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Outer Mountain Loop

March 07, 2018

Arriving in Texas to 70 degree temperatures was a welcome change from the cold weather of the recent months. I finally found spring. At last escaping the endless oil fields of West Texas and quickly losing daylight, I pulled off of the now quiet Texas highway to camp for the night. A dinner of black bean soup and a pretty sunset over the desert made for a relaxing evening.

The nights were warm, I could even ditch the 15 degree sleeping bag for my lighter summer bag. In the morning I stocked up on food, gas and gallon jugs of water before driving the last two hours to the visitor center in Big Bend National Park. This time entering the desert I would come prepared, carrying extra water and gas, trying to avoid repeating prior mistakes.

With the help of a ranger I finalized my plans for a backpacking route, 38 miles in the Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. I would start in the Chisos Basin, hike over the mountains, through the desert, and then back up the mountains before returning to the basin 4 days later. I was excited and headed out to cache water in preparation for the trip. There was only one reliable source of water on the trail and I would need at least a gallon of water a day to stay hydrated.

caltopo map of the route caltopo map of the route

I spent the rest of my first day in Big Bend along the Rio Grande and exploring Santa Elena Canyon. The narrow, layered limestone walls of Santa Elena provided protection from the hot sun and beautiful backdrop for the birds passing through. Here along the Rio Grande, nothing but a shallow band of water was separating me from Mexico. It was tempting to walk across to the other bank, but I hear Border Patrol doesn’t take that so lightly and I didn’t wish to find out.

the Rio Grande cutting through Santa Elena Canyon the Rio Grande cutting through Santa Elena Canyon

layered limestone Walls layered limestone Walls

cool rock patterns cool rock patterns

I awoke in the morning and began the hour and a half drive from my campsite to the Chisos Basin to begin my hike. Big Bend is, well, big. The combination of the vast desert views and the Park’s 45 mph speed limit gives the impression of crawling along, but I suppose I would be hiking through it in no time, so what was I complaining about speed for? I popped in Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” album (one of the only CD’s not yet eaten by my truck) and listened to it twice before arriving.

I put on my pack as graciously as I could manage, but between a broken wrist and the extra weight of 6 liters of water, it was far from pretty. I started up the mountain trail and set into a good rhythm. The first part of the day went by easily, surrounded by fellow hikers and the woodlands of the Chisos. Before I knew it I was at the top of Toll Mountain Pass, then the Juniper Canyon Trail junction.

from Toll Mountain Pass, looking into the Chisos Basin from Toll Mountain Pass, looking into the Chisos Basin

traffic on the trail traffic on the trail

another cool pattern another cool pattern

Heading down Juniper Canyon, the environment changed rapidly with the steep descent. As trees gave way to shrubs and cacti, shade cover was lost - I wouldn’t have shade on trail until two days from now in Blue Creek Canyon. I paused to rest in the last bit of shade, and waited out the hottest part of the day from 2-4:30pm. This would become a helpful tactic over the next few days as I battled with the heat. Craig Child’s book “The Secret Knowledge of Water” kept me entertained, as I hoped to gain some insight from his experiences searching for water in the desert.

entering Juniper Canyon entering Juniper Canyon

a view of the desert to come a view of the desert to come

questioning my sanity in the last bit of shade questioning my sanity in the last bit of shade

By 4:30pm the sun had sufficiently weakened and I continued on my way down the canyon, reaching the 11.5 mile mark on the day and the beginning of the Dodson trail shortly before sunset. Now I was undoubtedly in the desert. Prickly pear cacti, towering agave stalks, yucca, nolinas and sotols marked the shift. Tall grasses that grow along the trail house a surprisingly large populations of birds. There’s a wide variety of birds in Big Bend, all kinds of red ones, blue ones, long necked, and short ones…thats really the extent of my knowledge of birds, but they sure are beautiful. Towards the end of the day I startled a large group and as they took off they made such a loud noise, my thoughts immediately jumped to a bear or mountain lion. I laughed when I turned to see a hundred or so birds equally as scared as I was.

turning to desert turning to desert

even the sun is bigger in Texas even the sun is bigger in Texas

yucca always have a pleasing symmetry yucca always have a pleasing symmetry

desert flowers keep spirits high desert flowers keep spirits high

yet another pattern yet another pattern

looking back up Juniper Canyon - cooked in the late sun looking back up Juniper Canyon - cooked in the late sun

