Well we made it. After an 11 hour drive home through mostly terrible weather, we returned home and began recovering only to be attacked by the Flu. At one point I had a 103.7° fever. Most of that is done now save for a bit of hacking up crap. Big Bend was gorgeous and we really couldn’t have asked for better weather. 60-65 during the days and crisp nights of 20-27°. Below you’ll find a from memory recollection (with some help from my GPS upload which you’ll find the link to below).
We arrived around 7pm or so on December 26th. It took us about 10 hours total including stops to get to the park. It was dark when we made our way to the Chiso’s Mountain resort where the trail-head begins. We re-arranged a few (hundred) things and decided to sleep in the Xterra in front of the office in order to get as close to the front of the permit line as possible. We met a couple of college kids, one, a tiny girl with a decidedly backpacker look about her and legs like a competitive squatter asked us to look at our map which we obliged. She had hiked the entire PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, 2100+ miles). They wished us good travels and departed for wherever they were staying.
Day 1 (8.5 Miles)
The Xterra is not comfortable, even on our Nemo sleeping pads and we got little sleep. I woke up around 7am and told Celeste we needed to cache water at the Blue Creek trail but that we wouldn’t have time to cache at both spots so we’d have to carrry in two days worth of water the first day. Water weighs 8.4 pounds per gallon. We carried two gallons each on the first day in addition to what was already in our packs. We drove up the Ross Maxwell scenic drive and I cached 2.5 gallons of water in a Bear Box just off the drive. We arrived back at the Resort/HQ lot just as the office was opening. The park was already filling up with day-hikers and tourists. We jumped in line and only had a couple people ahead of us. The ranger lady quizzed us over our plan, made sure we knew people died on our particular trail often and made sure we had cached water. She appreciated that I had done my homework (see “OCD”) and issued our permit. We met another group briefly in line who we would continue to run into, pass, get passed by, etc over the next three days. We walked back out to the truck and began filling our hydration packs and side-mount bottles. I weighed my pack when all was said and done, just for fun. 52.6 lbs! Celeste was carrying roughly the same. We re-parked the truck and headed toward the trail. The Outer Mountain loop actually consists of three main trails and several smaller trails. For the purposes of this writing I’ll just stick to naming the main trails. The smaller trails which lead out of the resort area are very short. We headed up the trail and within 10 mins we saw our first deer, standing in the trail. Because we were still in the day-hike area, there were several hikers behind us. I stopped short and turned around whispering to look ahead. We watched the deer for several minutes and it departed. We headed on quickly coming to a fork. This fork is where you decide whether you are going to d the loop in the clockwise or counterclockwise. We headed left toward Emory Peak and the Juniper Trail. Almost immediately, the trail begins to ascend from around 5000ft where the Chisos Lodge is up to 7000 feet where the base of Emory Peak is. “I hate switchbacks” became the recurring theme on this trip. As we trudged up the switchbacks around noon, we waved to who would become our new trail friends, Vikki, Warren and “The Justins” who had found a cool little cove just off the trail to lunch. At around the same time, we also ran into a guy named Aaron who we would spend our first night sharing a back-country camp spot with. It was getting warmer and we shed our shells and kept moving. Just after noon we reached the base of Emory Peak or as I liked to call it “End of the Tourist Zone”. There were *many* people here. The base serves as the stoping point for those not only heading out to back country but for those who are continuing on to the top of Emory Peak, the tallest point in the park. There is a Geodetic survey marker up there which some people “collect” and which are also tied into Geocaching. At the base there are a number of flat rocks which beg to be rested on and so we did just that.
