Time spent in Big Bend National Park, located in far southern Texas, should appeal to any adventuresome spirit. Unique formations dot the arid desert landscape, and the Rio Grande River cuts deep canyons through the park all surrounding the beautiful Chisos Mountains.
Big Bend National Park is miles from Texas’ major cities and therefore not a day-trip destination. In fact, the park itself is larger than the state of Rhode Island and cannot properly be explored in a day.
Most who come spend several days to a week or more at either the lodge located at Chisos Basin or in one of the parks’ various campgrounds.
If you’re planning from afar, it can be difficult to pick the right campground to serve you and your interests.
Big Bend National Park has four developed campgrounds: Rio Grande Village Campground, Rio Grande Village RV Park (independently run), Chisos Basin Campground and Cottonwood Campground.
Each are located in different regions of the park and provide different services. It’s important to note – NO campfires are allowed in Big Bend. No fire rings are even provided. Campers may use only charcoal to cook in the approved grills at each site. Food storage lockers are provided at each site for campers to secure food away from Javelinas, which you will see in the campgrounds, and bears.
Rio Grand Village Campground
First Impression: Crowded
Amenities: Various comfort stations including flush toilets and a dish washing sink are located throughout the campground. Dumpsters are also scattered around the campground, and a recycling center is located near the self-pay station at the front. A dump station with clean drinking water can be found just up the road from the campground entrance (less than .5 mile). Within walking distance you’ll find a village store that provides campers with food, free wifi, laundry facilities and pay showers ($4 for 5 minutes).
Cost: $14/night or $7/night with Access or Senior National Parks Pass.
Reservations: Make them if you can from November 15 – April 15. This place fills up in the busy season (fall, winter). There are 100 sites and 46 are reservable. If you do arrive without reservations, make sure to carefully read the post at each site, which will detail upcoming dates it is reserved.
Information: This is the largest campground in the park, and for that matter the noisiest. The sites lack privacy and are close together. There is a no generator area for those who would like some quiet, and you’ll find rules regarding the daytime use of generators in other sections of the campground.
The views from the campground itself are not outstanding. Most sites lack the sweeping vistas that you’ll find elsewhere in the park. Only two hikes leave directly from this area – a short nature trail from the back of the campground and an approximately 6 mile round-trip hike to the hot springs, which leaves from the other side of the Rio Grande Village. A boat launch is located at the village as well, but you cannot see the Rio Grande River from the campsites themselves.
This campground is close to the Boquillos, Mexico border crossing and the short but popular Boquillos Canyon hike. It’s also the closest to the Langford Hot Springs. All other park attractions are quite a drive.
Why stay here: This campground is the best place if you’re looking for easy access, sites that accommodate slightly bigger campers, to be close to toilets, a dump station, water, wifi and a store. It’s the best option for larger RVs that want close services but cannot make it up to Chisos Basin Campground due to small sites. If you like socializing while you camp – this is the place.
Rio Grande Village RV Park
First Impression: That’s not camping.
Amenties: Full hook ups
Cost: $33/night for 2 people, additional cost for others
Reservations: Make them in advance. They do allow first come, first serve IF they are not already full.
Information: This is the only place in the park you’ll find electric and water not to mention a sewer hook up. It’s nothing more than a paved parking lot located right across from the Rio Grande Village Store. Hook ups are located in the grass behind each parking space, which are large enough to accommodate most big RVs.
Why stay here: You want or need to be hooked up. It’s always nice to be able to freely use water and not worry about dumping! Plus, to have electric when those chilly desert nights coming creeping upon you is a big bonus.
First Impression: Quiet
Amenities: Two restrooms with pit toilets (well maintained), one spigot with drinking water and several other non-potable water spigots scattered through the campground. Dumpsters and recycling are available.
Cost: $14/night or $7/night with Access or Senior National Parks Pass
Reservations: None accepted. All 24 sites are first come, first serve.
Information: Cottonwood campground is located on the west side of Big Bend National park at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It is near the Castolon visitors center and general store – no wifi or other amenities.
