Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande.

Daylon’s idiot-proof, no-nonsense way to enjoy hiking in the Terlingua / Big Bend area if you’ve never been there before:
My 5-day “amuse bouche” plan.

I’ve been coming to Terlingua / Big Bend regularly (multiple times a year) for the last 6-8 years, so I’ve put together this little guide of some of my favorite hikes in the area, as well as some tips for first-time visitors. Each of my day plans can be done in any order – they’re all self-contained agendas – but I tried to start you off and end with “easier” hikes so you’re not killing yourself on your first or last day.
(This plan is assuming you’re staying near-ish to Terlingua)
V2.7
**disclaimer** this is a HIKING guide. There’s lots of other things you can do here (kayak / raft down the river, ATV and Jeep tours, etc) – but I don’t know much about them, so I’ve concentrated on where to go / what to see by foot.
What to bring:

  • Wide brimmed sunhat (or a “boony” hat for the guys)
  • Good hiking shoes (not crocs, not chucks, not tennis shoes – actual lightweight desert hiking shoes – I REALLY like the Solomon Speed Cross 5 – for men AND women, this is an amazing, grippy, supportive shoe). They’re specifically made for trail-running, and when you’re scrambling up / down rocky surfaces in BBNP, they grip like a mountain goat and you can let the shoe do the work to get you up/down areas with less effort.
  • Camelbaks (don’t skimp on this – get the larger 3.5L / 100oz reservoirs)
  • ½ dozen bottles of Pedialyte Advanced Care (your fave flavor)
  • 1 Bottle of GOOD Reposado (or Anejo) Tequila (I highly recommend ArteNom, El Tesoro, Maestro Doble, G4, Cascahuin, Fortelaza)
  • A box of Electrolyte tabs (I like NUUN tabs)
  • Case or 2 of bottled water (most people don’t drink the tap water there)
  • Optional: Hiking Poles or a walking stick
  • Optional: An app like GAIA GPS or ALLTRAILS is not a bad idea either – you can download them to your phone and they work off-grid – so it’s helpful if you get turned around to understand where you parked your car. If you buy a subscription to one of them you can pre-download detailed topographical maps of the hikes you want to do for more detailed information. 😉

About a week or so before you go, be sure to call
Big Bend Stables – Study Butte Location
(they’re located on HWY 118, and you pass them on the way into BBNP)
432-371-3064
800-887-4331
lajitasstables@bigbend.net
lajitasstables.com
Tell them you want to book a Sunset Mesa ride (about $80/pp)  on your last night for everyone in the group – trust me on this one (you can also book it online on their website)

 

 

Generally Important Hiking stuff for Beginners:

  • Just as a rule of thumb, assume 30 min per mile (2 miles per hour) on a hike. It can take longer if you’re heading up a really steep incline (like Emory Peak) or it can be faster if you’re on flat terrain.
  • Also assume in warmer temps (above 70 degrees) you’re going to be drinking about 1 liter of water per hour – so a camelbak with 3.5 – 4L should last you approx. a 3.5 – 4 hour hike – so roughly 6-8 miles. Anything over that (like if you’re going to hike the South Rim (6-7 hours) or Emory Peak (6+ hours) trails), and you def need to bring more liquid. For longer day hikes (6-9 hours) I bring an extra full camelbak bladder in my backpack.
  • Pro Tip: Instead of straight water – do a mix of 50/50 pedialyte in your camelbak bladders – it’s the desert, you’re gonna need it.

Important Info for first time visitors to Big Bend / Terlingua / Lajitas:

