The seeds of this trip were planted during our pre-Christmas December 2017 trip to Big Bend where we spent a great week of day hiking. We did Pine Canyon (saw a bear!), Mariscal Canyon Rim, the South Rim, Grapevine Hills (at night!) and a quick trip into the Sauceda Ranger Station at BBRSP.
I hadn’t done an overnighter at the Bend since my Mesa de Anguila fail with my older son about a year ago. Mrs. Congahead had been on the DL because of foot surgeries, but was now ready to tackle some tougher routes. I was itching to spend the night in the desert again and expressed this desire to the Mrs. She asked, “Do you want to come back out here in February for your birthday and backpack?”
Three guesses what my answer was, and the first two don’t count.
We decided to use this trip to fine-tune our off-trail navigation skills using only map and compass.
We chose the Chimneys area because it was flat(ish), we could go off-trail the entire trip, and it has good handrails and landmarks in case our navigation skills weren’t up to snuff. Also importantly, it has lots of potential water sources, so we wouldn't have to carry as much as we usually do out here.
We planned what would end up being an absurdly ambitious ~13-mile route that we’d cover in three days/two nights. We’d start at the Chimneys trailhead and make a counterclockwise loop that would visit, in order, the following springs: Heading Out, Tule, North, South, Red Ass, Wright Pool, Pena, Dos, Tres, Bee, unnamed just south of Chimneys, and Chimneys. Some of those are on the USGS topo and some are not. Most are not named; I filled in the blanks with locations and names from Google Earth. Our intention was to inventory all of these springs and provide a useful, up-to-date water report here on BBC.
We left on a Friday and took I-10/US90 from Houston. Stopped at Dzuik’s Alsatian Meat Market in Castroville for sausage and turkey jerky for our trek. This is fast becoming a Big Bend tradition for us. Highly recommended.
Checked in at the Chisos Mining Company Motel and had dinner at La Kiva. The next morning we prepped our feet, grabbed the breakfast buffet at Big Bend Resort and were at PJ when it opened at 9. Second in line; obtained our permit quickly from a very friendly, helpful, and efficient ranger. Within an hour we’re at the Chimneys Trailhead.
First stop, Heading Out Spring, which is not on the USGS topo but is on Google Earth. It’s about two miles in a straight line. Got the bearing off the map, applied it in the field, picked our reference point, and we’re off.
I’ve trekked a little off-trail in BIBE, but not much. It’s striking how much more difficult it is than on-trail travel – not just physically, but mentally. You are continuously executing macro, medium, and micro navigation simultaneously and having to think constantly. Conversely, when walking on trails, someone else has already done all of the macro and medium-term navigation for you.
We zig-zagged our way to the area of Heading Out Spring in about 2.5 hours, having been thrown off-course a bit by the terrain. We drop our packs. I set off to find the spring; Mrs. sits on the bank of a wash to rest. I wandered around for about five minutes and found what I thought was likely the spring, and it was dry. I return to report my findings.
“Do you smell something burning,” she asks.
“Yes. Smells like plastic or rubber.”
We sit and rest for another 30 seconds or so. Then Mrs. Congahead leaps to her feet. There’s an ember in her right shoe, and smoke is rising from it.
“It’s me! I'm on fire!”
She grabs her water bottle and douses her shoe, then sits down and rips off her shoe and sock.
There’s a hole in the side of her right shoe where the ember had burned almost completely through it. We go through her pack to see if any potential ignition source – iPhone battery, fuel canister, etc. – was the culprit. Everything’s in order. We examine her shoe again and finally develop a theory.
The gaiter she’s wearing has a metal grommet on the bottom right where the fire started. She had managed to sit still, in just the right position, for just long enough, in the blazing sun, for the grommet to get hot enough to ignite her shoe. I’m not sure what the odds are of that happening to anyone else ever again.
She rests for a bit – gaiters off – to let subside the adrenaline surge caused by her spontaneous combustion.
