Big Bend Chat

Big Bend National Park Q&A => Hiking the Mountains => Topic started by: bacon_on_top on November 11, 2016, 04:23:31 PM

Title: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 11, 2016, 04:23:31 PM
Hello all,  my boyfriend and I are heading to Big Bend for thanksgiving and with the closures in the chisos etc, we are looking for something other than the OML to backpack in the Sierra Quemada.  We are fairly experienced hikers/backpackers although mostly in colorado, not desert mountains.  We have already backpacked the south rim and marufo vega in big bend and are looking for something longer and more challenging.  We had originally planned on doing the OML but we want a back up itinerary or two in case the juniper and boot canyon zones remain closed.  We are also open to doing something in another part of the park.  Open to any and all suggestions and pointers!  Thank you!
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: VivaTerlingua on November 11, 2016, 04:34:57 PM
Don't know what your vehicle/shuttle situation is, but one option is to hike the length of Smoky Creek.  You could start at the river road and hike to either Mule Ears or Homer Wilson.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: House Made of Dawn on November 11, 2016, 04:55:36 PM
And be advised that latest word from the NPS Rangers is that the Chisos and OML camping zones will probably reopen by the Thanksgiving holiday. Not a guarantee, but that's the latest word.  So you may have ALL your options available!  Check in frequently with the park staff.  Best of luck!
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 11, 2016, 04:57:31 PM
we only have one vehicle, a subaru impreza (not a lot of clearance) but I've heard that some of the guide companies offer shuttle services?  is it possible to make a loop with smoky creek/dodson/ elephant tusk?  or possibly with dominguez spring?  What is the route over jack's pass like? and will I need a gps for some of these things?
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 11, 2016, 04:58:18 PM
finger's crossed for those opening up!   :crossedfingers: but if not it's always good to have backup!
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: House Made of Dawn on November 11, 2016, 05:06:42 PM
we only have one vehicle, a subaru impreza (not a lot of clearance) but I've heard that some of the guide companies offer shuttle services?  is it possible to make a loop with smoky creek/dodson/ elephant tusk?  or possibly with dominguez spring?  What is the route over jack's pass like? and will I need a gps for some of these things?

I have hiked the Dodson several times, and done both Smoky Creek and Elephant Tusk as long out-and-back hikes from base camps on the Dodson.  This was several years ago, before I used a GPS, and I did fine.  They both require excellent good maps and good map-reading skills. Down wash is always much less confusing than up wash. Heading up wash, every incoming sub-drainage beckons and it can be difficult to always ascertain the main wash/route.  I haven't connected those two Quemada trails via Jack's Pass, but I know many other people have and it's certainly do-able. I'll let others comment on the ease or difficulty of that route.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: mule ears on November 11, 2016, 05:10:01 PM
Multiple options in the Quemadas from either Mule Ears over look or Homer Wilson.  Look at the trip reports indexes (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/backpacking-trip-reports-index-2011/)  (there 3) under Sierra Quemada and center of the park.

Depends on how many days you have, here is a 4 day trip report from Homer Wilson (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/your-trip-reports/hwgtfisk-canyongtelephant-tusk-water!)

Fortunately there should be plenty of water in the springs and yes you might need a GPS, depends on how good you are at maps and off trail route finding.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: House Made of Dawn on November 11, 2016, 05:11:58 PM
we only have one vehicle, a subaru impreza (not a lot of clearance) but I've heard that some of the guide companies offer shuttle services?  is it possible to make a loop with smoky creek/dodson/ elephant tusk?  or possibly with dominguez spring?  What is the route over jack's pass like? and will I need a gps for some of these things?

I have hiked the Dodson several times, and done both Smoky Creek and Elephant Tusk as long out-and-back hikes from base camps on the Dodson.  This was several years ago, before I used a GPS, and I did fine.  They both require excellent good maps and good map-reading skills. Down wash is always much less confusing than up wash. Heading up wash, every incoming sub-drainage beckons and it can be difficult to always ascertain the main wash/route.  I haven't connected those two Quemada trails via Jack's Pass, but I know many other people have and it's certainly do-able. I'll let others comment on the ease or difficulty of that route.