  • Big Bend is well…..BIG. Like Huge. That’s the operative term. Expect to be driving AT LEAST 2+ hours a day going to/from hikes and locations. And this is assuming you’re staying IN Terlingua. If you try to hike BB from a starting point of say, Alpine or Marathon you’re going to be spending 80% of your time driving.
  • The National Park itself is something like 45-50miles across – and the speed limit inside the park is 45mph – so yeah, it’ll take you an hour or more to get from Terlingua to Boquillas Canyon on the eastern edge. If it’s raining or there’s a lot of traffic, this can easily double in driving time.
  • You can generally get in two medium-length (2-3 hours) hikes in a day, but three is really really pushing it just due to the massive distance between places unless you start at / before sunrise. Ex. Terlingua to Santa Elena Canyon, doing a hike, and driving straight back to Terlingua can easily consume 4+ hours – so plan your day hikes accordingly and remember that you can’t see all of this in one trip (or 10).
  • Also, due to these longer distances – good rule of thumb is that if your tank is less than half full before you start your day, really good idea to top it off with gasoline before heading out to your hikes. (There’s 3 gas stations, one in Terlingua, one in Lajitas, and one at Panther Junction in the middle of BBNP)
  • ALSO also – be sure to carry a can of fix a flat AND a tire patch kit (you can buy them at the Cottonwood store in Terlingua)! A 12v powered air pump with a tire attachment isn’t a bad idea either. If you’re waaay back on some dirt road and you get a flat, help can take a while to show up (like days).
  • Also also also – keeping a few bottles of water in your car is never a bad idea.
  • If you need to buy stuff (basic food, firewood, water, etc) there’s a nicely stocked store in Study Butte called Cottonwood General Store. It’s basically a mini-Walmart and has a little of everything. https://www.facebook.com/CottonwoodGeneralStore

On Lodging and finding a place to stay:

  • Terlingua / Terlingua Ranch / Terlingua Ghost Town and the surrounding AirBNBs are quickly becoming a VERY busy place for folks to book. Because of the huge distances in this part of Texas, staying in Alpine / Marathon / Marfa and thinking you can quickly get into Big Bend National Park and hike and get back is a fool’s errand. You’d easily be driving 2-3 hours each way, so that just doesn’t work unless you stay closer.
  • Your first, best place to look for a spot is Terlingua Ghost town, then Terlingua, then greater Study Butte area, then Terlingua Ranch (with the ranch being about 40 min+ north of Study Butte (the area where Terlingua / Terlingua Ghost town is).
  • There are cabins you can reserve in the park itself at Chisos Basin, but typically those are 1+ year in advance due to popularity.
  • Fun fact: Terlingua Ranch was once owned by Carrol Shelby (yes, THAT Shelby!) and was originally over 200k acres.  More on that: The History of Terlingua Ranch is as colorful as sunrise over 9 Point Mesa
  • You’re going to want to try to book a place as early as you can – think 2 months+ in advance and remember that ANY major holiday (Xmas, New Years, Spring Break, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Memorial / Labor Day) is going to be crazy booked up. Not to mention when it’s super full, you could LITERALLY be waiting an hour or more in a mile-long car line at the main park entrance just trying to get in. No fun at all.
  • That being said, if you have a trailer or camper, there’s multiple RV spots and campsites in and around town to choose from and all are easily searchable online. No to mention the 100’s of sites in the park itself.

OKAY – so let’s get started – you’ve arrived in Big Bend / Lajitas / Terlingua and checked in / set up camp and had a great afternoon getting settled and a good night’s sleep:

Day 1!: (Hikes Covered: Closed Canyon and Hoodoos in BBSP / Indian Head in Study Butte – (Novice Level))

