Big Bend - Telephone Canyon Trail

3point5stars (3.67)3
3point5stars (3.83)
4point5stars (4.83)
More Info
This is the Telephone Canyon trailhead near Old ore Road. It should be noted that the 10.4 miles I hiked from Strawhouse Trail took me all day (10 hours). (Photo by Blaze)
A couple miles away from Old Ore Road, I came across this old rock/cement dam. At this point, I also found rock cairns and the trail to Old ore Road became easier to follow. (Photo by Blaze)
Canyon Walls
There were times I had to climb up the canyon walls in an attempt to determine my location. These cliffs were steep, high and difficult to go up and down without getting hurt. (Photo by Blaze)
Virtually Impassable
This was the type of terrain I was forced to navigate for miles. The arroyo was overgrown with cactus and thorny vegetation and/or blocked by rocks/boulders, but hiking outside of the arroyo wasn't much easier either. (Photo by Blaze)
I saw this awesome arachnid specimen along the trail. (Photo by Blaze)
Trail Hard To Follow
In many places, the trail disappears and you are forced to hike cross country in the remote wilderness. (Photo by Blaze)
View Of The Trail
The trail follows (or is supposed to follow) an arroyo through a network of canyons. (Photo by Blaze)
Log Entries
A navigation challenge for experienced hikers, bring plenty of water!
By bombas238 on 2/1/2022
Rating: 5stars Difficulty: 4point5stars Solitude: 5stars
Distance: 35.00 Miles Duration: N/A

This is a challenging hike, but it is also highly rewarding and enjoyable if you prepare adequately. I do hesitate to write a review as this trail has a “hidden” aspect to it. The trailhead is in a very remote section of the park and many websites do not even list it, so it has become a seldom-traveled route for Big Bend’s biggest remoteness aficionados. I feel there is a risk that more information on this hike will encourage ill-prepared people to attempt it, but at the same time I hope to give enough warning to anyone who is unaware of why attempting it is so dangerous.

Your ability to safely hike this trail does NOT depend on your fitness, intelligence, or willpower. Instead it depends on two factors: bringing plenty of water and your ability to navigate poorly-marked terrain. This hike is 17 miles in and 17 back with many sections going as slow as a mile every 30-40+ minutes.  I do not recommend doing this in the summer as high temperatures will conspire with little/no shade to get you in serious trouble. Be very careful of freezing temperatures in the winter as well because cold fronts move in fast. You must look at the weather and have 3 solid days of good temperatures ahead of you in case you are unable to get in and out with just one night’s rest. My group hiked 19 miles on day one and 15 on day two from sunrise to sunset. The weather was perfect with highs in upper 60s and lows in the mid-40.

You must have a GPS and download the route. In fact, you should have two. You will get lost in the mid-section no matter how smart you are or how great your sense of direction might be. You should also print out a detailed topographic map with the route clearly traced. Next, you need to BRING PLENTY OF WATER. I carried 12 liters and had little less than 2 leftover at the end. There is no way to refill unless you hike 3-4 miles further at the end through private property to refill at the Rio Grande.

On to the hike:

It starts at the Telephone Canyon campsite #2 (TC2) off Old Ore Road. The trail is perhaps a bit more “wild” and narrow than usual but perfectly navigable. You will go mostly uphill until you come across an old dam where you can make final adjustments after the warm-up. Past that point the trail continues to look fine, but you’ll start coming across sections where the trail completely disappears into open areas where the plants are more spread out. This will be your first indicator that navigation is going to be tricky. Follow the cairns carefully and backtrack if you’ve gone a ways without spotting another cairn or the trail again. Do not be shy about using your GPS.

Approximately three miles in you will drop down into a small wash or river bed. You go left / north, but cairns will also follow south for people who want to go into the Ernst Basin (pay attention to the cairn marking the exit to this wash for when you are coming back out!). After going north you will see several cairns pointing you out of the wash. Ahead is the hardest three miles of the trail. You must start climbing steeply through a narrow trail to the highest point in the route. The top of this mountain offers outstanding views and is not too hard to follow as there are a surprisingly good number of cairns.