I knew we would probably not make our 11 mile goal for the day. We were carrying a lot of weight and first days on a trail always suck as you acclimate. We rested, waved to our friends as they prepared to head up the side trail to Emory Peak and continued on toward the Juniper Trail by way of Boot Canyon Springs. Past the base of Emory Peak, the trail descends a few hundred feet and then ascends back to 7000ft. It was between these points that we ran into a ranger who diligently checked our back country permit and sent us on our way. We reached Boot Canyon Springs at around 3pm. One thing that desert backpackers can never count on is water and as well, the ranger lady had told us all the springs were dry. They do this I’m sure as insurance. You can’t really tell people everything is full and then have a hiker dehydrate and blame you. Boot Canyon was full of water and looked amazing. We had filters of course but didn’t need any more water (or weight) and continued on. Juniper Trail branches off here and we took it, ascending a few hundred feet to the top of the hill. For some reason I became pretty lethargic at this point and actually stopped and laid down for less than a minute with my pack on. I think I scared Celeste a moment but I was more being silly than anything else. We began to descend quickly after reaching the peak. The sun was getting pretty low at this point. If you don’t hike or backpack, then you probably think ascending is worse than descending but descending can be not only technically more difficult, but as well, more dangerous. As one of our trail friends said, “Descending is a different kind of pain.” This would be our (or mine at least, Celeste might disagree and go with the final descent for reasons you’ll read about later) worst descent of the trip.
The Juniper trail descends about 3 miles into the valley of the Chihuahuan desert. The trail was insane. Steep and loose switchback descents were blocked by large fallen trees, hidden rocks whose only job was to trip you and wet ground. The rewards however, outweighed the obstacles and provided us with gorgeous views of the distant mountains and more immediately, the basin we were heading to. One of the most spectacular things to me all through the trip was looking at where we had come from, especially while ascending or descending the mountain. Looking up three thousand feet to where you began is awe inspiring. We finally hit bottom in a run-off which was dry and began a minor ascent into the desert floor. At nearly sunset we rounded a corner and saw the Zone Camping sign which means we had reached the end of the established camping in the park and were now officially in the back country. At about the same time, we saw a lone tent and made way toward it. The grasses were high on either side of the trail here. At the side trail tent site we spotted Aaron and he extended a welcome to share his site which we graciously accepted. It was dim by the time the tent was up and dark by the time we began cooking. Temperatures drop fast in the desert and as soon as the sun went down it dropped to the mid thirties. It would hit 26° in the basin overnight. We climbed into our sleeping bags and went to sleep realizing that we would need to complete upward of 14 miles the next day in order to make up for what we didn’t make today.
Day 2 (14.1 Miles)
Day two dawned with a crisp morning at around 35°. (Panoramic pic to the left was taken from camp, click for a high-res full view.) I stepped out (fell out?) of the tent around 6:30am to have a look around. Aaron and Celeste woke up not long after. We made our way slowly, eating some cold cereal and packing away the tent, pads, etc. The sun broke over the mountains and it immediately began to warm up. We hit the trail at roughly 8am and Aaron, being much faster than us immediately pulled ahead and out of sight. The last three miles of the Juniper Trail, which we failed to complete the previous day, were mercifully level and we made steady, quick time. We had also lost a day of water including what we had cooked with which made the packs lighter. It was cool but warming up fast. We ran into Vikki, Warren and The Justins breaking down camp and waved. Shortly after we stripped off our cold layers, we arrived at the Juniper Trail/Dodson Trail head. There is a water cache here where we could have stowed another day’s water but for which we did not have time to do hence having to carry in two days worth at the onset. You also need a high clearance vehicle to get to this cache which we had but again, time did not allow.
We hit the Dodson trail feeling pretty good. We had completed just over three miles in only an hour and a half. None of the three trails which create the Outer Mountain Loop are “easy” but the Dodson has the least extreme ascents and decents. It winds through the desert up and down hills and through valleys and riverbeds. It was at one of these riverbeds where we found Aaron doubling back to tell us he had lost the trail and were waiting for us because he knew we had a GPS with topo maps installed. (I’m a geek, sue me). We set him straight and he quickly got ahead of us and out of sight. We did not see him again the rest of the trip. I’ve failed to mention so far that Celeste lead most of the trip. This was never planned in advance it just happened. I thought it might be fun for her to lead, to get to see what was coming and understand how to keep a trail in sight and find it when astray. She did an amazing job, so much so that I didn’t worry if we were on the trail or not. The Dodson trail is probably the least marked and easiest to lose of the three. Rock cairns mark the trail but, as Aaron proved, they are easy to miss in some places. Celeste was able to keep track of them and find them when we thought we may have strayed.
