Three Short Hikes in Death Valley

 

A drive through Death Valley, with three short hikes that explore the highs and lows (altitude-wise) of the area.

After hiking to Telescope Peak the previous day – the highest point at 11,049 ft (3,368m) above sea level – today’s a relatively easy day before I drive back to Las Vegas. I’ve picked three short hikes that take in some of the varied landscape in the park:

  • Zabriskie Point where the Badlands Loop goes through gulches and along ridges, and provides a close view of some of the rock formations of Death Valley
  • Dante’s View, one of the highest points you can get to by car where two short walks provide sweeping views from the lowest to the highest points in Death Valley
  • Badwater, the lowest point of the US for a hike across the salt flats.

Starting at Beatty, outside the park, I start fairly early as the morning light is best for photography of the salt pans. There’s nice light and no traffic as the dead-straight road (Highway 374) heads for the Grapevine Mountains.

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Visibility is still a bit obscured by smoke from fires burning in California.

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It’s a surprisingly hilly place – there are multiple mountain ranges between the vast plains; Death Valley itself is bounded by the Panamint Mountains on one side and Amargosa Range on the other.

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Directly ahead of Highway 190 is the Amargosa Range runs which along most of the eastern side of California’s Death Valley, separating it from Nevada’s Amargosa Desert. Its highest peak at 8,738 feet (2,663 m) is Grapevine Peak.

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Zabriskie Point

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My first stop is Zabriskie Point, which is at the foothills of the Amargosa Range. There’s a very short walk to a popular lookout here, which provides a vantage point over the desolate landscape.

Looking west, across Death Valley, is the Panamint Range in the background. The jagged peak in the middle is Manly Peak, located half inside Death Valley National Park, and half inside the Manly Peak Wilderness area.

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To really experience the desert landscape, there’s two short, circular hikes that start here: the Golden Canyon Loop and the Badlands Loop.

I’m taking the shorter (2.7 miles / 4.3km) Badlands Loop, which gives you a great feeling for the dramatic landscape.

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The hike, sign-posted by frequent arrows and easy to follow, heads down a narrow gully carved by infrequent (but heavy) rain to Zabriskie Point Junction.

From Zabriskie Point Junction the trail follows a much broader gully, which is a major artery of Gower Gulch, in a south-westerly direction.

After about 1.3 miles there’s a junction, which is also the lowest point of the Badlands Loop. Continue straight ahead down Gower Gulch (and back via Golden Canyon) to form a longer circuit. Or head back up a narrower gully to complete the shorter Badlands Loop, which is what I do (I’m doing the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction).

From the junction the track ascends from Gower Gulch, following the ridges of the hills. Looking much like sand dunes, you can almost visualise the ancient lake bed being  folded and faulted into the irregular white hills that exist today.

This is the most spectacular part of the short loop: as the trail ascends along the ridges of the hills, you can see the rugged terrain, and the Panamint mountain range in the distance.

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You can also see the distinct difference between the lighter hills formed from alluvial material from the lake bed, which is rich in borax, and the darker peaks formed by lava from eruptions that occurred 3-5 million years ago. (Borax, also known as white gold, was mined in the region in the 1880s and some many mines shafts remain, including several abandoned Borax mines along the Badlands Loop.)

Towards the end of the Loop, I can see Zabriskie Point in the distance (top right of the photo below) and the gully that leads back to the starting point.

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Rather than following the marked track back, I head straight up one of the ridges that leads towards the lookout. It eventually becomes a rough track obviously used by others to reach the lookout point.

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From Zabriskie Point, I take – which is now starting to get a bit  busier – I take a last photo of the panoramic views.

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Dante’s View

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My next stop, a bit further along Highway 190, is Dante’s View. While not as high as Telescope Peak, it provides one of the best views over the white salts flats and most of the 110-mile long Death Valley. Getting there is half the fun, with Dante’s View Road rising steeply up from Highway 190 to the viewpoint.

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The views from the parking are pretty impressive, even without walking anywhere… but a couple of short trails provide even better vantage points. To the south-west of the car park, a trail leads down the ridge.

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The views from the trail take in the salt flats of Badwater at 282 feet (86m) below sea level and directly behind it (at the very top left of the photo) Telescope Peak at 11,049 ft (3,368m) above sea level.

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As you descend further down the ridge on the rough track, you can see further down the length of Death Valley to the north.

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It feels like you could continue down the ridge all the way to the salt flats… but we’re still 5,275 feet (1610m) above sea level.

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At the northern of the car park, another trail heads up the ridge – it goes for four miles up to Mt Perry (I only went about 0.3 miles).

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The outlook is pretty much the same as from the southern end of the carpark, although it’s more of a rocky and rugged environment. And there are no other people around. There are unimpeded views of the Badwater salt flats and the Panamint Ranges.

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The main benefit of hiking in this direction is that you also get the slightly less impressive view to the east, of the Greenwater Range.

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From here I need to back-track a little, heading back up past Zabriskie Point toward Furnace Creek, and then down Badwater Road. One of the main roads through Death Valley, Badwater Road follows the foothills of the Margarosa Mountains. The first section is almost dead straight and seems to go forever… many of Death Valley’s attractions are along this road, including Badwater.

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Badwater

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Probably the most popular attraction in Death Valley, Badwater is the lowest place in the USA, at 282 feet (86m) below sea level. A sign high up on the cliffs marks sea level, and reminds you how far down you are! (The highest point in the contiguous 48 states lies only 84.6 miles (136 km) to the northwest, and can be seen on a clear day from Telescope Peak and Dantes View – but not today due to the haze.)

Near the carpark and at the edge of the salts flats is a spring-fed pool – the accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make the water undrinkable. The name is thought to have come from an early explorer’s horse who refused to drink, thus giving rise to the name “bad water”.

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A long, white salty “finger” stretches out from the end of the boardwalk, providing access onto the salt flat. I later read that one should stay on the boardwalk to avoid crushinng the tiny Badwater snail – but there’s no signage requesting visitors to stay off the salt, and most people are venturing onto the salt flat. Looming high above Badwater are the Black Mountains, part of the Amargosa Range – Dante’s View where I’ve just come from is almost 6,000 feet above me.

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Continuous freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles have created the hexagonal honeycomb patterns of the salt pan, which stretch all the way into the distance to Panamint Mountains on the other side.

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I walk as far as I can. It’s about two miles to the far end of the salt pan, below the towering Panamint Range, where the smooth salty surface ends. A bit further on is Shorty’s Well on the opposite side of the salt pan, and the starting point for a very arduous hike from -282 feet up to the Telescope Peak summit at 11,049 feet!

From the salt pan I continue down Badwater Road, which winds around the edge of the salt flats and the foothills of the Black Mountains for a while, before becoming dead straight again. Towards the end of the Black Mountain range, the road bears east and crosses the mountains at Jubilee Pass, before leaving Death Valley National Park.

