Backpacking Big Bend

A couple of weeks ago, Danny invited me to hike Big Bend with him and a few friends. I truly had no idea what was in store. In fact I did’t even really know what the fuss was about. Why would we want to hike through the desert, carrying our own water for days during our Christmas vacation? I’d been to Big Bend before several years ago with my grandparents. The hikes were nice and the mountain views were a refreshing change of pace from Central Texas, but still, I didn’t understand how this trip would be different. Minimal internet searches yielded little helpful advice. An FAQ on the national park service site asked, “Is this hike really worth it?” The answer: “It’s up to you.”

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Danny and I at the trailhead

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Matt and Alli at the trailhead

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During the weeks of finals all four of us were busily studying and did little planning for the impending trek. After my four tests, it was all I could do to purchase a guide book, barely scanning the pages. But while I couldn’t quite garner the same amount of excitement for the  arduous hike through the desert as I usually can for a bouldering trip, I was beginning to look forward to the company of friends and the days spent without the guilty feeling in the back of my head, telling me that I need to study more (a constant feeling throughout this first semester of medical school).

 

The day before the trip, I packed up my gear, bought a few snacks, and decided to finally look up the trails we would be going through. I drove down to Austin, to meet Danny as he walked out of his last final. Shortly after, Matt and Allie showed up; we stuffed Matt’s little car full of gear and headed out. We drove through the night and ended up pitching our tent in Big Bend National Park at 3am.

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In the morning light we could fully appreciate the beautiful Chisos Mountains that surrounded us on all sides. Anxious to insure that we would receive reservations for backcountry camping, we hurried to the visitor center to get our permit. The weathered ranger helped us pick our camping zones and sent us on our way to store water at an access point in the backcountry, to be used on our hike in a few days. Caching water, re-packing our backpacks, and scarfing down some oatmeal took longer than we expected, but none of us seemed worried about the late start.

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We set out on the trail with enthusiasm, noting the rock formations, birds, and plants with every step. The changes in scenery during the first day were unbelievable: from forested mountain to rocky desert, little reminded us of the scenery that we had grown up around in East and Central Texas.

Our carefree attitudes began to fade as each park ranger we passed along the trail noted that we were far behind, if we planned to camp in the back country along the Juniper Trail. Determined to make it to our intended destination, we stopped little, pushing ourselves up the steep swtichbacks and down the fast ascents. We finally passed the boundaries that told us we were in the backcountry, still with a little light of the setting sun peaking through the mountains; we felt relief! By this time Allie’s new hiking boots were giving her some horrendous blisters, so we stopped at the nearer borders of the backcountry to camp for the night. We appreciated our victory at reaching our camp before darkness set in and making the first hike of 8.5 miles in fewer than 6 hours. Though we were all tired, and probably could have fallen asleep at 8pm, we stayed up enjoying the complete isolation of backcountry camping, looking around us at the mountains bathed in the brightness of the full moon, that enclosed our camp on all sides.

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The next morning we were up at 8am, again astounded by the greenery in this desert and the sharply rising cliffs that sheltered the valley we stayed in from the rest of the park. As we hiked out I couldn’t help but feeling like I was walking through the scene of a John Wayne movie. I half expected the cavalry to charge from the edge of the nearest cliff. But alas, we were completely alone. After 2.5 more miles we arrived at a water cache site and decided to stop for our oatmeal breakfast. We had not been able to cache water at this site, because it required a four wheel drive vehicle, but we had carried in what we assumed would be enough water for 2 days. Still, we checked the cache and found several bottles that were labelled as free to take for any hikers. We filled up with the free water, just to be safe–an action that proved to be more important than any of us realized at the time.

