Big Bend National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Santa Elena Canyon to Balanced Rock

by Amy Myers
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Nestled beside the Chihuahuan Desert and bordered by the Rio Grande is our southern-most national park and its must-sees, Big Bend. An arid oasis, this Texas dusty destination may only see 350,000 to 400,000 visitors per year, but each one of them gets to experience a part of our country that few know exists. From canyon walls to pictographs to waterfalls, Big Bend National Park promises adventure and culture at every corner.

Even more exciting is the fact that Big Bend is a certified Dark Sky national park, meaning that when the sun goes down, you’ll get to see stars and parts of the Milky Way you never knew existed.

But First, a Few Tips…

Of course, because the national park skirts the Mexican border, temperatures bear on the blazing side, especially during the busy season from late spring to early fall. In the summer, highs tend to range from 80 to 90 degrees, and with little shade or rainfall to combat the heat, it can make these temperatures seem even more extreme.

While visiting Big Bend National Park’s must-sees, be sure to plan ahead and pack plenty of water, sunscreen as well as a good pair of sunglasses and a ball cap. A good rule of thumb for hydration is to take one liter (32 ounces) of water per person per two-mile hike.

Another hot tip is to keep your phone covered whenever you’re not snapping pics or looking up directions to the next trail. If exposed to the sun too much, it could overheat and leave you without a camera or way of emergency communication. Additionally, while dogs are permitted at Big Bend National Park’s campgrounds, they are not allowed on the trails. Hikers cannot leave their pets alone at the campground or the trailhead.

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(Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Outsider’s Choice of Big Bend National Park Must-See Trails, Easiest to Hardest

  • Fossil Bone Exhibit Trail (easy)
  • Big Bend Hot Springs Trail (easy)
  • Santa Elena Canyon Trail (easy)
  • Ernst Tinaja Trail (easy)
  • Balanced Rock via Grapevine Hills Trail (easy to moderate)
  • The Window Trail (moderate)
  • Lost Mine Trail (moderate to strenuous)
  • Emory Peak Trail (strenuous)
  • South Rim Trail Loop (strenuous)

Big Bend National Park’s Rocky Ridge Must-Sees

It’s hard to imagine that at one point, raging river waters cut through Big Bend’s desert landscape and carved out the canyon walls that draw hundreds of thousands of Outsiders today. But this is precisely how many of Big Bend National Park’s must-sees came to be. Today, there are dozens of trails that trace the river’s path through these rocky ridges, each one offering a new piece of the area’s natural history. Of those trails, there are three that have given visitors the best views and experience.

These trails are also great options for late afternoon hikes as the massive formations will provide much-needed shade to make the trek more pleasant.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

  • Length: 1.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 157 feet
  • Duration: 30 minutes

Situated at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the Santa Elena Canyon trail is picturesque from the start. The brief trail takes hikers through riparian vegetation, which occurs at the border of a river or stream. Here, you can see patches of lush green in an otherwise deserted landscape, the stark contrast, itself, a must-see. Then come the 1,500-foot vertical, limestone cliffs. The path ends at the Rio Grande, a perfect spot to dip your toes and cool off before heading back. But keep a close eye on river levels – there could be flooding.

The Window Trail

  • Length: 5.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 948 feet
  • Duration: 2.5 hours

Beginning at the Chisos Basin Lodge, the Window Trail is one of Big Bend National Park’s most popular must-sees. The trail leads visitors through canyon walls to a seasonal waterfall (also known as a pour-off) that overlooks the Chihuahuan Desert just a short distance away. The main attraction of this route is the “Window,” a V-shaped slot in the canyon that gives an incredible view of the national park and the land beyond. This is an especially popular spot for sunset hikers who gather to watch the golden sun sit on the crest of the canyon walls. The experience is nothing short of magical.

Hikers looking to complete this trail may want to consider bringing along a pair of hiking poles for the trek. The trail is all downhill on the way in, and with a change of 948 feet in elevation, that can be hard on the knees. Be sure to also drink plenty of water before heading back on the uphill slope.

South Rim Trail Loop

  • Length: 12.5-mile loop
  • Difficulty: strenuous
  • Elevation: 2,657 feet
  • Duration: 6.5 hours

The South Rim Trail offers some of the best views of Mexico’s northern mountains. This trail takes visitors through desert brush, full of spiky grasses and cacti and even a few trees, constantly surrounded by the canyon’s walls. This is also a great trail for wildlife spottings, especially for birdwatchers. Big Bend National Park is home to more than 450 bird species, and many of them love to perch in the park’s branches.

The South Rim loop consists of two trails, Laguna Meadows Trail and Pinnacles Trail. Hikers can take either path, as they both lead back to the same spot, but we recommend taking Pinnacles in and Laguna Meadows out for an easier journey. Hikers can also pick up Emory Peak Trail for an additional adventure. There is a spring for drinking water on the South Rim Loop, but it does dry up. Hikers should pack sufficient water for the whole trip in case they cannot access the spring.

Big Bend National Park’s Sky-High Must-Sees

Some of Big Bend National Park’s most sought-after must-sees are the ones that bring visitors a little closer to the clouds. The park’s cliffs and peaks overlook miles of the desert landscape and the resilient plants and animals that reside there. Of course, with higher elevation often comes a more strenuous climb. Because of this, hikers looking to experience these sky-high sights should plan on bringing extra water for the trek, not only to drink but also to douse a bandana or hat to keep your head and neck cool.

