Big Bend VIII (across the park Eastern Half), 12/04

December 12-19, 2004

about 60 miles

I had always eyed the across the park walk ever since reading the “Cross the Park Hike” description from the Big Bend Natural History Assoc. 1971 Hikers Guide:

“Between Stillwell Crossing (Adam’s Ranch) and Lajitas is another possibility. The route, east to west, is a logical six-day trip as follows:  from Adams’ Ranch to Roy’s Peak, via Telephone Canyon Trail on the first day; to Dugout on the second day; to Upper Juniper Spring, if you wish to hike over the mountains, on the third day (or you may follow the Outer Mountain Loop route to the spring west of the Dodson Place, or go all the way to Blue Creek); another day to Blue Creek via Boot Canyon and South Rim scenic loop; another day to Luna’s via the Chimney Trail; and the last day to Lajitas.  Water and food could be cached at Roy’s Peak, Blue Creek Ranch, and Luna’s.”

Six days is some serious walking and I wanted to do it in about 10 so we could enjoy and explore.  By the time we flew in from North Carolina, drove to and from the park and got set up it would be 13-14 days, I couldn’t ever get anyone to take enough time off to do the whole thing so I broke it down into Eastern and Western halves.

Here is the full eastern half route map, you can click on it to make it full screen and then again to make it huge (full 7.5 minute size).

Finally in Dec. 2004 the time had come for the first half; my intent was to walk across the entire eastern side of the park from Boquillas at the Strawhouse trailhead to the Basin, about 60 miles.  Scott, my partner in this adventure, is a friend from here in NC, we had hiked together in the Grand Canyon and we share a love for Texas music but he had never been to Big Bend.  I picked him up at the Austin airport and we stopped by Luckenbach for a beer and hoping to hear some good music but the music was not great so we headed on west to Ft. Stockton for the night.

The next morning we made it to the park early and got our permit (the rangers couldn’t believe what I wanted to do), set a cache of food and water at Dug Out Wells which was about the half way point and then had time to show him around the park (western side all the way to Santa Elena canyon).  We made it to Study Butte in time to check in with Far Flung Adventures who was to shuttle us to the trail head in the morning (they couldn’t believe what I wanted to do but were more than willing to take our money).  We checked into the Easter Egg Valley/Chisos Mining Co. Motel to sort equipment and pack.  On over to La Kiva for a beer and then to the Starlight Theater in Terlingua for dinner and some fair music from an imported Austin musician.

Early in the morning we made our way, through breakfast at Ms. Tracy’s, to the Basin to meet our shuttle.  We filled our water bottles (almost 3 gallons each, that’s almost 23 pounds just in water, ugh!) for the first 2 and a half waterless days, mailed post cards and called the girls.

The shuttle driver was early and he couldn’t believe what I wanted to do (by this time Scott is beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into).  On the trail by 11:00 headed north on the Strawhouse trail through Ernst Valley.

We started at Boquillas and went up the Strawhouse trail to Telephone canyon because getting access across Adams ranch to the eastern end of the Telephone canyon trail was difficult, almost impossible to get information about and the shuttle would have been wicked expensive.  It added another day to the trip but we got to see Ernst Valley which most folks never get to.

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Clear as a bell and in the 60’s.  Ernst Valley is a wide dry place between ridges of the Dead Horse Mtns.  Three beautiful narrow canyon sections punctuate the trail with the last one choked with large boulders that needed to be worked around.

At one of those negotiations Scott slipped while trying to avoid some thorny brush and fell backward about 8 feet but landed mostly on his sumptuous pack and came out just scraped up a bit.  We stopped on a nice wide gravelly spot in the wash for the night (~about 7 miles today and it ended up being the hottest day at 84 degrees).

The wind picked up over night and was to be with us, irritatingly, for the next day and half.  Day two and we head on up to the top of Ernst Valley where we would pass the only water we would see on this far side of the park.  We did not realize it at the time but 2004 had been an unusually wet year with a very wet November so we saw more water than normal.

The route became obscure (these trails are not marked and just routes, mostly up washes).

It took some time to get to the top (I kept telling him I was 85% sure of where we were) but found a large cairn there that assured us we were in the right place.

