Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Big Bend Outer Loop

First stop, visitors center to get our backcountry permits. We barely told the ranger our plan before she had to tell us, sternly, that "people die out there!" It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. In all the 40 years I've been doing trips and registering for them, I've lost count of how many times I've run into that attitude. I realize that part of their job is to prevent people from killing themselves (and then suing!) But if that was the goal then you'd think they'd ask what experience you had. But they rarely do. It's as if they send the rangers to classes on how to be negative and discourage anyone from leaving the pavement. Occasionally we have tackled more extreme adventures that I can see them being sceptical about. But these days? Not so much. We were registering for what is probably the most common backpacking trip on the park. Granted, it's the desert and water and heat are factors. So ask a few questions and make sure we're prepared. Don't just give some canned melodramatic line. Sheesh!

She seemed even more disapproving when I said we planned to do the loop in the opposite direction from most people, although she didn't offer any reason why. In terms of doing the steep sections with less load of water, it made sense to me. And it’s a loop, so the overall vertical is the same. Plus, if you're antisocial like me, going backwards means you only see people briefly as you pass them going in the opposite direction :-)

Originally we had planned to to take the shuttle to the park (like we did on our last trip). But then we discovered that we needed to cache water for the hike, so we ended up renting a car. (That wasn’t all bad since it let us explore more of the park after the hike.) We dropped off our water in the bear proof box near Homer Wilson ranch. (There’s also a potential spot to cache at the intersection of the Juniper and Dobson trails, but it requires a 4wd high clearance vehicle to access.)

It was nice to finally set out from the car after shuffling gear into the pack and hoping not to forget anything important. It only takes a few hundred yards to lose most of the people. Soon after you leave behind the noise of civilization. You don't really notice it till it's gone. There was a roadrunner in the parking lot to see us off.


Then just the slow steady comfortable tread. Even with the pack it's quite pleasant. I took the ability to hike with a backpack for granted for so many years, now I wonder how many more years I'll be able to do it. I walk a little more carefully these days, not from fear but simply in hopes of making my knees and hips and feet last as long as possible. I use hiking poles, although I don’t really like how they get in the way of taking photos.

Mexican jay

I like hiking in the desert with the bizarre cactus and the stark desert terrain. But by definition there's little or no water which means carrying it. Luckily on this hike the most you need to haul is two days worth - about 8 litres (= 8 kg = 18 lbs). Since our packs are light to begin with (maybe 25 lbs) it's not too bad. And you drink it so you're not carrying the full weight for long.


Coming back from the outhouse at our first campsite we spotted a skunk. It seemed to be staying in the same area so I went and got my camera and came back. Sure enough it was still there. I made Shelley a little nervous trying to get close enough for photos. I guess she didn't want to share the tent with someone who got sprayed by a skunk! The skunk appeared to be feeding. It was moving around slowly, stopping every few feet to dig shallow holes in the ground. Presumably finding insects of some sort, although I'm not sure how it knew where to dig. Smell? Sound? If I got too close or made too much noise it would stop and look at me and its tail would go up. But if I froze it would soon resume feeding and its tail would drop again. I expect skunks to have a white stripe but this one's back was pretty much all long white fur. It reminded me of a colobus monkey.


There were also a couple of deer wandering around in the area.


We spent a couple of hours at the Dobson ranch avoiding the sun's worst in the shade of the old building. A large wasp had been buzzing around us at lunch and I tried several times to photograph it but it was too skittish. It landed on my foot but as soon as I reached for my camera it flew away. It landed on the wall but when I approached it left. Finally it stopped in the door frame and I got a few shots, but not great. But when I wandered around the building a bit later I found one (maybe the same one) on the grass, a more natural background, where it cooperated for me. The are quite impressive - large yellow abdomen, long legs that hang down when it flies, about an inch long. We saw them throughout the trip.

Paper (?) wasp

The next section was a bit more unpleasant - uphill with two day’s water, in +33c, full sun with no shade. When we reached the junction of the Dobson and Juniper trails we were excited there was a truck at the end of the road - shade! We sat and ate our lunch leaning against the tires.

Morning light

The last day the weight of my pack fell back below the magic threshold where it ceases to be a painful burden and goes back to being a reasonable load. (I have to admit that threshold has dropped over the years!) I've never been much for big loads, for me 65 lbs is half my body weight!


One of the rules for backcountry camping in Big Bend is that you have to be 100 yards off the trail. That's a standard rule and I'm all for it. I have no desire to camp beside the trail. A volunteer ranger we ran into stressed several times not to use the obvious cleared campsites right beside the trail. But the terrain doesn't agree. Everything here has needles and thorns. 100 yards of bushwhacking off trail is going to leave you bleeding and impaled. And the ground is hilly, with few level spots. And even if you find a spot where it's feasible, then what? Rip up all the cactus and bushes? We searched for spots off the trail, but in the end we disobeyed the rules and camped on one of the already cleared, level spots beside the trail. In terms of our impact it seemed the better choice.


a room with a view

The climb up the Juniper trail is quite long and steep, but the trail is good with well designed switchbacks, and with light packs at the end of the trip it went easily. Once we reached the top it was an easy downhill couple of hours back to the Chisos Lodge where we left our car.


For more photos see all 26 as a slideshow or overview

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the sharing your adventure. I love that park! We must have done a wee bit of that trail several years ago because I do remember being at Homer Wilson Ranch. The thought of carrying all that water is what discourages me from backpacking in the desert. And yes, we have to be careful with the knees, the hips, and everything else. I also find that I have to wear clothing which covers me completely because all those plants do "bite". I enjoyed hearing about your hike. Gracias.