Big Bend National Park Trekking and Backpacking Overview

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Hikers on Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park
Hikers on Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park (Eric Leonard/National Park Service)

Big Bend National Park Trekking and Backpacking Travel Tips

  • One of Big Bend’s most remote routes, the 28-mile Strawhouse Trail is more a primitive route than a developed trail. If solitude is what you want, then this is the hike. The USGS topographic maps for Sue Peaks, Ernest Valley, and Boquillas Canyon are essential when hiking this trail. There is no water, so carry in what you need and try to hike during the cooler months.
  • The Marufo Vega Trail winds through the Dead Horse Mountains to the rim of Boquillas Canyon or down to the Rio Grande. The hike out and back is a strenuous 14 miles but offers spectacular views. Hike down the south fork and up the north fork back into the Chihuahuan Desert. There is no water on the trail, and it’s best to hike in cooler months.
  • Considered the classic hike of Texas, the South Rim Trail begins in the Chisos Basin and ends high above on a large escarpment that overlooks Texas and Mexico. To completely enjoy the trip allow for two or three days on the 12.6-mile well-marked trek.
  • The Juniper Canyon Trail takes you down one of the major canyons that drains water out of the Chisos Mountains. Combine this hike with the Dodson and Blue Creek trails for a great backpack trip that will take about two or three days. This trail is frequently used by animals, so take caution for black bears and pumas.

The Chisos Mountains, often referred to as a temperate island in a desert sea, is the most popular hiking area in Big Bend National Park. In the desert, the scenery varies widely—ranging from the Rio Grande floodplain to arid badlands to sotol grasslands to rugged volcanic peaks. The desert provides virtually any backcountry experience sought by a hiker. Some areas are often used; others, more isolated, are seldom used and reflect a true wilderness setting. Hikers and backpackers seeking a truly remote experience often take to the Mesa de Anguila and Deadhorse Mountains, but these magnificent limestone uplifts are best left to experienced backpackers—especially in the dangerous oven of summer.

All overnight backpackers must obtain a free Backcountry Use Permit. Permits are issued in person only on a first-come, first-served basis up to one day in advance of departure. Permits for the high Chisos designated campsites are available at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Maximum group size is 15.

Trails

The South Rim Trail — a strenuous 6.3-mile one-way backpack along the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. Few other hikes in Texas can surpass the quality and sheer quantity of views along the trail. On clear days, the views cover most of the Texas Big Bend country and far into Mexico. If you're in good shape, this trail can be completed in one day, but you might want to allow two or three days to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

The Smoky Creek Trail — a 15.3-mile one-way backpack through desert foothills on the southwest side of the Chisos mountains. This hike, which is often undertaken in sections, features numerous springs, gorgeous canyons, and views of a seemingly endless sky.

Other than these 30 miles of well-developed trails, most other paths are primitive, difficult to follow, and in some instances no more than a route up a dry wash. Due to the complex topography and vague trails, detailed 7.5-minute topographic maps and a compass are necessary for most hikes.

Water
The dry desert air quickly uses up the body's water reserves. We recommend that you carry a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day in the summer, slightly less in the winter.

Springs and tinajas (depressions in rock where water collects) are unreliable and may be unsafe to drink. Springs are rare in the desert and wildlife depend on them. Please carry enough water to supply your own needs.

Closed Areas
Parts of the backcountry that are closed to backpacking:

  • Within 1/2 mile of any developed area, road, the Mariscal Mine, or Hot Springs
  • Within 100 yards of any trail, historical structure, archaeological site, water source, dry wash, or cliff edge
  • Pine Canyon Research Natural Area
  • On Burro Mesa above 3,400-foot elevation
  • The north half of the Chisos Mountains, the Basin, and the area around Oak Spring
  • Within 500 yards of any tinaja on the Mesa de Anguila

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