On our second day in Big Bend, we got the chance to take a river tour with Far Flung Excursions. It wasn’t exactly exciting, the sites weren’t exactly breathtaking, but at least we got told about Cattail Falls from our river guide when inquiring where we should go on our last day. Cattail Falls isn’t on the Big Bend National Park map given to us at the gate. It was also excluded from my day pocket guide and trail guide, so I have a sneaking suspicion this trail is only for those in the know. After getting to the falls, I can see why they want to keep this hidden, it’s a beautiful and fragile ecosystem that could easily be damaged with too many visitors, or just a few careless ones. If you plan on visiting Cattail Falls, be considerate to this vital desert aquifer and take this mantra to heart:
“Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time”
Cattail Falls: How to Get There
Because this is off the beaten trail, I would only recommend getting to the parking lot if you have a high-clearance vehicle as the road there is abound with jagged rocks, huge holes, and the road bounces between a hard gravel to loose sand. From the paved road to the parking lot is only about 1.2 mile away, so it is still an option if you have a low-clearance vehicle, making this a 5.5 mile hike instead. Referring to the map below, park at map marker #3 and walk the rest of the way to the parking lot.
Directions (refer to the above map for marker numbers):
1. From the Panther Junction Visitor Center, head west on Panther Junction Road for 12.8 miles
2. Turn left (south) onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for 3.3 miles
3. Again, if you have a low-clearance vehicle, park here and continue on by foot. Turn left (east) onto Oak Spring Road. This is really easy to miss as it’s not marked, so be sure to check your odometer and note how far you’ve driven on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Drive for 1.2 miles to reach the parking lot at the end of the road.
4. At the parking lot, you should see a metal trail marker sign and the rest of your journey to Cattail Falls will be on foot from here.
Cattail Falls: Trail Report
Time Spent: 1:45 (we hung around the falls for about twenty minutes having a light snack)
Distance: 3.22 total miles roundtrip from the parking lot, out and back
Elevation Climbed: 509ft
Best time to go: during the rainy season of September-October
Terrain: Desert with almost no shade or break from the sun until you get to the falls, so wear a hat, put some sunblock on and bring water!
Warnings: This be black bear and mountain lion country, so be cautious during their hunting/foraging times of dawn and dusk. On our previous trail the day before, we were the only hikers lucky (or unlucky, according to my husband) enough to miss a black bear and cub sighting near the parking lot. They are here, so keep your eyes peeled!
(refer to the map below for the following trail markers numbers)
1. From the parking lot, follow the metal trail marker sign for Cattail Falls onto the dirt road (you’ll go past the metal gate) for .6 miles.
2. You’ll reach a clearing with a large oak tree that is growing sideways. This was done many many years ago by the Native Americans to use as a landmark. If you go left, you’ll be on the Oak Springs on your way to Window Trail. Take a right and head up for .3 miles.
3. At this point, you’ll get a great 360 view of everything, and the mountains you’ll be getting to the base of the falls. Continue on another .3 miles.
4. You won’t be able to hear the falls just yet, but you should be able to see the falls at this point in the trail. SO majesty very oasis. Continue forth for .3 miles.
5. Cattail Falls is within sight and sound, only .1 miles left of some light scrambling.
6. Hooray! You’ve reached Cattail Falls. Chill out or scramble a wee bit further to get up close and personal (but the NPS strongly recommends you do not get in the water. Your human filth and oils will mess with this fragile ecosystem. Look, but don’t touch. If you break, there is no way to buy this back).
7. Chill and enjoy the serene surroundings of Cattail Falls. Have a lunch, take pictures, bask in the shade and enjoy the respite from the heat (but clean up after yourselves). When you’re done, it’s a simple return trip back to the parking lot!