Contrary to the title of this blog, the trails in Big Bend aren’t generally dog friendly. In fact, we almost gave the whole area a pass for this reason. We’re avid hikers and we never leave Walter, our 70-lb Nordic mutt, behind when we hit the trails. The idea of spending time in an area renowned for hiking and not being able to explore its’ trails is painful for us. However, we were drawn in by the lure of this wild, sparsely populated, diverse, desert area, so we decided to make the best of it with the hiking options available. Based on our experience in Big Bend, I wrote this post to help other dog-loving hikers in their quest to get out on the trails while visiting this beautiful place. This is Part 3 of a 3-part series about Vanlife in Big Bend country so if you haven’t already read Parts 1 (The Parks) & 2 (The Towns) – check them out.
Dog-Friendly Hiking Options
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is the least dog-friendly hiking destination in the area with zero dog-friendly trails. That’s right, zero. “Why then include it in this post?”, you’re wondering. I’ve included it because the National Park is the area’s primary attraction – “the gift to Texas” – and I would be remiss not to mention its limitations in this post.
In accordance with the Park’s rules, dogs are not allowed on trails, off roads, or on the river. In other words, they’re only allowed to go where cars can go. It’s notable that unlike in some other National Parks, dogs aren’t allowed on the little footpaths that lead to scenic look-offs.
Big Bend National Park is still worth visiting if you are travelling with your dog. As described in Part 1 of this series, we spent a day “windshield sightseeing” in the park and absolutely loved it. But if your heart is set on hiking the trails with your canine companion, this park is not for you.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Big Bend Ranch State Park is just west of the National Park and equally stunning in many respects. Although most Texas State Parks allow leashed dogs on their trails, only two short trails in Big Bend Ranch are dog friendly:
- Closed Canyon Trail (1.8-mile round trip); and
- Hoodoos Trail (1.2-mile round trip).
Both trails are scenic, manageable even on a hot day, and feature unique geological structures. Check out Part 1 of our series for more pictures and details.
An excellent hiking trail alternative in the park is its unpaved roads. Dogs are allowed on all roads, including the small, dirt/gravel roads. We hiked the Cerro de Las Burras Loop 4WD dirt road, accessible from Highway FM 170. Only one truck passed while we were hiking, and it felt much like a wide hiking trail with spectacular views of the mountains to the north and the Rio Grande to the south. Although we didn’t visit the north half of the park, the entire road system (miles and miles) in that part of the park is unpaved and therefore accessible for hiking/dog walking.
Lajitas Golf Resort Trails
Lajitas is a small resort community at the eastern entrance of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The helpful State Park Ranger informed us that the Lajitas Golf Resort Trails are open to the public and dog friendly. What a fantastic discovery! These trails are roughly 13 miles from the closest State Park campgrounds (Grassy Banks and the Upper/Lower Maderas) – an easy 20-minute drive.
The trails in this system have spectacular views and wind through the desert, up into the hills, and across dried creek beds. They are used by hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and some are accessible to motorized vehicles. There are 5 different loops with over 20 miles of trails to explore. We followed various parts of Loop 1 and were on the trail for ~ 3 hours. If you’re on foot, there are days worth of trails to explore.
Hancock Hills Trails (Alpine)
If you’re visiting the town of Alpine (just over an hour north of the National Park), the Hancock Hill Trails are an excellent opportunity for you and your canine companion to get some exercise and admire panoramic views of the town (see Part 2 all about the town). The trailhead, located in the hills above Sul Ross State University, provides access to ~1.8 miles of hilly trails. At the scenic look-off, we caught a glimpse of some local wildlife, which added to the experience. Other hikers were looking for “the desk”, which overlooks the valley below. “The desk” is an actual desk that was hauled up the hill by 3 students in 1981. We somehow bypassed the desk but did find the tree of bikes. The trails are not well marked so you’re best to download the GPS trail map and follow the trails using your phone.
Both the State Park and National Park state that dog-related restrictions are, in part, to protect dogs from the dangers posed by heat, predators, and the spikey local flora. I was ready to call BS on this but after spending a few days hiking in the area, I would agree that these are valid considerations. For our Nordic mutt, the heat is of particular concern. Temperatures reached 23 C (74 F) when we visited in February and with no shade and the scorching Texas sun, Walter was starting to get hot. I can only imagine what conditions would be like later in the year when temperatures regularly get above 100 F. If you’re hiking in Big Bend with your dog, be sure to keep him/her safe by:
- Checking the weather and planning your hike accordingly…
- Hike early in the AM if it’s going to be hot
- Choose distances based on the temperature and the sensitivity of your dog to heat
- Bring plenty of water for both you and your dog
- Keep an eye out for snakes and if you have a small dog, for bigger predators (coyotes)
If you’re looking for a prime destination to go hiking with your dog, the Big Bend area isn’t the place for you. There are many outstanding destinations (state parks, national forest areas, national recreation areas, etc.) with more dog-friendly hiking trails. BUT, if you want to visit the uniquely beautiful Big Bend area for other reasons and hike with your dog while you’re there, these recommendations should keep you happily hiking for days.