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The Ultimate Guide to Big Bend National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

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Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
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Located in the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America, Big Bend National Park stretches over 1,252 square miles of Texas. Big Bend is one of the largest national parks in the country, yet it is also one of the least visited.

Each year, nearly 500,000 visitors come to explore Big Bend’s deep canyons, desert landscapes, Chisos Mountains, and the infamous Rio Grande.

How To Get to Big Bend National Park

Where Is Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend National Park is located in West Texas and borders Mexico. This massive park is found 250 miles southeast of El Paso in a remote, frontier-like area, which is most likely the reason it is one of the least-visited parks in the nation.

Located in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend showcases the Chisos Mountains, the Rio Grande, and spectacular canyons. Big Bend National Park is quite a distance from cities and transportation hubs, so you’ll need plenty of preparation and planning prior to your visit.

The Airports Nearest to Big Bend National Park

Big Bend’s remote location means there aren’t close options for flying into the park. There are 2 options if you choose to fly to Big Bend National Park, which includes Midland/Odessa and El Paso. Each of these airports has rental car services readily available so that visitors can easily make their way to Big Bend.

El Paso International Airport (ELP)

El Paso International Airport is considered the most accessible airport for traveling to Big Bend National Park. This airport is approximately 235 miles from the entrance to the park.

El Paso International Airport is served by American, Delta, Frontier, United, and Southwest. This airport is considered the “Fly to Big Bend” choice for those wanting to explore the park.

Midland International Air and Space Port (MAF)

Midland is the closest commercial airport to Big Bend National Park. This airport is 200 miles from Big Bend. Midland is served by American, Southwest, and United and offers several nonstop flights each day.

Driving to Big Bend National Park

Driving to Big Bend National Park
Image Credit: Natalie Rhea via Unsplash

There are many highways that lead to Big Bend National Park, depending on where you are driving from. This park is approximately 10 to 12 hours from Dallas and Houston, 7 hours from Austin and San Antonio, 5 hours from El Paso, and 4 hours from Midland or Odessa.

Visitors coming from Midland or Odessa will utilize Highway 385 to get to the park. Those coming from El Paso will travel Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 90, which lead to the city of Alpine. Alpine is where you will access Highway 118 to enter the west entrance of Big Bend National Park.

Other highways that lead to the park include Highway 170 from Presidio to Study Butte and Highway 90 to Marathon.

When planning your trip, keep in mind that there are long distances between towns. Making sure to have plenty of food, water, gas, and oil is crucial before setting out to Big Bend National Park.

There are also many remote areas where GPS and map services will not work. It’s wise to have paper maps and printed directions in case you lose services and are unable to navigate.

Taking the Train to Big Bend National Park

Amtrak has a route that runs several times a week into Alpine where you can rent a vehicle to get to Big Bend. Once arriving in Alpine, the drive to Big Bend National Park is only 76 miles away.

This railway journey allows visitors to relax and truly enjoy the journey, as well as catch views of the native plant species and wildlife along the way.

Taking Greyhound to Big Bend National Park

Greyhound offers daily service to Alpine. Choosing this bus service will be one of the most cost-efficient and relaxed ways to travel. After arrival at Alpine, visitors will need to rent a vehicle to drive the remaining miles to the park.

Getting Around Big Bend National Park

The best way to get around in Big Bend National Park is to drive. This massive park has so much to offer, and exploring in your personal vehicle is the best way to check out all of those must-see attractions.

You will find 3 different types of roads in Big Bend National Park, including paved roads, primitive dirt roads, and improved dirt roads. Be mindful of the fact that road conditions can quickly change due to weather, especially rain. Keep an eye on weather conditions and talk with a ranger before you plan to access some of the primitive or dirt roads.

Big Bend offers visitors both interactive and printable maps to help plan your time visiting the park.

