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.

Mitch reprised his role as expedition bar tender, shots of tequila to celebrate the start of the trip.  Note the fresh lime wedges on the tiny green cutting board in Mitch’s hand and yes there was salt.

It was a warm and still night with a third full moon and a decent sunset over the Chisos.

Trail Day 2

We woke up to a tremendous sunrise and 47 degrees

A pleasant breakfast and Robert made breakfast tacos, with the tortillas warmed on the pot lid over the camp stove with beans, cheese, bacon and the salsa from Mary’s Tacos! He even generously shared one with me.

Walking by 9:00 we worked our way towards the base of the climb by 11:00 and take a good break.  Our route is the red line up the slope, 2000’ in 2 miles.  Sue Peaks is marked in between the ocotillo stalks.

This pano shows the whole ridge we plan to walk.  The black lines, from right to left, are Sue Peaks, Stuarts Peak and the point we will drop off the ridge to our cache.  Looks like pretty flat, easy walking for sure.  Not.

This is where the climb gets real.  The red circle in the back right is where the truck is, 3 miles as the crow flies.

It is a warm day but with a good breeze, temps across the eastern side of the park ranged from the low 80’s to the low 90’s.  About half way up we stopped for lunch and the big views.

Above 5000’ we start to get into the Yucca forest and it is quite unusual.

We gain the top of the main ridge and get our first look at the lower side ridge we will take tomorrow when we head north but our focus for today is south and getting to the Sue Peaks.  We are a little behind schedule because we didn’t get as far yesterday evening and looking at the terrain ahead of us we decide to drop the packs at a decent campsite about a mile short of the northern peak, #2, as we might have trouble finding a campsite further along the ridge and we have to come back this way tomorrow anyway.  Sue Peak #2 is the pointed one in the middle of the picture and #1 to its left, 9 feet higher.

As it turned out it was a great decision as the ground got steeper and rockier and it would have been very hard to find a campsite.  The last pitch up to Peak #2.

On top looking NW towards the Rosillos mountains.

Robert on top, this is looking south towards Peak #1 a half a mile away, and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico

Looking west towards the Chisos under a milky sky

We had decided that with the time of day and with the thought of saving our energies for tomorrow’s ridge walk we would forgo the additional mile walk over to Peak #1 and back.  We did not see the small stand of pine trees we had read about but maybe it was over on Peak #1.  Sadly there was a fire that swept up the side of the peaks in June 2020 burning the Yucca forest that may never recover to its previous state.  Heading back to the packs, a mile away.

Looking back north along the ridge with the upper reaches of Heath canyon to the right.

Back to the packs by 4:30, the earliest we would stop all trip after 7.5 miles today.  It was a great, if exposed, campsite with huge views east and west.  We set up camp and thoroughly enjoyed the warm evening with a light breeze.

And an incredible sunset over the Chisos

And the last sun, looking east over Mexico.

Trail Day 3

The wind really started to pick up about 5 a.m. and increased to near 30 mph.  Warm with a low of 58 degrees.  We knew that today a dry cold front would blow in and it would be windy but had no idea how much.  When I sat up my inflatable pillow blew away over the edge but stopped right below the rock ledge and I was able to retrieve it.  It was so windy that we decided to pack up and head north, hoping that when we dropped off the ridge we could find a more sheltered place for breakfast.  Packing up at first light, you can see Robert’s ground sheet flapping in the wind.

Heading north along the ridge, Sue Peaks to the left.  Note the wind blowing Robert’s neck cowling on his hat.

The Chisos at first light

And fifteen minutes later the lower desert lit up showing the many reticulated drainages between the Chisos and Tornillo creek.   We will be down there in two days.

We dropped down this connecting slope to the lower ridge, its top illuminated by the sun and we found a good place for breakfast just on its far side. 

We would walk down this ridge towards the far long ridge with Stuarts peak the high point but would first have to descend into the intervening canyon in the shade.

The black lines, north to south (left to right), are 6500’ Santiago Peak (40 miles distant), Persimmon Gap, Dog Canyon and 5100’ Stuarts Peak.  The red circle is where our cache is at Dagger Flat that we have to get to by this evening.

