We haven’t hit a National Park in months and in the past couple weeks we managed to check 3 more off our list. First was a big trip to Big Bend and then we made our way north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas. Guadalupe is only about a 30 minute drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park which is in New Mexico. We hit both parks over a few days and think it would be a great long weekend trip for anyone. So here’s the lowdown:
What it Cost:
We have the America the Beautiful Annual Pass so daily entry into both parks was free. Otherwise its $7 per person for Guadalupe and $15 per person for Carlsbad (plus the cost of any additional tours you do). Honestly, the parks pass is amazing and we HIGHLY recommend it. If you plan on hitting a couple parks in a year it will save you a bunch of money and it supports the parks so WIN WIN. It’s $80 per pass which can cover up to 4 adults (passholder and passengers) and gets you in to all the NPS sites for free. If you are a senior it’s $20 per year (or you can get a lifetime pass for $80) and if you are a veteran or disabled you can get a free pass.
Where to Stay:
If you have ever driven in west Texas you know there is nothing there. For miles and miles its just the highway and flat open fields. So your options are pretty limited for where to stay. We stayed at the NPS campground at Guadalupe, which is really just a big parking lot by the trail heads. Certainly not glamorous but easy and convenient. There are no hookups available and it’s $15 a night. But they do have bathrooms (no showers) and potable water. Keep in mind if you are heading there to make sure you are fully stocked - food, gas etc because there are no close amenities.
We arrived mid morning and had no problem claiming a spot, there were about 20 RV spots with some smaller van or car spots available. We parked in the middle row and got plenty of sun for our solar panels. One thing to note, be mindful of the weather forecast. They get a fair amount of wind there, in fact we stayed a day longer because of 60-70 mile an hour gusts that we opted not to drive through. When the wind kicks up like that, visibility on the mountains is tough and it makes hiking some of the trails pretty miserable.
We stayed at Guadalupe for a few nights so we could do a couple of hikes and then drove Wanda to Carlsbad Caverns for our visit and then stayed in Brantley Lake State Park after. The state park is not too far from the caverns and it’s a cool spot in the middle of the desert. It was really quiet and only $14 a night for a w/e spot. But I will say the showers left much to be desired, they were freezing.
What to Do:
At Guadalupe, we hiked 2 trails. The first day we set off on the Devil’s Hall Trail (3.8 miles) which was a very unique hike. After the first half mile or so you are dumped into a rocky wash where you have to pick your own path, moving and jumping on and over boulders. It feels like it goes on for a lot longer than it does but you eventually reach the Hikers Staircase which you have to scramble up. Here the terrain changes pretty dramatically and you head through a pretty slanted section with more rock stairs...kinda feels like you are a bit tipsy walking through. At the end is Devils Hall. It is really pretty and beautiful and not at all what we were expecting, a happy surprise. Overall, it’s an easy trail just be mindful of your footwear choice because the boulders are a little rough on your feet/ankles/knees.
The second trail we tackled was Guadalupe Peak which is the highest peak in Texas rising to 8,751 feet. The trail is about 8.4 miles long and rated as strenuous, which it is. It was really quite a tough hike up. It’s pretty much straight up 3,000 feet with not many sections of plateaus or flats. The trail also tricks you a bit, we thought we were close to the top several times only to turn a corner and see in the distance another ridge and another taller mountain to climb. The view from the top is worth the climb and you have to sign the register at the top proving you made it! If you take this hike on we would recommend packing light, taking plenty of water/snacks and head up early before the heat.
There is a primitive campground about a mile from the top that you can stay overnight in but we went up and down in one day. We spoke to a couple hikers who stayed up there who said it was absolutely awful up there with the heavy winds.
We have been in a couple caverns in the past month or so and we decided to do something a little different, to try an adventure cave tour at Carlsbad. They offer several options at different times and different days. Our only option was the Lower Cave Tour. It was a 3 hour tour. Armed with headlamps and hard hats you use a rope to climb down and then descend approximately 60 feet of ladders into a section of the cave beneath the main "Big Room". It was a fun way to explore and we really liked viewing the cave in its natural state. After the tour we walked the Big Room which is very appropriately named. It is massive, the size and depth of it blows any other cave we have seen out of the water. There is a nice path which loops around the whole room highlighting different formations along the way.
It was awesome to be able to explore 2 National Parks back to back like this. It is such a quick easy drive between the two and the parks are so different from each other. You get to experience two unique environments and terrains.
Have you ever been to Guadalupe or Carlsbad? Let us know in the comments below.
