Big Bend National Park: Visit #3

Airstream at Big Bend Cottonwood Campground

Early December must be one of the best times to visit Big Bend National Park. The campground and trails were quiet and sparsely populated, the weather was pleasant, and look at that color in the cottonwood trees! We had a perfect two-day stay, sandwiched by nights spent in nearby Alpine, cramming in as much hiking as possible while still enjoying downtime at the Airstream.

We weren’t even planning to hit Big Bend this trip, although in retrospect we’re not sure why, since it’s our favorite National Park. Our plan was to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park instead, which we only barely dipped our toes in on our first Big Trip, but the weather there changed our minds. Altering our itinerary at that point to drop us down to Big Bend was a no-brainer.

[Read about our next visit in 2021 here!]


Airstream at Big Bend Cottonwood Campground
Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend

Our favorite campground the first time we took the Airstream to Big Bend was Cottonwood, so naturally we returned there. We had few neighbors, saw millions of stars but zero javelinas rooting about (unlike last time), and were treated to a visit from a Great-horned Owl taking a break in one of those big cottonwoods in the photo above.


These hikes are roughly ranked in order of most to least enjoyment, but we absolutely enjoyed each one. Santa Elena Canyon was our only repeat from last visit: since our visiting friends only had time for a short hike it was the obvious choice, but we loved it so much last year we probably would have done it again anyway.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Santa Elena Canyon hike

Santa Elena Canyon is unlike anything else in the National Park. A short trail (we clocked 1.6 miles total for the out-and-back) gives you a taste of the dramatic canyon, but next time we’d really love to rent (or bring??) kayaks and spend a day exploring farther upstream.

Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail

Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff hike
Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off rock scramble

This was a really neat four-mile out-and-back. The Burro Mesa Pour-off is a sheer 100 foot drop in the Javelina Wash, which drains Burro Mesa. Most people do the short and easy walk to the base of the pour-off, but we loved walking down the progressively narrower canyon, scrambling down rocks, and verrrry carefully peeking over the top of the pour-off over the mesa far below. We saw one other human and one tarantula on this hike.

Emory Peak

Big Bend Emory Peak hike
Big Bend Emory Peak hike

Emory Peak is the highest mountain in the Chisos Range, and the third tallest mountain in Texas. We clocked the out-and-back trek at 9.5 miles (not 10.5 as advertised), and it’s basically straight up, and then straight back down. The views from the top, after a rather harrowing unprotected rock scramble, are sweeping, but overall we preferred the overlapping South Rim hike from last trip: it’s a similar amount of work to the Emory Peak trail, but the South Rim is just magical.

Chimneys Trail

Chimneys hike in Big Bend
petroglyphs at the Chimneys

The Chimneys are towering volcanic dikes (or maybe not) visible from the trailhead 2.5 miles away. The trail is nice and flat, a lovely walk through the desert, and the huge rocks at the end are fun to climb around on. From up high you get views, and down low you can see petroglyphs and an arch. We saw zero other hikers on this adventure.

Mule Ears Spring Trail

Mule Ears Spring hike

The trail to Mule Ears Spring was a pleasant, if not spectacular, four-mile total jaunt through the desert. We enjoyed the reintroduction to the desert vegetation (this was our second hike in the National Park this visit, after Santa Elena Canyon), and it was fun to have the Mule Ears, one of my favorite Big Bend landmarks, as a backdrop.

Dog Walk – River Road West

Dog-friendly walk on River Road West

As you know by now if you follow our adventures, dogs are not allowed on hiking trails in National Parks (with an important exception: Shenandoah, our home National Park). The rule is generally that you can take your dog anywhere you can take your car, so in a park with miles of rough dirt roads, you have some reasonable dog-walking options. We took Bugsy for a long (leashed–she’s only off leash briefly for the photo op!) walk on River Road West and were lucky to share the road with just one passing Jeep.

One last accomplishment…

Big Bend Junior Ranger

Over the course of our two days in the park I fulfilled the requirements to become a Big Bend Junior Ranger! Yes, big kids can participate! (If you’re wondering what’s up with not showing our faces in photos: sure, 99% of our readers are our friends and family, but this is a public site, and we are private people, and I rather like the taco face.)

And then we scooted off to Alpine for one last night before continuing east. Here’s one more shot of the roadside art that is Prada Marfa with our sweet home in the reflection.

Prada Marfa with Airstream reflected

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