Big Bend National Park

My first desert trip in the spring of 1973 was an eye opening experience and the result was a life long attraction.  April in Big Bend is beginning to get hot as hell, with not so many people and the cactus blooming like crazy.  We did the classic Big Bend hike, the Outer Mountain Loop (OML) with a night in the Chisos mountains and two nights in the lower desert.  The heat in the lower desert was serious and educational so we retreated to the Mule Ears spring area for the remaining three days of the trip and immersed ourselves in the wonders of the open desert and the oasis effect of a large spring in a dry country.

Big Bend is the best example of the Chihuahuan desert in the US.  The Chihuahuan is considered, by some, the largest of the four North American deserts but most of it is in Mexico.  It is not the desert that most people think of who have traveled the Colorado Plateau red rock deserts of the Four Corners area (Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, etc.) which is a higher elevation, wetter and sometimes not even considered part of the Great Basin Desert.  This is true desert with low rainfall, low elevation areas punctuated with sky island mountain ranges, like the Sonoran and Mojave deserts further west.  Big Bend ranges from 1800′ to 7800′ with the lower desert dominated by lechuguilla, creosote bush and ocotillo to the Chisos mountains with oaks, ponderosa pines and the southernmost stand of aspens in North America.  The geology is mostly a mix volcanic events and old limestone sea bottom.  It is one of the most botanically diverse places in North America.

The 10th least visited of the lower 48 national parks with just over 400,000 visitors a year (visitation exploded in 2021 to over 500K and it can be very busy in the front country), it is a long way from anywhere and on the way to nowhere, it is literally the end of the road.  Combine that with being the 7th largest park in the lower 48 and you are talking solitude.  The national park itself is over 800,000 acres (bigger than the state of Rhode Island) and is flanked on the east by the 100,000 acre Black Gap Wildlife Management area and the west by the 300,000 acre Big Bend Ranch State Park and on the south by Mexico and another million plus acres that are protected;  the combined area is one of the largest protected biospheres on earth.

Measurements by the National Park Service Night Sky Team show that the Big Bend Region offers the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states.  Designated by the International Dark Sky Association, The Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, is larger in size than the other nineteen Dark Sky Reserves in the world combined, helping protect major wildlife habitats and migration corridors in the Big Bend region–encompassing over 9.7 million acres!  Millions of acres with almost no one there!  You can hike for many days and not see another person unless you are unfortunate while crossing a road.  My kind of place.  It is one of the great places for cross country/off trail travel, if you know where the water is or can cache some in advance.

Three good sources of information:

  • The official park website
  • Big Bend Chat page, an incredible amount of accumulated information and a very helpful group of folks
  • Hiking Big Bend National Park by Laurence Parent, a pretty good book on the established routes and trails.  Make sure you get the latest edition.

To get oriented here is a large scale map of the park.

One piece of advice– Do not visit during Spring Break (middle two weeks of March), Thanksgiving or Christmas/New Years unless you have no other choice.  The park is over run, it is nearly impossible to find campsites or lodging, the restaurants have long wait times, trailhead parking is packed.  August is the least visited month but the least visited months with good weather and temperatures are January, followed by February.  February has the fewest backcountry campers.  My personal best window for backpacking is early December, few visitors, great weather and closer to the end of the rainy season so a better chance of water in the springs.

Bear Canister/Container Alert!  The National Park now requires that all backpackers camping outside of the Chisos mountains must carry a “bear resistant container” unless you keep your food “closely attended” (you always have your food with you), for example if you base camp and want to leave your food while you go day hike then you will have to leave it in a bear resistant container and if remotely caching food and/or water it must be in a bear resistant container also.  The designated sites in the Chisos all have food lockers so no canisters are required there.  

For a full discussion on the interpretation of the rule read this thread from Big Bend Chat.  The bottom line is if you are always with your food you do not need to carry a bear can.  You should bring your own bear proof containers, they do not yet rent them or provide them as some other National Parks do and are probably not available for sale within 400 miles at this time (2018).  Here is the Backcountry Food Storage page and the list of approved containers which includes all the usual models but does not include the Ursack S29 AllWhite.

Walks I’ve done

  1. 4/73  OML, Mule Ears spring area, 7 days
  2. 11/73  Mule Ears spring area 4 days
  3. 11/74  Cattail Canyon expedition, 4 days
  4. 2/89  Smoky spring area, 4 days
  5. 3/92  S. Rim, Smoky Creek/Fisk Canyon/Dodson loop, 5 days
  6. 2/98  S. Rim, Mule Ears/Smoky Creek/Fisk Canyon/Dominquez spring/Punta de la Sierra loop, 7 days
  7. 3/00  Big Bend N.P./Big Bend Ranch S.P (S. Rim and Rancherias Loop), 3 days
  8. 12/04  Across the park, Eastern Half, Boquillas to the Basin, 6 days
  9. 12/08  Across the park, Western Half, Lajitas to the Basin, 7 days
  10. 12/11  Sierra Quemada/Mariscal Mountain Loop, 6 days
  11. 2/14  Down the Eastern Side, Dog Canyon to Marufo Vega, 7 days
  12. 1/16  Western Sierra Quemada/Sierra de Chino/Lower Smoky Creek loop, 5 days
  13. 2/17  Ernst Basin/Ore Terminal/Marufo Vega/Arroyo Venado/Cow Canyon/Telephone Canyon loop, 5 days
  14. 12/17  Mule Ears/Smoky Creek/Fresno Drainage/Mariscal Mtn./Dominguez spring/Mule Ears, 8 days
  15. 12/18  A circumambulation of Slickrock mountain, Croton Peak, Paint Gap Hills and Grapevine Hills, 7 days, solo
  16. 1/20 Explorations around Tule Mtn. and Alamo Creek, 6 days
  17. 8/21 Summer in the desert and the rainy season in the Chisos, 5 days
  18. 12/21  Sue Peaks and the Dead Horse ridge run, 6 days
  19. 12/22  Walking Around Big Bend’s Empty Quarter, 7 days

Trips on the planning list:

  • Burro Mesa/Apache Canyon/Alamo Creek and points south
  • What is up in the very northern tip of the park?  The Harte Ranch and the Rosillos Mtns.
  • The Sierra Quemada springs tour
  • The Northeast Chisos loop

Here is my master map of the park, red is where I have walked, orange are planned routes. A note about the springs on this map and other maps I post- many of these marked springs do not run or no longer exist, do not count on them without a current water report!