  • Night before:
    • Top off camelbaks the night before, and put them in the fridge overnight (you’ll thank me later)
  • Wake up, rub sleep out of eyes, grab the camelbaks and trail snacks and hiking stuff.
  • Pour a shot of tequila, yell “Viva Terlingua!” and take a shot (this is vitally important to prepare yourself for the day’s events!)
  • Brush your teeth, get dressed
  • Drop a NUUN tab in some bottled water and drink it down (pre-gaming for hot weather hikes!)
  • Immediately drive to La Posada Milagro in the Terlingua Ghost Town and have a breakfast burrito and coffee (highly recommend the burrito Mexicana w/ sausage). Sometimes they have fresh banana bread – if they do, get it. 😉
  • After breakfast, take some time to respectfully walk through and examine the Terlingua Cemetery and various Adobe Ruins around town. Also check out the art gallery next door to La Posada. Take lots of pics.
  • Drive towards Lajitas, and stop at the Barton Warnock visitors center and get a day pass for Big Bend Ranch State Park. https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/barton-warnock - I think it’s like $5-$8
  • Continue past Lajitas, marvel at the beautiful scenery (there’s multiple pull offs / oooh ahhh type overlooks – take your time!) towards a hike called the HooDoos. (45min-1hr hike). The first two hikes I’m sending you on is kinda a “shake down / warm-up” – test out your shoes, gear, etc and there both only about an hour so it’s a good way to acclimatize yourself to the area a bit.
  • After you do the Hoodoos, come back the way you came, and go hike Closed Canyon (approx. 1.5 hrs hike) – it’s a BEAUTIFUL slot canyon and a great hike.
  • Finish that hike, you’re probably getting hungry, head back to Lajitas and stop at Lajitas General Store. Get a Flat Rock pannini sammich (it’s a tasty!) and say hello to Clay Henry the Beer Drinking Goat. (He’ll probably sneeze on you.)
  • If you’re still in a short hiking mood, on your way back to Terlingua check out Indian Head (you can get there by following Indian Head Road right next to the ALON gas station and taking the right forks along the dirt road until it terminates next to a gigantic (read: house-sized) boulder. This is also a good “warm up” hike for first time folks, as you can make it an hour or 4 depending on how long you want to go. There’s some really nice pictographs from native American tribes that you can see about 30 min into the hike – I’d also recommend this hike for folks with smaller kiddos. You could also do this hike BEFORE heading out to Closed Canyon and start your day inside Terlingua.
  • Head back to Terlingua – and have yourself a little siesta and relax for an hour or two. Have a beer and another tequila shot if the mood strikes.
  • Around 6, head back to Terlingua Ghost Town to The Starlight Theatre – put your name on the reservation list (there will be a wait) – have a prickly pear margarita and watch the beautiful sunset over the Chisos while you’re waiting for your table. (I highly recommend the filet mignon in red wine sauce and the brussell sprouts with balsamic and bacon are to die for!). They have live music on the weekends, and the bands are always excellent. Take a funny picture in the stools outside (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there).
  • After dinner – relax on the huge outside porch and if you’re lucky, you may have some musicians playing outside. Engage cool people in cool conversations – they’ll give you lots of tips on how to enjoy your stay / places to see / camp / etc. I call Terlingua the “island of misfit toys” – it attracts a very VERY wide variety of characters and all of them (well, most of them) are worth having a beer with and listening to.
  • When you’re ready, go to bed and get ready for Day 2!

DAY 2! (Hikes Covered: Pine Canyon and Balanced Rock (Beginner level)
(you’re def gonna want your hiking poles / hiking stick for these hikes)
(Important Note: These Hikes Require a Decent Clearance Vehicle  – 99% of SUVs and Trucks should be fine)

  • You could *possibly* get to these in a sedan, or lower clearance vehicle, but the drive to / from the trailhead would probably take you longer than the hike itself.
  • It’s the difference between going 25-35mph in a truck / suv and 10-15mph in a car – your choice!

