Author: waitingforrain28 (Page 1 of 25)

Experience the Living History of San Diego

The cities of the United States’ west coast aren’t known for their long histories- not like those of the East coast or Europe, Asia, and Africa. Despite that, each and every place has a long history of human habitation, culture, art, and exploration. For San Diego, that story stretches back to the first human explorers to trek across the pacific coast, and then the era of stewardship by the Kumeyaay people. The city we know today, surprisingly, began to take shape as soon as the Spaniards arrived, and then American colonists.

Coast of La Jolla (c) ABR 2013

The living stories of all these people remain on the land, and can be experienced in various ways by interested travelers. If you want to have a unique experience of San Diego, see if you can plan a trip that includes spots from throughout the city’s history. We will take you through some of our favorites, from pre-colonial times, to the emergence of tiki pop in the 1950s.


Pre-Colonial Times

Indigenous peoples of the San Diego Area (c) Wikicommons.

San Diego is currently a bustling metropolis known for its beautiful beaches, theme parks, and exceptional cultural attractions. But none of this would be possible without the stewardship of the indigenous people who call this land home. In particular, I will focus on the Kumeyaay people here. Although the pre-colonial history of California is full of many cultures and peoples who shaped and cared for its lands for thousands of years and who continue to do so today.

So, while my focus in this post is on history, please note that the Kumeyaay people still live in California. You can learn more about them on their website, which includes an event calendar. One of the cool things that I learned while visiting, was that they had a historic surf zone event in August 2020 for the InterTribal Youth. I always love learning about shared loves among people, and riding the waves has long been one!

Kumeyaay basket (c) Wikicommons.

Now, for learning more about the history of the Kumeyaay people, there are a couple very good options.

First, the Barona Cultural Center and Museum focuses on the people of San Diego County, and it is located on the reservation. So, visiting is not only a great opportunity to learn. It also supports the reservation’s work to preserve and protect the history of its people. It is free to visit as well.

Second, if you are planning to visit Balboa Park (which you should), the Museum of Us has a permanent exhibit on the Kumeyaay people. It is $20 for an adult ticket to this museum, and this includes their other exhibits. They are all fascinating and well-done. Museum of Us is one of my favorite museums, and I am quite picky when it comes to this kind of attraction.

The Mission Era

san diego hikes

(c) ABR 2020

Cabrillo National Monument has a statue commemorating the landing of the Spanish on the California coast. But as with much of the Southwest, Spanish explorers were only a small part of the historic influence that Spain had on the Americas. In the case of San Diego, the area was also home to many missions which were built in the 1700s to the early 1800s.

Many can still be visited today, but some are still used as places of worship. Be sure to do a bit of research before you go so that you know the visiting hours. If you do join a mass, please note that pictures should never be taken during services.

Once you’ve visited a few of these historic buildings, you will begin to take note of how the Spanish mission-style of architecture still influences Californian buildings to this day.

Colonial Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego (c) ABR 2021

Of course, Spanish colonists didn’t just build missions when they settled on Kumeyaay lands in what we now know as San Diego. They built places to live, stores to serve the needs of their growing community, and everything in between. Old Town San Diego preserves both Spanish and American colonial structures in a state park.

Old Town San Diego (c) ABR 2021

Nowadays, when you visit, you can do a variety of things. First, be sure to explore the whole site on foot to take pictures of the historic buildings. Then, you might consider eating at one of the many restaurants within and surrounding the park. There is also shopping and museums to be explored. And finally, the Whaley House is also on site, and is considered one of the most haunted houses in the United States. So, ghosts tours are also something that you might consider if you enjoy those kinds of stories, and the sometimes goofy experiences that come with group tours about them.

1888 – The Hotel Del Coronado

Hotel Del Coronado (c) ABR 2013.

The Hotel Del Coronado is a San Diego icon, and its unique architecture stems from the late 1800s. At that time, the beachside town of Coronado was already popular with travelers from across the country, and beyond. The picturesque beaches, and beauty of the island have not waned, and it remains a playground for the rich in many ways. (Check the cost of housing on Coronado Island).

