Best of The Best: Big Bend, Texas

Best of The Best: Big Bend, Texas by Mandy Seymour

If you are looking to enjoy a wilderness camping and hiking trek to the Texas frontier, we recommend visiting Big Bend.  

If driving from Houston, we recommend the following route: Houston to San Antonio, Texas to  Marfa, Marfa to Prada-Marfa, Marfa to Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park to Big Bend National Park, Big Bend National Park to Enchanted Rock State Park and Trois Estate near Fredricksberg, Texas and Fredericksburg, TX to Houston, TX.  This route will add an extra hour to your itinerary at the end but it is well worth it!

San Antonio, Texas

A visit to San Antonio, Texas offers a festive and iconic gateway to West Texas and gets the trip off to a great start.  We recommend visiting The Riverwalk, The Historic Market Square, and eating at Mi Tierra.  Mi Tierra is a delicious Mexican restaurant offering scrumptious fare in a colorful and vibrant setting.

Marfa, Texas

Marfa, Texas is a Texas frontier town which is both historic and artsy.  Maria’s courthouse is a stately building in the center of town. Hotel Paisano is an iconic hotel which features a memorable restaurant, gift shop and the setting for the movie Giant.  The hotel has a stately heir and is fairly expensive.  On the other extreme, campers may stay at El Cosmico for $30/night.  We visited El Cosmico and found the actual campground and facilities are presented as clean, freshly painted and bursting with excitement but during our actual in-person visit, El Cosmico was dingy, run down, and not what it seems.  The staff was not hospitable, friendly or even faintly welcoming.  We did enjoy the hot coffee and warm fire in the lobby in the morning.  But we do not recommend a stay at El Cosmico.  Although marketed as a magical and enchanting place, it is not.  And even more concerningly, it lacks virtue and is not a venue we would recommend.

Prada Marfa

Prada Marfa is a contemporary art statement 30 miles outside of Marfa, Texas near Valentine, Texas.  Artists built this artwork project to make a statement against consumerism.  But due to instagram-worthy places, it has become an internet sensation.  You will drive through remote wilderness to get there.  But a visit is worth it because it’s an unusual, stand-alone experience that adds to the uniqueness of your frontier wilderness experience.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

We visited both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.  We enjoyed both greatly and recommend visiting both.  We highly recommend starting with a visit to Big Bend Ranch State Park.  It is an unfettered wilderness with austere, daunting mountains, a wide and expansive terrain, scenic drive, and desert-frontier wilderness solitude.  It is more remote and less developed than Big Bend National Park.  That is part of its appeal.

We stayed at the Grassy Banks Campground which has primitive campsites located on desert sand hemmed in by a mountain range.  The terrain is isolated, quiet and offers a great place to view the stars.  We enjoyed walking through the soft sand and experiencing the stillness and wonder of this remote area.  It was one of our most favorite campgrounds because it is what we most imagined Big Bend would be like.

When traveling from Marfa, Texas to Big Bend Ranch State Park, we recommend stopping in Presidio for a meal at The Bean Cafe.  The Bean Cafe serves authentic Mexican food that is local to the region.  They have delicious horchata, cheese enchiladas, Chile rellenos, and tres leches.  The owners and waitstaff are some of the most hospitable and friendliest, most welcoming people we met on our entire wilderness trek.  We look forward to eating there again when we are passing through.

En route to the campsite, there are several exquisite hikes such as the Hoodoo trail.  They are worth a visit.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is a vast wilderness where the Rio Grande runs wild and free and is federally protected.  This park features the Rio Grande at its best.  In some other towns along the Texas-Mexican border, the Rio Grande is fairly muddy and wide.  Here, it is clearer, calmer and extremely scenic and peaceful (on a dry day, although things can change when flooding occurs).  

We visited three of the park’s main areas: Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood Campground, and the Chisos Mountains.  We also enjoyed a dip in the hot springs (105 degrees) and a swim in the river there.  

Rio Grande Village

Rio Grande Village is an enchanting campground where campers and local animals coexist on the campground, including free-ranging cattle and packs of javalena.  Cattle and javalena happily grazed right next to our tents.  We enjoyed a guided nature hike which we found helpful to acquaint us with the area.  While we were on the hike, we heard a bobcat capture its prey and we saw Mexican horses and vaqueros riding across the park.  Rio Grande Village’s nature trail leads to an embankment which offers a view across the Rio Grande and also Boquillos.  It is a great place to view the stars at night and to also capture photos of the iconic Rio Grande at sunset.

