Is Big Bend National Park Safe? Advice from a Park Ranger

Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail, Big Bend National Park.

I was recently in Big Bend National Park and had a thrilling four-day adventure. Big Bend is really three parks in one with mountains, desert, and a river basin. It also shares 118 miles of border with our neighbor to the south, Mexico.

If you are planning a trip to Big Bend National Park you might be wondering if it is safe.

Big Bend National Park is a safe destination for outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers. A recent study from a law firm found that Big Bend had only 16 deaths among 4.4 million visitors from 2007 to 2018.

But don’t take my word for it. I asked a Big Bend National Park Ranger all about safety in the park. Here are her responses.

Is Big Bend National Park Safe?

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Sometimes visitors ask us this, and it’s difficult to answer. I think it depends on each individual’s perception of safety. If you’re used to being in rugged, wild places far from towns or cities, you will likely feel fairly safe. If you’re not used to that at all, you might be more nervous. I don’t feel that it’s any less safe than any other large national park. You can see the parks that typically have the highest fatalities in various reports like this one:

As long as people use their common sense and do some planning – carry enough water, don’t hike when it’s too hot, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and have a backup plan if your first idea didn’t work out – you can safely enjoy this amazing place.

That is sage advice from Park Ranger Gilliland. I think folks ask whether Big Bend National Park is safe primarily because of Mexico’s proximity and its aqueous border along stretches of the Rio Grande river.

Honestly, I would wager that you are statistically much more likely to suffer injury from a car accident or heat exhaustion in Big Bend National Park than any issues related to border crossings.

We hiked all over the park in December 2020 and it was perfect. If you want mild, sunny days for hiking in the middle of the winter then consider a trip to Big Bend National Park. My son and I swam in the Rio Grande river at Boquillas Canyon in the mid-afternoon and we were fine. A gentleman across the river was selling ‘alebrijes’. He had them displayed on the U.S. side and was sitting across the river on the Mexican side.

Rio Grande River at Boquillas Canyon, December 2020.

How Many Serious Accidents Are There in Big Bend National Park Each Year?

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

In 2020 there were 393,908 visitors to Big Bend. The park was fully closed for three months. It was busier during open months than ever, and if it had been open all year, we would have likely seen our highest yearly number.

The statistics from the law firm study reported 16 deaths in 4.4 million visitors from 2007 to 2018. I would take those odds any day! Big Bend National Park is safe.

Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend National Park

What Are the Most Likely Hazards for Hikers in Big Bend National Park and How to Avoid Them?

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Dehydration! We are constantly preaching to people about carrying enough water. There are no truly reliable sources of water here. The minimum recommended amount is one gallon per person per day, which can be a heavy weight if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip.

I agree with Park Ranger Gilliland’s assessment, and I would say that a gallon is an absolute minimum for an entire day. You have to remember that Big Bend National Park is also around 3,000 ft. elevation on the desert floor, so if you start hiking up, you can reach elevations above 7,000 ft. High altitudes plus desert conditions will dehydrate you very, very quickly.

The trail heads for a few hikes that were just a couple of hours recommended 2-3 liters of water per person. I wrote a blog post on hiker hydration covering all you need to know about hiking and staying hydrated in different scenarios.

Hiker Safety Sign at Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off trail.

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Heat is also a huge factor here. At the lower elevations, summer temperatures frequently stay above 100 Fahrenheit all day, and many trails are fully exposed. We recommend hiking early in the morning or not at all on the hottest days. Many people head up into the Chisos Mountains, where temperatures are a little more bearable to hike during the summer.

We visited the week before Christmas in 2020 and found the weather to be absolutely perfect. The skies were a clear, beautiful blue. The sunsets were almighty. Daytime temperatures were in the low 70s F. I can imagine that in the summer it would be deathly hot.

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Finally, there are typical warnings for being in a desert – don’t harass wildlife, and it won’t harass you (we have venomous snakes, scorpions, and other stinging/biting insects here as well as bears and mountain lions), watch yourself around thorny plants, and be aware of your surroundings so that you don’t lose the trail.