Repeat steps 1-6 from Day 1 (but I’ll list them below anyway)😉

  • Night before:
    • Top off camelbaks the night before (don’t forget the 50/50 pedialyte mix!), and put them in the fridge overnight (you’ll thank me later)
  • Try to wake up a little earlier today (try to get out the door by 7:15am if you can!), rub sleep out of eyes, grab the camelbaks and trail snacks and hiking stuff.
  • Pour a shot of tequila, yell “Viva Terlingua!” and take a shot (this is vitally important to prepare yourself for the day’s events!)
  • Brush your teeth, get dressed
  • Do the NUUN tab / bottled water thing
  • Immediately drive to La Posada Milagro in the Terlingua Ghost Town and have a breakfast burrito and coffee (again, I highly recommend the burrito Mexicana w/ sausage). If they have any fresh loaves (banana bread, blueberry bread, lemon bread – get it!). 😉
  • Head towards Big Bend National Park!
  • Today we’re headed to PINE CANYON! It’s about 1hr from La Posada, so once again, try to get on the road decently early after breakfast. The turn off from the main BBNP is Glenn Springs Rd. to the right , then you take the right turn towards Pine Canyon and go ALL the way back down a dirt road until you get to the trailhead. It’s easily a 35-45min drive on the dirt road after you get off the highway.
  • Pine Canyon is a beautiful ascent (about 950ft) up through the desert floor into a gorgeous pine canyon (weird, wonder why they called it that? Lol!). It terminates into what’s called a “pour off” or waterfall. Sometimes it’s trickling, sometimes it’s dry, sometimes it’s flowing – you never know til you get there.
  • The hike itself should take you about 3.5hrs there and back and if you’re going to see a bear in BBNP, this is the spot besides Chisos. (so it may be a good idea to pack bear spray just in case)
  • The last .10 of a mile is a decent incline and will mos def get your heart rate up to slog up there, but it’s worth it! (You’ll def benefit from having hiking poles or a hiking stick here!)
  • The pouroff is a really pretty / quiet place to have a picnic once you get there!
  • Get back to the trailhead, rest for a second, and drive back to the main park road.
  • Hike #2: Balanced Rock! (why do they call it that, I wonder?)
  • Okay, for this hike, you’re driving back towards Terlingua and heading up the Grapevine Hills road. (it shouldn’t be too far from Glenn Springs)
  • You’re gonna drive about 6-7 miles up Grapevine Hills until you see the Balanced Rock Trailhead on the right at the top of a small hill.
  • This is a great hike – about 2 hours if you go slow – the last .25 mile is a pretty good rock scramble (meaning you’re gonna need both hands to grab and pull yourself up / balance) but the payoff and view is really really pretty. Take a few minutes and have your snacks / water under the huge boulder and marvel at when it’s going to fall down. 😉
  • Head back to the vehicle and drive your way out – by this time it’s probably late afternoon, and you’re ready for a siesta / food / beers / tequila / showers.
  • Head to Starlight and catch the sunset (lather / rinse / repeat)

DAY 2 (Optional) Hikes Covered: Cinco Tinajas and Rock Art (Beginner level)
Truck or SUV highly recommended as you’ll be driving about 30 miles on dirt roads

  • If you want something out of the way and unique – try this alternate Day 1 hike – Cinco Tinajas.
  • Warning: This is a LONG drive – (approx. 2 hours each way, so make sure your gas tank is over half full at least!) – half of it is on the main road East à West through the park, the other half is along winding dirt road up through Bofecillos Road looping back over east to get to the ranger station.
  • What’s a Tinaja you ask? Well, it’s a natural rock pool formed by rain and river run off that serves as an important source of water for wildlife in the desert – and here there’s 5 of them. (Although full disclosure, I only saw 3 of them).
  • Instead of going to the Barton Warnock ranger station, you’re instead going to drive to the Saucedo Ranger station in the middle of Big Bend Ranch State Park.
  • So why this long ass drive? The dirt road portion of the drive takes you through some beautiful Southwest scenery and this is a little-travelled area of the park – so you may only see a couple of other cars.
  • Also, Native American rock art is pretty cool to see, and it’s not a long initial hike to get to it (about a mile) and you have the added bonus of the Tinajas on the way back.
  • If you first hike out to the rock art, then to the Cinco Tinaja overlook, then down to the actual Tinajas themselves and take the wash (riverbed) back to your parking area, you’ll take approx. 90min – 2 hours to complete all of that.
  • Once you’re done, there’s also Los Ojitos trail right next door – (after all, you’ve driven waaaay the hell out there, so why not? I haven’t done that hike personally, but it should be a nice medium-ish hike with groves of cottonwoods and a spring to see.
  • Once you’re done, head back to town, grab a shower, and some grub and get ready for day 2.

Day 3! (Hikes Covered:  Cattail Falls and Window Pouroff (Beginner Level)
(probably a good idea to bring your walking stick / hiking poles on this one)

