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Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report

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Offline congahead

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Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« on: February 06, 2018, 04:36:50 PM »
Second in a three-part series of way-too-late trip reports. This trip was in November 2015.

(Spoiler alert: This trip actually ends in success )

Having done a few overnighters in the Bend, it was time to tackle the national parks classic multi-day backpacking trip. Supposedly, every Texas backpacker worth his or her salt does the OML at least once. For that reason, Id always wanted to do it and finally decided to tackle it before I get too old. For my companion, I chose the person with whom I most like to share my adventures, Mrs. Congahead.

Ever the traditionalists, we decided to do the OML in the normal 3-day, 2-night clockwise manner, beginning and ending at the Chisos Basin, camping near the Juniper Canyon/Dodson intersection on night one, and near the Homer Wilson Ranch on night two.

We opted for the I-10/U.S. 90 route from Houston. Along the way, we stopped for about 90 minutes at Seminole Canyon State Park near Comstock to eat lunch and then do a 45-minute out-and-back to take in some of the scenery and stretch our legs.

Not too long past Seminole Canyon, we stopped again to check out the spectacular site of the Pecos River from the high US-90 bridge. My father-in-law, who grew up in Pecos, maintains that youre not really in West Texas until you cross the Pecos. In fact, he jokingly refers to anyone who lives on the east side of the Pecos as being from East Texas.

We arrived in Marathon about 17:00 and checked in at the Marathon Motel. As soon as I begin to breathe the air of the Trans-Pecos, I can feel the stress leaving my body. It happens every time I come here. We grabbed drinks and a nice dinner at the Gage Hotels White Buffalo Bar then enjoyed the dark skies for a while and settle in for the night. We were awoken three times during the night by the passing trains just across the street but fell back asleep quickly.

The next morning its breakfast at Johnny Bs, then off to the park, still about 45 minutes away. We arrived at the Persimmon Gap Visitors Center at 09:00 to get our backcountry permit, only to discover that it doesnt open until 09:30. So we head another 30 miles away to park headquarters at Panther Junction. We get our permit there and also pick up a few new guidebooks. We have some time to kill before we meet our shuttle driver to cache our water at the Dodson/Juniper Canyon junction, so we practiced identifying Chihuahuan desert flora, then drove to the nearby fossil bone exhibit.

We cached 10 liters at each of our two predetermined campsites. I know a lot of people doing the OML cache water only at Homer Wilson, but Im a bit risk-averse when it comes to water in the desert. If its true that people pack their fears, then clearly I am terrified of dying of thirst in Big Bend.

Done with caching, we drove to the Chisos Mountain Lodge for our last night with indoor plumbing and real food. The night before we start was spent loading our packs and pre-treating known hot spots on our feet.

The day arrives! Were up early, at the trailhead and off at 07:00, just around dawn. Temps are in the 60s. Ive got 26 pounds on my back; she has 23. This includes food and seven liters of water. 20 minutes in were generating so much body heat that we stop to swap long-sleeve shirts for short-sleeve shirts and zip the bottoms off our pants.

We reach the top of our ascent the intersection with Emory Peak trail in two hours, feeling good. Were way ahead of our predicted pace, and neither of us is struggling at all. Were oozing confidence and begin to think this is going to be an easy trek. Boy, are we wrong.

We take a 15-minute break and chat with some other backpackers. Then we continue along Pinnacles for 1.3 (level) miles to the junction with Juniper Canyon. 4.8 miles done for the day, 6.2 to go. Juniper Canyon trail is a rough, rocky, ankle-breaking, 2,884-foot descent from the mountains into the desert below. Just a half-mile or so into this section, we begin to realize exactly what weve gotten ourselves into. It is slow going; we have to watch every step and remember to occasionally stop and look up to take in the beauty around us. We were ahead of our predicted pace on the ascent, but the slow descent is now putting us behind, to the point where we have to book it to ensure that we reach our water while theres still light left.

Every time I hike in the heat here, I face a choice hike in long pants and melt, or hike in shorts and face the wrath of the various cacti and other thorny plants. Usually I choose the former; this time I chose the latter. Friends occasionally ask me if I worry about bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes or other desert fauna when Im out here. They dont understand that the animals will generally try to avoid you, but the plants here will hurt you every chance they get.