Day two was the warmest and had us stripped down to bare essentials by mid day. (Panoramic to the left was about mid-day on the Dodson). It was also about this time that Celeste stopped dead, let out an “eek” and side stepped a large tarantula. We let it pass and kept moving. The Dodson as I mentioned is hilly but not steep. We made good time but by two or so in the afternoon were getting pretty fatigued. We had completed the same amount of distance as the previous day but in half the time. We stopped to take a few pictures on the edge of a switchback overlooking about a 1000 foot ridge. It was here one of my trekking poles decided to take a dive over the edge. It caught most luckily on some scrub brush and we were able to fish it off the ledge.
We were determined to make up yesterday’s missed distance and complete day 2’s as well. By 4pm we were constantly looking for the trail’s end which would be known when we spotted the water cache I had stashed our water in and by the Homer Wilson Ranch House which sits near to it. The end of the Dodson makes wide arches around foot hills and a few small switchbacks. It was at one of these we came upon an injured hiker. He was using a trekking pole as a crutch. We had passed him several
times over the past couple days. He was a vagabond on holiday from school and just hiking around Big Bend and other area trails. He had blown out his knee pretty bad. Earlier in the day Celeste had also injured her knee but it wasn’t nearly as bad as this guy’s. (It would be later as you’ll read). We promised him we would wait for him at the cache to make sure he arrived. The water cache is right on Ross Maxwell Scenic drive, the only place in on the trail that comes anywhere near a paved road. He said he would hitchhike out so we wanted to make sure he didn’t collapse in the desert. We said our goodbyes and continued on.
About this time we were at twelve miles and were hoping the trail would end soon. I had done the math and figured 13.5-14.5 miles from our morning camp. The trail leveled out into a rocky creek bed and I knew were were close. The sun
was dipping behind the mountains and the air was cooling quickly when we spotted the water cache across the valley and the Homer Wilson Ranch in the distance. We trudged the three quarters of a mile across the valley and past the ranch to the water cache. The sun was setting nicely (Pic to the left taken from the water cache at sunset, that bright speck on the horizon is Venus.) and it was getting very cold. As we arrived at the cache, a large meteor graced the sky and I spun Celeste around to watch it. It fell for a good three seconds and lit up the sunset sky. As we located our water in the bear box and began to refill, our injured friend appeared and limped up to us, thanking us profusely for making sure he made it alright. We head-lamped it out of the water cache and down the trail toward the ranch where the Dodson Trail meets the Blue Creek Trail. You have to camp .5 miles up or down either trail so we headed a half mile up the Blue Creek and searched out a flat and only slightly rocky spot as best we could with our headlamps. We set up and cooked and quickly warmed up in sleeping bags. I got out a couple times and while it was clear, the moon gobbled up most of the star-light. You could easily see what you were doing using only the moon’s glow. It was gorgeous and crisp. We had completed 14.1 miles and were exhausted, falling asleep quickly.
Day 3 (10.1 Miles)
Day three dawned and was as previous mornings had been, crisp and cool but not uncomfortable. As daylight broke we realized we were not alone but surrounded by a few other backpacking groups flung out along the trail. We had heard voices and seen headlamps the night before but had no idea how close they were. Voices travel further in the silence of the desert. I mentioned Celeste had bummed her knee earlier the day before and it wasn’t happy this morning. She dug out the first aid kit and found the ace bandage, wrapping her knee. It helped, especially on flat ground and ascending, but the descents wracked her. We had our first hot breakfast this last morning, re-hydrated biscuits and gravy from Mountain House. Not bad at all. We packed up and headed down the trail. The beginning of the Blue Creek Trail is almost all riverbed with large, sharp rock for a path. Thankfully both of us wear heavy duty hiking boots but I could imagine someone without proper ankle support breaking an ankle every ten feet. Celeste was keen on the cairn markers and we never lost the trail. The trail winds through some gorgeous red rock formations, pinnacles and boulders that look like a miniature Bryce Canyon (As seen in the panoramic picture to the left). The trail winds out of the river bed and into some low, mostly flat rolling hills. There are canyon ridges on either side, some with large cave mouths.