  • Repeat Steps 1-6
  • After breakfast, head into BBNP.
  • Take the Sam Maxwell Scenic Drive South (Towards Santa Elena Canyon)
  • Look for the Sam Nail Ranch marker and park there
  • You’re wanting to go to the OPPOSITE side of the road from Sam Nail Ranch – there’s a little nondescript dirt road with an iron gate (the iron gate may or may not be open)
  • (Optional) – Go ahead and check out Sam Nail Ranch while you’re there – there’s a few windmills and the remains of an adobe house – you can circle it and see everything in about 20 min.
  • Gear up, and head down that dirt road – after about an hour, you’ll see the trailhead signs pointing to Cattail Falls and Window Pouroff.
  • Cattail Falls is one of the out-of-the-way gems of BBNP, it’s a Ferngully / Land Before Time / Primordial little oasis in the middle of the desert and is many people’s top 1-2 hike lists in the entire park.
  • From the road à Cattail Falls à back is about 5 miles total – so approx. 2.5+ hours of hiking. Give it 3hrs since most folks sit around the falls for a bit to rest and take in the natural beauty.
  • If you want to add some more hiking mileage, on the way BACK from Cattail, you can hit the Window Pouroff (the back of the Window Trail from Chisos) and that will add another 4 miles or so to your total hike (so at this point plan on roughly a 4.5 – 5.5 hours of hiking – def enough to take up a full afternoon)
  • You could easily break this up into 2 days if you wanted – do Cattail Falls one day, and come back and do Window Pouroff on the next.
  • (A hike I’m hoping to do soon is to start at Chisos, go down the Window Trail, then down through Oak Springs, past the pouroff and exit at Sam Nail. Only problem is I’m usually there solo, and this would require “staging” a car at the end of the hike or someone giving you a ride up to Chisos, but sounds like a great hike!)
  • Once you’re back to the car, time to head back to Terlingua for food / Starlight / relaxing times.

Day 3! (Optional) (Hikes Covered: Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff (Beginner Level)

  • If you get back from Cattail Falls and DIDN’T do the Window Pouroff and still have energy for more hiking, I would highly suggest the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-Off.
  • The Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off trail is just a gem of a hike – it’s about 3.75mi out and back, and you should be able to complete it in about 2.5 hours. It’s varied terrain and a really pretty hike.
  • It takes you through some nice rocky areas, through a lovely slot canyon, and eventually to a series of pour-offs that terminate in the final one roughly 500+ feet above the desert floor.
  • The first of the last two pouroff’s is a super slick slide (say that three times fast) that would be tricky for one person to get up by themselves, so if you DO decide to go down (you have to if you want to see the final Pour-off just around the corner) make sure you’ve got some help to get back up.

Day 4! (Hikes Covered: Lost Mine and Chisos (Beginner Level)
Repeat steps 1-6 from Day 1 (but I’ll list them below anyway)😉

  • Night before:
    • Top off camelbaks the night before (don’t forget the 50/50 pedialyte mix!), and put them in the fridge overnight (you’ll thank me later)
  • Try to wake up a little earlier today (try to get out the door by 6:30am if you can!), rub sleep out of eyes, grab the camelbaks and trail snacks and hiking stuff.
  • Pour a shot of tequila, yell “Viva Terlingua!” and take a shot (this is vitally important to prepare yourself for the day’s events!)
  • Brush your teeth, get dressed
  • Do the NUUN tab / bottled water thing
  • Immediately drive to La Posada Milagro in the Terlingua Ghost Town and have a breakfast burrito and coffee (again, I highly recommend the burrito Mexicana w/ sausage). If they have any fresh loaves (banana bread, blueberry bread, lemon bread – get it!). 😉
  • Drive to Big Bend National Park – where we’re headed is easily a 45-50min drive from La Posada, so you’re going to want to get an earlier start than you did on day 1.
  • There’s a few signs and things you can stop and see on the way (various exhibits pointing out features and such) – if you’re in the mood, stop and enjoy it!
  • Take the road up to Chisos Basin (the park ranger will give you a map, it’s well marked, so you won’t miss it).
  • Marvel at all the “ooh ahh” mountains and the windy road to get up there. This is when you say to yourself “Wow, Texas really DOES have mountains!)
  • Take a pic at the Bear / Mountain Lion sign on the way up. 😉
  • As you come up the mountain, towards the top you’ll see a sign that says Lost Mine Trail before you get to the main ranger station / lodge, this is where you want to go. There’s only about 20 parking spots here, and they fill up fast – you’re shooting to get here by 8am at the latest.
  • Pro Tip: If you get there at 8am and all the parking lots are full, most people that start at that time start coming down off the hike and driving off between 10:30a – 11a – so if you arrive late, try killing some time at the ranger station / gift shop / Window View Trail and try again around 10:30 and you might get lucky.
  • Do the Lost Mine Hike! (approx 3+ hours) beautiful overlooks and scenery and you might even see deer or a bear if you get there early enough.
  • (OPTIONAL) After you get done with the hike, proceed on to the station. Check out the Window View trail (it’s short (15 min) AND paved (so strollers are good to go!) with a pretty view) and if you’re still in a hiking mood, you can do the Window trail itself – but that’s another 4 hours – up to you!
  • (Side Note) – I’m not a huge fan of the Window trail – mainly because it’s uphill the whole way back – which can be very tiring, but I suppose no visit to BBNP is complete without doing it.
  • Bring some snacks – the lodge there may or may not be open due to COVID.
  • Once you’re done, head back to Terlingua!
  • If Rustic Iron BBQ is open on the way back, STOP IN and have some of the best brisket on the planet.
  • Siesta, shower, take a shot, etc.
  • Food wise, you have a couple of choices – you can go to Rio Bravo (Mexican food), Long Draw Pizza (just past Terlingua towards Lajitas), or back to Starlight. (It’s never a bad idea to go to Starlight.)