Also, for what it's worth, I think it's much easier to walk down wash in the Smoky Creek drainage and up canyon in the Elephant Tusk drainage.  From what I can tell, it's also easier to approach Jack's Pass from the west and descend it to the east.  So all pf that would argue for a counterclockwise trip through the Quemadas.  Again, what ever you wind up doing, best of luck!  Have a great trip.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 11, 2016, 09:03:00 PM
Thank you for the pointers! How reliable are the water sources out there? Would we need to carry more than 1.5 days water at any given time? And any idea about mileage and timeframe (days/night) for this loop or something where we base camp on the Dodson? How does a trip like this compare to the OML?  Sorry if these questions are redundant or seem silly! Just trying to be prepared for several possibilities. And seriously, thanks again for the responses so far! I'm getting pretty excited!


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Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: Jalco on November 11, 2016, 09:33:40 PM
Don't rule out Big Bend Ranch State Park next door.  Lots of backpacking options there as well.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: House Made of Dawn on November 11, 2016, 11:10:58 PM
Thank you for the pointers! How reliable are the water sources out there? Would we need to carry more than 1.5 days water at any given time? And any idea about mileage and timeframe (days/night) for this loop or something where we base camp on the Dodson? How does a trip like this compare to the OML?  Sorry if these questions are redundant or seem silly! Just trying to be prepared for several possibilities. And seriously, thanks again for the responses so far! I'm getting pretty excited!


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Water sources in the area should be reliable; this has been an extraordinarily wet year. Fresno Creek, Mule Ears Spring, Dominquez Spring, Double Spring should all be reliable, plus at least one or two others north of Elephant Tusk along or near the trail to the Dodson.  I doubt you'd ever have to carry more than 1.5 days of water.  As far as comparing it to the OML, I'd say a Quemada loop would definitely take more time (4-6 days depending upon exact route and how hard you push). And the route-finding will be significantly more difficult. Again, though, let me emphasize that I have only hiked the established trails and not the off-trail connection between Smoky Creek and Elephant Tusk. Others that have done it will hopefully weigh in with much better and more specific field knowledge.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: House Made of Dawn on November 11, 2016, 11:15:56 PM
Check out this report that just this minute came in!

Hi everyone, first time poster here.  Just finished a 4 day backpack in the Sierra Quemada today, and wanted to give back for all the great info from this forum.  I'm a long time hiker in the park.  The short version is that there is plenty of water right now.

My hike was Mule Ears to Dominguez to Double Spring to the Waterworks and back via the Dodson and Smokey Creek.

In the order of my trip:

Smokey Spring was flowing and filterable but a little green.  Dominguez is running strong over the dam.  Double Spring is also strong.  Elf Spring as well.  Elephant is marshy.  There is plenty of water above Zapato Tuerto, where the ET trail hits the wash from the south.  It's flowing like a creek from there all the way to Skip and Jump.  Smokey Creek has lots of water from above the dam to past Witch Spring.  Again flowing like a creek in many stretches, though it looks like the water levels aren't as high as they were recently, so that may not continue.  More water intermittently to Willow Spring, easily filterable.  Went to check out Rhyolite Spring, but there was too much vegetation to get close enough.

Again, a big thank you to everyone who posts regularly on this site.  It's a wealth of information on one of my favorite places.
Title: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 12, 2016, 04:32:50 PM
okay, so what BradATX just did sounds pretty appealing! I have tried to map his route

Does this seem viable?  Also, will we be okay without ropes?  I'm not really interested in adding that particular type of challenge on top of the route finding.  I have a couple points marked in with question marks if anyone can confirm that those are correct and/or viable?  Also, any good campsite recommendations along the way?

If given a choice between this, and the OML, which one would yall recommend?

This site is amazing!
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: mule ears on November 12, 2016, 05:22:19 PM
I think your map might have shorted out.  Here is a rough attempt at his route (http://caltopo.com/m/0TBT) with some springs marked. 