Rio Grande Village has a grocery store where you can get gas, a larger selection of souvenirs than elsewhere in the park, and various basic amenities.  The visitor center is nearby as well.

Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground is open seasonally.  It is on the west side of the park and is 7 miles from the Santa Elena canyon.  It is a quiet campground with less amenities than the Rio Grande Village campground.  We enjoyed the peace and tranquility of looking at the mountains there and having a short drive to the Santa Elena Canyon.  The Cottonwood trees are beautiful and there are pretty yellow-flowering trees as well.  A short drive up the hill, you will find a grocery store and a park office.  The grocery store has some basic and minimal necessities as well as delicious Mexican popsicles.  The park visitor’s center is very small at the Cottonwood Campground.

Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains are definitely worth a visit.  Campsites fill up 6 months in advance and are hard to come by.  There is also a rustic lodge and restaurant.  However, we found that the cost of the lodge is expensive for such basic accommodations and the restaurant is very expensive as well so if you are not camping, your expenses can add up quickly but may not match the value you receive for what you pay.

We recommend hiking the loop (1.8 miles) as it gives an exquisite view of the infamous Window, a view of the distant mountain range hemmed in by two closer mountains and offers a different hiking terrain experience, including local trees, forest, cactus and mountains.  Hiking in Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood Campground is more of a desert land and includes striking canyons and breathtaking views of the vast wilderness.

Regarding choosing a campsite, you will need to pay close attention to whether the site is easily accessible or requires four-wheel drive.  We drove a sedan and found that even the road going to the hot springs was a little rough.  

Enchanted Rock State Park

We recommend driving from Big Bend National Park to Enchanted Rock State Park near Fredericksburg, Texas.  It is well worth a visit and offers a culminating contrast to the previous hiking and camping terrain due to the pink granite rock landscape.  At first when you arrive to the park, the batholith appears to be a large granite dome and you think to yourself, “How interesting can hiking this be?”  But when you get closer, you find that every nook, cranny, crevice, and trail is an adventure in itself and there are many of them so the rock formation is not as plain as it seems.  Camping here offers a very pleasant experience because it is not  dirt-sandy but rather the terrain is made from crushed granite rather than fine sand or mud.  

All of these parks are known as dark sky parks, recommended places to see the stars with greater viewing than in cities or towns.  Over the years, we have found this classification is helpful but not always precise, as in some places there is still a haze of light from neighboring cities or RVs or campers themselves.  But most campers try to abide by the dark sky advisory rules, such as using a red flashlight instead of a white one and turning off lights at a certain hour.

Trois Estate

If you are looking for a luxurious place to have a final night to culminate your frontier adventure, we recommend Trois Estate.  Trois Estate offers several accommodations and lodging with West-Texas flair combined with a New Mexico pink adobe feel.  The estate’s owner, Rebecca Trois, is the consummate hostess and receives many repeat visitors who eagerly anticipate a stay here. Trois Estate hosts a dinner buffet and breakfast buffet.  In addition to an outdoor swimming pool and a unique indoor grotto pool and chapel, the estate has a viewing platform where you can enjoy looking at Enchanted Rock or stargazing or reading in the tranquility of this peaceful and restorative place.

Enchanted Rock and Trois Estate are located near Fredericksburg, Texas.  Fredericksburg, Texas is a small Texas town worth a visit.  The downtown area has many shops, some restaurants and a West-Texas/German feel to it.  

Houston, Texas

It takes about 6 hours to get back to Houston, Texas from Fredericksburg, Texas

Big Bend is Texas’ wild wilderness and border frontier.  In our experience, it was a pristine, safe and family-friendly wilderness.  

When we did our initial research for this wilderness expedition, I asked a park ranger at Big Bend Ranch State Park if they have many issues with migrant traffic or cartels.  She said they do not because the mountain range is a daunting 8,000 feet above sea level, so it is an inhospitable route for anyone wanting to cross.

We saw Mexican residents who lived in the town of Boquillos cross back and forth several times on horseback to round up their horses who were grazing in the National Park.  Mexican nationals sell handicrafts and homemade Mexican food along the National Park trails which are available for purchase.  The National Park Rangers explained to us that the border is a place of commingling of cultures and nations at Big Bend who are trying to protect the resources of the area with an alliance between two amazing nations.