Thursday, December 10, 2015

An Introduction to Big Bend National Park

Want to go backpacking in December? Head to Big Bend National Park in a remote corner of southern Texas. What makes this area so exceptional is the tree-covered mountains that rise up two thousand feet from the Chihuahan desert floor. Miles of trail and multiple loops provide plenty of options— maybe even too many options to choose from for the first-timer.
Pathfinder climbs the Pinnacles Trail
Pathfinder and I decided to begin with an overnight “scouting” trip to help us plan our week. How many miles would be be able to cover on these trails? Would the trails be well signed, or should we allow extra time for navigation?  Was there really no water in the backcountry (like the rangers said)? Was the Chisos interesting enough to warrant a few extra nights, or would we prefer to explore elsewhere? 
This view from the Rim convinced us to plan an extra trip to explore all the trails along the Rim.
An overnight scouting trip allowed us to answer these questions and prepare us for the rest of our time.
View from near the summit of Emory Peak.
After a quiet night at Chisos campground, an early start allowed us explore the Chisos, get in a side trip to Emory Peak (7825 feet), and get excited about the views from the Rim— all with enough time to get back to our backcountry campsite before the early arrival of dusk.
Looking down Boot Canyon at the fall color in December.
Within the first few miles, a hiker who just completed the Outer Mountain Loop gave us the scoop on the water sources.  Natural water sources were flowing! Sure we planned on carrying all the water we needed, and we cached water at the public cache box at Homer Wilson Ranch the previous day, but if there was an emergency, I was relieved there was backup water available for our trip over the next few days.
Natural water in Boot Canyon
Navigation seemed strait-forward. The trails were well-signed, and the trail maps I’d downloaded on my iphone via GaiaGPS gave even more detail than our Trails Illustrated #225 Big Bend paper map that we also both carried.

I adjusted quickly to Big Bend. Dry air filling my lungs and being immersed in the heat shifted me into desert hiking mode: salty snacks, regular footcare regime, layer upon layer to sunscreen, regularly sipping water (not gulping). By the end of the day, I’d completely left Montana behind, sailing silently around blind corners (no Grizzlies or moose here!). Instead, my mind filled with thoughts of water sources, dodging cactus spines, and listening to birdsong.

No grizzly bears here!
Near the winter solstice, long hours of darkness (even this far south), must be embraced.  When else do you have the opportunity of 12 hours of time, with nothing to do but think?  When else is it OK just to be quiet? To gaze up at the new moon sky, to marval at the Milky Way brightness.  To need nothing, feel legs recovering from the miles, not caring about the dirt and sweat.  This is what it is to be at peace.
Happiness is...
Overall, having an extra day to scout the area before planning our backpacking routes and campsites gave us a better idea of the water, terrain, and allowed us to gage how many miles we'd be able to cover.  Plus, we could get excited about this gorgeous area!

For more information on Big Bend:
NPS website --how to get your backcountry permits
Big Bend Chat


  1. Hemlock-
    You're in my old stomping grounds! If you did/do the Outer Mountain Loop you can hammock camp if you choose your spots carefully. I have lots of respect for those hardy souls that tried to make a living out there like Homer Wilson and Dodson. Best of luck.

    1. Hi there SlowBro! I was thinking of you out there, and wished I'd asked you about the hammock sites earlier. Ah well!

      Did the Outer Mountain Loop and it was wonderful! Already planning a return trip-- just so much to see a week was hardly enough.

      Hope all is well with you!

  2. Looks like a lot of great landscape painting sites!

    1. Absolutely--we needed an artist on this trip. There was too much beauty to fit into a camera.

  3. Replies
    1. Yep, we sure know how to plan! :) I was so glad to have a day to gather info and get a taste for the area. Doubt we'd have done that if it wasn't so necessary to keep going back to get water, but I think I'd use this technique again to explore other areas.

  4. Maybe it's the prisms in my glasses but some of those photos come through 3D! They pop.

    1. Thanks so much! It was a gorgeous place so glad that comes through! :)