This is the second post in our short series on Big Bend National Park. Stay tuned for more, and check out our first post here.
There are four developed campgrounds within Big Bend National Park: Cottonwood, Rio Grande Village, Rio Grande Village RV, and Chisos Basin. We stayed at Cottonwood first and then moved to Rio Grande Village, but I’ll provide some information on all four campgrounds, as well as on nearby amenities and services.
Cottonwood is located in the southwestern corner of the park near the river and the border with Mexico. While there is no river access at the campground, there are excellent views of sheer Mexican canyon walls – absolutely breathtaking. Cottonwood is the best place to stay in order to access and explore the western side of the park, which includes the popular Santa Elena Canyon, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and many historical areas within the park. We really enjoyed this side of the park, and I personally preferred it to the eastern side. There is a ton of good hiking, lots to see along the scenic drive, and it seemed overall quieter and less-visited than the eastern side (though, the entire park wasn’t too busy during our eight-day stay); also, the entire border with Mexico on this side of the park is with a large protected area, and the canyon walls are so steep and sheer that illegal border-crossings are not a concern, which makes for more pleasant hiking near the river.
Cottonwood campground is open year-round, though we wouldn’t recommend it in the summer due to the heat of the desert. It was great in spring, as large cottonwood trees provide ample shade; grass also surrounds the gravel drives. We loved the campground because it’s small and quiet, with only 24 sites and no generators allowed. None of the sites are reservable, so arrive during the week, if possible, and early in the day. The cost while we were there was $14/night. The campground has pit toilets, potable/running water, and your standard grills, bear boxes, and picnic tables at each site, and not much else – no hook-ups and no dump station. It seemed to be a popular weekend destination for tent campers and RVers alike, as well as a preferred spot for bird-watchers (some of whom camped there and some of whom did not). We did enjoy watching our share of roadrunners, hawks, and owls.
The Castolon Visitor Center (closed in summer), picnic area, and store (open year-round) are nearby, all located in the historic Castolon area of the park. The historic, preserved store sells a few high-priced groceries and some general supplies, gear, and souvenirs.
After our first four nights in the park, we moved to Rio Grande Village in order to empty our tanks (aka: dump) and to be closer to the Chisos Mountains Basin and the eastern side of the park, both of which have some great hiking as well. This campground is located in the southeastern corner of the park, which is also adjacent to the river and the border with Mexico. While the campground is quite protected and removed from the border, there are hiking trails on the eastern side of the park where there is potential to see folks from a nearby tiny Mexican village crossing the river illegally to sell trinkets and/or their musical talents (more on this in a later post), which made some of the trails near the river less remote and peaceful.
Rio Grande Village campground, like Cottonwood, is grassy and set in a large cottonwood grove, which provides some shade. The elevation is a little less here than at Cottonwood, so it tends to be a little warmer. It’s also open year-round, but again, we wouldn’t recommend it in the summer unless you plan to spend all of your days in the mountains and just come back to the campground to sleep, which would be a feasible option given the location of the campground (it’s closer to the Basin than Cottonwood). Rio Grande Village is a much larger campground with 100 campsites, 43 of which are reservable in the winter season only (11/15-4/15); it’s first-come, first-served the rest of the year. There is a generator-free zone, which has even shadier and more private sites; however, we couldn’t fit easily into any of the available sites due to driveway configurations and low-hanging trees. The occasional generator noise in the main part of the campground didn’t bother us (folks aren’t allowed to run them after 8 p.m. anyway), and we found that we had really nice views that we would’ve missed out on in the generator-free zone.
The price here was also $14/night with more amenities than Cottonwood, including flush toilets, potable/running water, and overhead picnic shelters at some sites. A dump station, camp store, and gas station are also nearby. The concession-run store (open year-round) has a wider selection of groceries, pay-showers, reasonably priced laundry, and Wi-Fi. The Visitor Center, with a picnic area, is closed in summer. There is also an amphitheater within walking distance of the campground, and we enjoyed a great interpretative ranger talk here one night.
The Rio Grande Village RV campground is located beside the store area and is run through a third-party concessionaire. It’s open year-round, has 25 sites and full hook-ups (water, electric, sewer); sites were $33/night for two people, with an extra $3 per person after the first two occupants. Five sites are first come, first-served; the rest are reservable. There is no shade here – just a paved lot with a small space for each RV.
I’ll note here that obviously, no tents are allowed in the RV park. From everything we saw, all the sites at Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village are large enough to accommodate both an mid-sized RV and a tent (or several).
The Chisos Basin in the mountains offers the most amenities, services, and options. All of the mountain hiking trails are accessible from the basin area. There is a year-round Visitor Center, store (with some groceries but fewer options than at Rio Grande Village), gift shop, picnic area, amphitheater, and Wi-Fi. There is a lodge (Chisos Mountains Lodge) and restaurant here as well. The lodge seems fairly basic but nice; we don’t know much about the rooms other than they have small in-room refrigerators. There are also some cottages near the lodge. We ate at the restaurant only once and the food seemed average; they do have some local beers on tap and a nice looking bar. Otherwise, the restaurant is basic and fairly small, though it does have great views of the mountains and the southwestern side of the park (note: because the wall of windows faces southwest, it’s quite warm and sunny inside).
Most important, the road into Chisos Basin isn’t recommended for RVs longer than 24’ or for trailers longer than 20’ because of the curves and grades. After driving it in the truck, we agree with this recommendation!
The campground at Chisos Basin has an elevation of over 5,000’ and is open year-round. It’s the ideal place in the park for camping in the summer. We wouldn’t recommend it in winter, late fall, or early spring; even when we were there in late April, the low temperatures got down into the 30’s a couple of nights – we talked to some campers who said they got so cold that they ended up sleeping in their car. From what we saw, there isn’t much shade at the campground, but most (if not all) picnic tables are covered. The sites are small, so most are probably RV only or tent only, but you may be able to fit both if you get creative. There are 60 sites, 26 of which are reservable during the winter season (11/15-4/15); price is the same as the other two campgrounds ($14/night). A dump station, flush toilets, and potable/running water are available at the campground, but no hook-ups.
Beyond the developed campgrounds, there are tons of options for backcountry camping as well, including primitive roadside camping and backpacking sites. I’ll provide just a little bit of information on these options, as we didn’t do any backcountry camping ourselves. The primitive roadside sites are along unpaved roads in the desert and along the river. Given their location and the fact that generator use isn’t allowed for AC, I wouldn’t recommend these for summertime, late spring, or early fall camping. I would recommend a high-clearance vehicle for reaching most of the roadside sites; however, there were a couple we looked at that would have been accessible with our RV in tow. Backpacking campsites are located throughout the park, including in the Chisos Mountains and in the valley below (i.e. in the desert and along the river). Overnight permits, sold in person at park visitor centers, are required for any backcountry camping and can be used for up to 14 consecutive nights; at the time we were there, a permit cost $10.
Lastly, park headquarters are located at Panther Junction, which is a little less than 30 miles from either park entrance. There is a ranger station, small store, and gas station located here. You’ll also see signs at this junction indicating whether each campground is full or has availability.
We love hearing from you, so please comment or shoot us an e-mail if you have any questions, comments, or further unofficial recommendations regarding the basics of Big Bend NP!