The chance to hike through and see all our beautiful National Parks is one of the main reasons we chose to head off on this adventure. Since we haven’t had great luck getting to the parks so far we were so excited to finally make it to Big Bend. We were counting down until we got there and wanted to make sure we made the most of our 5 days as we could. We managed to squeeze in 8 hikes, some scenic drives, a dip in the hot springs, and we caught every sunrise and sunset so i’d say we did a pretty good job!
I will say the biggest advice we can give is be prepared for the heat. We stayed in the park at the Rio Grande Village campground for 3 nights and 1 night in Cottonwood campground. There are no hookups so no electric (aka no A/C) but considering how massive the park is, we didn’t want to waste any more time driving back and forth from outside the park. We found that it was cool in the early mornings so we began hiking everyday just before sunrise. We would hike for a few hours and be back at Wanda by lunch time when the sun really started blazing. Even with that schedule, some of the hikes (in the full sun) like the return of the window trail and Boquillas canyon were pretty brutal
We opted to do some shorter 4-6 mile trails so we could hike more of them and see more of the park versus some of the longer hikes like the South Rim Trail (12-15 miles). And we were happy with that decision. We were able to hike several trails in each area of the park Rio Grande, Chisos Mountains and Castollon. If we had done the longer trails, we would have had to sacrifice some of those trails. But if you have more time go for it, we hear it's an awesome, (but strenuous) hike.
Grapevine Hills Trail (2.2 Miles)
The Grapevine Hills Trail to Balanced Rock was our first desert hike. It is down a pretty rough, bumpy dirt and rock road, so we were certainly happy to have Walter (our Jeep). The actual trail is a quick and easy 2.2 mile hike but the last bit up does involve a bit of a rock scramble. The Balanced Rock at the end is quite a showpiece. It is amazing to us how a boulder that size could tumble down the mountain, land in the middle of two other rocks and come to a rest. I mean what are the chances?? And the fact that it manages to stay fully supported there is kind of wild. It is a very cool spot, has a great view through the arch underneath and a fun spot for photos.
Lost Mine Trail (4.8 Miles)
This was one of the highest ranked hikes (according to our research, the REI app and the Alltrails app). It is a 4.8 mile roundtrip hike in the Chisos Mountains. We really enjoyed this hike, it was moderate with a good ascent and a bunch of switchbacks. If you can’t make it to the top there is a good lookout spot about 1 mile up, but it is really well worth the trek to the top. The view is amazing. With good visibility you can see quite far, to mountain ranges in Mexico. Our timing was spot on (we are all about sunrise hikes now), we were the only ones on the trail and had a good 45 minutes to ourselves at the top to enjoy some breakfast and take in the views. It’s one of those vantage points that you kind of just sit in silence, slow down and in stare in awe at how absolutely beautiful nature is sometimes and really appreciate having the chance to see it.
On our return trip down, we passed a few people who alerted us to a bear sighting off the trail (the Chisos is home to bears and plenty of mountain lions). But unfortunately several large groups were also making their way up the trail, so it seemed the noise scared him off much to our disappointment!
To get on this trail there is a really tiny parking area, not too many spots and it fills up pretty quick so again...plan to get there early because the only other area to park is a bit further down the road, adding quite a big uphill climb before even starting the trail.
The Window Trail (5.6 Miles)
This hike is also in the Chisos and the trail head is right by the visitor center. The morning we headed out to drive to this trail, we managed to catch some Javelinas still hanging around our campground, they are really pretty funny looking and on our drive we caught a coyote running across the road. Despite the amount of wildlife in the park, besides roadrunners and some bunnies these are the only bigger animals we managed to see, although you could hear plenty at night.
This hike is 5.6 miles with a descent first and the return trip is up, not really our preferred type of trail we usually like to get the uphill climb over with first. But sometimes that is not an option so we suck it up. The first portion of the hike is a pleasant walk before the landscape kind of changes as you go into the canyon with huge rocks walls and Oak Creek. Before coming to the window pour off, you will go up and down and across several passes of the creek which is really pretty. And then the main attraction, the window. It is beautiful.
The name is obviously quite appropriate as it is just a 3 sided square open in the middle of the two walls which allows you to see through to other mountains in the distance and a great view of the horizon. We were very impressed. PLEASE BE CAREFUL though, the rocks are pretty smooth and slippery and it is just a sheer drop off just past the window.
Once again our timing was impeccable, we had the place to ourselves. There is something so amazingly special about being in these spectacular places in a National Park by yourselves. Gives you more time to take it in and reflect. The whole park makes you realize just how small you really are in the grand scheme of things, which always helps put things in perspective for me.
