West of Big Bend National Park (driving) Route Details

Route Description

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A long drive around the western side of Big Bend National Park and out to the towns to the west.


Surfaced highway, bar Old Maverick Road.

Hazards and warnings

Limited fuel and water. No gas at Castolon any more, and limited places to get drinking water. Make sure you have enough of both. Old Maverick Road is heavily washboarded dirt road. Depending on conditions, it may be passable in a car, or it may require high clearance. Beware of the dry washes, which in flash floods can be deadly. Check road conditions with the rangers first.

Detailed description

A drive out to Castolon, Santa Elena Canyon, and on to Terlingua and back.

Make sure you check conditions for Old Maverick Road before setting out.



The road to the junction with the Castolon road offered craggy views of the high Chisos. After the junction the road became twisty with some great views of the desert below. Mule Ears Peak is instantly recognisable. You'll know it when you see it. Beyond, the road became very, very twisty road as it headed down to Castolon and the river. The section next to the river was dull, with desert one one side and dark green tamarisk trees on the river side. Only the views of the steep escarpment. above the river hinted at something bigger to come At Santa Elena we joined a canoe trip up the river (see Santa Elena Canyon Paddle). From the loop by the river, you can walk up the short path into the jaws of the canyon to get a feel for the canyon.

After that, Old Maverick Road took us across the rather boring desert until the stunning overlook over the Painted Desert, with the Chisos mountains behind The dry washes looked harmless and were easy to drive across, but after rain on the mountains they are deadly when flash floods sweep through (there are no birdges). Even afterwards the road can be washed out, so great care is needed when driving. Halfway along the road, by the side of a rocky hill lay the old hut (jacal) which used to house an old timer before the park. The interior of the hut was cool, but you couldn't help thinking what a strange place it would have been to live.

Study Butte (pronouced Stew-dee boot appearently) was a parched looking desert town, offering services to visitors to the area. Being so small, and far away from any major population centres, the town was remarkably free of the usual tat of generic fast food and motel chains that blight so many American towns, but yet still offered a reasonable selection of places to stay, eat and shop. After the austere facilities of the National Park, the wider selection of facilities was actually quite welcome.

Terlingua was, as always, worth a look. Although billed as a ghost town, it's actually quite lively and had a certain hippy vibe, describing itself as a community of artists, musicians and other free thinkers. We wandered the short trail around the town to see the sights, and visited the old mexican influenced church which is currently being restored. Although the town is a shadow of it's wild heyday when the mines were open, and ruined buildings lie all around, amid the ruins are renovated buildings catering to the tourist trade. We ate at the Starlight Theatre. As the sun went down and the heat faded, we visited the old cemetery and got some great photos of the soft sunlight on the old stone.

After leaving Terlingua we drove back into the park enjoying the sight of the sun lingering on the high Chisos, even after the desert had become completely dark. Driving back at dusk offers a far nicer view of the desert than during the day. The washed out colours of the day give way to softer shades pink and orange and deep purple as the shadows fill the desert. Dusk is popular with the local wildlife too, so watch out for  deer, coyotes and javalinas liotering by the road.


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