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Hiking the Mariscal Rim Trail: A Return to Big Bend


Steve Ancik

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Last fall, my sister, Melissa, and I visited Big Bend National Park in west Texas (see TrailGroove #56). As we left, we decided that we needed to return in the spring – unfinished business! One of the main reasons was to hike the Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail, which we didn’t hike last trip as the temperature was going to be too high.

Hiking in Big Bend National Park - Mariscal Canyon

While our previous trip (detailed here) involved more extensive hiking and some backpacking, during our latest trip, we hiked several shorter hikes and drove, in her 4Runner, nearly every dirt backcountry road in the park, seeing the place as few visitors do. The highlight for us was the hike to the rim of Mariscal Canyon.

Hiking Mariscal Rim in Big Bend

There are three great canyons in Big Bend National Park. Farthest west is Santa Elena Canyon, and farthest east is Boquillas Canyon. Both of these canyons are accessible on paved roads that lead to relatively short hikes (about a mile each, one way). Along the middle of the southern edge of the park, forming the “big bend” is Mariscal Canyon. Mariscal is visited by far fewer hikers because to get to the trailhead you must have a high clearance (preferably 4WD) vehicle. It is about 30 miles from paved roads to the trailhead via River Road and Talley Road.

We arrived at backcountry campsite Talley #3 before dinner. The campsite is on the edge of the Rio Grande and has some shade from low trees. After dinner that night, we heard rustling and crunching in the woods. We weren’t sure what it was (Bear? Horse? Cow? Bigfoot?). It was just a cow. We heard some frogs during the evening and night (maybe Rio Grande leopard frogs) and watched and tried to identify the bats flying overhead. We didn’t have a lot of luck with identification, since they were out at dusk, and they all look similar when flying (at least to us).

Hiking in Mariscal Canyon with Sotol on the Edge

We had a quiet night; there wasn’t anybody around, and it was fairly warm. In the morning, we got up around 6:30, had a quick breakfast, and broke camp. We drove the short distance to the parking area for the Mariscal Rim Trail, parked, and began our hike by 7:30, intent on beating the heat of the day (highs were predicted to be in the low 90s). Most of the first couple miles of the hike was fairly easy, flat with some minor ups and downs. Because of our early start, the trail was shaded by Mariscal Mountain to our east. The next part of the hike turns steeper as it approaches the mountain. For about a half mile, it is quite steep in places as it zig-zags higher and higher. Without cairns it would be very difficult to follow. Trekking poles helped too!

Hiking Big Bend National Park

Along the hike, we spotted a hard-to-find living rock cactus and also found what we decided (and later confirmed) was the rare silverspine cholla, which is found nowhere else in the world except on and around Mariscal Mountain. There weren’t any cacti in bloom this trip (too early in the year), but we did spot a dog cholla which was full of buds, nearly ready to bloom (but didn’t reward us with the bloom on the way down). Once we arrived at the top, the canyon was just off to the south. At this point it is about 1,600 feet to the river below, and those cliffs are a sheer drop! We eased our way over to near the edge for photos. While up there, Melissa spotted some sheep in the distance which we thought were rare desert bighorn sheep but as it turned out, they were Barbary sheep (which are apparently invasive and are taking over the bighorn territory).

Another Big Bend Trip in the Books

Hiking back down the steep section was a bit treacherous at times, but we both made it with only a couple of minor slips. We got back to the car at noon, beating the worst of the heat. The hike was seven miles round-trip, with about 1,220 feet of elevation change. It took us 4.5 hours to complete the hike, with numerous photo stops and a long break up top. After we had some lunch, we drove back to River Road and continued to its east end at the paved highway.

Rio Grande River in Big Bend

A sheer drop to the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park.

With over 1,200 square miles, over 150 miles of trails, and environments ranging from desert to grassland to mountains, Big Bend National Park is a spectacular place to spend a day, a week, a month, or return to repeatedly. Hikes ranging from short and easy to multi-day and difficult await a hiker or backpacker in this, one of America’s great national parks.

Need to Know

Information

Four developed campgrounds exist in Big Bend, with reservations required for each campground. More information on camping can be found here. The park has 5 visitor centers and no permits are needed for hiking in Big Bend, but permits are needed for backcountry camping. It is critical that you take enough water on any backcountry excursion in the park – plan ahead. A gallon per person per day is generally suggested.

Getting There

Big Bend National Park is remote – 8 hours from Dallas and 5 hours from El Paso with the closest airports being Midland/Odessa and El Paso. To get to the Mariscal Rim trailhead, drive on River Road (over 25 miles from either end, a high-clearance vehicle – 4WD preferable – is needed) to Talley Road, then south about 5 miles to a parking area on the left. When we were there, no sign was at the trailhead, but it's a large parking area just past Talley #2 campsite. No permit is required.

Best Time to Go

Peak season is November through April with spring break being especially busy. Summer can be brutally hot and it can be quite hot in late spring and early fall as well. Campground reservations are required but can be made up to 6 months in advance.

Maps and Books

For a map we utilized Trails Illustrated Big Bend National Park 225. Take a look at Hiking Big Bend National Park for a guidebook and Nature Watch Big Bend is also a valuable resource.

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  • Premium Member
Steve Ancik

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Here are a couple of additional photos . The bizarre Living rock cactus (dormant) and the rare Mariscal silverspine cactus.

LIVING rOCK cACTUS.JPG

The rare Silverspine Cholla.JPG

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