Okay, we’re 0-for-1 on springs. Next stop, Tule, a little over a mile away. We follow our pre-planned route almost to a tee, using nothing but map and compass. We arrive in about half an hour. We spend some time there knocking about the old ranching ruins. LOTS of water at Tule. We don’t gather any because we still have plenty and there are a lot more springs to go.
Next stop, North Spring, 1.5 miles away. We’ll hit North, South, and Red Ass, gather whatever water we need, and spend the night in the vicinity of Red Ass. Or so we think.
Along the way, the temps really pick up. Temperatures would top out at 82°F today, despite a forecast in the 70s.
We again follow the bearing to our next destination like a couple of pros. In the distance we see a lone cottonwood standing tall; that’s where the spring is.
As we get closer, we run into some thick brush, so we veer right. More thick brush. Okay, let’s go left instead. More thick brush. The first route looked better; let’s go back to that and weave our way through it. Nope; too thick. Okay, let’s go left again. Okay, there’s no easy way toward the spring, so let’s just hack our way through all of this crap and see what happens. We fight our way through ocotillo and lotebush – my new least favorite Chihuahuan Desert plant – for about 30 minutes, snagging our clothes, hats, packs and skin the whole time. It is slow, frustrating, and occasionally painful. There’s a wash up there – if we can just get into it, I bet it’ll be smooth sailing. We fight our way into the wash. I fall once getting into the wash. Mrs. falls twice. The second time she falls, I am holding her so she won’t fall.
We finally make it into the wash. It is impenetrable in both directions. And the other side of it is 12 foot, 60 degree wall of loose dirt and gravel. So the only way out is the way we came in. So we fight our way back out of it for another 30 minutes.
We finally make it to a small clearing. We are beat up, exhausted, and bloody. Bruises, scrapes, puncture wounds all over us.
Mrs. Congahead looks at me and says matter-of-factly, “Happy birthday.”
One thing we are very good at is calling an audible when we’re not having fun; the last hour had been anything but. And if North Spring is inaccessible without a machete and full body armor, what about South and Red Ass? And the others? So we decide on Plan B – find the nearest wash, walk east a bit, traversing known terrain, and find a place to camp. Then we’ll decide what to do. Using the topo and compass we quickly find and drop into the nearest wash. We tend to the worst of our flora-induced wounds and rest for about half an hour in the first shade we’d found all day. Then we walk for another hour; at about 17:00 we find a nice wide spot in which to set up camp. After supper we watch the magnificent Big Bend star show and talk about tomorrow. Then, per usual, we sleep in 20-30 minute spurts for the next 11 hours.
The next morning I use my inReach to pull down a weather forecast for the night. Just yesterday, it was for 37°F, which we are prepared for, but I wanted to see if it had changed. Indeed it had. Forecast is now for overnight lows in the teens. We discuss for a bit and realize that we’re not prepared for those temps and we’ll likely be miserable. Our three-day/two-night just turned into a two-day/one night.
So we follow the wash east as far as we can then cut cross-country and are at the trailhead by 10:30. A quick trip to Castolon to grab a Mexican Coke, then out of the park via Old Maverick Road, stopping to check out Luna’s Jacal.
We had birthday/Valentine’s reservations at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, so we call and move them up one night. We’ve eaten at the Gage several times but had never stayed there until this trip. Nice, although a bit pricey. Have a great meal at the 12 Gage. The overnight low of 11°F (!) validates our decision to bail a night early, without any guilt or remorse.
So while we didn’t come close to completing our planned route, this trip was still a success. We spent time together in our favorite place, had lots of Type 2 fun, and really refined a skill we’d hoped to work on, staying off-trail the entire trek. I now feel very confident in my map and compass skills.
Below is a link to a map of our route. Green is our planned route; red and blue are day one and day two, respectively. We ended up covering 11 miles in two days instead of 13 miles in three days as originally planned.https://caltopo.com/m/MVEF