What To See and Do in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is larger than the state of Rhode Island and is alive with much to see and do. With the flowing Rio Grande, majestic Chisos Mountains, and vast desert and grasslands, visitors certainly won’t run out of areas to explore while visiting this amazing park.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock Big Bend National Park Texas
Image Credit: Diana Robinson via Flickr (license)

Balanced Rock is a favorite attraction of anyone who visits Big Bend National Park. This rock is accessed by the Grapevine Hills Trail and has an easy hiking trail that is a little over 2 miles round trip.

Most of this hike follows a gravel path, which is mostly flat and easy to follow. The last part of the hike gets a little steep but takes you to Balanced Rock, where you can stand in awe of this gravity-defying rock structure.


Because the park is in the middle of one of North America’s greatest flyways, Big Bend National Park is an incredible place for bird-watching.

Big Bend is home to over 450 bird species, including the peregrine falcon, Montezuma quail, greater roadrunner, and vermillion flycatchers. Birds can be spotted all throughout the year, but the most diversity comes in the spring.

Boquillas Canyon

Boquillas Canyon is the deepest, longest canyon in Big Bend National Park. This canyon is the easiest in Big Bend to navigate, but it is a true wilderness trip as it is 33 miles from the Rio Grande Village.

This is a great place to camp and spend a few nights near the calm river, surrounded by the tall canyon walls. This area has lovely hiking trails and a wonderful overlook where you can take in the spectacular view of the village of Boquillas, Mexico, right across the Rio Grande.

Castalon Village

Castalon is the oldest known adobe structure in Big Bend National Park. The Castalon Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can see an old wax manufacturing operation, Johnson’s Ranch Airfield, and several other historic attractions in this area.

Bottom Line: Stopping to explore Castalon is like stepping back in time. It’s the perfect place for those who love learning about pioneer and military history.

Emory Peak

Emory Peak is the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains and the fifth-highest peak in the state of Texas. This mighty mountain stands at 7,825 feet tall.

Climbing Emory Peak is not an easy hike. This trail is a strenuous 10-mile hike filled with rock scrambling and climbing. The hike is worth it, as the grand finale provides spectacular panoramic views of the entire Chisos Mountain Range and the Chihuahuan Desert.

Ernst Tinaja

Ernst Tinaja
Image Credit: Katie Polansky via Unsplash

Ernst Tinaja is one of the most popular attractions in Big Bend National Park. This feature is at the mouth of a limestone canyon and is notorious for 3 things: fossils of giant oysters, bright orange swirling striations in the rocks, and the Ernst Tinaja, which is a natural rock pool.

Tinaja is a Spanish word for “large, earthen jar.” In this park, it refers to the natural water holes that were formed by erosion. This trail is approximately 1-mile round-trip and takes about an hour from start to finish. It has access to a small canyon that is lined with mesmerizing limestone geology.

Fossil Discovery Exhibit

The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is an incredible way to learn about the geology of the park. This part of the park opened in 2017 and showcases remarkable displays and educational plaques.

Bronze skulls of a giant alligator and Bravoceratop dinosaur are showcased in one of the rooms in the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. Another fan favorite is the pterosaur display on the ceiling of another room.

Visiting this exhibit gives incredible clues to the past and allows visitors to see just how massive these prehistoric animals were.

Hot Springs

A popular activity at Big Bend National Park is soaking in the natural hot springs. Rio Grande village area is home to these 105-degree hot springs that are found right on the edge of the Rio Grande.

While you are in this area, you have a chance to hike the surrounding scenic trail, view ancient pictographs and remains of an early 1900s resort, cool off in the river, and stand in awe of the breathtaking views of the Rio Grande and the mountains.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a beautiful way to explore Big Bend National Park. This drive runs through desert scenery on the way to Castalon and the Santa Elena area.

As you journey on this route, you will see the mountains stretching across the desert and have the chance to stop at popular overlooks and attractions such as Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook and the Mule Ear Springs.

If you are short on time, taking the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the best way to view the park and see the top features and attractions.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon
Image Credit: Yinan Chen via Pixabay

Hiking Santa Elena Canyon is one of the top activities in Big Bend National Park. The trail is easy and short and provides visitors with an up-close and personal experience with the Rio Grande.

