Summary: Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park is the the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains, reached by a long day-walk. It can be combined with the South Rim, Southeast Rim and Northeast Rim for even more spectacular views.
Emory Peak is the primary destination of today’s hike, on my second and last day at Big Bend National Park. I’m up early for a big day… the plan is to hike up to Emory Peak and the South Rim via the Pinnacles Trail, then do a circuit of the South Rim via the Southeast and Northeast Rim Trails, before returning to The Basin on the Laguna Meadows Trail. A long hike, but one described as “one of the most impressive in the park”, so I’m looking forward to the day.
The Basin to Emory Peak junction (Pinnacles Trail) – 5.2km / 3.2 miles (465m ascent)
After the drive from Terlingua Ranch Lodge, I set-out from The Basin car park around 7:30am, with the well-marked trail immediately climbing up towards the mountains.
It’s a steady, but not steep, climb up to Juniper Flat, a nice grassy plain where the first marked camping sites are located. The trail follows the base of a low mountain range that forms part of the eastern Chisos mountains.
From time to time there are views out to the east over Juniper Canyon, although much of the trail is through forest.
It’s a surprisingly varied environment. There are sections of thick and deeply shaded forest, including what I think is Graves Oak (Chisos Red Oak), which display a deep red foliage in autumn (fall). Moments later, cactus plants are a reminder we are in the Texan desert!
There’s more fantastic views as the trail climbs.
After a final steep section of switch-backs, the trail reaches a saddle between Toll Mountain and Emory Peak. There’s a lots of shade here, as well as toilets and large bear-proof containers for anyone leaving a backpack for the trail up to Emory Peak.
The trail quickly leaves the forest, as it follows the ridge towards Emory Peak, and with a very gentle incline.
It’s very pleasant hiking, with views of Boot Rock and across to Toll Mountain.
As the trail gets closer to Emory Peak – directly ahead are the two rocky peaks – it gets more exposed. To the north you can see The Basin, our starting point, in the distance. It’s rather obvious from here how it gets its name!
There’s a last, steep section to get to the Emory Peak summit. Or rather, the base of the summit – as Emory Peak consists of two rocky columns. Both can be climbed with some scrambling: the right, or northern, column (below left) is slightly higher. Both have almost vertical cliffs on all sides, so while it’s not a difficult climb you don’t want to suffer vertigo or have a fear of heights for this last bit.
The views from either peak are outstanding, with a 360-degree outlook over Big Bend National Park, and beyond. Looking north is The Basin and the Chisos mountains.
To the south is the Rio Grande, and Mexico.
The panoramic views are stunning, and it takes some effort to clamber back down Emory Peack, to return back down to the South Rim Trail.
It’s easy walking back down to the saddle, with the hardest part of the hike behind me. (It’s all downhill from here! Well, almost…)
Boot Spring Trail – 2.9km / 1.8 miles (80m ascent)
From the junction with the Emory Peak Trail, the Pinnacles Trail becomes the Boot Canyon Trail. It descends very gradually towards Boot Canyon, with “the boot” visible in the distance.
An interesting rock formation that can be seen from quite a distance away, it gets it’s name because it looks like an up-turned cowboy boot…
As the track nears a spring in Boot Canyon, a couple of deer graze by the track (the only wildlife I’ve seen so far).
Not too much further along and there’s a very basic and somewhat dilapidated shelter by the track, which I later learn is used as a shelter by rangers and maintenance staff performing repairs to the radio tower on Emory Peak. There’s a short track down to the spring, which is the only spring in the high Chisos mountains. I’ve read it is not reliable, but today there’s a decent flow of water. It’s a very sheltered and cool spot in a small valley, and would make a nice rest spot on a hot day.
Not much further on and fed by the spring is a small pond. The bottom looked a little slimy and I’m not sure that swimming in such natural ponds is encouraged, but would have been deep enough to cool of on a hotter day.
What was striking on this section of the trail was the Bigtooth Maple trees, their bright red leaves contrasting with the greenery of the firs and other evergreen trees.
The trail soon leaves the shaded valley as it climbs up Boot Canyon, reaching the junction with the Northeast Rim Trail about half-way up.
Northeast and Southeast Rim Trails – 3.9km / 2.4 miles (140m ascent)
Although the track is still well marked, as I turn-off onto the Northeast Rim Trail it’s a bit more overgrown and seems to be a lot less travelled. (I’ve seen a few people on the trails so far, but not one person on this section.) The trail traverses grassy plans and light forest as it climbs up to the rim.