I passed a fellow solo hiker and made camp about a mile down trail from him for the night. Not many people out here on the Dodson. Still sweating from the heat of the day, I set up my tent in the eerie darkness of the night. Clouds had blocked out the stars and the full moon of the night before was no where to be found. A small dinner of crackers, cookies, chocolate, pepperoni and cheese did little to ease me and I retreated to my tent for the night. A few drops of rain sprinkled my tent, and I mistook it for bugs attempting to reach my headlamp through the tent wall. A few moments later the rain picked up and I grew concerned. I had setup camp relatively low in the bottom of a wash and the desert here only gets 6 inches of rain a year…what would happen if it rained tonight? My thoughts of a flash flood quickly went away as the storm moved on as quickly as it came. No extra water tonight. I awoke at 7:45pm, having only rolled out my pad but not inflated it - I was exhausted. I summoned the energy to inflate the pad and lay out my sleeping bag, then drifted into a deep sleep.

worth it's weight in gold worth it’s weight in gold

In the early morning I inventoried my water, 3 liters left. I was thirsty but only allowed myself one liter to sip on until I reached Fresno Creek. If the creek was dry I would still have another 6 miles in the heat of the desert before I reached my cached water at the Homer-Wilson Ranch. I reached a dry creek bed and heard the loud buzzing of bees. Remembering what I had read the day before, bees gather around water sources and so I set out in the direction of the noise. I came across a small, slimy, green pool of water - the Dodson Spring. I soon stumbled upon the ruins of the Dodson ranch and a beautiful patch of flowering bushes, before continuing on.

what's left of the Dodson Cabin what’s left of the Dodson Cabin

In the next creek bed I found the Fresno Creek and was relieved. It had ducked underground near the trail, but there were several pools downstream and I set out to filter more water. I drank as much as I could sip during my time at the creek, chugging water would only be a waste.

Shortly before leaving the creek, Matthew, the solo hiker I passed the day before walked down the trail and I let him borrow my filter. We continued together for the rest of the day, powering through the heat together.

midday on the Dodson midday on the Dodson

It was nice to have a companion out here, I had underestimated the difficulty of hiking in the sun all day with a heavy pack. We chatted on the easier stretches and took turns leading the grueling uphill battles with the trail to get from one drainage to the next. It wasn’t mountains but it sure wasn’t flatland walking either.

a glimpse of the 'Mexican border wall' just below the horizon a glimpse of the ‘Mexican border wall’ just below the horizon

the route that lies ahead the route that lies ahead

We reached a pretty burnt out group seeking shelter in the only patch of shade a little before the Homer-Wilson Ranch. They were part of the Dallas Sierra Club and had a bus coming to pick them up at the ranch trailhead. Offers of a ride back to the Chisos Basin and a cold beer were hard to resist in this heat, but Matthew and I had each set out to hike the loop, and we were only halfway through.

Homer-Wilson Ranch, a shelter from the relentless sun Homer-Wilson Ranch, a shelter from the relentless sun

The Homer-Wilson ranch was our own little oasis in the desert. I resupplied from my 2 gallons of water I had cached here and my light pack became a heavy beast once again. But it was time to relax. I stripped down to my shorts, lounged in the shade, looked over my map and snacked on some food. The Dallas group once again offered a ride back, and I fought off the temptation to accept the offer. The group had an abundance of water stored out here and used it to bathe before they left. I accepted some to drink and clean up a bit myself. When done, they began to pour the water out, as to not have to carry it back up to the road. This seemed to violate some base rule of the desert. A crazed blend of thoughts flowed through my mind, from the water traditions in the novel Dune, to the hundreds of people who died in this very desert due to dehydration that I had just been reading about. It just seemed so wrong.

shade, water and even a chance to rinse off...I'm stoked! shade, water and even a chance to rinse off…I’m stoked!

Matthew and I packed up and prepared to start up Blue Creek Canyon around 4:30pm. As we left, I too dumped my excess water. What could be done? It was the only rational option.