The majority of this hike traverses the edge of the Rio Grande, but it also takes you to an incredible overlook with a stunning view of the canyon, river, and landscape.

Camping and canoeing are very popular in Santa Elena Canyon. Spending the day on a boomerang trip is a favorite activity of many visitors. The boomerang trip is a day paddling upstream into the canyon and then back downstream to the trailhead.

If you choose to canoe, understand the center of the river is the international border. Be sure to have your passport with you, as this is considered an international trip.

The Best Times To Visit Big Bend National Park

Like most national parks in the U.S., Big Bend National Park is open all day, every day throughout the year. If you are looking to do something in particular, such as spot rare birds or stargaze, there are specific times through the year when you may want to visit to have the ultimate experience. Let’s take a look at the best times to visit Big Bend National Park.

The Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park in Winter

Winters are a great time to visit Big Bend National Park. The daytime highs are in the 70s or sometimes higher, though the nighttime temperatures can dip down to near freezing.

Winter in Big Bend is from December through February. There is very little rainfall or snowfall during these months, which means you won’t have to worry about the weather interfering with your plans.

A great aspect of traveling to Big Bend in the winter is that these months are the slowest times during the year, so if you are seeking a less crowded experience, this is a great time to visit.

The Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park To Avoid the Crowds

For those who want to explore Big Bend National Park and avoid crowds, the best times to visit are in the winter and summer.

The cooler temperatures deter some visitors from visiting the park, even though there is hardly any precipitation and the temperatures are fairly warm during the day. Another less crowded time to visit the park is in the summer. The high, sometimes dangerous, temperatures keep travelers from visiting in the summer months.

Bottom Line: Winter and summer are wonderful times to enjoy the natural beauty and incredible attractions at Big Bend National Park while avoiding crowds at the same time.

The Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park for Wildlife

There are many animal species that make their home in Big Bend National Park. With over 450 bird species and more than 48 mammal species, this park provides an incredible opportunity to spot these wonderful creatures.

There are many animals that live in the park, but several species migrate to the park during the fall season. Because of this, autumn is an incredible time to visit Big Bend National Park.

Early September through mid-October is the peak time for fall migration in the park, so this would be a great opportunity to see a wider variety of birds. Mammals that you may see in the autumn include mountain lions, black bears, jackrabbits, javelinas, and grey foxes.

The Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park for Stargazing

Big Bend National Park Stargazing
Image Credit: David Morris via Unsplash

Stargazing is incredible in Big Bend National Park. If you want to visit specifically for incredible views of the night sky, the months from October to April are the best times to come.

October through April is considered the dry season in the park, which means that you will most likely be able to enjoy the night sky without rain or clouds obstructing your views. The best places to stargaze within Big Bend include River Road, the Hoodoos, West Contrabando Trailhead, and Big Hill.

The Cheapest Time To Visit Big Bend National Park

If you want to see Big Bend National Park on a budget, the best times to visit are from mid-April to mid-May, early August to mid-November, or the second week of January to early March. The absolute cheapest time to visit this park is mid-January. Tourists can find cheaper rates on lodging and flights at this time of year.

Where To Stay in Big Bend National Park

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to lodging in and near Big Bend National Park. From primitive camping to glamping to staying in a lovely lodge, this part of Texas has every guest covered with a perfect lodging solution for their national park vacation.

Inside the Park

Big Bend National Park has 2 different options for those who want to lodge inside the park. One option is located high in the Chisos Mountains in a rustic lodge, and the other option is camping in one of the various campsites throughout the park.


Cottonwood Campground
Image Credit: National Park Service

There are several developed campgrounds as well as backcountry campsites available inside Big Bend National Park. The developed campgrounds provide drinking water and restroom facilities for those wanting to lodge in the great outdoors. RV hookups are also available in the camping areas.

