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Hiking Adventure in Big Bend National Park

Updated 04.01.2018

If you’re looking for another National Park adventure, look no further than Big Bend National Park. This beautiful area on the Texas-Mexico border is a prime destination for hikers, bird watchers, photographers and nature lovers. Sounds like boomer adventure land to us! Deborah Lonergan explains why we should experience a Big Bend National Park hiking adventure. Get your hiking boots ready!

The Rio Grande is like a blue ribbon running through the desert at Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park

Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon

The Rio Grande flows in a generally southeast direction for most of its 1250 miles along the Texas-Mexico border. About 300 miles southeast of El Paso, the river takes an abrupt turn to the northeast known as the “big bend”.

Nestled in the bend is Big Bend National Park801,163 acres of rugged terrain and varied habitat. Within its boundaries are the Chihuahuan Desert, the forests and river ecosystems of Chisos mountain range, and thousands of species of flora and fauna—some unique to Big Bend.

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Scientists study here, birders spot here, rafters raft here, campers camp here and hikers hike here. Some visitors might do it all. My husband and I have come to hike.

We have less than two days to hike, but time enough to experience at least two trails.  So we consulted the The Hiker’s Guide to Trails of Big Bend National Park to make the most of our time at Big Bend. The hiking guide describes forty-nine developed trails and primitive routes within the park, ranging in difficulty from wheelchair accessible to strenuous day hikes and overnight backpacking trips.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail: a beautiful Big Bend National Park hiking adventure

We arrive late in the day from the west, so we choose Santa Elena Canyon Trail, one of the best hikes in Big Bend. It’s a short, relatively easy trail, and one of the prettiest, on the west side of the park. The steep limestone south wall of Santa Elena Canyon is in Mexico; the north wall is in the United States. Between the walls is the Rio Grande, the reason the canyon exists.

The steep, beige limestone cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon reflect in the Rio Grande River on a Big Bend National Park hiking adventure.

Santa Elena Canyon is simply spectacular!

Man-made steps take us part way up the north canyon wall. From there, a well-traveled path continues west into the canyon. The trail is narrow and rocky in places but easy enough as it gradually heads back down to the river’s edge. We stop often to take in the beauty around us: cacti sprouting improbably through crevices, canyon walls etched in sharp relief against the sky and reflected in the river below. When we reach the river’s edge, we rest and listen to the canyon before retracing our steps.

The 1.7 mile round trip has taken about two hours. As we walk to the car, we turn and look back. The setting sun casts its golden light on the south canyon wall.

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Window Trail: a challenging Big Bend hike

We get an earlier start on day two. Desert gives way to mountain forest on the thirty-three-mile drive from Terlingua toward Chisos Mountain Lodge. One of the most popular hikes at Big Bend, Window Trail, is our choice today. The trailhead is located at the Chisos Basin Campground, just below the lodge.

We pace ourselves going down to the Window, knowing that the return trip is 2.2 uphill miles. Be sure to bring water with you. The view changes at each turn. And the flora changes as the elevation changes. Eventually, the plant life all but gives up and we are surrounded by jagged rock faces and rock paths worn smooth by eons of water runoff. We have reached the Window pour-off and the end of the trail. Extreme caution is required here—hiking poles are a good idea. A false step on the glassy rock would be our last.  We stop a safe distance from the edge and gaze through the Window.  The desert, hundreds of feet below us, stretches to the horizon. After resting in the shade of the wall, it’s time to head back up the trail.

A hiker rests against the wall of the Window at the end of the rocky trail in Big Bend.

Looking Through the Window at Window Trail.

The round trip has taken about five hours. We know that others have gone to the Window and back in far less time, but what is the point, really, in rushing?


For next time, Visit Big Bend, the official tourism site, suggests:

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Text on photo: Hiking Adventures in Big Bend National Park. Photo: river running through a steep canyon

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