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Solo OML hike in March

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Offline treeotter

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Solo OML hike in March
« on: February 11, 2018, 10:28:52 PM »
Hello! First-time poster here. I'm planning my first trip to Big Bend! I'll be here March 4-8, arriving early to mid-afternoon on Sunday and leaving first thing on Thursday morning. I'm excited about hiking the OML, but I'm having some trouble figuring out timing/logistics, and am also worried about crowds this time of year.

My original plan was to arrive mid-day on Sunday, get my permit, and cache water at Homer Wilson and possibly Juniper Canyon (I won't have a high-clearance vehicle, though...) and camp in one of the park's developed campgrounds before setting out on the OML first thing Monday morning. I was envisioning a three-day/two-night excursion, possibly also staying in a frontcountry campground Wednesday night when I get off the trail.

From reading through this forum, though, I'm getting more and more concerned about crowds even in early March. All of the reservable campsites in the front-country are booked up during my time there, so that part of the plan is already out. So, a few questions for the group:

-How do people typically handle camping on the nights that bookend a this trip? I'm totally not averse to hiking a bit on Sunday to reach a campsite, but realistically I probably won't make it too far when I factor in the time it'll take to get a permit and cache water, etc. I don't want to necessarily bank on getting a walk-up front-country site either, and backcountry sites in the Chisos seem to fill up fast. Any suggestions? (I'm really not wedded to a particular OML itinerary/starting place, if that helps.)

-When people talk about crowds on the OML in early March, what exactly do they mean? I've heard people use "crowded" to mean anything from "you'll see a few people every hour" to literal trail traffic jams. One of those things is fine, the other seems very undesirable. :)

-Are there other itineraries I might want to consider instead of the OML? I'd really like to backcountry camp for a few nights, but as a Big Bend newcomer I'm a little intimidated by the vast expanse of park on the map that doesn't seem to be very highly traveled!

A little about me, if that helps: I'm in my 20's and am in good overall physical condition. I have a lot of hiking and backpacking experience, including in desert conditions with a lot of elevation gain. (I've backpacked rim to river and out again in the Grand Canyon multiple times, for instance. That's sort of my baseline for "challenging but very doable") I'm not a hardcore ultralighter but my gear is on the lighter side--though of course water weight will work against me on this trail. I want a fun and physically challenging adventure, but I don't want to overestimate my abilities in a new place and end up in trouble, especially as a solo hiker. (So, I don't want to do anything that requires a lot of sketchy challenging off-trail navigation, for instance.)

Thank you in advance!

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2018, 11:29:43 PM »
WELCOME to the board, treeotter!!!!

If you've done the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, then the OML will be a piece of cake. Maybe a few route-finding hiccups here and there, because unlike the GC, the OML is lightly traveled. Which leads to my second point, the OML sees substantially less traffic than the popular GC routes. You may see a dozen more people, at most, during your trip, but you'll never experience a "traffic jam". Big Bend is perhaps the least-visited National Park in the system outside of Alaska.

As far as bookends, you might consider skipping the Basin altogether and starting your trip from Homer Wilson and hiking in your very first day. Here is something I recently posted on another thread:

"Get your permit, drive to the parking area above the Homer Wilson ranch house trailhead, and just begin your hike. As long as you can make the required distance beyond the historic ranch house, you can zone-camp anywhere. If if you only make it a half-mile, you’ll have a better, more-isolated spot than you could find at any convenient roadside campsite or established campground. AND you’ll be that much further along on your OML! The extra water/food/fuel needed for the added night shouldn’t be a problem because you’ll only be carrying it for an hour or so, and only downhill and along fairly flat terrain. You’ll be starting in the late afternoon, but in February, the temps shouldn’t be prohibitive. Could be anywhere between sub-freezing to the 80’s. Whichever direction you’re heading, it will put you in a good position to tackle the coming ascent early the next morning. I’ve followed this plan a couple of times and have enjoyed it."

Once you've completed your OML (whichever route and direction you choose) you'll probably have time to drive to Study Butte or Terlingua and stay in one of the inexpensive motels there. Get a hot shower. Go eat at one of the good joints in town. Have a beer or a margarita.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline dprather

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2018, 11:31:06 PM »
Welcome.  You have come to the right place (please keep reviewing OML posts). 

BTW - by your description of your experiences and skills, you sound as if you will do well on the OML (but please memorize the map) (and please be aware that the OML eats fit, experienced, and skilled people).

The beginning of March is the beginning of the extended, profane Spring Break desecration of our holy land.  Universities schedule their spring breaks all over the March calendar, and from all over the calendar, and from all over the country, college kids flock to the Bend.  In recent years, the OML has become a tough guy challenge, and many college tough guys and tough gals have decided to give the OML a try.  Note: your dates in March are pretty early, and might come before the worst of the Spring-break crunch.