These campgrounds are located in the Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cotton Campground near the Rio Grande on the west side of the park, and the Rio Grande Village RV Park found adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Store.

Backcountry camping opportunities can be found in the Chisos Mountains, in the desert, or near the river. For camping, you will either need a permit or a reservation, so be sure to plan ahead.

Chisos Mountains Lodge

Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only lodging facility located in Big Bend National Park. This beautiful facility is located high in the Chisos Mountains, giving guests a bird’s eye view of the Big Bend.

The property is an affordable and convenient way to stay in the park. The location is in close proximity to many park activities including hiking, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande.

Not only is Chisos Mountains Lodge an incredible option for accommodations, but the lodge also has an on-site restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.

The lodge also offers a gift shop for those who want to purchase souvenirs, and the facility is right next to a convenience store, which is perfect for purchasing any forgotten travel necessities.

Towns Near Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is a massive, remote park that is a long distance from well-known towns. Finding the perfect place to set up your home base while exploring Big Bend can be complicated because it is so remote, but there are options that can work for any traveler.

There will be long drives to and from the town and Big Bend. Let’s take a look into some of the best towns near Big Bend National Park.


Alpine is a historic railroad city, but today it is an artsy town that makes a great place to stay when visiting Big Bend National Park.

This town is the second-largest town near Big Bend and has plenty to offer travelers. The town has incredible street art to be admired, museums, historic buildings, and awesome hikes to memorable places like the desk on Hancock Hill.

Alpine is home to a stunning hotel called the Holland Hotel, where guests can rest, refuel, and enjoy luxury amenities. Alpine is about 2 hours from the visitor center in Big Bend National Park, but well worth the drive.


Lajitas is only an hour’s drive from Big Bend National Park and is a great option for accommodations and entertainment. This town is located to the east of Big Bend Ranch State Park, close to the Rio Grande.

Lajitas was once a ghost town that was bought and rebuilt into an incredible golf resort. Today, guests can stay in Lajitas to experience the luxuries of a resort stay and still be able to explore the historical attractions in the area.

Hot Tip: There is plenty to do in Lajitas, including golfing at the resort, sightseeing, dining, gambling, and outdoor adventure.


Marathon is located just 40 miles from Big Bend National Park and makes an incredible home base while visiting the park. This town has plenty of amenities, including a grocery store, gas stations, restaurants, and cafes. There are several options for lodging in Marathon, such as casitas, cottages, and historic hotels.

The town is a great place to tour on the days when you aren’t exploring Big Bend. There are art galleries and charming shops, all featuring art and products made by the locals. Marathon is an amazing option for those coming to visit Big Bend National Park and has something for everyone.


Marfa is a charming place to stay when visiting Big Bend National Park. Even though it is the furthest town from the park, it has much to offer and is well worth the 2.5-hour drive.

This artistic town is a popular spot for filming and is also a great location for stargazing, as the mysterious Marfa Lights can be viewed in the desert sky. Marfa has several accommodations for parkgoers, including hotels, RV parks, campgrounds, and even teepees and yurts.

While this town is known for its artistic flair, it is also known as a foodie destination. Marfa is filled with an abundance of restaurants serving extraordinary dishes. Many visitors enjoy progressive meals so they can experience all the amazing cuisine offered at the restaurants, wine gardens, and bars.

Marfa has something to offer every type of visitor and would be an ideal destination for dining, lodging, and entertainment.

Terlingua Ghostown

Terlingua is a famous ghost town near Big Bend National Park. In the early 1900s, this town was a mining town. After WWII, the population declined dramatically and it became a ghost town.

There are several unique accommodations for those who choose to stay in Terlingua, including rustic cabins and casitas, teepees, and tiny homes. Terlingua has many great choices for dining, with restaurants offering traditional Tex-Mex, BBQ, and local cuisine.

Terlingua is the closest town to Big Bend National Park, so it makes sense to set up camp in this unique area. It is a mere 4 minutes from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Even though Terlingua is called a ghost town, there is much to see and experience.