(c) ABR 2013

Nonetheless, I have always enjoyed visiting Coronado, to see the hotel, relax on the beach, and walk the town. Luckily, if you aren’t staying at the Hotel del Coronado, you can still explore its beautiful and historic interior. There are restaurants to be sampled, shops to be peeked in, and the lobby is a very cool space that is welcoming to all. Be sure to take in the majesty of this historic space. When I checked in late 2021, the prices for rooms at the hotel were up there at $600+ a night. So, if you are lucky enough to have the scratch to stay there, consider it. However, I’ve never been able to spend the night here, and nonetheless, I never regret visiting.

(c) ABR 2013

Luckily, there is more to do on Coronado Island than just check out the historic hotel. There is a beach that you can access past the Del Coronado. It’s pretty popular, but maintains its quality as a place to hang with family and friends.

You can also take a stroll down the town’s main street. There is a lot of good food places to try and plenty of window (and actual) shopping to do. Be sure to enjoy the other historic buildings as you go.

You can also make a loop drive out of your day and visit some other beachside areas as you go.

1902 – La Jolla Sea Cave

La Jolla Cave (c) ABR 2013

I was being a goofball the first time that I went into the La Jolla Sea Cave. And while I would still say that this particular location has the quality of a roadside attraction, if you are in La Jolla and can afford the visit ($10 for adults), it is pretty unique.

The cave is really a tunnel that has been built in the earth, connecting a sea cave to the lively street above. It was constructed in 1902 to facilitate a smuggling business, and survives today as a tourist attraction.

Tunnel to the sea cave (c) ABR 2013

If you visit, you will walk down many steps in a narrow tunnel, down from the Cave Shop to the sea cave. Knowing that it was constructed for smuggling purposes, the structure of the tunnel makes a lot of sense, and I would bet you can imagine the sneaky activities that went on there when you visit (I sure did!). If you want a little more adventure, there are also kayaking tours of La Jolla’s sea caves.

La Jolla is also a shopping and restaurant district near the ocean. So, it is a nice place for some higher-end gifts and apparel, dining, and window shopping. Parking can be a bit of a struggle on busy weekends, though, so if you want to avoid some stress, come a little earlier in the day.

1915-1916 – Balboa Park 

what to do in Balboa Park

The Lily Pond (c) ABR

I have an entire post on Balboa Park, so needless to say, I think this place is well worth a visit. The area was technically turned into a city park in 1868, but it took a form similar to what we know now in 1915-1916 for the Panama-California Exposition. The intricate, Spanish-inspired buildings, nestled among gardens and massive eucalyptus trees, definitely speak of another time.

However, in our modern day, you can also experience cultures from all over the world, and learn about fascinating history and science. Like all of the locations in this list, Balboa is a gift from the past, a place that we continue to thoroughly enjoy today.

1930 – Crystal Pier and Pacific Beach

Crystal Pier (c) ABR 2021

Crystal Pier is a uniquely built hotel that includes several sizeable cottages that were constructed over the water in 1930. Unsurprisingly, with upkeep and renovations, Crystal Pier remains an extremely popular place to stay. And luckily, the pier can be enjoyed by anyone (although the gates gave me pause when I visited). In conjunction with enjoying a long-lived dream from the 30s by walking the pier, there is plenty to do in the Pacific Beach neighborhood that surrounds Crystal Pier.

(c) ABR 2021

First, there is a beautiful beach (with bathrooms). And second, there is TONS of good food in Pacific Beach. In particular, I fell in love with the tiki speakeasy, Grass Skirt, and Afters Ice Cream. Although, admittedly, neither are from the 1930s.

1954 – Bali Hai 

For dinner, drinks, and a nice, evening walk, Bali Hai is the place to go. I included this restaurant in my guide to tiki in San Diego. It is part of the living history of San Diego, as this restaurant opened its doors in 1954, and is a famed tiki destination. While I would personally say that it isn’t the picture of modern tiki experiences due to the lack of themeing, this is still a very cool destination in the city.