By 10:30 we were trying to find a way down into the canyon and it was steep, steep, fortunately the limestone rock is really rough and easy to stick to.  Looking up and down to the bottom.

We pushed through the vegetation down to the junction with the main canyon and took a long break, we have to climb back out on the sheer slope straight ahead.

A short and precipitous climb, we came down the canyon behind Mitch.

Once up the side we angled across this slope with difficult footing to the saddle on the ridge in the sun.  It was noon and the wind from the west was fierce, gusts to 40 mph and higher but as soon as we slipped over to the east, lee side it was calm and we found a place for lunch.

After lunch we faced this long, rocky, up and down ridge, Stuarts Peak at the end.

Sometimes it was easy walking, others rocky with boulders.  The wind made it a challenge, blowing us off balance.  I would mostly walk on the west, windward side, and use my poles to keep me from being blown into the slope.  The highs today were again in the mid to upper 80’s and when we would drop over on the leeward side it was plain hot.  Looking back towards where we came from this morning.

This ridge runs right along the parks eastern boundary which is adjacent to the 100,000 acre Black Gap Wildlife Management area but along this stretch there is a large section of private land in Big Brushy canyon and we could see a number of roads and 3 or 4 buildings.

Occasionally the ridge would breakdown altogether and we would have to side hill around.

The last long run up to Stuarts Peak

Finally on top.  Sue Peaks is right above Robert’s head and the slope we climbed up to the main ridge is to his right and the lower ridge we walked down to get into the canyon is to his left.

It was 2:30 and from here we had 3 long miles to finish the last of the ridge and drop 1600’ down to Dagger Flat and our cache.  We were all getting tired and complaining about tired feet.  Near the end of the ridge was a very narrow fin of rock that I started out across but quickly turned around as there was no way to not to get blown off.  We had to back track a bit to find a way to traverse the slope below it which was slow and at a high angle.  The slope down off the ridge was just as steep, rocky and full of cactus.  I was so focused on getting down that I took no more pictures this afternoon.  Finally at 5:00 we got to our cache and spent some time refilling water and food.

We still had about three quarters of a mile to walk to get to a camping spot that was over the low rim to the south and a half a mile from the road to be compliant with the regulations.  Right a dark we found a great campsite with views of the Chisos and Rosillos mountains and a great sunset.  The wind had died and we enjoyed a balmy evening.  9 miles today.

This had been one of the hardest days of backpacking I had ever done or at least recently done.  This is why I say this may be the last hard walk, maybe, I always wonder how long these 65 year old legs will be able to do this kind of thing.  Well worth it but I don’t want to do it again.  Type 2 fun- not real fun to do but fun to talk about later.  Of course it was made more difficult by the wind.  The front that brought the wind was the tail of the same one that brought the record deadly tornados that tore a path from Missouri to Ohio. 

Trail Day 4

Low clouds rolled in overnight and the wind picked back up but not really fierce.  48 degrees the low and we were greeted with a fabulous sunrise.

We had breakfast and headed off southwest with extra clothing on until we warmed up some.  We were going to Leopold tinaja that I had been to with Scott and Lee in 2014 but Robert and Mitch had never seen.  It is really quite a large pouroff with a short canyon below it. 

There are both a few rock pools just below the lip and a large pool at the bottom, all were dry.

Going south now we are aiming for a wash we would follow all the way down to Muskhog spring and Javalina creek.  Yes we walked all the way across that ridge yesterday!

During this stretch is where I had my closest call with serious injury the whole trip.  Negotiating a dense stand of the stiff and pointed lechuguilla I stumbled and would have done a full frontal fall onto the spikes.  It would have torn me up but I stopped the fall with my hiking poles.

We make the wash and now we are on the cake walk, wide avenues of easy on the feet walking.  We crossed the OOR after lunch and filled up with a little more water we had stashed there.

The section below the road is a fun walk with twists and turns and some small drops.

We make it to Mushhog spring about 2:30 and it is running slowly but nicely with good quality water.  There is a rock corral right next to the narrow mouthed and layered canyon the spring flows down.

This might be my favorite spring in the park because of the great and reliable water and the crazy, scenic little canyon it is in.

