Big Bend XIX, Walking Around the Empty Quarter, 12/22

Walking Around Big Bend’s Empty Quarter

Dec. 4-10, 2022

Dugout Wells, past Chilicotal Mtn., around Talley Mtn., along the river to the Old Ore Terminal and back.

82 miles

The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, known as Rub’ al Khali in Arabic, is one of the least habitable places in the world. It is the largest unbroken expanse of sand in the world, and the Arabian peninsula’s largest desert. Taking up much of the lower quarter of the Arabian peninsula, the Empty Quarter has an area larger than France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined, covering some 650,000 square kilometers (200,000 sq mi). It stretches across the countries of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

As I started thinking about this walk I wanted to both fill in places on the map that I had never been to and that people don’t often see.  The area between Tornillo Creek and Mariscal Mountain and from the Glenn Springs and Black Gap roads to the River is 100,000 acres, so only one eighth of the park area but still big and empty and I have rarely read of anyone walking around it. Surely not as remote as the Arabian Empty Quarter due to its smaller size and the roads that crisscross it; it was one of the last big areas I had yet to explore.

This would be a trip across wide open spaces with huge views, think of it as the South Rim but from below with expansive views of the Chisos, the Sierra del Carmen, San Vicente and Mariscal Mountains.  There would be some narrow canyon parts too but mostly far reaches, a completely different view of the park than most folks see.

This was my fifth trip with Robert and he was equally interested as it was almost entirely new ground for him too.  Unfortunately we couldn’t get Mitch to join us, too much going on.  Robert and I collaborated on some route changes that made my original thoughts even better.  Here is the Caltopo map with each day in a different color and our original plan is the dotted red line, you can click on any of the dots to see what they mark.  Plans were made and plane tickets bought.  Watching the forecast closely we knew that it was going to be warmer than we wanted down in the hottest part of the park but we took equipment and precautions to be able to deal with the heat.  Little did we know it would also be humid and there would be incessant gnats to deal with too.

One of the reasons that the area is little explored is that there are few to no water sources and we wanted to check as many out as we could for future reference.  Our planning relied on water from Glenn Springs, the Rio Grande, a water cache along the River Road, Rio Grande Village (RGV) and Carlota Tinaja, going in we could not get any reports on Carlota and decided to roll the dice based on some very recent photos of water in pools in Ernst Tinaja canyon and an easy bailout point if it was dry.

In what has become Standard Operating Procedure, I flew in late on Dec. 2nd and Robert picked me up at my hotel at 6:00 am the next morning.  Easy driving to the park and we arrived at 1:00 and quickly got our permit.  It was a pleasure to have experienced ranger Bob write our permit, who has written permits for me before, including intelligent discussion about our route and water sources.  No fuss, no muss.

Off we went to the River Road East to drop our cache of food and water (in bear canisters) near the old San Vicente community that we would get to at the end of the fourth day and then to RGV to see if there was a water hydrant near Daniels Ranch (there wasn’t) so that we could determine our route through there the fifth day.  We finished the afternoon at the Chisos Mining Co. motel doing the final packing for the trip.

I had arranged, before leaving home, to meet for dinner with a couple of folks from Big Bend Chat who were also in the park, camping and driving some of the back roads.  We had a great visit and meal at DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ at his new sit down place at the Ghost Town.  Like all BBC encounters it was a non-stop, rapid fire conversation and it was really good to finally meet each other in person.

Trail Day 1

Up and to the Big Bend Resort & Adventures Café at 7:00 for breakfast and then the 45 minute drive to Dugout Wells.  Walking by 8:30 and as we were walking the road west toward the park road, ranger Bob rolls in, another long conversation about various park subjects and we were finally across the road and off trail by 9:00.