On the return of this hike, the temperature spiked and even though it was still only around 9 am it was full sun beating down on us for most of the ascent so plenty of water is a must.
Boquillas Canyon Trail (1.4 Miles)
So you want to hop on over to Mexico? This is the spot. Boquillas crossing is the border patrol area where you can hop on a canoe and make your way across the Rio Grande (takes about 5 minutes) for a beer and some tacos in Mexico. If you don’t have your passport, or are short on time you can hike the canyon trail which gives you a clear view across the river to Mexico. The trail is short, only 1.4 but it in full sun so it gets very hot by midday. Pretty cool to see, and always love a good canyon trail, how the walls rise so high on the sides of you but part for the water. But I will say, the water is pretty gross looking here, so I wouldn’t necessarily want to take a dip in it, seemed very muddy.
Rio Grande Nature Trail (.75 Miles)
This is not exactly a hike, its short .75 mile walk and picks up right at the Rio Grande campground but it is the BEST spot in the park for a sunset. The overlook is absolutely perfect for catching the sun set over the Rio Grande River….probably one of the best sunsets we have ever seen. Kev went up one night on his own and I went up another night. We couldn’t leave the girls in Wanda because it was way too hot. So strange to us how like the hottest time of day is late afternoon and night. Even when the sun sets it does not cool off for hours.
Anyway, make sure you hang around a bit after the sun disappears because it takes a little for the colors to really come out. The pinks and oranges that paint the sky are incredible. Just bring a flashlight for the walk back.
You have to take a dip in the hot springs! The trail is not far from the Rio campground and is short. The pool is kind of small and a bit slimy but it is set right on the river and is a great spot to catch the sunrise. The morning temperatures make it a lot more comfortable to get into the water, I cannot imagine forcing myself in once the sun was overhead and temps reached the 90's. It is also pretty quiet and relaxing in the morning.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail (1.7 Miles)
This is another highly ranked trail but is on the Castolon side of the park (completely opposite from Rio Grande). So, we decided to move to the Cottonwood campground for easier access. The drive in to the campground and hikes, the Ross Maxwell drive is gorgeous, it’s a popular scenic drive and for good reason.
The Santa Elena trail is 1.7 miles roundtrip and at sunrise the sun peaks in through the canyon walls and is really beautiful. I preferred this canyon to Boquillas, I thought it was much prettier and seemed more dramatic. You do have to cross the river to get to the trail, and although the wash is usually dry it wasn’t when we were there. So, we had to detour a bit further up to find a good spot to cross and make our way back to the trail.
I’d say if you only do one trail over on this side of the park, this is the one to do.
Mule Ears Spring Trail (3.8 Miles)
This is a desert hike off Castolon road and to be honest it was very underwhelming for us. We were disappointed. Its a 3.8 mile out and back hike through the desert, no shade and nothing that nice to look at, The path actually takes you away from the Mule Ears namesake and to the Mule Ears Springs, which is dried out and overgrown. The other chimney trail nearby looked like a similar walk straight into the desert and we decided to skip it after we weren’t really thrilled with this trail. Maybe it’s us and maybe we just don’t like desert hikes that much considering the heat and how bare they are (besides flowers and cacti) but if you are at all limited on time during your visit Id consider skipping this.
There you have it, our experience trekking through Big Bend. Really hard for us to pick favorites but if we have to I’d go with Lost Mine and Santa Elena and Kev’s vote is the Window Trail. AND we both agree the sunset on the Rio Grande Nature Trail Overlook was a top pick….so I guess it doesn’t seem we are that great at narrowing things down at all.
Have you been to Big Bend? What were your favorite trails? Let us know in the comments below.
By: Ashley Quiambao
Big Bend is only our second National Park since we left home in October 2018 and we were extremely excited to get here. It is in a pretty remote spot and while we researched quite a bit ahead of time, we were a little unsure of what to expect. We planned to stay at one of the campgrounds inside the park rather that an RV park outside, because we wanted the full Big Bend experience. However, the campgrounds have no hookups and most of the sites are first come first serve, so we went in kind of just hoping for the best. We ended up having an amazing experience camping and exploring Big Bend, it really is a such a unique park.
Here is our best advice and some helpful tips for your visit to Big Bend:
This max speed limit in the park is 45 miles an hour. The roads are windy, narrow and sections are really wavy causing your RV to sway like crazy. Take it slow and appreciate the views. The contrast from desert to mountains is incredibly beautiful. We went in the beginning of April, which was perfect timing for the bloom of the bluebonnet wildflowers along the roadside. Every few miles on the main road there are small pull offs to park and plenty of exhibits to see along the drive.
