Big Bend Hikes: The Best Trails in the National Park

Big Bend National Park is an unexpected hiker’s paradise with over 150 miles of hiking trails across varied landscapes from forested mountains to expansive desert and deep canyons split by the Rio Grande river. Big Bend hikes range from short, paved trails to multi-day mountain trips so there’s something for everyone. Plus, elevation changes mean that you can experience 20-degree temperature differences between low/high hiking areas, so no matter what time of year, you can find plenty of wide-open trails within the park.

In this post, we’ve rounded up the best Big Bend National Park hikes so you can hit the ground running upon arrival and make the most of your time in the park. Be sure to check out our complete Big Bend National Park guide as well.

Need help finding trails for your Big Bend National Park trip? This guide to the best Big Bend hikes has you covered!

As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules. 

Big Bend National Park Layout

Big Bend National Park covers over 1200 square miles and is the 15th largest National Park (by size), so planning your hikes ahead of time is key in order to minimize your driving time within the park and maximize your time spent on the trails.

To drive from the East corner of the park (Boquillas Canyon) to the West corner (Santa Elena Canyon) would take at least 1.5 hours, so I recommend breaking up your trip based on the three “sections” of the park — Boquillas Canyon in the East, Santa Elena in the West, and Chisos Basin in the center. It is possible to combine hikes between these sections in a day, but it would be jam-packed and include a lot of driving. If you are limited on time in the park, I recommend skipping Boquillas Canyon and focusing on hikes within Chisos Basin and toward Santa Elena Canyon. 

Big Bend National Park has limited facilities in the park, so be prepared with your hiking essentials ahead of time.

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Best hikes in big bend national park

Map of the Best Big Bend Hikes

All of the Big Bend hikes listed by section below can be found on this map:

Big Bend Hikes Toward Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

  • Distance: 1.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 610ft
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead start: Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead

This is one of the best (and most iconic) hikes in Big Bend National Park – I definitely recommend checking out this trail. Located at the end of the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Santa Elena Canyon begins at the mouth of a wide set canyon. You will walk along a sandy creek and walk up paved stairs to a viewpoint of the canyon. From there, you will descend down to the water’s edge until you reach a point where the canyon walls meet the water and you cannot walk any further. This trail can be muddy or closed off during the rainy season.

Best hikes in big bend national park

Chimneys Trail

  • Distance: 4.6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 364ft
  • Time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead start: Chimneys Trailhead, mile 13 on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

This trail is mostly flat through the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. You will pass plenty of cacti, ocotillo, and other desert plants on your hike out to the “Chimneys” – these tall spires can be seen from the trailhead. When you reach the Chimneys, you will find Indigenous petroglyphs on one of the rocks – while these are beautiful to look at, please do not touch any rock art as touch can harm them. Technically this trail extends past the Chimneys another 4.6 miles, ending at Old Maverick Road, but you would need to arrange a pickup on the other end. This trail is fully exposed, so be sure to have adequate sun protection.

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Best hikes in big bend national park

Big Bend Hikes toward Chisos Mountains

Balanced Rock Trail

  • Distance: 1.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 232ft
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead start: Grapevine Hills Trailhead

This was one of my personal favorite hikes in Big Bend National Park because of the views at the end of the trail. Starting at Grapevine Hills trailhead, you will walk among jumbo rocks in the desert and reach a small climb up to a group of rocks at the end – one balanced above the others creating a perfect frame of the desert in the distance. Please note that this trailhead is located 6 miles down a dirt road – all vehicles should be able to make this drive unless it has recently rained.

Best hikes in big bend national park

Lost Mine Trail

  • Distance: 4.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,135ft
  • Time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead start: Lost Mine Trailhead

This is a very popular introduction trail to the Chisos Mountains landscape – if you do not want to hike the full trail, hiking to the saddle 1 mile in (look for marker 10) will give you amazing views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon in the distance. If you continue on for the full trail, you will encounter a few rocky switchbacks and the summit is a flat section with views all the way to Mexico. This trailhead has extremely limited parking, so I recommend starting this hike early in the morning to guarantee you get a spot.

Best hikes in big bend national park

Window View Trail

  • Distance: 0.3 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 13ft
  • Time: 10 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead start: Chisos Basin Visitor Center

This is a paved walking path that is wheelchair accessible and has excellent views of the Chisos Basin mountains. This is a very popular spot for sunset, watching the sun go down through the natural “window” – so arrive early if you plan to visit at that time. 

South Rim (+ Emory Peak)

  • Distance: 12-14.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2000-3000ft
  • Time: 7-9 hours
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead start: Chisos Basin Visitor Center

If you are looking for a challenging all-day hike (or want to do an overnight backpacking trip), the South Rim loop (with the optional summit to Emory Peak, the park’s highest point) is a must. I did the full loop/summit in 1 day and it was the highlight of my trip. If you want to summit Emory (elevation 7800ft), start the loop clockwise following the Pinnacles trail so you can get Emory Peak out of the way early in the day. If you plan to bypass the detour up to Emory Peak, the elevation change will be more gradual on the South Rim loop by starting counterclockwise following the Laguna Meadows trail.

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Best hikes in big bend national park

There are several backcountry campsites located along this loop that can be booked ahead of time here (you can also usually get last-minute backpacking permits in-person at Panther Junction or Chisos Mountain Visitor Center). Please note that during Peregrine Falcon nesting season, the Northeast and Southeast portions of the South loop trail are closed.

Best hikes in big bend national park
Image from NPS Chisos Mountains Backpacking Trail Map

Big Bend Hikes toward Boquillas Canyon

Boquillas Canyon

  • Distance: 1.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 229ft
  • Time: 40 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead start: Boquillas Canyon Trailhead

Boquillas Canyon is another beautiful deep canyon hike along the Rio Grande. From the parking lot, the trail climbs up and over a cliff overlooking the water. As you descend the gradual slope, you will walk along the river’s edge until the canyon walls meet the river and you cannot walk any further. The water here is quite shallow and a light aqua color, much different than the canyon and water at Santa Elena, so I was happy I did both of these canyon hikes during my trip.

Best hikes in big bend national park

Hot Springs Historic Trail

  • Distance: 1.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 144ft
  • Time: 30 minutes (plus time to soak)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead start: Hot Springs Historic Trail Trailhead

If you enjoy learning about history while hiking, the Hot Springs Historic Trail is a must – you can learn about the families that inhabited this area as well as pass pictographs and their old homestead. This trail ends at 105-degree natural hot springs along the river – the perfect place for a relaxing soak. (Please note, at the time of writing, this trail is closed due to COVID-19.)

Are you planning a trip to Big Bend National Park or have you been hiking there? Share your questions, comments, and experiences below!


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About the Author: Tung Chi