Slickrock Mountain, Croton Peak, Paint Gap Hills and Grapevine Hills- a walk around
Dec. 8th-14th, 2018
74 miles with pack, a few more without
In 45 years of visiting the park I had only stepped north or west of the park road (US 385/TX 118) twice. On the first day of my very first visit in 1973 we had just turned onto the Grapevine Hills road heading towards a campsite for the night before starting the Outer Mountain Loop the next day. The muffler dropped off the car so we turned around and limped up to the Basin, which still had a gas station/garage at the time, to do some makeshift repairs and spent the night in the Basin instead.
My second time was 43 years later when Robert and I stayed at the Croton Springs campsite before heading back to San Antonio after completing our Southwest Sierra Quemada Ramble. That’s it, but it has always held some mystery to me as a little explored section of the park. There are really two parts of this large northwest swath of the park, an elongated area south of the Rosillos Mountains and ranch which I would walk around on this trip and the northern area of somewhat newly added land (acquired in 1987, opened to the public about 1995) of the Harte Ranch and northern Rosillos Mountains which I am saving for a future trip.
As usual there was great inspiration from trip reports on Big Bend Chat that gave me ideas and info. The idea of walking north of the mountains and hills and then returning via a southern route that would take in most of the springs, major washes and sites was appealing. The views would be totally different on both sides as well. Here is the Caltopo map for reference.
For the first time ever I would go solo. All of my possible hiking partners were unable to join me due to many, many conflicts and I could have postponed for a year but didn’t really want to. Betsy does not want me to go solo but with the fairly easy wash walking and terrain and the many near road bailout points I convinced her to let me go. To further insure her confidence I rented a satellite phone from Roadpost which worked perfectly even though it added some weight (9 oz.) to the pack and extra cost.
Of course water availability is always the hard planning detail especially for areas of the park where few people go. Fortunately it has been an above average year for rainfall in the park which made me feel more confident in critical water sources, especially those north of the hills. I planned on picking up some along Tornillo creek the first day, then hopefully at either Dripping spring or Painted Hills spring the second day that would carry me all the way to Dike Tinaja spring the end of the third day. From there a fairly easy walk to water at Slickrock canyon on the fourth day. From there I would carry enough water to get to a water cache on Paint Gap road early on the sixth day. Water from the cache would get me all the way back to the car. I would also leave enough water in the cache just in case Dripping or Paint Hills springs were dry, I could make a detour to pick it up if needed. It turned out that the day before I started the park had 1.2-1.7 inches of rain and there was water everywhere.
To help with reducing pack weight early in the trip with fairly large water carries I would split the food load in half and leave it in another cache I would pick up the fourth morning. With this approach my total pack weight never exceeded 28 pounds, even with a base weight of 13.5# including the satellite phone, tarp and raincoat, most of which I usually don’t have to carry.
I flew into San Antonio late morning just as the big winter storm “Diego” moved into the area (I still hate this naming of winter storms). I first stopped for lunch at De Wese’s Tip Top Café for maybe the best chicken fried steak I have ever had.
Quick stops at REI for a gas canister and HEB for a few road snacks and then I drove west on I-10. Constant rain until Fort Stockton then heavy fog on the way to Marathon but by the time I got to the Marathon Motel at 6:00 it seemed to be lifting. Good BBQ at the Brick Vault BBQ and Brewery then back to the room to finish packing.
Trail Day 1
Up early and at the Oasis Café for a great migas breakfast, the last real food for seven days. I made it to Panther Junction just after they opened and had to wait just a bit while a group was in front of me getting a river permit. The ranger was very slow and methodical. He said he needed to check the capacity of the zones I wanted to camp in, I said “no one goes there, I am sure it is not a problem” he looked up and concurred. By the way I got my geezer Senior Lifetime Pass which covered the now $30 entrance fee and made the backcountry permit only $6.
Filled water bottles and at 10:00 I was off to set my caches. It was still actually spitting a bit of rain and the fog between PJ and Paint Gap was really thick. I went to set the food cache near Burro Mesa first to give the weather some time to lift. This was a bit harder than I had anticipated as I had to drop down into the wash and everything was wet and sticky in the clay soils.