On our trip we saw zero bears or mountain lions. We saw one tarantula, many birds, one javelina, and one coyote.

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Is Big Bend’s Proximity to Mexico a Safety Concern?

Big Bend National Park Ranger, Annie Gilliland writes:

I wouldn’t say the proximity to Mexico is a big safety concern, it just adds another layer to how we do some things. The park cooperates with the Mexican government where possible so that natural and cultural resources can be protected on both sides of the river. Mexican and American fire crews have also joined forces to control wildland fires in the past.

Border Patrol agents live and work in the park with us. Illegal border crossings do occasionally happen through park land, but they typically don’t create major threats for park visitors. Any incidents like theft involve communication between governments.

I live on the South Texas border closer to the Gulf of Mexico and so after nearly five years in this environment, I know from experience how safe it is.

In Big Bend National Park we saw people crossing the river on horses. It appeared they were selling items at a nearby parking area. They were local Mexicans that came to make a living. They were polite and friendly.

Big Bend National Park is extremely remote in the U.S. and even more remote on the Mexican side. Given the Chihuahuan desert’s vastness, illegal border crossings are difficult and risky due to environmental hazards.

What About COVID-19 and Big Bend National Park, Is It Safe?

Big Bend National Park Ranger, Annie Gilliland writes:

Again, Big Bend isn’t necessarily safer or less safe than anywhere else relative to your chances of catching COVID-19. However, we are far from hospitals or any specialized medical care. While you’re not necessarily more likely to get sick here, people do need to recognize that local medical resources are stretched thin and are far away. Help may not be quickly available. This is the reason that the park fully shut down when we had an active case among park staff. It’s also the reason that the border crossing into Mexico is closed.

The small town of Boquillas on the other side is even farther from medical care. We are seeing more people than usual visit national parks right now, likely due to a completely understandable desire to get out and do something active. We’d just like to remind everyone to please continue to follow CDC guidelines when they visit these isolated places.

In December we had some hikes to ourselves. Imagine being in a national park on a named hiking trail and not seeing anyone else. This is why, Big Bend National Park is such a great choice for hiking during and after the pandemic. There are smaller crowds than other national parks because it is so remote.

We carried masks with us and would put them on to pass other hikers. The more popular sites in the park are where you find more people and COVID-19 is more of a risk. Santa Elena Canyon is like the Old Faithful of the park. Everyone goes to see it and so we found it hard to socially distance on the trail into the canyon.

Boquillas Canyon Trail, Big Bend National Park.

What Is Your Favorite Part of Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend National Park Ranger, Annie Gilliland writes:

This is a tough one! Big Bend has such variety. You might see it referred to as three parks in one, because of the river, the desert, and the mountains. We have a huge amount of biodiversity partially because of this. And while I love the desert, I think some part of me always wants to be in the mountains.

The Chisos Basin and the hikes that leave from there might be my favorite area. Desert scrub transitions into pinyon-oak-juniper forests, and eventually into just pine and oak. The mountains are sky islands surrounded by a sea of hotter, dryer desert. My favorite trail might be many people’s favorite trail – Lost Mine. It will take you to spectacular views, but the small parking lot fills up early most days.

While we were visiting Big Bend National Park, we were never able to get up to the ‘sky islands’ that Ranger Gilliland refers to. The parking lots were always full, and so we were not allowed access. I would suggest going early and not bringing a 12-year old with you!

Is Big Bend National Park Safe?

After reading U.S. Park Ranger Gilliland’s responses, my conclusion from visiting Big Bend is that Big Bend National Park is a safe destination if you recreate responsibly. Perhaps the proximity to the border might have some folks concerned. Mexico’s area that borders the park is so remote that it does not see many border crossings.

I highly recommend visiting Big Bend National Park. If you want amazing hiking in the middle of the winter, then definitely make the journey to visit the park. The night skies are famously beautiful.

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