There are 4 visitors centers throughout the park: Panther Junction (HQ), Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, Castolon. Each visitor center has information, food, water, bathrooms, 2 had gas (Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village) and WiFi
RV Camping in Big Bend
While Big Bend has some availability for online reservation through Recreation.gov for Rio Grande Campground and Chisos Basin, its only between November 15 to April 15 and most of the campsites are first come first serve. Our original plan was to get a permit for a backcountry campsite but there are a limited number of them which can accommodate RVs. Our back up plan was to stay in the Rio Grande village Campground. Since we were quite nervous about getting a spot, we made sure to get there as early as possible. A visit to Panther Junction sent us to the Rio campground because there were no backcountry spots open. So, we spent three nights at Rio Grande Campground and one night at Cottonwood. From what we saw there was a lot of turnover at each campsite. If you are there early enough, you should be able to find a site but each night they were all filled up.
Here’s our Recommendations
If your rig is 30 feet or over:
Automatically work your way toward Rio Grande Village. There are not many other options. There are few backcountry sites that can accommodate larger RVs, and Chisos campground does not allow any RV's longer than 24 feet. Even in Rio Grande, rigs over 37 feet had to park sideways in the site to fit. At Rio, there are two sections of the campground a generator area and a generator free zone. We stayed in the generator section because the sites were bigger and more open for sun to power our solar panels.
If you're looking for full hook ups:
You only have 1 option in Big Bend. Head towards Rio Grande Village RV campground (next to Rio Grande Village campground- confusing I know). They have reservations sites and first come first serve spots, but only about 25 in total. It is not run by NPS, no view, and is basically a glorified parking lot that looked full every night we were there.
If you are in a tent/ pop up camper/B Class/ Truck Camper:
Stay in the Chisos Basin camground. This campground is centralized to the park and a lot of the hiking trails take off from here. There are steep windy and narrow roads leading into the campground so RV's have to be under 24 feet and trailers have to be under 20. Sites are small but your really close to some great trail heads and in the middle of most of the other popular destinations within the park. (Read more on Big Bend Trails Here)
If your smaller than 30 feet and don’t need generators:
You can also stay at the Cottonwood campground. We stayed here for one night as it was more convenient to a few of our planned hikes. A lot of the sites are really small and meant for tenters and pop ups. There are a couple of larger sites though, we were the only Class A there along with one other travel trailer. The rest of the sites were full of tenters, vanlifers, and pop ups. It is also a much smaller and more undeveloped campground than Rio so get there early.
If you want to back-country:
Get to Panther Junction as early as possible. Backcountry is first come first serve. We got there an hour after opening and we had no luck. All the sites that were able to accommodate our size and RV capabilities were booked for the week. But if you are in something smaller like vanners or truck camper or anything with high clearance and 4x4 wheel drive there were many options for you.
Campsites and Water
Each campsites vary in amenities and size but almost all of them had a bear/javelina boxes. Potable water that can be easily added to your RV can be found by the dump station at Rio Grande Village. Just make sure to use a water regulator as the spigot had really powerful water pressure. At all the visitors centers and in a couple of places within the Rio campground there were also potable water spouts to fill your water jugs for drinking. At Cottonwood, in the front of the campsite there was a building where you could get potable water (no dump station at Cottonwood though).
There are two gas stations in Big Bend. One in Panther Junction and the other in Rio Grande Village. The gas prices are obviously higher than outside the park. We got gas in Alpine before we came in at 2.79. At Rio Grande Village, the gas was $3.09. You should expect to be driving a lot while inside the park. We had to fill up the RV and the Jeep during our visit. They ask you to leave a deposit or card on file and then you are allowed to pump.
We went in April. The climate fluctuated dramatically each day. In the morning it would be in the mid 40s but would quickly heat up during the day to over 100 degrees. The hottest part of the day was in early evenings. Since we camped in Rio Grande Campground we didn’t have any hook ups. The temperature inside our RV reached the high 90s everyday even with the vent fans on and windows open. Since we travel with our two dogs and cat, we needed to make sure we finished all our hikes by noon. We spent the afternoons and evenings outside in the shade with the dogs and cat where it was cooler.
Despite the temperatures and somewhat primitive conditions, we had an incredible time RV camping in Big Bend. We are so happy we made the long drive to visit. Hopefully, this answered some of your questions and provided you with some direction for planning your Big Bend adventure.
Let us know if you have any other questions in the comments below.
By: Kevin Quiambao