Descending into the canyon is by FAR the hardest part. Keep your wits and remain calm. Cairns will become sparse and the trail will continuously disappear. Things will feel completely cross-country at times, but the trail is certainly there and you have to pay attention. There will be a section where you enter another wash that is heavily overgrown and not fun to navigate. We actually traversed too far down the wash because we missed a cairn on the left meant to lead us out of the wash & onto a small trail. Eventually you do find a very slim path (we called it a goat-trail) that properly drops you down into Telephone Canyon. There are cairns here as well, but finding this place is going to be very challenging on the way back! Note your location on the GPS, which I’m assuming you have used extensively by now.  

Once in the canyon, the trail is still challenging and slow. The river bed is heavily overgrown and the cairns are no longer a thing. You must think of this area like a spider web and cross vegetation “islands” when your wash dead-ends so that you can find another one. You just have to move east toward the widening canyon. The path does become easier the further east you go. You will find the intersection with the north end of the Strawhouse trail after hiking the canyon for about 4 miles. It is hard to miss as there are two giant cairns and it’s a nice little oasis with shade and large rocks to sit.

Very few people head east beyond this point (most come up Strawhouse and head west out of the canyon). Continuing to go down the canyon is actually very easy and quite beautiful. The river bed will be wide and you can make excellent time to the eastern terminus. You will know you are almost there when you see a clay house/structure on the left side. The ONLY tricky part of this leg is paying attention to find cairns before the clay structure that will guide you out of the wash. You will then find a trail that quickly turns into a very old road. You will finish when you find a cattle guard and a barbed wire fence. Congrats!

Just a few notes on the return trip: do not meander into side canyons on your way west, use your GPS to stay on the “main road”. Finding the trail back out of the canyon is tricky and climbing out is just as frustrating as climbing in. Watch for cairns that guide you out of mini-washes. We camped two miles from the east terminus and made it all the way back in one day.

MARCH 2024 Update: We repeated this trail, but wanted to go down Strawhouse in 2024 (separate review for that MESS of a hike). 

Familiarity helped tremendously the second time around. The first three miles are still very easy to follow, but miles 3-6 are even more overgrown, especially the segment that descends into the canyon. It takes about 4 hours to actually reach the wash, but that segment was better than I remembered and you can cruise to the Strawhouse junction in 2 hours afterward. It is actually very pleasant, beautiful, and up-lifting.

Quiet as a mouse. Dry as a bone
By rodavenport on 4/13/2014
Rating: 3point5stars Difficulty: 3stars Solitude: 5stars
Distance: 6.00 Miles Duration: N/A

I only went out 3 miles then looped back. I was not prepared and it is the wrong time of the year to be trying to bite off a big chunk of this trail. Besides my legs were pretty wore out from the 16 miles in the mountains the day before. A lot of up and down through small canyons and arroyos the most interesting thing I saw was a lot of desert flowers. Especially on the cactus.

Part Of A Longer 4-Day Backcountry Hike
By Blaze on 11/19/2013
Rating: 2point5stars Difficulty: 4stars Solitude: 4point5stars
Distance: N/A Duration: N/A

I hiked the Telephone Canyon Trail as part of a 4 day backpacking expedition through the backcountry trails of Big Bend National Park.  The hike occurred on the 3rd & 4th days in the backcountry.  You can read my log of that extended hike here.

I hiked the western section of the Telephone Canyon Trail from the Strawhouse Trail to Old Ore Road. This trail was unmaintained and extremely difficult to follow. In some sections, there were rock cairns, but for most of the trail they were non-existent.  They had either washed away, been knocked down by animals, or simply become overgrown by vegetation.  I was forced to hike using my map, GPS and land navigation skills I learned in the military.

The trail appears to follow an arroyo through various canyons, but the arroyo is filled with rocks, boulders, cacti, and thorn bushes, making it virtually impenetrable.  The arroyo is also filled with thick gravel, making it a hard surface to walk on.  I expended a lot of energy and there was a lot of slippage.  I had to stop periodically to inspect my feet and administer foot care.


Traversing this trail was slow going.  At times, I was only going 1/3rd to 1/2 mph, but I was expending a lot of energy and drinking a lot of water.  I also had to stop every couple of miles to try and figure out where I was and which way to go.

I do NOT recommend anyone hike this trail. It is very easy to become lost and you could potentially die. When I returned from my hike, I told the rangers that this trail should either be maintained or removed from the map.  In its current condition, it is a death trap, even for the most experienced hikers.

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