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A Run-cation in Big Bend National Park

Updated: May 21, 2023

A four part series on my recent trail running trip to Big Bend National Park.


Y'all I absolutely love trail running. In fact, trail running is what got me into distance running in the first place. Trail running is so freeing and exhilarating and in recent year's I've been traveling to national/state parks solely to trail run. Hiking is fun and I will always be down for a good hike, but it's been getting to the point where it's just not scratching the adventurous itch I have anymore. So last month my bestie and I decided it was time to get out to Big Bend for our first true run-cation.

We left at 5:30a on Friday April, 7th making our way out west through Fredericksburg. We stopping briefly in Junction to get a coffee (decaf for me) at a cute little coffee truck called The Honey Bean. We like this stop because it's about 3 hours down the road and a good place to get out and stretch the legs. We pressed on stopping just one other time in Ft. Stockton, the last major city before reaching the park, to get gas and a snack.

The drive to the edge of the national park is about 7 hours, but Big Bend is one of the largest national parks in the country, so once you're in the park it can take another several hours to arrive at your camp site. Because of that fact, instead of driving straight to our campsite in the backcountry along River Road East we decided to head straight to the Hot Springs Canyon Trail for the first run of the trip. We had a singular goal of getting 20 miles in from Friday to Sunday so there was no time to waste.

Map of Big Bend National Park. Dashed roads are backcountry. Red circles are the areas that are mentioned below.

The Hot Springs Canyon Trail was one of my favorite trails to run while we were there. This 6 mile out and back trail is easy to navigate, has a relatively moderate terrain, great views of the river and some technically fun rocky spots to run. In part 2 of this 4 part series I take a deep dive into the trail. You can read Part 2 Here and if you want to watch a video recap of the trail visit my Instagram

Naturally, we had to hit the hot spring post run. We took a quick pitstop at the car to grab a snack, water and our towels before walking back down the trail a ways to the spring.

I love going to Big Bend in April specifically. It's my favorite time to go because the weather is absolutely perfect and there is so much color! All the cactus flowers are in bloom and everything is green. The first day we were in the park the temperature was 65 degrees and sunny. Perfect hot spring weather. If you go much later in the spring it begins to get really hot during the day and sitting in the hot spring is more like being in a wet outdoor sauna. But that day it felt amazing to rinse the run off in the warm spring water.

Ever the trainer, I thought it would be a good idea to do a contrast bath for recovery since Saturday we were going to tackle 2 separate trails. Tracking on my Garmin Forerunner, I sat in the hot spring for 10 minutes, then the cold Rio Grand for another 10 minutes to go back once more in the hot spring for another 10, before finally getting out and stretching at the Jeep while drying off in the sunshine.

When going on a run-cation like this one, it's massively important to keep recovery in mind. The last thing I wanted was to wake up on any given day and be too sore, or fatigued to run. We kept a 5 gallon jug of water, electrolytes and antioxidant heavy snacks (fresh fruit and veggies) in the car with us at all times. I also made sure to bring a massage gun with us so that we could spend the evening massaging out any sore muscles that may cause issues for the next day. This came in really handy that first night because after sitting in the car for 8+ hours, then getting out to run 6 miles caused our backs to be in quite a bit of pain.

We set up camp at Gravel Pit 2 that night, which is located not far from the springs; a little ways down River Road East in the backcountry. Now despite what you might think the 3 Gravel Pit camp sites are really nice. They're located right on the river and, unlike some of the other spots also right on the river, you can actually access the water. There is even a small bit of shade down by the water. It's a great spot to be if you want to cool off after a long day of hiking.

Something that is important to remember is that Big Bend is very much a desert. Shade is extremely limited and can almost only be found up in the Chisos Basin where there are trees. But my God, this park is so magical. The remoteness and the rolling hills of this mountainous desert are colorfully breathtaking. It's hard to be in a "bad spot" for star gazing in Big Bend, but I'll say that Gravel Pit 2 (specifically this site) is one to consider if you want to view the stars.

The next morning we went in search of some new trails to tackle. The original plan was to drive the length of River Road over to the west side of the park and run the 6.5 out and back Mariscal Canyon Trail, then make our way over to our next camp site at Loop Camp. However, as we started down the road I noticed that we only had half a tank of gas left. Typically, you would think that would be plenty to get you around for the day, but Big Bend is BIG. That's going to be the general theme of this post. Big Bend is bigger than you think. I was concerned about making it to the one gas station in the park before running out. Instead of driving the length of River Road to the trail head we decided to save the hike for Sunday and cut up Glenn Springs Road to hit the Pine Canyon (4 miles) and Lost Mine (5.5) trails instead.

To give you some perspective, we left Gravel Pit around 9:30a and arrived at the Pine Canyon trailhead sometime around 1:20p. Now granted, we did stop several times to explore the occasional abandoned ranch or take sick desert pictures on the top of my Jeep, which added a few hours to the trip.

