eventually the line of cars started moving, and I arrived at the visitor center.
Checking the time, I collected my passport stamp, and headed out on the accessible 0.3-mile Window View Loop Trail. The focal point of the trail is the “window” between the mountains that opens to the desert beyond.
Checking the time again, I hopped in the van and left the parking lot before the 1:00 road closure time.
It was then my best laid plans went awry.
The construction crew decided to close the road early, which meant I would be trapped in Chisos Basin for two hours.
I was not happy, and I said some things to some people, but my righteous anger got me nowhere.
I sat in the shade of the visitor center and played on social media for a while until my body and mind cooled down. Then I decided I might as well go hike a trail to pass the time.
The black bear and mountain lion warning sign gave me pause, but then I set off to hike the 1.8-mile Chisos Basin Loop Trail.
Along the access to the trail, I passed a budding Havard century plant, one of three varieties of agave that grow in the park. The Havard agave is cousin to the Weber blue agave from which tequila is derived. It takes 20-50 years for the asparagus-shaped stalk to appear, and then 3-4 months to mature and bloom. After blooming once, the plant dies, but it leaves pups and seeds behind.
The thorny ocotillo plant was also in bloom throughout the park.
Tip: The Dagger Flat Auto Trail guide offers a fine introduction to plants indigenous to the park.
I had taken a picture of the Chisos Basin trail map, and there were plenty of trail markers, but with so many side paths I had difficulty following the route and ended up backtracking a lot. Perhaps it was caused by my temporarily agitated state of mind.
Thankfully, I did not encounter a bear or mountain lion, but I did come upon a Carmen whitetail deer that appeared quite unbothered by my presence.
I was eventually able to get my bearings and make it back to the parking lot. I hopped in the van, joined the line of waiting vehicles and made my escape from Chisos Basin.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
My final drive of the day would prove to be the most spectacular.
The 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive was named for the first park superintendent (1944-1952), a geologist who designed the route to accentuate the most picturesque geological features of the park’s western side.
The drive was populated with plenty of human features, as well, such as the Sam Nail Ranch and the Homer Wilson Ranch. I only wish there had been time to explore them all.
I passed up several viewpoints and overlooks, but had to pull over at Tuff Canyon, a deep dry wash on the desert floor. After viewing the abyss from above, I ventured along the trail leading into the canyon.
Did you know “tuff” is a rock made from volcanic ash, and that any formation containing 25% to 75% ash is called “tuffaceous” rock? It sounds like one of my homemade words.
In the distance Cerro Castellan rises more than a thousand feet above the desert. Eons of erosion on the stacked layers of volcanic ash, tuff, lava, and basalt have collaborated to create a geological wonder.
Arriving at the Castolon Historic District, I was met with more closures.
Castolon has a rich agricultural history, dating to the early 1900s when settlers moved into the area and began farming the fertile land along the Rio Grande.
During the years of the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. National Guard established Camp Santa Helena at this location. In 1919, as the conflict was drawing to an end, troops moved out.
The La Harmonia Company had begun commercial farming and ranching in the area, and they purchased the newly-built barracks to house the company store. In 1961, the National Park Service acquired the property and the store continued to be run by concessioners.
Until May 22, 2019, that is.
On that date, a fire started in Mexico and jumped the Rio Grande, ultimately consuming 950 acres on both sides of the river. The barracks building that housed the park store and visitor center was gutted by the flames.
At the time of my visit, the adobe barrack walls were still standing, protected by a chain link fence. Studies are underway to determine whether the structure can be salvaged.
Firefighters were able to save most of the remaining structures in the historic district. A temporary visitor center opened in one of those buildings, but it was closed for the season and once again, no passport stamp.
Back on the road I passed the Dorgan-Sublett trailhead that leads to the ruins of four structures from a historic farming operation. A fireplace and chimney constructed from petrified wood is the centerpiece of the former Dorgan house.
By the time I arrived at the parking area for the Santa Elena river access, I could tell from the park map that I was nearing the southern terminus of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
I had not done much research, and I was totally oblivious to what lay ahead. I got back in the van and headed for the final stop.
Even as I pulled into the parking area for the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, I was clueless. An interpretive panel announced that the trail was only 1.6 miles round trip. Although the sun had begun its descent behind the mountains, I thought I probably had enough time for one more short hike.
As I moved along the trail, a dynamic interplay of sunlight and shadow began, alternately illuminating and obscuring the canyon walls.
The beauty overwhelmed me, but even then I was oblivious to the iconic vista ahead.
Rounding the bend, there it was.
Even though I had raged against the inconvenient delay in Chisos Basin, the Universe had conspired to put me right there at that singular moment in time so I could witness sunset at Big Bend’s Santa Elena Canyon.
I was in heaven.
The Old Maverick Road is a 14-mile improved dirt road that connects Santa Elena Canyon and the park entrance at Maverick Junction. I debated whether to attempt it in my camper van. Ultimately, I chose to err on the side of caution and return by way of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a 39-mile drive to Maverick Junction.
All things considered, it had been a perfect day in the park with a stunningly beautiful ending.
Big Bend National Park is not on the way to anywhere. It is a remote destination in southwest Texas, but the long drive is totally worth it. The Visit Big Bend website offers a wealth of information to help you plan your visit.
That evening I returned to the Thirsty Goat saloon for dinner. The next morning I broke camp and set off to drive El Camino Del Rio scenic highway through Big Bend Ranch State Park.
More Texas Road Trip Destinations & Itineraries
- Tour the Alamo & San Antonio Missions NHP
- Explore LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country
- Plan an Unforgettable McKinney Falls State Park Camping Trip
- Revisit Retro Road Travel in Amarillo, Texas
- 8 First-Rate Cultural Sites in Lubbock, Texas
- Why Am I Wild about Waco, Texas?
- An Afternoon to Explore Granary, Texas
- Walk through History in Grapevine, Texas
- Celebrate a Grapevine Christmas in the Christmas Capital of Texas
- A North Texas Road Trip
I Would Love to Hear From You
I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever taken a road trip from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!
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