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I think I’ll be back – there are many more walks I’d like to do, and while I’ve always associated Death Valley with the salt pans, there’s a huge diversity of landscapes.

Location Anywhere in / around Death Valley – I found relatively inexpensive accommodation at Beatty, just outside the park.
Distance
  • Badlands Loop – 2.7m / 4.3km (a longer 4.3m loop can be also be done from here)
  • Dante’s View – 1.6m / 2.5km (can be extended up to 4 miles by going to Mt Perry)
  • Badwater salt flats – up to 4m / 6.4km if you go to the other side of the salt pan
Grade Easy. Minimal elevation gain for these hikes/=.
Season/s Avoid summer, when it’s too hot to hike
Maps National Geographic “Death Valley” 1:165,000
Resources
  • Hiking Death Valley National Park (Falcon Guide) book
  • Free Death Valley National Park brochure from ranger stations

Telescope Peak, Death Valley

Telescope Peak (11,049 ft / 3,368m) is the highest peak in Death Valley, with a well-established route to the summit from Mahogany Flat campground.

Getting to the Telescope Peak trailhead is half the fun… I’ve stayed the previous evening at Panamint Springs after flying in from Australia. It’s about a three hour trip by car from Las Vegas (McCarran) airport and I’ve arrived in the late afternoon, so the drive was all in darkness. My first view of the Death Valley area was the 50min drive from Panamint Springs (the closest accommodation, unless you are camping) to Mahogany Flat, via Panamint Valley Road and Trona Wildrose Road.

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There’s almost no other traffic at 8am, and the scenery is pretty spectacular in the morning light. It’s also pretty desoldate. While I’m glad I’ve brought a jumper as it’s around 47 degrees F (8C) according to the car, you can imagine how hot the vast plains get in summer.

Most of the roads are in good condition, although they get increasingly more pot-holed and narrow as I near Wildrose Campground. From Wildrose Campground to Charcoal Kilns the sealed road is great quality for the first five miles or so, before it quickly deteriorates to gravel and features large potholes and washed out sections. I’m glad I selected an AWD car with a bit of clearance – I would have struggled in the Dodge Challenger I orginally booked! (The road up Charcoal Kilns is generally suitable for any vehicle, but I’d seen warnings that storms had damaged the road.)

Charcoal Kilns is a tourist attraction – ‘though it’s a long way to drive if you’re just coming to see these. Built in 1877 and used to create charcoal for local mining operations, the odd-looking domes are well-preserved. They are considered to be the best known surviving example of such kilns to be found in the western states. The reason for their preservation may be that they were only used for about two years.

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There’s a warning sign at Charcoal Kilns that the last section of road to Mahogany Flat is suitable for high clearance vehicles only. It looks OK so I continue by car, rather than walking the 1.6 miles. There’s a few rough bits, but I make it past Thorndike Campground and almost to the end of the road. A particularly badly rutted section spooks me a bit (despite my general philosophy that rental cars can go anywhere!) and I walk the last 0.5 miles on foot. The roads ends at Mahogany Flat Campground at 8,133 feet (2,479m) above sea level, where the start of the Telescope Peak walk is clearly marked.

The trail starts climbing immediately but very gently (the trail has an average 8% grade), and there’s soon views down into the North Fork Hanaupah Canyon and the salt flats far below. Although there’s not a lot of shade, there are a variety of trees, including the single-leaf pinyon and limber pine along the track.

After about 1.5 miles, there’s the first view of Telescope Peak in the distance, and the long ridge that leads up to it.

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After 2.6 miles i reach the broad plateau of Arcane Meadows (9,620 feet / 2932m); above to the north-west is the communications facility on Rogers Peak. This is the only non-wilderness high point in the park, and has been used as communications and instrumentation site by various government agencies since the late 1950s. For the first time there’s a view to the west – and it looks like a lot of smoke from wild fires in California will impact the views from the top 😦

The next few miles is pretty much flat – in fact, my GPS shows a slight descent, as the trail follows the western side of the long ridge, crossing a few sections of talus rock. Directly ahead is Telescope Peak.

It’s easy walking along the well-defined track as it follows the broad ridge, with views mostly to the west, and occassional views (below right) to the east and down what I think is Middle Fork Hanaupah Canyon.

Towards the of this section, as the trail starts to gain some altitude, there are some impressive examples of the bristlecone pine. These huge, gnarled trees on the higher slopes are up to 3,000 years old. Even after death, these pines often stand on their roots, for many centuries due to the wood’s extreme durability.

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There’s a final steep section – although, with many switch-backs, it’s never particularly steep. There’s three “mounds” that are ascended, before the final one that leads to the 11,049 ft (3,368m) summit.

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The views are amazing, my guide book says. You can see as Mount Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contigiuous states), it says…  But not today. The haze and smoke from the distant fires have significantly reduced visibility. Looking to the south and south-west is Sentinel Peak directly ahead, part of the Panamint mountains that stretch to the south. Below is the Panamint Valley, and barely visible on the far side of the valley is the Argus Mountains.

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Looking back to the north, Death Valley is below and barely visible on the other side of Death Valley is the Margosa Range. Despite the poor visibility, it’s an impressive view down 11,300 feet (3,400m) to the Badwater in Death Valley far below – only three other mountains in the US exceed this elevation difference!

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It’s not too windy at the top, but after taking a few photos I head back down the mountain – I’m not exactly disappointed with the walk, but it would have been amazing on a clear day!

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With the hard bit over, I’ve got more energy to admire the flora that survives in a pretty brutal environment. Another massive bristlecone pine stands at the edge of the trail, looking like leaves might sprout in the next rain – but it may also have been dead for over a 100 years.

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Where there are no trees, an abundance of low-lying grasses and ground plants survive in the rocky landscape.

The most impressive views are on the last part of the descent, looking down into Death Valley and across to the Margosa Range. Ironically, due to the haze, as I descend I can see further.

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I make it back to the car around 3:30pm – it’s taken me just under 7 hours to cover the 13.7 miles (22.1km) return trip. A bit less than the signage, as I started below the trail. And a bit slower than I expected, but after a long flight the previous day I didn’t feel in top form! With daylight endng pretty early in November, I enjoy my first (and only) Death Valley sunset on the way back to my accommodation at Beatty.

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I’m glad I did this walk – but I’ll have to come back! Maybe next time I’ll do the nearby Wildrose Peak, on a hopefully clear day!

Location Start from Mahogany Flat Campground if possible, or park at Charcoal Kilns. Road from Charcoal Kiln may be closed in winter or impassable in 2WD/low clearance vehicles. There are some places yo can park along the access road or at Thorndike Campground about half-way up the 4WD road.
Distance 13.7 miles (22.1km) return – including part of the 4WD road.
Signage states 7 miles one-way, from trailhead, but is slightly less.
Grade Moderate. Total elevation gain of 3,690 feet / 1,125m
Season/s All year, but may have snow on trail Dec-Feb
Maps National Geographic “Death Valley” 1:165,000
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
  • She Dreams of Alpine blog post
  • Hiking Death Valley National Park (Falcon Guide) book

West Rim trail (Zion National Park)

The West Rim trail is one one of the longer day walks in Zion National Park, descending from Lava Point along the Horse Pasture Plateau to the floor of Zion Canyon.

