In the far reaches of west Texas, the Rio Grande, and, thus, the Mexico-United States international border, makes a sweeping, southward bend. About fifty river miles later, the rio left-hooks north before continuing its eastward beeline to the Gulf of Mexico. The piece of United States real estate leftover by the wending river, about the size of Rhode Island, is called Big Bend National Park.
Surprised to learn there is a national park in west Texas? If so, you’re in good company. In order to visit Big Bend, you’ll have to navigate the oil fields we learned so much about during the nucular reign of George W. Bush and his father. Keep going, still, through the cattle ranches that yield the meat you might eat today. Don’t stop, even, once you hit a barren swath of absolutely nothing. If you persist, you will be rewarded by an intimate wilderness encounter in Big Bend National Park.
The Chihuahuan Desert is mostly a Mexican desert, one of four deserts in North America. This desert tongues its way into a few parts of the United States, including the Big Bend. At first glance, the landscape looks prickly, arid, lonesome, and inhospitable. The Native Americans who dwelled there for thousands of years, the Euro-American homesteaders who came next, and the national park visitors who are now there would all probably agree. But many of them would also argue that inhospitable does not preclude exquisite.
The park’s elevation varies widely, from about 1,800 feet above sea level, where the Rio Grande dissects the desert’s lowest reaches, to 7,825 feet on Emory Peak, the park’s tallest peak and one of Texas’ biggest summits as well. As such, the biotic world also changes, from the lowest-elevation riparian greenscape, to cacti-riddled badlands, to arid grasslands, to the Pinon-dominated forests up high.
This is a desert, indeed, with several obstacles for trail runners:
- Heat and aridity – Bring with you more water than you think you’ll need because you won’t find fresh water out there and you’ll probably end up drinking all you brought, anyway.
- Cacti – Don’t fall on them because they hurt and you can do serious damage in a big crash, like pushing a thorn all the way through skin, muscle, and into bone. As a long-time resident of Big Bend, I saw it happen!
- The stuff that bites and stings – Big Bend is home to several species of biting rattlesnakes and stinging scorpions. Watch where you put your feet and, if you take off your shoes for a spell, shake them out before reinserting your foot.
- Getting lost – Avoid this. Big Bend is a seriously empty place and you’re on your own out there. Bring a map and compass and know how to use it!
Below, we’ll provide you with examples of easy, moderate, and advanced trail runs in Big Bend. After giving you some example runs, we’ll let you know where to hunt down last-minute gear and food. We’ll also provide a resources list, where you can learn more about the experiences you’re about to have.
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Easy Trail Run – Lost Mine Trail
The trailhead for the Lost Mine Trail is at mile marker 5 of the Basin Road, about 1 mile from the Chisos Basin Developed Area. This out-and-back route is 4.8 miles roundtrip, climbing 1,200 feet to a ridgeline about 6,800 feet above sea level. You may feel a bit of high-altitude thin air at the top, or you may just be gasping from the outstanding views of the desert below and the mountains around you.
The first mile of trail has interpretive markers and a corresponding brochure available at the trailhead. If you’d like to learn more about the natural and cultural history of the area, this will help you do so.
Insider’s Scoop: Tempo this trail if you’re looking for a good workout. Locals use the route to keep track of their waxing and waning fitness. Can you get to the end of the trail, the turnaround point, in less than 23 minutes? If so, you’re faster than me!
Moderate Trail Run – Hot Springs Trail
Did someone say hot springs? If you happen to visit on a scorcher of a day, perhaps this run isn’t the best of ideas. However, on an average fall, winter, or spring day, this run will relax your trail running bones.
Start this run in the Rio Grande Village Developed Area at the historic Daniel’s Ranch. There, you’ll see a trailhead sign as well as the trail climbing up the limestone ridge behind it. From this trailhead, the journey is 3 miles each way, 6 miles round trip, to the hot springs.
Keep your eyes open on the trail because you’ll be running atop limestone that bears some big, big, big, and ancient fossils. Look for coiled ammonite shells up to 15 inches in diameter along this trail! The trail rolls the whole way, paralleling the Rio Grande atop a bluff, so you’ll probably tick off the miles at a decent pace. Once you arrive, look for the foundation of an old bathhouse right next to the Rio Grande, as that’s where the hot water funnels. Have a good soak and return the way you came.
Notes: Don’t drink the water of the Rio Grande, even if you’ve filtered and/or purified it. Sadly, it is, at times, heavily polluted with industrial and agricultural runoff from areas upstream. Also, look on the other side of the river because that’s Mexico!
Insider’s Scoop: Want to get a better feel for a homesteader’s life in the hot springs area? If so, continue down the trail from the hot springs about a half-mile and you’ll encounter some historic buildings and interpretive signs. Also, grab an interpretive brochure from the display box to learn more about the life of Big Bend’s pioneer J. O. Langford.
