Big Bend Trip Report
Nov. 25-27, 2005

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The Start of Our Trip
(Friday, Nov. 25, 2005)

We left Del Rio about 6 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. The weather was nice and the traffic very light to non-existent. We made our first stop at the Pecos River bridge just before the morning sun peeked through the clouds. We were the only ones at the overlook and the silence was amazing. It was so peaceful and relaxing!

My wife, Tanya and our friend, James are in the pics to the left. James frequently visits national parks in the US and has been to Big Bend several times before.

We arrived at Big Bend (at the Panther Junction headquarters) a little after 10:30am and proceeded to the backcountry office. Our plan for the first night was to do some sort of overnight hike. We had initially chosen the South Rim (or a campsite near the rim), but when we finally got there, ALL of the Chisos backcountry campsites had been taken. Yep, Thanksgiving break is definitely one of the busiest (if not THE busiest) times of the year for Big Bend.

So we picked an alternative plan, and it would turn out for the better. I'll explain more later on.

Finally, The Backcountry
(Day 1, early afternoon)

We decided to drive into the backcountry of Big Bend and hike the Elephant Tusk trail. We would "zone" camp along the trail somewhere near the peak of Elephant Tusk.

I had originally estimated that it would take about 3 hours to drive there from the HQ, but it actually took half that. Driving on the backcountry roads of Big Bend is slow going, and you can average about 10 mph in some places. What helped us were the good conditions of the East River Road- I think we averaged closer to 25 mph on that section.

I drove fast on the flat-open stretches of the dirt/rock road and kept pushing it until I started to doubt our safety. Or maybe it was when the change started to jump around in my cup holder. Then I backed off a little :-)

The Hiking Begins
(Day 1, about 2pm)

Here's the group ;-) The guy on the left is our good friend James, who also lives in Houston. My wife, Tanya is in the middle. And the goofy-looking guy with the large green rolled-up cushion is me (TJ). The camera man is my good friend, Mr. Tripod.

This is at the trailhead of the Elephant Tusk trail (please consult your Big Bend map :-) The rounded peak in the background (all 3 pics) is Elephant Tusk, which actually looks more like a rounded molar than a tusk. But whatever, it's cool and the scenery is awesome.

It was cool, but still plenty warm for shorts and a t-shirt. The temps were probably in the high 60's. We had prepared for cold weather and a slight chance of rain, but it never got very cold and didn't rain, fortunately.

The trail receives much less traffic than other, more popular trails in Big Bend. It starts deep in the backcountry, and I suppose that keeps a lot of people from visiting. The trail is marked with rock cairns (see middle pic) and metal posts.

We'll talk more about the rock cairns in a minute ;-)

Slugging it Through the Desert
(Day 1, mid-afternoon)

Aggghhh... one of us is sick! Poor Tanya has succumbed to a nasty stomach ailment. I think it was, "I-atetoomuchforX-givingdinner!". I hate that one.

Seriously, Tanya became ill and was weak and nauseated. Most people would have given up at this point, but not her. She's too tough for that. We took frequent breaks, but she kept on...

She cruised at a slow yet steady pace. We gained distance, although poor James was ready to haul and get on down the trail :-) As it would turn out, Tanya's pace was perfect for me. If I'd pushed any faster, I would have been super-dead-ass tired that evening instead of just plain dead-tired (and believe me, I was).

Back to the rock cairns, or lack of... At the start of the trail, the cairns were impressive, some were nearly knee-high piles of rock. After a few miles, the cairns became the minimum 3-rock stacks barely ankle-high. They also seemed to be spaced further apart.

At this point (last pic to the left), the "trail" suddenly stopped at a rock wall. We had been hiking through a small canyon thinking that the trail followed the canyon floor. Well, it didn't. We weren't even on the trail!

We had missed a cairn and ventured off track probably a good 1/2 mile or more. We turned back and eventually picked up Elephant Tusk trail again. I think we killed about 1 hour going the wrong way, figuring it out, and back-tracking to find the real trail.

Some Wildlife
(Day 1, afternoon- getting late)

While we were sitting at this rock wall (way off course), James pointed out some of the local wildlife.

I would have preferred to see a hawk, snake, mountain lion, or the like, but a few bugs would do :-) We didn't see much else that day.

So, after getting back on the real trail, we were very careful and observant while following the trail. But at that point, the trail was difficult to follow and we ventured off many times. We became accustomed to hitting a rock cairn every 50 - 100 yards. If we walked further than that, then we knew that we had probably gone off the trail and would have to back-track.

Note to self- the next time you hike a back country trail, bring a friggin' GPS unit and USGS Topo maps!!!

Sunrise!
(Day 2)

Well, I've skipped ahead a little. The photos show the early morning light of Day 2.