When we got to the trailhead we ate some fruit, filled our hydration packs and did a quick warm up then took off up the trail. This was a fun trail because you're running straight up into the mountain. No turns whatsoever. There is a 1,000 foot elevation gain that provides some cool views on the way back down. At the end of the trail you come up to a cool shaded canyon water run off. If you go in the spring or fall there will likely be water raining from the canyon wall. Naturally, I scrambled up some rocks to let the water cool me down. It took us just under and hour and a half to run out and back and rest for a bit in the shade of the canyon wall.

From there we were back in the Jeep and heading over to one of the most popular trails in the entire park. The Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Basin. But first we needed to stop to get gas. When driving around the backcountry of the park I highly recommend stopping to get gas every time you pass the station if you don't have a spare tank with you, because there is only one.

With the gas station pit stop it took us about an hour to drive from the Pine Canyon Trail over to the Lost Mine Trail. Planning to do these two hikes together is solid because you have enough time to rehydrate, eat a light snack and you're not sitting in the car for a long time between hikes. Which can be an issue when trying to hit some of the more popular trails inside the park. Again, Big Bend is big.

The last 1/4 mile of Lost Mine trail is a ridge line. Spend some time exploring all the views!

At the parking lot for Lost Mine we did a quick shake out, refiled our hydration packs and headed out on the 5.5 mile out and back 1,300 foot climb. I've done this trail twice now and it is always incredible no matter what time of day you go, but if you have the opportunity to hike the trail at golden hour you have to take it. The way the sun plays upon the surrounding peaks is a sight to behold. It's the rare time of day where there is a lot of shade when you reach the top and yet somehow there is an inspiring amount of it.

When we got back to the car we needed to head to our next camp site. We drove up and out of the Chisos basin and headed over to Castolon where we would pick up River Road West to get to our campsite at Loop Camp. It took us 3.5 hours to get from the Lost Mine trailhead to our campsite. We set up camp and made dinner by headlamp. I've been to Big Bend 5 times now and I can honestly say that this is one of the best places I've been able to stargaze. That night I've never seen a more incredible moon. Watching a full moon rise out there in the darkness of the desolate Chihuahuan Desert is hand down the most striking thing I've ever witnessed. It's more wondrous than any of the sun sets or rises I've ever seen. Go to Loop Camp for a full moon and stay up as late as you need to see it rising. You won't regret it.

This is what I love so much about being out in the wildnerness; out on the trail. You never know what mother nature is going to dazzle you with.

We were determined to see the Mariscal Canyon. So the next morning we got up with the sun ate a bar and piece of fruit for breakfast then jumped in the jeep to drive deeper into the backcountry. The night before we were so beat from running 9.5 miles and 2,300 feet of elevation that we didn't recover as well as we had the previous day. Our bodies were feeling the miles.

With another 1,200 feet of elevation and the longest most strenuous trail ahead of us we switched into our hiking boots and decided to hike up the trail and jog/walk down. I'm so glad we did, because this was the first hot day of the trip and my ankles were really feeling it. It was 85 degrees and hardly a wisp of cloud in the sky. The desert floor was hot and blindingly bright. This trail is closed starting mid April through the summer, because the Peregrine Falcons use the Mariscal Canyon walls as a nesting ground during the summer. I also think that it's for safety reasons. There is absolutely no shade and it was a scorching hike.

Despite the sun and the heat that day it was completely worth it. I've never stood on the top of a canyon like that. My heart pound in my chest like a steady drum of adrenaline on that cliffside. I live for that feeling. It keeps me searching for the next trail. I could have sat up there watching the falcons soar all day long. I have so much more to say about the trail, so make sure to read the next few posts where I discuss the intricacies of each trail we ran!

There is another campsite right by the Mariscal Canyon trail head, Talley, which has fantastic water access and even shade! We parked the Jeep under a tree near the water and rinsed the sweat from our sunburned skin, while we enjoyed an ice cold Olipop in the cool river. It was the perfect crescendo to wind down the trip.

The next morning we got up before the sun. Feeling that good kind of fatigue, we packed up camp and started the long trek back to Austin. In total we went 22 miles from Friday to Sunday and every mile of it was an adventure.

I have a deep need to be out in the wilderness regularly. If I'm not able to experience nature at it's fullest I am not able to feel full or free. It's one of the reasons I have such a love of trail running. Trail running brings together the two things in this world that make me feel the most free. The most empowered. The most... me.

To everyone who's made it this far, I know you share a similar desire and I hope that I've been able to inspire you in some way to seek it out more; whether that's on the trails near your home or way out west in the vast mountainous desert of Big Bend National Park. Check out the stories to come about each of the trails that we ran, and take a minute to tell me in the comments about your own adventures on the trail.

I would love to hear your trail stories.

-Coach Sonya

P.S. To watch a video recap of the trip Visit My Instagram

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