The Bali Hai is a classic place for date night or a classy dinner, and its round shape, second floor dining area, and sweeping wall of windows, makes it a beautiful place to dine as well. They are famed for their mai tais, and I very much enjoyed their dinner, although it was a bit expensive.

Although the restaurant has been kept up and remains a classy hang out, there are elements of the 50s that remain with it. If you visit, particularly as a tiki fan, you will enjoy the moment in history that this place represents.

I would suggest getting a reservation before you visit, and potentially request a table near the windows.

Practical Tips

(c) ABR 2021

  • Please note that San Diego does get hot in the summer, and that electricity and wildfires can be an issue. If you are visiting, please help the community conserve resources and protect the land.
  • The best way to get around San Diego is via car. Although they have a more robust public transportation system than Phoenix, it will be very time consuming to take the bus everywhere and the train has limited reach.
  • While American culture is pervasive due to movies and tv shows, if you are from out of the country and haven’t been before, please help us by remembering that the Hollywood portrayal of American life isn’t a reflection of our actual experience. Life is difficult, particularly for communities entrenched in the tourism industry. One way you can help is by giving local manners a try– being polite to local people while traveling is always important.

Next Steps

For more San Diego, be sure to look through our guide to the city. We live a short drive away, so while we aren’t local, we have visited many times.

If you are planning a more comprehensive California trip, you will also like our posts on natural, history, and culture across Southern California and the Channel Islands.

And if you’d like to save this particular post for later, consider pinning it! It is a huge help to our little, grassroots business.

san diego hikes

Two Amazing San Diego Hikes: A National Monument and a Summit

There is a lot of great hiking in San Diego. So frankly, it can be hard to choose just one or two trails if you don’t have a ton of time. I’ve got you covered though with these two amazing San Diego hikes. The family-friendly Cabrillo National Monument trails cater to hikers of all levels. They offer history, seasonal whale watching, and a visitor center as well. For those of you looking for a workout, the Cowles Summit Trail is the place for you. The following guide will help you pick which trail is the best fit for you (or maybe you want to do both). And it will fill you in on what to expect and how to plan for each.

Read on to fit some nature into your San Diego vacation. Or if you are a local and haven’t been, maybe consider checking these spots out!

Cabrillo National Monument

A Brief History of the Park

san diego hikes

(c) ABR 2020

Cabrillo National Monument is home to several San Diego hikes. It has tide pools, land-based whale watching, as well as a wealth of historic heritage. The site was originally protected as the site of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first stepped foot onto the west coast of what we now call the United States. This made him the first European to visit this part of the world. And it signaled a wave of change that would come to the many indigenous peoples who called and still call this land home and have been stewarding it for thousands of years.

Cabrillo National Monument as it is now, is a wonderful attraction for families, but also has spaces for quiet contemplation of what these changes meant for the original Californians. If you would like to learn more about the historic and modern indigenous people associated with the land, I would suggest heading over to the Native Land Digital Map to learn more. You can also support tribes by donating, supporting their work with volunteer hours, and/or elevating their voices and stories.

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What to Do in Balboa Park on a Weekend Away in San Diego

Balboa park is really a cultural gem of San Diego, and no trip to this seaside city would be complete without a visit to this premier location. If you want to know about what to do in Balboa Park, here is a short list of what will be explored below. There are a variety of gardens, and museums of all kinds (some of them free). And on top of all that, Balboa is right next door to the San Diego Zoo, and walking distance from downtown. You could spend an entire weekend exploring this beautiful park, or you could visit different parts over time. Whatever the case, if you’ve never been and you are planning a visit to San Diego, don’t miss this special place. As I always say, it has a little bit of something for everybody.

what to do in Balboa Park

History of Balboa Park

what to do in Balboa Park

The land that Balboa Park now sits on is in the ancestral home of the Kumeyaay people, who have lived in the San Diego region for more than 10,000 years.

