It is difficult to put an amount of days on this Texas road trip itinerary, so I will start off by saying that if your plan is to just drive across Texas, then you can do it in one day. From Houston to Big Bend, straight shot with minimum stops will be about 9-10 hours (600 miles).
For fellow travelers, road trippers and campers like me, here is my suggestion on how to take this trip and get the most out of your time on the road! This is definitely a trip for camping and nature buffs. That’s about all that is available to you West of San Antonio.
Once I finish with my suggestions on the main trip, I will include some side trips or add on trips you can make that are optional based on what time you have and how much you like to drive.
Day 1: Total Miles to drive – 368 (5.5 hours)
Start with getting on I-10; heading towards San Antonio. The drive will take 3 hours and in my opinion the most interesting thing on the way is Buc-ee’s Gas Station. There will be about 20 road signs with a beaver wearing a red baseball cap directing you to stop.
Stop 1: San Antonio, Texas
There is no shortage of things to do in San Antonio, you could spend 3 days in this city. Here is what I recommend for a leisurely time to break up your long drive.
Rio San Antonio River Cruise (included on the San Antonio Explore Pass)
This is a boat tour of the Riverwalk. Sit back and enjoy the announcer give a humorous presentation of the history of the Riverwalk as you glide slowly past century old cypress trees that line the river. It is a great way to take a quick tour of what is one of the best areas of the city.
*Alternate option: The Alamo
Just north of the Alamo, on Houston Street there is a great gem of a place called, The History Shop. The owner removed the flooring and dug down into the earth and uncovered all kinds of memorabilia from the battle of the Alamo. It’s free to go in and look around.
- Casa Rio at 430 E. Commerce St (Tex-Mex on the Riverwalk)
- Whataburger at 412 E Commerce St (cheap Burger joint)
- Tito’s at 955 South Alamo Street (authentic Mexican food)
Jump back onto I-10 West from wherever you finished up your visit and head out of town for your next stop, Sonora Texas. Sonora will be the halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend.
As you leave San Antonio, you will notice the change in landscape. This is the beginning of the Texas Hill Country. As you drive west, you get closer to what was once a mountain range the size of the Himalayas, the Ouachita Mountains. They are not here anymore, all that is left are rolling hills covered with sediment from the great inland sea that dominated this area millions of years ago. You can stop at some of these road cuts and pick up fossilized marine life as a result.
Stop 2: Early evening: Sonora, TX (overnight here)
Sonora is the half way point between San Antonio and Big Bend. The best part about stopping here for the night is that the next morning you can wake up and tour the Caverns of Sonora. It’s a small town, there are places to eat dinner so don’t worry about that. You can get BBQ, Mexican food. There are fast food options if you’re looking to save some money, such as Subway, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut and Sonic Drive-In.
There are hotels that range from $60-80/night. You can also camp on a real working ranch at the Caverns of Sonora site for about $15/night.Where to stay: Comfort Inn Sonora
Day 2: Total Miles to drive – 293 (4.25 hours)
Stop 1: Caverns of Sonora
These caverns are spectacular! The tour is 1.5 hours and the cost is well worth the cost. Make sure you wear comfy shoes, and dress accordingly as the cavern itself is almost 100% humidity. Once you are content with your time at Sonora you can begin your journey to the next stop, Fort Stockton.
Stop 2: Fort Stockton
Grab lunch at Taco’s OJ. I had the best enchilada and chile relleno of my life. I’ll remind you that is coming from someone who grew up by right by Mexico.
On the corner of Main St and Dickinson you can find a Giant Road Runner statue. It’s just an offbeat roadside attraction that you might as well pass by since it’s either on your way to Walmart or back to the highway.
An optional stop is the Annie Riggs Museum (a quaint museum that is an ode to a pioneer woman; Annie Riggs. She was twice divorced, a mother who bought and ran her own business, controlled cowboys and soldiers all while raising 10 children by herself).
Stop 3: Terlingua (Overnight)
You are not going to want to miss camping in Terlingua. It is one of the best places for star gazing. Add to that, the ghost town! This is what is wonderful about West Texas, you can’t make a wrong choice.
If you can, arrive in time to watch the sunset behind the Santa Fe de Los Pinos mountain range over 80 miles south in Mexico. Sunset information can be found on this website. Here are some hotel options:
- Terlingua Rentals offers refurbished 100 year old rooms inside the ghost town itself. Personally, I’d spend the extra money for that. They run anywhere from $100-$240/night, depending on size and occupancy.