Day 5! (Hikes Covered: Santa Elena Canyon w/ Tuff Canyon and Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff (Novice / Beginner level)

  • Take your time getting up – it’s your last day here!
  • Repeat steps 1-6 from Day’s 1 and 2
  • Be sure to pack your river shoes – because you’re going to get your feet wet today!
  • Drive back to Big Bend National Park – this time you’re headed towards Santa Elena Canyon. It’s about 1+hr drive, to get there, but no worries, it’s a pretty one!
  • You’ll pass a few places you can stop and look and see – Mule Ears overlook is nice, also if you want a shorter hike before you get there, the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff is an excellent short hike as well (about 45min total)
  • You’ll also pass Tuff Canyon which is a nice, easy hike through a canyon floor as well (about 1hr tops) – I recommend this hike (it’s a great short hike for kids as well)! It’s cool to see the different layers of deposits as you look up the walls.
  • Be sure to stop at the Santa Elena Overlook on the way – the canyon wall is breathtakingly huge (1500’ tall!) and beautiful. (You get real Game of Thrones vibes here!)
  • If you’re brave, take your shoes off and wade through the Rio Grande to the start of the hiking trail (it’s a little to the right of the parking lot – just follow everyone else.) The water is A LOT colder than you would think.
  • Those gigantic wasps you see flying around the river are called Tarantula Hawks (they won’t bug you if you don’t bug them). 😉
  • Hike Santa Elena Canyon! (about 1.5 hours)
  • Right outside of the parking lot of Santa Elena is the Dorgon-Sublet Trail – here you can see old adobe ruins and what’s left of early farmhouses from pioneer days – it’s a short hike (about a mile out and back).
  • On the drive back, stop and take a look at all the burned out trees and such from a big fire a few years ago near Castolon – good photo opptys here if you’re into that sorta thing.
  • You’ll probably get back about 4ish or so. Relax and get ready for your sunset ride! I think they want you there by about 5-6 at the latest (4pm in the November – feb months). Be sure to bring your camelbaks with you!
  • Enjoy the ride at Big Bend Stables! – ooh ahh and take all the pics. (approx. 2 hrs) Be sure to tip your guide. 😉
  • Shower, relax, and hit up Starlight for a beautiful last night dinner.

Day 5! (Alternate Ride)

  • As an alternate to the Sunset Ride (or perhaps as an ADDITION if you enjoy horseback riding) look into booking at ½ day Ride (either with or without lunch ~4.5 hours) at either Lajitas or Big Bend Stables (same company information above).
  • @ Lajitas – you’ll ride up into the beautiful mesas overlooking the Rio Grande and into Big Bend Ranch State Park and have lunch in this beautiful box canyon.
  • @ Big Bend – you’ll ride along the edge of Big Bend National Park around an area called Indian Head (and around Indian Head Mountain).
  • It’s roughly $150/pp for the experience, but it’s a FANTASTIC way to see this beautiful area.

 

 

There ya go! You’re done! Now start planning your next trip back so you can stay longer and see more cool stuff!
If you like my guide, drop me a line or $5!