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Outer Mountain Loop Hike – Big Bend National Park, TX – Jan 2012

Overview

Complete Big Bend Photo Gallery | Big Bend National Park – Outer Mountain Loop Video

  • Location – Chisos Mountains & Chihuahuan Desert, TX
  • Park – Big Bend National Park
  • Trail Hiked – Outer Mountain Loop, Modified version
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 5 days, 4 nights
  • Trail Type – Loop
  • Miles Hiked – 40
  • Trail Difficulty – 7/10
  • Fires Allowed – No

big bend national park outer mountain loop 5 day hike route

Notes

  • Big Bend National Park requires a permit to camp in the backcountry, which can be obtained at the visitors center at Panther Junction for $10
  • You need to reserve campsites when camping in the Chisos Mountains. You have to do this in person when you pick up your permit, so have alternatives ready in case your desired campsites are not available
  • If you will be camping at the Chisos Basin Campground the night before your trip, it’s $14 and reservations can be made in advance here: Recreation.gov
  • It is advised to cache water at one or both of the locations on each end of the Dodson Trail. There are few water sources and no fires are allowed anywhere in the park.

 

Desperate to escape the ever present grey skies that engulf Michigan during Winter, planning a backpacking trip somewhere warmer became necessary to stave off insanity. I was thinking late January would be a great time to get away, so my options for a snow-free backpacking trip was going to be pretty limited. Big Bend National Park in Texas seemed to fit the bill, being warm enough and almost no chance of snow.

I was planning this trip to be a solo trip, because none of my friends would do this kind of thing with me. I already asked. Then, out of the blue on the night before New Years Eve, my buddy Dan knocked on my door. He was in town visiting family, and I hadn’t seen him in 10 years. He joined the Navy after High School and was living out of state. I showed him some pictures of where I had hiked before, and where I was going in Big Bend. He was all about it, couldn’t wait to go! Picking Dan up in Peoria, IL was only going to add about 10 minutes to my entire drive to Texas, a 29 hour drive as it is, so this was no big deal for me. He took leave from the Navy and I now had a hiking partner. The only problem is, this would be his first hike.

Getting There

I left Metro Detroit around 10am on January 20th, 2012. This winter had been unusually mild, and we hadn’t seen more than a dusting o snow up to this point. I’m certainly not complaining, but when I had planned this trip I was expecting it to be a getaway from the snow. It wasn’t snowing in Detroit, but it was coming from the West. In fact, I remember this storm was a huge one, something like 1,000 miles wide. And, it was headed this way. By the time I reached the Lake Michigan on 94, the snow was coming down. It got worse and worse as I made my way through Indiana and Illinios. Now the thing that pissed me off is how long it took to get the roads plowed. You can’t tell me that the city/state/county road crews didn’t know about the 1,000 mile storm coming their way! Anyways, this slowed me down and I didn’t get to Dan’s place until around 6pm. He had his stuff packed and ready to go, so I went upstairs to help him with the gear. I picked up his backpack and the shoulder strap completely tore off! This was a brand new backpack from Bass Pro, but it was a cheapo. I think it was Ascend brand. Better that it happened here and now versus out on the trail.

After going up to Bass Pro to exchange the backpack, getting a bite to eat and filling up the tank it was now almost 9pm. I was hoping to be much farther along by now. After leaving Peoria, it was a white knuckle drive all the way to St. Louis. The roads were icy as hell now, and we passed about 10 semi-trucks in the ditch over the next 2 hours. We stopped for the night shortly after passing STL and got a hotel. The Next day, we make it to a small town a few hours past Witchita Falls, TX.