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Black Mountains XXIV, the Buncombe Horse trail and the 5 planet alignment. 6/22

Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. Back in May I had planned on going up to Mt. Rogers, VA, to watch the total eclipse of the Moon but the weather was not going to cooperate so I stayed home to hopefully watch it here at the farm. The clouds were in and out but at 11:00 when the eclipse started the Moon was out but by the time it was about two thirds covered the clouds moved in, skunked.

That’s okay I told myself, I will go up to the mountains for the rare 5 planet alignment the end of June. My favorite campsite on the side of the Black Mountain crest would be the perfect place to see it with it’s wide open views to the East.

Thursday afternoon I drove up to the top of the mountain as per my usual MO. It was hot down low and I drove through some rain on the way but by the time I got to the top it was clear, few clouds and hazy. The walk out to camp was as hard as always but I rolled in about 8:00 to good views.

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Tips on flying long distance to backpack in the US

I frequently see in online forums people asking questions about flying with backpacking equipment to distant hiking places.  Having done so over two dozen times I thought I would condense all of the tips I have learned over the years as well all of the associated dos and don’ts, especially since 9/11/2001 changed air travel.

I try to take every detail into consideration so that the trip from home to the trailhead is as fast, smooth and easy as possible with the fewest possible screw ups so I am assured of a great and trouble free backpacking trip which is why I am going in the first place.

My typical trip is one to two weeks long and we will be renting a car or someone I am hiking with will pick me up with their vehicle.  This is an important distinction in planning because I will have an easy place to leave any extra stuff while out hiking, in the car, in contrast to those who might be flying to do a long thru hike or long trips where they are living out of their packs for months at a time while traveling around and most likely not returning to the same airport or city but I have suggestions for that below.

Airlines and airports

Most of my trips to backpack have been from the East coast (North Carolina) to the desert Southwest but I have also flown to many other places in the US and Europe.  I essentially will only fly Southwest Airlines domestically unless they do not serve the airport I want to fly into.  The key point here is that you can check two bags for free, if you compare what looks like a cheap fare with another airline and then add the checked baggage fees most times you will end up paying more.  The reason this is important is that unless you ship things ahead of time to your destination (an unneeded and equally costly pain) you will have to check certain items which I will cover below.

The other reason to fly Southwest is that, for me, they have always been reliable and  on time (I have had only one flight with a substantial delay of several hours due to mechanical issues) and they have large planes with large overhead bins.  If I have to fly another carrier it would be Delta.  United is the bottom of the list.

With Southwest you do have to check in up to 24 hours in advance to get the earliest/lowest boarding number which I do as close to the 24 hour mark on the flight out but usually pay for the Early Bird check in on the way back as I may not be in cell phone range 24 hours in advance. An early boarding number assures that I will have the aisle seat that I prefer on long flights and plenty of open overhead bin space on full flights.

I have flown into San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas to backpack.  The cheapest airports to fly into are San Antonio, Albuquerque and Las Vegas.  When looking at flights I have four things, besides price, that I consider.  First- non-stop or one stop only flights offer less chance they will lose my checked baggage on the way out (less of a concern on the way back).  Two- if there is a stop and plane change, and generally there is, I want a long enough layover time to both make the next plane and for them to get my checked bags over to that plane, anything less than 30 minutes is bad, 45 is about the sweet spot (maybe longer with the current 2022 airline problems).  Third- In the winter I want to fly through a southern airport which reduces the chances of delays or other weather related issues, summer is less of an issue but you might want to pass on places like Dallas which routinely have bad thunderstorms. Four- I try to avoid the major hub airports like Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago which can have more schedule and cancelled flight troubles.

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Big Bend N.P. XVIII, Sue Peaks and the Dead Horse Ridge run, the last hard walk (maybe), 12/21

Dec. 8-13, 2021

50 miles with pack, a few more without

A second trip to the park in one year?  I have actually done it twice before in 1973 and 2017, so not unheard of but I am trying to make up for time lost to Covid and to get certain trips done while I feel I still can.  This was just such a trip. 

