“The Window” in Big Bend is a very popular destination. Every year thousands of people climb down the steep trail from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center to the small V opening in the wall of a cliff, where all of the rain water collected in the Basin drains down to the base of the mountains. From the first time I hiked this trail at the age of 8, I loved the destination, and every time we went to Big Bend, it somehow made it to our “must hike” list. Even so, several members of my group hated the trail itself, in part because it is terribly crowded and so very, unrelentingly steep. So we were thrilled when a park visitor told us of a different trail we could take to get to the Window. We had actually hiked part of the trail the last time we’d hiked down from Chisos Basin, so we knew what the visitor was telling us. We hiked the trail, and, oh, it’s so much nicer than hiking down from the Basin! The views along the way are terrific (as opposed to virtually no view on the trail from the Basin), and much of it is relatively flat, although the steep parts are quite steep!
The Oak Springs trail to the Window starts from a parking area at the end of an unmarked dirt road near mile post three on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The drive begins west of Panther Junction and west of the road up to Chisos Basin, and eventually ends at Santa Elena Canyon. The unmarked dirt road will be on your left if you are coming from the main park road, across the drive from the pull-out for the Sam Nail Ranch. Follow the dirt road to the parking area maybe ½ a mile up the road. The road itself can probably be driven with a low-clearance, two-wheel-drive vehicle most of the time.
The road does not actually end at the parking area, but after the parking area the road is for service vehicles only, and about fifty feet further down the road there is a gate, so don’t try driving farther up the road. The parking area is not very big, so during crowded times of the year you may want to get an early start (warning: the trail is in direct sun most of the day, so plan accordingly). Walk up the road for about a half a mile to where a stream crosses the road. Here the trail splits, with one trail following the stream, and another that crosses the stream. The trail that follows the stream will eventually take you up to the base of the waterfall that falls from the Window (I think—we didn’t have time to hike it). Stay on the trail and use caution in this area, as I have been told that there are rare orchids around the stream. However, the trail to the Window goes across the stream and continues up the road. A little further up the road you will go under some power lines. Just after this, a trail comes down from the left side of the road. This is the trail you want to take.
Follow this trail as it climbs, steeply in some places, up the side of the mountain (the road was fairly flat, but this part of the trail switchbacks back and forth quite a bit!). The views on this part of the trail are very nice as you look out across the countryside below you, and up at the Chisos Mountains. You can also see the waterfall from the Window falling to the stream you crossed below, although late in the afternoon it was in shadow, so we didn’t take any pictures of it. Eventually, after some particularly steep switchbacks the trail will flatten out and take you across the side of the mountain. Fairly soon after this the trail will descend steeply over some slippery gravel and rock down to the other Window trail that comes down from the Chios Basin. There is a sign post here that shows which way to go to get to the Window (you want to turn right). It is only a little way from here to the window—maybe a ¼ mile—but you will have to cross a narrow, shallow stream several times. The trail is good, though, and it is not hard. Once you get to the Window, use caution because the drop from the Window is a long one and the rock is very slippery. However, even from far back from the edge of the narrow “V” you can look out through the rock cliffs and see the Big Bend countryside below you. I’m sorry about the picture; you can only see the “V”, not the countryside which is partially blocked by a large rock.
Take the same route back as you came by being sure to turn back off the Window trail onto the Oak Springs Trail. The view on the way back down is even better since you are facing it as you come down. This lesser-known trail is a very nice way to get to the Window without having go up into the Chios Basin and I highly recommend it…I’ll be sure to try it again next time I visit Big Bend!
Round Trip Trail Length: About 5.5 miles (8.8 km)
Fees: $20 per vehicle; good 7 days. America the Beautiful (Interagency), Senior (Golden Age), Access (Golden Access), Volunteer, Military, and Big Bend Annual Passes also accepted