The West Rim trail is the main objective of my visit to Zion National Park, after driving through the park from Bryce Canyon and taking the short but scenic Canyon Overlook trail yesterday.  I’d booked an early-morning shuttle up to the trailhead at Lava Point a few weeks ago, which would get me to the start of the track by about 8am. Although my guidebook suggested it was one of the most popular backpacking trails in Zion, there was just one couple who were taking the shuttle to Lava Point, and doing the walk over two days.

The track is well-sign posted as it heads across the Horse Pasture Plateau, past a turn-off to Wildcat Canyon (Lava Point to West Rim is part of a much longer multi-day walk, starting at Lee Pass on the western side of Zion National Park). It’s easy and pleasant walking along the plateau.

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In stark contrast to my hike at Bryce Canyon the previous days, there’s a plethora of flowering plants along the trail. The sego lily, native to a number of western states, is also the state flower of Utah. Very common and almost out of place along the verdant path is the Engelmann prickly pear. The most impressive are the white flowers of the yucca baccata, one of the most common yucca of the southwest.

After a few kilometres, there’s the first glimpses in the distance of some of the more dramatic cliffs and formations of Zion National Park to the east.

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Quite unexpectedly, a lookout provides a view to the west down the Left Fork, with the South Guardian Angel peak directly ahead. After a somewhat dull start (in terms of scenery!) the Zion landscape starts to reveal itself…

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After this tantalizing glimpse of the Zion peaks, the track continues down the middle of Horse Pasture Plateau, still descending gradually. It’s a very easy hike so far!

After four miles (6.4km) Potato Hollow is reached, one of the camping sites along the track. The track climbs briefly from here over a small ridge, from which there are views over the grassy meadow of Potato Hollow and the surrounding hills.

From the ridge above Potato Hollow, the track turns south, drops into a small valley before climbing up to another ridge. There are great views along the trail – apparently the result of a fire caused by lightning in 1980 that burnt most of the trees.

At the top of this last ridge is the junction with Telephone Canyon Trail, which is a slightly shorter route (it rejoins the main West Rim Trail 1.8 miles further on). There’s really no option though – the main West Rim Trail follows the edge of the escarpment and offers spectacular views. It’s worth the extra 1.4 miles!

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The views are fantastic along the entire section of this track, changing subtly as different mountains come into view. The earlier views (above) take in the white cliffs along the Right Fork of the North Creek and South Guardian Angel. As the track continues, Heaps Canyon can be seen, the Mountain of the Sun and Twin Brothers peaks in the distance, and the flat-topped Mount Majestic and Cathedral Mountain.

There’s an abundance of flowers along the trail, keeping the local bees and insects happy!

Shortly before re-joining the Telephone Canyon Trail, the West Rim Trail bears north-west as it rounds the southern tip of the plateau.

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As the trail continues to descend, it passes another couple of camping sites and a spring, which is right at the edge of the cliffs above Telephone Canyon (bottom right). The water is just a trickle and really needs filtration, so I just take a quick photo of the valley below and continue down West Rim Trail…

Not long after the spring and junction with the Telephone Canyon Trail, the trail starts to descend with vigour… We’re heading more or less straight down into the Behunin Canyon below.

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The track descends steeply through multiple switch-backs down the sheer sandstone cliff, before reaching the head of the valley below.

At the bottom there’s some patches of welcome shades from the tall trees – spruce and Douglas firs grow here, rarely found at such low elevations (I read this later!) but able to thrive due to the shade provided by the surrounding cliffs.

Unfortunately the shade doesn’t last long, and the track soon leaves the forest as it descends around the base of Mount Majestic before reaching a very solid bridge at the base of a side-canyon.

The track then starts to climb, as it passes the base of Cathedral Mountain (bottom left) and traverses a rocky outcrop. This section of track is quite undulating and hot in the midday sun.

I’m relieved to see Scout Lookout below, as the track descends down the steep ridge, with Angels Landing rising high above it.

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There’s impressive views for the last half a mile, down to the base of Angels Landing.

From Scouts Landing, there’s two options: continue down to the base of the valley, or follow the chains up to Angels Landing, along a narrow ridge that looks impossible to traverse.

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I head towards Angels Landing – it seems a fitting end to the day. Although there are hundreds of people with the same idea, and many look like they probably shouldn’t be here…

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The views down into the Zion valley are spectacular, even from the base of Angels Landing.

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I turn back well before the top – I’ve been once before, when I left very late in the day and had the trail almost to myself. Unlike today, where there’s a queue to the top. Trying to pass people who were already struggling well before the peak isn’t my idea of a fun afternoon! So, it’s down Walter’s Wiggles, the incredible set of switch-backs that goes to the bottom of the valley.

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It’s an impressive feat of engineering, named after Zion National Park’s first superintendent Walter Ruesch, who in 1926 constructed the trail to Angels Landing.

I’m glad I’m going down and not up; it’s still pretty warm and there’s not much space on the track down.

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Emerald Pools

After reaching the Virgin River (and having a quick swim to cool off), it’s still only mid-afternoon so I extend my hike by visiting The Grotto and Emerald Pools. (Interestingly, more people have died on the Emerald Pools trail than on the Angel Falls trail.) The Kayenta Trail follows the river downstream from The Grotto, where the West Rim Trail ends.

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It’s a relatively easy “extension” : although the trail undulates a little, there’s no steep sections.

The trail is pretty busy, being one of the more popular short hikes in Zion, as I make my way to the Middle Emerald Pools. There’s a bit of a flow, but nothing spectacular, and a few kid are swimming or wading in the small pool.

A little further on, the Lower Emerald Pools are a bit more impressive, with the trail passing under a long overhang.

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Water drips over the top – something in between a “drip” and “cascade” – and falls into the pools below the cliffs.

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From here it’s a paved path back to Zion Lodge, where there’s another bridge over the Virgin River.

Zion Lodge is a hive of activity, and I’m not too unhappy to catch a shuttle bus back my car which is parked at Springdale. I’ve enjoyed the walk, especially the middle bit, where the scenery is spectacular and I’ve encountered just a handful of people. Unfortunately, finishing at Angels Landing in peak season is a bit of a let-down after the serenity of the rest of the walk… it would be perfect to have done the walk in the opposite direction, getting to Angels Landing before the crowds. But getting a shuttle back from Lava Point would be pretty much impossible. Still, I’m not complaining – Zion National Park for the second time has not disappointed with its incredible scenery.

