Hiking Trails Guide: Big Bend National Park

Yes, there are apps with information about Big Bend hiking trails, but they can be a little clinical in their descriptions. I’m breaking it down for you in real-people-who-hiked-it terms and including simplified maps and visuals of where things are. If you’re like me, being able to see a bird’s eye view of the layout goes a long way in planning. Brian and I are newb hikers, newb national park goers, in pretty good shape, but not very outdoorsy. That’s the lens for these hikes so adjust up or down according to your own style!

Big Bend Hiking Trails Overview

Big Bend hiking trails can be roughly divided up between these three areas:

  • Chisos Basin / Chisos Mountains (access many hikes from one central location)
  • East side: Panther Junction & Rio Grande Village (drive to each trailhead)
  • West side: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (drive to each trailhead)

Chisos Mountain Hikes

The Chisos Basin is the start to most of the Chisos Mountains hikes. This makes it the most convenient hiking section, in my opinion. There is also a large parking lot and a visitor center in the Chisos Basin. However, construction on a new lodge and new water pipes is scheduled to begin at the end of this year (2024) so the convenience factor might go way down until that’s complete. If they are anything as efficient as City of Austin road crews, that means they’ll be done around 2050.

Window View

There are two hikes to see the “window” in the Chisos Basin. The window is a crack in the mountains where you can see beyond the basin into the valley below. The Window View trail is a very easy walkway that is accessible for mobility impaired people. It’s only about a third of a mile and has a couple of benches along the way, one of which is under a nice shade tree. You can tack it on easily at the start of your day or at the end of your day, if you want a nice place to watch the sunset through the window.

Window Trail

This one is the more difficult trail to see the window, but also rewards you with better views. This trail is unique because it is almost entirely downhill on the way out, and uphill on the return. It’s 5.5 miles round trip and took us about 4 hours, including a break to appreciate the view. The biggest elevation change is from the entrance near the visitor center and the campground just below, so if you want a slightly easier route you can drive to the campground (near campsite 51) and start from there instead. That shaves about 1 mile from the hike.

You could drive straight to the campground, park, hike, then drive up to the visitor center to park for the other hikes although parking is first come first served up there. We didn’t want to risk not having a space so we sucked it up and hiked the whole thing from the visitor center and honestly, it wasn’t too bad. Slow and steady wins the race!

If you go in the morning there is some shade on parts of the trail. We saw deer on the way to the trail, and a snake on the path on the way back. There were a few other people hiking with us but it didn’t feel too crowded. The views at the end of this trail are so pretty!

The Window View trail was one of the most breathtaking Big Bend hiking trails.

Basin Loop

This is a short hike unto itself but is also where a bunch of the other Big Bend hiking trails branch off. It’s about 2 miles and takes about an hour. There is some elevation gain but one way will be uphill and the other will be downhill so it evens out. You will feel like you’re hiking, not just taking a stroll, but it’s pretty short, so good for beginners. However, if you’re doing any of the hikes that branch off from here, I’d say you could easily skip doing this one on it’s own as you’ll get a bit of it anyway, and the other hikes are cooler.

Okay, it’s about to get interesting…

Many Big Bend hiking trails branch off of the Basin Loop trail at the Chisos Basin.

Pinnacles

This trail is one that comes off of the Basin Loop. It’s about 8 miles round trip and has quite an elevation gain. You can do this trail and turn around and go back, or you can continue on the Emory Peak trail…

Pinnacles trail

Emory Peak

The Emory Peak trail branches off of the Pinnacles trail and takes you to the highest peak in the park. We felt okay on the Pinnacles trail, rather proud of ourselves even. Then we got to the Emory Peak trail and our confidence faded fast.

It starts out okay, you’re like “Wow, this is hiking, I am good at hiking!” and then it gets progressively rockier and you’re more like “Whoa, now this is hiking, did we veer off the trail?” and towards the very end where all of the apps say there is a “hand over hand” climb, I was asking Brian “Is this the hand over hand part?” and he kept answering “Nope” until we got to the hand over hand part and then I was sure we were there because it was a couple of huge boulders that there was no way we were ascending.

Emory Peak was one of the hardest Big Bend hiking trails.
Are you sure this is the trail?

It’s okay, you don’t have to complete that last section to feel like you reached the peak of Emory Peak. Just getting to that part counts. It definitely counts. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and enjoyed the breathtaking views and a little vertigo and then headed back down. This is pretty much an all day hike. I wouldn’t count on coupling it with anything else unless you’re superhuman.

The boulder on the left is what you climb to actually reach the peak of Emory Peak.

South Rim

Also branching off from the Pinnacles trail is the South Rim trail which is longer than Emory Peak and beyond our meager hiking skills. It’s 12 miles round trip (14 if you keep going to the East Rim trail) and leads to a 2000 foot cliff. When we were hiking up the Pinnacles trail, we saw several hikers coming down from the South Rim, after camping overnight. Maybe next time we’ll be South Rim hikers…but not this time.