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Matt and Alli at the beginning of Day 2

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Danny and I at the beginning of Day 2

The next leg of the hike was about to be the longest, hottest, and the least well-marked. Yet, we left feeling confident and excited, looking for our first mile marker–the Dodson Ranch, 3.6 miles into the trail. As we hiked through rolling hills and steep cliffs, dotted with desert vegetation unfamiliar to us, we noticed taunting stretches of barbed wire for over a mile, but no definite signs of a ranch house. The next mile marker was a stream, that we were supposed to cross only a mile later. With no sure signs of the ranch and after crossing about 5 dried up streams, we were utterly confused. Guesses on mileage ranged from less than 3 miles to over 6 miles. Had we passed both of these markers inadvertently or neither? It was difficult to tell how fast we were hiking, since we were constantly changing elevation and going through mountain passes, incapable of seeing the trail that we had just finished. After hours of uncertainty we finally hit the trail marker to the Elephant Tusk Mountain, and knew we had gone 4.7 miles, less than half of the 9.9 mile trail. Alli’s blisters were getting worse. There was talk of Alli and Matt splitting up from us, to camp in the backcountry of the Dodson Trail, while Danny and I went ahead to the end of the trail. Alli couldn’t walk without incredible pain, which necessitated many stops, but Danny and I were quickly running out of water, a bad sign at the halfway point. We had cached 5 gallons of water at the Homer Wilson Ranch, the end point of the 9.9 mile Dodson Trail. Danny and I had no option but to finish the trail, likely in the dark.

After the 6 mile point, nearing 5:30pm, we all set down for lunch. Yeah, lunch. At 5:30pm. Ridiculous! Anyway, after that point, we decided that the worst thing would be to split up. Instead, we would all hike slowly until we reached the ranch together. The decisions of whether or not to split up had been worrying me, but after that point, the trail became a lot easier, with mostly descents through canyons, soaked in brilliant red from the sunset. In another hour we stopped to stare open-mouthed at the unbelievably black sky, dotted with more stars than I have ever seen in my life. While talk briefly centered around the finals we had all finished, I was once again reminded of how incredible it was to be here in such a beautifully isolated place, free from the never-ending to-do lists of work yet to be completed.

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By 8:45pm, led by the light of our headlamps, we rolled into our water cache site! We had hiked around 13 miles, through the mountainous backcountry of south Texas with a beating sun and heavy packs, running low on water. The excitement at reaching this checkpoint was overwhelming. We quickly carted out our five gallons and found some soft ground to pitch our tents. I was barely able to stay awake through dinner, but the freeze-dried beef stroganoff seemed like the best meal I had ever eaten.

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The next morning, Alli’s blisters had grown and multiplied. Matt and Alli decided to stay behind and catch a ride out with some hikers that were caching water, about to begin the same loop trail. Danny and I set off early for the last 8.8 miles of the trip. Though our feet and calves were sore, we began the trail, again excited and amazed at the completely new scenery that surrounded us. For the first mile of our trek we admired the hordes of soaring, orange rock towers–features not seen anywhere else so far on on our trip. We spent the morning deciding what could or could not be climbed, where the most aesthetic lines would be, and how soon we could come back to try it. After ascending some steep switchbacks we were blown away by the sight of the valley floor and cliffs that surrounded us. It’s impossible to paint the same picture in words or even capture the same image that we witnessed in a photograph. Having hiked the trail through the dark, found a peaceful rest for the night in the canyon floor and worked our way up the canyon edge all morning gives the already breathtaking views an entirely new, indescribable dimension. Not quite a feeling of ownership over the view, but a feeling that you have experienced the view; you have impacted the canyon and it has impacted you.

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The rest of our hike went by smoothly and quickly, we reached the trailhead in only a few more hours, meeting up with Matt and Alli. The four of us swapped stories of our day; we bought some beer at the visitor station and drove out of the Chisos mountains. We pulled in to a lookout halfway out of the park, sat on the edge of a dried up ancient swamp and drank our beer as the sun set over the mountains. It was a perfectly relaxing way to end the trip. Reminiscing on my original question–“Is this hike really worth it?”– my answer is a resounding, yes! The hike was physically strenuous, the days were long, the water was heavy, and the there were some points where I wasn’t sure we would all make it out together. But trips like these make you realize how little your day-to-day problems really are and how strong you can be when you push yourself. The feeling of accomplishment and peace while sitting on a cliff watching the sunset over the mountains after a trying but successful hike is one of the most fulfilling moments I’ve had in awhile. Though, I count the days until my next climbing trip, I wouldn’t have traded these days in the mountains for anything!

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