Is Big Bend on your list of places to photograph? If not, it should be.
Before visiting Big Bend, I knew nothing about the place. I just kept hearing 2 things about it:
- It’s in the desert
- There are lots of stars
While I found both of those claims to be entirely true, as a camera wielder I prefer to have a solid idea of what to expect to see so that I can be prepared to get some good shots.
Having heard little of the park before visiting personally, I was hoping to read something that would guide me through Big Bend, explaining which landmarks are on which trails, which animals can be seen in each area, and what time of day is best to photograph each spot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much of that information anywhere.
So in order to save you the same hassle, here’s the breakdown of how to set yourself up for some great photo opportunities in Big Bend National Park, sans overpriced tourist book.
(Keep in mind, these were my personal experiences. I didn’t get to do everything in the park as I was only there 1 week. This is simply to give you an idea of the area and get you some great shots.)
Casa Grande Peak
Let’s start off with an easy one. Casa Grande is the centerfold of the Chisos Mountains and it’s crazy easy to get to. It’s viewable from the Chisos Basin Campsite but its best side is seen from the trailheads right by the Chisos Visitor Center.
This way, you’re looking at the east side of it and as the sun sets in the west, the colors cast onto Casa Grande are unbelievable. So get your intervelometer ready for a timelapse. In fact, it’s said that in Big Bend you’re supposed to look east during the sunset because, “That’s where the real lightshow is.”
If you’re looking at Casa Grande from the Chisos Visitor Center as mentioned above, turn around 180 degrees and you’ll see Window View. The window is a canyon in the Chisos Mountains giving you a “window view” of the setting sun. You can hike down into the canyon via the Window Trail (5.6 miles roundtrip) or admire from a distance (as seen here) via the 0.25 mile, wheelchair accessible Window View Trail.
Off the side of US Route 385 heading toward Panther Junction, you can pull off the side of the road around mile marker 7. Look into the distance and you’ll see the hoodoos. What you won’t see is a trail. This is the best and worst feature of this fun little trek. The terrain is flat and easily navigable, but prickly with cacti and thorn bushes so watch your step. The hoodoos are a spectacular display of erosion over time. If you search hard enough you’ll even find arrowheads and other artifacts from the Indians that lived there in the 1800s. But be mindful of your surroundings when heading toward the hoodoos. Once you get out there it’s easy to lose track of your orientation and get lost. Bring plenty of water and a compass in case you get mixed up on directions. Leave the beer back at camp, you want to stay sharp; you’re in the desert now!
Possibly the most photographed feature in the park, Balanced Rock is a must see. The 7 mile primitive road to the trailhead is a bit tricky. Go slow, especially if your vehicle doesn’t have great clearance.
The trail itself is about 1 mile and very flat before coming to a bit of a rock scramble to the viewing area. The scramble is well marked and maintained. Once you get to the top, hop around the boulder field and enjoy the view. Make sure to walk through Balanced Rock and look at the wide-open valley beyond. Oh, and if you see the cairn I assembled on the other side, please take a picture and send it to me. But seriously….
Lost Mine Peak
Lost Mine Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park, and for good reason. The peak waiting atop gives you a 360 degree view of the Chisos Mountains. Sunrise is a fantastic time to do this hike, as the rising sun casts amazing light onto the rocky features as morning light spills into the valley. You’ll have to wake up early and walk up the moderately strenuous 4.8 mile (roundtrip) trail in the dark if you want to get to the peak before the sun rises to set up your shot. We started around 5:15am and it took us a little over an hour to get to the summit. It was well worth it, and getting there early also helps avoid mid-day heat and trail traffic!
Santa Elena Canyon
Although it’s way out in the less-populated area of Castolon, Santa Elena is a must see for photographers. The trail to the canyon is surprisingly short and simple. Go early in the morning and the morning light will flood the canyon. It’s a landscape photographer’s dream to be honest. But beware of the sand near the water’s edge, it’s deep and mucky. I tried to get as close to the edge of the water as I could without getting wet and sank to my knees in mud instead. After rinsing my boots in the water and changing shoes, it was a quick hike up a bunch of stairs to the midsection of the cliff. If you decide to go to the end of the trail, there’s a perfect little beach to go for a dip in the river.
The Rio Grande Village hot spring has been a (get ready for the pun) hotspot for decades. If you go early enough in the morning or late enough at night, it won’t be crowded for getting scenic photos.
The natural spring itself is an infinity pool into the Rio Grande River, overlooking Mexico. There isn’t a more surreal scene on Earth. If you get too hot, hop in the river to cool off! If you’re feeling daring, swim to the other side for a quick trip to Mexico. But you didn’t hear that from me….
Rio Grande Overlook
This is the best kept secret in the park, in my humble opinion. A lady named Sue at the Rio Village Visitor Center was kind enough to bestow this tidbit of information on us.
If you take the Hot Springs Foot Trail (NOT THE DRIVING ROAD FROM THE MAIN ROAD!), hike 15 minutes up the trail to the top of the ridge. Instead of continuing on the trail, go left and hug the rim of the canyon. This will set you up for an unbelievable view of the Rio Grande. We were fortunate enough to get up there just in time to see several feral horses sipping water from the Rio Grande down below.
The trail to the spring is 3 miles one way, but it’s only 0.25 miles to this area and takes about 15 minutes to get to. Be sure to go in the late afternoon to take advantage of golden hour as well as the sunset. Bust as mentioned before, don’t forget to turn around and you’ll see the Sierra del Carmens catching the evening glow, turning them a dark pink color.
Pull off at mile marker 15 & ¾ toward Rio Village for a perfect spot to see the most stars you’ll ever see in your life. There is a stargazing seminar that takes place a couple times per month that I’d highly recommend. It’s free and the expert guides you through the night sky so you can pick out constellations on your own. Check out the visitor center to figure out when the next one is.
Big Bend has almost zero light pollution, making it a prime venue for astrophotography. Some of the backcountry campsites (we stayed at Grapevine Hills #3) provide a perfectly dark area to get those startrails and timelapses of the beautiful night sky.
There are tons of desert and mountain animals to be spotted throughout the park, but not all are guaranteed finds, so be ready to get the shot if the opportunity arises.
Jackrabbits are common, especially in the evening, near the major roads. In fact, some of them are downright suicidal, hopping in front of your car at the last second. Fortunately we never hit any but it’d certainly be easy to if you’re not paying careful attention to the road.
Roadrunners are also very common, mostly in the Rio Village and Chisos Basin campgrounds.
Coyotes can be spotted from time to time in the desert regions of the park
Ringtail Miner’s Cats are fairly uncommon, nocturnal creatures. We managed to spot 2, but they were too quick to snap a photo. Always have that telephoto lens handy!
Mountain Lion sightings are also uncommon, since there are only about 24 in the park. We never saw any but tracks along some of the Chisos trails proved that they’re not far from reach. Be careful.
Black Bears inhabit the mountain regions of the park and are frequently spotted in the spring. If you see one, don’t run. Act bigger than it, make noise, and most importantly, take a picture!
Well, this concludes my rundown of spots worth photographing in Big Bend National Park. Like I said, this is merely from my personal experience and there’s a ton that we left untouched. So there’s definitely more spots worth checking out. In fact, if you’ve been yourself and have any insights to add, feel free to add it into the comment section below to help your fellow photographer friends have a blast getting photos in the park!