Before I started planning my West Texas roadtrip, I really didn’t know much about Big Bend National Park. But even the tiniest bit of research immediately made it clear that this was a park deserving of two or more days of exploration. There are so many trails to explore here. The ecosystems are varied and beautiful. And Big Bend is home to its namesake, the big bend of the Rio Grande. One of the life-blood rivers of the American Southwest. In short, this national park should be on every nature-lover’s bucketlist, and in particular, I would suggest checking out some of the best trails in Big Bend. Whether you want to take photos from the car, go on a family walk, or challenge yourself, there are options here for everyone.
How I Picked My List of Best Trails in Big Bend
Generally speaking, I’m the kind of person who can enjoy just about any kind of trail. I love short jaunts out into nature. And I also enjoy the challenge of long, strenuous treks into the wilderness. And I know people who like only one or the other, or trails somewhere in between. Due to that, I think it bares some explanation as to how I came up with the following list of the best trails in Big Bend.
That all being said, NONE of these trails are the most strenuous trails in the park. These aren’t wild trails with rare views and long treks to see them. Rather, I’ve selected this short list for the following reasons:
Many of these trails, but not all, are short and relatively flat. Thus, they can be walked by hikers of almost all skill levels. And while they are not accessible or even rated for accessibility, all of them have amazing views which can be enjoyed from the trailheads. And all trailheads are accessible by regular vehicles.
Every single one of these trails will give you a different taste of the wide range of ecosystems and landscapes in Big Bend National Park. While there are three different canyon trails, every one is highly unique. One trail explores the desert on the way to a desert oasis, and one reaches the heights of the sky island of the Chisos Mountains. If you are an avid hiker, it would not be hard to get all of this variety in two days visiting the park. (Check out our itinerary for suggestions on how to do this.)
Boquillas Canyon Trail
Boquillas Canyon Trail is a very short 1.5 mile round trip walk from the trailhead to the interior of the canyon. I was particularly smitten with this route because of the spectacular colors that the Rio Grande takes on in this side of the park. These were the most vibrant of blues and greens. I only wish that I were a skilled enough photographer to have captured the majesty of the river here properly. The canyon itself is also lovely. The walls here are a warm, sandy color, and when contrasted with the water, it is a really breathtaking place. Thus, it’s placement on my Best Trails in Big Bend (non-exhaustive) list.
While the trail is short, there is a little bit of elevation gain. Not much, but if you aren’t feeling a walk up rocky steps due to the heat, physical limitations, or anything else, you can get some nice pictures from the river overlook up the road from the trailhead. There is also a tiny bit of trail finding that you will need to do on this little walk because it isn’t all that clear once you get down to the sandy beach area. Just continue walking up river. Turn around when you reach the wide beach. You should not need to wade in the water or push through plants.
DO NOT SWIM in the water. Rivers are notoriously dangerous. They may look calm and inviting, but they are extremely powerful. Please also mind your children closely.
Also, please note that if there are people selling things along the trail, it is technically illegal to purchase them. If the little river border crossing is open, you might consider purchasing the art and keep-sakes legally and support the village on the Mexican side. You can inquire with the rangers about this at the visitor centers.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
The big sister to Boquillas Canyon is Santa Elena.
I was impressed by this canyon from the car, miles away. You really won’t believe how otherworldly this place is until you see it. Even now, just remembering the feeling of approaching this place leaves me awestruck. The sheer, impressive nature of this place made me slap this trail onto my Best Trails in Big Bend list. Particularly if you visit during the Golden Hour… even without hiking the trail, this place will really take your breath away.
From the road and the trailhead, Santa Elena Canyon looks like a deep, straight cut through a massive ridge of gray stone. And when I say massive I mean… mountain sized ridge.
If you aren’t planning on doing the trail (or even if you are) you might consider stopping (SAFELY) to take pictures on your way in. This will be especially effective if you have a nice zoom on your camera.
The trailhead for the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is fairly well developed, with a toilet onhand. Parking spots, if I recall correctly, are in the sand, however, and this particular area is popular. Once you snag a spot, you will follow the trailhead map out across a sand bridge towards the river. This is a great access point to the pebbly beach. So, if you are looking for a nice spot to enjoy the Rio Grande, this is a great option.