This is a pretty advanced off trail route in my opinion.  If you are comfortable with route finding and map reading then OK, if not I would not try it.  No ropes necessary, the drop down the east side of Jack's Pass is very steep and slow.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: BradATX on November 12, 2016, 07:02:55 PM
Mule ears route is very close, with the 1st and 3rd days being the same.  His route includes our Plan B route for day 2, if we were tired from the first day but OK to continue.  We did our more ambitious day 2 route which was to contour clockwise around Dominguez Mountain up to the saddle just north of the mountain, summit the mountain if safe to do so (it was), then head between points 4722 and 4310 for Double Spring.  Day 2 ended at the saddle above Zapato Tuerto.

This was a fantastic trip, and highly recommended for someone with the right skill level.  Given that, I have several big cautions:

1)  We had multiple bail-out routes pre-planned to shorten the trip if things weren't going well.

2)  My hiking partner and I are distance trail runners.  I prefer low profile trail running shoes + gaiters + tweezers to hiking boots in the desert.  We didn't run on this trip of course, but we probably move faster than most.

3)  We had multiple redundant navigation methods in case of problems: touchscreen GPS with topos, routes and springs loaded (very fast orienteering); a simple GPS as backup + marked up USGS topos (in waterproof case) + major spring exact UTM coordinates + UTM grid overlay (still reasonably fast); compass + strong map & compass navigation skills (slows you way down).

4)  The desert grasses have apparently enjoyed a banner year because they are taller than most of the cairns on the trails, making them harder to find than the usual level of hard.  This slowed us down.

5)  We had multiple filtration options, and extra water storage options in case of leaks.

6)  We had great weather, mostly cloudy with reasonable temperatures.  This made us faster.

7)  I carry a PLB, but try to stay conscious of the dangers of risk compensation: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_compensation]

8 )  The day before I started my trip, there was a search-and-rescue on Smokey Creek where someone got in over their head.  The rangers at both the Basin and Panther Junction were grumpy about it, and the PJ ranger told me that my route was "very dangerous".  For the average hiker and without the proper preparation, she was probably right.

If this is within your abilities and you have the proper planning and preparation, then go for it.  But keep in mind that the OML is pretty awesome too.

Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 12, 2016, 10:48:43 PM
indeed! my map did short out!  I'm not the most computer savvy person.  The map from Mule Ears is pretty close to what I had mapped out, and that map answers some of my marker questions that I had tried to include.  I'm a good map reader and I have a  SPOT, but I'm thinking this trip may be a good excuse to purchase a GPS unit.   

After giving this some thought, I am not entirely sure my partner is ready to go off route (he does not have experience with route finding) which makes me think that perhaps hiking up mule ears to smokey creek and then base camping near fresno creek and adding a day of exploration with lighter loads around waterworks might be a nice trip.  Would this work well as an out and back?  How is route finding on dodson and smokey creek as you head south back towards Mule Ears?

Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: BradATX on November 12, 2016, 11:38:50 PM
For completeness, here's a map of my route:  http://caltopo.com/m/QVSH

Smokey Creek isn't too bad to follow for the most part.  South to north is a little harder because you have to choose the correct wash when there is a split.  There was a reroute in one spot a long time ago, but if you have a modern USGS quad and are good at looking for cairns, you'll be fine.   The Dodson is easy to follow.  The Elephant Tusk trail is hard to follow with tall grass obscuring the route.  My night 2 spot ended up being a great location by the Waterworks, however that's a pretty long distance to go in one shot from Mule Ears.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: mule ears on November 13, 2016, 06:02:54 AM
Brad thanks for the improved map, I will get mine off my Caltopo account now.  Nice route, how was that climb/circumnavigation of Dominguez on the west side?  It has always looked steep and brushy.  I have been over the pass on the SE side twice and it was not bad.  I now really look forward to some pictures of the summit!

You walked right by the most remote spot in the park (http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/big-bend-questions-and-answers/the-most-remote-place-in-big-bend/) on that climb up Dominguez.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: Talusman on November 13, 2016, 08:21:06 AM
That;s a great trip report sir! As already noted by others, I look forward to seeing some pictures. That is a great alternative to the OML, and there are many potential alternatives. Thanks for sharing your notes and map. Mules Ears link to the most remote spots in the park are like posting the new summits that must be accomplished as well! Well done sir!
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: bacon_on_top on November 13, 2016, 12:02:12 PM
I'm still working out how to display the Gmap4 route I've made without a million characters, but what I have in my mind now is hiking mule ears, and then up north along the Smokey Creek trail towards the dodson.  I'll camp around BradATX's night 3 camp the first night, and then somewhere near Fresno creek on the Dodson the 2nd night.  We will spend our third day without heavy packs and explore Waterworks and down trail on towards elephant tusk and then sleep at our Fresno Creek area camp again for night three.  If we wanted to hike out the next day, we could book it out to Homer Wilson and hitch back to our car at Mule Ears, or if we want to stay out, we can backtrack down Smokey creek and spend a fourth night out before heading back to the Mule Ears overlook.