It’s much more rustic and less developed than the Rio Grande Campground. Sites are spaced farther apart but still offer little to no privacy as there is very little growth or ground cover between them. The campground is essentially one long loop with sites on two sides.
It’s the closest campground to Santa Elena Canyon and other hikes on the west side of the park. The west side has more notable geologic features than the east and is home to the ruins of several old ranches. No hikes leave from this campground, and there are less opportunities to walk directly around this area.
Why stay here: You want to be in an actual campground that is smaller and quieter than the larger Rio Grande Village.
Chisos Basin Campground
First Impression: Views are amazing
Amenities: Two comfort stations with restrooms with flush toilets and utility sinks for dish washing, a short walk leads to the Chisos Basin store for camp supplies and food, a ranger station and the lodge including a restaurant, gift shop and patio with free wifi. There is also a dump station and drinking water.
Reservations: Make them. There are 60 sites – 26 are reservable between November 15-May 31. Chisos is hard to get into during busy season, and if you’re traveling in a camper there is no guarntee you’ll fit in a site even if it’s available.
Information: Chisos basin campground has little vegetation and sites are close together. If you’re tent camping you can find small sites on the edges that offer great views and much more privacy than those located on the inner loops.
The popular ‘window’ can be seen from the campground offering beautiful views of the dessert below. In addition, a number of the Chisos Mountain hikes can be reached from the campground via a short walk to the visitors center including the Chisos Basin Loop, the Pinnacles Trail, Emory Peak, Laguna Meadows, Southwest Rim, Northeast Rim, Boot Canyon, etc. The popular Windows trail leaves directly from the campground.
The park does not recommend trailers larger than 20ft. and RVs larger than 24ft. make the drive to the basin due to hairpin turns; however, in our opinion, it’s the not the drive that would pose a problem – it’s the size of the campsites. Most trailers and RVs could make it. We even saw a tour bus in the basin, but many campsites are too small for larger campers/RVs.
Most sites offer only a very small pull out from the road for parking. There are half a dozen or slight more back-in sites which would accommodate larger campers, and then there is the problem of leveling some of the sites aren’t very level. Sprinters, vans and smaller campers are just fine here.
Why stay here: Aside from the small size of the sites, if you are looking to camp with great views and a lot of amenities close by – this is the place.
Back country camping
First Impression: Incredible
Cost: $12 total for a permit that runs anywhere from 1 night to 2 full weeks.
Reservations: You can only secure a backcountry camping permit in the park up to 24 hours in advance. Once you arrive proceed immediately to a ranger station to see what is available.
Information: There are dozens of backcountry sites for backpackers, tent campers with a car and even RVs and campers located throughout the park. High clearance vehicles with 4wheel drive are recommended to reach some, but others can reached quite easily with just a short drive down well-mainted dirt roads. Sites recommended for those with RVs or campers include Paint Gap 1 and 2, Croton Springs 1 and 2, Nine Mile Draw (located at the north entrance so this site is pretty far from most park attractions) and possibly some of the first sites at Grapevine Hills. These sites have zero amenities so come prepared with everything you need. There is a food storage locker at each site to keep food safe from wildlife but no charcoal grills or tables. Many of these sites have beautiful sweeping views and offer peace and quiet away from all – not to mention beautiful views of the night sky away from lights found near the lodge or at other developed campgrounds.
Why stay here:
Our opinion: We like being away from it all, and while services are nice, we don’t always need them. If we were coming again we would get a backcountry permit. We stayed at Paint Gap one and loved it. You could see headlights on the main road at night or cars in the distance during the day, but it was extremely easy to make it to with our 20ft. Airstream pulled with a Toyota 4Runner.
When we return to Big Bend National park will we stay again in a backcountry site. If we wanted to be closer to amenities – we would attempt to make it into Chisos Basin.
You will drive..A LOT.. to get where you are going in Big Bend, so be prepared.
Get food and gas BEFORE you come. Food can be twice the price at the three general stores located throughout the park. Gas is about $.75 more expensive inside the park.
If you are trying to get into a Chisos Basin spot without reservations, it’s advised you leave your camper (if you have one) in one of the parks other campgrounds and drive up to the basin to get a spot you know you can fit into before hauling your camper up.