But I have to mention the previous evening: we managed to wonder off the trail again and were too tired to back-track (this was probably 20 min. before sunset). We crawled out of the low wash we'd been hiking through and aimed for the peak.

We hiked up to a really deep wash (let's just call it a canyon) and decided to make camp right there on top. We had a nice view of the peak and there were plenty of flat open areas to make camp.

We brought out the MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) and had an excellent hot meal. MRE's never tasted so good :-) Farts never smelled so bad ;-))))

Right after chow, we hit the sack. We were all very tired and sore. And also very thirsty. Tanya and I had brought 7 liters (~0.9 gal.) of water each, and that wasn't nearly enough. James brought 1.5 gallons and had plenty.

At this point, I was very thankful that we didn't get a camping spot in the Chisos. With Tanya being sick and my back and legs aching badly, I seriously doubt we could have made the 5 or 6 mile hike up to the South Rim (or near the Rim).

Now back to the morning of Day 2- we were actually camping on the freakin' trail!!! Note: when zone camping in the back country, you're supposed to camp about 100 yards (at minimum) from any trail. Well, oops. It was dark when we made camp and we had lost the trail!

The Morning Adventure
(Day 2, early)

Tanya was still feeling awful and had been up several times during the night. James and I decided to explore the canyon below Elephant Tusk (see the noted photo in the above section). We let Tanya sleep in and set off on our own.

The big, deep wash that I described above leads into a rocky canyon. Once we hiked into it, we discovered running water! Near the first pool of water, we found remains of a fresh kill.

Yep, that's a large blood spot nearby my boot. The last photo shows a bit of meat and rib bones. From the size of the bones, it looked like a deer or javelina (some mid-sized animal). We suspect that a mountain lion had made a kill. They're known for dragging their prey off and away from the kill area.

Hidden Beauty
(Day 2, morning)

The canyon was beautiful. It was narrow in some parts, but plenty wide to traverse. The walls were high and steep in some parts. We continued to encounter a small, but steady stream of water that pooled in many places.

We also encountered a lot of grass. No, not the smoking kind, but the kind loaded with burrs and sticky-thingys. I ruined a pair of socks and significantly lessened the life of my shoe-laces. My shirt and jacket became infested with burrs and even my body hair wasn't immune!

Back to the beauty... along the way, we encountered many unexpected scenes. The interesting boulder wedged in the canyon walls was my favorite. This was also the hardest part of the morning. We had to scale up a very steep and wet shear rock surface. The photo doesn't show the difficulty, but it was hard. James and I had to place each foot on either side and shimmy our way up. I had to do it twice due to a slight fall.

There were many flowers mixed in with the grasses. There was an interesting waterfall that was more of a trickle, but the water flow seemed steady.

The best part was rounding a corner and discovering large, full-grown trees. They were beautiful.

We encountered 3 other backpackers who had set up camp near the trees (probably why we didn't hang around and study the trees- we still don't know what kind they were). I think two of they guys were from Austin, and they seemed like hardy individuals capable of handling this rough country with ease. I think the indicator of their robustness was the fact that they had packed a jar of pickles and also a jar of mayo (we saw them re-packing for a day hike from their camp).

Now, when packing our food for the hike, a glass jar was at the very bottom of the "do not bring" list, and I think pickles would have been on the list too. We skimped on everything we packed and even put up with eating MRE's to conserve space and weight.

Anyway, James and I hiked a little further, but then turned back and headed to our camp.

Heading Back
(Day 2, just before noon)

We discovered Tanya just as we'd left her- asleep in the tent. She wasn't feeling a whole lot better, unfortunately. We rested for a while and then packed up camp. With our bodies aching and our heads throbbing (from missing our morning caffeine fix), we hit the trail just before noon.

It was still slow going, but we made it back in about 2 hours. Except for one little hill, the hike was all down-hill. It was also a pain getting back- the trail was still hard to follow (despite having hiked it the previous day) and we had to be careful not to miss the cairns.

On the hike back, James encountered a rattlesnake beside the trail. He became aware of it when it started rattling because of his presence! He steered clear of it, then watched it leave the area. Fortunately, Tanya and I were some distance behind.

Note for my mother: that's not a can of dip in my shirt pocket, it's my lens cap. Really, it is!

Driving Out of the Backcountry
(Day 2, afternoon)

About 2pm, we left the Elephant Tusk Trail trailhead (which is right across the road from the Elephant Tusk campsite). If you're familiar with the backcountry of Big Bend, we took the long way 'round to get to the trailhead. A shorter way is possible, but you have to drive the Black Gap Road. This road is not maintained, and according to a ranger I spoke to, you have to cross over a chest-high rock wall.

