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 eye opening and 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 8th least visited of the national parks with just over 300,000 visitors a year, 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 8th 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.  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 3rd edition.

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

New 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 rent them yet or provide them and are probably not available for sale within 400 miles at this time (8/15).  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, but it has been allowed for use by at least one law enforcement ranger.

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

Trips on the planning list:

  • Across the northwestern section of the park- Fossil Bone/Grapevine Hills/Paint Gap Hills/Slickrock canyon/Apache Canyon/Tule spring
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