Big Bend National Park is one of the largest and most remote National Parks in the lower 48 – it’s also one of the best national parks for stargazing! This mountain desert park offers a unique look at the geological history of North America while providing numerous hiking and outdoor opportunities and some of the darkest skies in the continental United States.
In 2012, Big Bend National Park was awarded full status as an International Dark Sky Park. It is one of six International Dark Sky Parks in Texas, including the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. If you want to experience the gorgeous night skies above the Big Bend, here’s everything you need to know to take a stargazing trip to Big Bend National Park.
Note: Due to the novel coronavirus, National Parks vary in opening hours and access. Be sure to check if the park you want to visit is open before planning a trip.
How to Get to Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is located in southern Texas along the Rio Grande and shares a 118-mile border with Mexico. The region is barely populated on either side of the border and there are no major sources of light pollution in the area.
If you are flying to Big Bend National Park, your best options are Midland (MAF) or El Paso (ELP). Midland is about 3 hours from the park’s Persimmon Gap entrance. El Paso is about 4.5 hours from the Persimmon Gap or Terlingua entrance.
It is also possible to take an Amtrack train of Greyhound Bust to Alpine, TX. Alpine is about an hour from the park and had rental cars available.
Is Big Bend National Park safe?
This is a common question given that Big Bend National Park is located along the United States-Mexican border. Part of the park’s Mexican boundary is shared with the protected areas of Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena and Maderas del Carmen. These protected areas along with Big Bend create a mountainous desert area that is sparsely populated.
The remoteness of the area and lack of major towns minimize the illegal drug and undocumented crossing activity. While it does occasionally happen, it is not a major concern in the park. Should you see something, please don’t stop or intervene and call 911 when possible.
Crime in the park, like most other national parks, is minimal and standard precautious apply: make sure your vehicle is locked, and keep our valuables out of sight.
When hiking along the Rio Grande, you might notice small displays of Mexican hand-crafts with prices. These items are contraband and illegal to purchase on the trails. Please don’t purchase these items, the Mexican artisans have illegally crossed the border to set-up their display and this illegal trade contributes to environmental damage such as erosion of river banks.
How to Go Stargazing in Big Bend National Park
Stargazing in Big Bend National Park is pretty easy. Most of the park’s main roads are treeless and minimal the landscape provides minimal obstructions to the skyline. The Chisos Mountains provide a backdrop for photographs without obstructing the sky.
There are several options to stay in Big Bend National Park. The park has one lodge and four campgrounds so visitors can stay overnight and not have to commute to the nearby towns when stargazing in the park.
When driving at night in Big Bend and surrounding areas, keep to the speed limit and keep a careful eye out for wildlife on the roads. The javelin are often seen near the roadways at night and hitting one isn’t good for the car or javelin.
Where to Go Stargazing in Big Bend National Park
In brief, here are some of the best places for stargazing in Big Bend National Park:
- Santa Elana Overlook (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
- Tuff Canyon (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
- Mule Ears View Point (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
- Sotol Vista (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
- Maverick Junction (Panther Junction Road)
- Grapevine Hills Road (Panther Junction Road)
- Chisos Basin Overlook (Chisos Basin Drive)
- Fossil Discovery Exhibit (Main Park Road)
- Hot Springs (Park Route 12)
- Rio Grande Overlook (Park Route 12)
Read on for more details about each of these stargazing spots near Big Bend.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most scenic drive in the park. It is named after Ross Maxwell, the first Superintendent of Big Bend National Park. He designed this road to highlight his favorite geological features such as Tuff Canyon or Sotol Vista. The road ends at the start of the Santa Elana Canyon. There are numerous pullouts and scenic views that are perfect for stargazing. Spots such as Santa Elana Overlook or Mule Ears View Point provide nice foregrounds for star photos.
Pather Junction Road
Panther Junction Road runs from Panther Junction to the Terlingua entrance. This 21-mile stretch of road provides access to Terlingua, TX along with the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Chisos Basin, and the Grapevine Hills Road. Grapevine Hills Road leads to Big Bend’s Balanced Rock trail and is a great spot for night photography. Maverick Junction is a great spot for those staying to Terlingua to see the stars in the park.
Chisos Basin Drive
Chisos Basin Drive leads up into the Chisos Mountains. This curvy road leads to the higher elevations and several overlooks that look out into the desert and smaller mountain ranges. There are several overlooks that provide great sky views and some amazing rock formations to photograph in the foreground of star photos.
Main Park Road
The Main Park Road runs from Panther Junction to the Persimmon Gap entrance. This 26-mile stretch of road provides access to Marathon, TX. The best spot on this road to stop and view the stars is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit.
