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Backpacker Magazine – October 2005

Adventure Guide: Big Bend National Park

Texas-sized solitude is practically guaranteed when you explore the high peaks and striking river canyons of this lightly visited wilderness.

by: Steve Howe, BACKPACKER Rocky Mountain Editor

3 Outer Loop Trail
See the Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert in 3 days.
©Steve Howe

If you're looking to take on a well-marked loop with fascinating sidetrips--and you don't mind some stiff elevation gain and loss--this 30-miler is your Big Bend dream hike. It climbs over the forested Chisos Mountains, then plunges 2,850 feet down Juniper Canyon before making a long traverse through the foothills of the Chihuahuan Desert on the remote Dodson Trail. From this trail's far (western) end at historic Homer Wilson Ranch, you'll hump back up the Chisos to recross the range just below 7,825-foot Emory Peak, the park's highest summit. The Outer Loop is a stout tour. Your 10-mile first day starts with a steep climb and a long, knee-pounding descent. The 11-mile second day is a sun-drenched rollercoaster on the Dodson, whose stony trailbed is hard on feet (sturdy boots recommended). Your third day is comparatively easy, with a gradual 2,200-foot climb up Blue Creek Canyon, a scenic stroll through the pygmy forests of Laguna Meadows, and a quick descent back to Chisos Basin.

If you're not ready for a return to the trailhead, linger awhile: Take the South Rim Trail east from Laguna Meadows for outrageous vistas that stretch well into Mexico. Make this loop easier by caching water at the Homer Wilson Ranch (.25 mile from the Wilson Ranch Overlook on TX 118). Ultralighters can do this trip as a taxing one-nighter by camping near the springs of Fresno Creek (mile 14.9), but should check with park rangers to make sure this intermittent source has water.

The Way Start from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, 7 miles south of the Panther Junction Visitor Center on the Chisos Basin road.


Emory Peak 360° views highlight this aerobic climb to Big Bend's highest point.

Emory Peak rises 6,000 feet above the desert, offering big panoramas, a breezy escape from the heat, and an excellent 9-mile trail hike. From busy Chisos Basin Visitor Center, climb 2.5 miles up the Pinnacles Trail to a cool, fragrant pine forest in the Chisos Mountains. Continue south on the Boot Canyon Trail until you reach a junction with the mile-long Emory Peak Trail. Near the summit, a short section of easy scrambling puts you on the 7,825-foot peak. You can include Emory on loop routes up to 17 miles long, via the South Rim and Laguna Meadow Trails.

Glenn Springs/Juniper Canyon Roads Roll through mountain-bike heaven on these fast, wild jeep tracks.

Big Bend contains more than 150 miles of rough backcountry dirt roads, but this 25-mile out-and-back stands out due to its challenging but fast nature and firm surfaces--not the usual sand pits that plague desert biking. Start from the signed Glenn Springs Road turnoff, approximately 6 miles east of Panther Junction Visitor Center on TX 118. Turn around at the Juniper Canyon campsite, or combine this with Black Gap and River Roads for an extensive (and waterless) multiday bikepacking journey. Take the Trails Illustrated #225 Big Bend National Park map and the Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads of BBNP ($2). Rentals, shuttles, and additional beta are available from Desert Sports in Terlingua (888-989-6900;

Marufo Vega Trail Test your routefinding skills on this rugged route through the Deadhorse Mountains.

This rough, 14-mile cairned loop heads north from Boquillas Canyon Road near Boquillas Canyon Overlook, climbs the austere Deadhorse Mountains, then plummets 800 feet to the Rio Grande downstream from Boquillas Canyon. As it climbs the southwest slopes of the range, the trail splits into north and south forks. Both forks descend to the river, and connect via a trail along its Texas (western) bank. Routefinding is easier counterclockwise, from the south fork to the north fork, because cairns are more pronounced at the north fork's river junction. There is no water along this potentially oven-hot route, so carry 5 to 8 liters per person. Watch your routefinding; several intersections are easily missed. Download an NPS map of the trail at


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May 17, 2013

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Apr 21, 2011


Tom D
Mar 11, 2009

Big Bend is hot and rocky. Stay away. Please. That way only a few of us know the secret.


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