Location Starts at Lava Point and finishes at The Grotto (trailhead) or Zion Lodge. Shuttles can be booked from Springdale to Lava Point.
Distance Approx 14.5 miles (24km). 18 miles (29.7km) as walked with Emerald Pools, finishing at Zion Lodge
Grade Moderate (615m elevation gain / 1500m elevation loss)
Season/s Spring to Autumn (snowbound in winter)
Maps National Geographic “Zion Canyon” topographic map
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)

 

Canyon Overlook (Zion National Park)

A short but scenic walk just off the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which ends with an impressive view over lower Zion Canyon.

It’s my second visit to Zion National Park: I have a day here, after enjoying the jaw-dropping scenery at Bryce Canyon. Leaving Bryce in the late afternoon, I’ve got just enough time for a short walk on the way to Springdale, where I’m staying overnight. I’ve got an early start on the following day for the West Rim walk.

Coming from the east, I need to cross the national park via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Completed in 1930, it’s an impressive ten-mile stretch of road as it winds past and through rock formation in the park. Near the middle are two tunnels carved through the rock. The second one is 1.1 miles long, with a number of windows along it’s length providing a glimpse of the valley below. Just before the second tunnel is a steep track down from the carpark into Pine Creek, a narrow slot canyon. I explore the first hundred metres or so, before there’s a steep drop. This is the first of six rappels in a strenuous but fairly short canyoneering route.

On the opposite of the road to Pine Creek is the start of the Canyon Overlook trail. The trail heads up a series of stone stairs, rising quickly above the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and the start of the second and longest tunnel.

The trail then follows the upper walls of the Pine Creek Canyon, at times passing some overhangs.

As the trail progresses you can see down into Pine Creek canyon – far below I can see the small group of canyoners that I’d met half an hour earlier commencing their descent into the canyon.

A bit further on there’s a large overhang that could almost be described as a cave. Directly opposite is the East Temple, rising above Pine Creek.

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A few hundred metres past this overhang is the lookout or overlook. High above the lower Zion Canyon, there’s an impressive view of the Streaked Wall, and the Beehives at the far end of the valley. You can see the switchbacks of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway below the west end of the Mount Carmel Tunnel. Directly below the overlook is the Great Arch which is recessed into the cliff underneath us.

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After enjoying the view, the sky starts to look threatening and I make a hasty retreat… it’s a fairly quick return back to the car, and there’s only a few drops of rain despite the dark sky. After driving through the Mount Carmel Tunnel, there’s a great view back from the side of the road of the Great Arch. Directly above the Great Arch is the Overlook.

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It’s a scenic drive through a set of switch-backs, as the road descends steeply down to the Virgin River at the bottom of the canyon.

I make one last stop when I reach the parking area along the Virgin River, and go for a short walk down to the river.

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Munching on the lush vegetation bordering the river is a deer, who lets me get fairly close before taking off.

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The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the Virgin River upstream to Zion Lodge to where it ends at the Temple of Sinawava, providing access to most of the popular walks. Between April and October it’s closes to public cars (unless you’re staying at Zion Lodge) and is serviced by a shuttle. I’m staying just outside the park in Springdale, so I continue for another couple of miles down the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.

Location Canyon Overlook Trailhead and parking lot is just to the east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
Distance Approx 2km (1.2 miles) from carpark
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain of 50m
Season/s All year
Maps National Geographic “Zion Canyon
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)
zion national park hiking map Unique Joe s Guide to Zion National Park Canyon Overlook Trail Hiking Guide
Map showing Canyon Overlook route. Source: Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park Canyon Overlook Trail

 

Bryce Canyon – the top trails!

An extended Bryce Canyon hike that incorporates the Navajo Loop Trail, Peekaboo Loop, Queens Garden Loop and Fairyland Loop to take in the most spectacular sections of the canyon in one day.

I’ve managed to fly in a few days early for a conference, so I’ve got two full hiking days that I’ve split between Bryce Canyon and my second visit to Zion National Park. My general intent is to try and squeeze as many walks as I can combine into one day at Bryce Canyon…

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The Highlights

  • You can’t really go wrong about where to watch the sunset – although Sunset Point is the most spectacular (get there early to get a parking spot or catch the shuttle bus). Or if you want to avoid the crowds, you’ll have Paria View more or less to yourself…
  • Navajo Loop Trail is the best walk if you’re limited for time or not up for a longer walk – even better, combine the Navajo Loop Trail and Queens Garden Trail (2.9 miles / 4.6kms) which captures some of the most impressive vistas. And start as early as you can to beat the crowds on the Queens Garden Trail.
  • Fairyland Loop is perhaps the best of both worlds – not as spectacular as Navajo Loop Trail, but a more contemplative experience without the crowds with a variety of rock formations
  • You could easily spend a few days here – but equally I felt a full day was sufficient (or two days to spread out a few walks). Just make sure you get there in time for at least one sunset! And get up early to avoid the crowds.

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First impressions

I arrive at the spectacular Bryce Canyon late in the afternoon after a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas airport – a bit too late to start any hikes, but just in time to catch the sunset. I make my way to Bryce Point, which offers one of the most scenic vistas of the full Bryce amphitheatre. There’s a large viewing platform with 180-degree views, and a few of the hiking trails start from here. You see sort of what’s in the photo below, but it’s one of those places where a photograph doesn’t do justice to the incredible landscape.

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After admiring the spectacular views from here, I drive a short distance to Paria View. There’s a short walk to this more remote lookout, which faces west and catches the last rays of the setting sun. It’s also much less busy than Bryce Point – I see less than five people for the hour I’m here.

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The views are not as spectacular as Bryce Point, but still pretty impressive as the colours change with with setting sun.

I’ve got just enough time to get to Sunset Point before it’s darkIt’s quite a change after  Paria View – from enjoying an almost deserted lookout, I’m now sharing the view from Sunset Point with hundreds of people, both at the lookout and on the very popular Navajo Loop Trail below.

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Not that the number of people is surprising – this is the most spectacular sunset vantage point, with the hoodoos almost glowing red against the darkening sky.

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I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s hike. ‘Though while some places make you work hard to earn the view, Bryce feels almost the opposite. I could sit here all day and watch the changing colours of the almost surreal landscape, without making any effort.

The Hike

I get up early – to catch the sunrise, avoid the crowds and allow plenty of time for an extended circuit that combines four of the most popular Bryce Canyon trails.

Navajo Loop (1 mile / 1.6km)

Starting at Sunset Point, which is roughly in the middle of my extended hike, I take the Navajo Loop track which descends to the floor of Bryce Canyon.

Being the most popular track, I figure that by starting here early I’ll avoid most of the crowds… I’m not the first person – there’s a line of photographers and tripods facing the rising sun – but no crowds and no problem getting a parking spot. From the start of the walk you can see Thor’s Hammer, an example of a tent rock or fairy chimney (bottom right photo – it’s the tall, narrow pinnacle with an even narrower neck, supporting a large hammerhead-like rock on the left-hand side of the photo).

I head down the left-hand (eastern) trail, which descends steeply via a series of switch-backs. Towering above are hoodoo formations and some Douglas fir trees, which seem out of place in this environment.

