East Big Bend National Park Tour (driving) Route Details

Route Description

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A drive around the eastern and central part of the National Parking taking in the diverse desert, riverside and mountain environments that caracterise this part of Big Bend.


Good well maintained roads aside from Dagger Flat auto trails which is a rough dirt road, and the road to Hot Springs which is a dirt road. The various hiking trails are short and easy.

Hazards and warnings

As ever in the desert, water and fuel are rare, and you'll need lots of both. Crossing the border is no longer allowed. Signs warn of theft from parked vechicles at Boquillas Canoyon, so be cautious about leaving valuable items on display.

Detailed description

With such a big park as Big Bend, there's always the problem of what to see. This is a day long tour which takes in the eastern side of the Park. If you have more time, there are plenty of hiking trails which leave the roads, and take you to some of the more remote areas of the park. However, the extreme conditions of the desert make this something more suitable for the well equiped and seasoned hiker. The route features a number of short hiking trails which are much easier, although as ever in the desert, take water and be prepared for the power of the sun especially at midday.

If you have a 4x4 high ground clearance vehicle, completing the Old Ore Road from the Dagger Flat Auto Trail to the river near Rio Grande village is an option. We tried it, but we soon found our SUV lacked enough ground clearance to cross the many dry creek crossing, and gave up after a few miles. Better to turn back than become stuck in the middle of the desert! The Dagger Flat auto trail is probably just about doable in any vechicle, although there are a number of tight spots you need to take care on. The Hot Springs dirt road are fine in any vehicle.


We drove north to the Fossil Bone exhibit. From the nearby bluff a huge view of the desert and mountains could be seen, which was far more interesting to me at least than some replicas of various long extinct former park residents. Next it was the rather bumpy dirt road down to Dagger Flat. The road is rough and you'll need to take care driving it. Dagger Flat is simply a small valley covered in the spikey 'Dagger' plants. We attempted the Old Ore Road witht he intention of driving it to the river, but after a few miles of the road becoming ever rougher, we decided there wasn't enough ground clearance to make the drive, especially if conditions got worse. When we visited in April the desert was in full flower. Everything from cactus to small delicate plants had produced flowers.

Dugout Wells was the next stop. A small wind pump at the site of an old ranch has made a small section of desert burst into lush greenery, which you can see for miles around. A short trail introduces you to the plants of the desert and some amazing views of the Chisos. Beware the blind prickly pear. Just because you can't see the spines, doesn't mean there are now.

We then turned off the road to take the dirt road down to Hot Springs. This consisted of a few abandoned buildings, the lush trees of the Rio Grande river side and a giant palm. There's a hot spring that provided a reason for the resort, but the recent floods seemed to have covered it. I'd not see that as a 'must see' stop on the route.

We lunched at the picnic site by the side of the Rio Grande, under tall shade trees, which made a pleasant break from the desert sun. There's a small store providing fuel and limited foods for the nearby campsite.

Next we drove along the low hills by the river. Shortly afterward is the old Boqillas Crossing. A gate now bars the road. A long time ago I did the trip across the river. At that time one of the highlights of a Big Bend visit was a trip across the river and a ride in a pickup truck to the village of Boquillas in Mexico. Sadly, this is no longer allowed (nobody seems to be able to rationally explain why this makes America safer - especially as the Border Patrol have checkpoints as you leave the park), which has removed a fun part of the trip, and the reason for the existance of the village. Ironically the locals have probably crossed the border to head north and find work now....

At the overlook you can see the wide dusty spread of the Mexican side, and then mighty escarpment into which the river appearently vanishes and above that the even bigger mountains above, with the distinctive notched peak in the Sierra del Carmen being just visible. It's interesting to note the difference in the vegetation between the US and Mexican side. On the former, it's now pretty much the orginal desert. On the other side, similar plants but a lot dustier from grazing livestock. I'd love to visit that side of the border one day...