The first third of the Juniper Canyon trail is in the shaded part of the Chisos. All along the trail we see black bear droppings just a few days old. Because of the light traffic and recent rains, the trails are quite overgrown in most places. Its wreaking havoc on our legs.

The remaining two-thirds of the trail is in the lower, unshaded desert bottom on the canyon. And here is where it begins to get HOT! Temps get up into the 80s unseasonably warm. Shade is scarce; at one point we sit down on the trail just behind a small hill to take a break because its the only shade we can find. Mercifully, this portion of the trail is flat and beautiful.

Our hustle pays off, and at 16:20 we arrive at the bear box where wed cached our water the day before. Weve been walking for the better part of 9.5 hours. We grab our water and Mrs. Congahead finds us a nice one-room efficiency with an offset kitchen. Thats where well spend the night. Its one of the unofficial, forbidden spots near the trail, but we figure its better to use that than to create another worn spot in the desert.

After a supper of beans and rice (with Fritos, of course), its time to bed down, as it gets dark early. As usual in the desert, we cowboy camp. My non-backpacking friends seem shocked when they learn that we usually forego a tent. But tents obscure the incredible views of the Big Bend night sky. No animals are going to bother us Mrs. Congahead says my snoring keeps the big ones away. And, despite all of the scenes from western movies depicting otherwise, Ive never had a snake or scorpion crawl into bed with me (that I know of). Finally, tents are heavy to carry and a hassle to set up and Im inherently lazy. In case of rain, we have a lightweight tarp that we can erect to keep us dry.

We drift off to sleep under incredibly dark skies, so dark that the Milky Way is clearly visible.

Up at dawn the next day to a gorgeous Chihuahuan Desert sunrise. We eat breakfast, drink coffee and dilly-dally around for a while before breaking camp. Finally, we head out around 08:00. Mercifully, it is cloudy, so the temperatures stay down. We begin what would be the most arduous portion of our trek the 11.5-mile Dodson Trail, crossing the foothills of the Chisos Mountains from east to west. The first mile or so is flat and relatively easy. I pause every minute or so to take close-ups of the flora and wide shots of the landscape. We also enjoy the beautiful sight of the Chisos Mountains, where we were yesterday morning, still covered in fog.

After the first mile of Dodson, it is a constant up-and-down, traversing the various named and unnamed washes and creeks flowing out of the Chisos, with more ankle-breaking large loose rocks. Just as yesterday, our pace begins to slow. It takes us three hours to go four miles. And then, the clouds burn off. And once again, it gets extremely hot. We are starting to get tired and take a good hour-long lunch/first aid break close to the Fresno Creek drainage, losing more time. We do some foot care, remove stickers from our legs and treat the worst of the cactus-caused injuries. We finally move on, and I tuck away the camera and try to pick up the pace. Four hours into the trip, were at the junction with Elephant Tusk trail. Weve traveled only 4.7 miles. Another 75 minutes and were at the 6-mile mark. Five miles to go, and five hours of sunlight left. Thats a piece of cake when walking on city sidewalks or smooth, well-maintained flat and level trails. Especially when youre fresh and not carrying weight. But now, when youre fatigued, carrying weight and traversing rough trails with constant elevation gain and loss in the blazing sun, it becomes a bit of a forced march.

Just after 18:00, after 9.5 hours of walking, we reach Homer Wilson Ranch. We find our water cache and set up camp at the first flat spot we find. We are both really sore. Another quick supper and were off to bed.

The days labors were rewarded with another spectacular clear night. It might sound counterintuitive, but skies are so dark, and the stars so numerous, that its actually harder to pick out the major constellations here than it is in light-polluted suburban Houston. We lie side-by-side on our backs, looking at the stars together. Before Ive drifted off to sleep, Ive counted a dozen shooting stars.

At one point in the night, while answering natures call, my headlamp catches a pair of eyes watching me from about 5 meters away. Im spooked for just a second and then realize that the eyes are tiny, close together and low to the ground. It has to be a small mammal. I step a little close to see what it is; it scurries away into the darkness. It was likely a skunk, or perhaps a small badger or small fox.

Mrs. Congahead wakes me up at around 06:00 asking me if I want to get going. We get up and WOW are we stiff and sore! Especially in all those tiny muscles around the lower shin and ankle that are impossible to work at the gym, but get plenty of work navigating all of the loose rocks on the trails weve traversed.

Its still a bit before sunrise, but there is enough usable light to break camp. It is again cloudy. Eager to take advantage of the shade and cooler temperatures, we eschew breakfast and get going around 07:00.

Todays route takes us up the Blue Creek Trail back into the Chisos Mountains. There well intersect Laguna Meadow Trail and descend back into the Chisos Basin where we began two days ago.

The 2,554-foot ascent up Blue Creek trail begins gradually, but immediately, following the gravelly Blue Creek wash. Gravel is difficult to walk on, so once again, its slow going. About two miles in, we enter the area known as Red Rocks Canyon. Its another area of beautiful geology in a park known as a geologists playground.

The first 1,000 feet of our ascent are gradual, taking place over four miles. The last 1,500 feet get a lot steeper occurring over 1.5 miles. As we ascend, we experience a neat weather phenomenon. A cold front has blown in from the north, and the accompanying wind and clouds are trying to find a path of least resistance through the Chisos. We wind our way into and out of a chilly fog as we ascend into the mountains, and the temperature swings are noticeable we go from hot to chilled. We prefer chilled. We also see a peregrine falcon soaring back and forth, causing a lot of commotion among the other birds in the area.

About 4.5 hours after we start, we reach the intersection of Laguna Meadow Trail our last segment. Its a gradual descent back to our starting point, 1,345 feet over 3.8 miles. Its the easiest trail weve walked on so far well-travelled and well-maintained. Nonetheless, Im going slowly because Im tired and its the last day. Im slowing Mrs. Congahead down, so, with my blessing, she takes off without me. Shes in a lot better shape than I am; plus, a woman in search of indoor plumbing has an extra gear. So I spend the next two hours walking by myself, descending in the fog. It was a really pretty, peaceful, quiet hike.

Seven hours after the day began, I reach the trailhead. Mission accomplished. I find Mrs. Congahead milling around the lodge. Shes been there for about 30 minutes. We check into our room, clean up and have dinner. My go-to post-backpacking meal is a big greasy bacon cheeseburger with fries. Were passed out by 20:00.

The next day we are walking funny. The 633-mile drive back to Houston (via I-10 this time) takes 9 hours - less time than our 11.5-mile sojourn across the Dodson trail!

It was a tiring but rewarding trek. Wed checked an item off our bucket list, proven to ourselves that we can still do this, and seen parts of the park that 99 percent of park visitors will never see. 
« Last Edit: February 07, 2018, 08:29:43 AM by congahead »
"The animals here will generally try to avoid you, but the plants will hurt you every chance they get."

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Offline Jalco

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #1 on: February 06, 2018, 07:37:20 PM »
Excellent trip report.

I read the portion about " a woman in search of indoor plumbing has an extra gear" aloud to my wife.

"Boy, that's the truth."

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #2 on: February 06, 2018, 07:49:53 PM »
Beautiful job in the hiking and the telling!  Thanks.   :great:
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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Offline dprather

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #3 on: February 06, 2018, 08:23:25 PM »
and your wife deserves all kinds of props!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #4 on: February 06, 2018, 11:48:25 PM »

Friends occasionally ask me if I worry about bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes or other desert fauna when Im out here. They dont understand that the animals will generally try to avoid you, but the plants here will hurt you every chance they get.


A perfect description of Big Bend.


Im slowing Mrs. Congahead down, so, with my blessing, she takes off without me. Shes in a lot better shape than I am; plus, a woman in search of indoor plumbing has an extra gear.


You are a very lucky man to have a Mrs. Congahead. I have a "Have Fun On Your Trip Dear, By-The-Way I've Increased Your Life Insurance Pay-Out".



The 633-mile drive back to Houston (via I-10 this time) takes 9 hours - less time than our 11.5-mile sojourn across the Dodson trail! It was a tiring but rewarding trek. Wed checked an item off our bucket list, proven to ourselves that we can still do this, and seen parts of the park that 99 percent of park visitors will never see.


