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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The trail then descends as it follows the river into the canyon.
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.
||End of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
||2 miles (3.2km) return. GPS route on Routie.
||Easy. Total 180m ascent.
||All year round. Can get very busy at peak times
||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).
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.
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.
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.
||Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (20 miles/32km from start of road)
||0.8 miles (1.2km) return
||All year round.
||Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.99
A few miles after Tuff Canyon, the Mule Ear peaks come into view again.
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.
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 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.
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.
||Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (12.8 miles/20km from start of road)
||4.8 miles (8.4km) return. GPS route on Routie.
||All year round.
||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.
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.
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.
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.
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.