The Emory Peak trail at Big Bend is not the tallest, or most difficult, but it’s still an iconic hike that was the perfect way to celebrate another birthday summit in Texas.
Writing about Texas’ tallest peak seemed like a necessity because there were some things to consider that I learned on my two attempts to hike the Guadalupe peak trail. I wrote about what to eat, what to wear, when I drank my water, and what to expect with the wind, but a year later I made my way back west to hike another peak for my birthday. This time it was Big Bend’s tallest peak, Emory.
It’s easy to compare the two, but the compare and contrast portion ends abruptly after you remove the fact that they were both visited during the last weekend of April.
In 2021 the weather was bleak as west Texas had encountered a freak cold front, and hiking up Guadalupe peak offered spats of sleet and freezing winds.
A year later a part of me held onto that blistering cold memory thinking the area was like that during that portion of the year. It was, in fact, not.
In 2022 the heat approached the west with viciousness, and I knew things were going to be a little different. I had fully prepared to utilize a lot of the similar things to hike up Emory, eating smaller portions, stretching, etc., but what I didn’t anticipate was how my body would not be as ready going into day one of the Big Bend journey.
On paper, Guadalupe Peak rises 8,751 feet above sea level, and Emory Peak is somewhat lower in terms of total height at 7,825 feet above sea level. Frankly, the highest peaks are situated mostly in GUMO and Davis Mountains, but Emory is iconic nonetheless.
The sheer space that Big Bend encompasses is a huge difference between the two national parks. The acres of desert, the mountains constantly in the distance, the terrain, and the driving make this national park one that can be visited for the highlights in days, or explored for weeks.
On the day of arrival, I was beating time and the sun. I set up camp at the Chisos Basin campsite with a mountain view. The campsite I chose wasn’t a covered option, so with the sun beating down on my neck, I set up my campsite as quickly as I could.
The eight-hour trip gave me enough time for snacks, but with the sun starting to hang lower in the sky I knew I wanted to catch the glow between the rocks at the Window.
When I arrived at the park I stopped at the visitor center to grab a Dr. Pepper and just stretch my legs. I walked to the trailhead of the peak and encountered three rangers heading toward me.
“Are you hiking the peak?” the lead ranger asked.
I jokingly mentioned that I had my soda and was ready to hike. She was not amused. Little did I know they had already completed a rescue for a hiker who was not prepared for the Texas sun. I learned of this when I was back at my campsite, and a fellow camper mentioned it as I was soaking up my neck gaiter in the restroom.
I say this with the utmost importance, but if you’re not from the area or familiar with the Texas heat, you must be prepared. Read this post to learn about what things you can do in the heat.
I was heading to the Window, and I was in a hurry. I had all of my gear, so I was prepared for darkness, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to face the darkness on my first night at the park. I will link my Window hike once it’s written, but despite its short mileage, the hike offers terrain that doesn’t allow for my typical pace.
And the sign at the beginning reminds hikers that the hike to the window is downhill, so prepare for the climb back up.
I made it down and back just in time for the beginning of darkness to fall on the campsite, but I pushed myself more than I wanted to.
I ate a full meal and tried to settle in for the night.
The thing with the desert is that the space makes every sound noticeable. As the night went on every clink, zip, and word echoed into my tent. And campers arrived in the early morning, with the last group setting up camp around 2 a. m.
I didn’t sleep but maybe two hours on night one. I decided I would spend day two traveling around the park and burning what energy I had to be ready for the hike on morning three.
Hiking up Emory Peak Trail
Head towards the Chisos Basin to find the Chisos Basin campsite nearby (where I camped), the mountain lodge (think motel accommodations), the restaurant, visitors center, and gift shop.
This is a busy hub of the park and the main artery for a lot of the fun hikes here.
You can access the Window Trail, South Rim, and of course, Emory Peak from this section of the park.
I opted to hike from my campsite to the Chisos Basin trailhead and to be honest, I wish I would’ve just driven the two seconds to the parking lot because that trail featured quick elevation and rocky terrain that almost took the wind out of my sails immediately.
It loops around the restaurant and pops you out right into the parking lot, so you can grab a quick snack if you want to chug some protein before starting.
The beginning of the Emory Peak trail offers some great information about the park and what things to consider while you’re hiking specifically what to do if you encounter a mountain lion or black bear. There are more sights of bears in this park, so while I didn’t encounter any wildlife besides birds and deer, this is something to not take lightly.
So right off the bat, the main difference between Guadalupe vs Emory Peak trail is the elevation gain you’ll feel at the very beginning. Guadalupe’s elevation gain is quick and drastic, while on the Emory trail you ease into it a bit.
There is going to be gentle elevation, and this is great because you’ll be hiking parallel to the views of the Window, so make sure you take your time and soak in the beauty of this area, especially if you’re starting this hike at sunrise. Everything will look different later in the day.
About a 1/4 mile up there is a bench on an overlook that’s great to get your snacks in order, and right beyond this, you’ll come to your first trail marker indicating the path to continue to the peak.
Sidebar: Is Emory the most visual of the park? A lot of people would say that in this section of the park the South Rim Trail is going to be more scenic, so doing Emory and South Rim is something to knock out as well.