Exiting the hills you walk through a nice canopy of Juniper trees and run offs that make you forget for a mile or so that you are in the desert. Finally, you come once again to the base of the Chiso’s mountains. The Outer loop takes you up and then down the Chisos the first day (Side trails and Juniper Trail), through the desert on the second (Dodson Trail) and then back to the other side (Blue Creek Trail & Laguna Meadows Trail, behind Emory peak) on the third. We had a day of switchbacks in store for us. We began the ascent and ran into other hikers, including a couple we had run into the day before who were doing the loop in the opposite direction. Above us, far above us, we could see the top of Emory Peak. We knew from other hikers that we would be ascending to the base of the peak which looked… Far… The switchbacks are about four miles up with a 3000 ft ascent. They went on forever. Celeste’s knee was holding up, but we were tired and rested here and there. Hours went by and as we reached more flat areas, our four trail friends caught up with us. (Pic to the right was taken around this time).
Around 3pm we reached the base of Emory Peak and the high-point of the day, around 7000 ft. It leveled out and Celeste pointed out the sign (pointing in the other direction) that read “Zone Camping”. This meant we were officially leaving the back country for the more established part of the park. Half a mile later this was immediately noticeable by not only the signs pointing to different trails and the composting toilet with established camping sites but also the number of day hikers. The South Rim trail meets here and many day hikers were present. When in the back country, the solitude is the main draw. Aside from our trail friends and a few others, we saw no one. We would go hours and on the Dodson, nearly a day, without seeing another person. The Blue Creek trail ends at this junction and we took off our packs and rested with Warren and Vikki. They began the descent and we stayed a bit longer.
Celeste’s knee was preparing to give her hell. We had another 3.5 miles of descending switchbacks before we reached the Chiso’s Basin. The view of rooftops below which were those of the lodge where we had begun were misleading in their nearness. We donned our packs and began to descend. Celeste’s knee had to be monitored so we took it slow and for the first time on the trip for any mentionable distance, I look the lead. I called out hazards as she had for the previous two and a half days. We competed with day hikers, almost all curious about our large packs and haggard expressions; “You guys look tired!” was always met with a “30 miles in the desert back country will do that”. I don’t have anything against day hikers, I like to day hike myself, but it seems to me that they enjoy making sure someone else feels worse than they do and assuming they are on the same hike. Finding out that we were on the last leg of a three day, 15k elevation tour carrying 50 lbs on our backs to their 5 lb hydration packs usually humbled them. We weren’t bad-asses, we were just ready for food that didn’t come out of a bag. (The picture to the left is looking up at the peak we had descended from.)
We made our way carefully, passing many other hikers heading to Laguna Meadow or the South Rim. One couple in particular had us looking in the newspaper the next day for a story about a rescue. These two were heading to where we had camped the night before. Some 7 hours away. They had a car there they said. The problem was, they were carrying only hydration packs and even if they were twice as fast as we were, it would be well after sunset and very cold when they arrived. They were both wearing shorts, and the man’s legs looked like he had run through a bramble filled thicket singing the Sound of Music. To be more precise, it looked like someone had tried to inflict a well known torture technique aptly called “Death by a thousand cuts”. However, what struck me as most entertaining was the huge can of bear spray he had holstered, yes, holstered, to his hip. Big Bend has a small (very small) black bear population who would rather investigate your food than attack you. Sure there is always a danger, but these guys are more apt to run from you than anything else.
