The Den trail is an adventure without being impossible for the average hiker. It is also a way to experience the Chihuahuan Desert, and to get an idea of the real personality of the desert part of Big Bend National Park. The Den itself is an interesting geological phenomenon; really, just a canyon between two hills. The walls are gray and fairly sheer, and it is easy to see the strata (rock layers) that make up the hills and the canyon walls. This makes it an ideal hike for people that enjoy geology. It really isn’t too “slot”-ish by Utah standards, but some scrambling is involved, and you may have to squeeze a little to get around some of the boulders. Don’t let this turn you off; as I said above, the average hiker could probably do most of the canyon without too much difficulty. It is approximately 6 miles round trip, although the distance will vary depending on what route you take, and how far you go up the canyon.
The trail to the Den begins in the pullout for Dog Canyon 3.5 miles south of Persimmon Gap Visitor Center or 22.5 miles north of Panther Junction Visitor Center on the Park Road (mileage markers are from Panther Junction Visitor Center). The pullout is on the east side of the road (left if you’re coming from Persimmon Gap, right if you’re coming from Panther Junction); it is marked with a small, white rectangular sign that says “Exhibit Ahead” in black lettering with a black road runner next to the writing. The trail begins approximately in the center of the pulloff, next to the iron sign that says “Dog Canyon 1.9”. The Den trail also starts here, but there is no sign for it yet.
Let me tell you now that although I always refer to the destination as “the Den”, it is actually known as “Devil’s Den”, and the signs will read accordingly. It drives me crazy that all of these awesome places would be attributed to the Devil when he didn’t even make them, so when referring to such places among my group, we usually call them “Angel’s Garden”, “The Den”, or such. To me, that makes them so much nicer!
The beginning of the trail is well marked with cairns (small piles of rocks). Actually, the trail wouldn’t be hard to follow even if there weren’t cairns, as it is pretty well defined. Along this section of trail, and while you are walking down the washes, you will be able to see classic Big Bend desert foliage, and begin to understand the personality of Big Bend outside of the Chisos Mountain range and away from the Rio Grande. After about 1.5 miles of walking across flat ground with mesquite bushes on either side you will come to a wash. Here there is a sign that tells you to go left if you want to go to Dog Canyon and right if you want to go to the Den. Turn right.
You will now be walking in the wash. Walk in the wash until you come to where the wash splits, about ½ mile from where you entered the big wash. From where you come up to it, the split just looks like an island in the middle of the wash. When we were there, we saw three cairns at this point. One was on the left bank of the wash, the second, on the ‘island’ in the middle, and the third, on the right bank. The one that is on the right bank marks the return trail. Actually, you could have taken this shortcut on the outward trek, but I couldn’t direct you to the trail, as it is poorly marked. If you know the area well, or find the trail, go ahead and use it. The center and left cairns are easily seen, but really don’t have much other use now. Turn down the left wash.
From here to the Den you just have follow the wash, or the unofficial trails beside the wash. In some places the wash is grown in with bushes that have nasty thorns on them. Those thorns can catch on your clothing and leave pulls in the fabric. They can also hurt if one pokes you. This is where the side trails come in handy.
After a while (maybe a little less than a mile?) the earthen banks give way to rock walls with the rock strata clearly visible. About this time you will come to the first scramble. The wash goes up a huge rock with some really cool pot holes were the water has hollowed out holes in the rock. Here there is a small arch in between two of the potholes.
As the wash continues up through the canyon, the walls getting higher and higher. At one point a trail marked with cairns goes off on the right side of canyon. This is probably the real trail, and if you don’t enjoy scrambling, or there are less than two people in your group, you want to take this rim trail. I’ll get back to it later.
If you don’t take the rim trail, continue up the canyon. The hiking will get harder with more scrambling over rocks and more potholes. Really, this is the nicest, and most exciting, part of the trail. If you look back, before the canyon twists too much, the view is very nice. Here in the canyon it is good to have at least two people—one to push or pull the other one up the small dry falls that are prevalent. There may be too much water in the pot holes and low spots in the canyon for you to go all of the way through it. We almost didn’t make it up one dry fall that was right above a pool of very, very stagnant water. As it was, we had to make stepping stones to the fall, then push or pull each other up. I did get one foot slightly wet, but that was all right because I had gotten the same foot slightly damp trying to climb over a puddle earlier! The distance that you go depends on your ability and how adventurous you feel that day.
You are almost out of the canyon when you come to the remains of an old dam. All that is left is some concrete clinging to the walls. At one time there were two walls 4-5 feet (about 1 ½ meters) apart. Our guess is that cattle ranchers used this dam to catch water to water their cattle. Even if there is too much water in the canyon to go all of the way from the bottom, you could probably get to the dam from the top of the canyon, using the rim trail.
At the end of the canyon, the rock walls suddenly give way to hills covered with yucca and other desert plants. There must be more water around here than in other parts of Big Bend because here the yuccas have grown up until they almost look like small palm trees. You can climb up the rocks on the right side of the canyon to get to the rim trail, or you can retrace your steps back through the canyon.
Speaking of the rim trail, if you don’t want to climb up the canyon, another good way to see the Den is by climbing out of the canyon before the walls get too high. Here a cairned trail leads along the south canyon rim. The trail isn’t hard to follow—there are plenty of cairns, and if you lose the trail, all you have to do is follow the edge of the canyon. A little before the end of the canyon the trail sort of dies out. You can go back here, but if you want to scramble down the canyon instead of scrambling up it, keep following the canyon rim until you can safely climb down to the wash below. Then follow the directions backwards down the canyon.
Which way is better? Well, that depends. If you want to go through the canyon, but are alone, definitely take the rim trail and then scramble back down the canyon so you can just slide down the dry falls. However, we enjoyed scrambling up the canyon (harder, but to us more fun), and then walking along the rim trail, seeing where we had been. The Den itself is probably only about ½ mile long.
To get back to your vehicle, follow the rim trail back to a place where you can scramble back down into the canyon, or scramble back down the canyon to its east end. Then follow the wash back through the thorny bushes to the big wash with the “island”. Here you can follow the big wash back the way you came, or you can scramble up the west side of the big wash and follow the somewhat vague/sometimes-marked-with-cairns trail back to the trail to Dog Canyon, then turn left and go back to your vehicle. This second way is a shortcut, and will cut down on the distance you have to walk back to your vehicle.
One note of warning: there were quite a few bees in the Den when we were there in early January. I don’t know if they were active because the weather had finally gotten warm, or if they are usually active around there. Anyway, they didn’t bother us, but I wouldn’t try this hike if you’re allergic to bee stings.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
Round Trip Trail Length: About 6 miles (9.6 km)
Facilities: A sign at the trailhead
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