The Sue Peaks and the Sierra del Caballo Muerto command the eastern horizon of the park.  The Dead Horse mountains/ridge are part of the larger Sierra del Carmen that run for over 60 miles from Dog Canyon to well into Mexico including the imposing, layered, 7000’ high wall above Boquillas Mexico that can be seen from many parts of the park.  That same ridge (but different geology) continues north as the Santiago and del Norte mountains for another 40 miles or more that includes the singular 6500’ Santiago Peak and Persimmon Gap, northern entrance to the park and the low pass in the wall that the Comanche raiders used in the 1800’s.  The 5800’ Sue Peaks, there are two of them, one 9 feet higher than the other, are the highest point on the eastern side of the park and between the Mexican high points and Santiago Peak.  A second high point on the ridge is 5100’ Stuarts Peak.

Very few people ever climb them but the handful of reports (there is supposedly a summit register on the highest point with a dozen names) describe an interesting mix of plants including a Dagger Yucca forest with scrub oaks, a few pines and of course massive views both east and west.  It is rough country of old and razor sharp limestone seabed and far from any paved road.

My friend Robert, from San Antonio and I had talked about going up Sue Peaks for some time now and were going to attempt it in January 2020 but the weather was not cooperative.  It was a good thing we didn’t try it then as our original route was to go up the ridge to the peaks and then continue on with a loop, it was too ambitious and it would have killed us.  In the intervening two years I stared at the map trying to figure out an easier way to do it and arrived at a reverse route that would start with going up Sue Peaks first and then walking back down the ridge, going north, to a food and water cache and then looping back to the truck.  It would allow for lighter packs, especially on the long 10 mile day walking down the ridge.

Part of the reason for the original plan was that one can get a passenger car down the Dagger Flat road to near the northern end of the ridge.  Most people who have climbed the peaks have gone in from the Old Ore Road but it is really rough and ledgey, not passenger car passable.  To make this new plan even more possible Robert happened to buy a new 4X4 truck so that made the decision easy.

Here is the map of the route

To complete the team Mitch, who was with us on the arduous 2017 Arroyo Venado walk, would join us again.  It would be great to have him and probably add a bit of a safety hedge in case something did happen.  Plans were made and I took my first plane flight in two years and flew into San Antonio Tuesday evening of the 8th with some slight delays but all my gear arrived.  I spent the evening packing the pack and Robert picked me up at the hotel at 6:00 am the next morning, a practice we have honed from previous trips.

Trail Day 1

After a stop for great breakfast tacos at Mary’s Tacos in Boerne we sped west with a few stops for gas and supplies and made it to the visitor center at Panther Junction shortly after 1:00, Mitch was waiting, having driven in from Dallas.  It was a fast and painless process to get our permit even though we had had some reports of people getting some push back on recent unusual permit requests.  I suspect some of this is the rangers/volunteers being overwhelmed the past year or so with a huge increase in park visitation and people new to the desert and backpacking there.  There has been a 25% increase in visitation just in the last year, the park was not designed to handle that many people in many areas like campgrounds and parking.

We filled up with water and headed off to set our cache at the end of the Dagger Flat road and then back track some to, and down, the Old Ore Road (OOR) 4 miles to our starting point.  All of this took longer than we had estimated, mostly due to the rough conditions of the roads.  A little bit of last minute packing and we were off just before 5:00.  Sue Peaks is the high point in the middle of the picture on the far ridge.  We are headed towards the left end of the ridge to make the climb.

Our original thought was to do about 3 miles to the base of the big climb but with sunset at about 6:00 we made it a little over a mile and found a great campsite to stop for the night.

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Big Bend N.P. XVII the Rainy season in the Chisos, 8/21

Texas Summer Road Trip- Big Bend, BBQ and Bourbon

August 6th-18th, 2021 Big Bend portion the 10th-16th.

