6 Stops to Make on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
[Big Bend National Park, Dec 27, 2021]
For our second full day in the park, we decided to take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. With stops at some of the scenic viewpoints and short hikes, we expected it to take about 5-6 hours. The 31-mile point-to-point drive begins in the Chisos Mountains section of the park and winds down to the Rio Grande. From there, you can come back the way you came or take a dirt road to the west entrance of the park. The drive is named after the park’s first superintendent. We couldn’t stop at every interpretive site and vista; here are our 4 picks.
This is undoubtedly one of the best scenic viewpoints in the park and the reason why we decided to start from this end of the drive, rather than from the bottom up. Since this was our first stop and we started early, we enjoyed the view in the soft morning light.
The big gap visible in the middle of the photo is Santa Elena canyon, which was going to be our last stop on this drive. Due to the early hour, there was only one other person here. I can imagine this gets pretty crowded during the day.
2.Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff trail
This is the shorter of the two so-called pouroffs in the park. I loved the soft light on the giant boulder at the trailhead. Again, due to the early hour, we didn’t see anyone else here.
The hike to the lower pouroff is only 1 mile roundtrip, flat, and follows a gravel wash lined with bushes and small trees.
The pouroff was a 100-ft tall veritcal channel carved into the rock by water flowing from the mesa above. I would love to see it when it’s not dry, although flashfloods often race into the wash when it’s raining, making this rather dangerous!
We could tell we were getting closer to Santa Elena Canyon as we were coming back to the trailhead. Can you spot the break in the mountain in the back of this photo?
3. Mule’s Ears Overlook
We actually skipped this one in favor for Castolon Historic District but if you have the time, do it.
Tuff is welded volcanic ash and it’s what makes up the walls of this canyon. Three overlooks allow you to see it from above, but you’ll be rewarded with great views if you take the less than half-mile trail into it. Once at the bottom, you can follow the water drainage upstream into the canyon, very much like at Lower Burro Pouroff.
We hiked down the bottom first. I was surprised to see much bigger trees here at the bottom, evidently surviving off the water that rushes down here.
The views from the overlooks looking into the canyon were great, too. The Chisos Mountains made for a nice backdrop.
5.Castolon Historic District
We stopped here mainly so I can get a passport stamp at the visitor center. Unfortunately, that was closed until later that morning. There isn’t that much else to see – there are historical buildings leftover from when this area was an army base during the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and people who settled this area in the early 20th century to ranch. I would swap this one out for Mule Ears instead.
6. Santa Elena Canyon
This amazing canyon sits at the very end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It is one of the most popular things to do in the park but luckily, it wasn’t too crowded when we got there. If you don’t get started on the scenic drive early enough, I’d suggest coming here first and seeing the sights above in reverse order.
Before getting into the canyon, you have to cross Terlingua creek. Depending on the water level, this can be quite the muddy adventure, which we didn’t expect. Luckily, only a very small part of the crossing was deep. We saw lots of people in regular tennis shoes but you’d definitely be better off with water-repellent shoes.
From there, paved steps will take you up to the vista this picture was taken from. Quite the view!
The trail then continues into the canyon. The cliffs on each side can be up to 1,500 ft tall. The canyon was carved out of thick layers of limestone originally deposited as sediments in the shallow sea that covered this area millions of years ago.
In less than a mile, the canyon walls meet the water.
There are definitely some little nooks and crannies that you can duck into for good views of the canyon. I also loved the still water and the reflections of the canyon walls in it. Unfortunately, there were people on the trail with poor trail etiquette; there was a teenage kid that kept throwing rocks into the water.
Old Maverick Rd
If you have a sturdy vehicle, I highly recommend taking Old Maverick Rd to complete a loop vs back-tracking on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The road is graded gravel but there are definitely places where waterflow created dips and uneven terrain. The mountains were on our right and I looked for and spotted Mules Ears, so I didn’t feel that bad that we skipped the overlook.
We returned to High Sierra Bar & Grill in Terlingua, where I enjoyed a bowl of that delicious Texas chilli B had yesterday. We relaxed by the pool at the resort in the afternoon and enjoyed another one of those gorgeous West Texas sunsets at the end of the day.