In 1868, post-colonization of the area, the land was designated a city park, but was not tended until Kate Sessions entered the scene in 1892. This amazing woman began planting 100 trees a year, and donating other plants in exchange for the use of some land as a nursery. Due to her tireless work and lasting impact on the place we know and love today, Kate is known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.”

More attention and investment was put to Balboa in preparation for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, at which time the park received the name it goes by today (replacing “City Park”). While much has changed in the park over time, many of the thematic ideas that we can still enjoy today were envisioned and developed at this time.

You can read more about the history of the park in Balboa Park History. 

What to Do in Balboa Park for a Weekend

what to do in Balboa Park

Inside the Botanical Building (c) ABR

If you really want to experience the park, you will need to spend at least an entire day, if not two. You could certainly spend more time in Balboa if you wanted to visit all the museums, and many elements of the park are fun to revisit.

On a nice fall or spring day, I would suggest spending the morning walking through the gardens (see below for some good options). Eat lunch at one of the park cafes or surrounding restaurants, and then go to one of the park’s many amazing museums for the afternoon.

When it is really hot in San Diego, you can also escape the heat in one of the many museums, while also getting some amazing views of the architecture and park.

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San Diego Tiki Bars and An Honest Review of Tiki Oasis

As the tiki folks who read my guide to Phoenix tiki bars know, I still have a lot to learn about the world of tiki. But we have really gotten into the scene (in my introverted way) since our first tiki bar out in Las Vegas. I’ve been to all the tiki bars in Arizona, visited tiki bars across the Midwest, started collecting signature tiki mugs… And we started our home bar with tiki recipe books. Needless to say, I really enjoy this corner of Americana. So, when we got vaccinated in the year of our Lord 2021, we wanted to celebrate with tickets to Tiki Oasis. It seemed like the biggest tiki celebration we’d probably ever have the chance to attend, and it was nestled among some of the amazing modern San Diego tiki bars. So, we made a weekend of it.

Whether you are considering Tiki Oasis in what I hope to be less strange years post-2021, or will be visiting San Diego in general and want to see the tiki sights, this little, honest guide is for you.

san diego tiki bars

The Wonderful World of San Diego Tiki Bars

San Diego is home to one of the oldest tiki restaurants still in operation in the US. It’s got the sun and sea for tiki. And its modern tiki bars are exceptionally fun.

For anyone looking to get into tiki or cross a few special places off of their tiki bucketlist, San Diego is a must-visit location. There is a tiki bar for everyone here.

Bali Hai

san diego tiki bars

(c) ABR 2021

The Bali Hai is a tiki classic, which opened all the way back in 1954. You can delve into the story of this historic restaurant on their website, but no tiki trip to San Diego tiki bars would be complete without a visit. At least, not if you’ve never been.

For as special as it is, the Bali Hai isn’t really what I would consider my jam when it comes to tiki. The restaurant is beautiful, and the views are unmatched, with its huge glass walls. But it’s really more of a classy place for date night than it is a fun-loving tiki place. The prices are higher, and the food is fancier. But it also lacks the immersion of other tiki restaurants/bars on this list. Also, while I think it is inarguable that tiki has questionable roots, there are some strong… inappropriate vibes when it comes to the Bali Hai signature tiki mug and the giant head that adorns the top of the building. I know it’s historic, but we didn’t even bother buying a mug because it just felt… a little too on the nose. I know people will have differing opinions than me on this in both directions when it comes to tiki, and I think all perspectives are legit. But for me, it was an additional element that just made Bali Hai one of my less favorite tiki spots in San Diego.

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Tempe Hiking Trails: Hayden Butte Preserve, Evelyn Hallman Park and Tempe Papago Park

If I’m being frank, Tempe, AZ isn’t known for its hiking options and for good reason. There really aren’t a lot of options in this Phoenix suburb for outdoor adventurers, and nothing supremely challenging. That being said, Tempe hiking trails do offer some good opportunities for exercise and exploring the Sonoran Desert. Furthermore, because these trails are not particularly challenging, they are accessible to more people at different levels of experience and physical needs. (I also know from experience the Tempe parks and rec department is full of amazing people looking to protect the habitats that their desert parks include). Although there are no sweeping peaks in Tempe, there are sacred lands with evidence of long-standing indigenous use. So, let’s explore what hiking you can do in Tempe, Arizona.