Near the bottom is the Twin Bridges formation, just off the track and with warning signs advising of instability. Maybe next time I visit it will be the Single Bridge formation?

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It’s just under a mile to the junction with the trail that connects the Navajo Loop to the Peekaboo Loop Trail. (You can also continue back to the top via the Navajo Loop Trail, which is a 1.4mile / 2.2km circuit in total.)

Peekaboo Loop Trail (4 miles / 6.4km)

From the start of the Peekaboo Trail, Silent City can be seen to the north just below Sunset Point where I started the walk – it’s an extraordinarily high concentration of hoodoos. (I’m doing the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, which is the opposite to the direction you’re supposed to walk. It’s still pretty early in the day and I figure I won’t encounter many people on the trail.)

Another impressive formation is The Cathedral, a large butte that stands behind several large hoodoos.

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The Peekaboo Trail then winds past numerous hoodoos, and there are views of the Wall of Windows to the south, a long, thin ridge containing several natural arches.

Just over a mile into the Peekaboo Trail, there’s a faint but obvious track that heads off to the left (east) – it might be an older route that’s no longer used. This small detour offers a great view of the hoodoos around the track, and you can see Peekaboo Trail itself winding along the valley.

The trail then goes through a tunnel cut into the ridge

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After the tunnel, the trail descends steeply via a set of switch-backs: in the distance, to the south, is Paria View.

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The trail follows a series of washes. I spot a mule deer just above the path – about the only wildlife I see all day.  Just after my mule encounter, I reach the trail that connects the Peekaboo Trail with Bryce Point.

I continue along the Peekaboo Trail (I could also have gone up to Bryce Point and then taken the Rim Trail back to Sunset Point). I’m happy, in hindsight, with the decision to continue along the Peekaboo Trail. The trail swings around to the north and heads towards a cluster of hoodoos.

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Another artificial tunnel creating an arch provides another nice photo opportunity, as the trail ascends gradually up the valley.

The trail is more exposed here, with hoodoos on both sides of the wide valley.

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Looking back, the arch cut into the rock can be seen, with hoodoos above and Bryce Point in the background.

The final stretch of the Peekaboo Loop Trail back to the Navajo Loop junction is fantastic walking, with hoodoos and pink limestone formations on both sides of the trail

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It’s taken just under 2.5 hours to cover the 8km, down to the canyon floor via the Navajo Loop Trail and around the Peekaboo Trail to the start of the Queen’s Garden Trail.

Queen’s Garden Trail (2 miles / 3.1km)

Another trail, another tunnel… the Queen’s Garden Trail starts (or ends) with a tunnel cut into the rock, before following a long row of hoodoos that are right next to the trail.

It’s less than a mile to Queens Garden (0.8 miles / 1.3km), where there’s a short trail that leads to the Queen Victoria formation. Which I think is the one below 🙂

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I’m beginning to get a big hoodoo-ed out by now, although the Queen’s Garden lookout is pretty impressive. It’s now about 9am, and while I saw about three people on the Peekaboo Loop trail, the Queens Garden Trail is much busier. There’s about ten people at the viewing area, so I don’t venture up some of the side trails that would offer a better view – but are all signposted with “closed” signs.

The trail starts to ascend gradually from here; I’m now sharing the trail with a few more people.

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There’s three tunnels along the Queens Garden trail between the valley and Sunrise Point. The first tunnel marks the start of (another) very scenic and high-hoodoo section!

The trail now heads straight up towards a number of tall hoodoos, before it follows the base of the formations.

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Then through the second tunnel, where the trail starts to get steeper and switchbacks between hoodoos.

As the trail gains altitude there’s some nice views to the east, towards the Aquarius Plateau to the east

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As the trail nears the top, there’s also a nice view of the Queens Garden Trail below and the formations of the “Queens’ Garden” to the west.

The views as the Queens Garden Trail nears Sunrise Point are truly impressive, and I’m stopping frequently to take photo (and possibly because it is now getting a bit warm in the sun!) There’s views a long way out to the south and south-east, and huge drop-offs from the trail to the valley below.

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Fairyland Trail (9 miles / 14.5km)

From Sunrise Point the trail follows the top of the ridge for a short distance (500m) before reaching the Fairyland Loop. I decide, for no particular reason, to do the loop in an anti-clockwise direction, and set-off down from the ridge and towards Tower Bridge.

The trail descends gradually but constantly – if you’re only doing this hike start early as the first few miles is very exposed (I’m going downhill, so it’s not too bad). I’m pleasantly surprised that despite being a far less popular walk (partly due to its length) the scenery along the descent to Tower Bridge is no less spectacular than any of the other walks. And even though it’s mid-morning, I only see a handful of people on the walk (many of them on their way back, as they started much earlier.)

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To the south is the Chinese Wall (or China Wall), another prominent formation, which is considered to be one of the best examples in the Bryce Canyon of the evolution of walls into fins, windows and hoodoos.

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The Fairyland trail descends relentlessly – I’m glad I’m heading down to the valley. Seeing the track endlessly snaking up the hill would have been a bit disheartening! I’ve also seen the formation below described as the Chinese Wall – it’s a very long row of hoodoos that the trail follows the base of.

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After about 1.5 miles (2.5km) from the start of the trail is the the turn-off for Tower Bridge, another feature of this walk. The side-track to the viewing area below Tower Bridge is only about 200 yards / 180m. On any other walk it would be amazing. After five hours of walking almost non-stop through hoodoos it’s still impressive, but somehow I seemed to have reached a point of rock-formation-exhaustion!

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The Fairyland Loop track is fairly exposed for most of it’s length as it winds around some large formations. There’s another view of  Tower Bridge from above, where you can see more clearly the natural arch formed by the extreme weathering in Bryce Canyon.

Another prominent formation that can be seen from different angles along the track is the Boat Mesa (below). This huge formation is in the middle of Fairyland Loop Trail.

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I haven’t seen much wildlife, but when I find a stunted tree near the track that offers a little shade for a lunch break, I see a Steller’s Jay. It’s a conspicuous bird with bold black-and-blue colouring, and the only crested jay of the western states. A bit further on I spot an Arizona Thistle Flower, a North American species of thistle in the sunflower family.

The trail ascends for the last 1.5 miles – although fairly gradually, and with plenty of rock formations to distract you from the climb.

It gets a bit steeper as the trail nears Fairyland Point on the ridge, but never as steep as the other trails into the valley, like the Najavo Loop trail. An impressive row of hoodoos  faces the trail on the opposite side of Fairyland Canyon.

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Just before reaching Fairyland Point, there’s a nice view of the Sinking Ship formation in the distance.

I reach Fairyland Point at the top of the ridge at about 2pm, with just the final stretch along the top of the canyon to get back to the car.

Fairyland Point to Sunset Point – Rim Trail (3 miles / 5km)

It’s uphill from Fairyland Point to Sunset Point, especially the first mile, but fairly gradual. The Rim Trail follows the edge of the escarpment, so there’s great views over the canyon below.