Where To Eat in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park has an incredible lodge with an on-site restaurant and several places throughout the park where adventurers can grab a bite to eat to take on the go. The nearby towns have much more to offer for those who are looking for a wider variety of restaurants.

Chisos Mountains Lodge

The only full-service restaurant in Big Bend National Park is at Chisos Mountain Lodge. This restaurant has a daily breakfast buffet and serves lunch and dinner, signature cocktails, wine, beer, and phenomenal desserts.

Dining at Chisos Mountain Lodge is the perfect way to unwind from a day of exploration while enjoying incredible views of the surrounding mountains and delectable fare.

Hikers’ Lunches

There are several places in Big Bend National Park where visitors can pick up a quick meal for dining in the park.

Whether you choose to enjoy your meal while sitting next to the river, up on a mountain, or in the comfort of a picnic area, these lunches will keep you fueled and ready to carry on in your park adventure. These meals can be purchased at Castolon, Chisos Basin, Panther Junction, and Rio Grande Village.

Big Bend National Park Facts

Big Bend National Park TX USA
Image Credit: Backroad Packers via Unsplash

1. It’s an International Dark Sky Park

Big Bend National Park was named an International Dark Sky Park in 2012. It has been determined that this park has the darkest night skies of any national park in the lower 48 states.

Big Bend is notorious for its dark skies and brings in many stargazers each year. There is very little light pollution here, and because of its remote location, spectacular sights can be seen in this park. On clear nights, visitors can see the Milky Way and over 2,000 stars. This is truly one of the most magical sights offered at the park.

2. It Holds an Entire Mountain Range

Big Bend National Park is the only national park that has an entire mountain range within its borders. The Chisos Mountains are located in the park and stretch for 20 miles from Punta de la Sierra in the southwest to Panther Junction in the northwest. The Chisos Mountains are considered to be the heart of Big Bend National Park.

3. You Can See Rare and Diverse Wildlife and Plant Life

Big Bend National Park is home to many rare plants and animals, including animals that are endangered. The park features 3,600 different insect species, 450 types of birds, and 1,200 plant species.

While visiting the park, it is highly likely that you will get to see many of these rare species, including roadrunners, javelinas, Mexican long-nosed bats, and prickly pear cacti.

4. Big Bend Is a Lonely Park

Because of Big Bend National Park’s remote location, it is one of the least-visited parks in the U.S. It brings in approximately 500,000 visitors each year, which pales in comparison to the millions that visit other popular parks, including Grand Canyon National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

 5. It Contains Mesmerizing Geographical Features

Big Bend National Park has a diverse geography that ranges from a rock that is 500 million years old located in Persimmon Gap to more recent features like the windblown dunes at Boquillas Canyon. Visitors enjoy exploring amazing features including the remains of the ancient lava flows found in the Chisos Mountains or Balanced Rock in the Grapevine Hills.

Big Bend is a dream location for those who love to study geology. The park has preserved marine sedimentary rock, continental sedimentary rock, and volcanic rocks. There is evidence of sedimentation, volcanism, erosion, tectonics, and fossilization that can be easily seen throughout the park.

6. You Can See Fossils Galore

Big Bend is famous for its dinosaur, reptile, and fossil exhibits on display at the park. Some of these fossils include the skeleton of a giant pterosaur, a Chasmosaurus skull, and massive bronze skulls of a giant alligator and Bravoceratops dinosaur.

If anyone in your family is fascinated with paleontology, Big Bend National Park will make you feel like you are in a fossil paradise.

7. Big Bend is Texas’ Gift to the Nation

Big Bend National Park was established on June 12, 1944. This park preserved the largest tracts of the Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the U.S. Because the park protects such a large expanse of land, it is frequently referred to as Texas’ Gift to the Nation.

8. Big Bend is a Larger-than-Life Park

Big Bend is the first and largest park in the state of Texas. It stretches over 1,252 square miles, which is surprisingly larger than the state of Rhode Island. This park has so much to see and do within its borders; visitors never complain of being bored.