Hayden Butte Preserve

tempe hiking trails

ABR (c) 2019

If you are looking for a mountain from among Tempe hiking trails, Hayden Butte Preserve is for you. Also known as A Mountain, this butte is easily identifiable from the south side of the mountain by its large, cement ‘A.’ This may be painted different colors throughout the year depending on University of Arizona/ASU competition and pranks.

It’s about a 0.7 mile RT hike from the base of this little mountain to the top. But it is pretty steep, so Hayden Butte is a popular spot for exercisers. If you are working up to big mountains, and starting from little hiking experience or you are rebuilding strength, this is a great option. The trail is mostly paved and pretty wide. Towards the top, there are stairs that need to be navigated, however. And there are sections of dirt trail as well.

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Mt. Humphreys Trail: A Guide to the Arizona Highpoint

Arizona doesn’t have the spectacular 14,000 ft mountains of Colorado or the pacific states, but the state is home to the sacred San Francisco Peaks. These rise out of the crags of the Sonoran Desert to the south and the drier plains of the north, and tower over everything else in Arizona. You can see them from miles away in every direction, and when you are exploring the likes of Flagstaff, you can see evidence of the powerful volcanic activity that formed this place eons ago. Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco Peaks are home to Arizona’s highpoint, which can be reached via the Mt. Humphreys Trail. For those travelers who are willing to respect the mountain, its people, and their own safety, trying for the summit of Mt. Humphreys is one of the most beautiful adventures in Arizona. This 10 mile hike is a challenging day excursion, which is well worth the physical struggle for the spiritual experience, the beautiful views, and chance to visit the crown of Arizona.

For those interested in trying their hand at this trail, this guide will give you insight into the specifics of the Mt. Humphreys Trail, what it’s like to climb it, and how to stay safe and respectful on the mountain.

Is the Mt. Humphreys Trail For You?

This guide is not a promise of safety nor a guarantee that you can do this climb. It is your responsibility to decide if this is a challenge for you, and you are responsible for your own safety while exploring.

There is no doubt that the Mt. Humphreys Trail is not for everyone – at least not if you plan on trying for the summit. In order to do this trail safely, you need to be in good shape, have some trail experience, and be willing to change your plans for inclement weather. That all being said, this trek is relatively well-marked for most of its length, and with patience and an early start, I think it is a positive challenge. Even if you can’t make it to the top, the forest is breathtaking in the lower stretches of the trail. It’s one of the most vibrant places in Arizona. And if you make it to the saddle, you will be rewarded with expansive views of Flagstaff. From there, you can experience life above the treeline even without making it past the false summit to the peak itself.

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Three Great Places for Popsicles in Phoenix, Arizona

Everyone knows that it is HOT in Phoenix, Arizona in the summer. Hot and dry- perfect weather for enjoying a nice, cold popsicle. Store bought brands might jump right to the top of your mind, when I bring up popsicles, but Phoenix actually has some really amazing places for fresh, beautiful, frozen treats. Let me share three of my favorites, ranked. ALL of them are amazing.

Pop N’ Tea

Pop N’ Tea makes both popsicles and teas, but even as a tea-lover, I still think that the popsicles steal the show in this shop. Referred to as diamond bars, the popsicles of Pop N’ Tea have a unique appearance that makes them aesthetic and appealing. But unlike some Insta-worthy foods, these popsicles are out of this world. Made of gelato and sorbet, these are the softest popsicles- the perfect texture. The texture is only outmatched by the rich flavors and the pleasant appeal of the extra crunch that you can get by adding chocolate and/or toppings to your popsicle. The mix of flavor options and some ability to create your own mix of flavors with the popsicle base and toppings makes this an extra fun place for a light, cold dessert.

Learn more at the Pop N’ Tea website.