I have always wanted to see Big Bend in the rainy season, see it green and without lots of people.  August is the least visited month and the second wettest month in the middle of the monsoon which generally runs from late June (the hottest month) through September.  Boy did we hit that right with this August’s 10 plus inches of rain being the 4th wettest month ever on record in the Chisos Basin, only missing the record by a few tenths of an inch.  I also wanted to experience the heat of the lower desert but only by doing early morning day hikes and then retreating to air conditioning for the afternoons.

Scott and I were within a week of hitting the road in December 2020 for a different hiking trip in the lower desert but with Covid reaching its peak in West Texas just then and many stories about the locals saying please don’t come, we decided the responsible thing to do was to postpone the trip.  I fully retired from farming in the spring so as Covid waned and we got vaccinated I proposed a summer trip to the upper Chisos with some day hikes on the tail end.  We would still drive as flying and renting cars right now is still an insane and expensive process.  Driving would also allow us to hit many more BBQ places and to carry home as much hard to find, for us, Bourbon, as we could locate and afford.

The timing of the trip revolved around the big Perseid meteor shower which peaked on the morning of the 12th under a new moon which would make for optimal viewing conditions.  The plan was for short days with lots of time for easy day hikes and to sit in camp or on the rim and watch thunderstorms roll across the desert, we got that in spades too as it rained on us every single day.  When my brother Jon saw the trip plan he said “Geezer trip for sure” and asked if he could join us.  For icing on the cake and/or to add yet another moving part to the trip plan Scott and I were invited to speak at a farm conference in San Marcos a day or two before we would be rolling through anyway so we added that day and a half onto the itinerary.

As we were in the planning stages the South Rim 4 fire, in April, burned across almost the entire high Chisos leaving me wondering what the campsites would be like on the second half of our 4 nights up there.  I gathered as much intel as I could and decided that the ER7 campsite looked like it had escaped the fire damage that effected other sites to varying degrees.  It would still be fascinating to see what the fire damage actually looked like and how the recovery was progressing.

It is a long ass drive to Big Bend from North Carolina, one I hadn’t done since 1992 but off we went on the 6th stopping in Birmingham for some average BBQ and then ending the day in Shreveport, just short of 1000 miles for the day.  Up and on the road at 5:30 on Saturday the 7th, the goal was to get to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington as early as possible.  They are only open on Saturday and were rated the #1 BBQ by Texas Monthly in their last roundup in 2017.  We made it by 9:30 and the line was already crazy long.

The 86 year old pit master Tootsie Tomanetz (on the left) was managing the pits and greeting the public, tough gal.

3 hours later we made it to the counter and they were out of a lot of things including turkey, pork ribs, coleslaw and potato salad.  It was really good but if anything it needed a bit more smoke.  Pro tip- if you want to skip the line show up at noon or even 1:00 and it looks like they always have brisket and sausage at the end.

We had planned to maybe hit Louie Mueller’s in Taylor and then on to Micklethwaite’s, La Barbeque or Valentina’s in Austin on the way to San Marcos but after 3 hours in a hot line we decided just to head straight to San Marcos and check into our hotel.  After we recovered we made the short drive over to Lockhart and Kruez’s Market for dinner, certainly the best pork ribs of the trip.

Can you smell the smoke?

Sunday and Monday morning we were speaking at the conference and picking Jon up at the Austin airport where he was 5 hours late after delays in Dallas.  As soon as we were done Monday morning we headed west to Marathon, stopping for lunch at Lum’s in Junction, I give it a 3.5-4, pretty good. 

The Marathon Motel seemed fairly full and we spent the evening packing and getting everything ready for the next day’s hike up into the Chisos as I wanted us to be able to just pull out the packs and start walking when we got there.  We would have had dinner at the excellent Brick Vault BBQ but they are closed on Mondays.

Tuesday the 10th we were up early to be at the J&G Grill at the Alon gas station, when they opened at 7:00, to get some to-go breakfast so we could make to the Basin by 8:30 to get our park pass and then get started up the Laguna Meadows trail by 9:00 to beat the heat.  The grill was closed so we back tracked to the Oasis Café for a sit down breakfast, which was great but put us an hour behind schedule.

It was in fact very green all the way down to the park and as we stopped just short of Panther Junction it also became apparent that it was also surprisingly humid for the desert.  Not really unexpected when one thinks about it, moisture laden air rises to make thunderstorms and they used to predict the Arizona monsoon rains would start when they had three days in a row of dew points in the mid 50’s or higher.  It had been raining fairly consistently for weeks now and the air felt like it.  Still, I was not used to the idea of a hot and sticky desert.  As it turned out the dew points the whole time we were there were between the mid 50’s and the mid 60’s when, in my experience, things begin to be uncomfortable.

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Wilson Creek area (Harper creeks and the Lost Coves), 10/20

Oct. 21 & 22, 2020

21 miles

Bob and I badly needed to get out after long backpacking hiatuses due to the coronavirus.  8 months for Bob and 10 for me except I did slip out for a few nights in August.  We bandied about a few places and because Bob only wanted to do an overnight and it was going to be so warm I suggested the Wilson Creek area for lots of options and the copious creek crossings would be more pleasant in warmer weather.  Had I known that his last trip was a very cold one to almost the exact same places with David, in early March, I would have offered another location but he didn’t remind or tell me about it so off we went.

The SOP 5:30 departure and three hours later we were to the Harper Creek East trail head where we found no cars.  Even though it was in the 50’s we immediately started in shorts and T-shirts knowing it would quickly warm up.  We passed the only backpackers we would see as we approached Harper Creek falls which were spectacular and hard to get a full shot of.

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Beautiful morning and we are maybe just past peak fall color but still stunning.  We ambled along Harper creek with the first of what would be 14 crossings for the day.

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Walking into the 6th decade

50 years ago today, July 31st 1970, was my first backpacking trip, I was 13.  I was enthralled with the idea of camping and going deeper and farther into the woods than car camping and day hikes allowed.  We had been summer car camping with my family since before we could walk so sleeping outside, on the ground, was comfortable and normal for me but my parents, especially my father, were not carrying a pack anywhere.  I had been in Scouts for a few years by 1970 where we camped out every month and used packs to carry our gear into our campsite but never very far.  I spent days walking and exploring the woods and wild areas near our house, in all seasons and weather.  My older brothers had been out west backpacking in the Canadian and US Rocky Mountains and I wanted to badly do the same.  I read and studied everything I could get my hands on and finally convinced my parents that I was ready to go out on my own and I somehow convinced a friends parents too!

That first trip was supposed to be a week long walk on the AT in Vermont and I thought I had planned thoroughly but the first day we struggled with really heavy packs and got confused following the trail which had many woods roads intersections.  That first night it rained and we got wet and decided to throw in the towel when we hit the first small town the next day and called our parents to come pick us up.  That experience did not change my enthusiasm but only increased my research and refinement of my gear.

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My Home Walking Trail

This winter I established a walking trail around the farm for my daily walks because I don’t like walking on the road so much.  I not only walk it for regular exercise but will also carry a pack when getting ready for big trips.  Now with Covid-19 it is great to have.

Below is the elevation profile for the basic loop which has 110′ gain and loss in a mile, I have a figure 8 version which has 175′ of gain and loss in 1.4 miles.

There is a lot of wildlife- deer, bobcat, raccoons, opossums, groundhogs, fox, beaver, river otters, muskrat, coyote, probably black bear, wild turkey, great blue and green herons, ducks, lots of hawks and many song birds.

Leaving the house walking west through mature white oaks, beeches and hickories

It is a steep rocky 20’ elevation drop down to Big Branch

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Congaree National Park, SC 12/19

December 4-6, 2019

About 28 miles

The time we got lost or as Daniel Boone said “I have never been lost but I was bewildered once for three days”

We were planning to go to Virginia but the forecast was for 60 mph winds up on the ridges so we turned south to Congaree National Park for a more mellow trip, at least we thought it would be.  Bob and Stan had been a few years ago and raved about the huge old growth trees.

