Big Bend National Park Photography Guide
Big Bend National Park in the USA has a wonderful array of wildlife and landscapes to satiate any nature photographer!
In this Big bend National Park photography guide, we will look at my favorite times of year to go, and where the best photography locations are.
Where is Big Bend National Park
Driving from one end of Texas to the other along Interstate 10 without stopping takes about 12 hours – longer if you want to eat and fuel up.
About 3 hours from the western border, a smaller highway heads south for 2.5 hours, winding its way to Big Bend National Park.
This remote gem of Texas is a destination, not a quick stopover.
The name comes from a big bend in the Rio Grande River – the boundary between Texas and Mexico.
This gem of Texas covers 1,252 square miles (2014km2), and 98% of the land is desert filled with all things that want to prick, poke, or bite you. The nearest hospital is 90 miles (144km) away.
Read more: Best Places for Photography in Texas
Big Bend National Park history
40 to 60 million years ago, the Chisos Mountains rose in volcanic fury from what once was an ocean floor. Now, what’s left of these crumbling mountains fits entirely within the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert.
The high point of the Chisos, Emory Peak, climbs 7,825ft (2385 meters) into the west Texas sky and offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape.
And that landscape is about as varied as land can be, ranging from the warm flowing waters of the Rio Grande River to the lofty and craggy Chisos Mountains with their remnant groves of Big Tooth Maple and Aspen trees sprinkled in hidden corners.
It is not even far-fetched for snow to fall once or twice each winter.
Best time to visit Big Bend National Park
My favorite time of year in the Big Bend is springtime. As the temperatures become warmer, prickly pear begins to bloom, showing colorful displays of red, orange, and pink flowers.
If rains fall, various types of small flowers spring up and can create a blanket of color on the desert floor.
Some years, even the Texas state wildflower, the bluebonnet, shows its blooms.
In 2019, when the best of weather and temperature conditions synced over the course of winter and spring, a “superbloom” of bluebonnets colored the desert and slopes of the Chisos in blankets of blue. Old-timers I talked with said they’d never seen its equal.
Plants of Big Bend National Park
This rugged area offers a diverse array of plants and animals.
For vegetation, cacti are foremost on the list, ranging from the beautiful blooms of prickly pear and strawberry cacti to other prickly plants that come in all shapes and sizes.
One thing they have in common is their ability not only to stick you with spines but also to affect you for hours with stinging and itching. Watch out!
Also, tree-like yucca and spindly ocotillo are everywhere in the desert, and their blooms add a splash of color each spring and summer.
Up in the mountains, juniper, various pine tree species, as well as other trees make up the 2% of the park that is not desert.
Each fall, pockets of red and orange and gold spring up along trails, especially along the Pinnacles Trail south of the centrally located Chisos Lodge – the only non-camping overnight option in the park that books out a year in advance.
Read more: 6 Tips for Photographing Flowers
Big Bend National Park wildlife
Along with an endless mix of scrub, plants, and trees, wildlife lurks around every cactus.
I’ve heard it said by park rangers that no matter where you are in the park, you are always in the territory of at least one mountain lion.
Fortunately, I’ve only seen one of these powerful predatory cats, and that was about 30 seconds after arriving back in my truck after an off-trail hike across a barren landscape at night!
Encounters with Mexican black bears are more common, and I’ve seen a mother with her cubs several times during springtime visits, and at least one bear in every one of my 15-plus trips.
Javelinas (collared peccary) are wild hogs that roam around, and those sightings are frequent. Bobcats, foxes, coyotes, rabbits, elk, deer, and many more mammals, as well as an array of local and migratory birds, call Big Bend home.
Read more: How to Photograph Fast-moving Mammals
Top 7 locations in Big Bend National Park
Here are some of my favorite places to hike and photograph.
1. Lost Mine Trail
Best bang for your buck
This trail is an easily accessible trail – only a 3-minute drive from the Chisos Lodge in the middle of the park. The hike is a 5-mile round trip.
The 2.5 miles up (4km) is a slow and steady ascent. About one mile in, Juniper Valley opens up to the south along the trail for a beautiful (and brief) view before the trail turns and keeps traveling upwards.
After another good grunt, you’ll eventually reach a place where you can go no further except over a boulder and down a cliff. Don’t do that!
Instead, enjoy the views of Casa Grande (the second-highest point in the park) and the sweeping views of the canyon that stretch all the way to Mexico. I much prefer sunset here, especially for photography.
