After having visited Big Bend numerous times over the past several years, I thought I’d share what I’ve found to be the best hikes in Big Bend National Park, and which trails are overrated. Then, I thought, What if someone had a limited time in the park? Face it, even those who have all the time in the world are sometimes on a schedule for how long they can spend in a park. So, after the five “best” and five “worst” trails I’ve also broken down the “bests” by what to do if you have a limited time in the park (1 day, 3 days, a week, etc.).
The 5 best hikes in Big Bend National Park:
#5 The Den – If you love slot canyons or bouldering, this is the trail for you. The hike takes you to the beginning of the slot canyon from which you get to scramble up rocks and short dry falls through a pretty canyon. Fun, and usually not crowded (deserted, the day we did it). 5.6 mile RT; trailhead is near the Parsimmon Gap Visitor Center.
#4 Mariscal Mine Trail – This short trail takes you to an old mercury mine refinery. The refinery is incredible in itself and offers some really nice photography opportunities, but you can also walk beyond it on an old mining road to views of the surrounding countryside. 0.5+ miles RT (depending on how far you walk); trailhead is along the East River Road.
#3 Santa Elena Canyon – A beautiful hike into an awesome canyon. You can also enjoy views back across much of Big Bend National Park. 1.6 miles RT; parking area is at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
#2 Oak Springs Trail – One of the most forgotten (though still used) trails in Big Bend National Park, this trail will take you up past great views of Big Bend to the famed Window. It’s a much better trail than the Window Trail from Chisos Basin. 5.5 miles RT if you walk the ¼ mile down to the Window itself; the trailhead is along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
#1 Grapevine Hills Trail – The trail itself isn’t so wonderful; it’s what’s at the end of the trail that’s what makes this one of my favorite trails in Big Bend. The Big Balancing Rock seems to defy gravity as it sits atop two other large boulders. The views if you climb up the surrounding hillsides are also beautiful in a rustic sort of way. 2.2 miles RT; trailhead is located along the Grapevine Hills Road.
Bonus – South Rim Trail – I’ve never hiked this trail, but the pictures I’ve seen are incredible. 12 miles RT; trailhead is in the Chisos Basin.
The 5 Most Overrated Trails in Big Bend:
#5 Mariscal Canyon Rim – The views on this trail are ok…but the trail is long enough that I feel it’s overrated. If you’re desperate for a hike from the River Road, Mariscal Canyon Rim will fit the bill. You can even camp in Talley 1, 2, 3, or 4 before setting out. 6.6 miles RT; trailhead is at the Talley Campsites.
#4 Boquillas Canyon Trail – This trail is overrated because it’s a very short hike with very little reward. Yes, the canyon walls are nice, but the trail quickly peters out into nothing. The sand dunes were fun, though their charm was dimmed a bit by the Mexicans hawking wares from the other side of the river. 1.4 miles RT; the trailhead is near Rio Grande Village.
#3 Window Trail – Very steep, strenuous, crowded, awkward trail. Once you leave the Chisos Basin, there are no more views until you reach the Window itself. Its only redeeming value is that you get to cross the creek four or five times near the bottom of the trail. 5.6 miles RT; Trailhead is in the Chisos Basin.
#2 Hot Springs Historic Trail – The trail isn’t terribly overrated, but the hot springs are. It sounded fun: you can swim in 105 degree water while the chilling Rio Grande flows only feet away. However, the springs are full of the nastiest, gooey, grey mud…never again! 1 mile RT; Trailhead is at the end of the Hot Springs Road (near Rio Grande Village).
