Hiking in Big Bend National Park
Each of the park's zones has its own appeal. The east side offers demanding mountain hikes, border canyons, limestone aplenty, and sandy washes with geographic spectacles. Westside trails go down into striking scenery in the Santa Elena Canyon and up into towering volcanic landforms. Descend into gorges, arroyos, and springs or ascend into the must-see scenic windows of Grapevine Hills. The heart of the park has abandoned mines, pine-topped vistas, scrub vegetation around the Chisos, and deserts lying just below soaring Chisos Mountain aeries. Carry enough drinking water—a gallon per person daily (more when extremely hot).
While Big Bend certainly has "expedition level" trails to test the most veteran backpacker, many are very demanding and potentially dangerous (sometimes resulting in fatalities). So no "difficult" trails are noted here. Instead, the ones included here are representative of trails at Big Bend that most physically fit people can accomplish.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail. A windmill and spring form a desert oasis, a refreshing backdrop to a ½-mile, hot and flat nature trail; wild doves are abundant, the hike is pleasant, and kids will do just fine. While you're there, keep an eye out for the elf owl, one of the sought-after birds on the Big Bend's "Top 10" list. Easy, elevation gain minimal. Trailhead at Dugout Wells, 5 mi southeast of Panther Junction, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. Down by the Rio Grande, this short, ¾-mile trail packs a powerful wildlife punch. The village is considered one of the best spots in the park to see rare birds, and other wildlife isn't in short supply either. Keep a lookout for coyotes, javelinas (they look like wild pigs), and other mammals. This is a good trail for kids, so expect higher traffic. Restrooms are nearby, and the trail can be done in less than an hour, even when lingering. The first ¼ mile is wheelchair accessible. Easy, elevation gain minimal. Trailhead 22 mi southeast of Panther Junction, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
Window View Nature Trail. This 0.3-mile paved nature trail is wheelchair accessible and great for little ones. Take in the beautiful, craggy-sided Chisos and look through the V-shape rock-sided "Window" framing the desert below. This self-guided trail, which is especially captivating at sunset, is easily accomplished in half an hour. Easy, elevation gain minimal. Be on the lookout for wild javelina, which occasionally root through here. They're not normally aggressive, but give them a respectful distance. Trail begins in Chisos Basin, west of lodge parking lot, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
Chisos Basin Loop Trail. A forested area and higher elevations give you some sweeping views of the lower desert and distant volcanic mountains on this 1.6-mile round-trip. The elevation at the trailhead is 5,400 feet. Set aside about an hour. Moderate, elevation gain 500 feet. Trailhead 7 mi southwest of Chisos Basin Junction, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
Hot Springs Trail. An abandoned motel and a bathhouse foundation are among the sights along this 2-mile loop hike. The Rio Grande is heard at every turn, and trees occasionally shelter the walkway. The trailhead is accessed via a 1.6-mile dirt road. It's not passable for large vehicles, but most cars can navigate it in dry conditions. Temperatures can soar to 120°F, so hike in the morning or during cooler months. Easy to moderate, elevation gain 200 feet. Trail accessed 22 miles southeast of Panther Junction, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
Lost Mine Trail. Set aside about three hours to leisurely explore the nature of the Chisos Mountains along this elevation-climbing trail. It starts at 5,700 feet, one of the highest elevations in the park, and climbs to an even loftier vantage point. The entire length is 4.8 miles round-trip. Moderate, elevation gain 1,100 feet. If fatigue or time constraints become a factor, the breathtaking view at marker 10, about halfway up, is a worthy destination in itself. Trail begins at mile marker 5 on the Chisos Basin Rd., 2 miles from lodge, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail. A 1.7-mile round-trip crosses marshy Terlingua Creek, scales a rocky staircase, and deposits you on the banks of the Rio Grande for a cathedral-like view of cliff walls boxing in the river. Try to end up here near sunset, when the sun stains the cliffs a rich red-brown chestnut. Moderate, elevation gain minimal. An overlook on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive affords a panoramic view of Santa Elena Canyon from miles away. Trail accessed 8 miles west of Castolon via Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr. or Old Maverick Rd., Big Bend National Park, TX, 79834. www.nps.gov/bibe.
At Big Bend, guides give horseback tours, and visitors can bring their own horses. The going might be slow in some parts, as horses aren't allowed on paved roads. Trips range from two hours to several days. If you're bringing your own horses, call any visitor center at least a day ahead of time to get a permit. You may camp with your horse at any of the park's primitive campsites, but not in the developed areas. A campsite with corrals near Panther Junction may be reserved (no longer than 10 weeks' notice) by calling 432/477–1158.
Tours and Outfitters
Big Bend Stables. Trail rides on the western edge of the park from one hour to a half-day with lunch "right out of our saddle bags." Hwy. 118 at FM 170, Terlingua, TX, 79852. 432/371–3064 or 800/887–4331. www.lajitasstables.com.
Lajitas Stables. Guided horseback-riding tours of varying lengths include participation in an honest-to-goodness, brand-to-hide cattle drive, sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. There are special-interest trips, i.e., geology. You can also foray into the Mexican state of Chihuahua, via horse, on a four- to five-day trip. 2.5 mi west of Lajitas Resort, Lajitas, TX, 79852. 800/887–4331 or 432/371–3064. www.lajitasstables.com.
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