Trail Running in Big Bend National Park

Destination Dirt logoIn 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.

Big Bend National Park trail running

A quintessential Big Bend National Park viewscape.

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:

Purple-Tinged Prickly Pear

Purple-Tinged Prickly Pear about to blossom.

  • 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.

Call for Comments
Do you have a good Big Bend story? Have we missed a crucial piece of information? If so, let us and everyone else know in the comments section.

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.

Casa Grande Big Bend

Casa Grande, the mountain that looms over the Chisos Basin Developed Area, after a thunderstorm.

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 RunHot 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.

Hot Springs Trail Big Bend

Late afternoon views of Mexico's Sierra del Carmen along the Hot Springs Trail.

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.

ammonite fossil

An ammonite fossil located on the Hot Springs Trail.

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.

Claret Cup Cactus

A Claret Cup Cactus along the South Rim Loop Trail.

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.

Boot Rock Big Bend

The boot rock of Boot Canyon.

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.

Get Gear:
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.

road running Big Bend National Park

The author and her dog get in a road run on one of Big Bend's paved roads.

Good Eats:
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.

Additional Resources:
Want to learn more about the Chihuahuan Desert? You got it.

You can race in Big Bend. For instance, there’s the Big Bend 50K/25K/10K. Race proceeds go to the park’s friends organization.

Rio Grande Big Bend

The Rio Grande, which divides the US on the left and Mexico on the right, viewed from the air.

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.

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 26 comments

  1. megatomic

    Nice write-up Meghan. I lived in the Weatherford (DFW) area for 3 years and never saw anything like that up my way. I wish now I'd done more exploring in the southwest of the state while I lived there.

    Just one question though: has there been any reported cartel activity in the area of the park? That's been a hot topic in the news lately.

    1. Meghan

      Megatomic,

      Texas is so big that every piece of it is different. When I lived at Big Bend and traveled elsewhere, it felt like a whole different state!

      Big Bend lies in the throes of an international border so there is some illegal activity that occurs along in it. That said, it's nothing like other parts of our border for one very important fact: both sides of the river have a hundred or so miles of wilderness. This cuts down on trafficking by almost all of it because the land is pretty impenetrable.

      The closest border town is called Ojinaga, about a 2 hours drive west of Big Bend. Twenty years or so ago, there was a real cartel in that town, a small one, but real. The Mexican military and US government got rid of it, though, and little, less-organized activity has been the norm ever since.

      All of this said, I lived in Big Bend for 5 years, spent oodles of time on the border, went to Ojinaga maybe 10 times, and never saw evidence of drug trafficking.

      Thanks for your important comment!

  2. Morgan

    Awesome post! Ever since I visited Big Bend I've been dying to go back and do some trail running. This post is very helpful, thank you! I hope I will be able to get back there soon with some friends and do some running. Perhaps for the Ultra.

    Have you ever ran across a black bear or a mountain lion on a run? That is really my only fear.

    Here are some photos from our trip to Big Bend: http://www.monicamcampbell.com/?p=390

    1. Meghan

      Beautiful pictures, Morgan! Thanks for linking them so that others can enjoy your fineries. Many of your pictures are of your hike on the South Rim Loop, highlighted as this article's Advanced Run. Cool! :)

      At Big Bend, I never encountered a black bear while running. Elsewhere in the world I have, like my last home in Yosemite National Park. I've only experienced black bears running away from me during such glimpses.

      You have a photo showing a note about an aggressive black bear cub. With all due respect to the person who left that note before you, I am skeptical. I've seen adult black bears get fiesty with people in 2 circumstances: when people get too close to their cubs or their food. Black bear cubs are notoriously skittish, kind of like deer, almost.

      Mountain lions are another story. At Big Bend, I encountered one while running. Elsewhere in the world, in Yellowstone National Park, when I worked there, I saw another one out running.

      The Yellowstone mountain lion ran off, which was hugely surprising because I scared it off a deer kill it had made right on the trail. I'll bet it ran up the hill next to the trail and watched me from a safe-for-it spot until I was gone.

      In Big Bend, my dog and I encountered a mountain lion while running on a jeep road. The lion took deep interest in my dog, and not at all in me. It followed us for a goodly length of time, watching my dog the whole way. The encounter ended when a jeep drove up. I do not know what would have happened without the jeep's interruption.

      That said, mountain lions are highly reclusive and take care to avoid contact with other living things most, but not all, of the time.

      Thanks again for your pictures link and your comment!

  3. Kovas Palubinskas

    Really well-written! "Don’t drink the water of the Rio Grande, even if you’ve filtered and/or purified it." That has to be one of the saddest things I've read recently. Wish I lived nearer Texas now.

  4. bob

    hey Meghan,

    Very cool! I used to do field work in BB, 1981-1991 – love it there but I'm a northerner now.

    Dogs in Nat'l Park ?? ;)

    1. Meghan

      Bob,

      So cool, another Big Bend-er! What kind of fieldwork did you do there?

      Good question on dogs. As we all know, dogs aren't allowed on unpaved trails or in the off-trail environment of our national parks. They're allowed, in most cases, on paved and unpaved roads as well as paved trails.

      Our mountain lion encounter was on an unpaved road; I was running on this road specifically so the dog could go, too. Thanks for asking!

      1. megatomic

        Why would there be a law prohibiting dogs from being on trails? Wouldn't it be better for their paws to be on trails and not on pavement? Ugh, the crap our gov't comes up with…

        1. Meghan

          Megatomic,

          Thanks for commenting. The national park backcountry is about the only place in our federal lands that dogs aren't allowed, for lots of reasons. Dogs bring diseases unknown to the local wildlife, like Bob says below. Unleashed dogs harass wildlife. Dogs bring new scents that confuse local wildlife and disrupt territory establishments. Other human users find dogs to be disruptive to their experiences.

          As a national park lover and dog owner, I wholeheartedly support this rule. I'm happy to visit a national forest or other piece of federal land where dogs are allowed when I want to take my dog on the trail.

      2. bob

        It is not crap. It is to minimize disease transmission to wildlife. That is a huge problem in African National Parks, for example.

        Meghan – I did ecological studies of spadefoot toads and worked on a lizard field crew for my PhD advisor. Got followed around by a lion one night too! Found its tracks following my tracks in the mud.

        I saw in your pic that you were on a paved road with your pup. I love running with my dogs, but I did not have one when I was in grad school and was not so into running then. Mtn biking on Old Ore Rd ! Hard to carry enough water in summer though (long before camelbaks).

        One of these days I'd love to get back down there, but hard to get away. Some great running routes to explore…

        Anyway, I really enjoyed your story and pics.

  5. Anthony

    Gotta say as a native Texan and transplant Coloradan, Big Bend is one of the best "wild" places you could visit and feel really out there. I loved it so much I proposed to my wife in Big Bend. The backcountry areas of the park are great, head out with plenty of fuel and try to find the old Mercury mine.

    After visiting there you will never think Texas is flat, for a next trip try Guadalupe National Park – more trails, more alpine and the highest point in Texas!

    Great write-up, this large unvisited corner of Texas needs more people to see it so it can be protected even further.

  6. Tony Mollica

    Nice article Meghan. I enjoyed the "nucular" reference! I saw Crosby and Nash in concert and David Crosby said that there should be a rule that anyone having access to the button ought to have to be able to pronounce the word nuclear. I would concur with Mr. Crosby on that one.

  7. chadwick

    Meghan,

    Great write-up and information. I'm heading back to Big Bend towards the end of February and looking forward to trying trail running there again. Last time, I only ran on the road from the Chisos Basin down to Panther Junction after a surprise I had the day before.

    I was riding my road bicycle from the Chisos Basin down to to the Village and about half-way through I hear the quiet patter of very fast feet behind me – a coyote decided to give full chase. Unlike your average pup, the coyote wasn't making any other noise and was a whole lot faster than Fido. I went all out for a full mile before he gave up. Amazing.

    I spoke to a ranger about it later that day and he said he discourages anyone from trail running or riding a bicycle solo in the park. The critters are used to cars, hikers, and groups of people, but a solo fast runner or bicyclist activates their chase instinct.