The descent was not hard in the technical sense but Celeste’s knee was not giving her any joy. Several times I “threatened” to call the rangers and have her carried down on horse-back to which she repeatedly “threatened” to impale me with a trekking pole. 🙂 We finally made it down just before sunset and found our trail friends in the parking lot. (The picture to the right is of Celeste close to the end, trail wary and cursing her knee about .7 miles from the Chiso’s mountain lodge. This fork is also where, three days earlier, we had gone left to begin our adventure.)
Once in the parking lot, all talk turned to food. Real (ish) food, that came from a kitchen. The Justin’s were in their truck and they along with Warren and Vikki were going to Terlingua to stay for the night. They knew of a Mexican place and we followed them out of the park. Driving was an interesting thing but we made it the thirty or so mile out of the park and to the restaurant which had roughly 10 seats. We waited and eventually joined another party at their table and who by fun coincidence, was someone Vikki had gone to school with. We swapped fun stories from the trail including one of my favorites about a trail runner who “didn’t believe in mountain lions”, a story better told by Justin. We said our goodbyes, exchanged contact information and headed to a hotel for the night. Showers are the best thing ever.
Summary (And some fun stuff)
I did quite a bit of research on Big Bend’s Outer Mountain Loop before deciding to hike it. It had been many years since I’d done an extended backpacking trip and this would be Celeste’s second trip, the first being much shorter and much less technical. Some of the take aways I came out with are below and pertain to both this hike in particular and to backpacking in general. Below that are some things Celeste wanted to share that pertain mainly to the female persuasion when it comes to backpacking (not necessarily just for Big Bend).
Cache water at both caching spots if you are able. The spot at Juniper/Dodson Trail requires 2 hours minimum to drive to from the park office and a high clearance vehicle. 4WD is recommended. If you can cache here you’ll only need to carry one day’s with of water at a time. Our first day was three miles short of our goal and at least part of that was due to the extra water we had to carry.
Train. Both Celeste and I are runners (albeit less so lately) and training will absolutely make your like more enjoyable and safer. I recorded 15,500 feet of elevation changes (The rangers say 20k). This mostly achieved on a 16 inch path and at times on no path, through terrain ranging from sand to large loose quarry rock.
Choose your footwear wisely and absolute wear boots with ankle support.
Don’t pack too much or too little. We packed too much food, envisioning wondrous relaxation at the end of each day. In reality, by the time camp was set up, it was so cold and we were so tired that all we wanted were sleeping bags.
Look up once and awhile. Especially within this hike, footing was not always assured. I spent a good portion of the hike navigating rocks, loose berms on switchbacks, etc. Stop. Look around. It’s gorgeous.
And some words from Celeste:
We girls love our skin so don’t do what I did and completely forget to apply a good coat of sunscreen before trekking down the trails.
Baby wipes are your best friend! Out in the middle of nowhere of course there aren’t good water sources for a nice shower but baby wipes can help clean up the areas that are starting to feel a bit dirty.
Don’t be afraid to be afraid. There are some trails that are a bit scary – loose rocks, small pathways where one slip could mean an airlift home. Fallen trees, large animals and so on. Breathing and going slower is the key. Don’t worry about keeping pace with your partners as your safety is the upmost concern especially when you aren’t too sure about an area.
Menstrual cycles are never fun especially on the trail. Thankfully there are so many different things we can do including tampons, diva cups and so on. What most women hikers rave about is the diva cup since you don’t have to worry about carrying extra tampons and waste container which means less weight in your pack.
Bring good sunglasses!! Leave your blinged up riding around the town glasses back home where they belong. On the trail you definitely need good protection for your eyes as well as needing to see! Sometimes the sun is so bright in your face that the trail is hard to see so fight back with some good shades.
You aren’t on the trail to look good/impress anyone. So leave the makeup at home! Or at least in the car or risk adding un-needed weight to your pack.
