One of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park is driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at the western end of the park. On this scenic drive, you’ll see a ton of the park’s highlights throughout the Chihuahuan Desert landscape, including stunning vista points, amazing hiking trails, and beautiful historic buildings.
The 30.0 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive leads to Sam Nail Ranch and Homer Wilson Ranch, the Castolon Historic District and Visitor Center, and ends at the Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande.
We drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive between Burro Mesa and the Chisos Mountains on our first day in Big Bend National Park and stopped at pretty much every viewpoint and roadside pullout along the way. It was incredible. We were able to see a variety of habitats and examples of the park’s diverse geology.
Ross Maxwell Drive is named for geologist Ross Maxwell, Big Bend National Park’s first superintendent who served from 1944-1952. When Maxwell began as superintendent, he supervised four employees and had an annual operating budget of $15,000. At the time, the park had no paved roads, no electricity, and the nearest telephone was 100 miles away. While superintendent, Maxwell laid out the route named in his honor to highlight the more spectacular geologic features on the west side of the park.
Here are the best things to do and see on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend National Park:
Sam Nail Ranch
Sam Nail Ranch is one of the many homesteads once active in Big Bend. Remnants of the ranch remain along the 0.5 mile Sam Nail Ranch Trail, including a windmill that still pumps water.
Fins of Fire Vista Point
The spines of dark rock marching across the desert floor are called dikes. Contemporaries of the Chisos Mountains, these outcrops are evidence of the most recent igneous activity in the area.
The Fins Of Fire seen from this viewpoint rose from deep magma chambers through fissures 17 million years ago. Over time, softer surrounding rock weathered away, leaving igneous dikes silhouetted across the landscape.
Like great stone fences, dikes can be traced for miles across the park — reminders of the molten world beneath the quiet desert surface below.
Homer Wilson Ranch
Blue Creek Ranch Overlook provides a sweeping view of Blue Creek Valley and the operational center of the Homer Wilson Ranch. The ranch was one of the largest in Texas, and the most significant ranch in Big Bend before the establishment of Big Bend National Park.
The Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch Trail is a 0.5 mile out and back trail to a small ranch house in Blue Creek Valley that totals 1.0 mile.
Sotol Vista Overlook
Sotol Vista Overlook is a stunning vista point high above the desert floor that has a large paved parking lot with a vault restroom. From the scenic viewpoint, you have a breathtaking view of the entire western side of Big Bend National Park, including magnificent Santa Elena Canyon and the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the distance.
Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail
Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail is an easy 0.5 mile out and back trail that totals 1.0 mile and gains 120 feet elevation. It leads into a hidden box canyon with a giant pour-off. Here water has carved a deep channel into Burro Mesa as it plunged 100 feet to the base.
Goat Mountain Viewpoint
The Goat Mountain Viewpoint is not much more than a roadside pullout with a short ramp up to an observation area with an interpretive sign and majestic views of Goat Mountain in the Sierra Quemada in the southern Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.
Goat Mountain has two peaks with a steep gully between them. The eastern peak stands 4,625 feet tall and the western peak reaches 4,540 feet tall. It isn’t a destination for many tourists — there are no trails on or around it — but for geologists, it provides an outstanding look at the volcanic activity in the area that occurred around 35 million years ago.
Mule Ears Viewpoint
Mule Ears Viewpoint is a scenic vista point along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive with gorgeous views of the Mule Ears Peaks. Named for their resemblance to mule ears that stand up straight, Mule Ears Peaks are made of black igneous rock that was once part of a volcano. The viewpoint is a great place for a picnic lunch and if you pose your kids just right, you can make it look like they have mule ears!
Mule Ears Spring Trail is a moderate, 3.8 mile round trip hike with an 880 foot elevation gain that begins at the Mule Ears Overlook parking area.
