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A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend

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Offline Jay M

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A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« on: January 17, 2016, 02:12:16 PM »
Hi guys. My girlfriend and I recently returned from our incredible one week visit to the park. I thought it would be good to post up a trip report from the perspective of a first-time BiBe visitor as well as a first-time backpacking in the desert. I will break down the trip chronologically by day so you can read the whole thing or whatever section most interests you.

Here was the itinerary for the visit:

Day 1 -- Arrival in Midland, drive to Stillwell Store to camp
Day 2 -- Lost Mine Trail, Casa Grande
Day 3 -- OML [Basin to Boot Canyon + South Rim]
Day 4 -- OML [Boot Canyon to Fresno Creek]
Day 5 -- OML [Fresno Creek to Blue Creek Canyon]
Day 6 -- OML [Blue Creek Canyon to Basin] + Hot Springs
Day 7 -- Santa Elena, Tuff Canyon, Mule Ears Spring, Buro Mesa Pouroff
Day 8 -- Marufo Vega + Hot Springs
Water Report
Final Thoughts

Day 1 -- Arrival in Midland, drive to Stillwell Store to camp:


We flew into Midland late afternoon as the sun was going down. We made the necessary pit stop to pick up camp fuel, last minute food, and water. We packed a vast majority of our backpacking food at home, so this was a quick stop. In hindsight, we purchased WAY too much water (8 Gallons) but we didn't know what water availability would look like at the campgrounds.

We stopped at Mi Casita in Fort Stockton for some Mexican Food on the drive down. It was good food, but nothing life changing. After filling up on the slowest gas pump I have ever seen in Marathon, (Less than one gallon a minute??) we drove on to camp at the Stillwell Store just outside the park. I can't recommend this place enough; They have very friendly staff, a shower included in the visit, private sites, and the same price as NPS camping. The ranch is large enough you won't see or hear any other campers on the property. Most importantly, if you are arriving late, you can make the final drive into the park in the morning light and see the spectacular scenery.

Day 2 -- Lost Mine Trail, Casa Grande

We made the drive from Stillwell to Panther Junction in the morning and got our permits with no issues. We drove into the Basin and set up camp at an open site and hit the trail before noon. Lost Mine Trail was specular, and we ate lunch at the overlook.



On the way back down, we had plenty of daylight left to attempt a Casa Grande summit. I’m a bit of a “trailless” peak junkie, and have done peaks in Montana and New York State, but Casa Grande was my first desert summit. In my foolishness / inexperience I completely forgot about cacti and nasty vegetation.  We were both wearing thin shorts and our legs were quickly destroyed by the less defined portions of the trail.

I had read the Casa Grande thread on this website and we started our attempt at marker 10 to avoid the erosion at marker 8. Unfortunately this starting point immediately sent us down the wrong trail, directly towards and over the false summit on the left side of the ridge. This section of the trail was pretty high exposure, with nasty scree sections. Once we crested the false summit we descended / bushwhacked through a wooded saddle before spotting a cairn that lead us down the right side of the ridge to the correct trail.



The trail over the false summit. Don't go here!



The proper trail to the actual summit. Up that way!



Once we picked up the correct trail the summit was fairly straightforward, albeit steep. We enjoyed the views from the top with nobody else around. This was definitely worth the adventure! On the way down, we kept on the Basin side of the ridgeline, and were able to go around the false summit and avoid the particularly nasty sections we had climbed. We did find a few misguided cairns that lead away from this main trail but we were able to backtrack and find the easiest way down. This main trail spat us out directly at marker #8 on Lost Mine Trail – we both wished we had found this correct trail in the first place because it was SUBSTANTIALLY easier than the way we took up.

I think a key takeaway for Casa Grande is that if you ever find yourself on the Juniper Canyon side of the ridge, you are on the wrong trail. The best way up and down seems to stay entirely on the Basin Side of the ridge. The GPS was also a real help in terms of navigating us back onto the correct trail after we followed some terrible cairn marked trails to dead ends.

