Posted by: kerryl29 | June 1, 2020

Big Bend: Planning Considerations

This post is a general recitation of my experience setting up my visit to Big Bend National Park during the first half of February and will include a small subset of images from my brief time in the park on the day I drove to the area.

As I mentioned during my introductory post a couple of weeks ago, I first became familiar with Big Bend several decades ago but had never even come close to formally planning a trip there due to its remoteness.  As a function of my partial relocation to the Houston area last year, it was finally plausible to consider visiting the park.  During the planning phase, which took place in December, roughly two months before I planned to make the trip, I learned a number of interesting things.

Chihuahuan Desert Sunset, Big Bend National Park, Texas

1) Big Bend National Park is rarely, if ever, truly “crowded,” in the U.S. national park sense of the term.  The park receives approximately 440,000 visitors a year.  Let’s put that in some perspective.  Only nine national parks in the continental United States received fewer visitors in 2018 (the last year for which full data is available) than Big Bend; three of those nine cannot be accessed by car.  By comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (a place I have visited numerous times) drew more than 11 million visitors in 2018.  But Big Bend has roughly 60% more acreage than Great Smoky Mountains.  Yosemite National Park has only slightly less area than Big Bend but it drew nearly 10 times the number of visitors.  The only time, I was told, when things even begin to get somewhat crowded at Big Bend is during spring break–some time around the middle of March.  Otherwise, particularly on weekdays, things aren’t ever particularly busy, at least compared to most national parks in the continental United States.

2) Probably the best time to visit Big Bend, photographically speaking, is during the height of the wildflower/cactus bloom.  Some years are better than others for wildflowers at Big Bend–as is the case for most desert landscapes–and the timing is somewhat variable, but usually takes place at the very end of February and over the first couple of weeks of March.  Summer, while not a terrible time photographically (it covers the monsoon season, which can provide dramatic skies and lighting conditions), is pretty terrible in every other sense, because it gets very, very hot.  Winters are mostly pleasant, though it can get very cold at night and in the high country of the Chisos Mountains within the park.

3) Big Bend, which covers more than 800,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert tucked into the (where else?) big bend of the Rio Grande in southwest Texas is remote.  I alluded to this in my earlier post, but it’s difficult to overstate just how remote it is.  Brewster County, Texas, which includes the park, covers almost 6200 square miles and has a population of just under 9300, total.  It includes, believe it or not, a grand total of one incorporated city, Alpine, which is home to about 2/3 of the county’s population.  Alpine is more than 70 miles from the north entrance to Big Bend.  So…remote.

Persimmon Gap, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Unlike most US. national parks there are no bordering “feeder” towns immediately outside Big Bend.  Feeder towns contain lots of services–hotels, restaurants, gas stations, outfitters and the like–for park visitors.  Zion has Springdale, Utah.  Yellowstone has feeder towns near three of its four entrances.  Yosemite has…Mariposa, sort of, plus the park itself, home to thousands of lodge rooms and Yosemite Village, which is a hiccup away from being a full-blown outdoor mall.  Acadia has Bar Harbor…and so on.  There is nothing like this at Big Bend.  Whether this is the reason for the park’s low visitor total or a product of it is much debated, but irrelevant, for our purposes.

There is a lodge inside Big Bend National Park; there’s a small (but fairly well stocked) store as well, and a gas station.  Sounds perfect, right?  The problem is that it’s effectively impossible to reserve a room at the lodge.  I know because I tried.  Two months in advance, everything was sold out.  This led to further investigation and I determined in short order that the entire year of 2020 (remember, this was in December, 2019) was sold out.  Apparently rooms do become available at the last minute from time to time due to cancellations but that’s only significant if you don’t want or need to plan ahead…and, of course, there’s no guarantee that a room will become available.  Ever.

There are a number of campgrounds inside the park and there was space available at all of them, I believe, during my time at Big Bend.  There are about 200 sites, but only 25 or so have RV hookups.  (There are also a number of primitive camping sites within the park that must be hiked to.)

Sunset Silhouette, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Let’s talk about the park’s logistics a bit.  It has two entrances, one on the north and one on the west.  The southern and eastern edges of the park are bordered by the Rio Grande.  The nearest town, such as it is, to the northern entrance is Marathon, population a bit more than 400.  Marathon, which has three places to stay, a tiny grocery store, two gas stations (one of which has pumps which are accessible 24 hours a day) and a couple of restaurants, is 42 miles from the northern entrance to Big Bend.  It’s nearly 70 miles north of Panther Junction, a kind of mid-point inside the park.  So, the nearest place to base oneself north of the park has very little in the way of services and is really too far to be used as a base camp.

