Big Bend National Park (Part 3: West Side, Santa Elena Canyon & Terlingua)

The West side of Big Bend shares some features with the East side in the way of the Rio Grande, canyons and desert hikes.  There are, however, two features that set this area apart:  first, Santa Elena Canyon which you kayak or canoe; second, more historical areas than the rest of the park.  Castolon is home to this area’s small camp store, a seasonal visitor center and several historical buildings.  They even have a small exhibit set up to tell the story of some of the park’s inhabitants.  Camping is available at nearby Cottonwood campground, but no hook-ups, no dump station and no generators are permitted at these sites.  Let’s take a closer look at this area’s features…

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive:  This drive is a 30 mile stretch of road taking you from Castolon/Santa Elena Junction to Castolon.  This is the only paved road on the way to Santa Elena Canyon, so you can’t miss it.  While all the roads in the park offer outstanding views, this scenic drive has some of the grandest.  From Sotol Vista to Mule Ears, there are plenty of pull-offs to allow you to take in all the natural features of the land.  Remains of the Sam Nail and Homer Wilson ranches are also along this road.

Castolon, Big Bend NP

Some of the historical buildings at Castolon.

Castolon, Big Bend NP






Sam Nail Ranch. Big Bend NP

Sam Nail Ranch

Homer Wilson Ranch. Big Bend National Park

Homer Wilson Ranch

Santa Elena Canyon:  A crown jewel of the West side of the park, these canyon walls soar up to 1500 feet above the Rio Grande.  Santa Elena is one of the best places to watch the sunrise and sunset in the park.  The river is deep enough here to allow for canoeing/kayaking excursions, and outfitters can be found in Terlingua and Study Butte just outside of the park’s West entrance.  There is a less than 2 mile round trip hike that takes you from the riverbed up into the canyon.  The steep climb is lessened by meandering switchbacks on the trail.  As you can see in the photos below, Santa Elena is a must for any Big Bend trip…Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend NP

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend NP

Santa Elena Trail

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend NP

From inside the canyon.

Terlingua Ghost Town:  When we made our way over to the West side of the park, we stayed outside of the park in Terlingua/Study Butte.  There are multiple RV parks to choose from, and there is even a general store to stock up on groceries.  Part of the draw for Terlingua is the Ghost town portion.  The ghost town sits about 4 miles West of the main town, and there are plenty of road signs to direct you to it.  What is named the ghost town is actually a town where modern restaurants, art galleries and shops mix with the abandoned ruins of an old cimarron mining town.  Although not what I would call a true ghost town, it was a fun area to explore and added to our experience at Big Bend.  There is a small, traditional cemetery there as well dating back to the mining town.  The cemetery is still in use, and some of the locals do celebrate the Day of the Dead (traditional Mexican holiday in remembrance of those who have passed on).Terlingua Ghost Town, Texas Terlingua Ghost Town, Texas

Night Sky:  Big Bend also offers one of the darkest night skies in the lower 48.  Make sure you take advantage and do some nighttime viewing.  The below photo of a map was shown at one of the visitor center’s in the park.  I wasn’t kidding when I said this place is remote!!!Dark sky map of U.S. featuring Big Bend National Park

Alas, our time in Big Bend has come to an end.  Let’s say farewell together with this video…

Big Bend Part 1:  East Side & Rio Grande Village

Big Bend Part 2:  The Chisos Mountains

Big Bend National Park - Exploration and Visiting Tips, Plus camping information!

About Jen

I love travel, which led me to become a fulltime RVer. I love wellness, which I can talk about 'til the cows come home. I love being self-employed, which means I get to dabble in what interests me from essential oils to RV planners. But most importantly, I love my husband and our life together on the road!

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