We fill up with enough water to get us through tomorrow and to Banta Shut-In and head on down Javalina creek towards the Fossil Bone exhibit with 4-5 miles still to go at 3:00.  It turns into a bit of a slog but this area is wide open and featureless so we can beeline towards the ends of the hills across the flats to save some distance, cutting the corners.

We finally make it to Tornillo creek, that we will walk down all day tomorrow but first we are looking for the Black Peaks but don’t easily see them.  A very cold breeze picks up and we are running out of daylight so find a nice campsite in the lee of a small hill and with a great view of the Chisos instead, we will find the Black Peaks in the morning.  12 miles today.  After yesterday’s front the highs today were in the 60’s and it will be a cold night.

Trail Day 5

27 degrees, it is always cold down along Tornillo creek.  Beautiful morning and we savor breakfast waiting for the sun.

The Black Peaks are three quarters of a mile to our southeast and we quickly cross over to them.  They are really quite short, maybe 50’ tall and there are 3 of them, the shortest just over the shoulder of the tall one on the left.  Las Tres Negritas.

We spend some time wandering around the low hills surrounding them looking for an old graveyard we had read about.

We finally see it on a small rise.  Nine graves in total, they had a great view of the Chisos.  Not sure but they maybe were inhabitants of the old Cottonwood community just south of here on the banks of Tornillo creek.

On south we go to the first of the rock houses of the community we had seen on satellite photos.  Fairly substantial with lots of metal artifacts laying about. 

You can see the Black Peaks in the distance

We follow the old road on towards Tornillo creek and the bulk of the ruins.  Several good rock houses and many small outbuildings and corrals, more than a dozen structures, at least.

About noon we drop into the wide Tornillo creek and find a shady spot for lunch before going down stream.  This javelina met a bad end.

Along this section we started seeing a fair number of what I am sure were elk tracks and some droppings, the only other thing they could have been were cow tracks but we saw no patties.  I have never seen them in the park but elk are frequently seen a few miles north of here, closer to the Rosillos mountains.

There is a group of springs right near the Cottonwood community, probably why it was founded there, but all were dry.  We started to see some signs of water below where the McKinney springs wash comes in from the east.  This one actually had small fish darting around under the boulder.

Between Hannold Draw and Big Yellow Arroyo water ran for a quarter mile or more.

This petrified wood log was exposed, the biggest piece I have seen in the park.

The mouth of Big Yellow Arroyo coming in from the west.

This seep was a good one from the canyon wall.

This is the second time I have walked this stretch and the geology is spectacular.

Below where the wash comes in from the east and the Roys Peak Vista campsite there were several long stretches of flowing water, maybe a third of a mile each but the farther we went the more salt deposits there were.

We stopped about 4:30 at a seep from the side of the wash that looked a bit less salty to fill up with enough water to get us back to the truck tomorrow afternoon.

Not too many turns on down is Banta Shut-In and we drop packs just before it to walk down and see how it’s spring is running.  Definitely better than when I was last there in 2014.  The water trickles down into the slot of the Shut-In where the light is shining on its eastern wall.

We are looking for the side wash from the east we will go up in the morning and that Scott and I came down in 2004 on our across the eastern half of the park walk.  We finally find the correct one, just below a large pouroff and decide that instead of trying to climb around it in the waning daylight we will instead take advantage of a nice level and soft campsite on a bench above the creek.  11 miles today.  The highs had again been in the upper 60’s and very pleasant.

Trail Day 6, the finish.

37 the low and we have a nice view of the first light on the McKinney Hills

Behind camp is the slope we have to climb to get around the pouroff in the center right.

We had three options of where to cut back east towards the truck and this one was the shortest route but we still had over 10 miles to go.  If we’d had more time yesterday we would have gone about 3 miles farther down Tornillo creek and then cut back north in a big wash that we all had never explored but that will have to wait until another trip.

The climb up around the pouroff was steep and loose pebbly rock at points but not too bad and it resulted in a great view of the Chisos.  

Now 150 feet above Tornillo creek at the top of the pouroff.

The wash we will follow up towards Roys Peak and the Alto Relex in the distance where the OOR is.