At Boquillas Canyon the locals on the Mexican side wade the river, and sell trinkets fashioned from local materials. Buying them is illegal as the department of stopping fun seems to have decided to destroy every possible avenue for the villagers to make money. But, I'm sure if you made a donation to one of the traders, they'd be happy to give you a gift. Just don't tell Uncle Sam. One day some sanity might prevail and a cross border park might be created like they have managed to do in the Kruger area in South Africa and Mozambique. Although the river is an obvious boundary, it's also a axis along which people have lived and moved for years, as water enables life in the desert no matter which side of the river you were born. The canyon seems to attract the wind, which just seems to suck the moisure out of you as the wind rushes into the gap in the mountains. The constant winds have built up huge dunes which are piled against the canyon wall. You can only go a little way into the canyon, but far enough to get a feel for the vastness of the canyon, and the power of the river which has managed to punch a hole through a mountain range over millions of years. The river was low, it not having rained for some time, and the needs of irrigation depleting the grand river to something more like a stream you can litterally throw a stone over. From close by you don't even see the far bigger mountains which simply dwarf the canyon.

After the river, the mountains. A long drive with big views at every corner took us back to Panther Junction. A few miles up the road was the junction of the road to the Basin. The road climbs steadily, and the desert vegetation gives way to first scrub, and then trees. Not the big, lush green trees of the Rio Grande, but smaller battered looking pine trees. As the road climbs, the mountains on either side close in on the road, and in the sheltered areas allowed proper forest. After some crazy tight curves we reached the highest point of the road, where the Lost Mine trail leads off into the mountains. The lost mine refers to the legend of a rich silver mine lost someplace on the mountain. Below, you can see the Chisos Basin, which is ringed by huge cliffs on all sides, bar the one. When we stopped we noticed the air was noticably cooler than the desert far below. We drove to the parking area by the lodge, and set off on a short, well surfaced path which took us to a viewpoint over the Window, the only gap in the mountains. From there you can see out far over the desert below. The Chisos Basin is justifiably the most popular part of the park, and lacks the solitude of the rest of the park. It rather reminded me of Cathedral Peak in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa, which has a similar feel of being surrounded by mountains. The cooler air, forest and protected location has been popular for a long time, long before the national park, the area was home to the Apache indians who laid waste to the surrounding land from their base in the mountains. The most prominent feature of the Basin, is the towering peak of Casa Grande, which looms above the area, although it's not the highest peak in the Chisos, as that honour goes to Emory Peak.

After soaking up the cool air, and waiting for the sun to drop and turn the harsh daylight to something softer, we set off back over the pass to Panther Junction. Although road signs warned of bears, sadly we didn't see any.

We arrived at our stop for the next few days, the K Bar 2 primative camping area, which is just a few miles from Panther Junction. Here the landscape was proper desert with no trees and little vegetation higher than your waist. But, the views all around were stunning. To the sourth east the Sierra del Carmen, and nearby to the west the towering sides of the Chisos, turned red in the setting sun. Although primative camping is exactly as it sounds, with no facilities other than a flat area at the end of a gravel road, the solitude and amazing views made a very special place to camp. If you are properly equipped and bring plenty of water, you can be quite comfortable. As the ground is hard stony soil, I was happy to have a nice fat Big Agnes air mattress rather than a thinner sleeping mat. Before cooking an evening meal we took a walk from the campsite over the desert. It doesn't take you long to find out just about every plant has some form of spike, thorn or otherwise pain inflicting part. Walking any distance across the desert with no trail would be a slow and painful process! Once night drew in, there we no visible lights, or sounds of other people. Only the stars and the wind stiring the bushes. Even commerical aircraft don't seem to overfly Big Bend, and there were none of the vapour trails you'd see in most areas crossing the skies.

The stars in the desert are amazing. With clear skies and no light pollution the night sky becomes filled with stars. Picking out constellations was easy The Milky Way banded the sky. If you ever stay in the desert taking the time to sit and watch the night sky in the wilderness is worth doing.

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