Day 3 -- OML [Basin to Boot Canyon + South Rim]--  10 miles



On Friday we began our OML adventure. The planned route took us up Pinnacles Trail, into Boot Canyon where we dropped our gear, set up camp and at lunch at BC3. This meant we only had about 4 miles and 1500ft of elevation gain with our packs at their heaviest (~45lbs apiece each carrying 11L of water). We consolidated our gear into a single pack that weighed under 10lbs and proceeded to day hike Colima -> Southwest rim -> Southeast rim -> Northeast rim -> Boot Canyon back to BC3. By trading off the 10lb pack between us we were able to stay extremely fresh for the remaining days of our OML. Total mileage for the day was just over 10 miles, and we only carried packs for 4 of those miles. After enjoying a delicious dinner of Japanese seafood ramen, tuna, and vegetables, we retreated to our tent. Before going to sleep we made sure to stretch out and massage our muscles for at least an hour every night. I think this is a crucial step in order to make sure we were fresh for each day of hiking.


 
Day 4 -- OML [Boot Canyon to Fresno Creek] – 13 miles

We woke up Saturday feeling surprisingly well rested for our packs being almost 20 pounds heavier than we are accustomed to on the East Coast. After an early start we started our descent on Juniper Canyon Trail. This was my favorite part of the park we saw – the views of Casa Grande, Toll, and Lost Mine peaks coupled with the constantly changing vegetation as we dropped in elevation made this portion of the hike very memorable. We brought trekking poles specifically for this long descent, but we both found the trail wasn’t steep or rugged enough to justify using them. We put them away after a mile or so of hiking and didn’t touch them the rest of the trip. This is one area where New England hiking actually made us well prepared for Big Bend – the steepest trails in Big Bend ascend /descend on average half as many feet per mile as those in New York and New Hampshire, where 1000 to 1100 ft per mile stair climbers are commonplace. At around 500 ft per mile, Big Bend trails felt like well-maintained highways (plus cacti) in comparison.



We ate lunch at the bottom of Juniper Canyon Trail and moved onto the Dodson trail by 2pm. We were feeling pretty fresh still, so we figured we would carry our momentum as far across the Dodson as we could and shorten the remaining two days. By 5pm, we set up camp on the saddle just past Fresno Creek and ate dinner as the sun set behind us. After a thanksgiving meal of mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, and tuna, we went to the tent to stretch out before going to bed.



Day 5 -- OML [Fresno Creek to Blue Creek Canyon] – 10 miles

We slept in a little bit on Sunday after our big mileage previous day, enjoying the sunrise from camp. We hiked up to the small peak just south of Dodson where our tent was pitched and found a fantastic tent site with expansive views of the lower desert and elephant tusk. If only we had known about this site the night before, the sunrise would have been even more spectacular from this vantage point.



The view South from a time lapse taken just North of our campsite.



The view from the small peak to the right of the sun in the previous photo. There is an excellent tent pad here.

By 10:30 we were on the trail, and covered the 6 remaining miles of the Dodson by 1:30. I really enjoyed the last few miles of the Dodson. Descending into the lower desert and enjoying the expansive views was a real treat after the somewhat claustrophobic middle miles of the Dodson.
 
We ate lunch at Homer Wilson and explored the surrounding area before proceeding up Blue Creek Canyon. We stopped by the water cache, took inventory of our water, and picked up an extra 1.5L between the two of us. We had cached 2.5 gallons in the box, following the 1 gallon per person per day metric plus some extra just in case. We ended up not even needing the water cache at all. 11L apiece would have gotten us all the way through the 4 days, which really surprised me. I wouldn’t advise anyone to carry less water, or to not cache at Homer Wilson. I just find it surprising how little we drank despite being well hydrated. We averaged 2.75L /day including meals. I know the temperatures were in our favor with cold nights and pleasantly cool afternoons, and we both were adding and removing layers constantly to ensure we weren’t losing water to perspiration. If it had been hot whatsoever I’m sure we would have needed much more of our cached water at Homer. In the end, we carried a little more water weight than we should have, but we were never worried about running out of water, which in my mind is worth the extra pounds.

