Tucked away in the southwest corner of Texas, Big Bend National Park is remote, rugged, and wild. Following the curves of the meandering Rio Grande, the park is known for its isolated location, harsh desert environment, and the Chisos Mountains. If you are looking for a hike, the South Rim Trail is easily the best option in Big Bend. It offers stunning view of the expansive Chihuahuan Desert, and you can tack on a detour to the East Rim and Emory Peak, the tallest point in the Chisos Range. If you only have time for one activity in Big Bend, we would highly recommend the South Rim Trail!
- Overview | Big Bend South Rim Trail
- Details | Big Bend South Rim Trail hike
- Logistics | Planning your South Rim Trail Hike
- When in the best time to hike the South Rim?
- Where to stay before hiking the South Rim Trail
Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!
About Big Bend National Park
Covering 800,000 acres in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park is the 15th largest park in the United States. However, its remote location in far West Texas makes it one of the lesser-visited national parks, as it is several hours from any major (or even mid-sized) cities. That being said, visitation to Big Bend has been growing in recent years, with over half a million visitors in 2021, nearly double the 314,000 visitors to the park in 2014.
Big Bend is framed on the Southern border by the Rio Grande, which separates the United States from Mexico. In fact, the name Big Bend comes from the… big bend… in the Rio Grande River that gives Texas its oddly shaped southwestern border. Big Bend offers a huge variety of landscapes, from the pine trees of the Chisos Mountains to the cactus-covered lowlands of the Chihuahuan Desert.
About the South Rim Trail in Big Bend
The South Rim Trail is one of the most popular areas to hike in Big Bend National Park, offering incredible views looking down over the Chihuahuan Desert. A detour to Emory Peak, the tallest point in the Chisos Mountains, and the East Rim of the Chisos Mountains, can easily be tacked on for one epic Big Bend adventure.
South Rim Trail in Big Bend Overview
Hiking distance | 12.7 miles
Elevation gain | 2700 feet
Total time | 6 – 8 hours
Epic-ness rating | 7
Difficulty | Hard
Please note that the South Rim Trail Loop on AllTrails returns via Colima Canyon back down the Pinnacles Trail. We recommend returning via Laguna Meadows instead, as it only adds 0.2 miles to the hike and allows you to see an entirely different section of the trail (see map below for details).
Modifications to the hike
- South Rim Trail, returning via Laguna Meadows | 12.7 miles, 2700 feet elevation gain
- South Rim Trail + Emory Peak | 16 miles, 3200 feet elevation gain
- South Rim + East Rim | 13.8 miles, 3200 feet elevation gain
- South Rim + Emory Peak + East Rim*: 17.3 miles, 3700 feet elevation gain
* this is the hike we did – it was a beast as a day hike, but definitely worth it in our opinion!
- Beautiful views of the Chisos Mountains
- Easy to find solitude, despite being a popular trail
- Option to add on Emory Peak & East Rim
- Second half of the loop is somewhat boring
- Big Bend is remote and far from any major cities, making the trailhead (and the park) hard to get to
How difficult is the South Rim Trail in Big Bend?
The South Rim Trail hike is challenging, covering 12.7 miles and 2700 feet of elevation gain. While the trail is never too steep, the elevation gain is fairly consistent all the way to the South Rim. If you want to add on Emory Peak and/or the East Rim (which we highly recommend), the hike becomes challenging and difficult to complete as a day hike.
Since the best time to hike in Big Bend is during the winter, advance planning and time management is needed to ensure you complete the hike before dark due to limited hours of sunlight
Details | South Rim Trail in Big Bend
In the section below, we’ll detail each section of the South Rim Trail hike, including how to take detours to Emory Peak and the East Rim.
Big Bend South Rim Trail Map
The map below displays the main South Rim Trail Loop in orange, returning via the Laguna Meadows Trail, which is what we recommend. The optional detour to Emory Peak is shown in purple and the East Rim trail route option is displayed in blue. Nearby lodging options are starred in pink and the trailhead is starred in green.
Which direction should I hike the South Rim Trail Loop?
