Big Bend National Park – South Rim Loop – Day Hike

Ok, so I had plans of doing the Outer Mountain Loop (I still have plans, and would have probably done it already before I publish this post.) and wanted to do a day hike as a kind of get to know the park visit.

I live in Austin and having moved from Phoenix area, which had an abundant number of hikes from nearby ranges to Flagstaff, Mt.Lemmon and even the Grand Canyon not too far away, Austin in comparison is a little light on (good/challenging) hiking spots. There are plenty of trails, don’t get me wrong – but most offer a relatively flat terrain. The hardest hike in the Austin area seems to be the ‘Nature Trail’ hike, and that isn’t even challenging enough where I have to carry a cereal bar with me. (I am not dumb, and do carry water though.)

So, I was researching hikes close to Austin, and Big Bend seems to be the go to winter spot for decent hikes in Texas. I was looking for a fairly challenging hike, and looks like the Outer Mountain Loop is a pretty good hike. Of course, to do this, you’d have to backpack, because I don’t think doing 30 miles in a day is advisable. (although, I am wondering if it can be managed if you were prepared to start real early, and hike after sunset. It will also be worth looking at a 2 day itinerary of the OML instead of the more common 3 day.) Anyway, more on the OML later – this is supposed to be a post on the South Rim Loop.

I wanted to do a day hike of the 14-16 mile loop to get a sense of the area. Bid Bend is a 6.5 hour drive from Austin unfortunately, and you have to be a little crazy to want to drive as far to do a day hike, but hey that’s what not doing good hikes for a year does to you! (Considering I have driven from Austin to SFO and back earlier, this is hardly that crazy.) I read a couple of posts on people who have done it in a day in roughly 10 hours. (maybe at an easy pace ?) There isn’t a whole lot of elevation – 2000+ ft I think.


I found some good posts on the hike and am including references to them,

  1. Looks like these guys backpacked – and camped backcountry.

2. Nice General Info

3. Backpacker Article

I bought the ebook by Laurence Parent to get some information on the park. The book is fairly informative – but you can probably get most of the information online if you are ok reading multiple articles, and taking notes. I did get a nice map of the whole loop and managed to put the info about all 3 hikes (the south rim hikes) into a single page, and print it out for reference. Of course, I had a topo map from NatGeo to take along as well.


The plan was to leave Austin around 4-5pm on a Friday, reach Big Bend at night around 11pm. Initially I was looking at lodging options both inside and outside the Park. There is a Chisos Lodge inside, and a motel right outside (~30 miles ?) the park. But considering me and a (possibly) a couple of friends are going to be backpacking in the same place, I thought might be a good idea to camp instead. i.e., not carry a heavy backpack, and carry only a light day pack, but you know, have the tent and stuff in the car instead.

So the plan evolved to staying in one of the camp sites in the Chisos Basin. (With a little luck, there will be no crowd – else I’ll probably have to sleep in the car.) I tried finding out from the NPS website on how to book these camp sites, but looks like you can only book them within a certain date range. (And that does not encompass my planned dates.) So, after waiting on the line for about 20 mins of listening to recorded messages, I got on line with someone in the park, and told them that I would be arriving after Park hours, and would need to camp. I wondered how I would pay, and if it is ok to pay the day after. He said, there would be self-registration forms near the camp site that I would have to fill, and it would be ok to pay the day after. That was a good piece of information that they could have had on their website, but the website is pretty informative otherwise, so not a lot to complain about.

I’ll probably carry an e-book reader just so I don’t get bored at night on Saturday. I’ll probably stay there on Saturday night as well, considering I might finish the hike late, and then drive out on Sunday morning.

My planned route:

0. Start From Basin trailhead, take the left fork towards South Rim (Pinnacles Trail)

  1. Most likely do the detour to Emory peak and back on the Pinnacles trail. (I don’t think I can do the toll mountain as well unfortunately. Might be overambitious)
  2. Continue on Boot Canyon trail. This would be 5.3 miles. (not including the Emory Peak Detour) At the intersection of Boot Canyon and Northeast rim, decide on whether or not I want to do the Northeast Rim + Southeast Rim detour depending on what time of the day it is, and based on how much I have hiked, and how I am feeling generally. This will add 3.3 miles to the loop (but will remove about 0.7 miles from the main loop.)
  3. South Rim might be a good place to take a lunch break. Start From South Rim, take the Laguna Meadow Trail, pass Colima trail junction, Blue Creek Trail junction and keep going till the Basin trailhead. This is another 6.3 miles.