Well said! Great trip, Congahead. As others have said, I like your style. You make me laugh, not at you, but with you.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline Hang10er

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2018, 08:08:01 AM »
Cool report! 

I have mixed emotions on the trip reports with spouses and/or children.  My wife is NOT a camping/hiking/sleeping in a tent kind of woman.  Before you come to an opinion, she's a lot of other things (mom, wife, friend, supporter, comforter, etc) and I'm better for it.  She has told me that she will go out there with me.  I'll make it easy for her and probably book the lodge or somewhere.  After exploring all day, she can have the a real bed, AC/heat and the "indoor plumbing"you mention.  We'll get to that in the next few years.

I did take my son on my first couple trips to BBRSP and BiBE.  I posted a report and still remember what impressed me most was not me seeing the spectacular views but seeing the look on my son's face as I realized he was just as awestruck.  He loved it but being a teenager in high school, he has other priorities.  I'm sure in a few years he'll be back out there with me. 

Although I miss experiencing the area with loved ones, I do enjoy going solo.  A big part of the trip is getting away from it all and sometimes that can include family.  It really is a give and take for me.  As a matter of fact, I am planning a 4 day trip out there end of this month.  I have a friend who has never been and there's a slim chance he may go.  It would be fun showing him the area but I wouldn't be terribly upset if he couldn't make it and I end up going solo.

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Offline congahead

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #6 on: February 07, 2018, 12:12:34 PM »
Regarding Mrs. Congahead, I am indeed a lucky man, and not just because she backpacks with me! However, she does have her limits on the trail. Three days and two nights is about her max. Honestly, mine is not much more ... five days and four nights is the longest Ive ever been out in the field. We actually do far more day hiking than we do backpacking. Nothing wrong with air-conditioning and indoor plumbing. But there are some places you just cant get to and back in one day.


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Offline nuggetf5

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #7 on: February 07, 2018, 12:39:24 PM »
That was a great read! Well worth the wait.
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Since 1995

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Offline Jalco

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #8 on: February 07, 2018, 05:47:56 PM »
Cool report! 

I have mixed emotions on the trip reports with spouses and/or children.  My wife is NOT a camping/hiking/sleeping in a tent kind of woman.  Before you come to an opinion, she's a lot of other things (mom, wife, friend, supporter, comforter, etc) and I'm better for it.  She has told me that she will go out there with me.  I'll make it easy for her and probably book the lodge or somewhere.  After exploring all day, she can have the a real bed, AC/heat and the "indoor plumbing"you mention.  We'll get to that in the next few years.

I did take my son on my first couple trips to BBRSP and BiBE.  I posted a report and still remember what impressed me most was not me seeing the spectacular views but seeing the look on my son's face as I realized he was just as awestruck.  He loved it but being a teenager in high school, he has other priorities.  I'm sure in a few years he'll be back out there with me. 

Although I miss experiencing the area with loved ones, I do enjoy going solo.  A big part of the trip is getting away from it all and sometimes that can include family.  It really is a give and take for me.  As a matter of fact, I am planning a 4 day trip out there end of this month.  I have a friend who has never been and there's a slim chance he may go.  It would be fun showing him the area but I wouldn't be terribly upset if he couldn't make it and I end up going solo.

Not to hijack the thread or re-direct it, but "Mrs. Jalco" is not a backpacker/hiker either.  She is perfectly content to let me wander off into the wilds w/out her.  Interestingly, though, the one place she will consider camping is the one place I absolutely will not - the beach.

As for the kiddos, high school provided other pursuits and distractions, but they have fully embraced "outdoor" life now that they are in college and on their own, "Where are we going this time, Dad?".

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2018, 06:08:46 PM »

As for the kiddos, high school provided other pursuits and distractions, but they have fully embraced "outdoor" life now that they are in college and on their own, "Where are we going this time, Dad?".


 :great:
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Outer Mountain Loop Trip Report
« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2018, 06:11:32 PM »
My 12-year-old son will still go anywhere, anytime. My 15-year-old daughter (the best little backpacker I've ever met) isn't interested anymore in going anywhere that doesn't have a phone-charging station. I'm hoping she'll come back around eventually. She was a natural. I loved seeing the wilderness through her eyes.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

 


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