Classic Hikes in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14415A, Base Camp


  • Hike classic Texas trails from the Chisos Mountains to the Chihuahuan Desert
  • Scramble along the Rio Grande River beneath towering Santa Elena and Boquillas canyons
  • Soak in historic hot springs


  • 100-mile camera-clicking views
  • Highly rated meals
  • Fees, permits, equipment, maps


DatesFeb 23–Mar 1, 2014
StaffPhil Snyder

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Big Bend National Park in Texas is the perfect place to wander and wonder. Experience stunning desert and mountain scenery, study unfamiliar creatures and plants, and absorb the solitude of this remote, isolated corner of the world in a week of day hikes.

This is a car-camping vacation using two national park campgrounds and covering more than 50 miles of trails in the park’s three ecological zones: the rugged Chisos Mountains, rising 5,000 feet above the surrounding desert; the Chihuahuan Desert with its arroyos, cliffs and hoodoos forged from volcanic and erosive activity; and the lush floodplain of Rio Grande River. The itinerary includes classic Texan trails, including South Rim Loop, Marufo Vega, Lost Mine, The Window, and The Chimneys. A hike through Hot Springs Canyon brings us to 105-degree, historically significant hot springs on the edge of the Rio Grande River. We’ll visit two towering canyons, Santa Elena and Boquillas, with vertical canyon walls looming as much as 1,500 feet above the trail.

Spring comes early to the lower elevations of Big Bend and, depending on precipitation, we’ll enjoy patches of wildflowers. Some of the 70 species of cacti also may be blooming. We’ll see some of the 450 species of migrant birds in the park, a number that amounts to more than half of all species in North America. Black bear and mountain lions make their home in the mountains.

This is the Sierra Club’s first domestic hiking trip of the year. Get an early start to your hiking season in sunny, southern Texas by exploring never-to-be-forgotten Big Bend National Park.


There is more information about all of the hikes and the rich history of Big Bend on the park’s website.

Day 1: Beginning at Persimmon Gap, the northern portal of the park, our introduction to the famed Chihuahuan Desert unfolds in eight miles of hiking to Devil’s Den, a limestone slot canyon ripped through the mountains; and Dog Canyon, the narrow boundary between the Santiago and Deadhorse mountains. After the hike, we’ll drive to our car-accessible campsite in the Chisos Mountains to set up the first of two base camps for the week.

Day 2: Hike the 4.8-mile Lost Mine Trail to soaring views of the distant Rio Grande River and the Sierra Del Carmen range in Mexico. After lunch at the campground, we will linger on the 4.5-mile hike to The Window, a slot canyon atop a 200-foot pour-off that drains all of the Chisos Basin.

Day 3: The classic hike of Texas, the 12.6-mile South Rim Loop Trail, will captivate hikers today. An 1,800-foot ascent over six miles through Laguna Meadows takes us to our lunch spot on 2,500-foot cliffs with breathtaking views of hundreds of square miles of desert and mountains. The Rio Grande River, almost a vertical mile below and 30 miles away, is visible to the south.

Day 4: The Chimneys is a large rock outcrop that has been used as a landmark for centuries. On this 4.8-mile hike across the harsh beauty of the Chicuahuan Desert, we’ll see prominent petroglyphs and evidence of a shelter used by herders. In the afternoon, we’ll hike as far as we can go -- nearly a mile -- into spectacular Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande River narrows beneath 1,500-foot walls. By the end of the day, we’ll be in a new campsite near the Rio Grande.

Day 5: In the middle of the six-mile Hot Springs Canyon Trail, soak in 105-degree hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The springs are enclosed within the foundation of an 80-year old bathhouse that was part of an historic resort.

Day 6: The Marufo Vega Trail, a strenuous and beautiful 14-mile loop over the Deadhorse Mountains to the Rio Grande, is a trip highlight. A less difficult but equally inspiring hike is an option: the eight-mile historic Ore Terminal Trail, which follows an abandoned tramway that carried silver, lead, and zinc from Mexico until 1919.

Day 7: The trip officially ends at midmorning after a short, colorful hike along the Rio Grande River in Boquillas Canyon.