Park Route 12
Park Route 12 runs from Panther Junction to the Rio Grande Village. This 21-mile stretch of road provides access to the Rio Grande and Boquillas Canyon. Overlooks such as Rio Grand Overlook provide clear sky views and a view all the way to Mexico.
Park Route 12 provides access to Big Bend’s Hot Spring. This hot water spring is located on the banks of the Rio Grande and is a great place to soak while enjoying the stars. The Hot Spring is reached by a 0.25-mile trail so bring a flashlight if planning to visit at night.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Big Bend Ranch State Park is about 30 mins from Big Bend National Park – so it’s not technically in Big Bend National Park. This large state park is about half the size of Big Bend National Park. Big Bend Ranch is also an International Dark Sky Park. The state park offers similar outdoor recreation opportunities and is well known for its dark skies. There are numerous pull-offs and locations to view the stars in this state park.
Where to Stay Near Big Bend National Park
Hotels near Big Bend National Park
The Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodge in the park. This mountain lodge is located in the Chisos Mountains. The sky is partially obscured by the mountains but the mountains provide a great foreground for pictures.
About 30 mins north of the park is Marathon, TX. It several small B&B’s such as Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast.
To the east of the park is Terlingua and Lajitas. Both small towns offer a range of small hotels and unique accommodations such as Airstream or cute adobe cabins. Recommendations include Paisano Village Inn, Retro Rents or Lajitas Golf Resort.
Camping near Big Bend
There are four campgrounds in Big Bend National Park. One of the campgrounds is located near the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The other three are located along the Rio Grande. The river campgrounds offer clear sky views. The best campground for sky gazing is Cottonwood. The Rio Grande campground and RV park are located near the village of Boquillas del Carmen. This tiny village creates a small amount of light pollution.
Big Bend has a range of private backcountry campsite that can be reached via gravel and dirt roads. Some of these sites can only be reached by a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle.
What to See & Do During the Day in Big Bend
What to See in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is a geologist dreamland. The park geologist position is one of the most coveted geologist positions in NPS. The area is at a crossroads of plate tectonics and has evidence of both the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The park has a range of fossils from sea creators to land animals that haven’t been found elsewhere. The park has mountains, a desert, a river valley, and canyons. It is easy to spend a week or more exploring Big Bend National Park.
What to Do in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is larger than it seems and it is a great park to do scenic drives combined with a few day hikes. There are day hikes for all skill levels and some are flat and easy while others are strenuous all-day hikes. Even in the mountains, Big Bend National Park is a desert and please be aware of the temperature and ensure you pack enough water.
Visitors can also arrange guided and unguided float trips down the Rio Grande.
Popular Big Bend hikes include:
- Grapevine Hills Trail – A relatively flat 2.2 mile hike that leads to Big Bend’s Balanced Rock formation. This area is great for seeing the invasive Aoudad (Barbary sheep)
- Chisos Basin Loop Trail – A 1.8-mile loop with a moderate elevation gain that provides outstanding vistas in the Chisos Mountains.
- Lost Mine Trail – A 4.8-mile trail that provides views of Juniper Canyon and Casa Grande.
- Window Trail – A 5.6-mile trail that descends into the Windows pour-off.
- Boquillas Canyon Trail – A 1.4-mile trail into Boquillas Canyon. A great hike along the Rio Grande and great views in Boquillas Canyon.
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail – A 1.7- mile trail into Santa Elena Canyon. This trail crosses the Terlingua creek and into this famed canyon. This is the classic Big Bend hike.
Other FAQ about Stargazing in Big Bend National Park
Is Big Bend National Park open at night?
Yes, Big Bend is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The main roads are usually open year-round. There may be weather closure during the winter and during flooding events.
The entrance stations are closed at night but you are still required to have a valid Big Bend entrance receipt or National Park pass when in the park.
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Big Bend? When?
The Big Bend is a great place to see the Milky Way. Summer is the best time of year to see the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere.
When is the best time to go stargazing in Big Bend?
The best time of year to stargaze in Big Bend National Park is October to April. This is the dry season in the park and you are less likely to encounter rain storms. March is the most popular time to visit this park.
Is there a dark sky festival in Big Bend?
Big Bend National Park doesn’t currently have any formal night sky festivals. Nearby International Day Sky Park Big Bend Ranch State Park hosted a Dark Sky week in 2018 but there is no information on a 2021 Dark Sky week.
Are there guided night tours in Big Bend?
There are no formal stargazing tours in the Big Bend National Park, and professional guiding is regulated by the National Park Service. However, you are welcome to enjoy the stars from any of the Big Bend Overlooks.
Do you have other questions about stargazing in Big Bend? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: David Morris via Unsplash