Every time that I talk to someone in Texas about hiking or backpacking in the National Parks, someone always ends up asking me if I’ve been to Big Bend. To be honest, Big Bend wasn’t really on the top of my list, but after being asked about it over and over, I figured we might as well check it out. We also happened to have friends who were planning their first backpacking trip in Big Bend, so when they asked us to go with them, it just made sense.
Josh and I hit the road around 5pm on a Thursday afternoon in February, and arrived at Stillwell’s campground around 3am. Stillwell’s is just North of the park and is the closest option for camping when campgrounds in Big Bend are full. As we got closer and closer, we kept seeing more and more rabbits darting across the street. After a while we starting keeping count and we saw over 30 of them in the course of an hour! After managing to avoid hitting the spastic little bunnies, we found a campsite and quickly started setting up our tent so we could get to sleep. While we were setting up we realized that we didn’t need our headlamps because the moon was so bright. It was the weirdest sensation…I swear, I have never seen the moon so bright! Despite the fact that it was basically light out, we were able to fall asleep with our rainfly off and enjoy the cool desert air.
Friday morning we packed up our campsite just before the heat set in. It was supposed to be 100 degrees in the lower elevations of the park that day! We had a short drive and then we were finally in the park where we started getting views of the mountains. I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we were seeing mountains in Texas!
Our first stop was the Panther Junction Visitor Center to pick up a backcountry permit. We’d come to the park with an open mind because we weren’t sure what the water situation on the trails would be. Big Bend is very dry, and many trails offer little to no water. After talking to a ranger we decided that Saturday morning we would hike out to the Northeast Rim, where we would camp at NE2. There was a possibility of getting water along the way at Boot Canyon Springs, but if we used it, we would be taking away a precious resource from the wildlife. We were also told that the springs would be filled with bees and wasps, so we should just plan to bring enough water for our whole trip. The thought of carrying enough water for 2 whole days seemed daunting, but if we wanted to backpack, it was really our only option.
We’d secured our backcountry permit and campsite for the next day, but we still needed a campsite for the first night. We initially tried Chisos Basin since we’d heard it was the best, but it was full. Our next option was a 30 minute drive to Cottonwood campground, where luckily, we took the very last campsite available. The Santa Elena Canyon trail happened to be a short drive from Cottonwood Campground, and I’d really wanted to hike this trail while we were there, so it ended up working out that we’d landed a campsite at Cottonwood.
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Distance: 1.7 miles round trip
- Elevation Change: approx. 160 ft
- Time: 1 hour round trip
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is definitely a Big Bend classic, and well worth the minimal effort for the spectacular views. The trail starts outside of the canyon, crosses over the river, and then continues uphill into the canyon.
Once you’re in the canyon there are lots of nice places to sit and enjoy the serenity while overlooking the water. It was so still and quiet in the canyon that we could hear a loud swoosh of air moving as the birds overhead flapped their wings.
After sitting and reading on a big rock in the canyon for a while, Josh and I hiked back to the car. The view looking out of the canyon towards the trailhead was pretty nice!
Once we were back out of the canyon we decided to walk around near the water to get a few more views looking into the canyon.
Now that we’d checked off the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, we went back to our campsite at Cottonwood and waited for the sun to go down so we could get some relief from the Texas heat. Not long after we’d gotten back, our friends Linley and Cameron joined us at our campsite, so we spent the rest of the evening snacking, playing games, and talking about the adventure to come.
Saturday morning we geared up for our journey into the backcountry and headed to the trailhead at Chisos Basin. We chugged as much water as we could before getting on the trail where we would have to start rationing our water to make it last the entire trip.
- North East Rim via Pinnacles and Boot Canyon
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Distance: 12-14 miles round trip
- Elevation Change: approx. 2000 ft
- Time: Can be done as a day hike, but is also a good backpacking route
Everything leading up to Boot Canyon was really tough. About 90% of the trail to Boot Canyon was uphill and in the sun. If that wasn’t enough, we were carrying the heaviest packs we’ve ever had to carry due to the extra water. I kept telling myself “This is just exercise, and I like exercise.” Sometimes backpacking is a mental game.
By the time we made it to Boot Canyon we were relieved to have a break from the sun, and even more happy to see some flat ground! The Boot Canyon trail was a much needed change of pace! Eventually we made it to the Northeast Rim and found NE2, which was situated just a short walk from an incredible viewpoint! We also had a neat wildlife encounter at NE2; while we were packing up our site in the morning, 4 deer surrounded our site and hung out with us for a little while.
Our hike back to the Chisos Basin was along the same route, but we added in a side-hike to Emory Peak. Emory Peak is the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. Fortunately, there are bear boxes at the trailhead that you can leave your pack in when climbing to Emory Peak. It was a nice break to hike without our packs, but the 1.2 miles from the Pinnacles junction to the peak is pretty steep and was still tiring, even without a pack. The last part of the hike is a scramble to the top. Linley, Josh, and I made it a decent part of the way up the scramble, but not all the way to the top. Cameron, on the other hand, climbed all the way up and around the peak like a little monkey (and made the rest of us a little nervous)!
- Emory Peak
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Distance: 10 miles round trip from Chisos Basin / 3.4 miles round trip from Pinnacles trail
- Elevation Change: approx. 2400 ft
- Time: 2-3 hours round trip from Pinnacles
Once back at the Pinnacles/Emory Peak junction, we retrieved our packs and continued our toe cramming hike back down to the basin. Towards the end of the hike, the wind picked up and it got super chilly. It seemed the weather in Big Bend was just as unpredictable as it is in the rest of Texas! With the cold wind, aching toes, and sore backs, we were happy when we made it to the end of the trail!
Big Bend Tips and Recommendations
- It’s best to visit Big Bend in the spring or winter, as the summer months can be extremely hot and dry. Even in February we experienced temps in the high 90’s. That being said, the lows were in the 40’s, so, just because it’s hot during the day doesn’t mean you wont need your cool weather gear for nights and mornings.
- If you plan a trip to Big Bend during peak season, be sure to book your campsite ahead of time. During peak season, Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village have a select number of campsites available to reserve online, while the rest are first come, first serve. Cottonwood campsites are all first come, first serve. Chisos Basin is probably the best campground with it’s incredible views of the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos Basin also houses the only restaurant in the park.
- If campgrounds in the park are full, there are two options outside the park; Stillwell’s on the North side, and Terlingua on the West.
- If you can, bring your own water to the park. Water is a very precious resource in Big Bend, so the park service asks guests to limit their use of water in the park, and to bring their own to help conserve water in the area.
- Backpacking in Big Bend can be fun and rewarding, but beware that you may need to carry water for your entire trip, or find a way to cache water on many of the trails.
- When hiking to Emory Peak, leave large packs in the bear boxes at the Pinnacles junction. The trail gets very steep as you approach the peak, and you don’t want to have a heavy pack weighing you down or throwing off your balance on the scramble to the top!
Do you have any Big Bend memories to share?