Part 3 of the 5-part series: Hiking Big Bend National Park
A trip to Big Bend National Park is not complete without some exploration of the Chisos Mountain region. Some of Big Bend’s most compelling, scenic hikes can be found in this part of the park. The word “Chisos” is Castillion for “enchanted” and is thought to mean “spirit” or “ghost,” according to Native American tradition. Perhaps this name is given due to the disappearing nature of greenery in the desert, which can come and go. Whatever the case may be, visitors are drawn to Big Bend for its haunting beauty and hikers are drawn to the Chisos Mountains for their spectacular vistas, cooler temperatures, and green scenery.
The Chisos Mountain range is the third tallest range in Texas, reaching 7,825 feet, like an “island in the sky, “ surrounded by chaparral desert. The Chisos Range and inner Chisos Basin encompass a broad ecotone, or contrasting transition area, between the desert lowlands and high country grasslands and forests. As you ascend in elevation, dry creekbeds give way to pinyon-dotted landscapes, juniper meadows, and stands of Arizona cypress, oaks, and Texas madrones. These elevation changes produce an exceptional variety of plants, animals, and scenic vistas.
The Chisos Basin Trailhead is a popular starting point for explorations with twenty miles of well-marked trails that wander through deep canyons and spring-fed oases to the tops of the Chisos. The Chisos Basin Trailhead is located near the Chisos Basin Store. This developed area includes the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, Chisos Basin Campground, and Chisos Mountains Lodge.
Two of the most scenic hikes in the park are Emory Peak Trail and the Boot Canyon Trail. The Boot Canyon Trail is the shadiest, greenest trail and has the most potential for water. Hikes along the South Rim and to Emory Peak can be vigorous full-day hikes or can be more leisurely if you camp overnight along the way. Primitive campsites with food storage lockers are scattered throughout the Chisos Mountains.
Window View trails gives visitors a good look at the Chisos Mountains and the wildlife of the area. For a longer hike, try the Window Trail, Chisos Basin Loop Trail, or Lost Mine Trail.
A great time to visit the Chisos Mountains is February through April, when desert wildflowers and cacti transform the desert into a rainbow palette of blossoms and blooms. Check the wildflower reports before you go.
The Window Trail, below the Basin campground, is an easy paved trail with excellent views of the mountain peaks surrounding the Chisos Basin. The trail gets its name from the impressive view through the “Window”, a rock formation that looks out over the Chihuahuan Desert. This area is an interesting mix of high desert scrub and grasslands interspersed with oaks, pinyons, and junipers with many species of birds. Benches along the trail offer a place to sit and enjoy a classic Big Bend sunset. This trail is wheelchair accessible.
The Window Trail is prime example of an ecotone trail—where grassland and desert meet. It offers an interesting mix of high desert scrub and grasslands interspersed with oaks, pinyons, and junipers. This six-mile round-trip trail begins at the Basin Trailhead and descends 800 feet through Oak Creek Canyon for the first two miles to the top of the Window pour-off which frames panoramic desert vistas. On the way back, the climb begins. During wetter periods Oak Creek may be flowing, and must be crossed several times. Use caution on this trail: the top of the Window pour-off is slickrock with no railings, and the return hike is uphill. Keep an eye out for the Peaks of the Chisos Range, a canyon with oaks and wildflowers, and animals—gray fox, javelina, and even black bears could be just around the bend.
The Chisos Basin Loop trail climbs gradually through shady stands of Mexican pine, oak, and juniper with many outstanding views of the “Window” as well as the mountains surrounding the basin area. Dense vegetation in the arroyos, or dry creek beds or washes, provides good habitat for bears and mountain lions. You may even see tracks where they crossed the trail. Also, keep a keen eye out for Mexican Jays in the pines, and hummingbirds and Scott’s Orioles in the agaves when they are in bloom. Although this loop trail may be done in either direction, following it counterclockwise is the easiest. This trail connects the Laguna Meadow and Pinnacle Trails.
Another recommended hike down the road from the Chisos Basin Trailhead, is the Lost Mine Trail. The Lost Mine Trail begins at mile marker 5 on the Basin Road, about 1 mile from the Chisos Basin Developed Area. The first mile of trail has interpretive markers and a corresponding brochure on the natural and cultural history of the area. Be sure to pick up a brochure at the trailhead before you start.
Most of the trail is a steep climb in and out of sotol plants, juniper, oak, and pine forest, but the scenery makes it worth the effort. The trail climbs 1,200 feet steeply to reach a ridgeline about 6,800 feet above sea level. The trail abruptly levels out at the ridge-top with stunning views of Casa Grande, Pine Canyon (Juniper Canyon), and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. Be warned—you may feel a bit of high-altitude thin air at the top, or you may just be gasping from the outstanding views of the desert below and the mountains around you.
Boot Canyon Trail leads from the Pinnacles Pass to the South Rim, passing through the lushest environment in the Chisos Mountains. Depending on annual rainfall, water may be present in pools along the canyon during parts of the year. Arizona Cypress and other trees may be found here, and no where else in Big Bend National Park. Look for Colima warblers here as well.
Including Emory Peak in your plans assures that you will see some of the best scenery in the park. Emory Peak, the highest mountain in Big Bend National Park, is a rocky promontory granting magnificent views of the Chihuahuan Desert against the jagged backdrop of the Chisos’ numerous peaks.
There two different trails that can be taken to get to the 7,825-foot peak: the Pinnacles Trail/Boot Canyon Trail or the Laguna Meadow Trail. Hike up Pinnacles Trail 3.5 miles to Emory Peak, and hike back down the Laguna Meadow Trail 3.3 miles to the basin where you started. Or combine the two routes via the Colima Trail to form a 12-mile loop that makes for a great day hike.
The Pinnacles Trail: The Pinnacles Trail climbs into the Chisos Mountains from the Basin, passing through oaks, pines, junipers and Texas madrone trees to a high saddle between Toll Mountain and Emory Peak. From the Basin Trailhead, ascend the forested Pinnacles Trail for 3.5 miles to the Emory Peak trail junction. At this junction, the trail breaks to the right. Take the 1-mile spur trail to right, up to the peak which has nice vistas along the way. The last quarter mile or so climbs steeply, and a 25-foot scramble up an exposed rock face marks the culmination of the Chisos Mountains with stunning 360° views from Emory Peak summit (elevation 7,835 feet), the highest point in the park. The odd-looking antenna and other instruments at the top are part of Big Bend’s 2-way radio system which is powered by solar cells. From this vantage point, Boot Canyon lies along the south side of the peak, and Laguna Meadow is situated at the base of the talus slope to the west. If you continue along the Pinnacles Trail after summiting Emory Peak, you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views of Boot Canyon—something you may not want to miss.
Laguna Meadow Trail: This hike has a 1,700-foot elevation gain so it can be a bit strenuous for some hikers not in the best shape. To get to the trailhead, start on the Basin Loop Trail in the Chisos Basin. Follow Laguna Meadow Trail from the Chisos Basin to the meadow climbing 1,600 feet in 3.3 miles, or take Pinnacles Trail into the Chisos Mountains from the Basin. Both paths cut through a juniper, pinyon pine, and Texas madrone forest to a high saddle between Toll Mountain and Emory Peak; Pinnacles continues to the sheer cliffs of Boot Canyon, where a labyrinth of desert paths chart the valley below.
A hike to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains is, for many, the highlight of a trip to Big Bend. The South Rim Trail leads to a 2000′ cliff with incredible views of the desert below. This challenging trail is well worth the 2,000 foot gain, as the vistas are stunning midway. The South Rim is a loop hike with views of the South Rim along the whole way. The hike starts and ends at the Basin Trailhead near the Basin Store and you can ascend by either the steeper Pinnacles Trail or the more gradual Laguna Meadows Trail.
The shortest route to the top of the South Rim is 6.5 miles from the Basin Trailhead via Laguna Meadow. You may return by the same trail, or you may circle the East Rim and hike out through Boot Canyon and the Boot Spring trail. The full round-trip hike is 14.5 miles. You may want to skip the East Rim section and to return via the Boot Canyon “short-cut” trail to Boot Spring and to the Chisos Basin, a round-trip of 13 miles.
It is possible to hike the South Rim in one day but care should be taken to leave early and check the weather conditions. Testimony from many hikers suggest that taking 2 days to hike the South Rim trail is an extremely enjoyable way to make the 15 mile trek, and there are several primitive campsites with stellar views near the trail as well as on the rim.
The Chisos Mountains offer opportunities for hiking year-round, however It’s important to be aware that particular portions of The South Rim Trail are closed once a year: the Southeast Rim Trail and a portion of the Northeast Rim Trail from the Boot Canyon/Southeast Rim junction to a point just north of Campsite NE-4 are closed during the peregrine falcon nesting season from February 1 through May 31 each year.
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