Pop Stand in Rise Hotel

Pop Stand doubles as the check in for Rise Hotel, and it is proud enough of its treats to serve them to all guests checking in. Luckily, you don’t need to be a guest to get your hands on these tasty and creative popsicles. Pop Stand has a ton of different flavors, with the most eye-catching popsicles being the triple flavored treats that you can get. Each one has stripes of color representing the combinations of flavors. There are also a few alchoholic options, along with both dairy and fruit-only options. All are delicious and refreshing. In terms of texture, these are harder popsicles, and you won’t be able to get customizations. However, there are enough flavors that this shouldn’t be an issue. When we visited, I was so enchanted by the atmosphere of the hotel, that I hope I can hold a staycation here sometime in the future.

Check out Pop Stand’s website for their current flavors.

400 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013


AZ Pops

In my opinion, AZ Pops is the best option for health-conscious dessert eaters and/or people with dietary restrictions. The staff were very knowledgeable about the contents of the popsicles here, and most options were fresh and vegan. (Although they do have some dairy options). They also have options that don’t have added sugar and get most of their sweetness from the fruits used to make the popsicles. They also have many many different flavors, and you can customize your order by dipping into a coconut-based chocolate. These popsicles were also quite hard like Pop Stand, so if you have sensitive teeth, be sure to take your time eating them. This won’t be too problematic, as this will give you more time to enjoy their fresh flavors.

Learn more about their flavors and commitment to healthy and fresh ingredients at the AZ Pops website.

5050 N 7th St. Phoenix, Arizona 85014


Learn more about the joys of exploring Arizona.

What to Do In Litchfield Park, AZ for a Weekend

If you’ve never heard of Litchfield Park, Arizona, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s a small town nestled within the sprawling city of Phoenix-metro. With only a population a little over 6,000 people and claiming only 3 square miles, wondering what to do in Litchfield Park might seem a bit strange. But I think this little town is a great getaway within Phoenix; the perfect place to spend a relaxed weekend. You can get a small-town experience without leaving the city, and you can even escape back to a former era of development and design in Phoenix. This guide will tell you my honest thoughts on where to stay, what to eat, and what to expect to do while you are visiting.

what to do in litchfield park

History of Litchfield Park

what to do in litchfield park

(c) ABR 2021

The history of human habitation in the area of Phoenix is very ancient. Native American peoples were living and thriving in the Valley of the Sun for thousands of years. But colonial American claims to the land that the town now sits on were submitted in 1910.  Initially, it was thought that the area would be a great place to grow citrus, but due to the demands of WWI, the area was bought up by Paul Litchfield for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1916 as space to grow cotton. A company town was eventually built, and was given the name Litchfield Park in 1926. The town wasn’t officially incorporated as a city until 1987.

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What to Do in Amarillo, Texas for a Weekend

I feel like I start almost every blog in the same way. But I guess I am a “explore the less road less travelled” blogger these days. So… while most people would not think of Amarillo, Texas as a destination, there is actually a lot to do there. In particular, I think nature and history-lovers would enjoy visiting this town over a weekend. There is a theme park as well, so it could be a food family destination as well. Whether you are passing through town on a business trip, a cross-country roadtrip, or planning out a little weekend adventure, here is my list of what to do in Amarillo, TX.


Botanical Gardens and Museums

what to do in amarillo

Amarillo Botanical Garden (c) ABR 2021

As little as I know about plants, and as much as my house plants struggle to stay alive, I love botanical gardens. For someone searching for peaceful place to enjoy nature in an urban setting, botanical gardens are perfect. In my case, as a shy person, I find these to be one of the best places to enjoy your own company without feeling too awkward for being solo. I know that not everyone deals with that particular challenge while traveling alone, but I definitely do, even though I travel solo every year.

I feel similarly about museums and I especially love historic, place-based museums. Amarillo, Texas has both a lovely botanical garden and a great historic museum. Both of which should be included on any list of what to do in Amarillo.

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best trails in big bend

Five of the Best Trails in Big Bend, Texas

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 

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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:

(1) Accessibility

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.

(2) Variety

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

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

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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