In 2017, Big Bend National Park had over 442,641 visitors, making 2017 its busiest year on record! Park visits were especially high during the month of March when the weather is typically mild, the cacti are in bloom and many are on spring break. Typically, the Chisos Mountain Lodge is fully booked this time of year and the campground and backcountry sites are hard to come by if you haven’t booked in advance.
Big Bend is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It offers visitors spectacular scenic vistas, hundreds of miles of hiking trails and roads for exploring, the mighty Rio Grande River for float trips and some of the darkest night skies in the lower 48. We thoroughly enjoyed our recent trip and wished we had more time in this amazing park!
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1) BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: LOST MINES TRAIL
If you only have time for one hike in Big Bend, all five of us agree that it should be the Lost Mines Trail! It was the first hike we took midafternoon (shortly after we’d entered the park). This moderately steep 4.6-mile trail follows a series of switchbacks and offers stunning views of the Chisos Basin and Casa Grande for much of the hike.
The trail ends at the Juniper Canyon overlook. We enjoyed a snack and took in the amazing views with little company. Though we met some hikers returning to the trailhead when we were on our way up, we were the last ones out for the day! The whole trip should take about 3 hours.
NOTE: If you hike this trail in the warmer months, make sure to set out early in the morning to increase your chances of being in the shade and getting a parking spot. The parking area is small (about 20 cars) and the only other parking areas are small pull-offs located further down Chisos Basin Road.
2) CHISOS BASIN IN BIG BEND
The Chisos Basin is located in the heart of Big Bend, and the uphill drive into the basin area yields a dramatic shift from a desert landscape to forest. The Basin supports an entirely different ecosystem than the rest of the park. Signs warn of bears and mountain lions, and abundant trees provide shade from the often intense Texas heat. Many come here for lodging—both a campground and the Chisos Mountain Lodge are located here in the shadow of Casa Grande. You’ll also find the only restaurant in the park, as well as a visitor center, ranger station, gift shop and convenience store. However, the main draw here is the dramatic Window, a v-shaped opening in the basin wall.
The short, paved Window View Trail is an excellent spot from which to watch sunset or just take in the beautiful basin views. There are also a variety of more challenging trails originating from the Chisos Basin area.
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3) THE WINDOW TRAIL
After witnessing sunset at the Window View Trail, we were excited to set off on the popular Window Trail early the next morning to get a closer look. Although there are two trailheads, we chose to begin our hike from the basin campground (a shorter and slightly easier hike than the one which begins at the visitor center). From the campground, the trail is 4.4 miles roundtrip.
The trail down into the basin follows a drainage shaded by trees.
As we neared the basin’s pour-off, the walls of the canyon started to close in around us and the trail changed from dirt to solid rock.
Although dry at the time of our hike, all the rain and snowmelt in the basin drains from this area into the desert below and carves a path out to the Window. The rock at the very end is extremely slick, so be sure to enjoy the view of the desert from a safe spot rather than risking a look over the edge! And be sure to refuel and hydrate before heading back.
Although the hike down to the Window seems relatively easy, the walk back is uphill. Allow 2-2 ½ hours for this hike. (Add on another hour if you choose to hike from the trailhead near the visitor center.)
NOTE: We recommend hiking early in the morning for two reasons--to avoid crowds and beat the heat! Even with cooler February temperatures, we were getting warm on the way back.
4) SCENIC DRIVES IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend’s extensive network of roads allows access to interior areas of this vast park. There are over a hundred miles of paved roads and another 150 miles of dirt roads to explore. If you have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, you have access to dozens of remote campsites and hiking areas. Otherwise, travel on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or Chisos Basin Road to take in the sights and vistas from the many pull-offs and overlooks. If you don’t mind taking it slow but like to get off the beaten path, then the unpaved Old Maverick Road might be the one for you!
5) SANTA ELENA CANYON
If you’ve taken the time to travel down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the west side of the park, the Santa Elena Canyon trail is a must-do! This relatively easy 1.4-mile hike starts where the Terlingua Creek and Rio Grande River meet and involves crossing the Terlingua Creek. When we hiked in February, the creek was barely running, and we were able to keep our feet dry.
If the park has had recent rain, you may want to be prepared with appropriate footwear that can get wet. After crossing the creek, the trail climbs up a series of switchbacks that lead into the canyon.
The trail first becomes a wide ledge above the river and then continues down along the banks of the Rio Grande.
This was the perfect place to spend the afternoon, as it provides some shady relief from the strong afternoon sun. We hear it’s also a great spot to watch sunrise!
Big Bend National Park’s diverse landscape has so much to offer, and we can assure you that it is worth the long drive to get here! We only had a couple of days in Big Bend, but we could have easily stayed longer.
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