Texas' Big Bend National Park offers numerous possibilities for backpacking, both on established and marked hiking trails and on relatively unmarked hiking routes following washes, canyons, or abandoned rough dirt roads dating from the late 1800s. In all, the park has more than 150 miles of designated trails and routes. Cross-country hiking is also permitted. Because many trails and hiking routes are hard to follow, rangers advise that hikers carry detailed 7.5-minute topographical maps and compasses.
Boquillas Canyon Trail
1.4 miles RT. Moderate. Access: End of Boquillas Canyon Rd.
This hike, a good choice for those who want to see some of the area's birds, begins by climbing a low hill and then drops down to the Rio Grande, ending near a shallow cave and huge sand dune. It affords good views of the scenic canyon and the Mexican village of Boquillas, across the Rio Grande.
Burro Mesa Pour-Off
1 mile RT. Easy. Access: Parking area at end of Burro Mesa spur road, about 12 miles down Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr. on the west (right).
This short hike takes you to the bottom of a desert pour-off. The beginning of the trail is a well-marked path, but as you turn into Javelina Wash, it becomes less obvious; watch for the lines of rocks pointing the way. The trail has an elevation gain of about 60 feet. The pour-off is a long, narrow chute that is usually dry, but the extensive cut gives testimony to the power of rushing water after a heavy summer rain. Don't attempt to climb to the top from here; it is quite hazardous. There is an easier way for those with good route-finding skills: See "Top of Burro Mesa Pour-Off," below.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
.5 mile RT. Easy. Access: Dugout Wells Picnic Area, 6 miles east of Panther Junction.
A good introduction to the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert, this is an easy stroll along a relatively flat gravel path with signs describing the plants you see along the way.
Chisos Basin Loop Trail
1.6-mile loop. Easy. Access: Chisos Basin trailhead.
This fairly easy walk climbs about 350 feet into a pretty meadow and leads to an overlook that offers good views of the park's mountains, including Emory Peak, highest point in the park at 7,825 feet.
Hot Springs Trail
1 mile RT. Easy. Access: End of improved dirt road to Hot Springs, off road to Rio Grande Village.
An interpretive booklet available at the trailhead describes the sights, including a historic health resort and homestead (see "Historic & Man-Made Attractions," above), along this easy loop. Fairly substantial ruins remain, including a foundation that fills with natural mineral water, creating an inviting hot tub. Also along the trail are pictographs left by ancient American Indians, and panoramic views of the Rio Grande and Mexico.
50 yards RT. Easy. Access: Panther Junction Visitor Center.
This is a short walk through a garden of cacti and other desert plants. A booklet discussing the park's plant life is available at the trailhead.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail
.75 mile RT. Easy. Access: Southeast corner of Rio Grande Village Campground, across from site 18.
A good choice for sunrise and sunset views, this self-guided loop nature trail (booklet available at the trailhead) climbs from the surprisingly lush river floodplain about 125 feet into desert terrain and up a hilltop that offers excellent panoramic views.
Santa Elena Canyon
.8 mile one-way. Moderate. Access: End of Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr.
You may get your feet wet crossing a broad creek on this trail, which also takes you up a series of steep steps. But it's one of the most scenic short trails in the park, leading along the canyon wall (with good views of rafters on the Rio Grande), and continuing down among the boulders along the river. Interpretive signs describe the canyon environment. Beware of flash flooding as you cross the Terlingua Creek, and skip this trail altogether if the creek is running swiftly.
Top of Burro Mesa Pour-Off
1.8 miles one-way. Moderate. Access: Trailhead parking about 7 miles down Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr. on the west (right).
This moderate hike takes you through some narrow rocky gorges to the top of the Burro Mesa Pour-Off. The trail may not be well marked, so it's a good idea to carry a topographical map and compass. As you hike along the now-dry washes, you'll realize that the rock cairns marking the trail scatter quickly when water floods through them. There is a gradual decline of about 525 feet to the top of this desert waterfall, where the drainage drops suddenly and precipitously from the wash where you stand to the one below. Do not chance this hike in stormy weather or you might get washed away with the rock cairns.
.75 mile RT. Easy. Access: Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr., 5 miles south of Mule Ears Overlook access road.
This easy trail leads into a narrow canyon, carved from soft volcanic rock called tuff, with several canyon overlooks.
Window View Trail
.3 mile RT. Easy. Access: Chisos Basin Trailhead.