On down the other side and into Telephone Canyon.  We were headed west now towards the head of the canyon on the wide and braided wash (think Alaskan glacial rivers without water).

We made good time to the bottom of the climb out and over the Dead Horse Mtns.  This “trail” was the first marked section we had been on but was still difficult to find in spots,  we made it up to the top where we intended to camp so we could take in the massive views west and north over the entire park.

The winds where whipping up to 40mph so we took a short break out of the wind to enjoy the views then headed down the other side to find a camp out of the worst of the winds (they blew all night even down where we camped). ~13.5 miles today.

Third day and the winds were slowing down as we continued on west on the Telephone canyon trail to its terminus at the Telephone Canyon backcountry roadside campsite.  We then started the first of our true cross country routes, around and past Roy’s Peak and down a wash, with beautiful views and the first running water in 3 days, to Tornillo Creek just upstream from Banta Shut-In.

The route finding was easy and we made it into camp early so we had time to explore the area.  Tornillo creek drains the entire eastern side of the park and was running like a trout stream.  Banta Shut-In is/was a lava intrusion that forced the stream into a very narrow and deep passage.

Very cool.  We camped on a wide sandy bench above the creek and enjoyed the sound of the stream and the now calm winds.  ~ 7 miles today.

The 4th day we awoke to 22 degrees, the coldest of the trip, still clear as a bell. We took our time breaking camp as we didn’t have a long day planned and first had to wade through the Shut-In.

We made it through with frozen feet then warmed up as we headed up Estufa canyon (estufa means stove in Spanish).

At the top of Estufa we jumped out to head south on our 2nd cross country stretch to Dug Out Wells and our cache.  It was on this leg that Scott had too many encounters with thorns especially the killer lechuguilla.  By the time we got to our cache he was really beginning to wonder what I had gotten him into.  The cache was there, undisturbed and we spent a long break repacking and refilling our water and fuel bottles.

We then headed west directly into the lowering and intense sun for several more miles of cross country work to just north of Chilicotal Mtn. for the night.  Scott followed behind me on this leg and began to think more like a javelina as we slalomed and dodged our way through the desert.  An amazingly beautiful camp with huge views east, south and west over the park and into Mexico.  About 9 miles today.

The 5th day we made the last of our cross country legs over to the Juniper Canyon trail, by this time Scott was becoming an old desert rat until I took us a little further north than intended and we spent a little more time than we wanted working our way over small rises, through washes and lechuguilla forests.  Finally we hit the trail, from here on to the car I told him that a blind man could find his way.  He was thinking about blinding me at that point.  We rolled on up Juniper Canyon higher and higher until we got to Upper Juniper spring which was running slowly but nicely.  The large trees in the canyon bottom were startling after so many days in the lower desert and beautiful as they were in fall color.  About 10 miles today.

The sixth day began at 2:00 a.m. as Scott woke me saying he thought it was snowing.  Damn if it wasn’t!  We scampered around and put the tarp up and went back to sleep.  We woke up to a dusting and walked on up through about an inch to 7200′.  The sun was popping in and out and it was incredibly beautiful with the snow on the cactus and trees.  Very rare and fortunate for us to have experienced snow in the desert!

We made it on up to the South Rim by noon and while cloudy, the views were gargantuan as always and Scott now understood what it was I had gotten him into!

It was still flurrying a little (which you can see in the top photo) and looked like it might continue for the next day or so.  33 degrees, we looked at each other and decided to head for the showers instead of spending the last night out at 7400′ at NE4 with frozen precipitation.  We rolled on out and down to the Basin, every group we passed asked where we had been and they couldn’t believe that we had come that far.  By the time we got to the car (2:00) it was clear skies and warm, oh well it won’t be the last time I will be on the South Rim.  About 9.5 miles today.

Showers, dinner, several beers and we had re-entered society.  The next day was the long drive back to Austin and a flight home the next day.

A great trip, a challenging trip (nearly 40 miles off marked trails), perfect weather, good logistics, great company.  Despite the scars he received (mental and physical) Scott had a good time and now appreciates the desert even more.  Next Big Bend trip will be the western half of the park.

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