Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
To early Indians, it was where the Great Spirit stored his rocks. To the Spanish, it was El Despoblado, “The Uninhabited Land.” To hikers and backpackers, it’s Big Bend National Park, 801,163 surprisingly scenic acres in southwest Texas along the Rio Grande. Designated in 1935 to preserve the most beautiful, complex slice of the Chihuahuan Desert north of the border, Big Bend is larger than Rhode Island, yet receives only 360,000 visitors per year. Few of those pilgrims explore its 200 miles of trail, 150 miles of dirt roads, or the 234 miles of Wild and Scenic River administered by the park. Which is great news for adventurers who seek the serene isolation of a vast desert setting.
We scouted six routes to help you explore this extraordinarily diverse park, which comprises three geologic regions: the Chisos Mountains, with their spectacular vistas; the Rio Grande’s cathedral gorges, with their alternately placid and turbulent stretches of canoeing; and the stony desert lowlands, filled with otherworldly rock formations and ear-ringing quiet. Start making your plans now, because the southern latitude makes Big Bend the perfect winter escape.
Beautiful desolation and an out-of-the-way overlook highlight this rugged
Hikers who relish lonely exploration should head to the park’s remote western
corner, where Mesa de Anguila rises above the resort town of Lajitas. Here,
on this 24-mile trek, you’ll visit several of the mesa’s most spectacular features,
including a dizzying overlook above the narrowest part of the Rio Grande’s
Santa Elena Canyon. Atop this 3,500-foot plateau, faint trails thread between
isolated tinajas, slickrock potholes that hold rainwater for days or even weeks
despite the baking sun. From this mostly off-trail route, you can turn onto
a few solid trails that lead to major water holes and the Rio Grande (most
other paths are left by semiwild, trespassing Mexican horses), but otherwise
the routefinding is all yours. If your navigation skills are well-honed, your
opportunities for additional exploration are limited only by the amount of
water you can find or carry.
From the Mesa de Anguila trailhead in Lajitas, climb 1.7 steep miles to the
top of the mesa and continue southeast. Turn northeast at a confusing trail
junction to reach Tinaja
Lujan at mile 7.9. The next day, backtrack south until you’re nearly at the
Rio Grande, then turn east onto faint trails for a 4.7-mile one-way sidetrip
to the dramatic but tough-to-find overlook into Santa Elena Canyon above Rock
Slide Rapid (make for a prominent notch on the canyon rim). Return via your
approach route, or extend the trip by forging cross-country on higher benchlands
to the north.
Way Just west of the stables in Lajitas, turn left onto an unmarked
dirt road and drive 3 blocks to the trailhead parking lot.
Paddle the Rio Grande through massive gorges on this exciting overnight.
The National Park Service administers 234 miles of the Wild and Scenic Rio Grande, including the 188-mile stretch that defines Big Bend’s entire southern boundary. Along this border portion lie three deep, narrow river gorges lined with towering limestone cliffs: Boquillas, Mariscal, and Santa Elena. Santa Elena offers the best combination of scenery, action, and access; a 20-mile canoe trip here is easily done in 2 days. (For a longer trip, try the 76-mile journey linking Santa Elena and Mariscal via the rarely traveled Ghost Stretch.)
From its start at Lajitas, the Santa Elena winds through 12.5 miles of open country and short, swift rapids before hitting the half-mile-long Entrance Rapid, a massive cobble pile formed by floods from Mexico’s Arroyo San Antonio. Just beyond, the gorge deepens, and after several tight turns, you reach Rock Slide Rapid (mile 13.7). At high river flows, the house-sized boulders here make for dangerous Class IV whitewater. When the river is low (about 350-700 cfs), Rock Slide can be negotiated by a combination of wading, lining, and paddling. Small, secluded campsites are located on cobble bars and rock ledges just below Rock Slide. Three miles downstream, you’ll encounter Arch and Fern Canyons, two striking gorges that angle in from the Mexican side and are separated by a large bench with fine camping. As you paddle, keep an eye peeled for peregrine falcons soaring the cliffs.
The Way Launch from the riverside park in Lajitas on FM 170 and take out 1 mile below the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, 7 miles west of Big Bend National Park’s Castolon Visitor Center. Pick up a permit at Panther Junction or Big Bend Ranch State Park’s Barton Warnock Center near Lajitas. For shuttles, equipment rentals, and guided trips, contact Big Bend River Tours (800-545-4240; bigbendrivertours.com).
See the Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert in 3 days.
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.
Way Start from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, 7 miles south
of the Panther Junction Visitor Center on the Chisos Basin road.
Getting There The closest airports are in Midland and El Paso (242
and 329 miles, respectively, from the park).
Getting Around Gas, water, and limited groceries are available at Terlingua,
Lajitas, and the three main campgrounds at Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin,
and Castolon. For travel between November 15 and April 15, you can reserve car
campsites up to 240 days in advance through ReserveUSA (877-444-6777; reserveusa.com).
Season November through April, except for the higher Chisos Mountains,
which are best visited late spring through early autumn.
Don’t Miss Fajitas at the Chile Pepper Café in Terlingua.
Cautions Extreme heat and scarce springs mean you must carry lots
of water, identify potential sources, hike during cool parts of the day, and
leave your itinerary with a responsible person. Soloists should fill out the
Solo Hiker Form, which requires check-in upon return.
Regulations Permits (free) are required for all backcountry overnights
and are available at visitor centers up to 24 hours in advance. In the Chisos,
camping is limited to designated sites; elsewhere, camping is allowed anywhere
a half-mile from roads, trails, and developed areas. No campfires or pets.
MapsTrails Illustrated #225 Big Bend National Park is a good
overview map. For custom topos of our main hikes, visit www.backpacker.com/mapstore.
de Anguila: USGS Mesa de Anguila
Loop Trail: Go to www.nps.gov/bibe/backcountry/outermountainloop.htm to
download a map and route description.
Elena: River Guide to the Rio Grande is sold at Big Bend River Tours, visitor
centers, and bigbendbookstore.org.
Peak: Chisos Mountains Trail Map is sold at park visitor centers and at bigbendbookstore.org.
Springs/Juniper Canyon: Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads of BBNP is sold
at area stores & visitor centers.
Vega: USGS quads Boquillas, Ernst Valley Guide Hiking Big Bend National Park,
by Laurence Parent Contact (432) 477-2251; nps.gov/bibe