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It’s a constantly changing landscape of rock formations as far as the eye can see.

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Just before the Rim Trail meets the start of the Fairyland Loop track, I make a small and unplanned diversion to the North Campground General Store for a cold drink. It’s now just half a mile before I’m back at Sunset Point. The car park’s now full and the lookout crowded. It’s time to leave…

It’s been a long day of hiking, through the most incredible landscape. In hindsight I’m happy with the route I took, although I would have changed it slightly to do Queens Garden Loop first to avoid the crowds, then the Peekaboo Trail. Even better would be to visit during a less popular time of year – I hope one day I can do the same hike again in winter!

Location You could start from Sunrise Point or Sunset Point. I started at Sunset Point (plenty of parking if you get here early and a shuttle-bus stop) and took the well sign-posted Navajo Loop Trail
Distance 26.8km (16.5 miles) as walked (combining four separate trails)
Grade Moderate/Hard. Total elevation gain of 1,015m elevation gain
Season/s Most of the year (May-Sep is peak season), Some trails may be closed or hard to navigate in winter
Maps
  • “Exploring Bryce Canyon” map from Visitor Centre is sufficient for most hikes
  • National Geographic “Bryce Canyon NP” (1:20K & 1:40K) is best
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)
Map-BryceCanyon
Map showing Bryce Canyon route (yellow)

The Window

The trail to The Window is long and fairly tedious – but all is forgotten when you get to the end. The views from The Window, a canyon that cuts through the Chisos mountain rim, are sublime!

This is another walk that’s probably very busy at certain times of the year, but as I set out an hour before sunset there’s no-one else around. Although late in the day, I was looking for a trail that might provide a good sunset vantage point. The trail starts at the Basin car park – although you can also start at the Basin Campground (making it a slightly shorter route).

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The well-made trail soon starts descending, with the destination visible in the distance: the V-shaped gap at the of the valley (to the immediate left of the gap is Carter Peak, and to the right is Vernon Bailey Peak).  There’s no marked track to the top of Vernon Bailey Peak, but you can hike to the top and the views are said to be among the best in Big Bend.

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Catching the last of the sun’s rays is Pulliam Peak (or Pulliam Bluff) – one of the two main peaks making up the northwestern rim of the Basin along with Vernon Bailey Peak.

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The trail is fairly exposed for the first mile as it crosses the middle of the Basin, until it reaches Oak Creek. It then enters a forest of pines, oaks and juniper.

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The trail follows Oak Creek, and after 2.3 miles (3.7km) there’s a junction with the Oak Springs Trail. This trail leads to a look-out, and continues down toward Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – The Window can also be reached via this track, which I’ve read is a more scenic route (but a 4WD is recommended to reach the trailhead). Just after this junction the trail enters a rock canyon, carved by Oak Creek. The creek is the only drainage point for the entire Basin, so while rainfall is low, when there is a storm considerable water is funnelled through the canyon.

Near the end of the canyon there are stone steps carved into the rocks, and Oak Creek is crossed several times.

The Window marks the end of the canyon: a narrow crevice carved by Oak Creek, with a sheer, vertical drop to the desert floor below. The canyon floor is smooth and slippery, so caution is needed.

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Facing almost directly west, it’s not a bad spot to photograph the sunset, with the “window” framing distant Chisos mountains.

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I stay here for half an hour or so, as the sky gets gradually more orange…  there’s no-one else here, and the photos don’t really do justice to the view and serenity.

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Eventually I need to get going – not so much as it’s starting to get dark (I have a head-torch), but because I’m getting pretty hungry, and I’ve got a 2.8 mile hike back out I need to do before the restaurant closes…

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Location The Basin car park (or the Basin campground, which makes the hike slightly shorter)
Distance 8.95km (5.5 miles) return
Grade Easy. 290m ascent on a well-built trail.
Season/s All year round. Avoid after/during storms
Maps The Basin topographical map.
Also “Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map.
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.62
BigBend-Window
Route to the Window from the Basin. Source: “Hiking Big Bend National Park” book

Emory Peak (Big Bend)

A long day walk that ascends Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park, and continues to the South Rim, Southeast Rim and Northeast Rim. Spectacular views for most of the route!

Today’s my second and last day at Big Bend, and I’m up early for a big hike… 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.

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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.

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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.

Emory Peak (and back) – 4.9km / 3 miles (330m ascent)

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.

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As the trail gets closer to the 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 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.

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To the south is the Rio Grande, and Mexico.

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The panoramic views are stunning, and it takes some effort to clamber back down the rock, 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…)

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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There are a number of rock platforms providing a spectacular vantage point over the Big Bend National Park.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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.

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A broad rock platform on the edge of the cliff provides a last view to the south and south-east.

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.

As the trail descends further, The Basin comes into view – overshadowed by the Casa Grande Peak to the right and the Pulliam Bluff behind.

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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.

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Eventually, I reach the junction with the Basin Loop Trail, with Emory Peak now in the distance. Almost home!

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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. It’s 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.

Location  The Basin parking area (Visitor Centre)
Distance 31km (19 miles) circuit inc Emory Peak
Grade Moderate. 1100m total ascent on a very well-built trail.
Season/s All year round.
Maps The Basin and Emory Peak topographical maps.
Or “Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map.
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.27,31,34
BigBend-EmoryPeak
Map showing route of Emory Peak via North and South Rim Trails. Source: Hiking Big Bend National Park book

Lost Mine Trail (Big Bend NP)

Lost Mine Trail is a steep walk up to a ridge, rewarded by stunning views over the Chisos Mountains and out toward Mexico. Go early or late to avoid the crowds.

The last hike of my first day at Big Bend, with a couple of hours of daylight left. I’d seen mixed reviews of this trail, with some comments that it’s “over-rated”, and others suggesting it was one of the best walks in the park. Either way, it’s one of the most popular trails in the park: by setting out at 5pm, apart from a few people on their way back, I had the trail pretty much to myself.

There’s a big sign at the start warning of wild bears and mountain, which is comforting when walking on your own, just before dusk 🙂 The well-made track starts climbing immediately through light juniper, oak and pinyon pine forest, and there’s no views for the first kilometre or so.

Shortly after the first kilometre (0.7 miles) of steady uphill walking, you start getting views to the south over Juniper Canyon and towards Mexico.

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The track is now quite exposed; being very late afternoon means it’s still a comfortable temperature. But I wouldn’t like to be doing this section at midday in summer! After 1.5km (just under a mile) there’s a saddle, from where there’s great views south towards Mexico, as well the ridge above the track and Lost Mine Peak to the north of the trail.

After the saddle, the track gets more steep with multiple switchbacks. The quality of the track, built from 1940-42 by the Civilian Conservation Corps can be seen here with examples of some serious stonework.

Between some of the switchbacks, there’s a great view to the west to the Chisos Basin Campground, and to The Window at the end of the Chisos Basin.