We set up camp pretty far into the zone, with great views of a massive cliff and cave just above the site. We enjoyed a dinner of easy mac, vegetables, extra melted cheddar from lunch, and spicy genoa salame.

Day 6 -- OML [Blue Creek Canyon to Basin] + Hot Springs – 5 miles



Monday was a short hike out, exiting the Blue Creek zone and descending the Laguna Meadows trail back into the Basin. I spotted a black bear on a ridgeline just before the junction with the Basin Loop trail, which was really cool to see. I originally thought it was a cub / teenager, but the bears in this park are really much smaller than the black bears in the Northeast so I now understand it was actually an adult.



We were back at our car by noon, enjoying a beer from Big Bend Brewery and lunch in the Basin parking area. We drove to the hot springs to relax before taking a shower at Rio Grande Village. Next we drove back across the park to retrieve our water at Homer Wilson, as well as enjoy the setting sun from Sotol Vista. At this point, our stomachs were growling for real food, so we drove on to Terlingua to enjoy a meal at Starlight Theater. Starlight did not disappoint , and with full bellies we drove to Croton Springs for the night. It was dark and cold by the time we arrived at the site, and it really looked like a dirt parking lot, so we decided not to set up the tent. We just got in our sleeping bags and slept in the rental which ended up being nice and cozy, and let us watch the stars without being out in the cold. (How quickly we go soft after a backpacking trip is over!)

Day 7 -- Santa Elena, Tuff Canyon, Mule Ears Spring, Buro Mesa Pouroff

Camping at Croton positioned us for a nice early start and a relaxing day on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive doing short side trips. We ate breakfast at Sotol vista before driving on to Santa Elena Canyon. We hiked into the canyon and enjoyed the incredible acoustics and scenery. An older gentleman had a cough further on down the trail and it was amazing how loud the canyon walls magnified the sound.


 
We enjoyed lunch in Tuff Canyon, which I can’t recommend enough. What an incredible space with a minimal walk in from the road.

Next up was Mule Ears Spring, which was a nice walk but not a highlight of the trip. The views of mule ears about a mile down the trail definitely highlighted the scale of the park. They seemed really tiny just two days before when we were hiking across the Dodson.

Last on our driving tour for the day we hiked into lower Burro Mesa Pouroff, where we relaxed in the wash beneath the cliffs and watched the world go by. It was amazing to me just how few people were in the park. Even on a short park-and-go walk like this, we saw not a soul. It seemed like we had the whole park to ourselves.

We drove to Terlingua for dinner and tried the Chilli Pepper Café… we left wishing we had went back to Starlight instead.

A night cruise across the park took us to Rio Grande Village, where we set up camp for the night. Through unfortunate misjudgment on our part we placed our tent directly next to a college age couple who I will kindly refer to from now on as Mr. and Ms. A-Hole neighbor. They were running their truck as a generator late into the night, blasting music, and in general being a bunch of drunken losers disturbing the peace. More on them later….

Day 8 -- Marufo Vega + Hot Springs

For our last day, we decided to day hike the Marufo Vega loop. Our short final day on the OML, coupled with the short walks the day prior, meant we were feeling up to the challenge. We hit the trail at 10 AM carrying lunch and plenty of water. Unlike our experience on the OML, we each actually drank 3L of water over the course of only 6.5 hours doing this hike. We skipped the extra mile of descent to the river, but we did do the rest of the 13 mile loop. “No Shade, No Water” absolutely applies to this part of the park.