Advanced Trail Run – South Rim Loop
Take a 14.5 to 17.5 mile loop through the Chisos Mountains that range in the middle of Big Bend. Start out on the Laguna Meadows Trail from the Chisos Basin Developed Area main trailhead. The first mile or so is gradual. Once the trail pitches up, grind the runnable grade 1,500 vertical feet up into the mountains. When you encounter a series of grassy, open spaces, you’ve arrived at Laguna Meadows. From here, the trail rolls nicely through the mountain range with only short, digger hills.
Follow the Laguna Meadows Trail toward the Southwest Rim. About 6.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll encounter the rim. However, you won’t need a map or GPS to tell you, as the topography will be the obvious indicator. The Chisos Mountains drop 2,000 vertical feet in probably a quarter mile at the rim, so enjoy the view a few paces back from the cliff edge.
Continue along the rim until you reach the trail junction for Boot Canyon to the left or the East Rim to the right. Boot Canyon will return you towards the trailhead in what will become a 14.5-mile run. Taking the East Rim to your right will add on about 3 extra miles that are well worth the trip for some cliff-edge running and wicked views. Take note, however, that this bit of trail is closed from February 1 through May 31 each year because it’s a sensitive nesting area for Peregrine Falcons.
Either way you go, the trails will eventually dump you into beautiful Boot Canyon, which provides ample views of its namesake: an upside-down, boot-shaped rock. Here the trail garners a new name, the Pinnacles Trail. Over the last 2.5 miles, the trail will dump you fast and steep downhill, through a series of thumb-like, red pinnacles, out of the mountains. The trail is perfectly runnable and you can clock some speedy final miles here.
Insider’s Scoop: If you still have time and energy to burn when you’re coming through Boot Canyon, consider the side trail to and from the park’s high point, 7,825-foot Emory Peak. It’s about 3 miles roundtrip and a 1,000 foot run-up to bag the park’s tall point. Emory Peak has two summits, and the right summit as you approach is a few feet taller. The last 100 or so feet is a Class 4 scramble that requires care.
Remember the part where we said you have to travel for almost forever to get to Big Bend? Don’t forget that when you’re planning your voyage. You should know that it is 107 miles from the park’s headquarters to the first official grocery store!
Big Bend has 2 entrances, a north entrance and a west entrance. There is, literally, nothing outside the north entrance for 60 miles. Outside the west entrance is the not-so-metropolis of Study (pronounced stoo-dee) Butte and Terlingua.
Your best shot for last minute gear in this area outside the park is the Study Butte Store. They have a website, apparently, but don’t let that fool you. We’re talking rural and remote, so cans of beans, chiles, beer, and camping gas are probably the most common items there.
If you’re inside the park, you can try the store located in the Chisos Basin Developed Area. This store has a tiny, devoted camping/outdoor section.
I should mention that, as you’re driving to Big Bend, you pass through several modern, west Texas-style towns. If you’ve left something behind and realize it before getting to Big Bend, these towns might be your saving grace.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that eating establishments are few and far between, right? There’s no food outside the park’s north entrance for 60 miles, so don’t plan on eating out there unless you have a very patient belly.
Outside the park’s west entrance, in the Study Butte/Terlingua area, you can get some decent desert sandwiches at the Roadrunner Deli during the daytime hours. Also, stop in for some Tex-Mex lunch at Kathy’s Kosmic Kowgirl Kafe or the Chile Pepper Café. If you’d like dinner, the go-to place is La Kiva, known for its burgers and live weekend music. This map shows the layout of the land in the Study Butte/Terlingua area.
A piece of local eating and entertainment history is, right now, changing. Terlingua’s famous Starlight Theatre, run for the last ten years or so by married couple Chad and Summer Williams, has just closed down so that Chad, Summer, and their family can move on to other adventures. As of October 2010, we don’t know what will happen next with the establishment.
If you’re inside the park, there is just one restaurant, located in the Chisos Basin Developed Area as part of the lodging facility. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you’re sure to enjoy their burgers or steaks after a long run in the desert.
Want to learn more about the Chihuahuan Desert? You got it.
Big Bend lies a stone’s throw away from Mexico, and there are some intricacies that come along with that close alignment. Read this to learn more about vacationing near an international border.
Big Bend’s climate isn’t too different from that of any desert. Ridiculously hot summers with moderate falls, winters, and springs are classic. Read more about the climate here. I want to get serious about the heat for a moment. In the summer, the temperatures rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, not too different from the heat-acclaimed Badwater in Death Valley National Park. Take the heat seriously because people die in it every year.
Big Bend’s snakes are pretty cool, and you can read a bit more about them here. The most interesting snake is the Western Coachwhip, commonly called the Red Racer. They are long, skinny, and can slither super-fast.
Big Bend sometimes gets an awesome wildflower and cactus bloom in February through April. Check out this link to learn more. Several species of Yucca call Big Bend home and they put on an entertaining bloom display during spring, too.
One final wildlife note, when you’re in Big Bend, the mountain lion is at the top of the food chain.