11 Top-Rated Hikes in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is home to some incredible hiking trails, ranging from hikes through the desert, along mountain ridges, beside the Rio Grande river, and through canyons. The park is divided into three main areas: the Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin, and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Castolon/Santa Elena Canyon. Each of these offers something completely different. The Chisos Basin area is set high in the mountains and is where you'll find the majority of the hikes. The Rio Grande Village area is set along the Rio Grande River and offers a number of beautiful hikes and short trails with views of the river. The Santa Elena Canyon is also on the Rio Grande River and home to one of the park's most spectacular hikes.
To get to the Santa Elena Canyon area, you will drive along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, from where there are a couple of interesting desert hikes and viewpoints.
If you are staying in Marathon and commuting to the park, the Chisos Basin area is the closest point, and Rio Grande Village is farther south. If you are arriving from the west side of the park, from Terlingua, Study Butte, and Lajitas, the closest area is Santa Elena Canyon. The park is large, but it's still possible to stay on either side and easily drive across the park and back in a day. Save yourself some time with our list of the top hikes in Big Bend National Park.
1. Santa Elena Canyon Trail
This amazing 1.6-mile, in-and-out hike takes you into one of the most dramatic features in Big Bend National Park, the Santa Elena Canyon. The trail runs along the edge of the Rio Grande River, sometimes at the water's edge and sometimes on a ridge a few stories above, while the walls rise up to 1,500 feet above you on both sides of the narrow canyon. The orange glow of the canyon walls reflecting in the water is captivating. At the far end of the trail, the path takes you down to the water's edge, where you can wade out into the canyon if the water is low. In the afternoon, the trail can be hot, but the final third of the route is in shadow, offering some respite from the sun. At the start of the trail, you can also go for a dip in the shallow water or enjoy a picnic near the parking area.
2. Hot Springs Trail
Most people only walk as far as the hot springs, but the full trail, just under a mile in length, delivers some incredible views out over the Rio Grande, to the mountains in the far distance. In the spring, when the flowers are blooming along the hillside and the trees along the river are glowing a bright green, this hike is an absolute must. From the parking lot, cross the bridge and turn left to begin the hike. You'll gradually ascend to a ridge above the river, and from here, it's non-stop scenic views in both directions over the Rio Grande. At one point, you'll see a cement pad with a half-wall. If you walk out to the wall and look down, you can see the hot springs directly below. The trail continues along and descends to the river, leading to the hot springs, where you can stop for a soak in the 105-degree-Fahrenheit waters and cool off with a dip in the Rio Grande River. This is one of the top things to do in the park. From the hot springs, it's a .25-mile walk back to the parking area. Along this stretch, you'll pass some pictographs, a dramatic wall of layered limestone, and abandoned structures from a resort built here in the 1920s. This hike is just a short drive from the Rio Grande Village.
3. Lost Mine Trail
This hike in the Chisos Basin area is a delightful walk up to, and along, a ridge, with beautiful views over Juniper Canyon. Although the entire hike is 4.8 miles return, many people opt to go only as far as a viewpoint at about the one-mile mark and turn around, making this a simple two-mile hike with a little elevation gain.
From the parking area, which fills quickly in the mornings, you gradually ascend, with intriguing views through the trees to impressive cliff walls. Eventually, the path reaches a ridge at around one mile in, where the view opens up and looks out over Juniper Canyon, for what most people describe as the best view on the entire trail. If you go on to complete the hike, the trail continues up along the ridge and a series of switchbacks, with scenic vistas most of the way, until it eventually dead ends at a pile of rocks. The return hike is along the same route. The total elevation gain for Lost Mine Trail is 1,100 feet.
4. The Window Trail
This 5.6-mile trail delivers beautiful views almost the entire way in both directions. The destination on this hike is the Window pour-off at the far end of the trail, where a notch in the mountain ridge dips down, forming the Window. This is the "window" you see in the distance from the Window View Trail. Through the opening is a portion of a rock face and a vista out to the desert landscape far below. This area at the end of the trail, known as the Window pour-off, is only about eight to 10 feet wide, and the rock surface here is worn smooth and is slippery. You should use caution as you approach the edge, as the back side is a sheer drop-off. The safest option appears to be the left side, where a dip in the rock forms at least a small barrier before the cliff's edge.
The Window Trail starts from a trailhead at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. You can also access it from the Chisos Basin Campground, near site 51, which cuts down the total distance to just 3.7 miles return. In either case, the trail starts with a descent, then levels off as you walk through the lovely Oak Canyon. Eventually, you come to some large rock walls, which offer some shade, before reaching the Window. The elevation change for this hike is just under 1,000 feet from the visitor center and 500 feet from the campground.
5. Nature Trail at Rio Grande Village
While this is a very short hike with only 130 feet of elevation gain, even the most hardened hiker will enjoy this trail. From the top, you can see across to the Boquillas Village in Mexico and all around the surrounding area. It's also a great area to see wildlife. Leaving from the Rio Grande Village Campground, this .75-mile hike starts out over a bridge spanning a small pond alongside the Rio Grande River. From the bridge, you can peer into the pond and see a variety of fish or turtles basking on a mound of mud. On the opposite shore, the landscape quickly turns from green to typical desert. Eventually the trail, which has some confusing signage, circles left, up a hill. This is where you'll gain the most outstanding views, which range from a patch of sand dunes, to cliff ridges, and beyond to the landscape of Mexico.