Can anyone comment on the ease or difficulty of hitching from Homer Wilson to Mule Ears?

I can't thank yall enough for the info!  I'm VERY excited for this adventure!
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: BradATX on November 13, 2016, 05:34:12 PM
Very cool info on the most remote place in Big Bend!   The climb up Dominguez was definitely steep and brushy.  Contouring up that steep side was probably the most difficult part of the hike for me.   The brush made it easy for my trekking poles to get tangled up while trying to keep good balance on the slope, and in the end I was holding the very top of my left trekking pole and the midpoint of my right to keep stable.  You can see from the little blob on my track where the contouring ended.  It was a nice spot to take a break, and it was a much easier semi-scramble straight up from there.

I'm starting to put together a trip report to post in a few days.
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: TheWildWestGuy on November 13, 2016, 09:23:10 PM
As an alternative to the OML and the High Chisos madhouse this next 2-3 weeks I think that the Sierra Quemada's is a good idea. 

You can park at Mule Ears Overlook and hike past Mule Ears into Smokey Creek then North to the Dodson and over to Fresno Creek and down to the Waterworks and back (~2-3 nights) or you can hike out to Homer Wilson and hitch hike back to Mule Ears Overlook or just reverse and go back the way you came.  (also 2-3 nights).  There will be lots of people in the park for the next 2-3 weeks at least so there should not be much problem getting a ride.  I have only hitch hiked once from Homer Wilson to Mule Ears Overlook and it was not much of a problem.   People are friendly and I look pretty old and harmless.   Be sure to get Zone Camping Permits and a parking pass at the ranger station and park far in the rear at the Mule Ears Overlook as this is a busy area all day long.   Don't block the tourist area with your vehicle park a little further away since you will be leaving it there for multiple days.

There is water along these routes in several spots in the Smokey Creek drainage along with reliable water at Fresno and the Water Works and maybe some "free" water in the bear box at Homer Wilson Ranch.    The trail from Mule Ears to the Dodson is a little faint in places but should be easy to follow as long as you pay attention to where you are walking.  If you want to go down to the Waterworks the best way is to head straight downstream in Fresno Creek.  I do NOT recommend the Elephant Tusk trail from the Dodson down towards the waterworks because it is hard to follow and overgrown.   You can take it if you need too but I would rather boulder hop and scramble around cats-claw in the Fresno drainage down to the waterworks.   IMO anyway.    TWWG
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: TheWildWestGuy on November 13, 2016, 09:35:29 PM
BTW   if you have never been to the Waterworks (Skip and Jump Tinaja's) it should be on your bucket list.  It is a very interesting area where a bunch of plunge pools connect and have flowing water between them and small waterfalls and perfect pools of water 2-5 feet deep with cattails and lush vegetation (for Big Bend anyway).   You can work your way around the steep area on either side and see a perfect example of a fault at the bottom of the waterworks where different rock formations are exposed on either side of a knife-edge fault scarp.  Textbook example.    The Waterworks is about 80-120 minutes downstream hike from where the Dodson crosses Fresno Creek (just follow the drainage downstream).  You will need to climb over/across several large boulders and around/through several sections of cats-claw and other nasty vegetation so you will need to be reasonably fit and wear long pants/long sleeve shirts.  Bring a day pack and be prepared for anything.  There is no cell service so be prepared to be your own first responder or maybe someone else's.   TWWG
Title: Re: Sierra Quemada backpack routes. not OML
Post by: House Made of Dawn on November 13, 2016, 09:46:06 PM
There is no cell service so be prepared to be your own first responder or maybe someone else's. TWWG

Word.   :eusa_clap: