Leave it to Texas to have a national park that’s bigger than Rhode Island. Grand as its name, Big Bend has been luring travelers to its desert oases for centuries, as the adobe remnants scattered throughout the rugged landscape can attest. Today, the national park is the perfect family destination for campers, hikers, birdwatchers, history buffs, geologists or Dallas-Fort Worth urbanites who just need to escape for awhile to fresh air and open country.
Where To Stay
The only hotel within the national park is the Chisos Mountains Lodge, right in the heart of the Chisos Basin – which means cooler air and stunning scenery. The grounds are well-landscaped, including a paved nature trail with views of The Window, a water-carved opening between two peaks through which the sun sets over the valley below.
Families will want to book a Casa Grande Room (which includes a semi-private balcony that overlooks The Window) or one of the Roosevelt Stone Cottages for a little more space. There is an on-site restaurant with wall-to-wall views and a convenience store with treats for the kiddos. Be aware: In Big Bend, it’s about the outdoors, not about technology, so rooms are devoid of TVs and telephones. But once you sit out on the balcony for a while and watch the sun set through The Window, you’ll forget all about Homeland.
Chisos Mountains Lodge
Where To Eat
Thirty miles west of the Chisos Mountains is the tiny town of Terlingua, a bohemian retreat that’s world famous for its chili cook-off – and for being the most eclectic ghost town-metropolis in Texas. After you and the kids explore Terlingua Ghostown proper, find the sand-locked submarine and the Statue of Liberty and do a little shopping at the Terlingua Trading Company, grab a table at the Starlight Theatre. The décor in this hopping 1930s establishment is somewhere between historical and hippy, but the food is definitely delicious. Try the chili or a wild boar burger for true West Texas flavor, though you can’t go wrong with a steak. The kids’ menu has a variety of options for the picky and the adventurous, including a peanut butter and prickly pear jelly sandwich.
True to its name, Starlight Theatre also has the best entertainment around. Check their website for a schedule of upcoming events.
What To Do
Before you explore Big Bend, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet from one of the national park visitor centers for only $2. Full of learning activities for your kiddos, the booklet can be completed for a badge or patch, a bookmark and a certificate. Booklet in hand, your kids will be ready to take on the desert.
In addition to Terlingua, the Big Bend area boasts a number of abandoned buildings and mines that give clues to earlier life in the wilderness. The 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive offers a tour of Big Bend’s best scenery and access to Sam Nail Ranch and other such historic sites. Be sure to explore all the turn-offs for exhibits, trails and vistas.
While Big Bend provides ample hiking opportunities – including the popular Lost Mine Trail and the kid-friendly Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, Hot Springs Canyon Trail and Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail – take a load off your feet and opt for a float trip on the Rio Grande for a new perspective on the landscape. Far Flung Outdoor Center and Big Bend River Tours will take your family on a half-day float or a one day canyon float by raft or canoe, depending on water levels. Destinations include the dramatic Santa Elena Canyon and Hot Springs Canyon.
En route to or from Big Bend, stop in Fort Davis, 2.5 hours north of the park. Older kids or little astronomers will want to tour the McDonald Observatory, a cluster of research telescopes operated by UT Austin, and see solar flares and sunspots during the Solar Viewing Program. Also be sure to visit the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a restored military outpost built in the mid-nineteenth century, and walk the trails surrounding the museum and fort.
Big Bend National Park
Far Flung Outdoor Center
Big Bend River Tours
Fort Davis National Historic Site