The desert landscape in Big Bend National Park in Texas is a great place to watch a sunset. But there’s also a lot more to the park than waiting for sundown.

Its name is derived from where it’s located at the bend of Rio Grande river that separates the U.S. from Mexico. In one section of the park, you can cross the river and you’re technically in Mexico — but steep canyons prevent access from either side.

Tourists visited the park in record numbers in 2021. It marked a 49% increase since 2016, with 581,000 recreational visits to Big Bend National Park in 2021, per the National Park Service.

What is Big Bend National Park known for?

The park “contains the most representative example of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem in the United States,” according to the National Park Service. Inside the park, you can see sea fossils, dinosaur bones and volcanic dikes.

More than 100 miles of paved roads meander throughout Big Bend National Park, so it’s a big park with lots to explore.

Being located in Texas, the park gets above 100-degree temperatures in the summer, so the best time to visit for comfort is between November and April, Conde Nast reported.

The park is often referred to as “three parks in one,” because it has three distinct environments: desert, mountain and river, according to Thrillist.

Here are some of the top things to do during your visit to the park.

Big Bend National Park on Mar. 3, 2021. Big Bend offers three environment experiences in one — desert, river and mountains. | Sarah Gambles, Deseret News

What to do in Big Bend National Park

Scenic drives

With so many paved roads, going on a scenic drive is a great option for what to do in Big Bend. If you can, try to be in the park close to sunset or sunrise — that’s when the park really shines, and there are few things as magnificent as a Texas sunset.

Here are some of the best drives.

  • Chisos Basin Road | 6 miles: A great opportunity to see the transition from desert to mountain habitats.
  • Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive | 30 miles: You can see Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Overlook and Tuff Canyon to get a glimpse of staggering volcanic rocks.
  • Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village | 21 miles: This drive is a great place do bird-watching.

Water tour

There are five river canyons where visitors can kayak or canoe, per Visit Big Bend. You can bring your own equipment or book an excursion through the National Park System. Depending on how high the water is, the rivers typically offer flows that are easy to navigate for beginners and intermediate skilled kayakers.

Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most beautiful and must-do hikes in Big Bend National Park. This view of the park was on Mar. 3, 2021. | Sarah Gambles, Deseret News

Hiking

According to Conde Nast, Big Bend has more than 200 miles of trails you can hike on, so there’s lots of different levels to choose from for you and your family.

  • Moderate 4.8 mile hike: Chimneys Trail is a must to enjoy the Chihuahuan Desert — it offers volcanic formations and petroglyphs on one of the chimneys, per Thrillist.
  • Easy 1.7 mile walk: the Santa Elena Canyon is where you can see spectacular views walking in the water in between the canyon walls.

Rio Grande Village area natural hot spring

There are natural hot springs that hit 105 degrees located close to parking. There’s also a scenic trail that offers “some incredible views out over the Rio Grande and mountains” on a 0.75 mile hot springs loop, according to Planetware.