Fun fact: Big Bend National Park only allows campers to stay in the park for 14 consecutive nights, in an effort to protect the delicate desert ecosystem. Further, you can only spend 28 nights in the park, per year, overall. Chances are, however, that you're not lucky enough to get 14 consecutive nights in Big Bend, let alone 28.
If you're like most travelers and can only spend a week in West Texas, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the many options in the area. Below, our condensed itinerary of suggestions for making the most out of your trip in under seven days:
In and Around Big Bend National Park
1. Camp out along the Rio Grande
In addition to a full-service lodge in the Chisos Mountains at the heart of the national park, Big Bend also has three diverse campsites to choose from. Two of those, Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village, sit along bends in the Rio Grande. Cottonwood is the smaller, quieter campsite, though you may find yourself overwhelmed by the smell of the nearby latrines (no flush toilets here). Rio Grande Village has real-deal toilets, plus easy access to the nearby Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen, a charming tourist town that only received electricity for the first time last year. Bring your passport!
2. Climb the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains
Not everyone has the time (nor the energy) to hike the famous South Rim trail in Big Bend. If you only have an afternoon, the Lost Mine trail offers similarly stunning scenery from its 6,850-foot-high summit in less than half the time—a 4.8-mile hike instead of the 10- to 12-mile South Rim—and with less effort. Though it's technically a "moderate" trail, you'll definitely get your heart rate pumping during the final series of steep switchbacks over an elevation change of 1,300 feet. Bring a sweater, because the temperatures drop fast in the Chisos Mountains, where an alpine environment keeps things far cooler than in the Chihuahuan Desert below.
3. Hike the Tuff Canyon and the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff
These two simple hikes nearby one another can be completed in just a few hours, and are much better bets for beginners, with very little elevation changes as you traverse two very different areas of the desert floor. The Tuff Canyon features a 0.6-mile trail that descends gently into a soft-edged canyon that looks as if it was carved from moon rocks. Hikers on this lightly-trafficked trail often leave behind carefully-balanced stacks of rocks for others to enjoy. The Burro Mesa Pouroff lets you see what a waterfall looks like sans water, with a polished pouroff (where water flows off the side of a mesa during a downpour) waiting at the end of the 1.8-mile trail through brush thick with wildlife and wildflowers.
4. Pay your respects to Terlingua
Just outside Big Bend National Park is Terlingua, the ghost town famous for its annual chili festival and its few, remaining rowdy residents. After days of eating camp food at Big Bend, you'll want a hot supper at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon. If you get into town before 5 p.m. (when the Starlight opens), spend your time exploring its historic cemetery and many abandoned adobe structures. When it's time to leave, take Highway 118 north out of town instead of driving back through Big Bend for a totally different driving experience through stunning mesas and mountainous terrain; you may not see another car for miles.
In and around Marathon:
5. Eat at the 12 Gage and go grocery shopping at The French Grocer
Even if you aren't staying at the glorious Gage Hotel (and, honestly, the historical inn is as much a bucket-list item as Big Bend itself), you can still eat at its restaurant, the aptly-named 12 Gage. Here, you'll find the best food in many, many miles, whether you go upscale with a ribeye over cheese grits or down-home with a chicken fried steak drenched in jalapeño gravy. If you're dining at the in-house White Buffalo Bar, wash down its braised barbacoa tacos with some local craft brews from the nearby Big Bend Brewing Company; all of its ales are on tap here. If you decide to take a picnic to nearby Post Park or the Gage's sprawling gardens, swing by The French Grocer for everything from fresh fruit and homemade sandwiches to the blankets and baskets themselves.
6. Visit the remote Post Park
If you follow the little road out of Marathon that's not Highway 90 or 385, you'll eventually find yourself dead-ending at Camp Peña Colorado, a former U.S. Army camp on the site of springs long used by Native Americans in the area. These days, the camp is now a city park complete with concrete dance floor, giant barbecue pits for community cook-outs, leafy cottonwood and live oak trees, and a refreshing spring-fed pool your pups will love to swim in. (Not coincidentally, this has become Marathon's de facto dog park.) While we don't recommend swimming in the Post Park pool yourself, it's an ideal location for picnics and bird-watching.
7. Snap a selfie at the Altuda Target
Every hipster with a Leica has a photoset or five of the Prada "store" outside Marfa. Stay true to your Tarzhay-loving roots by snapping a shot next to the Target "store" (actually a cleverly decorated, completely empty railroad switch station) in Altuda on your way to Alpine coming out of Marathon. It's not cliche yet, having only materialized earlier this year, and trust us: the Prada store is not worth the significant drive.
In and around Alpine:
8. Visit the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University
Talk about packing a punch: This highly interactive museum on the campus of Sul Ross State University blasts you through West Texas history from dinosaurs to conquistadors to general stores to Indian wars, all in one deceptively large room that's filled with artifacts and intricately designed dioramas. Even those who don't like museums are swayed by the Museum of the Big Bend, which delivers a fast turnaround time to get you back out into the beauty of the surrounding lands—this time with a greater understanding of their history. And best of all, it's free.
9. Swim with the fishes at Balmorhea State Park
The world's largest spring-fed swimming pool is in an unlikely location: the otherwise desolate Toyahvale, Texas, surrounded by Chihuahuan Desert. And while it's a bit of a drive from Alpine or Marathon, this is one destination that's worth it. The crystal clear water hovers around 74 degrees year-round and is teeming with silvery minnows and jet-black catfish; pick up a snorkel and mask at the camp store to see the fish up close and personal, or simply soak up the sun on the grassy lawn before diving back in to cool off. When you're done for the day, take a short stroll along the shores of Balmorhea State Park's cienegas, two reconstructed desert wetlands filled with even more interesting water creatures.
10. Pretend you're a drugstore cowboy in Fort Davis
Not that kind of drugstore cowboy. After you've worked up an appetite swimming all day, dive into a burger and fries at the old-fashioned Fort Davis Drug Store & Hotel just down the road. In addition to a full menu of burgers, sandwiches and salads, you'll also find a full-service soda fountain and glass cases stocked with homemade fudge. We dare you not to exceed your daily calorie count here. Good thing you're in West Texas, where you're bound to work it off hiking, paddling, riding, or just plain exploring.