Hiking Big Bend
There are so many trails to hike and explore the Big Bend with that choosing one or two can be a daunting task. This area is known for geology and nature in a concentrated way, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another region with so much diversity. Each part of this area you’ll see offers some aspect that is unique from the others, and all are incredible journeys. Even living out here, we’re constantly amazed at every new discovery as we make our way around, and this list highlights a few of our favorite spots and some of the things you might see along the way.
They are listed in no particular order, and we’re sure you’ll find one that fits your plan. Remember, though, that you are the only one who knows your experience and limitations, so make a solid plan, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return, and stick to that plan. You are at anywhere from around 2,000’ elevation on the desert floor up to over 7,000’ elevation in the Chisos Mountains, and desert conditions combined with these elevations can have an effect on you as you hike. Always carry as much water as you can, at least 1 liter per person for hikes under 5 miles, and don’t wait for your mouth to get dry before taking a drink. Enjoy that water and keep yourself hydrated.
Window View Trail – Chisos Basin
This is an easily accessible and short trail beginning at the Chisos Basin Trailhead, near the parking area by the Ranger Station and the store. This trail is great if you just want to get a leisurely view of the mountains and of the area off to the west through “The Window,” a separation in the mountains that serves as pour off during heavy rains. It’s about 0.3 miles round trip, all on paved sidewalk with plenty of desert flora to observe along the way, and any number of lizards, birds, small rodents, and interesting insects crossing your path. If you are traveling with kids, this is also a good hike.
Pro tip: the benches on this trail are the perfect spot to sit and watch a sunset through The Window.
Santa Elena Canyon
The drive to this spot is worth it even if you never get out of the car. Read more about Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in the Desert Cruises section of this guide. This roughly 45-minute drive off the main park road leads you down to the Rio Grande and finally to the mouth of the massive Santa Elena Canyon, Texas, on one side, Mexico on the other.
Park in the designated area, then take the marked trail toward the river, and enjoy the shade and lush green of cottonwood, desert willow, palo verde and salt cedar trees. This short portion of the trail leads you to the river’s edge at the mouth of the canyon and the confluence of Terlingua Creek. Conditions vary depending on rainfall and river levels, but you can typically expect there to be lots of mud. From here, the trail continues across Terlingua Creek. During certain times of the year, the creek is unpassable, limiting your hike to the bank you are standing on.
When conditions allow, the next portion of the trail climbs a series of switchbacks up the side of the canyon wall then descends back down toward the river for around a mile inside of the canyon. The trail ends where the sheer canyon wall hits the river, and there are some great spots to sit in awe of where you are. If you haven’t planned a river trip yet, see the Excursions section of this guide for more information on how you can book a trip to float through the entire length of this canyon. Because as awesome as this short hike is, there’s always more to see.
Pro tip: Bring a can of beer to sip on the giant boulder at the end of the trail. Pack it in, pack it out.
Grapevine Hills Trail – Grapevine Hills Road
This trail leads to one of the most well known landmarks in the park: Balanced Rock, a sort of window to the desert and mountains beyond, formed by giant falling boulders long ago. At 2.2 miles round trip, this is a relatively easy trail for almost any hiker, even the youngest. Follow the Grapevine Hills Road for about 6 miles off the main park road to the parking area at the trailhead. It's an improved dirt road, and can typically be traversed, with care, by most vehicles, weather permitting. Past the trailhead, you’ll walk through what looks like the moon—really—then near the end of the trail, you’ll have to do a quick, short climb up to see the Balanced Rock and get a photo. This trail doesn’t really have any shade, so in the hotter months, hikes will be most enjoyed in the early morning or later in the afternoon when temperatures are below 90℉.
Pro tip: take a short scramble up the mountain above the Balanced Rock where there is a nice flat shelf to sit and look over the entire valley below, and enjoy a great view of the Chisos.
