Oh, Big Bend, my heart belongs to thee. Big Bend National Park, and the whole Big Bend area in general, is one of the most amazing places in the world. In the remotest corner of Texas, far from shopping malls, McDonald's, light pollution, traffic, and all the mundane bullshit in our lives that we allot too much space for, there is a place where the desert stretches across the vast land, the mountains jut out from the dry ground, an island amongst the sea of dirt and scrub, and the river powerfully carves it's way through the rock, engraving it's legacy slowly but surely. Even just thinking about it makes me feel dreamy.
Okay, back to reality. I brought Lily to the park for her first visit (of many) in 2019. We spent two nights in the Chisos Basin campground, the best of the three developed campgrounds in the park. Being up in the mountains offers more comfortable temperatures than down on the desert floor, there are amazing views, and some of the best hiking trails are up in the Chisos.
A few months ago, I stumbled upon a thread about Big Bend on some website and was surprised to see many people saying that it wasn't ideal to bring kids to the park. It's dangerous, it's wild, it's scary. It is indeed all those things, though only scary in its vastness in my opinion. Not a place you'd want to get lost. That being said, though, it is actually a great place for kids. It's dangerous, but then again so is driving. The possible hazards that may be encountered in Big Bend offer a great opportunity to teach kids about trail safety, awareness of your surroundings, wildlife, and leaving no trace. It's wild, a rugged landscape with boulders for climbing up and around and over, a place that cannot be tamed. It is a place where kids can experience dark skies and solitude, where they can test their boundaries and get dirty. Some things in the park are better suited to older kids/adults, but Lily was only five years old when we went and there was more than enough to keep us busy and she absolutely fucking loved it. Here are some of the child friendly activities that we did.
Hike to Balanced Rock
This hike is high reward for low effort. The most difficult part of hiking to Balanced Rock is getting to the trailhead. To get there, you have to drive down Grapevine Hills road, a dirt road that has potholes and big rocks and is slow going. It's certainly not 4WD level - we did it in my old Honda CRV - but it's a bumpy ride. It took us an hour to drive the six miles to the Grapevine Hills trailhead. Once on the trail, though, it's easy going. It's pretty flat up until about the last quarter of a mile, where you do a nice scramble up some boulders to get to Balanced Rock. Lily loved this part - anything that has to do with climbing she's on board with. You can get some fun photos at Balanced Rock before heading back to the parking lot.
There isn't much shade on this hike so plan ahead by wearing a hat and sunscreen. The hike is a little over 2 miles round trip so it's a great warm up for a day of hiking in the desert!
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Once you're back on the pavement from the Grapevine Hill road, it's easy to hop onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive route by taking a right onto the main road. This is a thirty mile scenic route that highlights some of the history of the area. Turn off the main road at Castolon (see more below). Keep going until you reach Santa Elena Canyon. There are a number of stopping points along the way to enjoy, including the Sam Nail Ranch, Mule Ears Viewpoint, and a number of overlooks. Be forewarned: the kid(s) may sleep through the drive, but that's okay because the nap will help energize them and prevent crankiness for the rest of the day! They'll need the energy for the next hike.
Visit Santa Elena Canyon
At the end of the scenic drive, try to find a parking spot and take the Santa Elena Canyon trail, a 1.7 mile round trip hike that takes you into the canyon until there is nothing but rock and water. There's a bit of a climb at the beginning of the trail, but it's very doable (and paved just about all the way if I remember correctly). Once you've entered the mouth of the canyon, there is some shade with the river cane and some trees, plus some rock overhangs that you can sit under. When we finally reached the water, there were groups of people wading around so we decided to join them. We rolled up our pant legs, took off our shoes, and in we went. Lily then proceeded to 'accidentally' fall in... yeah right. I am 99.9% sure that she just wanted to swim, but it's okay. It was a great way to cool off after the hike and the water felt amazing. You can't leave Big Bend without doing this hike and standing in the water of the Rio Grande River between two massive rock faces, one the United States, the other Mexico. Being sandwiched between two countries is pretty cool.
Stop by Castolon
On your way back from Santa Elena Canyon, you can stop at Castolon Historic District. Err... well... at least you used to be able to. Unfortunately, a wildfire severely damaged the area in 2019. The area housed historic buildings dating from the early 1900s. The Visitor Center and La Harmonia store were burned extensively, but they have a temporary visitor center set up now in a different building across the way. Stop by and learn about the history of the area, mourn the fire damage, and envision what lies ahead in the future for this part of Big Bend.
Visit the Hot Springs
Hot Springs Historic District houses a number of historic buildings, including a post office and the remnants of a bathhouse built by J.O. Langford. The drive to get to the parking area is narrow and unpaved, so drive cautiously! The sign in the parking lot warned to not leave valuables in your vehicle - I assume they have some issues with theft there but we had no problems. All of our important belongings went in our backpack anyways.
The hike to the hot springs is only about half a mile and is really easy. Explore the remnants of the stone buildings along the way and look for pictographs on the rock faces. When you reach the springs, you can soak in the water where you're in the foundation of the old bathhouse that was constructed. The area is usually fairly crowded so don't expect quiet or privacy. We dipped our feet in for a bit but didn't actually soak since we didn't bring appropriate attire. The river flows adjacent to the springs, with Mexico just across the way. You will likely see small trinkets, walking sticks, and other items for sale, set on the ground of the United States by Mexican artists/craftsmen. Anyone that purchases an item leaves their money and the person comes to collect it. Be aware that this is illegal. You can purchase legal crafts made by Mexican merchants in some of the camp stores in the park or if you cross into Boquillas. Note: as of the time of writing this, this area is currently closed due to COVID-19.
Visit any of the visitor centers
There are multiple visitor centers scattered through the park. They're all worth a visit. They provide information about the park, environment, and wildlife, are staffed by rangers so you can ask questions and get suggestions or recommendations, and they've got stores that sell souvenirs, books, and some of them sell grocery/camping items, as well. The Chisos Basin visitor center has a taxidermied mountain lion that Lily enjoyed.
There is no way to see all of Big Bend in two days, but we pretty much tracked to all the edges of the park. Be prepared to drive a lot - the park covers more than 800,000 acres. You can definitely get through a visit without leaving the pavement, but where's the fun in that? We can't wait to get back. Now that Lily is older, she is able to hike longer distances. The trails we've got on our list for next time are Lost Mine, Window, Mule Ears, Chimneys..... ugh, so much to explore, so little time.
Have you visited Big Bend with kiddos? What are your favorite things to do?