Day 1

It was a beautiful clear day with temperatures in the 60’s when we made it to the visitor center.  We got our free backcountry permit that allows us to camp anywhere south of Cedar creek and 100 feet from any trail or major water feature.  We had really light packs with no rain gear or tarps.  We did carry a little more water as the water from the sloughs, guts, ponds, lakes and creeks can be a bit nasty but we did plan on refilling tomorrow from Cedar Creek.  A few miles in we encountered a Park Service person who tests the water and he said no problem using the water, just purify it.

The whole park is only 26,000 acres but has the largest area of old growth bottomland forest in the US of about 11,000 acres and one of the tallest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world.  There are 25 champion trees, the largest found in the United States, within the park.  It is flat as a pancake with maybe 5 feet of elevation difference from the Congaree River to Cedar Creek.  We would walk nearly all the trails plus some.

Off about 10:00 we started with an easy saunter down the old Sims trail, an old road bed

We crossed Cedar creek for the first time and it looked pretty clear

We picked up the River trail and started seeing many huge trees which are impossible to take a good picture of, Stan in the wings of an oak

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Wind River Range (Scab Creek Trailhead), WY, 8/19

Middle Fork basin, Bonneville basin, the Great Sheep desert

August 22nd-27th, 2019

~46 miles

For my first trip in semi-retirement I decided to go big and bold.  I hadn’t had a real summer backpacking trip in 40 years that wasn’t just a few days out in the North Carolina mountains, so I wanted to go far west and somewhere up high.  In the late 70’s when I lived in northern Utah I had driven by and hiked in places all around the Wind River Range but had never been up into the Range itself, it has become one of the must see places in the western United States.

I poured over the maps and guidebooks trying to find a suitable route.  I first thought of a Wind River High Route or a variation on it or a through hike of the Continental Divide trail section.  Both seemed logistically difficult and maybe a bit more than one should try to bite off for their first trip at elevation in four decades.  I looked at several different loops trying to find a balance between total mileage and distance from the trailhead before you actually got to the heart of the range.  Of course the obvious and popular choice was a loop out of the Big Sandy Opening trailhead but that would mean both a lot of people near the trailhead and a 25 mile dirt road, in a rental car, to get there.

An acquaintance mentioned the Scab Creek trailhead as a less used option with easy access and fairly easy approach to the main range.  Here is the map, our route is in black.  Scott was all in for a late August trip which is a good window between the end of mosquito season, after schools start and before the first snows in September.  We were both worried about getting into hiking shape during the summer and how we would handle a week at over 10,000 feet.  It was indeed a sweaty affair walking with the pack for weeks and weeks before we left but I did the best I could to get ready.

We flew into Salt Lake City, got a rental car, hit REI for gas canisters, the grocery store for some more food and then drove 4.5 hours to Lander Wyoming where we spent the night at 6000’ with an old friend, catching up and packing for the trip.  It would have been better if we could have had a few nights at elevation but this was the best we could do before walking higher.

Trail Day 1

We were up early for the 2.5 hour drive back around to the west side of the range and the Scab Creek trailhead at 7800’, where it was packed with cars, we got the last spot in the main lot, with people heading to the overflow lot and this was a weekday!  We wanted to get the big initial climb out of the way before the heat of the day and headed out at 10:00.  I started out with 29 pounds including 6 days food and a bear canister.

The worst was the initial 1500’ climb, in three miles, up the front of the plateau that fronts the range to the Wilderness Boundary where the trail then wandered across the plateau, up and down and around small granite domes and by various small lakes in the forest

with no views for another 5.5 miles before finally breaking out into the open at South Divide creek with tremendous views of the spine of the range at 8.5 miles.  L-R Dragon Head Peak, Pronghorn Peak, Mt. Bonneville, Raid Peak.

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