If you're curious about the back country, then I'd advise you to take a 4x4 vehicle. I think most roads are passable in two wheel drive when they are dry. I used 4x4 in a real sandy spot along the east river road just for comfort. Last year, I used 4x4 on a very rocky hill driving out to Pine Canyon. But, these could have been negotiated using two wheel drive with a little skill. However, if it rains, 4x4 is an absolute must!

Anyway, we took the "scenic" route which is well worth the time in Big Bend. This part of the backcountry is beautiful. Well, in a desert sort of way. The roads are mostly flat, but they weave in between hills and mountains. Parts of the route have scrubby plants and cactus, while other parts are completely void (i.e. moonscape-ish). These "badlands" were beautifully colored with earth-tones and rumpled with low hills and washes.

We reached Rio Grande Village in about an hour and a half. My passengers tried to get some sleep, but I think the road proved too bumpy. Perhaps it was the change rattling around in my cup holder that made too much noise ;-)

We passed a few people out there on the back roads. We even encountered some dude on a motorcycle. Crazy!

Ahhh... Showers!
(Day 2, afternoon)

Who knew that $1 in quarters would provide the best shower ever? That short, lukewarm shower was awesome. It felt so good to wash the stink away. I was okay with myself, but I think I was scaring my companions. Well, at least the flies were becoming annoying.

Here's a shot of my dirty truck at Rio Grande Village (note: it's the only place on that side of the park that has showers!). Yep, it's loaded with all our gear, which is under a thick layer of dust.

Sunset in the Chisos
(Day 2, evening)

A few weeks before the trip, we booked a Basin campsite for our stay on night #2. So, after the wonderful showers, we headed to the Basin in the Chisos Mountains to claim our site and make camp. We raced along but still missed the climax of the sunset at the Window. Oh well, there weren't any clouds.

We had very specific dinner plans for night #2, and they most definitely did NOT involve MRE's.

We drove out to Terlingua in search of Mexican food. We found a great little place called Los Paisanos? (I think, but not sure).

Anyway, if you head into Study Butte from Big Bend, take a left (go west) on 170. This takes you towards Terlingua. The first little restaurant-looking joint on the left is where we ate. It was awesome food! Seriously, it was very good Mexican food. We ate until we were stuffed and still wanted more.

La Kiva Bar
(Day 2, after dark)

Alright, let's make a very clear note right here: finding La Kiva in the dark is not easy, especially when the light on their sign (out on the highway) isn't working. Or maybe there wasn't a light? We actually passed it a few times before stopping in the Ghost Town to ask for directions.

Anyway, it's right across highway 170 from the large radio/tv/cell/whatever tower by the Texas Dept. Public works yard.

Okay, it was late. We were tired. I was pushed to nearly a delirious state after physically exerting myself to the limit over the past day, then gorging on Mexican food until my eyeballs were about to pop out of my skull. Which was the perfect state of mind for... La Kiva.

My friend James had been a few times before. The stories he brought back were so interesting and amazing, we thought he'd been completely stoned out of his mind and was making stuff up.

Nope. It's weird. It's cool. It's very reminiscent of the movie, "From Dusk Til Dawn". I sat at a table drinking a beer and expected the bartender to "vamp-out" at any time. I made a mental note where all the pool cues were in case I needed a sharp piece of wood in a hurry.

I also coined the term, "FDP", meaning "Freaky Desert People". You know, the locals. Actually, the place is really cool and definitely worth a visit. The locals are very laid back and friendly and ready to let it all hang out.

Note the skeleton on the wall (first picture on left). It's very scary, especially under the red light and influence of alcohol. I've never seen or heard of such a creature, but the plaque underneath clearly states the name of the beast. Have a look ;-)

And if things weren't weird enough, my wife unexpectantly met a few people she knew from high school. It's funny how that happens- meeting up with people hundreds of miles from home.

After a few drinks and an awesome dessert (the La Kiva Rose, I think), we went exploring. There's a subterranean room accessible from the outside patio. We ventured in, and then proceeded to play, "who's in the freezer?". No one won the game. We were all too chicken to look inside. (note the chest freezer in the photos on the left)

There was another interesting room that's accessible just inside close to the main entrance. It looked really cool, but no one was inside. It looked like a private party room or perhaps an overflow area. We wondered around and explored it a little, then decided that was enough. We were very tired and had a long drive back to the basin campground.

One other fun note about La Kiva- the parking lot is not lit. So after dark, it's pitch black. Imagine trying to find your vehicle after a long night of heavy drinking. Or perhaps that's not a worry. You may end up in the freezer.... ;-)

Last Hike: Lost Mines Trail
(Day 3, morning)

The Lost Mines trail is a relatively short trail that starts near the Basin campground. It is a little strenuous, as the change in elevation from the trailhead to the finish is over 1000 feet. But it is the best "bang for your buck" trail in Big Bend. The scenery is awesome for the amount of hiking you put forth.

