Note: Today’s post is a trip report from guest writer Matt Patterson, an Oklahoma City-based writer, journalist and hiker.
With its scrub brush and desert mountains, Big Bend National Park conjures up images of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films of the 1960s.
Tucked away in the southwest corner of Texas just miles from the Mexican border, Big Bend is 800,000 acres of beautiful isolation in the Chisos Mountains. The nearest city of any consequence is Fort Stockton (pop. 7,800), about two hours to the north. This is a prime jumping off spot for visitors to the park, and the region’s many oilfield workers.
The out-of-the-way nature of Big Bend adds to its allure. During our three days in the park we saw no hikers on the 5.5-mile outbound trek and non on the 8-mile return trip.
Our hike began at Homer Wilson Ranch along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The ranch was established in the late 1920s once encompassed 28,000 acres. It was abandoned in 1944 but the ranch house and a bunk house remain intact.
Leaving the ranch house, we moved about 4 miles along the canyon floor along the Blue Creek Canyon Trail. The dry creek bottom where most of the trail winds through is a mix of sand and gravel sized rock. This section of trail is very easy, however, with only about a 500 elevation gain over the first four miles. Also along this route are red rock formations that are worth stopping to check out.
The canyon gradually narrows as you progress along the trail. The final mile or so of this part of the trail picks up incline as the trail moves through a densely wooded area before the 2,000 foot ascent up Blue Creek Canyon.
There are some wild berries that grow in this area making it a good spot to see a bear. Sure enough, as the lead hiker in our group rounded a bend he spotted a small black bear on the trail. It scurried up and an embankment when it saw us, but didn’t retreat further as it watched us move out of sight.
The last 1.5 miles of this hike are fairly difficult with about 2,000 feet in elevation gain. One of my hiking partners who has made the trip several times describes it as “switchback hell” and that is certainly fitting. The trip up the ridge is narrow and while there is no true exposure, there are some spots that wouldn’t be great places to fall.
Our first night campsite was nestled in a wooded area at the top of the ridge. It’s not much, but it is relatively flat and close to Laguna Meadows, one of the park’s attractions. Laguna Meadows is just as it sounds — several acres of tall grass that would be common in an alpine setting, but becomes interesting in an area with little rainfall.
Our first night campsite provided fairly easy access to the Emory Peak Trail which leads to the summit (7,825) the highest spot in the Chisos Mountains. The summit offers sweeping 360-degree views of the Chisos and into Mexico.
The famous South Rim was about 3.5 miles from our first night camp, and the site of our second night’s stay. The South Rim is the signature attraction in Big Bend and the most likely spot to see fellow hikers.
The view is worth any pain traveling in Big Bend entails. Some call it “The Big Drop” and that, too, is fitting as the desert floor is 7,000 feet below. On a clear day, views from the South Rim are breathtaking as the desert floor unfolds below. Getting close to the edge for pictures requires steady legs.
There are several campsites in this area. SW 4 is closest to the rim, but not on the rim. The ranger who checked us in recommended SW 3 because it sits on the rim, meaning you don’t have to leave your campsite to see a spectacular sunset. For that reason it’s hard not to recommend this site, but you can’t go wrong either way. This camp also featured a bear box and a wind break.
Also see: Boot Spring is another popular spot in Big Bend. This area features a rock formation shaped like an upside down cowboy boot. It’s unique and worth seeing.
B.Y.O.W.: The water situation in Big Bend is actually pretty simple — there isn’t much of it. Hikers must pack in their own, meaning you can leave the water filter at home. Planning for water needs can be tricky when trying to keep your pack as light as possible. The six-liter dromedary bag I took weighed in at about 14 pounds, give or take. The good news is the weight drops as you consume this precious resource. The mantra in Big Bend is sips, not gulps when it comes to the h20.
Water needs vary from person to person based on fitness level and other factors, but in Big Bend it’s always a good idea to err on the side of taking a little more. One of my hiking partners, who is in excellent physical shape, took just four liters. By the end of the trip he was filtering water from one of the few springs in the park which he described as “sump water” and very unappealing.
Weather: In the fall and winter months nighttime weather can be in the low to mid 30s or 40s. Daytime temperatures during our mid-November trip were in the 60s and 70s. Still, hot days in the fall and winter months are not unheard of.
Summer hiking in Big Bend is for more experienced, extremely fit hikers who aren’t afraid of 100-degree daytime temperatures. Hikers who embark on the long outer mountain loop trail will cache water at locations around the park, including Homer Wilson Ranch.
What to bring: As Big Bend is a mountain desert, there isn’t much of a need for tents. Hikers can save some weight in their pack by leaving it at home. And that’s a good thing because sleeping out under the stars is quite a show in this isolated park.
A good 20-degree bag will work fine on most fall nights in Big Bend. Some might opt for a 0-degree bag, or lower, depending on preference. My 20-degree bag worked great, though I did add liner that helped keep me toasty.
Big Bend is bear country, but bear cans are optional as most campsites have fixed bear boxes.
Because of water limitations, it’s best to pack food that doesn’t require water to prepare. This can limit the satisfaction of sitting down to a hot meal after a long day on the trail, but hot meals usually require water, and water adds to pack weight.
Red tape: Camping in Big Bend requires an overnight permit from the National Park Service. The cost is $10 plus your $20 per vehicle entry fee into the park. Fires are strictly prohibited in Big Bend, as is smoking on trails and campsites. On return trips, cars will have to stop at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint for inspection.
Post hike meal: There’s nothing better than wolfing down a greasy meal after three days in the mountains. Nearby Fort Stockton has very limited options. If there’s extra time, and it fits your route, consider a trip to Buddy’s Drive In in Andrews, Texas. Buddy’s is known for their steak fingers, which are like butter, but the hole in the wall also serves burgers and other greasy spoon items.
– Matt Patterson