Matthew leads the charge up Blue Canyon Matthew leads the charge up Blue Canyon

A mile or so into the canyon I began to grow weak and my pace slowed considerably. I couldn’t keep up. I felt like shit. Thinking it was due to a lack of food I ate a bar. No improvement. Next I tried some gatorade mix, thinking it could be electrolytes. Nothing. I stumbled on in what felt like a drunken stupor until we reached a clearing just large enough for a tent. I laid down and proclaimed that was it. I couldn’t go on tonight, Matthew would have to continue without me or accept the longer day tomorrow. I didn’t even want to think about tomorrow.

It was only 5:30 though and I felt like I too needed to keep hiking today just to make tomorrow more bearable. A rest had me optimistic and I was feeling slightly more in control. I thought about the offer I turned down for a ride back to the basin and a cold beer. No I didn’t really want that. If I was anywhere else right now, I would be wishing I was right here. You never remember the suffering quite the same after a trip.

I forced my muscles to go on for a final push, and we continued along the trail. A quarter mile later I regretted my decision. I was falling behind with every step and getting wobbly with my foot placement. A turn towards steeper gradients threatened to break me, but just then I heard Matthew hooting and hollering, ecstatic that he found another clearing to camp in just up ahead. We lay down and I tried to assess what was happening.

Coming to no conclusions, we cowboy camped and a light drizzle threatened again. This quickly passed, giving way to clear skies and we dozed off watching the fantastic display of shooting stars, satellites and what we believed to be Mars. I dreamed of a massive bowl of pasta.

Waking up I still felt subpar. Quickly Matthew had moved ahead, as switchbacks sucked every ounce of energy from my legs. I used my hiking poles as a substitute for my legs and pushed forward at an awfully slow pace.

this morning's challenge this morning’s challenge

Matthew said he’d wait for me at the top, but as he had a much longer day ahead than I did, it seemed silly, so I told him to leave me behind. It became a race to stay in the morning shade of the canyon, fighting the switchbacks in the direct sunlight would surely be too much to handle. I imagined I was in some sadistic Mario level where I was moving forward along the level trying not to let the edge of the screen catch up and end the game.

part way up Blue Canyon part way up Blue Canyon

To my surprise as I reached the top of the mountain, Matthew was there waiting, with some other hikers who were passing by. They cheered as I hiked the last few steps and my spirits lifted. We went our separate ways about a mile down the trail and I finished my hike for the day to a camp on the Southern Rim. As I passed multiple day hikers commented on my pack with empty water jugs lashed to it. “Looks like you’re a pack mule” an old lady joked…yeah I certainly felt like it too. They didn’t know the exhaustion of the desert below. I started to understand the sense of pride people had when they said they hiked “The Dodson” as if the trail was some living beast trying to capture them, and they made it out to tell the tale.

overlooking the Chihuahuan desert I had traversed overlooking the Chihuahuan desert I had traversed

can you spot the trail? can you spot the trail?

The views from the Southern Rim of the Chisos were grand and again raised my spirits. The Dodson was below, various small ranges, the Rio Grande, the “Mexican Border Wall” (what I had dubbed the cliffs along the Rio Grande) and numerous picturesque ranges well within Mexico.

agave standing guard agave standing guard

Back at my camp I took a nap in the shade, continuing my ritual of hiding away from 2-4:30pm. I listened to an audio book of Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur” and forced myself to eat just about everything I packed, save a bar and some Chex Mix for the hike down. This binge of food slowly helped. I spent the evening thinking over why I was so exhausted the last 24hrs and I believe it was my food choices. I decided to give up a stove to save the weight of cooking supplies and the extra water a cooked meal would require. I didn’t count on the difficulty of eating dry foods during the hot days. Nor did I pack enough calorie dense foods, and so I couldn’t quite get enough calories to keep up with the demands of the tough days.

The next morning when I woke, I quickly packed and headed down. I had 5.8 miles to hike and drank my water down to just under a liter in an attempt to lighten my pack as much as possible.

down into the Chisos basin down into the Chisos basin

beautiful mountains beautiful mountains

The morning went well; the shade, the downhill and the food the night before definitely made it easier than prior days. I quickly arrived back at the trailhead and packed my gear into my truck. I drove to the town of Marathon outside of Big Bend National Park and got a huge burger and chocolate shake at the first place I came across. It did not disappoint.

Written by Mike Guida who enjoys prolonged outdoor adventures and building stuff with software. Follow him on Twitter