I loved this hike and it was one of my favorites of the trip. I thought that the view of the Rio Grande near the halfway point of the hike would be the best part of the loop, and that the rest of the hike would be nondescript desert like some sections of the Dodson. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised by gorgeous canyons, washes, and craggy mountain views for the entire loop. I really enjoyed ascending the steep canyon from the Rio on the north fork. The whole trail turned out to be spectacular and I was really glad we decided to do it.
 
After finishing our last hike, it was time to return to the hot springs one last time. On our walk in, we saw Mr. and Ms. A-Hole being detained by park rangers… Apparently they were drunk, high, naked, on the trail with their dog, and in possession of a great big pile of drugs and alcohol we saw confiscated on the hood of a ranger’s truck. HA! My girlfriend and I couldn’t help but smile at karma in action.

In a really strange turn of events, I ran into a friend from college (I go to school in Upstate NY) at the hot springs. I knew he was from Texas, but it it’s a big state was really surprising to run into him there. We joined him at his campsite at K-Bar for the night to get some peace and quiet from our rule-breaking neighbors at Rio Grande Village. We enjoyed some beers and watched the stars for our final night in Texas.

Water Report

-Large, stagnant pools in Boot Canyon below the junction of the Northeast Rim trail
-Boot Spring was not flowing
-Nothing obviously flowing along Juniper Canyon allthough I really wasn't looking too hard
-Water on the Dodson in a Tinaja just before Fresno Creek. I can't imagine this will be there for long. I didn't explore Fresno creek south of the Dodson, but where the trail crosses the creek there was no water.
-We actually did see water in quite a few Tinajas on the north fork of Marufo Vega in the deeper canyons.

Final Thoughts

This was an aggressive itinerary, and we were able to see a good amount of the park in the time we spent there. We are both in great shape and although we are young (and thus foolish) our previous backpacking experience has been on some of the hardest trails you can tent camp in the North East. In comparison to the Presidential Traverse in NH (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_Traverse), I found the OML to be physically quite a bit easier. Had I stretched the loop over more days, water and food weight absolutely would have made it more challenging. At 135 pounds, I'm used to carrying a 25-30lb pack in the Northeast. With my pack pushing 50lbs on the first day, there was a huge added physical challenge there. Psychologically, I found the OML harder than a difficult hike in the Northeast. The desolation of the terrain, lack of water, and seemingly endless nature of the Dodson really made this hike more of a mental challenge for me than a physical one. The idea of "guarding" your food at night is also totally alien to me, and being a light sleeper it took me some getting used to. In the Northeast, you just put your food a few hundred feet from your campsite, as high up in a tree as you can throw your line... no such luxuries in Big Bend. Another thing that ironically made me toss and turn at night was the shocking silence of this place. I was used to it after a few nights, but it was unsettlingly quiet on my first night in the desert.

Our biggest rookie mistakes were:

  • Wearing lightweight running shorts, and tight fitting leggings / jogging pants. These are not cacti friendly, and it seems like every plant in the desert is out to hurt you. We wore these to save weight and increase mobility over traditional hiking pants... not worth it in the desert.
  • Forgetting sunscreen on the OML. I should have known better. We got toasted.
  • Carrying too much water on the OML. I'm not sure I would feel comfortable carrying less given the variability of the weather, but we didn't even need the water we cached, so we probably carried far too much.
  • Hiking poles. These were a total waste of energy to carry around the desert. This is totally a matter of opinion, we are used to using poles on trails that are twice as steep and in much worse conditions, so take what you will.

I think that about wraps it up. Thank you for reading if you've made it this far, and thank you for all your advice in putting together a successful trip! Let me know if you have any questions.

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Offline Andreas

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #1 on: January 17, 2016, 03:49:06 PM »
 :eusa_clap: Very nice photos and awesome, detailed write-up, enjoyed it very much. Glad to learn that you spent such a great time in Big Bend - thanks a lot for sharing your TR!
"Any time you're throwin dirt you're losin ground."