    I've also found myself running into a mountain lion in the park that was watching me Dad & I on a trail. Once we got too close to its perch on a volcanic dike, it let out a nice loud roar that woke us up just a wee bit. I think that's a pretty clear indication of being annoyed rather than hunting behavior, though.

    All that said, I don't think I've ever read of any mountain lion or coyote attacks in the park – it's always been out in California where the human contact is more frequent. The ranger did give the advice if one chases you down and attacks to fight back with all your might.

    I went mountain biking down the Old Ore Road a couple of days after my coyote incident, and made a very good point to sing the entire time. Dorky, but probably effective. ;)

    1. Meghan

      Chadwick,

      Thanks for commenting. It sounds like you've had some great Big Bend experiences, especially the one about the coyote giving chase. Coyotes are notoriously curious, and I bet this one had never seen a bicyclist before. What a story!

      Big Bend has a few stories of mountain lions attacking humans, maybe three in recorded history there? One happened while I was working there. An elderly, emaciated female mountain lion attacked a male hiker. The hiker survived with only small injuries, and the lion was tracked and killed. Upon autopsying her, it was found that the lion was really old, hadn't eaten much in a while, and had broken canines. That is to say that she was desperate in trying to make food out of humans.

      The ranger offered you good advice to do stuff with a running/biking partner. It's just good practice in the wilderness.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences in Big Bend, and I wish you many more.

  8. Blake

    Hi, I'm looking for some advice and a recommendation. I will be visiting Big Bend the 2nd weekend in November 2011, staying at the Chisos Mountain Lodge. I'm training for a February marathon and will need to figure out how to get a long run in somehow. I'm the only runner in the group I'm traveling with, so however I get it done, it will have to be solo. What do you recommend? Several years ago I stupidly tried to run the 6 mile road leading up to the Chisos Mountains, and got super paranoid about mountain lions and nearly had a panic attack! There's lots of tall grass right at the edge of the road that looked too perfect for a crafty lion.

    It certainly makes sense that a person would not want to trail run alone, but if I was out in the open somewhere I wouldn't be nearly as concerned about my sefety. I'm a 48 year-old male and am looking to run 10-14 miles. Normally I'd be running at 8:30 pace at sea level, but I realize I'd be slower at elevation.

    What do recommend? One idea I have is for my friends to just drop me off on the road a several miles from the village and have them pick me back up an hour and a half later, but I'm curious to know what you recommend. Thanks for any help you can provide!!

    1. Meghan

      Hi Blake,

      Thanks for your comment! How great that you have a Big Bend trip in your near future.

      There are numerous paved roads on which you could do a long road run. My recommendation is to get dropped off at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, which is a 10-ish mile drive from the Chisos Mountain Lodge. From there, three paved roads extend a long way in three directions. During my time living at Panther Junction, I often ran the road that extends west toward Terlingua.

      You'll encounter some decent uphills in the first four-ish miles, then it's either flat or downhill from there. The road has mile markers, so you can arrange for a pick-up at a designated mile marker.

      You'll find some brush on this road, too, but it's be much more open than the road up to the Chisos. In addition, there will be a fair bit of traffic with cars passing by every few minutes to make you feel safe.

      Enjoy your trip and let us know how your long run goes!

  9. Blake

    Thanks so much for your help! Sounds like the best plan will be for me to get up early Saturday (my friends are NOT early risers!), drive down to Panther Junction and park and run from there. If I want to be super safe, I could head 3 miles in one direction, turn around, then hit 6 miles back at Panther Junction for a water stop, continue 3 miles in the other direction and turn back for a total of 12. Bingo. Certainly not the most adventurous option, but since I'll be by myself, it shouldn't be about that. It's about getting the miles in safely.

  10. Blake

    My run ended up being shorter than planned, but great nonetheless. I did the Lost mine Trail hike the evening before, and then after six miles Saturday morning, did the Pinnacles hike that afternoon. Plenty of leg work, for sure! That's like, what, 18 miles in just under 24 hours?

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