I just finished leading a group of college students (2 leaders and 8 students for 10 total) on the Outer Mountain Loop over 3 days 3 nights. We started at Homer Wilson and went counterclockwise. We arrived at Panther Junction to get permits at 2:30pm on the 17th and I got a bit of a grilling from the ranger even before I told her the size of the group. It seemed fair to me, trying to prevent any ill prepared groups from getting in over their heads during a busy time in the park. We spent the first night in the group campgrounds in the Chisos Basin which was beautiful but cold! Nobody in the group had backpacked before so this is where we did the crash course in backpacking.
The next day we drove to Homer Wilson and set out counterclockwise on the Dodson at 11:00am. What a beautiful section of trail! From a guide's perspective its a great trail to show drainages, saddles, ridges, how trails move up and down mountains, etc. It's also neat to see the South Rim as we hiked below to prepare them for the climb the next day. We stopped for lunch at the high point on the Dodson, filled up water at Fresno Creek, and camped near Dodson Spring. I had hoped to camp closer to the JC trail junction where the Dodson flattens out but a large group of inexperienced backpackers move slower than you would think. Our site was less than ideal but better than forcing people to set up camp on a trail for the first time in the dark.
The crew starting down the trail
Looking down over the Dodson
Our first glimpse of the South Rim from the Dodson
Camp on the Dodson. While the site was not ideal, the view of Elephant Tusk was!
The next day we woke up early and started hiking an sunrise to make up for the miles we didn't cover the day before. We made good time and stopped for breakfast at the Dodson/Juniper Canyon junction which was a perfect place to explain topo maps and compass usage as there are a lot of easy to see features. We stopped at Upper Juniper springs for lunch, water refill, and a break before the tough upper section. Juniper Canyon trail is one of the tougher trails I have done but is so beautiful and well formed that it was a blast to hike, even for my struggling few. There is a little waterfall at the junction of Boot Canyon and Juniper Canyon trails that we used to get all of our water before heading up the Northeast Rim trail to campsite NE4. We arrived just in time to drop our packs and get to the cliff for a beautiful sunset that helped our minds ease away the pain of a tough day, about 12 miles.
Finishing up the Dodson, we can taste breakfast!
A beautiful spot for a desert breakfast. We stopped at a great looking large group campsite within eyesight on the Dodson/Juniper Canyon trail junction
The road that lay before us. One of my favorite parts of the OML is the unique ability to see far off where the trail is taking you.
Looking back down the start of Juniper Canyon trail just before we hit the steep incline.
This is what climbing the Juniper Canyon trail will do to you!
A nice place for a break after the tough climb. Boot Canyon is one of my favorite spots in Big Bend, it's a part of Texas that looks very not Texas! The contrast with this area and the desert below always gets me:
At NE4 there is a short trail that ends at an open section of cliff with great places to sit, as if it were made specifically for watching the sunrise. I have seen a lot of breathtaking sunrises, but the colors in the sky as the desert slowly awoke below easily took the number 1 spot on my list. We stopped at the Boot Canyon trail junction for breakfast and more amazing views before heading back down Boot Canyon. I wish we could have finished the South Rim trail but we needed to fill up on water for the end of the trip. We took Boot Canyon to Colima trail where some of the less adventurous of our crew had been holding it in to use the compostable toilet. We took Colima over to Blue Creek trail where we ran into a couple "lost" hikers. They were calling out from BC1 so I left my crew and the junction and raced down fearing something worse. Turns out they were stragglers from a larger group but didn't know any trail names or exactly where their group was headed. Their group ended up being less than a minute down Laguna Meadows trail from the Blue Creek junction and they were reunited safely. It was a good reminder as a guide to make sure there are designated meet up sites and everyone in the group has a rough idea with names and location on a map. We took it slow down Blue Creek trail and stopped for lunch where it flattens and goes into shade. Spent some time caring for blisters that had been developing throughout the trip (about half of the group had blister issues, though none serious) and ran into a nice NPS volunteer who checked our permits before continuing on. We camped in the wash about a mile from the parking lot (where the trail jumps out of the wash to the left) to enjoy a final night under the stars and get us ready for an early departure back to San Antonio the next morning. Blue Creek trail was a great last day, easy hiking with some amazing rock formations for some relaxation and enjoyment of a great park.
South Rim view! We didn't take many pictures from up here because we knew they wouldn't do the reality justice.
Hiking along the cool rock formations on Blue Creek
Leaders making sure we are at the right spot for camping. This is a perfect spot if you want to spend one last night under the stars and get an early start on the drive back the next morning.
Same view minus the grungy backpackers
Getting back on the trail the morning of Day 4 for the quick hike back to the bus. This is where the trail "jumps" out of the wash to the left. We stayed right for great camping.
FOR YOU OLDER SOLO HIKERS: Our group ran into an older guy that was slowing soloing the OML on the first day. He was retired and traveled all over the US in his camper and had been out for about a week when we ran into him. We ended up running into him again on our last day down Blue Creek. All of these first time backpackers were enthralled with him, thinking he was some mystical mountain with magical powers. Keep on hiking, the next generation thinks you all are pretty cool!
We ran into a bunch of other OML hikers including a couple other big college groups (the semester just ended). Everyone was super nice and it didn't ruin the trip in anyway. My crew actually thought it was pretty cool that they were trying to complete a route a bunch of other people were too. We ran into some groups a couple times so we developed some cool backpacker camaraderie with them.
The OML is definitely tough for first time backpackers, they were all pretty worn out by the end of it, but is doable with competent leadership. If you are considering taking some first timers out, don't rule out the OML but be realistic with your ability to lead and their fitness/adventure level. All these students were super up for adventure and in above-average shape for college students. Half of them had never been to Big Bend, but they all left as true Benders and try backpacking in other places around Texas. It's always a good trip when everyone catches the backpacking bug.
My 2 cents on the best route debate: Counterclockwise from Homer Wilson was everything I could hope for. Starting at Homer Wilson allows for a night on the South Rim which for first timers is a must in my opinion. It also helps keep the millage under 30 miles to make the route more managable (we did about 28 miles). I'm really glad we climbed Juniper Canyon over Blue Creek; climbing up all the loose rock of Blue Creek looked miserable. Plus a leisurely hike down Blue Creek made for a magnificent final day.
THANK YOU BIG BEND CHAT! I made a risky decision leading a bunch of new backpackers on this tough of a trail. Full disclosure: I have backpacked the Chisos mountains a couple times, but never tried the OML myself before this trip. Not the best decision as a guide, but I couldn't pass up taking these students on such an amazing adventure. The OML FAQ, trip reports, itineraries, and water reports made it possible for this trip to be successful. Keep on doing your thing and helping people experience the vast adventure that is Big Bend.
Pictures were taken with a Cannon Rebel.
Some cool landscape photos from the end of the trail/Homer Wilson parking lot: