There’s no better place to take a break from the city than Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The parks are located in southwest Texas and offer visitors a variety of hiking options with their own unique views.
When to Visit Big Bend
Far west Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert where the temperatures in May through August can reach 110+ Fahrenheit. Many trails lack any shade and the high temperatures make hiking difficult and dangerous; signs at trailheads advise against being on the trail past 10 am in the summer. Autumn through Spring (October through March) are prime hiking seasons because the temperatures are milder, with highs only reaching the mid-70s. Winter days are cool and trails are less crowded. Spring is a little warmer than winter, but you are rewarded with wildflowers and bird migration activity.
BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK VS BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend’s Maverick Junction (west) entrance and Big Bend Ranch’s Barton Warnock (east) visitor center are only about 20 miles from each other, with Terlingua perfectly positioned in the middle. They offer different hiking trails, so it’s worth exploring each if you have the time.
Big Bend National Park has hiking trails that cross through the Chisos mountain range and offer stunning views of the Texas desert. It has hiking trails that views of the popular Santa Elena Canyon, Lost Mine Trail, Balanced Rock attractions.
If I had to choose between the two, I would choose the state park because much less crowded and more scenic than Big Bend National Park. It features beautiful hikes with scenic vistas, rolling hills, and canyons that are sure to take your breath away.
HOW MANY DAYS DO YOU NEED In BIG BEND?
There is so much to explore in both parks, especially if you have an all wheel drive vehicle and can go on the trails off dirt roads. Even without a high-clearance vehicle, I recommend spending at least 4 days in the area in order to have time to hike the most popular trails. If you only have a day or two, hiking around Santa Elena and Boquillas Canyons is your best bet.
I recommend this 4-day itinerary to see all the most popular hikes:
DAY ONE: CHISOS BASIN AND RIO GRANDE VILLAGE
Lost Mine Trail
Distance: 4.8 miles round trip
Parking is limited, so make sure you arrive early! The hike is moderately difficult, with a steady climb to the summit which offers an incredible panoramic view of the Chisos Basin, Pine Canyon, and Sierre Del Carmen mountains in Mexico. If you’re looking for a shorter trip, about a mile up the trail is an amazing overlook of Casa Grande Rock Canyon and Juniper Canyon.
Grapevine Hills Trail To Balanced Rock
Distance: 2 miles
This trail is an easy out and back trail and is perfect for people who don’t have much time to spend at the park. It’s kid friendly with flat terrain except for the one quarter mile ascent to the balanced rocks!
Hike The Boquillas Canyon Trail
Distance: 1.4 miles round trip
The hiking trail is near the Rio Grande Village and the trailhead is at the end of the Boquillas Canyon Road. The Boquillas Canyon Trail runs along the Rio Grande and leads to an entrance of a magnificent limestone gorge that splits through Sierra del Carmen Mountains. Along this way, you may spot fossils and pre-historic grinding holes used by indigenous inhabitants for making food!
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Difficulty: Easy, except for the short climb over some rocks
The trail is 5 miles down an unimproved dirt road that requires a high-clearance vehicle to access. The hike is short, but very pleasant and worth the 25 minute drive. It’s mostly flat with some rocky areas in the last portion that leads to beautiful water filled pools at base of colorful layers of limestone
Day Two: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30 mile drive ending at Santa Elena Canyon with scenic overlooks and short hikes. Along the way, you’ll find everything from spectacular views at overlooks and pull offs, walking trails, and challenging hikes.
Notable Stops Include:
Sam Nail Ranch Nature Trail
Distance: .5 mile
If you enjoy old abandoned site, this is a scenic little walking trail and birding hotspot with a working windmill.
Distance: 1 mile round trip
The trail ends at the base of an impressive 100 foot pour off for a seasonal waterfall. With or without the water, it’s an easy and scenic hike.
Mule Ears Hike
Distance: 7 miles round trip
The rolling hills of this hike offer a diverse view of desert attractions including rock formations, flowers in the spring, and a year round oasis at Mule Ear Spring. The name for this popular trail comes from its main attraction – twin pillars made of volcanic rock shaped like a mule’s ears.
Santa Elena Canyon
Distance: .25 mile – 1.7 Miles
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Santa Elena Canyon is Big Bend’s most popular hiking destination. Reaching the view you most often see pictures of is just a quick walk from the parking lot. You don’t need to hike to enjoy this attraction, but if you want to see more of the canyon, there is a short, steep path into the canyon that offers spectacular views from 160ft above Rio Grande with 1500ft canyon walls towering over you on each side.
Day Three: The Window
Hike the Window Trail
Distance: 4.4 – 5.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
The Window Trail is a great way to get acquainted with the lush desert plant life as it follows along cacti, agave and yuccas before ending at an oasis. Before reaching the iconic window view you’ll pass through a canyon with a small stream, waterfalls, and views of the Chisos Mountains. The difficulty and distance depends on where you start the hike. Starting from the visitor is longer and includes double the incline than if you started from the campgrounds. You don’t miss much by starting at campgrounds, so I recommend starting at the base of the campgrounds to give you a little more time on other trails.
Boot Canyon Trail
Distance 3.5 miles
Difficulty – difficult
The trail passes through most lush and green area in the Chisos Mountains and you may find seasonal pools along the canyon during the rainy season. This trail is also a hotspot for Colima warblers, a Mexican bird species only found in the Chisos mountains.
Window View Nature Trail
Distance: .3 mile
Difficulty: Easy and wheel chair accessible
This paved trail lined with benches the perfect place to rest after a long day of hiking and watch the sun set.
Day Four: HIKING Trails IN BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK
FM-170 Scenic Drive
FM-170 is quite the hidden gem and arguably the most scenic drive in Texas! The popularity of national parks often overshadows the state parks, but this state park far more scenic. The road follows the Rio Grande with ample pit stops and hikes overlooking the green terrain hugging the river and desert mountains in the distance.
Distance 1.8 miles
If you want a peaceful place to escape the heat of the daytime desert, this slot canyon is the perfect reprieve. The scenic beauty found within these natural rock formations reminded me of Antelope Canyon, without the crowds. Walking the narrow canyon floor with the weld tuff walls towering over you coupled with the lack of other hikers easily made this one of my favorite hikes of all time.
Hoodoos Boulder Field
This site is named after its unique geological features called “hoodoos” which are a tall rock formation shaped by erosion at the base of an arid drainage basin or badland. The hoodoos, Rio Grande River and Mexico are all visible from a short one mile loop, but most people just meander on the rocks and around the river.
Fort Leaton State Historic Site
Fort Leaton is a historical private residence built in the 1848 in Presidio County, Texas. Ben Leaton built the fortified trading post to trade with the Apache and Comanche Indians. It’s a worthy stop on the FM-170 scenic drive to see the adobe style buildings and the quails that are popular in this spot.
Recommended Equipment For Hiking in the Desert
A 3 liter hydration pack is the minimum you should carry for a full day of hiking. Dehydration and heat related injuries are a real threat in the desert and I cannot stress the importance of bringing more than enough water.
Wide brimmed hat provide UV protection, mesh vents for ventilation, and some have neck capes for added protection
Lightweight breathable layers offer UV protection and help keep you cool and dry.
The sun is unforgiving and with little shade or cloud cover carrying sunscreen with you and re-applying regularly is a must.
Hiking shoes serve a very important purpose – protecting your feet. Regular tennis shoes lack the thick and rugged soles that protect your feet from rocky terrain and cactus needles.
Dual layer socks help prevent blisters by creating the friction between the layers instead of your skin. They are also quick drying if your feet get wet.
If you decide to hike during the hot months put a wet cooling towel around your neck to help keep you cool.