Please note that all opinions, recommendations, and tips are our own and are completely unofficial. This post is meant to provide some basic information for anyone thinking about visiting the national park, and it should not be a substitute to seeking information from the park service or other official sources.
There is a multitude of hiking in Big Bend, so we’ll just share a little information and pictures from some of our favorite hikes as well as some of our general recommendations, tips, and things we learned along the way.
Big Bend is in the desert – it’s arid and usually pretty hot. The park service recommends that each person drink about a gallon of water per day; we agree and recommend at least this much if you’re hiking, especially in the desert. Desert hiking doesn’t seem suited for summertime unless you go really early in the morning. Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen are musts. Many of the trail surfaces have loose rocks and gravels, so shoes or boots with good grip/tread are important, even on flatter desert trails. Take a map or guide book, as many of the trails can be difficult to follow at times, particularly given that washes can look a lot like the actual trail but lead you into the middle of nowhere. We learned to follow rock cairns carefully on some hikes. Take first-aid supplies since many trails aren’t well-traveled. We did several hikes where we walked for miles before seeing anyone else.
Desert Hikes – Western Side
Santa Elena Canyon Trail: This hike (less than two miles round trip) on the western side of the park is a must-do during a visit to Big Bend. It provides absolutely gorgeous vistas along the way and takes you into the mouth of the canyon where you’re met by the river and dizzyingly high red canyon walls. The trail has some steps and a few fairly steep switchbacks, but we found it moderately easy – maybe because we stopped for pictures every few hundred yards. The trail is well-developed, well-traveled, and easy to follow. We hiked it on an overcast day (which we think are a rarity, especially in springtime) late in the afternoon, and the light seemed just about perfect. If you don’t feel like doing the hike, there is a great overlook just off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (this road actually dead-ends at the canyon trailhead).
Tuff Canyon Trail: This hike (about 1.5 miles roundtrip) takes you to the canyon floor of this wide desert canyon where you’re surrounded by huge light-colored canyon walls and rock formations. It was pretty spectacular and had a beauty all its own. The trail was fairly easy to follow, and the hike was made challenging only by our choice to do it in mountain bike shoes since there were many loose rocks and lots of gravel to negotiate on the way down and back up. While we definitely recommend this hike, if your joints aren’t up to the loose footing, mild descent and ascent, then there are several roadside overlooks that are easy to access.
Mule Ears Spring Trail: This four mile (round trip) hike starts at Mule Ears View Point, which is a must-do overlook if you travel along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail is fairly flat and goes through all desert terrain before reaching the spring at the very end. There is no shade along the way, and the footing is quite tough and tiresome at times (tons of loose gravel and rocks); however, it really does take you through a neat desert scene – we saw lots of bees, wildflowers, and cacti in bloom – and the Chisos Mountains loom in the distance.
The trail ends at the spring, which was still running and feeding a large oasis of green that is quite thick and lush in spots. We found a great rock tucked into the vegetation right beside the spring where we rested, enjoyed the shade, and ate a small snack. This trail is difficult to follow at times, so we paid careful attention to rock cairns.
Blue Creek Trail: We accessed this trail from the Homer Wilson Ranch overlook off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive after doing a little advanced reconnaissance to find the trailhead. The first bit of the trail descends rather sharply (mostly down well-maintained steps) to the old Homer Wilson Ranch, which was established in the 1940s. It’s worth the short walk down from the overlook to see the buildings up close. The Blue Creek Trail is actually quite long and connects to other trails that eventually lead into the Chisos Mountains and connect to the basin; this route was used by the ranchers to move livestock from the desert to the mountains in the summer. We hiked about two miles past the ranch to see Red Rocks Canyon, which features awesome rock spires, formations, and balanced rocks. Overall, after the initial descent, the trail is fairly similar to Mule Ears Spring Trail in terms of terrain, footing, and scenery until you reach the canyon; again, we relied on rock cairns and some common sense to stay on the trail.
Desert Hikes – Eastern Side
Boquillas Canyon Trail: We found this 1.5 mile (round trip) hike fairly easy. It has more of a packed dirt surface than many other trails, has a few very small descents and ascents, and is well-traveled and marked. The trail leads down to the river and to the mouth of the beautiful canyon. It’s a must-do if you’re staying at Rio Grande Village or exploring the eastern side of the park. We did witness and see evidence of a few illegal border crossings here, as this part of the park lies very close to a low river bank and to a tiny Mexican village. There is a legal port of entry inside the park, not far from the canyon overlook; however, several men crossed over to sell trinkets and to sing to the hikers. While (mostly) harmless, they did disrupt the peaceful, removed vibe I enjoy while hiking. I say they’re mostly harmless because there are many stories of hikers’ cars getting broken into while hiking along the river on the eastern side of the park; signs at trailheads in this part of the park confirm this, as the park service recommends removing all valuables, leaving an empty car, and locking all doors, etc.
Hot Springs: We didn’t hike this entire short trail, but rather just walked the first section to the actual hot springs where the ruins of an old bathhouse sit. The spring produces 105-degree water, and hikers/visitors can soak in the remains of the bathhouse. It’s pretty marvelous and definitely worth the easy, short walk. There is a small picnic area and some old historical buildings along the way as well.
