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The Best Hikes in Big Bend
We dedicated an entire day to the arduous drive from Austin and spent the night in Alpine before heading south to Terlingua and Big Bend. We would spend three full days in the park and did two hikes in Big Bend, only 2? I know it doesn’t sound like a lot. But one of those hikes took us 8 hours and the following day our legs had ceased to function. We had to cancel our plans to hike on the third day. No regrets. There are more than 150 miles of trails of hikes in Big Bend, we covered about 20 of those miles.
We visited the park in August, it was HOT. To escape the brutal desert heat we followed everyone’s advice to explore the Chisos Mountains. We did two stunning trails there. Big Bend is the only park to contain an entire mountain range within its borders and it’s quite a contrast to be driving through flat desert plains and then suddenly be surrounded by a forest of pines, ears popping from the altitude change and warning signs for bears.
1. Lost Mine Trail
Lost Mine is one of the most popular hiking trails in Big Bend National Park and is a moderate level hike. It’s 4.6 miles total round trip, hiking uphill to the peak, and returning downhill the way you came. I didn’t find the trail to be too difficult. If you are a casual gym goer I think you’ll be fine. You do gain an elevation of 1,000 feet, so it is more than a stroll in the forest. Bring water and wear appropriate shoes and sunscreen. If you only have one day in the park, this is the hike I’d recommend. It’s not too long and the views are stunning.
After leaving the parking lot and passing the signs that warn you of mountain lion and bears, you start the trek into the forest. It’s uphill from here on out, but there are a few spots with benches to catch your breath and take a water break with a view. At around halfway you’ll reach a series of switchbacks to gain elevation in steeper terrain. Once you reach the top you’ll think you’ve made it. We stopped and took pictures here, sitting to bask in our glory and success before the group of scouts at the top told us to keep going.
The trail continues a short way past this point. It’s relatively treeless and over the rock. It’s an easy stroll from here and the views were incredible, see below.
Rain on the Trail
It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the top, and about 45 minutes to haul ass back down. The lightning that I thought was far in the distance was on top of us in seconds, and we were underwater for our entire descent. So, while apparently this can be done in 2 hours flat when the descent is done running in the rain, I’d allow about 3 hours or more, to take your time and stop for snacks and a drink at the top.
Drenched but happy. We were the only ones left on the trail, how shocking. Seems we were the only ones who didn’t get the storm memo. Did you know the desert has a monsoon season? On our way out of the park, already out of the mountains, we were blessed with a double rainbow. A promise from the heavens to have no more floods on our hikes in Big Bend? Fingers crossed.
2. South Rim Trail
This trail is a loop trail and the trailhead is just steps from the Chisos Mountain Lodge parking lot. If you’re planning on doing the entire loop, prepare accordingly. It is nearly 13 miles and will probably take around 7 to 8 hours. They recommend a gallon of water per person. We took 2 liters each, plus a liter of Gatorade, plenty of salty snacks and sandwiches, and sunscreen. At the trailhead, you’ll find a large sign marking the different trails.
Since it’s a loop you can start with either the steep Pinnacles Trail or the more gradual Laguna Meadows Trail. We started with the Pinnacles. This was the toughest part since it’s steep and full of switchbacks in the trees. It was very humid from an early morning rain shower. After a while. you break through the trees and get a view over the Chiso Basin and can see the lodge in the distance.
The Pinnacles & Emory Peak Options
When you reach the top of the Pinnacles, you’ve made it! Many turned around here, it’s a challenging hike on its own and enough for a shorter hike. Or if you want more, you can leave your things in a bear-proof storage bin and hike up a mile to Emory Peak. We decided to skip Emory Peak and save our energy for the rest of the loop. There’s a compost toilet here and a couple of other times throughout the trail.
This trail is classified as strenuous. It takes a full day. Many choose to camp at one of the many designated campsites along the way. There were a lot of steep switchbacks alternating with pretty level walks that regularly gave me a chance to catch my breath. Throughout our entire hike, we were threatened by dark clouds and thunder but we seemed to just miss every storm.
The South Rim View
Midway through the hike is the reward. You’re blessed with a panoramic view of the south rim and over Mexico. We sat for a relaxing lunch to rest our bones and savor the vistas. We also watched three different thunderstorms pour down over Mexico. Pictures really can’t do this justice. It was a breathtaking view.
We enjoyed the views for the rest of the walk back, taking in the flowers blooming thanks to the rainy season. The soil around the Laguna Meadows area is black and volcanic. There was so much to take in, including another panoramic view of the Chisos Basin. We were getting pretty beat by the end and the final mile was a struggle. It was a LONG day but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It took us over 8 hours but we took multiple breaks to rest our feet and to enjoy views. I absolutely recommend this hike for those with a few days in the park, or those looking to camp. But you do need to be in good physical shape to complete the entire loop.
3. Window View Trail
This isn’t even a hike, it’s a stroll. This paved trail is .3 miles long and next to the Chisos Mountains Lodge, right before the South Rim trailhead. You can see the famous Window in the distance and it frames a jaw-dropping sunset. Maybe if you just completed the South Rim you can grab an ice cream from the store and collapse your weary bones on a bench here to watch the sunset, you earned it.
Hikes for Next Time:
These are the three hikes we did. There were three others on my list that we were unable to do, so these “honorable mention” hikes in Big Bend (that are on the top of my list for our next trip here) are:
We had every intention of doing this hike, but the South Rim left us far too sore to even consider it, so until next time Window Trail. This is a moderate hike. It’s a 5.6 mile there and back hike to the famous window you view from a distance at the Window View Trail. I’ve heard it’s similar to Lost Mine in difficulty. However, you are descending on the way there, leaving the steep climb for the return. Be sure to save water and energy for the return uphill hike.
All hikes until this point are Mountain Hikes in the Chisos. The following are in the desert or along the Rio Grande.
Santa Elena Canyon
This is a must do experience. Well, so I’m told. Due to heavy rains throughout the previous weeks, this hike was closed while we were visiting. It’s a moderate 1.7-mile hike into the canyon and the views are said to be magnificent.
Hot Springs Historic Trail
This trail was also closed when we were there due to flooding. This is a short 1-mile hike and is an easy one. There’s no shade so in the hot summer months be careful with the sun. You can refresh yourself with a dip in the hot springs while overlooking the Rio Grande.
I would have loved to do this hike in the desert. However, I’ll save it for a cooler time of year. This is a moderate 3.8-mile hike in the desert starting on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.