Lost Mines

Lost Mines happens to be one that does not start from the Chisos Basin parking lot. Instead, it starts about half a mile before it, along the road. There are a few parking spots, but they fill up fast so if you want to do this trail, you’ll need to get up early. We drove in around 8:30am every day and the spots were all already taken. Of course, eventually the early birds will finish the trail and vacate their spot, but it’s hit or miss, to say the least. The trail is 5 miles round trip but you can catch a nice view just a mile in. We didn’t do this one because we didn’t have time, but it’s supposed to have excellent mountain and desert views.

TIP: pick the hottest day to do the elevated hikes in the Chisos Basin, and get started early. The higher into the mountains you go, the cooler it gets. You can literally climb your way out of the afternoon heat.

East Side – Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village

Panther Junction is the visitor center closest to the Big Bend hiking trails on the East side of the park. The other main area is Rio Grande Village, which has both tent and RV camping, and is near Boquillas Crossing, where you can pop over into Mexico. Most of the trails on this side of the park are shorter and easier than the mountain hikes. However, it’s not as compact as the Chisos Basin. You’ll need to drive to each specific trailhead.

Lone Mountain

This is the longest hike on the East side, at just under 3 miles round trip. It’s a loop that is pretty flat and has nice mountain views. You can get to it from the access road just a mile north of Panther Junction.

Grapevine Hills

Located 6.4 miles down Grapevine Hills road, this second longest hike is just over 2 miles round trip and takes you to a big “Balanced Rock” at the end. The last part of the hike is steep and rocky. Be forewarned, this trail has zero shade.

Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail

If you’re more into desert ecology than hiking, you will enjoy this easy half mile loop that has signage telling you about the desert flora and fauna. You might even see some javelina tracks!

Rio Grande Nature Trail

This trail starts across from Rio Grande campsite number 18. You can park at the amphitheater parking lot. It’s short and easy at just 3/4 of a mile but you get wildlife views over a pond and further up the hill, good views of the river and mountains. It’s a great place to catch a sunset.

Hot Springs

Just 15 minutes away from the Rio Grande Nature Trail is the Hot Springs. It is a short, half mile hike to reach the hot springs. Feel free to hop in and take a quick soak in the naturally 105 degree water.

Hot Springs photo courtesy of National Parks Service

Good to know: The hot springs flood when it rains, and they are not accessible. Even in dry weather, you will need an SUV to navigate the Hot Springs road to access the hike. The springs are also pretty small. They fit only about 15 people at a time, so you may be waiting for a turn.

East side hiking trails at Big Bend National Park

West Side – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

On a map, the West side of the park looks very close to Terlingua, but don’t get too excited about that. The two areas are close as the crow flies, but because of where the roads are, you still have to drive all the way into the park and around in order to access the trails over here. Most of the Big Bend hiking trails on the West side are short and focused more on geology and history, versus plain old hiking. So if you aren’t into hiking, are traveling with small kids, or are mobility impaired, even the view from the car is worth it. They don’t call it the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for nothin’!

Santa Elena Canyon

This is a short trail, only about 1.5 miles round trip, but it’s definitely the West side’s star player. You’ll climb some steep-ish steps up, where you’ll be treated to views of the canyon overlooking the Rio Grande river.

The beginning of Santa Elena Canyon
Some of the Santa Elena trail is a bit of a climb

I really wasn’t expecting the steep climb at this trail because it’s listed as “easy.” It is short, but there are definitely some steps to navigate carefully as they’re open on one side to the drop-off. The parking lot here fits about 30 cars and it can fill up quickly.

Views from Santa Elena Canyon, looking back towards Big Bend.
Chimneys trail

Chimneys

This is a flat trail that heads straight out into the desert. Compared to the mountain hikes, this might sound boring, but it is actually very cool and surreal. The absolute breadth of the expanse around you is stunning. Nothing makes you feel smaller than standing alone in the middle of the desert. It’s about a 5 mile round trip hike to get to rock “chimneys” that have Native American paintings on them. If you’re insane, you can continue on the trail for another 5 miles. However, most people turn back at the chimneys. This trail has no shade whatsoever so be sure to wear a hat, and lots of sunscreen. If you can hike this on a cloudy day, even better.

Mule Ears

Slightly shorter than the Chimneys trail, this one clocks in just under 4 miles round trip. At the end, you’re rewarded with beautiful views and a small spring.

Dorgan-Sublett

Just before you reach Santa Elena Canyon, you can take a short .8 mile trail leading to the ruins of a historic farm house from the mid-1900s.

Sam Nail Ranch

This is another super easy half mile trail leading to an old ranch site. The water access and shade make it great for birding.

Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off

Only one mile long, this trail is nice for viewing some of the park’s unique geological features.

West side hiking trails at Big Bend National Park

One last note: There will be plenty of cell service on the trails although it can be slow and spotty. I wouldn’t rely on it for accurate mapping but if you’re waiting for an important email to come through, you’ll be able to keep tabs on your inbox. However, you’re hiking in some of the most majestic scenery ever, so really, what could be more important than that? 🙂

If you want more details about getting to Big Bend and getting around, you can read about it here.

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