Boquillas Canyon – Boquillas Canyon Spur Road
The Boquillas Canyon Spur Road is about a 45-minute drive from the Maverick Junction entrance to the park, right off the main park road about a mile past the rock tunnel as you are heading towards Rio Grande Village. Take the spur road past the Boquillas Crossing Border Checkpoint, stop for a moment at the Boquillas Overlook, and get a glimpse of the Rio Grande and the small town of Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, MX, then head down to the end of the road and park. This trail is about 1.4 miles round trip and begins with a climb, then descends towards the river.
Keep an eye out for the metates, holes bored in rocks by the early human denizens of the Big Bend as they ground grains and vegetation during food preparation, akin to a mortar and pestle. On a hot day, this is a great spot to enjoy the shade of the canyon walls and the trees near the river and an opportunity to soak your feet or take a dip, depending on the river level. Other than the climb at the beginning (and subsequently, the end) this is a good trail for most average hikers, and probably okay to take the kids on.
Pro tip: Take some cash to buy souvenirs made by the friendly locals of Boquillas right across the river. They are typically sitting on a rock along the trail with a sign giving prices for items and a jar for cash on the honor system. If you’d like to learn more about visiting Boquillas during your stay, and we highly recommend you do, check out our special section on this beautiful border village.
Pine Canyon – Off Glenn Springs Road
You’d be wise to only attempt this trail if you are driving a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. Glenn Springs Road, which runs off of the main park road south of Panther Junction, has been recently maintained and would be fairly passable in most vehicles, but the Pine Canyon primitive road leading to the trailhead is quite rough and is not a place you want to get stuck in your car. You’d have a long walk out and then have to deal with a Park Ranger who will not only likely write you a citation but also shame you for having passed the warning signs, and you don’t want to know how much it would cost you to get pulled out of there. That being said, if you can access it, this is one of the best hikes around to see the desert and the mountains come together on one trail. As you begin this 4-mile round trip, you’ll be surrounded by grasslands filled with sotol in the foothills of the Chisos Mountains.
About a mile in, you’ll start gaining some elevation and your legs will feel the burn, but the temperature will cool off as you approach the shade and cool breeze of the Mexican pinyon pines, oaks, and junipers that become thicker as you move along. As you make your way up the trail into the forest, keep an eye out for Texas madrone and Arizona pine trees. The last quarter mile of this trail gains the most elevation and is the most strenuous part of this hike. At the end of the trail, you’ll be standing at the base of a 200’ pour off that becomes the most beautiful waterfall when it rains enough.
Pro tip: late August through September is your best bet for catching that magic waterfall in all of its glory.
Indian Head – Off Indian Head Road, accessible just north of the Big Bend Motor Inn office
This is one of the least traveled spots within the park, in part because the trailhead is outside of the interior of the National Park. Pick up Indian Head Road just north of the Big Bend Motor Inn office on TX 118 in Study Butte, then follow it for about a mile and a half to the trailhead. Take caution in rainy weather, as this road becomes impassable by even well-equipped 4WD vehicles when wet, and you WILL get stuck. Most vehicles with moderate clearance should be able to make the drive in dry times.
At the end of the road, you’ll see the trailhead at the bottom of a hill. This trail isn’t marked, but there are many footprints to follow, and the best way to experience this site is to follow along the foot of Indian Head Mountain to your left, taking time to inspect the large piles of rock slides. Along the path, you’ll take a trip back to the days of ancient dwellers in the Big Bend region. Keep your eyes peeled for the many petroglyphs and pictographs—carvings and paintings—on the large rocks created by Native Americans, some up to 10,000 years ago. More evidence of their life in this area can be found in the numerous metates—round holes ground into flat rock that served as mortars during food preparation. Other than those incredible sights, this is a very different look into the wide array of geology in the Big Bend. Guided tours are available, but with some time and patience, anyone can enjoy this easy hike with lots to see.
Many times, talking to a local is the best way to get either the most accurate information or a bunch of directions that you think you understand but then try to navigate and realize you have no idea how to interpret.
Terlingua is full of friendly people, and they love telling you their favorite spots and stories of the history of this place and their time in it. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if you find yourself lost or confused. Most will be glad to oblige.