In a remote corner of West Texas, the nationally protected stretch of Chihuahuan Desert that borders Mexico is full of geological wonders. Skip stones in the Rio Grande River or climb the Chisos Mountains – there are countless corners of rugged nature to explore in Big Bend National Park.
Road Trip to Big Bend National Park
The idea of taking kids to explore Big Bend National Park scared me. I’m not much of a survivalist and Big Bend is 801,163 acres of wilderness. Me plus five kids with limited access to cell service, gas stations and restaurants seemed like it might not be the best idea. But, last fall, my kids had a full week off of school and we had no plans. So, I decided to take the leap.
Taking to Facebook, I asked for kid-friendly Big Bend hike recommendations. What I got back was a host of enthusiastic endorsements for places almost entirely not in Big Bend National Park. We did them all anyway. Here is the crazy road trip we took, from Austin to Manahans Sandhills to Big Bend Ranch State Park to Big Bend National Park, and back again. There was a lot of driving involved, but every stop was amazing. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Monahans Sandhills State Park
The route we took to Big Bend was not direct. First, we first stopped six hours west of Austin to try sand sledding in Monahans Sand Hills State Park. Because, sand sledding. A friend recommended it, but I couldn’t quite believe this was a thing. Would it work?
Admission to Monahans is a whopping $4 per person age 13 and up; free for kids 12 and under. And plastic sled rentals are only $2 per two hours, or you can bring your own. The week of Thanksgiving, we had the park almost entirely to ourselves. We rented five sleds, which came with wax to make the plastic discs slide faster. The kids took off, running over sand dune after sand dune, in search of the perfect sledding hill.
Although this photo might suggest otherwise, the sleds really did work! My kids had a blast hiking up sand dunes and making tracks down by sliding down at full speed. It was amazing experience. I was glad we had made the detour to check it out.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
From Monahans Sandhills State Park, we still didn’t go straight to the national park. I wanted to hike through Closed Canyon, so we headed to Big Bend Ranch State Park. We loved it here, so I highly recommend you don’t skip it. This remote park has 238 miles of trails and spectacular scenery. From October to April, admission is $5 per person 13 and up. In non-peak season, May through September, adult admission is only $3. Kids 12 and under are free.
Our first stop inside Big Bend Ranch State Park was Hoodoos Trail. Located 26 miles west of the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, this rugged trail is great fun for kids. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the picnic table by the parking lot and then explored the unique rock structures, called “hoodoos,” located along the way.
Next up, the incredible Closed Canyon. Closed Canyon is a narrow slot canyon that divides Colorado Mesa. There’s no defined path, but the canyon bed is mostly flat and easy on little legs. The whole trail is only 1.4 miles, roundtrip, making it a great one for families. Plus, it’s easy to turn back at any time.
Big Bend National Park
Now that you are halfway through this post, let’s get to Big Bend National Park already! Several days into our trip, we made it to Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. It was so beautiful, I was annoyed at myself for taking so 17 years of Texas-living to get there.
This 1.6-mile roundtrip hike is slightly terrifying (see that trail above the creek??), but the views are unparalleled. After crossing Terlingua Creek, the trail ascends on paved steps to a vista, then descends back to the water’s edge, continuing into the canyon until the canyon walls meet the Rio Grande below. Hold on tight to your child’s hand and don’t forget to look up to take in the scenery!
Following Santa Elena Canyon, we traversed the park to the Chisos Mountains. I had hoped to hike the Window Trail, but it is a three to four-hour hike and I knew my four-year-old wouldn’t make it. So, we opted instead for the Window View trail, which is only .3 miles roundtrip. Quick and lovely. About all we had energy for at the end of a sunny day.
Big Bend with Kids: Worth It?
Well, you can guess our verdict. We loved it. Our time there went too quickly – we didn’t even get to check out the Hot Springs before it was time to make our way back to Austin. We’re already planning our next trip to Big Bend, so we can explore more of the park!
Know Before You Go
- Download the park newspaper before your trip. This has tons of useful information, including maps with popular trails. Hikes are listed in the newspaper as easy, moderate, or strenuous. Good information to have if you’re visiting with kids! We only tackled easy hikes on our trip.
- Check out the park map, also in the newspaper, and plan your routes before entering the park. The only Wi-Fi available in the park is at the Chisos Mountain Lodge and the Rio Grande Village Store. This makes using Google maps tricky.
- Also on the map, make sure your route does not include gravel roads if your car doesn’t have 4WD. We took Old Maverick Road (a hugely bumpy gravel road, shown in gray on the map) to Santa Elena Canyon, which was extremely nerve wracking to drive in a minivan.
- Get gas before you enter the park! There are only two places to get gas inside the park and with no cell service, it’s not a place you want to get stranded.
- Have a child in 4th grade? Make sure you get their free parks pass, so you don’t have to pay to enter Big Bend National Park. That will save you $25.
- Big Bend is a designated Dark Sky Park. Make sure to go outside at night, even if you aren’t staying in the park. The nighttime sky in this remote part of Texas is breathtaking.
- If you want to stay in the park, make your reservations well in advance. Park accommodations fill quickly. We opted to stay nearby at Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa instead, because there was a deal on Priceline.
- Check out the Big Bend National Park FAQ page for more!