The Hot Springs Canyon Trail is a moderately challenging 5.6-mile hike along the Rio Grande River in eastern Big Bend National Park.
The day after Kel and I hiked the Santa Elena Canyon Trail at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, we turned our attention to Big Bend’s hot springs.
At one of the Big Bend’s visitor centers, we’d been told that heavy rains the previous week had washed out Hot Springs Road.
There’s a small parking lot at the end of that access road. From there, it’s a short 0.5-mile roundtrip hike on Hot Springs Historic Trail to reach the Langford Hot Springs.
Despite the road closure, we went to check it out anyway, knowing there’s a longer, alternative route via the east on the Hot Springs Canyon Trail.
We’d spent the morning exploring the Chisos Basin and some scenic viewpoints along the way, so it was about 12:30 p.m. when we reached the turnoff for Hot Springs Road.
The road was indeed blocked off. However, a few cars were parked at the intersection; people were hiking down the road.
Checking Google Maps on my phone, I did a quick calculation and determined with the extra walking on the access road, it wasn’t that much shorter than taking Hot Springs Canyon Trail.
Hot Springs Canyon Trail
We continued driving east and stopped at the Rio Grande Village Store, where we chatted with the saleswoman inside about the hike. She said it’s certainly the more scenic option.
By the time we reached the parking lot at Daniel’s Ranch near the trailhead for Hot Springs Canyon Trail, it was about 1 p.m.
I was concerned we’d be doing a 5.5-mile hike without any shade at the hottest time of day.
I had a 20-ounce water bottle, but I’d brought my small Patagonia backpack, which didn’t have space for much more than my bottle, bathing suit, and towel. Kel’s water bottle was smaller than mine.
She’d been excited to visit the hot springs since we began talking about a road trip to Marfa and Big Bend National Park, and I didn’t want to be the one to bail on it.
The trail sign indicated the hike was 6.0 miles with 921 feet in total elevation gain.
The distance might include hiking past the hot springs to the start of the Hot Springs Historic Trail as we only walked about 5.5 miles, according to my watch.
The Hot Springs Historic Trail starts with a steep rocky incline before leveling off.
There’s genuinely no shade; I was glad we were doing the hike in October—summer would be both unbearable and dangerous at mid-afternoon.
The trail was clear to follow, for the most part. However, there were times when it seemed to disappear into the brush, giving both of us pause as to where to walk.
Once we’d hiked up in elevation, there was a point where we could see the rugged Hot Springs Canyon in the foreground and the imposing Sierra del Carmen mountains of Mexico in the distance.
At about 2 p.m., around one hour into our desert hike, I was relieved to catch our first glimpse of the Rio Grande River snaking its way along the U.S.—Mexico border. We were getting closer to the hot springs.
Soon after, we arrived at a boulder-strewn section of the Hot Springs Historic Trail.
I passed some fresh poop on the rocks, hoping it wasn’t from a mountain lion, which had recently been spotted on a camera trap in the area.
It wasn’t immediately clear where the trail went next, so it took us a minute to figure it out.
Thankfully, I still had a GPS location showing on Google Maps (on my iPhone), so I could tell if we were to ever go off the trail.
Once we’d solved that problem, I felt more confident in our ability to get to Big Bend’s hot springs and back to the car safely. Still, I rationed my drinking water and encouraged Kel to do the same.
We passed a sign indicating the hot springs were only 0.25 miles away, a big relief after 90 minutes of desert hiking.
Big Bend Hot Springs
As we descended to the level of the Rio Grande River in that last quarter-mile, the rocky terrain turned to sand until we were upon the hot springs. They were tiny!
Before our trip, I’d read the hot springs flood whenever there are heavy rains, leaving the area covered in mud and silt. It’s easy to see how that can happen as the hot springs are at river level.
We lucked out and were both happy to see clear water and an opportunity to take a dip.
There were no changing rooms or facilities, so we just held up a towel for one another as there were a few Mexican people on the other side of the river cooking tamales.
The water in the hot springs was warm but not too hot, which I appreciated given we were in a desert. We spent about 15 to 20 minutes total there.
As we were packing up to hike out, another couple arrived, and the tall guy confidently strode across the river to buy a tamale. They’d been there before.
I was surprised at how shallow the river was though I imagine it changes quickly when its rains.
Hike Back to Car
The hike back to the car was familiar as you walked out the way you came in. Now I was hiking in my Prana board shorts as I didn’t want to bother changing again.
The sun and heat were getting to me. I was slowly running out of water. I fantasized about taking big gulps from the extra bottles we kept in the car.
As much as I didn’t want to encounter a rattlesnake in Big Bend National Park, I secretly did as long as it was from a safe distance.
I constantly scanned the Hot Springs Historic Trail’s rocky terrain but came up empty.
Camouflaged snakes may have been in short supply; however, incredible views were plentiful. The hike back to the car gave me an even greater appreciation for the rugged beauty of Big Bend National Park.
Unlike the three shorter, easier trails we’d done previously, I felt like I was earning my supper and a cold beer hiking the Hot Springs Historic Trail.
When we reached the car after about three hours total, I chugged the mineral water I’d been daydreaming about and felt a great sense of accomplishment.
Dave is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Go Backpacking and Feastio. He’s been to 66 countries and lived in Colombia and Peru. Read the full story of how he became a travel blogger.