Sunday Hikes: Ernst Tinaja

Big Bend National Park is a wonderful place! Collectively I have spent over a month exploring the park’s near 1,300 square miles (that’s 10x the size of Atlanta). Each new visit brings new places I had never even heard of to explore. One could spend a lifetime in the Big Bend country and still have more to explore. On our last trip one of these places was Ernst Tinaja.

Ernst Tinaja is by no means a secret but it is tucked away in the less visited eastern side of Big Bend National Park. The trailhead is located off the Old Ore Road about 5 miles from the south entrance near Rio Grande Village. Old Ore Road is considered a 4×4 high clearance only road but as long as it is dry most vehicles can make it to Ernst Tinaja driving carefully (if it has been rainy I would not attempt it, visit Panther Junction visitor center for road info). Along the way are beautiful views of the desert and Chisos Mountains.

Chisos from Old Ore Road

Along the road are a few landmarks starting with Candelilla campsite (one of my favorites), then Camp De Leon campsite and the nearby grave of Juan De Leon (a mysteriously murdered mexican man from the area’s more lawless times). Soon after Camp De Leon is Ernst Tinaja campsite and trailhead marked by a small stone sign. If you hit the La Noria campsites you’ve gone too far.

Grave of Juan de Leon

The trailhead is marked by a small metal sign like most others in Big Bend.

The trail starts in open desert and moves into a valley that then narrows into a canyon. In the valley are large stone ridges running across the trail with small pools of water (after rains anyways). Like many places in Big Bend the past is evident in the geology of the area and it is very clear a river flowed through this area creating the valley and canyon.

As the valley narrows into a rocky canyon there is a relief of shade created by one of the canyon’s walls during most of the day. When the temperatures can regularly reach the 90s even in the winter, any respite from the sun is welcome. The ground is loose and gravely like most dried up desert creek beds until quickly and suddenly turning to smooth pinkish brown limestone with a slight climb up.

Inside the limestone are three ‘Tinajas’, pockets of water collected from past rains (Tinaja literally means Jar in spanish).

I had fun playing with the tinaja reflections

The climb up and around the tinajas is fun and can feel a little sketchy (especially when you’ve heard accounts of mountain lions drowning in the very tinaja you are scrambling by).

Just past the Tinajas on the left side of the canyon is a fascinating force of nature captured in rock where presumably whatever water once flowed through distorted and twisted the limestone wall into a small cave (another place to hide from the sun).

At this point there are two options: turn back or carry on. The canyon continues for miles eventually hitting Ernst Valley (or at least the hills before Ernst Valley, I have not explored this far). With what seems like endless desert to explore turning back wouldn’t be a bad option either.

PSA: Anyone hiking here should know their limits and pack accordingly to their trip. Over 400 people die in National Parks every year with a majority of these deaths being because of drowning or heat exhaustion (both very possible in Big Bend). Visit the Panther Junction visitor center to get info from rangers on how to explore Big Bend safely.

To sum it all up: Ernst Tinaja is incredible and is a highlight of that trip for us now. If you have the ability to hike there, you should. Be careful and have fun! 🙂


– Josh

Sunday Hikes: Mariscal Mine

Long before Texas’ Big Bend country was made into a national park it was populated by a handful of small ranches. In 1900 Martin Solis discovered cinnabar near his farm and quickly tried to capitalize on it. Mining continued here sporadically until the creation of Big Bend National Park in 1944. The mine was fairly unprofitable in it’s day but has become a benefit to all future generation as a protected historical site. It is now an eerie reminder of the past in the heart of Big Bend’s backcountry.


We visited the derelict mining town after a long day of exploring backroads and canyons on the park’s east side. From the Rio Grande Village area we took the River Road East towards the center of the park. We set up camp at the Fresno backcountry site (the only place you can camp near Mariscal Mine) around 5:30pm and as the sun was setting we rushed to explore the mine.


At this point I will say that purchasing the Guide to Big Bend’s Dirt Roads book from any of the camp stores of visitors centers in the park. This book is a well of information for all the parks roads and it has a nice map of the Mariscal Mine complex telling you what each building is and what it was used for.


The hike begins in a small dirt parking area with rock houses scattered around where the former miners once lived. There is a sign at the trailhead with a warning not to touch anything because of the mercury that has soaked into the bricks. Up on the hill we could see the mine blending in with its surroundings as it is made of rock from the hill it sits on. The trail up to the mine is loose and rocky dirt so we had to be careful not to slip while trying to take pictures and hike at the same time. The largest structure in front is one of the many furnaces used to melt down the mercury containing cinnabar ore.


The trail curves past the large furnace and gains some elevation to get a view of the complex from above and to see the mines themselves. Large deep and dark pits with metal grates blocking entrance. some went like a doorway into the mountainside and some were just a hole in the ground dropping vertically  to the center of the earth (or close to it at least). The only other people out there, some kids and two adults with them were dropping rocks and sticks into the largest mine shaft and counting before it hit the bottom.



