The river is grand, the canyons are immense, and the mountains are enchanting. For outdoor enthusiasts visiting Texas’s Big Bend National Park, all of these attributes add up to one indisputable fact: hiking is splendid.
Don’t be surprised if, in a single day of hiking in the West Texas park, you pass by wild burros grazing on a cliff, catch countless glimpses of the mighty Rio Grande, and scale rugged mountains that resemble mules’ ears.
Located in the far southern reaches of the United States, Big Bend National Park is among the 15 largest U.S. national parks, and among the 20 least visited. The park’s size and relative remoteness work in your favor if you like your hikes somewhat secluded. When I visited Big Bend in late June, I often had the trails to myself and never had to wait for a parking space.
Of course, things tend to get busier in the fall and spring, when Big Bend’s temperatures drop into the comfortable 70-degree Fahrenheit range. Still, despite the hot, sunny 85-degree days, I found June to be pleasant, with a cool breeze never far away.
If you’re ready to drive a bit, you can easily sample all three of Big Bend’s districts — desert, mountain, and river — in a few days. And with more than 150 miles of trails available, you should be able to find hikes to suit virtually any skill level.
From easy to strenuous, here are 11 of the best hikes in Big Bend.
1. Panther Path
More a leisurely walk than a hike, the Panther Path offers a nice introduction to the park. It is located just off the park’s informative Panther Junction Visitor Center, and it winds through the flat cacti-strewn terrain that surrounds the center.
At just 50 yards long, the loop is rated as easy, and it is wheelchair accessible as well. When I visited, the trail was bordered by prickly pear cacti loaded with pink fruit — with the buttes of Big Bend serving as a backdrop. Walking the path takes about 10 minutes.
2. Sam Nail Ranch
For another super easy but scenic trail, check out the Sam Nail Ranch Trail, a half-mile loop that takes hikers to the old homestead of Jim and Sam Nail and Sam’s wife Nena. A true oasis in the desert, the ranch site was green and lush when I visited, and birds were singing in a chorus from the leafy trees.
The trail passes by several artifacts from the Nails’s ranching days, including vintage windmills and the remains of an old sod house. The trailhead is located right along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and the mostly flat loop trail takes about 15 to 20 minutes to walk.
3. Tuff Canyon Trail
Also located along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is another worthy stop-off at Tuff Canyon. Visitors who want just a view from above can proceed to the three convenient overlooks at the top of the canyon.
The overlook views are great, but I suggest visitors also proceed down the 0.75-mile round-trip Tuff Canyon Trail into the heart of the canyon. The white walls of the canyon rise sharply on both sides, making for a cool, shady hike. If you visit after a rain, as I did, you will be treated to water pooling on the rocky canyon floor. The hike is rated as easy and takes about a half-hour to complete.
4. Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail
There was no water gushing down the steep rock pour-off when I hiked the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail, but the hike still offers a beautiful walk through the Chihuahuan Desert terrain.
The trail heads through a gravel drainage and ends in a narrow box canyon where water has carved a deep channel into Burro Mesa. The trail ends at the 100-foot-high pour-off. The 1-mile round-trip trail is rated as easy, and it takes about a half-hour to complete.
5. Hot Springs Historic Trail
A fascinating bit of Big Bend history is on display at the Hot Spring Canyon Historic District. A sign at the site explains that homesteader J.O. Langford built the rustic hot springs resort after he arrived from Mississippi in 1909.
A 1-mile round trip on the Hot Springs Historic Trail will take hikers past remains of the resort, pictographs, the homestead, and the hot springs. The trail is rated as easy. It takes about a half-hour to complete.
Pro Tip: Note that the short drive into the hot springs is slightly scary, with steep dropoffs and one-way traffic. Also, a sign at the site warns visitors that thefts from unattended vehicles are common at the trailhead parking lot.
6. Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Perhaps the signature trail in Big Bend, the Santa Elena Canyon Trail leads into the mouth of the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon. After crossing Terlingua Creek, the trail climbs on paved steps to a vista and then heads back down to the water’s edge. The park website terms the trail “a Big Bend classic.” The 1.7-mile round-trip trail is rated as moderate. It takes about an hour to complete.
Pro Tip: Note that the Santa Elena Canyon Trail can become impassable during the rainy season. When I visited in late June, summer monsoons had flooded Terlingua Creek, and most hikers, including me, were unable to cross the creek to the paved steps. The rushing creek was neck-deep and bordered by slick mud.
7. Boquillas Canyon Trail
A climb up and over a rocky slope will take hikers to a beautiful stretch of the Rio Grande on the Boquillas Canyon Trail. The trail rises steeply from the trailhead toward a cliff overlooking the river. The route then continues down toward the river, where shady trees and sandy banks await. The 1.4-mile round-trip trail is rated as moderate. It takes about an hour to complete.
I loved this trail not just for the wonderful views of the river but for the animal life along the way. I got to see a herd of burros (donkeys) grazing on the steep cliffs, as well as flocks of turkey vultures perching on the shore and soaring over the river.
8. Lost Mine Trail
One of the most popular trails in the park, the Lost Mine Trail is known for stunning views of the Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. The 4.8-mile trail is rated as moderate and takes 2 to 3 hours to complete.
Pro Tip: With limited time, some hikers choose to proceed about a mile in, where a saddle offers great views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. From there, a steep climb along a forested trail will continue to a ridge with stellar views of Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.
9. Mule Ears Spring Trail
If you like your hiking views big and sweeping, the Mule Ears Spring Trail is the place to find them. With a view of the famous Mule Ears rock formations in front of you, the hike heads through the wide-open foothills of the Chisos Mountains and crosses several washes before arriving at a spring.
The hike is about 3.8-miles round-trip and involves more than 800 feet in elevation gain. It is rated as moderate.
10. Window Trail
Another iconic Big Bend view is available on the Window Trail, a 5.6-mile round-trip route that descends steeply into Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off. The views are stunning, with classic Big Bend mountain and desert terrain.
While the hike is rated as moderate, the park cautions that much of the trek in is downhill, and the hike out can be strenuous. An early morning start is advised.
Pro Tip: An easy 0.3-mile round-trip Window View Trail is available for a look at the Window from above. The spot is a popular place for taking in a Big Bend sunset.
11. Emory Peak Trail
Adventurous and fit hikers looking for an all-day trek may want to check out the Emory Peak Trail, located in the Chisos Mountains. At a 10.5-miles round trip and a 2,400-foot elevation gain, the summit trail comes with bragging rights of climbing the park’s highest peak. The hike is rated as strenuous, and it will take 5 to 7 hours to complete.
After a 3.5-mile climb along the forested Pinnacles Trail, hikers will come to the Emory Peak Trail Junction and then follow a 1-mile spur trail to the peak. The last quarter mile is a steep climb, and the top section requires a scramble up an exposed rock face. “But the 360-degree view from Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, is superb,” said the park’s website.
How To Get There
Big Bend is a fairly long drive from all of the major city airports in Texas. Midland-Odessa is about a 3-hour drive, El Paso is a 4 and 1 half-hour drive, San Antonio is a 6-hour drive, Dallas is an 8-hour drive, and Houston is a 9-hour drive. My recommendation is to start in El Paso and wind through the fascinating towns of Marfa and Alpine on a West Texas road trip to the park.
Big Bend National Park offers visitors stunning vistas and opportunities for many outdoor adventures: