The winter is often a time when people seek respite indoors from the cold weather, snow and ice, but in many parts of the country, people are encouraged to breathe in the fresh air and take in the beautiful surroundings. Big Bend National Park is a place that offers something for everyone all year, and many argue winter is the best time to visit this park. Located in the southwestern region of Texas along the Texas-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park offers 801,163 acres of rugged beauty in Far West Texas, including the largest protected areas of the Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S.
Big Bend National Park is a hiker’s dream for several reasons. First, the park has more than 150 miles of hiking trails available with varying degrees of difficulty. Second, Big Bend National Park is home to three distinct geographical areas that can all be seen and enjoyed in one visit: the Rio Grande river, the Chihuahuan Desert and the Chisos Mountains. Elevations range from 1,800 feet above sea level along the Rio Grande to 7,832 feet atop Emory Peak. Given this large difference in elevation, hikers should expect a 20 F temperature difference between the lowest point and the highest elevations in the park. “With three distinct regions in the park, visitors can hike along the Rio Grande and look over at Mexico in much the same way that early pioneers did,” says Robert Alvarez, executive director at Visit Big Bend. “They can also take longer backcountry hikes in the desert areas, which are perfect during the winter months due to cooler temperatures. These are some of the most beautiful and scenic hikes in the park, but they are tough to do during the heat of summer, so winter is ideal.”
Third, because of its varied habitats, Big Bend National Park’s biodiversity among its species of plants and animals is unique even among other national parks. In fact, the park is home to more varieties of birds, bats and cacti than any other national park in the U.S. Lastly, if you’re the type of hiker who likes to blaze his or her own path, Big Bend is the perfect place for you. Because Big Bend is one of the least-visited parks in the system and also one of the largest national parks by acreage outside of Alaska, odds are good you’ll find that Big Bend provides you with all the solitude, serenity and scenery you need for the perfect escape from the demands of modern life.
Here’s a list of hikes that visitors to Big Bend National Park shouldn’t miss, according to Alvarez.
Santa Elena Canyon: This easy hike is a popular choice for visitors traveling with young children. The trail is designated as easy, and it offers up-close views of the 1,500-foot-high canyon walls on both sides of the trail and of the Rio Grande river, which runs alongside the trail.
The Lost Mine Trail: Looking for that awesome Instagram shot? Try the Lost Mine Trail. While the trail is considered moderately difficult, this out-and-back 4.8-mile round-trip trail has an overlook situated about one mile from the trailhead that is fairly easy to get to, yet offers breathtaking views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. As you continue hiking, the trail eventually levels out and ends on a ridge with stunning views overlooking Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.
The Grapevine Hills Hike: This classic desert hike is perfect in wintertime and excellent for adventurers with children or other hikers that need some special assistance. “It is a flat hike, but at the end is Balance Rock with a huge boulder sitting on top of others that looks quite out of place,” says Alvarez. “It’s great for photos and easy to hike.”
The Window Trail: This moderately difficult 5.6-mile round-trip hike ends in one of the most iconic and beautiful scenes in the park—looking from the Chisos Mountains out onto the lower desert floor through a “window” pour-off in the mountains.
Big Bend is also a geologist and nature lover’s paradise, as it features geologic structures that date back millions of years, and is home to 1,200 species of plants and 450 species of birds. Because of its different geographic areas, its geologic formations are also varied. From 500 million-year-old rocks at Persimmon Gap to modern-day windblown sand dunes at Boquillas Canyon, the amazing biodiversity found in Big Bend is a sight to see. “Big Bend National Park is the only national park that contains a full mountain range within its boundaries—the Chisos Mountain Range—which towers above the surrounding desert with peaks as high as 7,000 feet,” says Alvarez. “The Chisos Mountain range is the southernmost mountain range in the U.S. and its location makes Big Bend National Park a wonderful winter destination. Although, nighttime temperatures do drop down enough to need a good jacket, daytime temps are typically in the 60s, which makes for fabulous hiking. The higher winter temperatures also lead to early spring in the Big Bend with wildflowers typically popping up in early February and sometimes even late January.”
Need another reason to visit this spectacular place? How about the fact that it is known as one of the best places in North American for stargazing, according to the National Park Service. The park was actually designated as a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. That designation is reserved for places with skies that are free from all but the smallest amount of light pollution. Big Bend actually has the least amount of light pollution as compared to any other national park in the lower 48 states. In fact, visitors to Big Bend can see the Milky Way and approximately 2,000 stars on a clear night. A lightless night sky is so important to Big Bend National Park that it recently began the process of totally eliminating forms of light pollution by installing LED and shielded lighting. This process will ensure that visitors and locals can enjoy the beauty of a starry night at Big Bend today and always.
With so many amazing things to do and see in Big Bend National Park, consider a trip to Far West Texas to check out this “star” of the national park system.
Big Bend is a blast, and if you head further west, definitely check out the best national parks in California.