A wide-angle such as a 16-35mm is perfect, though I have dabbled with a 24-105mm a few times.
A few photographer friends of mine like sunrise here, but I prefer the way the sun falls behind Casa Grande and, with accommodating clouds, that last light really puts on a colorful show.
Of course, if you stay for the light show, you’ll often have the rocky plateau all to yourself, but be sure to bring a flashlight or two for the walk home, and make noise as you travel down in the dark so as not to spook a bear.
The bears are generally docile but they do not like surprises!
Read more: 15 Best Cameras for Landscape Photography
2. Santa Elena Canyon
Best canyon access
Santa Elena, Big Bend’s most famous canyon, sits at the west end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
The Rio Grande River has cut the canyon over eons of time.
While the canyon is impressive with its 1,500’ tall walls (457 meters) – one cliff in Mexico and the other in Texas – it is, in a way, low-hanging fruit because many tourists stop here, take a few Instagram shots and head out.
However, if you arrive for sunrise or sunset, most crowds will be gone and the light can be stunning.
A small trail near the exit of the canyon (what you’ll see as you take the trail down to the Rio Grande from the parking lot) leads high up into the rocky cliffs.
From this point, the views looking back east towards the Chisos, in my opinion, make amazing images.
Conversely, from the sandy beaches along the Rio Grande far below, the perspective up towards the canyon offers a chance to capture the canyon walls glowing orange in the morning light.
If you choose to make the short hike up, the trail continues on another 0.7 miles (1.1km) and eventually ends.
In the evening, the last light sometimes descends at angles through the canyon in rays of beautiful color while the walls of the canyon fade in darkness.
Read more: Golden Hour Photography – A Landscape Photographer’s Guide
3. West End of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Best place for spring wildflowers
From end to end, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive winds around and up and down for 30 miles (49km).
Near the west end of the road before arriving at Santa Elena Canyon, Cerro Castellan, a red-rocked peak at 3,294ft (1004 meters) rises alone in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Along the western slopes of this mountain during rainy springtime, blooms of all colors can show up.
From bluebonnets to the red, orange, and pink flowers of the prickly pear cacti, purple petals of verbena, to other desert flowers, this area can be full of vibrancy.
If the flowers are not blooming, yucca and cacti still make nice foregrounds in the evening when the low light of sunset turns the rock of Cerro Castellan a deep orange.
In this area, I usually use a 16-35mm or 11-24mm lens.
Read more: How to Photograph Wildflowers
4. The Window
Easiest iconic view
Just outside the Chisos Lodge, the view of the Window – two mountain ridges that converge to form a “V” and frame the Chihuahuan Desert in the distance with their cliffs – is just a few steps from the parking lot.
Sunrise or sunset are both good, depending on if you want the sun at your front or back, and the morning light can light up the distant rocky slopes.
For lenses, a longer lens will allow for zooming in for a tighter view of the “V” while a wider angled lens allows for potential foreground subjects such as flowers or prickly pear cacti to be anchors in the image.
For images like the one described above, I often take an exposure focused on my foreground object as well as an exposure focused on the distant mountains. That way I can blend the two together to ensure sharpness throughout the final image.
If you are looking for a nice hike, the trail to the Window Pouroff (where water plunges over smooth rock into the valley below) runs 3 miles (4.8km) each way to this point and offers vertigo-inducing views.
The rock is worn and slippery, so proceed with caution at the end. And remember, the 3 miles down to the pouroff is easy, but you have to make the ascent back up!
Read more: 8 Best Lenses for Landscape Photography
5. Balanced Rock
Best photography hike for families
Balanced Rock is an unusual rock formation found in the Grapevine Hills area at the end of a relatively easy 1.25 mile (2km) trail. The road leading out is bumpy, and a 4WD is recommended.
The first mile of the trail is flat and follows a wash between two boulder-filled cliffs. The rocks along this path are often as big as cars and make for interesting photography subjects if you’re willing to explore various angles.
After a mile, the trail scrambles up and around before leading you straight into a large horizontal egg-shaped boulder held up by two other large rocks on either side.
So many options exist here for shooting various angles. I’ve enjoyed scrambling up the cliff to the west and shooting back down at Balanced Rock and the distant hills.
A short telephoto lens could be used, such as a 24-105mm. Up close, I’ve used a super wide angle – 11-24mm – to capture the striations in the rock as well as the formation itself.
