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

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

Picture of the Day: San Antonio

San Antonio is a beautiful town. The Riverwalk is fabulous and the old Spanish history and architecture is just fascinating. One of my favorite places to visit. rk

The Alamo

View at the Riverwalk

Cathedral of San Fernando

Camping: Lake McClellan Campground

The Lake McClellan Campground is located in the McClellan Creek National Grassland in the Texas panhandle. It is about 62 miles east of Amarillo on I-40 and 54 miles west of the Oklahoma-Texas border.

Camping costs $10 for a site ($15 for RV hook ups) and has very dirty restrooms with running water and showers. Most people use the National Grassland for OHV riding and fishing in the Lake McClellan reservoir. The campground is located about 20 minutes of off I-40 which makes it very convenient for a quick but cheap place to stay while road tripping. My favorite thing about this campground when I visited wasn’t really the campground itself but the surroundings. More specifically the hundreds of wind turbines that fill the plains for miles around. At night time the wind turbines synchronously flash a red light at the top a couple times a minute. This makes for a somewhat eerie appearance when the pitch black night is suddenly filled with hundreds of red dots for just a second.

Anyways this campground is the perfect place to stay on a road trip without straying from the interstate too much or spending too much money at a hotel or KOA campground in town. I don’t think it is worth a visit solely for the McClellan Creek area (unless you are really into OHVs) but it makes for a great and quick stop along the way to your adventures!

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Lighthouse Trail

For the longest time I have heard of Palo Duro Canyon and about how awesome it is. Sitting just south of Amarillo and I-40 I have driven right by it many times but never stopped to check it out. So on a recent trip out west I made sure to see the United States’ second largest canyon. After reading up on on Palo Duro Canyon (AKA looking at a map on the state park website) I decided to hike to the lighthouse rock as the one hike I wanted to do there.

The trail begins from a dirt parking lot on the canyon floor and begins with a sign warning of the danger of heat exhaustion in the desert.

I wasn’t too worried though because I had plenty of water and it was a cold, overcast, and windy March morning. We started off on the red dirt trail with excitement as this was our first hike after driving 16 hours the day before from Atlanta, Georgia.

The first point of interest along the trail is a hoodoo poking up from the end of a small but steep peak. There is a very weathered sign here that talks about the formation of hoodoos.

The trail travels around the peak and through a couple washes. There are a few benches to rest on scattered across the trail. After following the trail for a little longer we got our first glimpse of the lighthouse rock, a massive hoodoo resembling a lighthouse.

We passed a split in the trail for mountain bikers and after this split the trail turned from hard red dirt to soft sand.

We reached a small area with some picnic tables and a million bikers (well like 10) and saw the trail sharply cut left and steeply upwards towards the lighthouse. We waited as a large group of people made their way down the narrow trail before we began our ascent. This part of the trail has very loose footing so we took our time making it up.

Once we got to the top though we looked up at the massive lighthouse rock and I felt a little surprised having not realized how large it was until being so close.

From here we climbed up on the flat rock area between the lighthouse rock and it’s counterpart rock. We also climbed over to the other side where the best views of the lighthouse are and took a bunch of pictures.

You can climb up to the top of the unnamed rock next to lighthouse rock but we decided not to because it seemed a little too sketchy. After enjoying a good 45 minutes with the lighthouse we started our trek back through the desert. It began to heat up and the blue sky finally came out from behind the gray clouds that had filled the sky until now.

We reached the trailhead that had filled up with cars and made lunch before heading towards New Mexico!

Thanks! – Josh

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