There is a town–of sorts–very close to the western entrance to the park:  Study Butte-Terlingua (which is technically two places, on opposite sides of a bridge crossing Terlingua Creek.  The total population of this area is approximately 300.  There are some places to stay; there are a couple of places to eat and a grocery store as well as a gas station.  It’s about a five-minute drive from here to the west gate and about a 30-minute drive to Panther Junction.  If you can’t stay inside the park, this really is pretty much the only viable option if you’re going to visit the park for more than one day.

Further discussion of the park’s layout and other considerations will be made during my day-by-day posts covering my time in the park.

I drove from the Houston area to Marathon on Saturday, February 8.  It’s a long drive–more than 550 miles.  Most of it is on I-10, and after traveling east of San Antonio it gets very empty very quickly.  (The drive included a gas stop at Buc-ees, something of a Texas roadside institution which really must be experienced.)  You drive through the Texas Hill Country, west of San Antonio, and the terrain gradually transforms to desert thereafter.  Exiting at the nondescript Ft. Stockton, it’s a solid hour’s drive on U.S. 385 to the speck that is Marathon.  I arrived there late in the afternoon and, after unloading my things, decided to make a run into the park, even though it would take the better part of 45 minutes to get there.  I thought, at least, that I might have the opportunity to scout a sunrise spot for the following morning and, perhaps, get a bit of shooting in before the sun set.

Persimmon Gap, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I drove the deserted US-385 south, past the Border Patrol station about five miles south of Marathon, and reached the park entrance without encountering a single southbound vehicle.  The entrance station was deserted, so I went in without paying (I rectified this at Panther Junction the next morning) and poked around.  The light was pretty nice the entire time I was there but there was a copious desert breeze.  It was temperate–and dry as a bone (humidity is extremely low in the Chihuahuan Desert–typically 20% or below)–when I arrived there, but it got quite chilly before I packed it in.  Fortunately, I came prepared with a number of jackets.

I didn’t get very far.  The Dagger Flat Road is the first major “thoroughfare” south of the north entrance, 15-20 miles into the park.  Even though it was my intended destination for the following morning, I never made it there that evening.  All the images you see accompanying this entry were made that evening, at non-specific points in the desert along the park road between the Persimmon Gap Visitors Center (just inside the north gate) and the Dagger Flat Road.

The next installment in this series will begin to cover the day-by-day experience of this trip.

Big Bend Moonrise, Big Bend National Park, Texas


  1. Happy to hear you had the Buc-ees experience…quintessential Texas road trip, for sure! The photo of the moonrise is simple, but oh so dramatic. Did you plant to be there for the full moon or was it just good fortune?

    • Thanks, Ellen.

      Just dumb luck on being in the park during a full moon. I had a very narrow window of time available to make the visit and it was simply a coincidence that it included a full moon.

  2. Nice pictures, I really like the one of Persimmon Gap, as well as your Moonrise photo.

    • Thanks very much!

  3. Super compositions and timing! ‘Persimmon Gap’ and ‘Chihuahuan Desert Sunset’ are favorites. 🙂

  4. Photographers I know who regularly go to Big Bend complain about the sky there usually being cloudless. You lucked out in having such photogenic clouds for your sunset.

    • That’s a very good point, Steve, and it’s one I plan to discuss in future posts in this series. A friend of mine visited Big Bend for a few days last fall and got nothing but cloudless skies. I was quite concerned that I was going to experience something similar but, as you’ll see, I got (for the most part) quite lucky, though not so much when it came to sunrises and sunsets. Even the images you see accompanying this post are a bit misleading as the sky was 90-95% clear at sunset that day; I worked hard to produce pleasing compositions that made use of the few areas that included clouds.

  5. Made my first trip down there last year and seriously questioned how the hell I had not been there after living in Texas for 7 years. Spot on about the remoteness, and especially the sentiment of the area. The park is the thing, but slowing down and spending a day or two at the close areas (Marfa, Terlingua) really reset my perspective of Texas. Going back next month.

    • Hi Brandon. Good to “see” you after all this time. I’ll be really interested to hear what your experience is like next month. One thing is certain: it’s going to be HOT. But I’m sure you already know that.

  6. […] I mentioned in the last entry, my plan was to spend Day 2 at Big Bend National Park photographing daybreak at Dagger Flat.  […]

  7. […] Day 1     Day 2     Day 3     Day 4     Day 5 Part I     Day 5 Part II     Day […]

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