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I spot a Mexican Jay (formerly known as grey-breasted jay), which feeds largely on acorns and pine nuts and lives in montane pine-oak forest (in Mexico and parts of Arizona and Texas).

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Finally, the last exposed ridge is reached after 3.5km (just over two miles) – which is also the highest point of the trail. However, the best views are at the end of this 400m ridge.

From the end of the trail, there are spectacular views in most directions – to the south-east is Pine Canyon and the Sierra Del Carmen, in Mexico.

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To the south-west is the east rim of the Chisos mountains.

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I’ve got the summit to myself for over an hour, as I wait for the sun to set. It’s cold on the exposed ridge due to the wind, but tucked down in the rocks it’s the perfect temperature. I only wish I’d thought to bring some wine or a whiskey with me: it would have been the perfect end to the day (although, I still have the descent ahead of me!).

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As the sun dips behind the Casa Grande peak, it’s time to head back to the car.

The descent is much quicker than the ascent, despite the fading light (for the last mile I need to use my head torch). I’m at the Chisos Mountain Lodge by 8:30pm, in time for dinner. It’s been a magnificent walk, and I’m glad I ignored the advice that suggested avoiding this trail. I’m also very happy that I went late in the day, and avoided the crowds – in summary, I’d definitely put this trail at the very top of the Big Bend “must do” list. But go very early in the morning or late in the day, and avoid the crowds. I can imagine that following a queue of people up through a series of switchbacks in the midday sun would put you off this walk.

Location Trail near Panther Pass, just before reaching the Basin
Distance 7.8km (4.8 miles) return
Grade Easy. 350m ascent on a very well-built trail.
Season/s All year round. Is one of the busiest trails.
Maps The Basin topographical map.
Also “Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map.
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.56

The Best of Big Bend (Texas)

A combination of driving and hiking, to explore the best parts of Big Bend National Park over two days.

Having arrived at Big Bend from Sydney after about 19 hours of flying on three flights followed by a four hour drive, I couldn’t face an early start to tackle one of the longest day-hikes in the park (South Rim). Instead, my first day at Big Bend would be a drive through the park. I’d do some of the shorter hikes I’d picked out from my guide book, that would reveal some of the different landscapes in Big Bend National Park. The second day would be the Big Bend Big Hiking Day!

Overview

Texas would not normally be top of my list as a hiking destination in the US. But I’m in Dallas for a conference, and my closest option is Big Bend National Park. Bordering Mexico, it’s a 1:15min direct flight from Dallas (to Odessa Midlands airport). It wouldn’t be too hot in late October/November, and there was a big range of walks. The scenery was spectacular, and the hiking completely exceeded my expectations! You could easily stay a week here exploring the area – my recommendation would to book well ahead if you can, and stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge (the only accommodation within the park). October to May is regarded as the best time to go, and the very end of October was perfect – warm but not hot days, and chilly evenings.

As well as hiking, the park is a good place for astral viewing or photography  – in 2012, the park was named as an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. You can also do rafting or canoeing trips down the Rio Grande River (which I didn’t have time for, and I prefer hiking given the limited time). To reach some of the trailheads, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required – or so I was told. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck or puncturing a tire on my rental car.

https://hikingtheworld.blog/

Highlights

It’s hard to pick out any single area or hike – and with only two full days, I didn’t get to Rio Grande Village, and the border crossing with Mexico. This could be another full day trip, including some of the walks in this area.

So, what are the best hikes in Big Bend? My recommendations, if you only have a few days in the area:

  • Emory Peak and South Rim – even more spectacular views than Lost Mine, but a long day walk. If you don’t like heights or rock scrambling, skip the summit and do the extended South Rim (Northeast and Southeast Rim trails). If you only do one walk in Big Bend – do this one!
  • Lost Mine –  great views for a relatively short walk. Go very early – or late – to avoid the crowds as it’s a popular walk. I had the top to myself for over an hour in the late afternoon, and it’s good spot to watch the sun set (bring a good torch!)
  • Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (below) – you could easily spend the day exploring the area, if you do some of the shorter walks.
  • Santa Elena Canyon at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – very different scenery from the other walks, as you follow the Rio Grande upstream.

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Day One – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Lost Mine

On entering the park on the 118 near Study Butte (I’m coming from Terlingua Ranch, the closest accommodation I could find at relatively short notice), the ranger recommends Maxwell Drive as being the most scenic option. After the flat and almost monotonous landscape all the way from Odessa Midlands to Big Bend, the mountains rising out of the desert make a pleasant change.

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My first stop is the Sotol Vista Overlook, a short detour off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There’s space for many cars to stop, but I share the lookout with just one other car and a small group of motorcyclists sporting Swiss flags on their Harleys.

The 180-degree view is impressive, looking over the western side of Big Bend National Park, with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.

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Not long after the Sotol Vista Overlook turn-off, the Mule Ear peaks are visible in the distance. The very distinctive peaks are two volcanic plugs, created by differential erosion of their lava beds.

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Towards the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the Santa Elena Canyon rises up in the distance, marking the border of the US and Mexico.

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It’s worth a brief stop at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, where there’s some interpretative signage about the canyon.  The most impressive in Big Bend National Park, the canyon was formed by the Rio Grande river cutting a deep, narrow gorge through the mountains. It changed direction sharply here, as a result of movement along the Terlingua fault zone that crosses the park.

Santa Elena Canyon (3.2km / 2 miles)

The best way to really appreciate the depth of the canyon is the relatively short Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which is clearly marked at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail heads through a tall stand of giant river cane, with the start of the canyon behind it.

The mouth of the canyon is soon reached. The cliffs to the right are the easterly edge of the Mesa de Anguila (a large mesa in the western part of Big Bend National Park).

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To enter the canyon, you need to cross Terlingua Creek, which drains into the Rio Grande. It can be dry – or it can flow strongly. I guess it was in between these two extremes, and I managed to cross it without my shoes getting too wet or muddy, but going 50m upstream.

Once this creek is crossed, the path climbs steeply up the side of the canyon on a paved track. This is one of the few exposed sections, with most of the track being shaded.

From the top of this section there’s a great view over the Rio Grande flood plain. In the far distance are the Sierra Quemada and Chisos Mountains.

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The trail then descends as it follows the river into the canyon.

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Most of the trail follows the edge of the river, sometime diverting inland through grass and giant river cane. Eventually there’s a sheer canyon wall that blocks any further access, and marks the end of the trail.

The trail returns the same way the car park.

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Location End of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Distance 2 miles (3.2km) return. GPS route on Routie.
Grade Easy. Total 180m ascent.
Season/s All year round. Can get very busy at peak times
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.102

From here – unless you have a high-clearance vehicle, in which case you can take Old Maverick Road to make a circuit – it’s back up Ross Maxwell Drive… The next stop is the Desert Mountain Overlook, a short walk to a viewpoint over the park.

