With vistas that can only be seen on foot, taking a run into the backcountry of Big Bend Ranch State Park is one of the best ways to experience the Chihuahuan Desert. But venturing out into the desert on foot is an activity that deservers a certain amount of respect – even if you’re only planning a few miles.

Trail Running Tips & Desert Safety

As with anything in Big Bend Ranch State Park it’s best you’re prepared before you arrive to the park. Supplies are limited in the region so it’s best to bring everything you will need with you. 

There’s an old saying that everything in Big Bend either pokes, bites or stings and that is certainly true for trail running. Plenty of species of cacti, including the infamous Dog Cholla, along with the native Octillo have enough poking power to go straight through the sole of your shoe. And if the plant life doesn’t get you, the rocks just might.

Trail shoes with a rock plate are a must and gaitors will be your best friend, otherwise you’ll be emptying Big Bend’s famous rocks out of your shoes. Chafing protection and chap stick are advised due to the dry air.

Keep in mind that the distances in Big Bend are vast and the desert can play tricks on your eyes. Something that appears close, can be 10 miles away and loops on a map appear small but can be deceptively long. 

For safety sake, NEVER venture into the backcountry with out enough supplies to survive in the desert overnight. Injuries happen and weather can change in an instant. Even on a 3-4 mile run, always take the basic survival supplies – hydration pack, headlamp with enough batteries to last through the night, matches, signaling mirror, light jacket, survival blanket, food, sun protection, a map (the old school, paper kind!), a first aid kit, and more water than you think you need. It may seem like overkill but all are essential – even on a short run. Park staff perform rescues everyday, even in the best weather.

There is very little shade in Big Bend Ranch State Park and even less cell phone coverage. Light colored, long sleeved clothing is your best option for sun protection and a wide brimmed hat or baseball cap with neck covering will help keep the sun off your neck. An emergency beacon, such as a Garmin InReach,  will give you (and your relatives) peace of mind.


Wildlife Encounters

The diversity of wildlife is one of the most special parts of Big Bend. Please keep in mind that the desert is their home, you are just a visitor.

Though most of the bears generally keep to the cooler Chisos Mountains in the national park, Big Bend Ranch State Park does see the occasional mountain lion (you’d be lucky to see one) but you’re most likely to see javalinas, cayotes and snakes. It’s important to know how to react if you come into contact with wildlife. 

In most cases, stand your ground. Don’t turn your back, act big, make a lot of noise, throw rocks, wave sticks and they’ll likely leave you alone. Keep in mind that javalina can’t jump so if you can climb on a large rock (or picnic table) you’re pretty safe. 

Big Bend is home to numerous species of snakes, spiders and scorpions. Four species of rattlesnakes are your biggest concern, all of which can land you in the hospital if they bite you. They’re mostly non-aggressive. Always scan the area before you sit and examine your hand and foot holds carefully. Listen for the rattle and leave them alone!

Remember, all animals are protected in Big Bend Ranch State Park!

Trail Running Maps

By far the best and easiest to access running trails in Big Bend Ranch State Park is the Contrabando Trail System on the east side of the park off FM 170. You can either park in the Barton Warnock Visitor Center and run east down FM 170 the 200 yards to the trail head across the street, or park in trail head parking lot. Either way you need to make sure you purchase a day pass at Barton Warnock before you head out. 

Most of the good running trails are mapped on AllTrails and can be found on the Garmin platform. They should be visible on the maps screen on your Garmin watch.

The state park website has some great downloadable maps of the most frequently visited trails, including the Contrabando Trail System.

Big Bend Ultra

Big Bend Ultra is held annually, on MLK weekend, in Big Bend Ranch State Park. If you’d like the experience of backcountry running, with the support and relative safety of a race this is a great option. Registration usually opens the first week of June and a portion of the proceeds benefit Friends of Big Bend Ranch State Park! A fully supported race experience in the backcountry AND a good cause! It’s a win-win!


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