If you plan to tack on Emory Peak, we would recommend completing the loop in a clockwise direction. This allows you to get the most challenging part of the hike out of the way early on, rather than waiting until the end of the hike when you will already be tired. Starting with Emory Peak also helps you manage your time for the rest of the hike (for example, if you finish Emory Peak too late, you may decide to skip the East Rim section).
If you don’t plan to hike to Emory Peak, then the South Rim Trail loop can be completed either clockwise or counterclockwise – it doesn’t make a huge difference either way. The Pinnacles Trail is slightly more scenic, in our opinion, than the Laguna Meadows trail, so if you like to save the best for last, hike the loop counterclockwise.
We spent 6 days in Big Bend during early January. While we had planned to do the South Rim Trail as a one-night backpacking trip, we bailed at the last minute due to extreme winds and nighttime temperatures in the teens.
We were staying in an RV in Marathon, Texas, and had our cat, Fitzgerald, with us. We didn’t want to leave him freezing in the trailer, or leave the space heater on while we were way – if you know us, you know Fitzgerald’s needs always come before our own!
All of that is to say, once we decided not to backpack, we knew it would be tough to squeeze everything we had planned (South Rim, East Rim, and Emory Peak) into one day hike. Nonetheless, we decided to go all-in on this epic 17.3 mile day hike and we were so glad that we did!
Getting to the Big Bend South Rim trailhead
The South Rim Trail hike departs from the Chisos Basin Trailhead, located at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. The trailhead is about an hour and a half from Marathon, Texas, 1 hour from Santa Elena Canyon and 1 hour from Terlingua, Texas.
This is a popular area, with several trailheads sharing the same parking lot. Although the parking lot is good sized, it does fill up so we’d recommend getting an early start to avoid circling for a spot (particularly on holiday weekends).
Starting the hike
Once you are packed up and ready to start the hike, head to the trailhead on the south side of the parking lot, near the lodge. Continue on the trail for about a quarter-mile until you reach an intersection. This is where you’ll need to decide if you want to hike clockwise or counterclockwise. We hiked clockwise, so we will describe the rest of the trail accordingly.
The trail starts out with a gradual but consistent uphill climb, offering nice views of the rocky Pinnacles above and the Window View below. At 2 miles in, you will reach a series of steep switchbacks as the trail passes behind the massive pinnacles. Continue until you reach another intersection, about 3.5 miles in.
At this point, you have arrived at the Pinnacles Pass and the junction for the South Rim Trail and Emory Peak. If you plan to tack on Emory Peak, turn right, following signs for Emory Peak. Otherwise, continue on the Pinnacles trail towards the Boot Canyon trail.
Detour to Emory Peak
Emory Peak is the tallest point in the Chisos Mountains, rising to an elevation of 7,825 feet. The summit offers spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding Chisos Mountains, and is perhaps the best view in Big Bend!
The trail to Emory Peak is a 1.75 mile (3.5 mile roundtrip) detour from the main trail to the South Rim. The last 50 to 100 feet or so to the summit is a steep rock scramble, meaning you will be moving at a slower pace so bake in extra time compared to your typical pace. It took us roughly 20 minutes to climb up this section and maybe 10 minutes to get back down.
We were mentally unprepared for the challenging final push to the summit as it had somehow escaped our planning!
Hike Tip | Beware that the final climb to Emory Peak is a very steep, exposed rock scramble that may be difficult for those with a fear of heights. Use caution and your best judgment based on your own experience level in deciding whether to proceed.
Detour to East Rim
Back on the Pinnacles Trail, either after completing Emory Peak or after passing the intersection, continue for another mile along a flat to gently downhill trail until you reach another intersection (you will pass an intersection for the Colima Trail and Boot Canyon along the way). Here, the trail to the left leads to the East Rim, while the trail to the right bypasses the East Rim and leads directly to the South Rim. If you want to add on the East Rim, turn left, otherwise continue to the right.
The East Rim in Big Bend is typically overlooked in favor of the more popular South Rim Trail. And while the South Rim is undeniably awesome, we think the East Rim deserves a little more attention! The views from the East Rim were some of our favorites from the entire hike and definitely worth the detour.