As the track starts to follow the rim, there are views far out to the north-east, over Juniper Canyon and to Crown Mountain and beyond.
The views are just stunning as the trail follows the edge of the rim, with desert and mountains as far as the eye can see! (I’ve read the views are far less clear toward Mexico due to power stations causing pollution – but I’ve nothing to compare to.)
There are a number of rock platforms providing a spectacular vantage point over the Big Bend National Park.
As the track starts swinging around to the south, there are views over the Chisos Formation to the Elephant Tusk and Dominguez Mountain (with the Rio Grande beyond).
The trail continues to swing around to the south-east as it follows the steep cliff line, with the Sierra Quemada (which translates to “the Burned Mountains” in Spanish) range to the south.
There are more eye-watering views all the way along the trail, and as it slow-going with constant photo stops…
As the trail continues along the south rim, there are panoramic views to the south, towards the southern part of Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande. To the right are the jagged Punta de la Sierra (a southern escarpment of the Chisos Mountains) and Dominguez Mountain, and just to the left Backbone Ridge and Elephant Tusk. Further to the left is the smaller Chillicotal Mountain.
Somehow, the views seem to keep getting better and better… I wonder how I coped many years ago, before digital cameras allowed the luxury of taking so many photos!
The trail continues to follow the rim, to the junction with the Boot Canyon Trail. This is where I would have met the South Rim, if I hadn’t take the longer Northeast and Southeast Rim trails. Which I’m very glad I did, as the scenery has been stunning! If I had more time (and had brought my camping gear), one of the designated tent sites around the South Rim would be an amazing place to catch the sunrise and sunset. Next time!
South Rim Trail – 3.5km / 2.1miles (100m descent)
The trail names are a bit confusing – I think I’ now on the Southwest Rim trail, although it’s also referred to as the South Rim Trail. Now that I’ve rejoined the slightly and more popular circuit, I encounter a few people on the trail. The views are still out to the south, over Backbone Ridge, Elephant Tusk and Chillicotal Mountain.
As the trail nears its most southern point, you can see the South Rim Formation, where I’ve come from, stretching back to the north-east. Directly ahead is the Sierra Quemada and Punta de la Sierra, and to the right the Mule Ear Peaks.
South Rim Formation
Sierra Quemada, Punta de la Sierra, and Mule Ear Peaks
As the trail starts bearing north, the outlook is to the south-west and takes in the Mule Ear Peaks (although it looks like a single peak) and Kit Mountain.
A broad rock platform on the edge of the cliff provides a last view to the south and south-east.
Elephant Tusk from South Rim Trail
Punta de la Sierra from South Rim Trail
The trail then now starts to head away from the south rim, and begins a gradual descent along Boot Canyon – on the opposite side of the valley to the Boot Canyon Trail.
Laguna Meadow Trail – 7.4km / 4.6 miles (490m descent)
From the junction with the Colima Trail, it’s all downhill… and a bit of an anti-climax after the South Rim! After a last view at the Sierra Quemada to the south, the trail winds around the back of Emory Peak.
Last view of the mountains to the south
As the trail descends further, The Basin comes into view – overshadowed by the Casa Grande Peak to the right and the Pulliam Bluff behind.
The trail isn’t steep, but feels like it goes forever as it descends in a northerly direction to The Basin, with a few switch-backs from time to time. It’s fairy exposed, but fortunately it’s not a hot day. This bit wouldn’t be much fun at the height of summer.
Eventually, I reach the junction with the Basin Loop Trail, with Emory Peak now in the distance. Almost home!
A last section, before the junction with the Pinnacles Trail, to complete the circuit!
From here, it’s a short distance back to the car. The Emory Peak hike been a long but spectacular walk. And I’ve still got a few hours of daylight left to squeeze in one more walk, and to find somewhere to watch the sun set.
Accommodation near Big Bend National Park
The best place to stay is Chisos Mountains Lodge, which has motel rooms and cabins – but it books out well in advance during peak periods. (There’s also a campground.)
The nearest town is Terlingua, which is about a 45min drive and has a few motels and restaurants. I stayed at Terlingua Ranch Lodge, which is even further away (1:15min drive) – but offers rustic cabins in a rural setting.
More information on Emory Peak
More info: Laurence Parent, Hiking Big Bend National Park (Falcon Guide), p.69. Buy online US / AU (p.27,31,34)
Map showing route of Emory Peak via North and South Rim Trails. Source: Hiking Big Bend National Park book