We reached the end of the trail at a high point overlooking the mine with great views of Boquillas Canyon and the east side of the park as well as the setting sun and west side of the park. After enjoying the view for a bit we started to head back down, peeking in the mines along the way.



We spent about an hour hiking and exploring the Mariscal Mine area with the trail being about 2 miles out and back. The mine is in the middle of nowhere and takes an hour to drive to but it is well worth the trip!


Thanks! – Josh

Friday Favorites: Black Gap Road in Big Bend National Park

Much of Big Bend National Park is primitive roads requiring high clearance and off road tires. 4 wheel drive is a plus! Since Josh has popped several tires in the Park before, this time he decided to bring me (and my Jeep).

My favorite section was Black Gap Road. This area required 4 wheel drive to navigate and since we backcountry camped nearby, we had the road to ourselves. Black Gap Road traverses a rock canyon and we had a blast.

In the video below, you can hear me worrying about splashing Josh, and Josh worrying that I’m going to leave him behind. In any case, off-roading and exploring the backcountry and ruins was my favorite part of Big Bend National Park. rk

Picture of the Day: Sunrise at Big Balanced Rock

Big Balanced Rock is a cool rock formation at the end of the primitive road, Grapevine Hills.   After camping in the backcountry site, we did the short hike to Big Balanced Rock where we watched the sun rise as we brewed coffee.   This was a peaceful and beautiful beginning to our trip at Big Bend National Park.




Sunday Hikes: The Windows Trail

One of the more popular and iconic hikes in Big Bend National Park is The Windows Trail.   The Chisos Basin in the center of Big Bend is a secluded valley surrounded by the Chisos Mountains, with a small “window” in the mountains to see out into the surrounding area.   The Windows Trail is the trail that leads to this notch.   At 3.6 miles round trip, it is a fairly easy trail to navigate with some fun scrambles near the end through and around a stream.


It was foggy as we started the hike and I couldn’t even see the Windows which normally is visible from everywhere in the Chisos Basin.   We parked near the campground and strolled through the campground to the trailhead.   The trail was pretty much all downhill, but not a very steep grade.   Of course that meant the return would be the opposite.   The trail winded through some small stands of trees and other flora.




As the fog began to lift, I was able to start seeing the mountains around us and my first glimpse of “The Window”.


While the hike to this point had been fun, there hadn’t been to much that was notable other than the loads of fog.   As we neared the Window, we caught up to a creek that the trail followed allowing us the opportunity to climb, jump and scramble with the risk of getting a little wet if we slipped in.   This part was my favorite part of this hike.




The trail finally narrowed to just a gash with what seemed to be a huge immediate drop on the other end with the stream rushing through the gap.   Other hikers went as close as they dared seeking the perfect instagram picture, risking what would be a certain and thrilling death with one slip down and out of the Chisos Mountains.   I perched as close as I felt safe and got my picture and then we headed back the way we came.


The Windows Trail is a must do when visiting Big Bend National Park.   You can knock it out fairly quickly and you get a much better feel for what the Chisos Basin is like from hiking this trail.   Thanks for reading.   rk

Picture of the Day: Rio Grande River

I was surprised how small the Rio Grande River was in Big Bend National Park. I saw some Mexicans crossing on horseback to refill their trinkets left for sale on the American side of the border along with one American tourist who just waded across so he could say he went to Mexico. Near Solis on the backcountry River Road, I settled for just throwing a rock across the Rio Grande. We camped one night at the Buenos Aires campsite just a few hundred feet from the river. rk

Camping: Grapevine Hills, Big Bend National Park

One of the many great things about Big Bend National Park is the options for camping. You can stay in a classic campground with RV hookups and pay showers, hike into the mountains and camp overlooking the entire park, or even plop your tent down somewhere in the desert far from everything and enjoy the night skies in solitary. My go-to form of camping is backcountry car camping though. There are only three paved roads in Big Bend but there are dozens of dirt roads through the parks backcountry. Scattered throughout these primitive roads are campsites that require you to have a $14 backcountry permit (the $14 is just for the permit and pricing does not change based on your number of nights camping). Some sites are miles into the desert and some you can see the main road from so there are options for everybody (most require high clearance vehicles and some require 4wd).

One of my favorite examples of this kind of camping is Grapevine Hills road. It is very close to both Panther Junction and the Chisos Basin and is about equidistant to each side of the park. Also off of the road is Balanced Rock, a large pile of rocks that seem to be balancing on one another. The road itself is maintained for the first couple miles but after that high clearance is recommended! There are five campsites off of the road and the ranger can help you pick the best site for you when you get your backcountry permit!

If you want to get away from the campgrounds and have a little more space then these primitive car camping sites are great for you! Keep in mind that none of these sites have restrooms or trash cans so be sure to pack out what you bring with you and if you aren’t comfortable with a cactus toilet the Grapevine Hills campsites are great because right down the main road you can use the always open Panther Junction restrooms!

Half asleep, making coffee.

A bad but still pretty star picture from Grapevine Hills.