The South Rim
Now on to the main event: the Big Bend South Rim! By the time you arrive at the South Rim, you will have hiked somewhere between 6 and 10 miles (depending on which detours you take). Your legs are burning, you’re exhausted, and perhaps a bit wind burnt, but once you arrive at the South Rim, you’ll finally reap the reward of your efforts! Peering down over the ripples of brown mountains and canyons in the distance makes the tough hike worthwhile.
The trail leads right along the edge of the South Rim for about 2 miles, offering unimpeded views the entire way.
After leaving the South Rim, the trail enters Laguna Meadows, a section that is mainly forested with a few views here and there. There is a good chance to see wildlife in this area (we saw a couple deer), but the best views of the hike are behind you at this point. Keep pushing on until you arrive back at the Chisos Basin trailhead.
By this part of the hike, there wasn’t much to see, we were exhausted and ready to be back at the car!
Logistics | Planning your trip to Big Bend
In this section, we’ll help you plan all the details for your trip to Big Bend, from when to visit to where to stay and what to pack.
When is the best time of year to hike the South Rim Trail?
Peak season in Big Bend National Park is during the winter, late fall and early spring, from October through April. Winter is the best time to hike the South Rim Trail because temperatures in Big Bend during the summer can be brutally hot. While you may experience some very cold mornings during the winter, the daytime temperatures typically fall in the 50’s and 60’s making it perfect for hiking.
Spring and fall can also be good times to visit the park, but very hot days are still possible.
Although the park is relatively uncrowded compared to other US National Parks, note that holiday weekends in the winter (Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving) are particularly busy times in Big Bend.
Where to stay before hiking the South Rim Trail
There is a campground and several lodging options right at the Chisos Basin trailhead. These make the most convenient options for getting an early start on the hike. The alternative is staying outside the park, which will put you at least an hour away from the trailhead.
Chisos Mountain Lodge
The most convenient lodging option for hiking the South Rim trail is the Chisos Mountain Lodge, located right at the trailhead with nightly rates starting around $200 for a room and $250 for a small cottage. Reservations can be made here.
Chisos Basin campground
Chisos Basin Campground is located less than half a mile from the trailhead for the South Rim Trail. In fact, there is a 0.3 mile trail that connects the campground to the trailhead, meaning you could start the hike directly from the campground and wouldn’t have to worry about finding parking.
Two thirds of campsites are reservable 6 months in advance and the remaining third are released two weeks in advance. Spots at the Chisos Basin campground are in high demand and book up quickly, so be sure to plan ahead if you want to camp here. Campsites are $16 per night and reservations must be made in advance online at recreation.gov.
Hotels and lodging outside the park
Although staying in Chisos Basin is the most convenient option, that convenience comes with a price tag. If you choose not to stay in the Chisos Basin area, there are a few towns outside the park that have hotel and lodging options:
- Terlingua, TX: 50 minutes from the Chisos Basin Trailhead (closest option, lodging is limited and pricey)
- Marathon, TX: 1 hour 30 minutes from the Chisos Basin Trailhead (farther than Terlingua but prices tend to be slightly lower, P.S. we highly recommend glamping at the Starlight Lounge).
- Alpine, TX: 2 hours from Chisos Basin trailhead (longer drive, but more lodging options available)
Other campgrounds in Big Bend
If you want to camp and aren’t able to secure a spot at Chisos Basin, there are 2 other campgrounds in the park:
- Rio Grande Campground: located on the eastern side of the park near Boquillas Canyon, 45 minutes from the South Rim trailhead
- Cottonwood Campground: located on the southwestern side of the park near Santa Elena Canyon, 1 hour from the South Rim trailhead
Backpacking the South Rim Trail in Big Bend
If you would prefer to take your time and wake up to a sunrise from the Chisos Mountains, there are ample backcountry camping sites along the South Rim Trail Loop.