One of the things that were essential for me to keep my pace on this trail was the flat sections that came rhythmically after elevation gains. I could pace myself with the gains, and pick up the pace on the flat sections, and at about mile two you’ll find that there are some great flatter areas to accelerate your steps.
The Plants and Scenery
As you hike upward the trees here never go away on the lower half of this trail. Don’t count on them always for shade, but the views of the trees all around are quite lovely in the springtime. Because of this, you’ll notice an abundance of birds including the Mexican Jay finding respite among the branches of the woody areas.
Ever-increasing switchbacks make way for great rock formations similar to those on the Guadalupe peak trail where you can lean on to catch your breath. And as you make your way up look into the trees for deer foraging on the abundance of plants covering the ground.
Pinnacles Trail, Toll Mountain
The starting point is the Pinnacles Trail. This is the hub, and after 2.6 miles you’ll reach the primitive camping spot of Toll Mountain (7415 ft.)
This is an essential spot to make some choices, and also a section of the park still recovering from a forest fire. The trees here in 2022 were still charred, but regrowth was visible and it was still a remarkable section to enjoy the views.
At this crossroads, you’ll have a pit toilet, but the park encourages you just to use it if you need to poop. Signs here asked hikers to pee in the woods. Not kidding.
This is also where you’ll have bear-proof cabinets to store your gear if you choose to drop off some gear before heading up the last 1.75 miles of the trail.
Drop off Gear or not?
This is a question that the two other hikers and I pondered for what felt like an eternity. The idea is that you could shed some weight before making it to the top, and I’ll get to the rock scramble in a bit, but I opted to keep my gear. I wanted to have all of my stuff just in case. I didn’t know what to expect going up for the first time.
If I ever do this portion of the hike again I’ll leave my backpack and just take a spare water bottle. Do with that information what you will.
Emory Peak & the Rock Scramble
Continue from this section onto the winding trail that leads to the peak. At this point, the trees dissipate and the views of the surrounding mountain range open up. And coming around a corner you see one of two antennas up above like a beacon for your final destination.
The terrain changes drastically here, and the rocks are more abundant. There are stone steps to navigate that grow with each step. I felt the burn in my legs the most in this last section of the trail, so take a second to stretch a bit and fuel up.
This section looked easy, and it may end up being so for you, but the rocks here are no joke.
Which leads to the final destination.
Just getting to the rock scramble is a daunting task. What was a nicely carved-out trail immediately turns into a rock wall of steps that you must measure each step on to prevent your foot from being wedged into rocks.
Once you make it above that you will be at the base of the rock scramble, and honestly, a great finishing point where you can feel accomplished.
The views here are wonderful, and there are large boulders to lean on to see the steep drops all around.
This is where the rock scramble begins, and because of the terrain you can definitely just climb up to wherever you see fit, but just know that if you veer towards the right the climb up is a little easier.
The first step up requires a bit of a stretch and your arms to pull you up, and from here the rest is just one rock jump at a time if you wish to touch an antennae.
There are two summits here, and the one you climb up would be considered the “main” one while the summit that’s to your left would be a bonus.
Because I opted to take my backpack I found the climb down was the most challenging part. From a sitting position facing outward, I tried to reach down the lower rocks but my trekking poles kept getting stuck on the rocks behind me. I had to take off my backpack and climb down with it in my hand. So that is why I should have just gone up without it.
What goes up…
The summit was crowded, and that created anxiety in me that I did not believe added any excitement to the top. It was hard to maneuver on the rocks with everyone else around. Without wanting to crowd the other hikers, but also needing room for yourself, made it uncomfortable.
I didn’t stay long and knew that the longer I stayed up there the harder the climb down would be, so I took my picture and made my way down.
The last 1/4 mile down was slippery, and hard on my knees. This is the same that I experienced in GUMO, so I was prepared for it with my gear, but it lasted much longer.
I had to put energy into where I was putting my feet with each step and spread my weight to my back so as to not fall with each slip. It wasn’t fun getting down from the summit, and the switchbacks made for less than ideal descent as well.
The enjoyment of a gradual incline in spurts made those sections more noticeable on the way down, but again, those flat areas were for resting, and enjoying the shade.
With three miles to go I ran out of water in my hydration bladder, but thankfully still had my Nalgene with Liquid I.V. in it for the last few warm gulps of water.
The sun was above and blasting from all directions, and the heat had made its presence known.
If you’re interested in my hiking metrics for the Emory Peak trail I have them below. These times don’t reflect any instances when I stopped to take a break, this is just hiking time:
Upward: tracked 4.55 miles in 2.29 hours with an elevation gain of 2,169 feet.
Downward: 5.13 miles in 2.13 hours. 26 minutes/mile
Gear Used (Affiliate Links)
Here is the gear I used for the Emory Peak trail. Purchases made by clicking these links will send a commission to Texas Trailhead at no additional cost to you.
- Backpack: Osprey
- Sunglasses: Smith Optics
- Performance Sun Hat: Texas Trailhead
- UPF Shirt: Orvis
- Neck Gaiter: Buff
- Stretch Shorts: Orvis
- Trekking Poles: Black Diamond
- Hiking Socks: Farm To Feet
- Hiking Shoes: Merrell Moab Mid
- Hydration: Liquid I.V.