Near the top of the wash we cut over to and through a low point in the east ridge and then head north towards the OOR and the Telephone Canyon 2 campsite on an old faint trail.  We see the only humans in 5 days in a jeep at a distance.

We arrive at the Telephone Canyon 2 campsite where the Old or Original Old Ore Road (OOOR) continues on north but is blocked to traffic past the campsite.

It is beginning to warm up and when the OOOR crosses a wash we find a great shady place for lunch.

We think that this section of OOOR is in fact the way that the ore from the Puerto Rico mine in Mexico was hauled up to Marathon and that the current OOR, that people still drive on, was the road used to access the McKinney ranch and that area.  The OOOR is in great condition and was easy to follow with only a few places we had to go around due to vegetation or in and out of a wash.  This section had both retaining walls and a hillside they blasted out.

It is about 6 miles along the road from TC2 to the OOR where Robert’ truck is parked.  It is a steady, gentle, fairly direct climb the first 3 miles up a lonely valley to its high point

and then a turn to the northwest around the end of the McKinney Hills, one of the few eroded sections.

From here back to the OOR and the truck it drops slightly but mostly winds around some small hills and finding the easiest way to cross numerous washes.

It is on the edge of hot out in the wide open even though the high was only about 80 and we have been laying down a pretty fast pace.  Finally at 3:30 after 10.5 miles we reach the truck and the end of another great walk.

It takes an hour and a half to travel the slow roads and retrieve our cache before we hit the paved park road and then another hour to get over to Study Butte and finally the Starlight in Terlingua.  It was a beautiful night and a large crowd.  We spent a long time on the porch waiting for a table, drinking beer and cleaned up a bit in the bathrooms.  Great first meal after the trail and then we retired to the Rattlesnake Mountain campsite in the park to watch the Geminid meteor shower under a totally clear sky but a three quarter moon, as tonight was the peak.  It was just an okay show, lots of little shooters and only a few nice longer ones.

The next morning we went to Alpine for breakfast and then parted ways with Mitch going back to Dallas and Robert and I to SA.  A stop for okay BBQ at the Smoke Shack (Texas Monthly top 100). It needed more smoke.

A few liquor store stops, nothing grand and then to my hotel.  The first glorious shower and then repacking everything for the early flight home the next day.

Final thoughts

Another great trip and yet more places checked off the big list.  As I said, maybe the last “hard” walk, I am increasingly aware of creeping age and know that I will not be able to do some of these kinds of rough off trail walks in the future.    While I do have at least five more big loops planned in the park they are all low elevation and fairly easy cross country type of jaunts, even an occasional trail.  If you look at my Master Map of the park they will fill in the areas I have not yet been to with some overlap of previous walks (red is where I have walked and orange are future routes).

I did work pretty hard to get into shape for this trip and it helped a great deal.  Robert and Mitch are endurance athletes and so come to the game in good shape and ready to go and a little younger too.  Excellent people to walk with and they also truly enjoy the desert and exploring what is there.

The reworking of the trip plan to allow for the lightest possible packs and to walk down the ridge worked perfectly.  One could just do an overnighter up the peaks and back or even dayhike it but we wanted to walk the whole ridge.  While it might appear we started with heavy packs and a big water load, it really wasn’t because we only walked with that full water a short way over fairly level ground the first evening and then when starting up the big climb was down to only a day and a half worth of food and water and when we started out the last morning down the ridge it was with only a few quarts and a lunch. 

Here is my equipment list.

My pack starting at the truck with 9.5 quarts of water was about 36 pounds but the next morning going up the big climb was down to 29 pounds or so and the last day started at 18 pounds for the hard ridge walk.  We would have never made it going the other way with what would have been even heavier packs!  Also because we were confident in the forecast the first few days we didn’t carry a tarp or rain gear to save weight but had it in the cache in case we might need it later in the trip.

Now on to the next adventure!

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

  1. Paul Mags says:

    Alex, thanks for stopping by my website to leave a recent comment.

    I sent Joan a link to your site as well. I’m happy to report we somehow found ourselves in a wormhole on this site with all the fantastic Big Bend info. Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing. I have this site bookmarked for future reference!

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