This hike leads through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains, skirts Trap Mountain, and crosses several arroyos. At the end of the trail is a stone corral and just past that is Mule Ears Spring, which is overgrown with shrubs like ferns and cattails. Near the spring are the ruins of an old stone building and remnants of a pipe leading to the spring. While the spring water is clean and drinkable, it only trickles in dry months.
The deep and narrow Tuff Canyon was carved out of soft volcanic tuff and is easily observed from three viewing platforms above or by hiking the Tuff Canyon Trail into the gorge.
Tuff Canyon Trail is a fairly easy, 0.75 mile round trip hike that begins at the Tuff Canyon Overlook near the south end of the parking lot. It descends into the soft white-walled canyon made of welded volcanic ash into the typically dry bed of Blue Creek.
Castolon Visitor Center
Castolon, also known as La Harmonia Ranch and Campo Santa Elena, was established in the early Twentieth Century and later served as the headquarters of the La Harmonia Company. Today, the Big Bend National Park Castolon Visitor Center is located in the historic La Harmonia store building.
Land of Distances Vista Point
The vast distances viewed through the clean skies of Big Bend have long been one of the defining qualities of this unique desert land. From the roadside pullout, follow the gravel trail to the top of a low knoll and an informational sign about the “Land Of Distances.”
The sweeping panoramic views from this vista point look north as far as the eye can see. Emory Peak rising one mile higher than this vista point can be seen 16 miles away.
The Dorgan-Sublett Trail, one of the newest trails in Big Bend National Park, is an out-and-back, 0.9 mile round-trip trail that passes three historic adobe and stone structures, all of which are part of the Rancho Estelle Historic District and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Santa Elena Canyon Overlook
The Santa Elena Canyon Overlook is a scenic viewpoint directly off Ross Maxwell Drive with panoramic views of the canyon’s sheer limestone cliffs rising 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a moderate, 1.7 mile, round trip hike along the bend of the Rio Grande River into the Santa Elena Canyon. It is one of the best-known natural features of Big Bend National Park and one of the most popular and crowded places in the entire national park.
Know Before You Go
About the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive:
- The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30 mile adventure through the Chihuahuan Desert landscape of Big Bend National Park to the banks of the Rio Grande.
- Ross Maxwell Drive begins near the park’s Maverick Entrance and has many vista points, scenic pullouts, educational displays, and short hikes, as well as access to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon.
- If you only have one day at Big Bend National Park, this scenic drive will definitely give you the biggest bang for your buck — and you’ll still have time to visit the Chisos Basin or Drive out to Rio Grande Village or visit the Fossil Discovery Center.
About Big Bend National Park:
- Big Bend National Park is located in Brewster County, southwest Texas.
- The name Big Bend refers to the great U-turn the Rio Grande makes in Southwest Texas. The Rio Grande defines the park’s southern boundary for 118 miles.
- Park entrances are open 24 hours daily, all year. Entrance fee stations have variable seasons and hours.
- Admission fees are valid for seven days and are $30/vehicle, $25/motorcycle, $15/individual/bicyclist/pedestrian.
- There are five Visitor Centers in Big Bend National Park: Panther Junction, Chisos Basin, Castolon, Persimmon Gap, and Rio Grande Village.
- Download the Big Bend National Park maps.
- Big Bend National Park offers visitors more than 150 miles of hiking trails, including desert hikes in the Chihuahuan Desert, mountain hikes in the Chisos Mountains, and river hikes along the Rio Grande.
- Fishing is allowed in the Rio Grande with a free permit issued from a visitor center.
- Convenience stores are available and open year-round at Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin, and in the historic La Harmonia store at Castolon.
- Gas stations are located at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village, and outside the park in Study Butte and Stillwell’s Ranch. Diesel is available at Panther Junction and outside the park in Study Butte.
- Pets are not allowed on trails, off roads, or on the river. Your pet can only go where your car can go and must be on a leash no longer than six feet in length or in a cage at all times. Pet etiquette and park regulations require that you always clean up after your pet and dispose of waste in trash receptacles.