How does this impact you?  The trail itself is not the problem (although the wilderness experience is profaned by the presence of way too many).  One of the biggest problems is standing in line to get your backcountry permit - lines that normally take 15 minutes can take HOURS!!!!!  A second problem is that the OML can be closed (it has happened to me) - that is, the rangers up and declare that no more permits for the OML will be written. 

If you do get your permits for your OML, your first-night camping problems are over.  You can hike up or down the trail, no matter where you begin, and find a site.  It might take upwards of 30 minutes, but you can find a legitimate trail-side spot to crash.  There are designated camp sites (that you'd have to reserve) going up Pinnacles (none until the top of Laguna Meadows).  If you begin at Homer Wilson, or at the Juniper Canyon/Dodson trailhead, you might not even have to hike ten minutes before you will find well-used camp sites that can be covered by your zone camping permit.  The opposite can take care of you last might - just stay on the trail one more night.  This is,of course, a worst-case scenario (but the worst case is FOR REAL- a buddy of mine had to get a room in MARFA to be able to visit the Bend with non-backpacking friends this coming March).

There are some other trails in the Park, notably the Marufo Vega Trail, and the Mesa de Anguila Trail.  These two trails present some additional challenges - for example, they do not have easy "bail-out" points, have virtually zero water, and they are less traveled. 

You strongest asset is your willingness to ask questions. 

Good luck. 
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #3 on: February 12, 2018, 06:07:54 AM »
Again Welcome.

Fortunately you will be arriving prior to the big crush.  The week you will be there is spring break for many smaller colleges and mostly Eastern schools.  The following week is when all the Texas schools and universities have there break and that is when all hell breaks loose.  Here is the spring break calendar for those interested.

I like HMoD's suggestion and I would not spend the time trying to cache water at Juniper.  Fresno will have water (as dprather says, memorize the map and locations of things) the bigger question will be water in Boot Canyon (should be but you will need to check here for reports).  The NPS will not give you accurate spring reports and will tell you to carry all your water.  If there is water in Boot Canyon or Upper Juniper spring then you can spend a night in the Chisos, preferably the South Rim and those sites are easier to get at the end of an itinerary as most folks try and get them for their first night.

If you haven't found it yet here is the OML FAQ
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
http://40yearsofwalking.wordpress.com/

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Offline presidio

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #4 on: February 12, 2018, 07:35:57 PM »
The beginning of March is the beginning of the extended, profane Spring Break desecration of our holy land.  Universities schedule their spring breaks all over the March calendar, and from all over the calendar, and from all over the country, college kids flock to the Bend.

I always have been bewildered by the idea that people in college, who presumably are there to prepare for the real world of employment and life outside the academic bubble, continue to be pampered and accommodated by higher education institutions with middle-school recess.

In the real world, there is no spring break. There is vacation time, which you earn by WORKING, and which generally you may take at your leisure, subject always to the sometimes non-negotiable demands of employers.

Undoubtedly, it's a rude awakening for quite a few when their lives are upended by employers who could care less that they used to get a week off in late winter/early spring. Those unable to grasp the realities of the real world may find themselves on permanent break...without income.

It's also puzzling why there is no equivalent "fall break" (thank goodness).
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<  presidio  >
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Wendell (Garret Dillahunt): It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones): If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.
--No Country for Old Men (2007)

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Offline dprather

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #5 on: February 12, 2018, 08:07:47 PM »
The beginning of March is the beginning of the extended, profane Spring Break desecration of our holy land.  Universities schedule their spring breaks all over the March calendar, and from all over the calendar, and from all over the country, college kids flock to the Bend.

I always have been bewildered by the idea that people in college, who presumably are there to prepare for the real world of employment and life outside the academic bubble, continue to be pampered and accommodated by higher education institutions with middle-school recess.

In the real world, there is no spring break. There is vacation time, which you earn by WORKING, and which generally you may take at your leisure, subject always to the sometimes non-negotiable demands of employers.

Undoubtedly, it's a rude awakening for quite a few when their lives are upended by employers who could care less that they used to get a week off in late winter/early spring. Those unable to grasp the realities of the real world may find themselves on permanent break...without income.

It's also puzzling why there is no equivalent "fall break" (thank goodness).

College has become, for some, an extended adolescence, an additional expense for the previous generation that is consumed by a pampered generation.

 (I am pleased to report that my two sons worked their way through college).
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline presidio

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #6 on: February 12, 2018, 08:18:14 PM »
(I am pleased to report that my two sons worked their way through college).

As did my two.
_____________
<  presidio  >
_____________
Wendell (Garret Dillahunt): It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones): If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.
--No Country for Old Men (2007)

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Offline dprather

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #7 on: February 12, 2018, 08:55:31 PM »
(I am pleased to report that my two sons worked their way through college).

As did my two.

I am certain that it was a huge plus for them, as it was for mine
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline treeotter

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #8 on: February 12, 2018, 09:24:59 PM »
Thanks, all. This has been super helpful.