Now Sunday, we only had a few hours left to Big Bend. After passing Midland, we encountered several dust storms while passing through huge, desolate looking oil fields.  This was kinda scary to drive through, especially at these speeds… 75 mph on many country roads all throughout Texas. One hwy in the Midland area was 80mph! Michigan, are you listening? Haha, that will never happen.

stopped along side of road in a texas dust storm

After heading South on 385 passing Marathon, the last town before the park, it’s an 80 mile drive to the visitor center where you get your permit. This was a desolate stretch of nothing the entire way. No intersecting roads, only 3 or so ranches. A few miles south of Marathon is a Border Patrol roadblock. Going South, you just drive right through. Going North though, everyone gets stopped. It was actually about a 40 mile drive to the park’s entrance, and another 40 miles to the visitor center from there. It was then another 20 minute or so drive to the Chisos Basin Campground. We were going to stay the night here so we’d be as close as possible to the trail in the morning. The cost per night is $14 as of January 2012.

At the entrance to Big Big National Park

After setting up camp, we left to drop water off at the Homer Wilson Ranch, about an hour round trip drive. Since there is  only one semi reliable source of water along the entire route, we had to pack in our water. Weighing over 8.3lbs each gallon, we were advised to cache water in one of 2 locations along the trail. These were just bear boxes, but they were not at a campsite, just in an area that’s close to a road so that you could drive to them and store water (and/or food) here to be picked up as you hike to this point on the trail. There is one cache boxes at the Eastern end of the Dodson Trail, where it meets the Juniper Canyon Trail. There’s a 4×4 road that dead ends here, but I don’t know much else about getting here as I do not have the proper vehicle to be driving down a road like that. I was told only high clearance vehicles should attempt driving this as it’s supposed to be a very rough road.  The other cache box is near the Homer Wilson Ranch at the Western end of the Dodson, where the blue Creek Trail begins. These roads were paved the entire way, so anyone can reach this one.

Tonight we’d eat good.. Dan brought 2 huge steaks, which we had on ice in the cooler the entire way here. We had olive oil and some good seasonings, and grilled these up on the frying pan over my camp stove. These were delicious to say the least. And, we had enough extra steak to cook one each in the morning! The campsite was really nice, great views all around us.

View from our campsite in the Chisos Basin

Day 1 – January 23rd, 2012

Miles hiked – 6.2
Campsite – SE3

After filling up on some good ol’ red meat and packing up the car, we headed over to the Chisos Mountain Lodge to park the car and find the trailhead. We didn’t get the earliest start today, due to cooking the steaks and doing dishes, as well as last minute modifications to our gear. Being Dan’s first hike, he brought all sorts of useless junk that needed to be checked through before heading out. I bought my bathroom scale to weigh our packs before hitting the trail, I think mine was 60 pounds and Dan’s 59. I rationed 3 liters of water per day, and this was to be distributed between my Osprey 2l hydration bladder, 1 liter water bottle, and my 2L Platypus collapsible water containers. I think I brought three of these. The plan was to get to Fresno Creek, in the middle of the Dodson Trail, by the 3rd day and top off our water supply. We then had plenty of water waiting for us at the cache near Homer Wilson ranch that we would use for the last day and a half of the hike.

Leaving Casa Grande behind as we hike the Laguna Meadows Trail

It was mid to late morning by the time we hit the trail. It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect weather for hiking. We were going to be hiking a slightly longer version of the Outer Mountain Loop trail.Traditionally, this trail is hiked clockwise, taking the Pinnacles Trail South to the Juniper Canyon Trail, the Dodson Trail through the desert and back up into the Chisos Mountains via the Blue Creek Trail, and finally back to your car on the Laguna Meadows Trail. I chose to hike it counter-clockwise, and include the South Rim in my hike, as well as a side trip to Emory Peak on our last day. Today, we’d hike the Laguna Meadows Trail South to the Colima Trail, taking the Southwest Rim Trail to the Southeast Rim trail and camping at SE3.

outer mountain loop big bend

View from the Laguna Meadows Trail

Only 45 minutes after leaving the car, Dan started slowing down. He wasn’t prepared for the steep inclines as we hit the first of the switchbacks. I told him to exercise before this trip, but he didn’t make time for it and was now paying the consequences. And lucky me, I got to listen to him complain for 5 days! We all need to take a breather here and there, but you can’t hike for 2 minutes and take a 5 minutes break, otherwise you”ll never get anywhere. Somehow he failed to grasp this and we bickered back and forth about it for the remainder of the trip. We passed a few groups of hikers here and there, including a group of youths on our hike up to the South Rim. After mid day today, we wouldn’t see another person until our 4th day!