Lost Mine Trail

  • Length: 4.8-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
  • Elevation: 1,131 feet
  • Duration: 2.5 hours

The Lost Mine Trail is easily one of Big Bend National Park’s most scenic routes. Just a mile into the trek, hikers will reach a saddle with views of the Casa Grande, Juniper Canyon and the greater Chisos Basin. The trail then continues with a steep climb to the ridgeline, where hikers can catch panoramic views of Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.

Like the South Rim Loop, the Lost Mine Trail is an ideal choice for birdwatchers. There are also benches along the way for when you need a water break.

Emory Peak Trail

  • Length: 10.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: strenuous
  • Elevation: 2,522 feet
  • Duration: 5.5 hours

At 7,832 feet, Emory Peak is the highest point in all of Big Bend, making it the ultimate must-see in the national park. Along the way, there are tons of spots to stop for a scenic lunch. You can see the Juniper Flats, the Pinnacles and the Window along the route, and there’s even a compost bathroom at the junction of Pinnacles and Emory Peak Trails.

At the top, there is a 25-foot rock scramble that’s pretty precarious. If you’re not confident in your bouldering skills, it’s best to skip this part of the route and admire Emory Peak from a few feet back.

The trail, itself, climbs over 2,500 feet, so this is also one of the most difficult trails in the area, especially if you choose to hike it at the wrong time of the day. Because the trek takes nearly six hours, it’s best to start early in the morning, perhaps even making it a sunrise hike. That way, you’ll spend the least amount of time on the trail during the hottest part of the day. After all, the higher you climb, the more exposed you are to the sun. Hiking poles are also a good investment, too, for the way back since it’ll be a lot of steep downhill.

Balanced Rock via Grapevine Hills Trail

  • Length: 2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 246 feet
  • Duration: 50 minutes

Unlike the Lost Mine and Emory Peak trails, the Balanced Rock route is one of the rare instances in Big Bend National Park where you can see mountaintops and clifftops without too strenuous of a hike. The route starts pretty high and continues winding upwards to the massive boulder situated on top of two other structures. Incredibly, this rock is perfectly secure in its seemingly delicate situation. This spot offers a great opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime selfie. Along the way, hikers will likely see tons of sunbathing lizards laid out on the rocks.

The Grapevine Hills Trail begins with a gravel wash pathway before turning into a relatively steep climb. Pay close attention to trail markers as it is easy to get lost on this route. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes that can handle slippery or loose rocks, especially on the way back. There is absolutely no shade, so be sure to have plenty of sunblock.

Cultural and Natural Must-Sees at Big Bend National Park

If after seeing Big Bend’s National Park’s sky-high must-sees, you’re ready for an easier yet equally-exciting route, your next destinations should be the cultural and geological landmarks. Big Bend has been home to quite a few different groups of people, from the Mescalero Apaches to the Comanches to Spanish explorers to Anglo settlers. All of these groups have left their cultural marks on the area which are still visible today.

Even before humans left footprints on the dusty ground, plants and animals long gone had inhabited the region. Throughout this time, the ecosystem changed dramatically, and now, fossils, canyon walls and empty riverbeds remain to tell their prehistoric tales.

Fossil Bone Exhibit Trail

  • Length: 0.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 19 feet
  • Duration: less than 10 minutes

A definite must-see for families visiting Big Bend National Park is the Fossil Bone Exhibit. Just a quick, flat walk will take you to a semi-outdoor geological and paleontology exhibit that explains exactly what kinds of creatures once called this land home within the past 130 million years. This attraction is great for teaching kids about changing landscapes and how the arid region came to be. There’s also a brief but steep walk to an overlook that gives the experience an extra bit of excitement. But be aware the area may be closed for restoration.

Big Bend Hot Springs Trail

  • Length: 1.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 144 feet
  • Duration: 30 minutes

Unlike the Fossil Bone Exhibit Trail, the Big Bend Hot Springs trail is the national park’s must-see for adults. The hot springs are actually the historic remains of J.O. Langford’s Hot Spring Resort. Back in 1909, he built a two-story, 20-by-20 foot, limestone bathhouse that later turned into an entire resort complete with a post office, store and motor court. Today, the hot springs remain, but only the remains of the other buildings are there. Here, the water stays at 105 degrees, perfect for a midday soak. Additionally, visitors can find Native American pictographs on the surrounding cliff walls.

Ernst Tinaja Trail

  • Length: 1.9-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 131 feet
  • Duration: 50 minutes

The Ernst Tinaja Trail is perfect for folks looking for a bit more seclusion during their trip to Big Bend National Park. In order to reach this trail, you have to drive on a primitive road for about five miles before you reach the trailhead. While four-wheel-drive and high clearance aren’t required to access this road, it is highly encouraged. There are a lot of rocks and ruts along the way, so smaller vehicles might not make it.

A tinaja, Spanish for clay jar, are pockets formed in bedrock from the power of a waterfall or from gravel and sediment in a flowing stream. These areas often look like natural pools and are a great lunch spot. This trail has plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife, including deer, javelinas and even mountain lions.

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