The Big Bend National Park offers hundreds of miles of trails, so if you are only going to be there for a few days, it is daunting to pick great hikes that won’t leave you dusty, thirsty, and too tired to do anything else the rest of the day.
In this post, I share my experience on four great trails that are easy and fun. If you have children or older adults, these are four great options that will wow them with the Chihuahuan desert and the Rio Grande river canyons.
The easiest hikes in Big Bend National Park are the Santa Elena Canyon Trail and the Boquillas Canyon Trail. Both trails are less than two miles round trip and have less than 100 feet elevation gain. Both hikes skirt the Rio Grande river and feature sheer rock cliff canyon walls.
The other two hikes I suggest are the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail and the Blue Creek Trail. Both follow dry washes with beautiful rock formations on either side of these Chihuahuan desert trails.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is the Old Faithful of Big Bend National Park. Just as you would not go to Yosemite National Park and not see Old Faithful, so too you should not go to Big Bend National Park and miss Santa Elena Canyon.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail is 1.6 miles out-and-back from the parking lot. Once you are parked, it is a few hundred yards through the scrub brush to your west to the Rio Grande River. It is clearly marked, and you will get glimpses of the canyon’s mouth with sheer rock walls that tower 1,500 feet above the river.
Once at the river, before continuing on the hike, you should stop and take a photograph. The canyon will be visible from here. We came in the afternoon, and the setting sun was already behind the cliffs. If you arrive in the morning, the sunrise in the east will provide spectacular photo opportunities.
After a few photos by the river, you cross over Terlingua creek, which for us was mostly dry. In certain seasons it might be difficult to cross. From there, you ascend about 80 feet up a series of switchbacks along the U.S. side of the river. From the top, you slowly descend along the river heading upstream until you come to an area that provides access to the river.
This area has massive fallen boulders in quadrilateral shapes the size of homes. Beach access is mud, which leaves you wishing there were pebbles or sand. This is another great spot for a photograph, but it is hard to capture the cliffs’ magnitude in an image.
This the main attraction for day-trippers to the park so be prepared for throngs of tourists. If you are really into hiking, this trail will leave you feeling empty. The trail is little more than access to the depths of the canyon with the sheer rock faces.
Boquillas Canyon Trail
On our first day in the park, we hiked the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-in Trail (that is a mouthful). On that hike, we met an elderly man who had been hiking in Big Bend for decades. He assured us that the Boquillas Canyon Trail was better than Santa Elena Canyon Trail. We completely agreed with him the next day when we visited.
Whereas the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is full of tourists and cramped, Boquillas Canyon is wide open and more relaxed. At Santa Elena we found ourselves waiting in the corners of switchbacks to let trains of people pass by.
Like the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, the Boquillas Canyon Trail is concise, just 1.6 miles round trip 102 feet elevation gain – hardly a workout. You come here to enjoy the river and dip your toes or whole body in for a refreshing swim.
The Boquillas Canyon may have been named because of large ‘dents’ in the cliff walls that look like little mouths ‘boquillas.’
My family enjoyed Boquillas Canyon immensely. There is a generously wide area along the river for plenty of people. We did not feel overcrowded as we did at Santa Elena.
It was 75 F in December, and my son and I swam across to Mexico and back. The water was brisk but certainly refreshing. After our swim, we clambered to the top of a massive dune at the cliff’s base and rolled and ran down the deep, soft sand.
If you don’t have time for both Santa Elena Canyon and Boquillas Canyon, hopefully, this information helps you make a more informed decision. If you want the iconic photo to make your friends jealous, then go to Santa Elena. If, instead, you want to relax away the afternoon in a beautiful setting, then go to Boquillas Canyon.
Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail
Imagine being on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. That is what you feel like walking along the dry creek bed on the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail. The rock formations on either side or wavy granite cliffs carved by flood waters and debris racing through this slot canyon.
The trail starts in the open desert landscape and then descends toward the dry creek bed. You walk along the meandering length of this dry wash on loose gravel that pulls on your feet.
This is a real hike, and it is beautiful. If you have never been to a desert, this will be a great experience. The Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off trail is 3.7 miles out-and-back with 500 feet elevation gain, which you will be doing on the way back since from the trailhead you descend.
At the end of the trail, you will do some easy bouldering to arrive at a large, cavernous punch bowl made of granite with an outlet (the pour-off), which is the top of a dry fall that drops 100 feet to the desert floor below. It is a sight to behold.
Blue Creek Trail
The Blue Creek Trail probably scares away many would-be visitors because it is listed as ‘hard’ on alltrails.com, with an 11.0-mile itinerary and nearly 2,693 elevation gain. Don’t let that intimidate you.
Just cut your hike short. It is an out-and-back so go until your group is getting tired and turn around. Returning to your car will be downhill mostly.
You descend a few hundred yards to the desert environment from the trailhead with mountains looming in the distance to the south.
Soon you come along an old ranch house that has been partially restored for park visitors to enter. It had a large amount of bear scat on the cement floor, so now instead of ranchers, it is home to at least one local bear.
From the old ranch house, you meander up a gentle grade along the dry creek bed. Soon you will be flanked on both sides by red rock formations with desert brush mixed in. The cliffs on the west provide plenty of shade in the afternoon, making the walk ideal for an afternoon jaunt.
We walked about two miles up the dry creek bed and then enjoyed the area for a while before returning to our car. The scenery on this hike is breathtakingly beautiful.
There is so much to see and do in Big Bend National Park that you would need weeks to enjoy all of it. Hopefully this post provides you with some information to decide which hikes to experience during your stay in America’s remote National Park.