9. It’s the Largest Expanse of Roadless Public Lands in Texas

Big Bend National Park has the largest expanse of public lands without roads in the entire state of Texas. This means that it is an ideal location for those who love to hike.

There are over 150 miles of hiking trails visitors can traverse in the park. Hikes range in elevation from 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande up to 7,832 feet in the Chisos Mountains on Emory Peak. These hikes provide adventurers with a healthy workout, beautiful views, and opportunities to spot the diverse plants and wildlife found in the park.

10. Big Bend Was Used by Astronauts

John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would be the first nation to send a man to the moon, and NASA quickly went into preparation mode. One aspect of their astronaut training was learning how to choose the most geologically interesting rock samples.

Big Bend National Park was used for training astronauts on how to select rock samples. From March to July 1964, astronaut recruits visited the Big Bend area to help them train to be astronauts.

Ted Foss, a NASA staff geologist, said, “We can’t say what the Moon is like, exactly, but it may be similar to the Big Bend area.” Lots of field training in Big Bend has helped astronauts become prepared for one of our nation’s greatest claims to fame.

11. Big Bend Has a Rich Cultural History

The Big Bend area is made of archeological sites that date back nearly 10,000 years. The earliest inhabitants of the area were the Chisos Indians. These original people were a group of nomadic hunters and gatherers that practiced agriculture in this area. In more recent years, pioneers, ranchers, and miners lived in the park.

Today, guests can visit Big Bend National Park and get an idea of what life was like in earlier times. There are 8 historic sites or districts in Big Bend that are on the National Register list. These sites include the Castolon Historic District, Hot Springs Historic District, the Homer Wilson Ranch Site, Rancho Estelle, the Mariscal Mining District, and Luna’s Jacal.

12. Landscape Influences the Name Big Bend

Big Bend National Park received its name because of a drastic, U-shaped change in the Rio Grande River. The river suddenly changes its course from a southeastern flow to a northeastern flow. This area of change, or bend, is how the name was acquired.

13. Big Bend is a Political Border

The Rio Grande flows through Big Bend National Park, and it isn’t just a beautiful sight to behold. The Rio Grande has had its part in carving the canyons in Big Bend, but it is also a political boundary. This river creates a boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.

If you plan to visit Big Bend National Park, be sure to pack your passport. There are places where you will need a valid passport because some areas of the park are considered international travel, and you wouldn’t want to risk being without it.

Final Thoughts

Big Bend National Park is the ideal location for a remote, rugged vacation with a multitude of opportunities to explore a variety of natural areas to explore — high, low, wet, or dry. Big Bend is the perfect place for incredible outdoor adventures, new learning experiences, and creating memories that will last a lifetime.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I cross into Mexico from Big Bend National Park?

Visitors can legally cross into Mexico from Big Bend National Park. This entry is only for pedestrians and can be found at the Boquillas Crossing port of entry. If you plan to cross into Mexico, you will need to have a valid passport. You will also need a valid passport if you plan to canoe down the Rio Grande. This is considered international travel, and if you are stopped, you will need to show your passport.

What is the entry fee for Big Bend National Park?

There is a $30 fee for each vehicle that enters Big Bend National Park. If a visitor is paying as an individual, there is a $15 fee. These passes are good for 7 days.

Are pets allowed in Big Bend National Park?

Pets are allowed in several places in the park, but they will limit your park experience. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails or in the backcountry. They are only allowed in places that can be accessed by a vehicle, such as roads, campsites, and parking lots. Pets must be on a leash at all times and never left unattended. It is imperative that you pick up after any mess your pet leaves in order to keep the park in excellent condition.

Is swimming allowed in the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park?

Swimming is not recommended in the Rio Grande. The river has undercurrents, deep holes, micro-organisms, sharp objects, and other dangers lurking in the water. If you do choose to swim in the river, wear a life jacket and be on high alert for dangerous situations.

Amar Hussain's image

About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.


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