The Ernst Tinaja Trail is one of the most unique hikes to do in Big Bend National Park. This is a short, easy trail through a slot canyon, featuring a series of waterholes located within colorful layers of limestone rock. Those looking for a little more adventure can continue the hike past the water-filled pools and rock scramble their way to the back of the canyon.
Getting here can also be an adventure. The Ernst Tinaja trail is located on Old Ore Road, a rough, gravel road that is only suitable for high-clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive.
If you are looking for a short but thrilling hike in Big Bend National Park, put this trail at the top of your list. This was our favorite experience in the park.
Facts About the Hike
Distance: 1.6 miles round trip
Total Ascent: 195 feet
Difficulty: Easy to Ernst Tinaja, moderate to challenging if you continue past Ernst Tinaja to go rock scrambling
Length of Time: 1 to 1.5 hours (this does not include the drive on Old Ore Road)
When to go: Year round
Getting to Ernst Tinaja: The Old Ore Road
The Ernst Tinaja trail is located in east Big Bend National Park, near the Rio Grande Village. To get to the trail, you will drive on Old Ore Road.
Old Ore Road is a primitive dirt road. In the early 1900’s, this road was used to transport ore from the mines in Mexico to the railroad station in Marathon.
The entrance onto Old Ore Road is located 0.8 miles west of the Rio Grande overlook.
The national park service recommends a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle for this road. This road is very rough in some spots, with pot holes, rocks, and uneven surfaces. After it rains, the road can become impassable.
To get to the Ernst Tinaja trail, it is a five-mile drive on Old Ore Road. Once you get to the small Ernst Tinaja sign, turn right and it is a very short drive to the trailhead parking lot.
This small stone sign marks the turn to the Ernst Tinaja trail.
Parking lot for the Ernst Tinaja trail.
The Ernst Tinaja Trail
This is an out-and-back hike. The farther you go, the better it gets. This hike is great for all ability levels, since it starts off easy, and stays that way, until you get to Ernst Tinaja, the water filled pools. Beyond Ernst Tinaja, the trail gets to be more challenging, with sections of rock scrambling.
From the parking lot to Ernst Tinaja, it is a flat, easy walk through a dry creekbed.
Slowly but steadily, the canyon walls grow higher around you.
The highlight for many visitors is Ernst Tinaja, the watering holes that are located in the colorful, layered limestone rocks in this canyon. This is a uniquely beautiful spot and it looks vastly different from the other landscapes in Big Bend National Park.
Tinaja is Spanish for a large water jar. In the American Southwest, it is a term for pockets that are formed in the bedrock and are filled with water. These tinajas serve as watering holes for the local wildlife.
To continue through the canyon, and for one of the best views on this hike, you will have to scramble up and over this striated rock. Be careful, because the crumbling rock can be slippery.
Enjoy the view down through the canyon. You can turn around here or continue into the depths of the canyon, if you like the idea of rock scrambling.
Continuing past Ernst Tinaja
The first few obstacles are relatively easy to navigate. Most adults and adventurous kids can handle the first few rock scrambles.
The trail beyond Ernst Tinaja
Layers of sedimentary rock
Near the far end of the canyon, the difficulty level spikes once you get to this rock arch. To continue on, you will have to climb up this chute and up and over the boulder. It is not too challenging to climb up this obstacle, but getting back down it later can actually be more difficult (keep reading for an alternative route past this chute). Keep in mind that the only way out of this canyon is the same way you got here.
There is one more big obstacle before you reach the end of the trail.
We made it to the point where the canyon bends to the west. At this point, we were able to climb up a huge slab of rock for this view of the canyon (the photo below), but to safely get down the other side, you either need a lot of experience bouldering or you need rock climbing gear. This was our turn-around point, which is almost one mile from the parking lot.
To get back to the parking lot, retrace your steps through the canyon.
As we headed back to the car, the most difficult obstacle to get past was the chute with the boulder. We found it to be easier to hike up and over the giant slab of rock that is located next to the chute, than to climb down the chute. Tim and I both crab-walked down this rock with little difficulty. Near the edge of the rock there are a lot of depressions where you can put your left hand and hold on as you scoot down the rock.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
Get here early in the day to avoid the crowds. Midday is peak time so if you want to have the trail to yourself, or at least have low crowds, try to get here mid-morning (but even then there is no guarantee).
Check the road conditions with a park ranger at one of the visitor centers before you go, especially if it has rained recently. Old Ore Road can be impassable after it rains.
There are reports of other hikers seeing rattlesnakes in the canyon. Keep a lookout for rattlesnakes, not only where you step but also where you put your hands while rock scrambling.
There is a primitive campsite that is located next to the parking lot for the Ernst Tinaja trail. If you like the idea of staying near the trailhead (so you can hike the trail crowd free at the beginning or the end of the day) you can reserve this campsite on the national park service website.
Check trail conditions and road closures on the national park service website before you hike.
If you have any questions about hiking the Ernst Tinaja trail, or if you want to share your experience, you can do so in the comment section below.
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