#1 Lost Mine Trail – This has got to be one of the most overrated trails in the park (maybe in the entire national park system). It’s a fairly long hike that switchbacks forever upward to…nowhere. Ok, there’s a small view. But it certainly isn’t worth the hike. The trail is also very crowded, since if you walk into the visitor center and ask about hiking trails, they’ll tell you the Lost Mine Trail is great. But I say: don’t bother. 4.8 miles RT; trailhead is along the Basin Road. UPDATE: I’ve received numerous comments from other hikers on how much they enjoy the Lost Mine Trail. So while I guess it’s not my cup of tea, it apparently is well-loved! Glad to know that such a popular trail actually might be worth doing! Maybe I’ll even give it another try next time I visit Big Bend…
My Favorite Scenic Drives in Big Bend:
The River Road – This 51 mile dirt/gravel road offers some of the best classic Big Bend Scenery available. You can camp at multiple campsites along the road (see the link), and hike at a few places, but it’s really meant for slowly driving, enjoying the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande River. The west end (West River Road) can usually be accessed by low-clearance vehicles; the East River Road and the middle of the road (especially) usually require high clearance; 4×4 may be required at some times of year.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – The 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive showcases the geology of Big Bend National Park. The road begins by skirting the western edge of the Chisos Mountain Range, then turns westward, passing historical sights, canyons, and plenty of desert, to end at Santa Elena Canyon. The views of the cliffs along the Mexican border make this road a highlight.
All the roads offer some kind of view, so these are just my favorites!
If You Have 1 Day in Big Bend National Park:
Assuming you’re already in the park in the early morning and you’re great hikers:
- Stop at the Oak Springs Trail and hike up to the famed Window. (5.5 miles RT; we did it in an afternoon (and we’re not the fastest hikers in the world; I think we averaged 2 miles/hour).)
- Stop and hike Santa Elena Canyon (1.6 miles RT).
- Use any leftover time to visit other attractions on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive:
- Drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and see whatever of the following most interest you:
- Sam Neil Ranch – short loop leads around old houses and windmills. 0.5 miles RT.
- Homer Wilson Ranch – short trail to see the old structures of the Homer Wilson Ranch, which are on the National Register of Historic Places. 0.5 miles RT.
- Sotol Vista Overlook – overlook of classic Big Bend scenery.
- Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff – short trail to a huge dryfall. It’s fun to look up, up, up to the top. 1 mile RT.
- The Chimneys Trail (though this is a bit long with everything else you’re doing at 4.8 miles RT).
- Mule Ears Viewpoint – view of the “Mule Ears”, tuffs of rock that stand out from the otherwise fairly flat desert.
- Tuff Canyon – cool little canyon that’s great for children to play in and for geology buffs.
- Castolon – a small village with a store; interesting for its historical value.
- If you’re a power hiker, visit the Grapevine Hills Trail (2.2 miles RT) and then head down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. (The Big Balancing Rock is best seen in the morning).
Not a grand hiker, or want a more relaxed day?
Visit the Grapevine Hills Trail (2.2 miles RT)
- Drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, enjoying the sights along the way (see above), leaving yourself enough time to take in Santa Elena Canyon. (1.6 miles RT)
If you have 3 days in Big Bend National Park:
- Hike/drive the areas noted above
- Hike to The Den if you like scrambling (5.6 miles RT)
- Hike the Chimneys Trail for a slightly more relaxed hike (great for children who enjoy scrambling on the Chimneys themselves; there’s also some petroglyphs on the Chimneys) (4.8 miles RT)
- Hike up Emory Peak (10.5 miles RT)
If you have 1 Week in Big Bend National Park:
- Spend two days driving the River Road (51 miles) (I’ve driven the road both from east to west and west to east…I might recommend starting at the west (Castolon) end, though both are very nice).
- At the very least, stop at Mariscal Mine
- If you
camp at Woodson’s orhave 4×4, visit Petite Overlook
- Just take your time…this road has plenty of places to simply look!
- Hike all of the “5 Best Hikes”
Big Bend National Park is a great place to go in the winter months (November-March)…so enjoy your stay!
Fees: $20 to enter Big Bend National Park; valid 7 days. America the Beautiful (Interagency), Senior (Golden Age), Access (Golden Access), Volunteer, Military, and Big Bend Annual Passes also accepted. $10 per permit fee to backcountry car camp + $10 every time you update the permit…so have your plans laid before you get the permit at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.
Info on backcountry car camping in Big Bend National Park:
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
This Week’s Featured Product!
This little book offers 47 trails that can be hiked in Big Bend National Park. From short strolls to long dayhikes (or even overnight treks), this book is a very comprehensive overview of the trails in the park.
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