Level, paved, and wheelchair accessible, this self-guided nature trail (a brochure is available at the trailhead) runs along a low hill and has a great variety of plant life. In addition, it offers magnificent sunset views through the Window, a V-shaped opening in the mountains to the west.
4.8 miles RT (to the chimneys). Moderate. Access: Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr., 1.2 miles south of Burro Mesa Pour-Off access road.
This flat trail through the desert follows an old dirt road to a series of chimney-shaped rock formations. American Indian petroglyphs can be seen on the southernmost chimney, and nearby are ruins of rock shelters. Those who want to extend this hike can continue to a desert spring, although the trail is difficult to follow after the Chimneys and a topographical map is highly recommended.
Grapevine Hills Trail
2.2 miles RT. Easy. Access: 6 miles down unpaved Grapevine Hills Rd.
An easy walk, this trail follows a sandy wash through the desert, among massive granite boulders, ending at a picturesque balancing rock. The elevation change is about 240 feet.
Lost Mine Trail
4.8 miles RT. Moderate. Access: Chisos Basin Rd. at Panther Pass.
This self-guided nature trail (a booklet is available at the trailhead) is a popular mountain hike that climbs about 1,100 feet. It was constructed in the early 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps -- evidence of the builders' rock work can still be seen. Along the way, the trail climbs through forests of pinyon, juniper, and oak, and offers splendid views. Those with limited time or ambition don't have to hike all the way -- some of the trail's best views are about 1 mile from the trailhead, from a saddle where you can look out over a pretty canyon to the surrounding mountains and even deep into Mexico.
Mule Ears Spring Trail
3.8 miles RT. Moderate. Access: Mule Ears Overlook parking area, along Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr.
This relatively flat desert trail crosses several arroyos and then follows a wash most of the way to Mule Ears Spring. It offers great views of unusual rock formations, such as the Mule Ears, and ends at a historic ranch house and rock corral.
Pine Canyon Trail
4 miles RT. Moderate. Access: End of unpaved Pine Canyon Rd. (check on road conditions before setting out).
With a 1,000-foot elevation gain, this trail takes you from desert grasslands, dotted with sotols, into a pretty canyon with dense stands of pinyon, juniper, oak, and finally bigtooth maple and ponderosa pine. At the higher elevations you'll also see Texas madrones -- evergreen trees that shed their smooth reddish bark each summer. At the end of the trail is a 200-foot cliff, which becomes a picturesque waterfall after heavy rains. At the cliff's base you're likely to see the delicate yellow flowers of columbine, a member of the buttercup family.
10 miles RT. Moderate. Access: Main Park Rd., about 12 miles west of Panther Junction, at Oak Creek Bridge.
This hike follows Oak Creek northwest to a small, scenic canyon, passing along the south edge of Slickrock Mountain. This is not a marked trail but rather a route through sand and gravel washes; a topographical map is helpful. Hikers in this deep canyon will find desert plants such as mesquite and creosote bush, and possibly tracks of coyotes, javelinas, and mountain lions.
5.2 miles RT. Moderate. Access: Chisos Basin Trailhead.
A scenic trail through Oak Creek Canyon, this hike involves descending about 800 feet to the base of the Window, a V-shaped opening in the mountains that frames panoramic desert scenes. Following the Oak Creek drainage, it provides a good chance to see deer, javelina, rock squirrels, and a variety of birds.
Tips from a Park Ranger
This park has something for everyone," says David Elkowitz, Big Bend's chief of interpretation and visitor services. High among the park's assets, he says, is its variety of activities, including both easy day hikes and extended backpacking trips, great bird-watching, wildlife viewing, river running, and camping.
Big Bend is not a good choice for a quick visit, and Elkowitz recommends that people spend at least 3 days. "Be prepared for long distances, and don't expect all the amenities you might find in other places," he says.
Although Big Bend is one of America's less visited national parks, Elkowitz says that it does get busy occasionally, particularly during spring break, usually March and early April, when college students arrive en masse to hit the trails. The hottest months are May and June, he says, adding that the heat of July and August is usually tempered by afternoon thunderstorms. September is among the slowest times in the park, and it can be very nice, although still hot. "October is a great time, still quiet and a bit cooler," he says.
Elkowitz advises summer visitors to avoid hiking in the desert, but it's a "good time to visit the higher and cooler Chisos Mountains, which offer camping and miles of good trails." Here it can be 20°F (7°C) cooler than on the river. He also recommends hiking into the high country from October through December to see the beautiful fall colors. On the other hand, the desert is a "wonderful choice for fall and winter hiking into remote areas, with few, if any, other visitors."
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