There are 4 sites directly on the South Rim section of the trail, and 9 sites on the East Rim, which you can see on the trail map above. These sites offer the easiest access to the most scenic views along the hike, but if you aren’t able to secure one of these coveted spots, there are plenty of other sites along the Pinnacles Trail, Laguna Meadows, Colima Trail and Boot Canyon.
Reservations for backcountry sites in Chisos Basin can be made 6 months in advance of your trip start date on recreation.gov. You can read more information about backpacking in Big Bend on the NPS website.
What to pack for hiking the South Rim Trail
Before you begin your Big Bend South Rim Trail hike, make sure you are prepared with the following essentials:
- National Parks Pass | gives you access to all U.S. National Parks for one year.
- Hiking poles (Hers: Black Diamond Distance Z poles, His: Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles ) | We were late adopters of hiking poles, but every since we got our first pairs of Black Diamonds, we can’t imagine hiking without them! For a steep hike like this, they make the uphills so much easier!
- Backpack with bladder (Hers: CamelBak Helena 20L, His: Camelback Rim Runner 22L) | We both love our Camelbak day backs – comfortable, lightweight and just big enough to hold the essentials and a 2 to 3 liter water bladder!
- Hiking boots (Hers: Danner Mountain 600s, His: Salomon Ultra 4 Mid GTX) | Your feet will thank you after a long day hike if you invest in a good pair of hiking boots. For hiking to Emory Peak, boots with good traction are essential for the final scramble to the summit.
- GPS Device (Garmin InReach Mini) | The South Rim Trail is well marked and pretty easy to follow. However, there is no service for most of the hike so carrying a GPS Device brings some peace of mind in case of an emergency.
- Headlamp | For a long hike like the South Rim Trail (especially if you plan to add Emory Peak and the East Rim), it’s a good idea to pack a headlamp just in case you aren’t able to make it back before dark.
- Plenty of water | There are no water sources along the trail so be sure to pack as much as you will need for the entirety of this long hike – 3 liters is recommended.
- Sunglasses (Goodr) | For hiking in the desert sun, we love our Goodr sunglasses that cheap and non-slip!
Layers are key for hiking in Big Bend, especially during the winter. If hiking in the winter, mornings can be very cold and heavy winds make freezing temperatures feel even colder! Nonetheless, afternoons can feel quite warm hiking under the desert sun. Below are some of our favorite layers for hiking:
- Rain jacket or windbreaker | Winds on the South Rim trail can be brutal! A rain jacket or windbreaker go along way to cut the winds and keep you warm.
- Hiking pants (Hers: Athleta Headlands pants, His: PrAna Stretch Zion Pants) | These Athleta pants are Sarah’s absolute favorite! They’re comfortable and durable for hiking, and all the pockets make them more stylish, so they can double as normal pants. Matt swears by his Prana Stretch Zion pants – super stretchy and comfy!
- Pullovers (Hers: Smartwool Merino Quarter Zip, His: Smartwool Merino Quarter Zip) | These Smartwool quarter zips are so warm and comfortable – perfect to keep you comfortable on a chilly morning on the trail.
- Long sleeve base layers (Hers: Smartwool All Season Baselayer) | Hiking in Big Bend is one of those places where you can’t quite decide if you are hot or cold. Having several layers allows you to find the perfect temperature!
- Down Jacket (Hers: Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody Women’s Down Hoodie, His: Cotopaxi Fuego) | A few miles in and you’ll likely be stripping off your outer layer, but when you sit down at the peak it is cold! Carrying a down jacket is worthwhile to be able to comfortably enjoy the summit
- Gloves and hats | Essentials for staying warm on freezing winter mornings in Big Bend!
P.S. If you plan to backpack the South Rim Trail, you can find a complete list of our favorite backpacking gear essentials here.
Other useful resources
Planning a road trip through Texas? You may also be interested in the following:
- White Sands | How to Catch an Epic Sunset in White Sands National Park
- Guadalupe Mountains | How to Hike Guadalupe Peak, the Tallest Point in Texas
Have you Been to Big Bend yet? Questions about hiking the Big Bend South Rim Trail? Let us know in the comments below!