- Retro Rents offers renovated streamliner $124/night for 2 persons there is one called “The Bachelor” that is $85/night for 1.
For food and nightlife you can check out the Starlight Theater, which offers the perfect ambiance.
Days 3-4: Total Miles to drive: 35 (1-1.5 hours)
Upon waking up in the morning, check out the ghost town itself as well as meet up with any outdoor tour company you may have made plans with. Then head into Big Bend National Park.
It would be very helpful to anyone looking to come to the park to visit the NPS website for Big Bend as there is abundant information about all the options you have regarding camping in developed sites vs back country sites vs lodging. In addition, it will provide weather alerts and give information on any closures of hiking trails due to bear activity or said weather. Yes, bears and mountain lions are also fans of Big Bend. Feel free to read up on what to do should you encounter them.
- Make sure you have enough cash to pay for your campsites; they are cash only.
- Restock on food in Terlingua if necessary as well as gas.
- Cottonwood and Chisos Basin do not have showers, so bring water for rinsing and body/face wipes.
- $12 per person for 7 days is the fee to enter the park.
Stop 1: Cottonwood Campground; Big Bend National Park (1-2 nights here)
Cottonwood Campground is a walk-in, tent-only site; no RVs or trailers are allowed. The campground has pit toilets, potable water, picnic tables and grills. There are no hookups or dump stations, and the use of generators is not allowed. Vehicle parking is restricted to an adjacent parking area.
There is a store on the small hill just above the campground that can sell you essentials and ice. It doesn’t have extended hours like a convenience store would, so make sure to keep that in mind.
Campgrounds are first come; first serve. Depending on the time of year, it may benefit you to show up no later than noon, in order to secure a spot. Payment is pretty rudimentary. Just pull into the campground, circle around and find the spot you like. Then walk back to the entrance where the information board is and get your envelope. On this you write your camp space #, how many people/nights you will be at the camp and simply place the corresponding cash into the envelope and drop into the drop box. You will also write duplicate information on a piece that is connected to the envelope which you tear off to display on the post by your campground. Rangers will come around daily and collect monies as well as monitor the area accordingly.
Here are the hikes we did as we camped in Cottonwood:
The links above will show you all the hikes that you can take while in the Cottonwood Campground. Browse through and find the ones you are comfortable with taking!
A very important note: This is the desert, it gets hot, so ALWAYS have water on you and make sure to definitely carry enough on your hikes. A hike in this area of Big Bend may not seem far, but there is zero shade, even if it is 80 degrees, that sun will make a round trip 4 mile hike will seem like a weeklong tromp through hell.
Day 5: Total Miles to drive – 35 (1-1.5 hours)
Stop 1: Chisos Basin Campground (1-2 nights here)
Getting there is easy, you will again drive down the Ross Maxwell Scenic road towards the junction that takes you to a ‘T’ in the road. Go left and you head back to Terlingua, turn right and you head towards Chisos Basin. Simply follow the signs.
There will be a gas station at one of the junctions, before you start driving up into the mountains. Once up in the mountains there will be lodging, camping, a visitor’s center and a restaurant.
This will be the highlight of the trip, so make sure if you are not visiting in the season where you can make reservations; that you are up there no later than 10:00 am to search out a spot. This is about the time people who are leaving will be packing up so you can call dibs and sit and wait or just find an open spot from those who left the night before. I was dreading this as we didn’t reserve a spot but in the end we showed up and had plenty of spots to choose from.
Stop 2: Hot Springs Historic Trail
Head back down the mountain for the scenic drive into Rio Grande Village Campsite. There’s a short; 0.5 mile round trip hiking trail that takes you past historic homesteads of the old west, pictographs, and a natural hot spring (~105 deg F) sitting literally right next to the Rio Grande River.
I would highly suggest not missing this! The road you turn off to get to the hot springs is said to be rugged. We were in a small Sudan and had zero issues making it down this road. It is not paved but rather caliche (the white; chalky looking rock) and it is not to be missed in my opinion. The drive off the main road is only about 1.5 miles through amazing rock formations. You will see where people are intended to park and just follow the signs. There is a Hot Springs Canyon Trail that is 6 miles round trip should you want that option. We simply took the shorter trail, right past the historic homesteads and pictographs to the spring for some relaxation.
