- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
The Big Bend region sprawls forever, across prickly deserts, into rugged canyons and up hardscrabble mountains.
Reach out the window, you might think, and it’ll bite back. But walk out into that lunar landscape and you’ll discover a world bursting with beautiful life.
Where to start? That’s tough, but we’ve picked some of our favorite trails in the region, including jaunts through Big Bend National Park, neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park and nearby Fort Davis. We could go on for pages, but had to draw the line somewhere.
You’ll snag your shins on cat’s claw and prickly pear, spy evidence of an extinct volcano, and, with a little luck, encounter a bristly javelina, a furry tarantula or a meandering black bear.
Trust us, you’ll be glad you got out of the car.
1. Closed Canyon, Big Bend Ranch State Park
Distance: About 2 miles round trip. Access off of FM 170.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Hiking into Closed Canyon feels like walking between an oversized pair of theater curtains made of stone as they slowly sweep together. As you traipse into the cool envelope between two ever-narrowing cliff walls, temperatures drop and sunlight fades. That makes it a perfect hike during the heat of summer. This jaunt starts out easy, along mostly flat terrain, but grows increasingly challenging the deeper you go. Prepare to scramble over boulders and wear shoes with grip to avoid slipping. You won’t get all the way to the Rio Grande unless you bring ropes.
2. Cinco Tinajas Trail, Big Bend Ranch State Park
Distance: Less than 1 mile. Access off main road to Sauceda.
When I took this easy hike from the trailhead off the main road just over a mile from park headquarters at Sauceda, I spotted paw prints left by a mountain lion. Water nearly always fills the five stair-stepped tinajas — or rock basins — here, even in dry years, making it a popular watering hole for resident wildlife. The trail follows an old road to the top of a ridge, where you can gaze down on the pools or admire Oso Peak, the highest point in the park, in the distance. After you’ve done that, backtrack a bit, then walk down to the creek, to get an up-close view of the tinajas. Just watch out for rattlesnakes.
3. Outside Loop, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens
Distance: About 2.5-miles round trip. Access four miles southeast of Fort Davis.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Start at the visitor center and follow the path across some flat grasslands, into a small box canyon, then up a ridge to an overlook, where you can spin in circles like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” Instead of breaking out in song, though, keep walking until you get to the hilltop exhibit that explains the volcanic formation of the surrounding mountains. (Pay attention, though. We lost the trail, which fades in places, and had to bushwhack our way back to civilization.) Afterward, spend some time at the visitor center learning about the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest of four North American deserts and home to 3,000 species of plants and 115 species of butterflies.
4. South Rim, Big Bend National Park
Distance: A little more than 13 miles round trip. Access at Chisos Mountain Basin.
Difficulty: Quad buster
This one’s a classic, but don’t try it unless you’re fit and willing to commit an entire day or more to it. Start at the Chisos Basin trailhead and head out on a counterclockwise tour to what seems like the top of the world. You’ll chug up a windy trail, cross a pass, round a corner and chug up some more. (I’ve seen a black bear here.) Then, gloriously, you’ll find yourself at the top of a 2,000-foot cliff staring out at the desert below, which looks like the rumpled folds of a huge swath of rhino hide. Head directly back through Boot Canyon, or, for an extra burn, tack on 2 more miles with a spin across the Southeast Rim Trail. For a head-spinning thrill, take a detour up Emory Peak, too. By the time you finish, you’ll want a burger at the restaurant in the Chisos Mountain Lodge. Depending on the detours, it’s 13 miles round trip.
5. Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park
Distance: About 5 miles round trip. Access on Basin Road, just before it descends to the Basin Campground.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Don’t have time for the entire South Rim? Head up Lost Mine trail instead. After just 1 mile of gradual climbing, the trail opens up with spectacular views to the southeast. From there, the pitch increases and the trail sweeps to the top of a mountain, where you can get some of the best views of the Chisos without spending an entire day getting there. It’s popular, though, so head out early and pack a snack to enjoy while perched on the rocks at the top. You’ll have plenty of company. We love the Window Trail, too, but have to give the edge to this hike, just for the views.
6. Tuff Canyon, Big Bend National Park
Distance: 1 mile round trip. Access at Mile 15 on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
Looking for an easy hike that showcases an entirely different view of the park? Head to Tuff Canyon, where you can take a leisurely stroll to the lip of a small canyon, then walk down into its folds. There, you’ll feel like you’re walking through time as the cut gets deeper and deeper. (Cat Stevens should check it out.) I love peering beneath the overhangs and sorting through rocky rubble tumbled with every passing storm. The official trail stretches just three-quarters of a mile, but if you’re like me, you’ll want to spend more than an hour exploring.
7. Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend National Park
Distance: 1.5 miles. Access at end of Boquillas Canyon Road.
It’s a toss-up between Santa Elena Canyon and Boquillas Canyon, but just to be different, we pick Boquillas. (Everybody knows about Santa Elena already, don’t they?) The hike starts with a short, quick ascent. You’ll crest a small hill, then drop down onto a sandy patch along the river. Look south to see the tiny village of Boquillas in Mexico. You might meet residents of the town peddling their wares here. Try to avoid the mud as you dip your toes in the water — and keep walking — as the canyon walls grow higher and you feel smaller. The trail ends at what looks like a huge sand pile kicked over by a giant.
8. Unnamed trail along Skyline Drive, Davis Mountains State Park
Distance: Up to 9 miles. Access at park interpretive center.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
If you’re feeling strong, start at the park interpretive center, at the bottom of Skyline Drive. From there, you can climb all the way to the overlook at the top of the road. But you’ll want to keep going, channeling your inner frontier hero as you spill over the front side of the ridge and meander down to the Fort Davis Historic Site far below. Look back up at the cliffs and you’ll see evidence of volcanoes that erupted here millions of years ago. Less time to hike? Shave off 3 miles each way by driving up Skyline Drive, parking your vehicle and hiking to the outpost from there. Even better? Book a room at the rustic but charming Indian Lodge in the park.