Big Bend N.P. XVII the Rainy season in the Chisos

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 up the front of the plateau that fronts the range, in three miles, 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.  L-R Dragon Head Peak, Pronghorn Peak, Mt. Bonneville, Raid Peak.

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Big Bend N.P. XVI, Tule Mtn. and Alamo Creek, 1/20

Tuff Canyon to Tule Mountain and explorations of upper Alamo Creek

Dec. 31st, 2019-Jan. 5th, 2020

42 miles with pack, maybe 4 more without

Here is my equipment list

My sixteenth trip to Big Bend and the first of the decade of the Roaring 20’s was different in many ways to my previous walks and unfolded itself in interesting ways.

December has become my sweet spot for both finding time to get to the park and for fairly consistently good weather.  I contacted Robert to see if he was interested in doing a trip together and he said he was but it worked best for him if we did it after Christmas.  I could make that work even though it put us in the park during the busy holiday period between Christmas and New Years.

I had several potential areas to explore but we both had Sue Peaks on our bucket lists so that became the primary objective if the weather was going to be good.  If that didn’t work out I had been working on a large loop that started at Tuff Canyon and went north, east of Tule Mountain, over Burro Mesa and then back south down Alamo Creek.  We would play it by ear and make the call as we got to the park.

A 3 a.m. alarm had me headed to the airport for a flight to San Antonio which went flawlessly.  We landed early and I walked out of the baggage claim door at 10:00 a.m. as Robert pulled up.  It was a totally clear day as we sailed on to Study Butte, via Alpine, by 4:30, couldn’t have gone any smoother other than that sleep deprivation thing.

There were a lot of Big Bend Chat folks in the park over the holidays but we would not be able to meet up with most of them.  We did have plans to have dinner with Mitch and his new bride and a few others.  We checked into the Chisos Mining Co. Motel and then headed over to the Starlight to sit on the front porch and the place was totally jammed.  Butch Hancock was playing that night and the parking lot was overflowing and a line of at least 50 people were already waiting to get in at 5:00!

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We had a few beers while waiting and when we got to the door the wait was 2.5 hours!  We decided to bail and go to La Kiva, which had its own long wait of 1.5 hours.  Mitch and Emily joined us there and we had a good visit and dinner (finally!).  This is what happens during the busy times.  Mitch told us it had been so busy in the park that they had stationed a ranger at the bottom of the Basin road and would only let one car in as one would come out!  

Robert and I stumbled back to the room, did some packing for the trip and then passed out, it had been a long day for me!

Trail Day 1, New Years Eve

Up early and to the Big Bend Motor Inn at 7:00 for breakfast because we were trying to get to the backcountry permit office before it opened at 8:30.  Good thing we moved quickly because as we got to Panther Junction visitor center at 8:20 there were already 4 groups in line in front of us with many more coming in!

There were two rangers writing permits and it took a long time as most folks don’t have a clue what they want to do or know anything about the park or the rules.  In nearly 47 years of coming to the park this was the first time I had ever experienced the backcountry permit office which is only open during Spring Break, Thanksgiving and the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, I hope it is the last time. 

Robert and I of course knew exactly what we were doing and were out in 15 minutes.  It was the last day of the old permit fees and with my Geezer pass it only cost $6 for which I had exact change.  If we had been there one day later it would have cost $30 ($60 for non Senior pass holders) a 500% increase.  Now I support an increase in fees as the old price was ridiculously cheap but I think both the new partial backpacking reservations system (only the Chisos campsites) and the $10 per night increase are cumbersome and overkill.

While we had our sights on Sue Peaks the forecast was not good for that plan with a strong front coming through tomorrow and the next day so we opted for the Tule Mountain/Alamo creek route.  I had only walked through that area once on my across the western half of the park walk and Robert had a couple of crossings but this would be a totally different approach.

So here is the map.  The individual days are each in a different color, the original route plan and campsites, that we didn’t do are in black.  The orange sections are alternatives we considered.

We filled up our water containers, including cached water and headed back west to near mile post 17 and the head of Alamo creek where we left both a food and water cache to be picked up in four days.  We then drove around and down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Tuff Canyon.  A few last minute bits of packing and we were finally off at 11:00.

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Big Bend N.P. XV (Circumambulation of the NW zones), 12/18

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.

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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.

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AT (Spivey’s Gap to Big Butt)/Sampson Mtn. Wilderness/Lower Higgins Creek, NC/TN

May 6-8, 2018

39 miles in 49 hours

Bob’s Last Expedition

I had heard from solid sources that Bob was thinking about selling all his gear and quitting backpacking so I suggested a death march for his last outing.  For probably 10 years we have been talking about trying to get into the Sampson Mountain Wilderness just SW of Erwin, TN but there is no easy way to do it and there are only a few trails mostly around the boundary.  Bob wanted to do a semi-loop starting at Big Bald on the AT, head south and jump off the AT at Big Butt and make our way towards the wilderness.

I called the shuttle folks and they said they were not allowed to drive to Big Bald because the road was private through the Wolf Laurel ski area, that meant we would have to start at Spivey’s Gap and it would add an additional 7 miles and 2300 foot climb to the route.  Hey it was a death march right?

Bob was punctual at 5:30 and we made record time to Erwin by a bit after 9:00 and we had to wait for our shuttle.  They had no idea what we wanted to do but we dropped the truck at the Lower Higgins Creek trail head and they drove us up to Spivey’s Gap by 11:00.  It was overcast but the forecast was for rain and then clearing in the afternoon.  As we trudged up the side of Big Bald we began passing one after another northbound thru hiker.  It began to rain seriously so we put on the rain gear, waiting as long as we could.  With temps in the 50’s we would get soaked either way.

We pulled into the Big Bald shelter for a late lunch at 2:00 hoping for some dry space but it was packed with at least 10 thru hikers doing the same thing and they were not being hospitable.  We carved out some butt space on the front edge of the shelter as more folks rolled in including a couple of pretty elderly section hikers, the thru hikers did not budge.  We finished fast and headed on up to the top of the Bald as we were getting a bit chilly too.

There would be no awesome view from 5500 feet on Big Bald for us, 30 mph winds and thick clouds, at least the rain had stopped!

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South Mountains State Park, 2/18

February 8 and 9, 2018

~20 miles

Bob and I have been trying to get to the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Tennessee near Erwin but this was the only window in February that I had and the cold and rainy weather was not going to allow enough time to do it justice so we decided to just do an overnight somewhere closer.

For years we had driven by the South Mountains on the way to somewhere else and dismissed them as trivial hills but I looked closer at the park and realized that there were a lot of trails and quite a bit of steep country.  We decided to give it a try and Bob brilliantly invited David Swanson who had done the master plan for the park to come along, he jumped at the trip and gave us full insight into the park.

Barely a 3 hour drive we arrived at the visitor center at 8:30 and visited with the Park Superintendent that David had worked with before starting at the horse trailer parking lot and heading out on the Saddleback trail with temps in the 40’s.  Almost immediately we had to wade across Jacob Fork creek, it was cold and fast moving but we were able to use the big rocks, just barely submerged, to make our way across.

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Just across the creek we intersected with a side trail that David said came from the horse camping area and there was a bridge across the creek there, wished he had told us that earlier.

Our general plan was to gain the ridge and walk around the top of the watershed for Jacob Creek.  Most of the trails are on old forest roads with a few single track sections.  Our route is in red in the map below.  Here is the map at the State Park site. Continue reading

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