Backpacking in the Big Bend


My feet hurt. My ankles hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurts; and I have the biggest grin on my face today. I'll share why.

Yesterday I made the long trip home after a backpacking excursion in Big Bend National Park. I had long desired to visit Big Bend because of all the stories I had heard of it's beauty. After a week of scrambling to ensure we had the right gear, enough water, and my wonderful boyfriend pulling his hair out over mapping out all our possible itinerary, we were on the road by 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning for our eight hour drive to the western border of Texas.

I'm not a very excitable person, so I didn't start wagging my tail until we made it to Fort Stockton. By then, I knew we were officially in the badlands of Texas. The road to the park seemed like the scene of any American western film. Dusty, remote and dry, the land looked fairly unforgiving for anyone who didn't have the luxury of a vehicle. After making it to the park entrance we headed straight for Panther Junction, where we learned that all camping for the night – even the backcountry spots – was booked solid. We opted for off-site camping at Terlingua Ranch, a hidden desert gem. While not decidedly glamorous, the ranch and property owners association is a must-see if you're in the area. On warmer days, an outdoor pool is open to ranch guests and the Bad Rabbit Cafe has burgers that may rival any Austin burger joint. We spent two Thursday and Saturday night at the ranch, and climbed through the Chisos Mountains in between.

To get anywhere in Big Bend you first have to drive there. Roughly a 40 minute drive got us from Terlingua Ranch to the Chisos Basin Visitors Center, where we parked the car, checked our gear, and started out on the Pinnacle Trail. My legs were crying for mercy within the first mile. For those who haven't been backpacking before, it's not for the faint of heart. If you're a complainer, backpacking is not for you. Ideally you're carrying an additional 30-40 percent of your body weight on your back for each aching step.

In this case, the Pinnacle Trail wasn't going to be bested easily. The trail was uphill the majority of the way to the junction at Emory Peak. Half of the hike was a series of switchbacks (for those of you non-hikers; steep, zigzag trail up the side of a mountain) with blocks of rock set up like the steps of a staircase. I could easily see how this trail garnered the ranking of 'advanced.'

We arrived at the end of Pinnacle Trail at about 4 p.m. and took a short meal break before checking the map to confirm the route to our campsite. As we sat on a log and huddled around the topographic trail map, we felt the small pinpricks of rain and heard the crack of distant thunder. Knowing that a storm could spell deep trouble in the mountains, we wrapped up our meal and got back on the trail, hoping to make the two mile hike through the Boot Canyon before getting caught in a storm.

Boot Canyon is one of the more beautiful trails I’ve ever hiked. It was like something out of Venezuela – lush and green, with dramatic spires of rock jutting from the valley. The only evidence that we were still in Texas was the occasional cactus plant.

We arrived at our campsite at about 5 p.m. and immediately began setting up a lean-to in case of rain. Fortunately we didn’t need it. It didn’t storm that night, and we spent the evening exploring the area around our camp and preparing for the next day. We slept early and long, waking just as the sun was rising over the valley. The temperature had dropped drastically overnight, but we had prepared with extra layers of clothing. Instead of making the 5 mile loop of the South Rim Trail, which was highly recommended, we opted to head back down the mountains on the Laguna Meadows Trail, mostly because I didn’t think my sore joints could handle an additional 5 miles.

We headed back down the side of the mountains and were met with a dense fog that had rolled in up the skirts of the mountain. It was eerie yet enchanting, and while it obscured our view of the desert meadow below, I enjoyed it. After a few hours, the fog lifted, and we were back in the desert. Our closing proximity to the visitor’s center added a level of cheer as we made our way back.

Upon reaching the car and relative civilization, we felt simply victorious. We celebrated with a stop to the park gas station and a cookie. Before heading back to Terlingua Ranch where we would make camp again that night, we took a detour to Santa Elena Canyon, the cliffs that marked the border of Texas and Mexico. The drive out to the border was marked by even stranger rock formations than we had yet experienced and dirt the color of Martian soil. We all remarked that it was almost as if traversing across a strange new world.

The Santa Elena Canyon is a site that I would recommend to all travelers. Not only was it incredibly beautiful, with the blue waters of the Rio Grande curving through the sheer rock canyon hundreds of feet high – rivaling the cliffs of Dover in England – but the border held an allure of mystery that reminded strongly of countless western movies. All kidding aside, we witnessed a Mexican man riding a burro in the shallows of the river; as if you could add an element any more stereotypical to such a scene.

When we returned to Terlingua Ranch, we closed our trip with a celebratory burger and beer at the Bad Rabbit Café, and slept soundly that night. The trip home begun early Sunday morning, and we watched the sun rise while passing through Ozona.

All in all, I’ll remember this trip and all its majestic landscapes, experiences and mysterious visions for some time to come.  

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