Texas Public Radio | By Brian Kirkpatrick
Published February 6, 2021 at 6:00 PM CST
Visit Big Bend
Hikers take a break at Big Bend National Park
There has been a record increase in hiking reported in Texas as residents seek exercise and escape from a pandemic that is nearly a year old.
A quick Google or Facebook search will yield all sorts of easy-to-join hiking groups in Texas. There are hiking groups for beginners, for more expert hikers, for Christians and for hikers 60 and older.
Eva Moore operates Austin-based Hill Country Outdoors that has members in San Antonio and Austin.
For a list of Texas parks that offer accessible features, click here.
The best hiking in Texas
In the Austin area, the group’s favorite hiking areas are the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Wild Basin and River Place.
Panther Canyon in New Braunfels is another favorite spot. In San Antonio, Eisenhauer, McAllister and Hardberger city parks top their list — especially Hardberger, with its new land bridge.
The group also likes the Government Canyon State Natural Area in San Antonio.
But there is no question among hikers, that the summit of hiking in Texas is Big Bend National Park.
The park has 150-miles of trails with different levels of difficulties and categories, like desert hiking, mountain hiking and river hiking.
Here, more equipment is needed on the tougher trails. Gregg Henington is a hiking outfitter and owner of Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua. He says a good pair of hiking shoes and a backpack are a must and a floppy hat, a neck gaiter and long sleeve shirts — all for sun protection — are needed, too. He says even in winter the sun in Big Bend can be blistering.
“If a beginner wants to rent some equipment, probably the best thing to look at would be to rent hiking poles and getting acquainted with how those work before you make a purchase. There are all kinds of hiking poles,” Henington said.
He added summer is not the best time to visit Big Bend due to intense desert heat. Spring and fall or more ideal times to come.
Courtesy Of Visit Big Bend
Big Bend National Park
“Bring a partner or friends with you so you are not alone on the trail because this is a very remote area and one that’s beneficial to have someone along with you,” Henington said. “And lastly, just be prepared to carry water. There are no reliable springs in Big Bend, so all your water is going to have to be carried on your back.”
Experts also recommend for long hikes one should bring a rain poncho, thermal blanket, toilet paper, a first aid kit, extra food and water in case of any emergency, binoculars, a compass and a map. Smartphones with GPS work in the park, but it may be too remote for phone calls — which is why hikers should check in at a park office.
If you are not sure how dedicated you are, dollar stores and thrift stores are a good place to shop for the hiking basics.
Tom VandenBerg is chief of interpretation at Big Bend National Park. He strongly recommends the right equipment and proper planning before driving for hours to visit the park. He said visitors also need to stick to trails they can physically handle and of their expertise level. He said it’s a good idea to study the park online and check in with the park offices when you arrive.
“We’ve had some rescues, we’ve had some people become injured. It’s been a little bit of a challenge over the last year,” he said.
Park visitation at Big Bend is setting records this year.
“In fact, over the last year we’ve seen at least six of the last months have been all-time records in the history of the national park,” Henington said.
He said even with the park closed for three months in 2020 due to the pandemic, overall visitation for the year was up 25%.
That's increased even more in 2021.
Henington said most campgrounds and backcountry campsites are full every night and on weekends, they’ve had to put traffic controls in place with one entry and one exit. Parking spots at the most popular areas, Chisos Basin and Santa Elena Canyon, are full by late morning.
Madison Shiller at Visit Big Bend, which promotes tourism to the area, said one look at social media, especially Instagram, shows the popularity of the park during the pandemic.
“The way I have been engaging it is on social media especially Instagram,” she said. “There’s a lot of engagement. A lot of people’s recent photos. They’re using our hashtag Visit Big Bend or tagging our page. It’s showing a lot of visitation. A lot of newer people that have not been to the area.”
So what is the most popular trail at Big Bend?
“I would say the most popular trail in the basin is Lost Mine,” Shiller said. “It is an uphill trail, so it is a little bit moderate, but you do get some really amazing views of the Chisos Basin, even just a mile into the trail.”
Shiller said her personal favorite trail is on the north end of the park, Dog Canyon, because it has several changes of scenery and is challenging enough to be enjoyed.
Hill Country Outdoors
Hikers move through Garner State Park.
Why are so many Texans hiking right now?
Eva Moore said Hill Country Outdoors has increased the number of hiking excursions on their calendar as indoor, communal exercise has become less appealing or unavailable during the pandemic.
“What I’ve heard from my members is that even though the gyms did close, they just started coming to more events and some of them have told me they don’t miss the gym anymore,” Moore said.
She said hiking is not an expensive hobby to start. Hiking groups usually have membership dues, but will sometimes offer a free trial outing. Hill Country Outdoors charges $26 dollars a month, but offers discounts on long-term memberships and those for couples. She said beginners usually start with 1 and 2-mile trails, but costs can grow with the mileage.
“As you get more experienced and you get more advanced, you definitely do start spending a little bit of money, but I think that’s with any hobby,” Moore said.
Besides water and sun protection, she said short hikes require only sturdy shoes and workout clothes, which most people already have around the house.
Hill Country Outdoors members offered different reasons for hitting the trails.
Estelle Tovar, Ken Harris and Carol Morgan explain their joy of hiking.
“We’ve hiked so many different trails in and around the Austin area as well as taking hiking trips to national parks, which is something I would not have done by myself,” Estelle Tovar said.
Hiker Ken Harris is a member and has hiked all over the world in the last 20 years, including China and Costa Rica.
“I love the outdoors and hiking is a way to do it and really enjoy what’s around and you can get peace and quiet. You can have lots of fun,” he said
Hiker Carol Morgan said hiking is a body and mind thing.
“It can be a challenge for your body. It can be a challenge for your mindset. It gives you new experiences that you never thought that you would have and it strengthens your overall well being,” she said.
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