If you have longer hair like I do I’ve found the best and easiest way to keep my locks out of my face is in braids. I like braids better than say a ponytail or a bun b/c your hair won’t be a tangled mess by the time you make camp or by the time you are finished with your hike. I use just simple elastic hair ties, which are super light if you need to carry any with you.
Unfortunately with hiking, blisters do happen not only on feet but if you utilize trekking poles, on your hands as well. So be prepared with some good moleskin to place on top so you can keep on keeping on.
Speaking of feet one of the best things I have found that helps especially before a long hike – trim those toenails. This helps especially those times when you are going downhill and your toes are nice and comfy with the end of your boot.
Finally, trekking poles are absolutely the best! If it wasn’t for these amazing things I definitely would not have been able to get past some portions of my hikes. They are worth the investment!
I had a few people ask about what gear we carried for a three day, two night desert hike. I’ll try to touch on most of it and provide links where applicable.
The tent we used was a Northface Tadpole 23. I won’t post a link because this particular tent was made ten years ago. It did us fine but this was it’s last hurrah.
We cooked using an MSR MicroRocket Stove. Love this thing. The ignter wasn’t great but that’s why you carry emergency matches. (Which we never had to use but got close once).
For boiling and at times, eating, we used a GSI Pinnacle Dualist. I’ve taken this on a lot of trips but it’s probably more than most need. I bought a GSI Halulite Minimalist to shave about half the weight and will try it out soon.
Our headlamps are both Petzl. They are bulletproof and light-weight no matter what version you choose.
Celeste carried a Gregory Deva 70 which is a ladies 70L pack. She absolutely loved it for comfort and balance.
I carried an Osprey Atmos 65. I’ve taken this pack on a couple trips and it’s done well for lighter loads up to 35 lbs but it was a bit uncomfortable the first day. It leveled out nicely and eventually I forgot it was there (which is what a proper fit should do). I recently replaced it with an Osprey Aether 70 which has a better hip belt.
Celeste uses an REI Brand Down sleeping back which she adores. (I’m unsure of the name but it’s a 15° degree bag).
I use an older Northface Cat’s Meow 20 ° bag which has always done me fine except for an annoying snag on the hood.
There are other miscellaneous odds and ends but that is the main list. Food was mostly dehydrated packs by Mountain House and a couple other brands which REI sells. Dehydrating your own food is also the way to go and cheaper but time consuming.
——Below this line was from before and during the trip, saved for posterity.——
Celeste and I are embarking on a trip to Big Bend to go backpacking. We will be backpacking the “Outer Mountain Loop” using the linked itinerary. This post will serve as a spot to update (as we can) to let our friends and family know we are alive. 🙂 The trip is 30 miles round trip. We will be aiming for 10 a day but perhaps more. As there is limited service in the park, updates won’t be frequent especially as we get into the middle of the trip which is very remote. We will be driving to Big Bend on Dec 26th and sleeping overnight either at a hotel or at the trail-head in the Xterra. We will cache water and then start the hike on the 27th as posted in the itinerary. We should arrive back at the trail-head on the 29th late in the day. We will then either sleep at the trail-head or drive into Marfa and find a hotel. I’ll update as much as possible here with time/date/lat/long/ Please do not take lack of updates as being an issue as there will be little to no cell access in the back country. If an update has not appeared here by evening Tuesday, Dec 30th please contact Big Bend State park.
12/29/2014 – 06:45 – Doing well. Did 8.5 miles on day 1 and really humped it on day 2 with 14.1 miles. Made it to the water cache at sunset and hiked another .5 in the dark with headlamps. Just woke up to find we had phone service which I’m sure won’t last so thought I’d update. Oh, and cracked my phone 🙁
12/26/2014 – 19:37 – Made it to trail head had to double back to post update. Barely service so don’t expect updates until Monday or Tuesday- will update if possible. 12/26/2014 – 16:37 – Stopped in Ft. Stockton for the last real meal for several days.
12/26/2014 – 12:36 – Just west of Abilene. GPS says we should get to the park around 6pm.