The Arroyo Venado Loop to Gregorio Marufo’s Vega and Beyond, the Final Frontier
Feb. 6th-10th, 2017
60 miles walked, 48.5 with pack, 11.5 without
Like most of these trips this one has been rumbling around in my head for some years now. I guess the seed germinated in 2006 with a Big Bend Chat member’s inquiry and subsequent trip into the upper reaches of Arroyo Venado (AV). It sat for a few years and then was encouraged to grow a bit with a 2011 discovery of an extension of the Marufo Vega (MV) trail down river from the North fork to what seemed to be the site of Gregorio Marufo’s vega. In 2013 the seedling had another growth spurt when another member proposed a route along the river from Marufo Vega trail and on up to Telephone canyon via Cow Canyon, which he never attempted.
After our 2014 Down the Eastern Side trip, that was rearranged due to unusually cold weather and forced us to miss Ernst Basin and Tinaja it burst into full bloom as the “Arroyo Venado loop”. Plan A was to start at the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trailhead take the MV trail down the North fork to the river. Bushwhack down river to Arroyo Venado, if we could get past the cliff bands along the river. Explore AV up and back then take the cross country route north to mid Cow Canyon then all the way to Telephone canyon. Follow Telephone canyon back west to the upper Ernst Basin trail, following it south all the way to and past the Ore Terminal back to the car, descending Ernst Tinaja canyon along the way to get water.
Of course the added level of difficulty is that the only known water in that part of the park are the Rio Grande and Ernst Tinaja and it is about 27 miles of hard walking between the two, via Cow Canyon, unless you are there right after a rain and can find some pothole water.
This would be the final frontier, no one had ever reported going down river from MV trail to Arroyo Venado much less up it or over to Cow Canyon. The Arroyo Venado zone is the least visited in the park and holds the most remote place. For the three and a half years preceding Dec. 2016 there had been one permit written for 1 person for one night! For some crazy reason two different groups went into the AV zone and back from Marufo Vega during the week around Christmas and New Year’s adding 5 more people and 12 people nights (5 nights total).
My compatriots from the 2014 trip were on board for a February 2017 attempt but during the Holidays they both had to bail due to unforeseen work complications. I understood but now at age 60, I don’t know how many more years I will be able to do this kind of arduous trip. On the off chance that he could get away I contacted Robert (from BBC who I had a great trip with last year) to see if he was interested and he was for even the same week we had originally planned! He wanted to see if his long time hiking partner Mitch wanted to go and I said sure.
With Robert’s truck we could now consider my more elegant Plan B that would start the counter-clockwise loop at the western end of the Telephone canyon trail at the TC2 campsite, 14 miles down the rough Old Ore road (OOR). This would allow for slightly lighter packs because it would split the waterless stretches up, along with a food cache to be picked up on the second day. Here is a Caltopo map of the route with mileages and other important points.
Plans were made, plane tickets bought and motel rooms booked and then two weeks before we were to go Robert let me know that he might have a stress fracture in his lower leg. We waited for a doctor’s appointment and X-rays that fortunately showed nothing, he started light training again and seemed to be fine. The trip that had tried to die a thousand deaths was back on again!
I flew into San Antonio late on Saturday the 4th and Robert picked me up the next morning at the motel at 6:00 am for the drive to the park. We picked Mitch up in Junction and made Panther Junction visitor center by 1:00. Quick through the permit process and the young seasonal ranger/volunteer didn’t blink when we told her the zones we would be camping in, clearly she had no understanding about that part of the park.
We headed down to the Strawhouse/MV/Ore Terminal trailhead to drop a food cache at the Ore Terminal trail split. Quickly back to the truck by 2:30 and there was a NPS ranger there. They had received a report of three men on horseback with rifles where the MV trail forks and of three men (us) carrying water in. We told him we had seen no one and had only carried bear canisters in for a food cache. He asked to see our permit, which verified that we were indeed doing the loop we said. He said OK and we headed to Terlingua.
We checked into the Chisos Mining Co. motel to pack and then off to the front porch for a beer and dinner at the Starlight. Big crowd with the warm weather. We made it over to La Kiva for the second half of the Superbowl which ended in disappointment as the yankee team won.
Trail Day 1, Feb. 6.
We were not sure how long it would take to get to the trailhead and knew that the forecast was for warm weather and we wanted to get walking as early as possible. 6:00 we were driving towards the OOR which took an hour and then the slow, rugged 14 mile drive to TC2 took another hour and a half. The best sunrise of the trip happened on the way.
We also got to check out Carlota Tinaja which was holding lots of good water which we took as a good sign.