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail

I love nature hikes! They are always short and easy hikes loaded with information about the ecosystem around you! The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail in Big Bend National Park is no exception to this. The .4 mile trail located at the Dugout Wells area meanders through the desert and points out the abundance of life found living under the scorching desert sun. The hike begins from the small dirt parking lot with vault toilets and a couple picnic tables scattered about.

The trail’s first sign explains the differences between the park’s three types of prickly pear cactus. These cactus (or cacti, maybe cactuses) are found everywhere in the park and this little sign gives you a chance to impress nearby hikers by being able to tell them they are looking at a blind prickly pear.

A few more signs throughout the hike show the ocotillo that sprout out like tentacles from the sand and different snakes and rabbits (I’ve never not seen a rabbit hiding under a cactus on this trail). All while you are learning of the flora, fauna, and history of this specific spot’s past as a pioneer homestead, the Chisos Mountain Range stands strongly in the distance.

The Chisos are very uniquely Big Bend to me and their cliffs are special and are unlike any other place I’ve been. Any angle you see these mountains from it looks completely different but still like it belongs in Big Bend (in case you didn’t notice I really love Big Bend). Anyways the trail finishes up through a small oasis with a large oak and a couple palm trees that are out of place in this desert but explains why this spot made for a good homestead.

From this trail you can drive south to Boquillas or north to the Chisos but either way there is adventure to be found in the Big Bend desert that you know a little bit more about now thanks to this short trail!

Thanks! – Josh

Camping: Rio Grande Village, Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande Village Campground is the largest campground in Big Bend National Park with 100 sites. It is located in the southeast part of the park and is close to Boquillas Canyon, the Boquillas border crossing, the hot springs district, and the Marufo Vega trail. In the busy months (winter) the campground fills quickly and most mornings are a scramble of waiting for someone to pack up and leave and then pouncing in their site before another camper can (also be sure to check if the site is reserved that night). 43 of the 100 sites are reservable and in the winter time that is the only way to be sure you will get a spot. In the summertime this desert campground rarely fills so you won’t need to worry about getting a spot (though you may prefer the Chisos Basin Campground in the summer because of the 115°F summer temps). My favorite part of this campground is the nature trail that leaves from the campground. The trail takes you to the top of a small hill that is perfect for looking at the stars! Mexico is no more than 100 feet away from this hill but you can’t tell it’s a different country. It just looks like the beautiful Big Bend desert with the Rio Grande peacefully flowing through!

This campground costs $14/ night and is a great option when visiting Big Bend!

Enjoying Topo Chico by the tent.

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Emory Peak Trail

Emory Peak is the tallest point in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park at 7,825 feet above sea level. The Chisos are a unique mountain range because they are completely contained within the borders of the national park. Even though the mountain is only half the size of its northern Rocky Mountain brothers, the views from the top are astounding.

The trailhead begins in the Chisos Basin, either by the camp store/visitor center or a little further down the hill in the overflow parking (if you are planning an overnight trip be sure to park in the overflow). The trail begins up a couple steep stretches with some loose footing before reaching the first set of backcountry campsites, Juniper Flat.

From here the trail goes flat through the Boulder Meadows area which houses the second set of backcountry sites. After passing Boulder Meadow 5, the trail gets steeper with more switchbacks as you pass the Pinnacles campsites. From Pinnacles the trail is steep and long with switchback after switchback and despite only being a mile will wear you out so be sure to stop and take in the view and enjoy some water.

Once you finish this section you will enter a flat area with Toll Mountain to the East and Emory Peak to the West. Here is the only restroom along the way (it’s literally a hole with a fence around it) and three large bear proof boxes to store your things in. This is a great place to sit down and have a snack before the next mile of the hike. At this point you have hiked about 4 miles and climbed about 1,500 feet.

The next mile is definitely the most difficult stretch with a third of the elevation gained in this mile. After the first long stretch the south side of the park’s views will open up and you will be able to see far into Mexico. The views on this trail start great and get better every time you look!

The last quarter mile is the steepest and has loose footing so be careful as you make your way up to the top of the mountain. The trail ends at the bottom of two large rock formations that make Emory Peak’s peak. The one with the antennae is the higher and true peak. At this point the trail turns into a short 25 foot up rock scramble that isn’t too difficult to traverse. The trick with this part isn’t having technical skill but having nerve because of the thousand foot drops on either side of you as the wind blows through the rocks. After you muster up the bravery to climb up though you are rewarded by views that are only impeded by the horizon.

After spending some time at the top, taking in the views, and munching on a granola bar, you gotta figure out how to get down! After you do that then it’s just a short 5 miles back to your car! The hike down goes by quickly and there are often deer along the trail (I am sure they are there on the way up but I always see them on the way down).

Once you reach the bottom walk right into the lodge restaurant and have a nice steak dinner after your long and difficult hike! The first time I hiked Emory peak it took about three hours but the National Park Service suggests allotting seven hours for the hike so it could possibly take all day so be sure to pack enough food and water for your hike!

Thanks! – Josh