What we did was hike to the spring and spend about an hour hopping back and forth between the spring and the Rio Grande River. There were about 6-7 people from other hiking groups and even a little garter snake who decided to wander past the trail through the reeds.
Once we had our share of the spring we put our clothes over our swim suits and decided to venture a little farther down the trail to explore. It is a nice walk and you can see some pretty unbelievable painted sandstone formations. These sandstones are purple, pink, orange and the colors all swirl together like they had been painted on with a brush and some watercolor.
Stop 3: Arrive at Rio Grande Village Campsite
After two nights and two days of hiking and no showers, we went into Rio Grande Village Campsite where there were showers that you can use for a very nominal fee. I wouldn’t spend too much time here, get yourself a nice warm shower, stock up on supplies and just head back slowly.
Stop 4: Chisos Basin Campground (Overnight)
Here is a link to the hiking trails up in the mountains. For your first night up in the basin, I would make sure to sit up at the lookout dock behind the visitor’s center and watch the most magnificent sunset through what they call, “The Window”. The paved walkway is called the “Window View Trail” and is 0.3 mi round trip. You will see signs pointing you in the general direction of where to go and you will know you are there as soon as you arrive!
The time you spend up in Chisos Basin depends on you. You can easily spend 3-4 extra days here doing all the hikes or just enjoying the night sky with its boundless stars.
After our first night, we woke up early the next day to do Emory Peak Trail. Not for the faint at hear, but we are certainly not professional hikers either. Plan accordingly and start early. I will continue about this below!
Day 6: Total miles – 0
We woke up early enough to have a good breakfast at our campsite before starting the Emory Peak Hike via Pinnacles Trail hike at 8 am. The hike is 9 miles round trip and is considered stenuous. After cleaning up, we went up to the visitors center, grabbed some coffee and extra water and began the long walk up.
The hike will start with wide open trail leading you up a slight grade. It is a rocky trail so I would recommend hiking boots for this one. Eventually the grade increases and you start with the switchbacks. It will be tough, there is a compost toilet at the end of Pinnacles Trail, after about 3.5 miles from the start. No matter how difficult it gets, take rests as needed, but keep going. The hardest part is the last quarter mile and should you want to; you can climb up the rock face to the absolute top of Emory Peak. There were two peaks at the top and one was just a bit higher making it the “official” highest point. It looked really difficult to climb up to even though I could see people were doing it. I decided not to push my luck and we opted to climb the less intimidating one. In the end, it made little difference. You get the most wonderful 360 degree view and it is tremendous! As you sit on top of the world you can look down at the visitor’s center to get a big picture of what you just accomplished.
After making it back to our car that was waiting patiently for us outside the visitor’s center, we rinsed off, changed out of our hiking boots and made ourselves presentable so that we could have a nice end of trip dinner at the wonderful restaurant that sits up in the mountains.
Day 7: Total Miles to drive – 599 (9-10 hours)
The 9 hour drive back to Houston seemed pretty daunting. We left camp around 8:00 and stopped in at Mi Tierra in the downtown area of San Antonio. If you do stop here for lunch, grab some Mexican pastries in their bakery area, and wander around the Mercado to stretch out your legs.
Optional things to incorporate into your road trip:
- Balmorhea State Park (You can include this on your drive to Big Bend. Instead of heading south from Fort Stockton, continue on I-10 to Balmorhea).
- Marfa, Texas (Marfa is a good option for those who are not doing a round trip back to Houston, but rather continuing West. This small town out in the middle of nowhere actually has a lot to offer. Here you find a bustling art scene with art installations that are world renowned, right in the middle of the desert).
- Lajitas/Presidio, Texas (This would be something you can include if you rather not camp/hike. You can simply stay 2-3 nights in Terlingua or break the stay up between Terlingua and Lajitas).
- Austin, Texas (If you do want to drive back to Houston but take your time and extend the trip, I suggest taking an alternate route that will take you through Austin instead of San Antonio).
Author: I’m Sabrina of Moon River Monologues. I am single, live in Houston, Texas and have one dog. I travel with the idea of being comfortable; yet working on a budget. I want to inform as much as I want to inspire. I have a lot of learning to do and I plan on sharing in that process from beginning to end.