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Can You Fly a Drone in Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, Texas encompasses part of the Chihuahuan Desert and all of the Chisos mountain range. It’s within proximity to the Sam Nail Ranch, Langford Hot Springs, and Santa Elena Canyon.

You wish to fly your drone among these beloved Texas landmarks, but are you legally allowed in the park?

As of 2014, drones are prohibited from being used at Big Bend National Park on any of its waters or lands. The ban extends to the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and is enforced by the National Park Service.

Ahead, we’ll unpack the drone usage rules at Big Bend National Park to dispel any confusion.

If you’re soon visiting this Texas national park or it’s always been on your bucket list, this article is a can’t-miss!

Can you legally fly a drone in Big Bend National Park?

Texas is very strict on drone usage in its parks, which is why you’re barred entry into Big Bend National Park with a UAV.

Sign welcoming visitors to the Highway 385 North Entrance of Big Bend National Park in Texas.

That’s been the rule since August 2014, when the National Park Service posted its new regulations on drone flight in the park.

According to the law, drones are forbidden from launching, flying, or landing “from or on the lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.”

Interestingly, a writeup from StateImpact Texas, which does environmental and energy reporting for the state, said of the ban the year it was implemented that the NPS’s prohibition was supposed to be an “interim” rule.

We saw the use of the word interim on several other resources mentioning the ban. This suggests this was supposed to be only a temporary change, yet as of this writing, the NPS has not lifted the ban.

We have to talk about the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River too, as it’s included in the NPS’s rules about the prohibition of drone use in Big Bend National Park.

The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River is a protected river that’s 260 miles long. It’s classified as a U.S. National Wild and Scenic River and spans the Rio Grande in Texas and New Mexico.

Up to 69 miles of the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River are within the boundary of Big Bend National Park, as are the canyons Mariscal Canyon and Boquillas Canyon.

Santa Elena Canyon, which is a hotspot in Big Bend, is not classified as a U.S. National Wild and Scenic River in the same way that the other two canyons are, but you’re still forbidden from using your drone here because of the NPS’s rules.

The NPS says that it enforced these rules “for the maintenance of public safety and the protection of environmental and scenic values as well as the avoidance of conflict among visitor use activities and visitor experience.”

The statement also mentions that “The prohibition is completed through the use of 36 CFR 1.5 which provides the park superintendent the authority to close all or a portion of the park or otherwise limit an activity to maintain public health and safety, protect environmental or scenic values, protect natural or cultural resources, implement management responsibilities, equitably allocate and use facilities, or avoid conflict among visitor use activities.” 

Can you fly a drone just outside of Big Bend National Park?

It’s disappointing but not altogether surprising to learn that you cannot fly your drone within the spacious confines of Big Bend National Park.

What about outside of the park? The NPS, per the link above, states that “This new prohibition applies only to lands administered by the National Park Service and does not apply to unmanned aircraft that is launched, landed or operated outside the park boundary.”

Therefore, way outside the 801,163 acres that make up Big Bend National Park, you can fly your drone legally.

So what exactly is beyond the park, anyway?

Well, you can’t go any further south from Big Bend, or you’ll officially be in Mexico.

At that point, the drone laws are totally different since you’re no longer in the United States and the Federal Aviation Administration (and the NPS, for that matter) does not make the rules.

To the north of Big Bend National Park is Big Bend Ranch State Park (which we’ll talk more about in just a moment) and parts of Texas such as Terlingua, Shafter, Marathon, Sanderson, and Dryden.

If you read our post on Texas drone laws, then you should recall that only Harris County and nearby Metropolitan Houston have local laws in place prohibiting drone usage.

» MORE: Drone Laws in Texas

However, that does not mean that your drone would be allowed in the cities and towns listed above, per se.

You’d have to find a park that either allows drones or has a designated drone flight area. If you wanted to fly in a Texas neighborhood, you should get permission from the landowner if your drone will be on their property.

Further, you have to follow all FAA regulations when flying a drone in Texas, such as:

  • Commercial pilots must have a Remote Pilot Certificate on their person.
  • Recreational pilots must have a TRUST certificate on their person.
  • You cannot fly above 400 feet.
  • You must keep your drone within your visual line of sight without the aid of binoculars.
  • You should only fly your drone during daylight hours.
  • You cannot use your drone to harass or bother people.
  • You shouldn’t fly a drone over people’s heads or in large crowds.

Can you legally fly a drone in Big Bend Ranch State Park?

As we said we would, let’s talk a bit more about Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is between Presidio and Brewster counties and is Texas’ biggest state park. It’s a whopping 311,000 acres.

The biggest attraction at the state park is Colorado Canyon, which stands out from the limestone canyons in the park, as it’s made of volcanic rock.

All state parks throughout Texas save for San Angelo and Lake Whitney State Parks prohibit drones unless you have a permit.

You’d have to reach out to Big Bend Ranch State Park management and request a commercial filming and photography permit.

It would likely be several weeks before your permit request is approved or denied, so make sure you send that application in early to avoid delays.

Pilots who are permitted to fly must follow FAA guidelines when taking to the skies.

What happens if you get caught using a drone in Big Bend National Park?

With both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park off-limits to drone pilots (the latter unless you have a permit, just to make clear), that’s a huge swath of land that you shouldn’t ever be on with your drone.

You can fly outside of the boundaries of Big Bend National Park just fine, but the NPS does not want you in the park.

So what will happen if you get caught operating your drone there?

We couldn’t find specifics on the NPS’s website, but the standard punishment for violating rules in a national park would likely apply.

That is, you could be fined $5,000 (or less) and possibly sentenced to jail for six months or longer.

The NPS has enforced these rules because drones are becoming ever more popular.

Unfortunately, with the influx in the use of drones, more national parks across the country have faced destruction to precious natural landmarks (often accidentally, but still!) and complaints from park visitors about the nuisances that drones can cause.

By staying out of national parks like Big Bend, you’re preserving these beautiful places for everyone to enjoy. You’re also avoiding adding a needless crime to your permanent record, so it’s worth it, we’d say!

Conclusion

Big Bend National Park in Texas is a huge, sprawling park that also includes the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.

The NPS prohibits drone pilots from operating a UAV in both the park and the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.

You are allowed to use a drone outside of the park if you can find a suitable place to do so, as that land is outside of the NPS’s jurisdiction.

When flying your drone in Texas, always follow FAA guidelines and be a smart, safe, conscientious pilot!

References:
Big Bend National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (link)
Big Bend National Park Bans Drones | StateImpact Texas (link)