6. South Rim Trail
Fit hikers looking for a full-day hike should head to the South Rim Trail. Located in the Chisos Basin area, this is often described as the most scenic hike in the park, but it requires a lot of effort for the reward. The hike takes you up 2,000 feet of elevation to the rim of the cliff for incredible views out over the desert below. This is a 12- to 15-mile hike, with an option to add on a spur to Emory Peak, and takes eight to 10 hours. The hike starts from the Chisos Basin Trailhead, near the Chisos Basin Store.
7. Emory Peak
Another epic, all-day hike not for the faint of heart is the Emory Peak Trail, which takes you to the highest peak in Big Bend National Park. If you want an idea of what you are getting into before you hit the trail, you can see the peak from the Chisos Basin Store and visitor center. This is a 10.5-mile hike with 2,400 feet of elevation gain, and it takes about seven hours to complete. Be prepared for a heart-pounding grunt up to the peak.
8. Balanced Rock
The Balanced Rock Trail is relatively easy, heading out across the desert to this unique inverted triangle-shaped rock formation, framing the sky and distant landscape. The trail is only 2.2 miles with 240 feet of elevation gain but it's in full sun and can be very hot. It also starts six miles down a rugged dirt road, which is best done in a 4WD vehicle. The hike itself will only take you an hour or so, but the drive down the Grapevine Hills Road will be slow and add time to your trip.
9. Chisos Basin Loop Trail
This scenic little trail generally sees less traffic than many of the other hikes in the area, least beyond the split for Emory Peak and South Rim. Leaving from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, the trail can be done in either direction. Done in a counter clockwise direction, the trail quickly ascends before flattening out and then gradually descending back to the parking lot. From the path you get intermittent but beautiful views to the Window, as well as Emory Peak and the Pinnacles. Total distance for this hike is 1.8 miles and the elevation is 350 feet. This is an easy trail with no cliffside drop-offs, making it very suitable for children.
10. Mule Ears Spring Trail
The dramatic mule ears, two old volcano cores rising up in the desert, are an interesting site as you drive along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The Mule Ears Spring Trail starts at the Mule Ears Overlook and leads out into the Chihuahuan Desert to a spring, where the dry gray and brown desert turns to a green oasis of Cottonwoods and other plants. This 3.8-mile round-trip hike is in full sun and can reach extremely high temperatures from spring until fall. It's best to start this hike very early in the day and avoid it completely on hot summer days.
11. Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
If you are only interested in a short little stroll through the desert, this is the place to do it. On this half-mile trail, with almost no elevation gain, you can learn about the ecology of the area. A number of interpretive signs along the trail offer information on the plants and landscape. This is also a good place to spot birds and possibly javelina, or at least javelina tracks. The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is located at Dugout Wells, where there is a natural springs, small picnic area under a large tree, and an old windmill.
Where to Stay near Big Bend National Park
For visitors coming from the east, the quaint little town of Marathon is the main gateway and the closest town to the park on this side. From the west, the closest towns to the park are Study Butte, Terlingua, and the Terlingua Ghost Town, although none of these have any luxury resorts. For the best accommodation on the western edge of the park, head to nearby Lajitas.
- Luxury Hotels: In Marathon, you can't beat the historic Gage Hotel. This beautiful property, complete with an outdoor pool, inviting fire pits for gathering around in the evening, and central areas in the main lodge for conversing around a fireplace, is the best place to stay in the entire area. You won't find TVs in the luxury rooms and suites, but you will probably make friends, enjoy some evening conversations, and if you choose to dine at the hotel's 12 Gage Restaurant, you'll be treated to some fine cuisine. On the west side of the park in Lajitas, which is dominated by the Lajitas Golf Resort, you'll also find luxury accommodation, along with an 18-hole golf course and various options for activities, from canoeing and ziplining to horseback riding.
- Mid-Range and Budget Hotels: Located in Marathon, Eve's Garden B&B is at the upper end of mid-range. This very unique place features lavish and lovely design elements in vibrant colors. Rooms are thoughtfully decorated. The organic garden and outdoor spaces are pleasant areas to appreciate the night sky or enjoy a cup of coffee. On the west side of the park, choices are limited. Most options are budget places, but many of these are still quite pricey. The Terlingua Ranch Lodge is about a half hour from the park gates, set off on its own, but offers clean and basic rooms without TVs. Located right in Terlingua Ghost Town, Posada Milagro offers a small selection of rooms with a rustic charm, and is designed to accommodate a variety of group sizes and budgets. They feature uniquely designed rooms, with shared baths and showers and others with private baths.
- Camping: There are three campgrounds in the park, as well as drive-to backcountry campsites. Outside the park are a number of RV parks and tent camping areas. See our article on the Best Campgrounds at Big Bend National Park for a complete list.
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