So in total, not including Emory peak, it would be 15 miles. (Including it might be 18+ miles) I think that sounds like a good day hike. πŸ™‚ There is at least 2000 ft of elevation gain. So while this is no Half Dome hike, I think it comes close in terms of distance and 1/2 the elevation. I guess if you included Toll Mountain, it might be an equivalent-ish hike.

Packing List:

I have to divide this into two lists,

  1. The stuff I will carry on the day hike – which will be in my day pack
    I ended up carrying the following: Day pack, First-Aid kit, Point & Shoot Camera, Torch, Headlight, Cliff Bars * 2, Bagel * 1, Half a Subway Sub :), 2 bottles of water mixed in electrolyte mix (Polar 32 oz bottles), 3l platypus hydration pack, small umbrella, portable battery charger, small foldable knife, an extra phone (to track metrics in case the one phone conked out). The ~5l of water was heavy! and with the daypack not having any stays, it was heavy even with the sternum and waist straps adjusted right.
  2. The stuff I will carry in my backpack (which will just remain in the boot of the car.) – This will include my tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag …etc. I am a little undecided on food – and am thinking I’ll just try and eat meals in the lodge if that is possible. But I might also just take my stove along in case I want to cook something quickly. (Hey, the whole camping experience and stuff, right ?) I don’t think I’m going to be conservative in packing at all – I don’t need to lug this stuff around – so I’ll be going for max comfort, over minimum weight.)


I started from Austin at 4:00 pm on Friday, and was stuck in a bit of traffic before hitting I-10. I made it through most of I-10 and to Fort Stockton by a little after sunset. Stopped to refuel at Fort Stockton at around 9pm, ate half a subway sandwich, and started back to the park. The 385 highway stretch was quite desolate, and there were many animals crossing the road – enough to scare you. I reached Big Bend a little before mid-night, but the drive inside towards the Chisos Basin campground was slow, and took me roughly till midnight to get there to find there were no camp-sites available. (Actually, this is partly my fault – I had no plan B in case no camp-sites were available.) After contemplating if I should just sleep in the car in the parking lot (which is probably not allowed.), I decided to go to the Rio Grande Village campground, which was at least 20 miles away, and would take a further 40 minutes +. I reached the campground after 1am, and immediately pitched the tent and went to sleep. It got a little cold at night when I had to get into the sleeping bag πŸ™‚ , but readings taken at night and morning were 23 C and 21 C – definitely not bad weather to sleep outside. There were some animal howls at night, and people walking on gravel, but I mostly slept well.

On Saturday, I woke up at around 7am. There was thankfully a toilet at the RGV campground. I quickly packed up my tent afterwards, and left for the Chisos Visitor center, where I paid the park fees, and was in a hurry to get started on the hike. Had a bagel which I had packed in the day before, but no coffee before the hike. I basically changed into my hiking clothes near my car right near the trailhead. πŸ™‚ and set out to hike at 9am.

I reached the top of Emory-Peak by 12, and had my half a sub worth of lunch there. Afterwards, I headed out on the South Rim trail, and took another break at the South Rim. The views are simply remarkable from this point. I skipped the Northeast Rim loop, since I wanted to finish the hike by 5pm, and adding another 3 miles would have added at least an hour to my time.

I ended up finishing the hike at exactly 5pm near the Chisos trailhead. The original plan was to camp there on Saturday night as well, but I wasn’t feeling all that tired, and decided to just drive back home. πŸ™‚

I spotted a couple of white tailed deers along the trail, and one Scorpion towards the end of the trail.


Here’s the full hike (South Rim loop + Emory peak side hike.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 3.17.15 PM

Here’s Emory Peak Side hike split on it’s own

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 3.17.05 PM

Here’s the South Rim hike minus the Emory Peak side hike

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 3.16.55 PM


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