About a mile into the trail, you hit an overlook into Juniper Canyon. The view is breathtaking and is certainly worth the hike. If you can only make it this far, it's worth it.

Another 1.4 miles brings you to the summit and overlook into Pine Canyon (you can still see over Juniper Canyon as well- just a lot higher than the previous overlook).

Tanya and I hiked this trail during our last trip (2004) to Big Bend and really enjoyed it. We hiked it on the last morning of our 2004 trip, and we had plenty of time (left the park sometime about noon).

Since James hadn't been on this trail before, Tanya and I decided to do it again on the last day of this trip. We had a great morning and we all enjoyed it, except for the wind. It was blowing hard and gusting up near 40+ mph. It was a little disconcerting to stand on the bare rock summit, look down into the deep canyons below, and have to brace yourself against the wind.

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In Summary
This was an awesome trip. We spent 48 hours total in the park, and that included two nights of camping. It was short but sweet, exhausting but exhilarating. We took a lot of photos and gained a lot of memories to cherish for a very long time.

This will not be our last trip to Big Bend :-)

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Things to remember about the trip:
Take more water on hikes! (1.5 to 2 gal. per day)
Don't go hiking after a heavy holiday meal
La Kiva is across the road from the large tower and it's in the dark
Hold your breath and prepare to run if you open that freezer in La Kiva
Don't pee into the wind
Watch for snakes and LISTEN for rattlesnakes, in particular
Always bring extra toilet paper
Don't bring heavy crap in your pack (like hard-backed books)
Even when you think you're all alone in the desert, you might just find someone else
If you need the help of someone else in the desert, you probably won't find anyone
Take only photos, leave only footprints (and farts)
Don't fart in the tent, especially after eating MRE's

Preparation
(2 Weeks Before)

Here's a self-portrait in my bathroom mirror all geared-up. We did a lot of planning for our overnight hike that included pre-packing and testing our packs. All loaded, mine weighed close to 40 pounds (including that damn hat that I always seem to be wearing in my photos). Of course it felt more like 100 during the actual hike.

I didn't take my heavy Manfrotto (3021BPRO) tripod. The thing weighed nearly 7 pounds including the head. I mounted the head on an old set of aluminum tripod legs, thus reducing my total tripod weight to about 3 pounds.

I also got a 20D body between the time of this photo and the actual hike. I stripped off the battery grip to reduce weight. I was also very daring- I only took one battery and one memory card for the overnight hike :-) It all worked out just fine!

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But there's more:
About This Trip

This was the second trip to Big Bend National Park for Tanya and I. James had been several times before.

Tanya and I first visited last year (2004) in September, and we fell in love with the park. We were both eager to return and explore more of its beauty. This trip almost didn't happen, but we managed to squeeze in these two nights of camping.

The one difficult thing about the park is its remote location. It takes a lot of time to get there and back. We actually went to Del Rio first and stayed with Tanya's mom, and then left our infant son with her while we trekked to Big Bend.

Our First Visit, Sept '04

Trip Report
Serious Photos

What is it About Big Bend?

A lot of people have gone there. A lot of people haven't and want to go. So what is it about Big Bend?

It's a long, long drive. It takes a lot of time to make a trip out there and back. It can be physically demanding and rough-going. It can even be pretty dangerous. But it's worth it. Definitely.

Big Bend National Park is like a giant gourmet food platter piled high with the most tasty treats you can think of. There's so much diversity and a lot to sample, and it's impossible to take it all in at once. You'll have to dig a little and try new things to uncover hidden gems. Big Bend does things to your sense of sight, touch, smell, and hearing that good food does to your mouth.

The park has thousands of interesting places. Some are well known and well traveled. Some are very remote and can take a day to find. The changes in climate, vegetation, and topography from one place to the next can be vastly different. There are dry badlands, high mountains covered in trees, narrow canyons, lush green tropical-like oases, and flat rocky lands covered in cactus and ocotillo.

The best are the unknown spots and hidden beauties. The canyon below Elephant Tusk is a great example. We never knew such a place existed. Sure, there's a little stream bed marked on the maps, but they tell you nothing of the rock structure, the vegetation, and the wildlife you'll encounter. Nothing is recorded about the boulder wedged in the canyon walls or the trees growing there (probably the only trees for miles and miles).

Big Bend can be experienced on different levels. You can see and enjoy a lot of it and never leave your vehicle. You can stay at the lodge or drive up to a campsite. You can rough it and hike miles and miles to make your own camp.

If you go, take the time to prepare. Plan what you'd like to do and pack accordingly. Take the time to get there and back and also spend some time exploring the park. 2 or 3 days isn't nearly enough.

And if you do visit, be prepared to fall in love with the place :-) You'll want to go back!

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All images copyright of Thomas J. Avery.