Fortunately you will be arriving prior to the big crush.  The week you will be there is spring break for many smaller colleges and mostly Eastern schools.  The following week is when all the Texas schools and universities have there break and that is when all hell breaks loose.  Here is the spring break calendar for those interested.

 The NPS will not give you accurate spring reports and will tell you to carry all your water.  If there is water in Boot Canyon or Upper Juniper spring then you can spend a night in the Chisos, preferably the South Rim and those sites are easier to get at the end of an itinerary as most folks try and get them for their first night.


Thanks! This trip is piggybacking off of a family event that brings me to this area, otherwise I'd have picked a non-March week. Glad to hear I might miss the biggest crowds, though. And good to know re: water--I'll definitely check water reports before setting out, as I'd prefer to avoid hauling my entire water supply if it's unnecessary.


How does this impact you?  The trail itself is not the problem (although the wilderness experience is profaned by the presence of way too many).  One of the biggest problems is standing in line to get your backcountry permit - lines that normally take 15 minutes can take HOURS!!!!!  A second problem is that the OML can be closed (it has happened to me) - that is, the rangers up and declare that no more permits for the OML will be written. 

If you do get your permits for your OML, your first-night camping problems are over.  You can hike up or down the trail, no matter where you begin, and find a site.  It might take upwards of 30 minutes, but you can find a legitimate trail-side spot to crash.  There are designated camp sites (that you'd have to reserve) going up Pinnacles (none until the top of Laguna Meadows).  If you begin at Homer Wilson, or at the Juniper Canyon/Dodson trailhead, you might not even have to hike ten minutes before you will find well-used camp sites that can be covered by your zone camping permit. 

Super helpful, thank you. This was my impression from reading through all of the zone camping info but I wasn't sure I was interpreting correctly. This is incentivizing me to try to arrive earlier on Sunday to increase my odds of getting the permit I want.


Once you've completed your OML (whichever route and direction you choose) you'll probably have time to drive to Study Butte or Terlingua and stay in one of the inexpensive motels there. Get a hot shower. Go eat at one of the good joints in town. Have a beer or a margarita.

The best reward!

Another question--Considering Marufa Vega as a backup option if I can't get an OML permit, but I see lots of warnings about it being hard to follow and poorly signed. What does that mean, practically speaking? Would someone with a good topo map and a bit of trail sense be generally okay?

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #9 on: February 13, 2018, 07:48:04 AM »
Quote
Another question--Considering Marufa Vega as a backup option if I can't get an OML permit, but I see lots of warnings about it being hard to follow and poorly signed. What does that mean, practically speaking? Would someone with a good topo map and a bit of trail sense be generally okay?

It is not hard to follow or poorly signed, some folks get confused at the bottom of the south fork where it splits to either go to the river or north along the river to the north fork.  Easy to follow and a great hike.
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
http://40yearsofwalking.wordpress.com/

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Offline Homer67

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #10 on: February 13, 2018, 11:38:47 AM »
Oh yeah, when I went to UT Austin at 37 it was sure a cakewalk.  No biggie maintaining my biz, cattle, horse, marriage and paying all my school expenses myself. It was like a return to second grade, I tell you. Biomolecular structure determination was the easiest class one could take, add physical chemistry to that. And all without a single bit of financial aid; I left that for those who need it. Spring Break just meant more time for the beer bong.

Now I am my own employer - 3 financial steams feed my lifestyle - and enjoy 10-12 weeks a year in a backpack. I love hearing those locked into strict notions of what is right talk of the real world. I'll not only pay for my daughter's college, I'll buy a condo so she can live across from campus, and even beyond that, I'll get her into her first house. Gee, you'd think i was a conservative...
« Last Edit: February 13, 2018, 11:49:39 AM by Homer67 »
Ah Big Bend, we will soon return to reacquaint ourselves in our ritual of blood, exhaustion and dehydration. How can we resist the temptation to strip ourselves of the maladies of civilization?

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #11 on: February 13, 2018, 01:26:52 PM »
Welcome to BBC, treeotter.  :icon_rolleyes:  It's a rollicking place but our bark is worse than our bite.  You're safe here.  And, yes, I agree with Mule Ears, you should have no problem hiking Marufo Vega. I haven't done it in over twenty years, and though I remember it being sketchy, back then I was less competent than you probably are. I think you'll be fine if you choose that option.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline dprather

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Re: Solo OML hike in March
« Reply #12 on: February 13, 2018, 05:03:17 PM »
Quote
Another question--Considering Marufa Vega as a backup option if I can't get an OML permit, but I see lots of warnings about it being hard to follow and poorly signed. What does that mean, practically speaking? Would someone with a good topo map and a bit of trail sense be generally okay?

It is not hard to follow or poorly signed, some folks get confused at the bottom of the south fork where it splits to either go to the river or north along the river to the north fork.  Easy to follow and a great hike.

Ditto: the MV isn't hard to follow.  The map is good.  The trail is pretty burned in.
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

 


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