Do remember, however, that is not safe to swim in the river. No matter what you see other people doing.
In order to continue along the 1.5 mile round trip trail, you will cross a small tributary on your way to the pretty obvious canyon. And then you will find yourself climbing a fairly steep cliff with switchbacks and stairs. Although steep, this part of the trail is well developed, so if you have stamina, it should be doable, although challenging.
Once you have it to the top of the rise, you will follow a more wild trail along the cliffside above the river. Along the trail, you will see some beautiful but pokey plant-life. And then, you will head back down towards the water on a less developed incline. This will involve stepping down well-worn rocks. So, take your time if you aren’t used to hiking.
Then, much like the Boquillas Canyon Trail, you will have to do a bit of navigating. The bank of the river is a bit more lush, so there are think plants growing all over and the trail splits in some places. However, just continue walking down river until the trail ends were the water meets the stone walls of the canyon. At that point, there is no where to go but back the way you came.
Chisos Basin Trail
There are many trails in the Chisos Mountains, which range from relatively easy to long backpacking treks. The Chisos Basin Trail, unlike the other trails on this best trails in Big Bend list, is long and difficult. However, it offers an amazing on-trail experience and beautiful views of the valley. On this trail, you will hike up from the visitor center, across a wide, forested shelf nested between the sharp stone peaks of the mountains, and then up into the reaches of the Sky Island.
While difficult, most people can do parts of this trail. E.g. just take a stroll through the forest for 0.5 miles and then turn around. I went about 2.5 miles in and then came back, because I was a bit too exhausted from my trip to keep going.
For skilled hikers wanting a more challenging day trip, Emory Peak is a great option. And of course, this is the place to be if you want to backpack in Big Bend. Of course, you will need to reference the National Park materials to plan out a trip like that.
And if you can’t or don’t want to hike, the drive up to the visitor center in the Chisos Mountains is spectacular. And there are some great look outs from the parking lot. It’s the perfect place for photography, contemplation, and just generally enjoying nature.
Ward Spring Trail
This 2.8 mile, out and back hike was my time to revel in the desert that is particular to Big Bend and West Texas. In some ways, it felt very much like my home in Arizona, but in other ways, completely unfamiliar. I think the key to really enjoying this trail is stopping to admire the little plants tucked here and there, surviving in the roughest conditions. For my list of the best trails in Big Bend, this is the only one that crosses the desert. And as it’s name would suggest, it does take you to a small, wild spring at the base of the mountains.
This trail is not accessible for all, and due to its length and ruggedness in parts, it isn’t for the novice either. That being said, for anyone who hikes regularly, it is an easy trail. The path leads from the road, through the desert up a gentle slop towards the Chisos. As you get closer, you will begin traversing the sides of rocky hills and dipping down into washes.
The end of the trail is a wild patch of trees crowding around a small puddle of water in the desert. It won’t be the most spectacular thing you see… unless you appreciate how special and precious water is in desert landscapes. For me, all springs are sacred places. So, I think Ward Spring is well worth the detour from grander trails.
Closed Canyon Trail in Big Bend State Park
Although not in the National Park, Closed Canyon Trail still makes my best trails in Big Bend bucketlist because it is in the Big Bend State Park.
This short, relatively flat slot canyon trail is located along the 170, and has a nice parking lot at the trailhead. However, there are no restrooms available there.
From the parking lot, you will take a few switchbacks down into a shallow wash and then follow the streambed towards the slot in the stony wall of mountains to your left.
Once you pass through the opening of the canyon, you will walk along the stone and sandy bottom. Take your time and marvel at the twists and turns in the stone. Check out the plants surviving in these harsh desert conditions. And take tons of photographs.
This trail isn’t long, so you can really take your time enjoying it. You will turn around when you see a steep drop off and a sign informing you that the trail has ended. Turn right on back around and take it all in from the other direction on your way out.
Please note that slot canyons are dangerous in rainy or wet conditions. Do not attempt this trail when there is running water or storms at the trail or nearby.
Safety on the Trail
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