The closest peak is the distinctive Cerro Castellan (1,004m), and in the distance is the Chisos Mountains with the highest peak in Big Bend, Emory Peak (2,387m).

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Just after the lookout is the Castolon Store where it’s time for lunch: a still half-frozen sandwich, and a drink. The store only gets deliveries weekly, so the choice of food is limited. But it does sell some books on the area, local maps, hats and other essential camping supplies.

Tuff Canyon

The next, short walk is Tuff Canyon, which starts right next to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. A narrow, sheer-walled canyon, Tuff Canyon was formed Blue Creek, which is one of the largest drainages of the Chisos Mountains.

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It’s a short and well-marked track, with two lookouts over the canyon, which are perched right above the crumbly edge of the canyon walls. The track then descends into the narrow (and shaded) canyon, which it follows for a while, allowing you to get a close look at the very loose “tuff” (a light, porous rock formed by consolidation of volcanic ash) that makes up the canyon.

Location Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (20 miles/32km from start of road)
Distance 0.8 miles (1.2km) return
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.99

A few miles after Tuff Canyon, the Mule Ear peaks come into view again.

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I don’t have time to do the full 11km (7 mile) return hike out to the base of the peaks, but I walk the first half a mile or so of the track, to get a view of the Mule Ears and the Chihuahuan desert. It looks like a pleasant walk, but the scenery wouldn’t change much along the trail.

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The Chimneys (8.4km / 4.8 miles)

My last hike from Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is The Chimneys Trail. It’s a very flat, featureless and exposed hike to the tall and rocky ridge, visible in the distance. I only see a handful of people, on their way back to the car park. (I wouldn’t recommend this walk if you have limited time.)

The Chimneys has always been an important landmark, and Indian rock art marks the base of one of the high pinnacles. There’s not much written about the Indian petroglyphs, which vary in age from thousands of years old to some carved in the 1700s and 1800s.

The petroglyphs are on the southern-most pinnacle, with an unmarked but distinct path leading from the main path up to the base of the rock outcrop.

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While the hike to The Chimneys is horribly boring, the landscape once you get there is interesting. Climbing some of the lower outcrops provides a good view over the desert landscape: to the south is Kit Mountain, and beyond that the Chisos Mountains.

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Location Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (12.8 miles/20km from start of road)
Distance 4.8 miles (8.4km) return. GPS route on Routie.
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.84

After this walk, I drive back to the end of Ross Maxwell Drive, and to the Chisos Basin to have a look at the Visitor Centre and get a drink.

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I’ve got time for one more hike: the Lost Mine Trail, which was on my “must do” list from prior research.

Lost Mine Trail (10km / 6 miles)

I had read conflicting reports on the Lost Mine Trail hike, from “must do” to “it’s completely over-rated”. I’d argue it should be near the top of your “to do list”, but pick a time when the trail is less busy. I went a couple of hours before sunset, and had the top (the hike doesn’t actually go to the Lost Mine peak summit) to myself – with great views as the sun set behind the Chisos mountains. I’ve covered this hike in a separate post.

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Day Two – Emory Peak and the Window

Today’s the “big day”, starting with a circuit of Emory Peak and the South Rim, and hopefully allowing enough time for another hike before it gets dark. I end up hiking 40km (25 miles) today across two hikes.

Emory Peak (31km / 19 miles)

The main reason not to do Lost Mine Trail, is if you are doing Emory Peak. This long day-hike offers outstanding views from Emory Peak, with some rock scrambling required at the end to reach the actual peak. It’s best combined with the South Rim, to make this into a circuit – even better, include the Northeast and Southeast Rim trails which adds a couple of miles, but offers panoramic views all the way along the trail. I’ve also covered this hike in a separate post.

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The Window (9km / 5.5 miles)

I’ve got just enough energy left to make it the Window, a canyon that end with a narrow slit in the Chisos mountain rim. It’s a pretty tedious walk, that goes gently downhill from the Basin car park. I wouldn’t like to do this walk in the middle of summer, especially coming back up the hill. But the somewhat boring nature of the walk is compensated by the last half a mile, where you enter a narrow canyon (with steps carved into the canyon walls) and end in front of the narrow Window, overlooking the desert.

Do this walk near the end of the day; you’ll avoid the crowds (I had the place to myself) and enjoy views of the distant mountains under an orange sky. This hike is also covered in a separate post.

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More information

For planning the hikes, the Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map and Hiking Big Bend National Park book by Laurence Parent were invaluable. The free map you get at the entrance gates was also useful when driving through the park.

Some other resources I found useful:

  • Best Hikes in Big Bend (blog) – I don’t agree with some of the advice, but found it useful as a starting point for researching what to do and see.
  • SummitPost – information on the highest peaks in Big Bend, including routes to hike or climb them (many have no marked trails and are for experienced hikers)
  • NPS – the official National Parks Web page, which include the calendar and booking page for Chisos Mountain Lodge (only accommodation in the park, other than camping – book as much in advance as you can).

Have I missed a great walk…? Let me know in the comments! I definitely plan to come back one day and do some more hikes in Big Bend.

Hamilton Pool

An impressive waterfall cascades over a semi-circular cave, into a turquoise pool ringed by trees.

My last stop on the way to the airport – I wasn’t expecting anything much, but Hamilton Pool seemed to warrant a short detour from Enchanted Rock.

I arrive around 2pm – I’ve read that there may be a queue and people may be turned away during busy periods, but I have no problems. The situation may be different at peak times, so worth checking if reservations are required – or arrive early! In any case, I quickly pay the entry fee and park; the carpark is perhaps 60% full, but it’s not too busy.

Heading down the steep path to Hamilton Creek, it’s only 10min before I reach the creek (it’s only a 1/2-mile or 800m round-trip from the carpark to the pool) and turn right toward Hamilton Pool.

The pool is breathtaking. One of those spots where you know the photos won’t do justice to the scene. I try anyway, and spend some time walking around the cave and behind the waterfall. Part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the pool and grotto were formed when the dome of an underground river collapsed due to massive erosion thousands of years ago.

There’s an inviting beach and the pool has been used as a swimming hole; a number of signs prohibit swimming due to high bacteria level. (On questioning the very friendly and helpful park ranger on my way out, it appears that there have been a couple of swimming deaths in recent years, and the swimming ban is less about bacteria and more about preventing any further drownings.)

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I’ve got a bit more time before I need to leave, so I continue down the trail towards the Pedernales River. There’s few people on this section, which is about 1.5 miles (2.4km) to the river and back to the car park. The trail closely follows the creek and it’s a pleasant and shaded walk, with very clear turquoise water. I don’t quite make it the whole way as I’m getting short of time, but I’ve really enjoyed this walk – it greatly exceeded expectations and is somewhere I’d definitely visit again.

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Location About 30 miles west of Austin on FM 3238
Distance 800m round-trip to pool. 2.4km to Pedernales River and back.
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round. Can get very busy on weekends and public holidays
Map USGS Topo Map Quad: Hammetts Crossing
Resources County Parks web site