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

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Offline Homer Wilson

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #2 on: January 17, 2016, 04:03:57 PM »
That's a heck of a first trip to big bend. Well done!

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Offline mule ears

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #3 on: January 17, 2016, 04:27:54 PM »
Great report and an excellent introduction to the park.  You definitely caught the great weather.  We were there the week before with only a few days of sun and the rest cloudy and in the 40's.  Yes 3 quarts a day can be enough when it is that cool but it quickly goes up above 60 degrees.  I would have never carried that much on the OML with known water available but better safe than sorry.

You are right poles are a personal thing, useful for more than help with steep descents.  I find them as important for climbing, balance and pushing thorny vegetation out of the way, but I am getting older and need the additional bracing sometimes.

Did you only go to Mule Ears spring or all the way out to the Smoky creek overlook?  One of the best views in the park at the overlook.

I am always happy when poor neighbors get what is deserved like Mr. and Mrs. A-hole.

Now next trip we need to get you off trail (bring the poles)!   Thanks for a excellent report.
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Offline Casa Grande

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A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #4 on: January 17, 2016, 09:22:36 PM »
I loved reading this report.  I am impressed at your preparation and execution, as well as your recommendations for others.  Your pictures went well with the story. You should be a travelogue writer!

Regarding summiting Casa Grande, yes, when in doubt, stay to the right!

 


Sent from my iPad using Big Bend Chat mobile app (beta)

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Offline ambersdad

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #5 on: January 18, 2016, 06:35:32 AM »
Great report!  You two got a lot packed into your 8 days. 

Having decent gear is nice, but wildlife photography is knowing your subject and getting lucky, and I love getting lucky.
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Offline Talusman

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #6 on: January 18, 2016, 07:26:36 AM »
Impressive and Congratulations! Well Done! Thanks for taking the time to share. Great Report!
"To Think is easy. To Act is difficult. To Act as one Thinks is the most difficult!"

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Offline dprather

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #7 on: January 18, 2016, 09:15:13 AM »
A super addition to the growing "database" of OML information.
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline Lance

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #8 on: January 18, 2016, 10:36:37 AM »
What a well-written trip report!  Very well executed!

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Offline VivaTerlingua

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #9 on: January 18, 2016, 12:33:49 PM »
Congratulations on Casa Grande.  I failed on my first attempt last year, making the same mistake you did and going left.  I came back a few weeks later with jeans and a pair of leather work gloves, made it much easier and I was successful.  There are some great views from up there.

You did a great job of seeing as much of the park as possible.  Hope you felt the trip was worth it.

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Offline Jalco

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #10 on: January 18, 2016, 04:48:09 PM »
Great trip report and pics.  Glad you enjoyed the park.

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Offline tusker

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #11 on: January 18, 2016, 10:34:38 PM »
What a great trip report on a splendid itinerary!  Great photos, too.  Thank you.

Tuff Canyon has always been a favorite of mine for an hour or two of wandering.  I always recommend it.  Often, people are on their way back to the barn and only take a peek from the turn-out.

The silence in Bibe can be  startling.  I always felt that if I was able to stay for a while, that after five or six days I began to to hear a lot that I had not heard at first.  Lowered threshold of sound.  And, yep, all the plants are out to get you.


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Offline Jay M

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #12 on: March 20, 2016, 11:36:01 PM »
Apologies for a bit of a bump here, but I finally got around to editing footage from my trip and I put together a quick video. It pretty much follows the whole trip chronologically. Hope you guys enjoy!


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Offline Andreas

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #13 on: March 21, 2016, 03:21:46 AM »
Thanks a lot for the nice addendum to your TR! Every second confirms how much you enjoyed your trip to BiBe. Thanks again for sharing.
"Any time you're throwin dirt you're losin ground."

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

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Offline mule ears

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Re: A pair of New Jerseyans tackle Big Bend
« Reply #14 on: March 21, 2016, 05:48:56 AM »
Thanks for that!  It does look like you had a great time.
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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