If you are a Milky Way enthusiast, the Milky Way in late February and March is amazing from this location. The dark skies are the best in the US.
Read more: Composition Tips – Leading Lines and Vanishing Points
6. Emory Peak/South Rim
Best place for the adventurer
If you want breathtaking views, the South Rim delivers. This hike starts at the Chisos Lodge and works its way across the Chisos Mountains over 12-15 miles (19-23km) and 2,000 vertical feet (610m), depending on which route is taken.
Most folks make the loop, heading out on either the Laguna Meadows Trail and returning on the steeper Pinnacles Trail, or vice versa.
To earn bonus points, a one-mile spur breaks off the Pinnacles Trail and climbs up to Emory Peak, the tallest point in the park.
This extra mile is, in my opinion, the most difficult part because of the rocky terrain and Class 3 scramble at the top.
Still, the 360-degree views at the summit are incredible, especially at sunset.
If you’ve already made your way to the South Rim and choose to climb Emory Peak, then it is only 5 miles back to the trailhead from the top.
If you are hiking to the South Rim and make the Emory Peak detour, return the mile back to the main trail.
The South Rim is a few more miles of relatively easy hiking from that point. And from the 1,000ft tall cliffs (304m), the views down towards the Rio Grande and Mexico will not soon be forgotten.
Most hikers that make it to the South Rim choose to camp, but the trek can be a long day trip, as well.
I’ve hiked out to this point, photographed sunset as well as the Milky Way, then made the long grunt back in the wee hours of the morning.
I don’t mind saying everything looks different in the dark, and unfamiliar sounds and shadows have a way of making me walk more quickly!
Preferred lenses for this area range from 11mm to 105mm, depending on your interest.
Search along the cliff rim and foreground opportunities such as yucca or cacti might catch your eye, as well. In April and May, the prickly pear may be blooming, adding color to an incredible vista.
For this hike, be sure to bring a lot of water or other liquid. Also, be aware the northeast and southeast portions of this trail are closed each spring for Peregrine Falcon nesting.
Read more: The Best Equipment for Landscape Photography
7. Mariscal Canyon and Hot Springs Canyon
First, Hot Springs Canyon is an easy walk 3 miles (4.8km) one-way along a path that follows the Rio Grande River between The Rio Grande Village and the famous Hot Springs.
This area is located on the east side of the park.
Both morning and evening are great times to shoot using any length of lens. The path winds up and down and curves with the river, so I’d suggest walking the trail in the late afternoon, then picking a perfect spot for sunset.
After that, find a good rock and enjoy the last light of day. Maybe even push the shutter a few times while the sun falls behind the mountains.
I usually park in either the Hot Springs area or the Rio Grande Village, hike about 1.5 miles, shoot at sunrise or sunset, then return to the car, making my trek a total of about 3 miles.
Next, Mariscal Canyon is much more of an adventure. It is located in a remote region of the park that is only accessible with a good, sturdy 4wd car and a spare tire.
For this location, I actually rented a jeep from Far Flung Adventures (located in Terlingua) to make the bumpy drive to the trailhead.
This dirt road took about 2 hours to cover the 30-plus miles, and I passed several cars that had flat tires.
After arriving at the trailhead, a faint trail heads east before petering out. From that point, cairns (piles of rock) mark the way over 3.5 miles of the desert as the path rises 1,000 feet above the Rio Grande.
You’ll eventually know when you’ve arrived at the deep canyon and precarious cliffs, but the views are unforgettable.
If you go for sunset, take several flashlights and move slowly on the way back to the trailhead as you may encounter bears, mountain lions, or javelinas. I’d always advise traveling with a partner in these remote areas.
Read more: How to Photograph Deserts
While these destinations are some of my favorite places in Big Bend, I’m really just scratching the surface of what this remote national park has to offer.
Even arriving here presents a long journey. From Austin or San Antonio, the drive takes about 7 hours. From Dallas, the drive is around 9 hours, and from El Paso it takes almost 6 hours.
Interstate 10 is the main east-west highway that drops you off in Fort Stockton, and after that, it is still 2.5 hours south on small state highways with relatively little internet coverage.
When you arrive inside the park, the only cell coverage you’ll find is around the Chisos Lodge, and that can be sparse.
Nevertheless, the effort has its rewards – open highways, endless vistas of ancient mountains and rugged desert terrain, red-orange rock and flowering cacti.
After more than 15 visits, I still keep coming back and I still find new areas to explore.