chisos mountains backpacking

The views were nice throughout the hike on the Laguna Meadows Trail, but once we reached the overlook of Blue Creek we began to see the beauty of Big Bend. From here, we could see the South Rim, but not what lies beyond. Between the Blue Creek overlook and the Southwest Rim Trail, the landscape changes into a dry wooded environment where we saw several deer. These deer were not afraid of anyone, I literally walked right up to it and took a few pictures. Maybe 20ft away? All she did was turn her back and keep eating grass!

big bend - chisos mountains - blue creek canyon

Overlooking Blue Creek Canyon

colima trail deer

These deer didn’t spook easily

Now on the Southwest Rim Trail, the terrain leveled out some and eventually gives way to the edge of the South Rim. We dropped out packs and began to explore the cliff’s edges. The views were incredible! I’ve heard some say 100 mile views can be had here. I was amazed at the immense vastness of the Chihuahuan Desert below.

big bend national park south rim lichen

Lichen on the rock face of the South Rim

Chihuahuan Desert in big bend national park from the south rim

Awesome view of the Chihuahuan Desert

We stood here a good while enjoying the scenery and snapping some pictures before hitting the trail again. We weren’t far now from our campsite, SE3. Dan was pretty worn out at this point and thankfully it was only about another mile farther. It was late afternoon now and we didn’t have long before sunset, which comes early in January. Now, when we picked up our permit at the visitor center, the woman working there said there had been a mountain lion sighting at this campsite only a week prior. Since we were going to have limited water supplies this trip, I decided not to bring my stove and all the cookies supplies and instead opted for a prepackaged approach. This, along with keeping food in the OP Saks and inside the bear boxes gave us a sense of relief. All Chisos Mountains campsites seemed to have the bear boxes, but none in the desert along the Dodson.

Awesome views only 100ft from your tent at SE3

outer mountain loop campsites in the chisos mountains

Campsite SE3

After setting up camp, we wandered over to the cliff’s edge to eat dinner. For me, this was 2 pastrami and cheese sandwiches on whole wheat bread. The sun went down behind us, which meant no view tonight. But, there should be a great view of the sunrise tomorrow, and the views were still incredible! After the sun went down, we waited for the stars to come out as it was going to be a clear night. We laid on our backs on the rocks near the cliff’s edge in what seemed like the perfect spot. I’ve never seen as many stars anywhere else as I did this night. From where we were, looking down on the desert for miles, we could see at least 10 different fires burning in the distance. There were not supposed to be any fires allowed here, anywhere. We couldn’t help but wonder if they were illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, or just some other hikers off trail somewhere.

chisos mountains SE3 campsite views

Hanging Out By The Cliff’s Edge

 Day 2 – January 24th, 2012

Miles hiked – 9.3
Campsite – Zone camping

Beautiful sunrise on the South Rim

Chihuahuan Desert sunrise big bend

We woke up early this morning to catch what would be my favorite sunrise of all time. After eating breakfast in awe, we hit the trail early to cover some ground. With Dan’s slow pace, we were going to have a long day covering 9+ miles. At least it was downhill mostly. Even still, this can be tough on the knees. After passing the NE Rim campsites, the Northeast Rim Trail descends into Boot Canyon. This was a different type of environment that anything we’d seen here yet. We did see some stagnant pools of green water, but we were well stocked with h2o and didn’t bother trying to filter it. We dropped our packs and explored up some smaller intersecting canyons for about 20 minutes before returning to the Boot Canyon Trail and following that to it’s intersection with the Juniper Canton Trail. Now the trail really starts dropping in elevation, and it made us glad we were going down and not hiking up.

