Big Bend National Park isn’t necessarily on the way to anywhere and yet we’ve made the effort to visit this park twice since we started full-time RV life and believe it or not we have intentions to make it back again someday. Referred to as Texas’ Gift to the Nation this sprawling national park offers a wide variety of experiences with it’s river canyons, mountains, desert hikes, and even hot springs.
Big Bend is a little over 800,000 acres and it’s the only national park to contain an entire mountain range within its borders: the Chisos Mountains. Factoring in drive-times will be an important part of your planning to determine how much you can see and do each day. For example if you’re camping at the Rio Grande Village campground, it will take you an hour and a half to make it to the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead but you should also expect to stop at some of the scenic pullouts along the way. While it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one visit, we hope this list can help you identify your must-dos!
Be prepared for your desert hike: Bring 2-4 liters of water/person. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and hiking boots. Dress in layers. Be aware of current road, trail, and weather conditions.
In this post we’ll discuss:
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail
- Lost Mine Trail
- Window Trail + Window Overlook
- Balanced Rock Trail
- Ernst Tinaja Trail
- Boquillas Canyon Trail
- Plus 3 Bonus Suggestions!
1. SANTA ELENA CANYON TRAIL
Even though this hike lies at one of outer edges of the park it is well worth the beautiful, winding route along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to get there. Along the way you’ll find numerous places to pull over and marvel at the view, including at Mule Ears viewpoint. Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a relatively easy 1.5 mile roundtrip popular trail that follows the Rio Grande river and takes you among the soaring canyon walls. There is about 600’ of elevation gain along this trail. If you can muster it, we’ve heard sunrise is an excellent time to visit the canyon. At the start of the trail is a water crossing which usually can be stepped over but in times of higher water you might get your feet wet. Be sure to ask a ranger about trail conditions when you enter the park.
2. LOST MINE TRAIL
Not only is this hike very popular, the parking area is woefully small, so we recommend attempting it at off-peak hours. To reach this trailhead you’ll drive towards the Chisos Basin with amazing views the entire way. This is a 5 mile roundtrip hike with about 1100’ of elevation gain. At the top you’ll see beautiful rock formations and layers of peaks. If you find yourself here at midday, bring a picnic lunch so you can enjoy the views that much longer.
3. WINDROW TRAIL + WINDOW VIEW TRAIL
To get to the Window Trail, you’ll head all the way up to the super scenic Chisos Basin. The closest parking area to the trailhead is within the Chisos Basin campground but if you start the trail at the lodge you’ll have 5.2 miles roundtrip. The hike descends most of the way in, so the majority of the 950’ elevation gain is on your way back out. The trail takes you across the open basin and then close in among the mountains walls. We enjoyed seeing several Mexican Jays and loved the M.C. Escher-like stone steps just before the end of the trail, which is a water pouroff and therefore very slick and smooth rock. It’s a narrow but beautiful view out to the valley below.
While at Chisos Basin you should also consider doing the short paved 1/3 mile Window View Trail for an iconic look back towards the Window and the basin you just crossed.
4. BALANCED ROCK
This is one of our favorite hikes in the park but it is recommended to have a 4x4 high clearance vehicle to make the drive to the trailhead. It takes roughly 25-35 minutes to drive the 6 miles on Grapevine Spring road. Once there you’ll find parking for a dozen or so vehicles and get your first look at the round boulders that will frame the trail for your hike. You’ll spend some time hiking in the sand on this 2 mile roundtrip hike. It’s a fairly flat trail until the final quarter mile where you’ll climb about 230’ to find not only the namesake of the trail but gorgeous views in all directions.
5. ERNST TINAJA TRAIL
This hike was recommended to us by a park ranger and we’re so glad she pointed us in this direction. Once again, a 4x4 high clearance vehicle is absolutely needed to safely travel down Old Ore Road — which is much rockier and rougher than the road to Balanced Rock. It took us about 45 minutes to travel the 5 miles to the trailhead. Your right turn off Old Ore is indicated by a small stone sign that simply says Ernst Tinaja. You’ll pass a primitive campsite and then find the small parking area for the trailhead. It’s a fairly easy 2 mile out and back hike which takes you among some very impressive geology to a deep natural watering hole. You can continue past it for some fun rock scrambling.
6. BOQUILLAS CANYON TRAIL
Boquillas Canyon is another easy trail that takes you along the Rio Grande offering fantastic river views, sandy beaches, and more of those soaring canyon walls. This 1.2 mile out and back stroll is gentle and relaxing and a nice way to appreciate more of the beauty that this area has to offer.
Boquillas Port of Entry is on the eastern end of the park, so if you have your passport you might consider having lunch in Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico. After crossing the river in an official vessel it’s a 1/2 mile walk to the village or for a little extra flair you could ride a burro or horse! You can learn more about the crossing here!
At the time of this writing Boquillas Hot Springs is temporarily closed due to Covid but it’s a unique opportunity to keep in mind. The soaking area sits right next to the Rio Grande on the eastern side of the park. You’ll travel 2 miles down a rough and narrow gravel road to reach the trailhead, where it’s a 1/2 mile trek to the hot springs. You can find more info on current conditions or closures here.
Another trail that was highly recommended by two different park rangers is the Pine Canyon Trail just east of the Panther Junction visitor center. We never found time to explore this trail but it’s on our to do list. We did turn onto Glen Springs road (the road to the trailhead) for some beautiful sunset photos. The hike is 4.3 miles roundtrip and ends at a seasonal waterwall.
Check out our most recent visit to this incredible national park:
What are your favorite trails within Big Bend National Park? Let us know in the comments below!