Chisos Basin/Chisos Mountains Hikes
Lost Mine Trail: This is a popular hike (about five miles round trip) whose trailhead is located off Chisos Basin Road shortly before reaching the basin; the trail is well-developed and easily followed. We started the hike mid-afternoon and ended early in the evening (still hours from darkness since it was late spring and the park is at the edge of a time zone), which was nice in terms of light and crowds – we saw only several small groups of people. We took our time, enjoyed the views along the way and at the top, and the hike took us about three hours. It’s got some good elevation gain and switchbacks; you gain over 1,000’ in the first 2.4 miles, but most of the gain is fairly gradual after you climb the initial ascent from the parking lot, and it really levels out quite a bit after the first mile or so. If you don’t feel like doing the entire hike, you can hike just the first mile (for a round-trip distance of about two miles) and enjoy some pretty great vistas from the trail. However, the views and nearby rock formations at the top of the trail are well worth it. Sit and stay awhile!
The Window View Trail: This is another popular trail, which can be accessed from the Basin parking lot. It’s really more of a short walk on a paved accessible path than an actual hiking trail. As such, it’s another must-do. There are spectacular views from the platform at the end of the trail.
The Window Trail: This trail (about 4-5 miles round trip, depending on where you start) can be accessed from the Basin parking lot or from the Basin Campground parking lot. We liked this trail so much that we hiked it twice, adding on some connecting trails, which we’ll discuss next, the second time around. We opted to start from the campground both times in order to eliminate some elevation and distance. This is another fairly popular hike, but we waited to hike it on weekdays and didn’t encounter too many other people. This is another well-developed, easily-followed, and generally well-traveled trail. There are gorgeous views and scenery along the way, some gradual elevation changes, and a variety of terrain and landscapes, ranging from some loose gravel to packed dirt, and from open desert-like hiking to shaded areas with stone walls and lots of greenery and trees (I’d say the majority of the trail has at least some shade). The trail ends at the actual window, which is an opening carved by water, in the Chisos Mountains that provides awesome views of the mountains, valleys, and canyons beyond. More specifically, the trail ends at the window pour-off, also known as the place where the very steep waterfall begins when there is enough water. We visited when there was little water and thus, no waterfall. To our surprise, there is absolutely no warning at the end of the trail other than a sign half a mile from the end that reads, in short, “The Window: ½ mile”. I’m glad Jason was paying attention and stopped walking! The rocks near the pour-off are very slick and could easily send you sliding. Yikes! The views are terrific at the end, even from a safe distance.
Oak Springs Trail: This trail (about 4-4.5 miles round trip) can be accessed from an upper or lower trailhead. The lower trailhead is reached via a gravel lot off a dirt road. The upper trailhead is accessed from the Window Trail after hiking down the Window Trail about 1.5 miles from the campground, which is how we accessed the trail. We found the hike to be fairly challenging, as the first mile or so is quite steep, with a big ascent and then a long descent into the desert; the footing is also quite rocky and uneven the majority of the time. After hiking in the desert for a bit, with a very gradual descent, the trail turns right onto a gravel road, which passes right by the spring where this awesome oak tree grows.
We were quite confused at first, until we realized the spring was currently dry. We were content to marvel at the oak while we enjoyed its shade and seating during lunch. I later hiked to the end of the trail (another half mile each way from the oak) just to see the lower trailhead; there really wasn’t much to see – it was essentially a desert hike along the gravel road. The trail is well-developed and fairly easy to follow. We only got a bit confused when the trail turned onto the gravel road, but there is a sign there signaling where the trail goes when hiking from the other direction. The trail doesn’t seem particularly well-traveled or popular; we didn’t see anyone, or signs of anyone, the whole time we were hiking, including eating a leisurely lunch, taking photos, resting, etc.
Lastly, if you want a shorter option from the upper trailhead off the Window Trail, I suggest just hiking to the top of the ascent (you’ll know when you’re there), enjoying the views, and then hiking back down to the Window Trail. If you’re more interested in seeing the oak, maybe the spring (if it isn’t dry), and accessing Cattail Falls Trail discussed below, I recommend using the lower trailhead. Of note, according to maps and/or guidebooks, there are ways to access the bottom of the window waterfall (might be worth it if there is water flowing through the pour-off) and the big water tank that sits out in the basin desert (you’ll know it when you see it) from the Oak Springs Trail; we didn’t opt to do either of these.
Cattail Falls Trail: Discovering this trailhead felt like finding a secret treasure. We simply stumbled upon this sign when we reached oak springs/the big oak tree.
The trail (about two miles round trip) isn’t on any of the maps or in any of the hiking books we used, and we looked at a lot of resources, including a book featuring “secrets” of the national parks. Anyway, it seemed too good to pass up, and I’m so glad we didn’t! I think it’s the best-kept secret of the park. We found the hike moderately easy; it has some slight elevation changes and steps along the way, as well as some loose gravel and rocky footing in places. The trail is easy to follow, has a few decent views, and is mostly out in the open desert until reaching the area of the falls. The trail ends at the base of the falls in a beautiful, lush, green desert oasis. The water flowing down the falls and in the stream below was crystal clear and abundant, especially for the middle of the desert. We had the place to ourselves and didn’t see a single sole on the trail; it was like our own little slice of Big Bend heaven.
Although we did our share of hiking in the park, there’s so much more to see! We look forward to a return trip to Big Bend one day to discover and explore trails we didn’t get to this time. Wonders and adventures abound!