Getting There

Big Bend National Park is one of the most isolated parks in the country, resulting in relatively few visitors. The closest airports in Texas are Midland-Odessa, 225 miles from the park; El Paso, 325 miles away; or San Antonio, 420 miles away. Amtrak stops in Alpine a few times each week, about 70 miles away.

The trip begins at 9:30 a.m. (CST) on Sunday, Feb. 23 at Persimmon Gap, the northern entrance to Big Bend National Park, which is about 40 miles south of Marathon, Texas. The trip will require an overnight in Marathon, Alpine, Lajitas, Terlingua, Big Bend National Park, or some other “nearby” location Saturday night in order to gather on time in the park Sunday morning.

Carpooling is strongly encouraged to help reduce participant costs and our environmental footprint, and because there is limited parking in campgrounds and at the trailheads. Each vehicle will need a national park entrance pass, which is $20 for the week.

The trip ends before noon on Saturday, March 1.

Accommodations and Food

This is a car-camping trip with day hikes, based at two developed campgrounds in Big Bend National Park. The campsites are large, private areas for tents, with picnic tables, flush toilets, and shade ramadas. Showers are available in Rio Grande Village, and both campgrounds have a small store nearby.

The trip price includes highly rated meals, beginning with lunch on day one through breakfast on day seven. We provide all cooking equipment, except for personal plates, cups, and utensils. One of the benefits of car-camping is that the kitchen can be more elaborate, starting with percolated Starbucks coffee (in addition to other morning drinks) and including coolers filled with fresh food and cold drinks. The menu is vegetarian friendly; however, if you avoid dairy products, grains, or nuts, this trip is not for you. We follow the Sierra Club tradition that everyone helps cook and clean.

Trip Difficulty

To fully appreciate this outing, you should be in good physical condition and enjoy challenging day hikes. Our hikes will vary from half-mile nature walks on flat terrain to a rugged and optional 14-mile hike with up to 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Our highest expected elevation is 7,250 feet.

The weather in Big Bend is usually challenging. Our hope is that most days will be in the 70s and 80s with nighttime lows near 40, but hikers on previous trips have experienced everything from snow to temperatures in the mid 90s. High winds and rain are possible anytime.

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be shared with the group. Participants will use their own personal camping gear, including a tent; sleeping bag rated to at least 20 degrees; reliable raingear; daypack; and well-broken-in, lug-soled boots. Birders will want good binoculars and everyone will want cameras to photograph the terrific scenery.



  • National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Map of Big Bend National Park


  • Parent, Laurence, Hiking Big Bend National Park.
  • Big Bend Natural History Association, Hiker's Guide to Trails of Big Bend National Park and Road Guide to Paved and Improved Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park.
  • Abbey, Edward, Disorder and Early Sorrow, an essay in The Journey Home.



Big Bend has been preserved as a national park since 1944, but influences past and present, inside and outside the park affect the integrity of its various ecosystems. We will see and discuss destructive activities such as overgrazing in the early part of the last century, introduction of exotic, invasive species, degradation of air quality from industries outside the park, and the disappearance of the area's historical and pre-historical archaeological record by the thoughtless removal of artifacts. We will also delight in the ways the landscape is repairing itself with the return of native grasses, black bears, and Mexico’s Carmen Mountains White-Tailed Deer. We will talk about and practice Leave No Trace principles.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Big Bend National Park.



Phil Snyder's passion for hiking began on the Appalachian Trail in 1975. Although his AT project is incomplete, Phil’s enthusiasm for walking in woods, canyons and desert remains, and is especially high for Big Bend, where he is returning for his eighth consecutive year. One of his Sierra Club goals is to introduce hikers to the challenging, picturesque trails of the Midwest, especially parks around Lake Superior. Phil is mostly retired, a freelance writer, motorcycle safety instructor, and community volunteer in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Assistant Leader:

A native Texan, Marty Wynne cherishes being outdoors, particularly hiking, camping, and gardening. A financial adviser to companies for over 20 years, Marty has hiked Zion, Bryce, and Big Bend national parks and backpacked New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness with Sierra Club groups. She has also hiked Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, and Pictured Rocks national parks and been on staff of Sierra Club Outings at Clair Tappaan Lodge, Colorado's San Juan Mountains, and California's Ansel Adams Wilderness.

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