View of Juniper Canyon from the South Rim

juniper canyon trail outer mountain loop

Switchbacks Descending Into Juniper Canyon

As we got down closer to the canyon floor, we stopped for lunch. Near the trail was a rocky ridge that was only 50 feet higher than the trail, so we climbed it to eat up there. We took our boots off to air out our feet and took a 25 minute break. These breaks were good for Dan’s morale, as he was still complaining about how difficult it was.

eating lunch on a ridge in Juniper Canyon

Lunch break along the Juniper Canyon Trail

Back on the trail, it the trees were starting to thin out and the vegetation turned to desert scrub rather quickly. We were now fully exposed to the sun, but thankfully it wasn’t too hot out. In fact, it was becoming partly cloudy and we wondered about the weather. We were going to try to make it past the Dodson/Juniper Canyon Trail junction and start looking for a campsite. The park rules say you need to camp at least a 1/2 mile from this point, as well as the Homer Wilson Ranch on the other end of the Dodson.

Hiking The Juniper Canyon Trail

At one point, we passed a dead bird along side the trail. It’s head looked like it was snapped, it was pretty crooked. As I looked closer, I saw a snake slithering around underneath it. We stopped and watched for a few seconds and the snake appeared to be crawling up inside the bird somehow, through a wound or something… we couldn’t see exactly. I poked it to try and see what the hell was going on and the bird sprang back to life and flew away, snake and all! We turned to each other with a look of bewilderment. I really wish I had the camera out for this one, it was extremely strange. To this day, I have no idea what was happening there.

View of the South Rim from the Dodson/Juniper junction

Beginning Of The Dodson Trail, East End

By the time we made it to the Dodson/Juniper junction, Dan was bitching quite a bit. It was getting hot out, during the times the sun wasn’t blocked by the occasional cloud cover. We stopped again here to air out or feet and have a snack, but mostly for Dan to rest. There is a clearing here with a bear box, and I saw the 4×4 road that you could have driven out here on.  There’s no way my car could have made it, and I felt stupid for even thinking it had a chance now that I’ve seen it first hand.

Zone Camping On The Dodson Trail

Dodson trail as viewed from hill above campsite

View From Hill Above Campsite

We only had another mile or so before we stop for the day, so I convinced Dan to get going. Maybe 30 minutes later, we found a decent campsite right along the trail. This was it no matter what for Dan, he was dead tired. After setting up camp, I crossed the dried up river bed below the trail and climbed up a what looked like small hill to get a better view, have a snack, and take some pictures. Now at the top, I could barely even see my tent, and it’s not visible in the photos at all. I headed back down and ate dinner with Dan as it started to sprinkle for a brief moment. It was definitely raining in distance, but the rain spare us that night. We went to sleep early night as we did not have a view of the stars and to keep us entertained as we did the night before.

Day 3 – January 25th, 2012

Miles hiked – 10
Campsite – Zone camping

 

Sunrise Day 3

Early morning along the Dodson

When the sun rose today, it was pretty clear, only small patches of clouds. I didn’t have a direct view of the sunrise as the hill I climbed the night before was clocking my view of it, but the way the sunlight was shining off the mountains was very cool. With the most mileage to cover of any day here, we needed an early start. Today was a desert day, all day. We’ll hike the Dodson to it’s end near the Homer Wilson Ranch, and then start looking for a campsite as we hike Blue Creek Canyon Trail.

Hiking the Dodson Trail

View from the Dodson Trail

The Dodson offered a completely different experience than that of the mountains. Dan didn’t like it, but I enjoyed this day. After leaving our campsite, the mostly level terrain gave way to lots of ups and downs. You could never see too far in front of you as it seemed there was always another hill blocking your view. There was still a good view of the South Rim from here which made for some excellent photos. Mid morning, we came across an old homestead near Dodson Spring. You could see the old stone walls still standing with random metal artifacts like a bed frame and fencing still in place.  Dodson Spring had some water, but was filled with animal crap (lots of bear shit all around it), and was barely more than a puddle with weeds in it. But, if you had to, there was water here. Thankfully we were still ok on water, and Fresno Creek is only another mile or so away from here.

relaxing at frenso creek

Fresno Creek

Once we did reach Fresno Creek, we dropped our packs to fill up our water bottles and hydration bladders, but not the Platypus collapsible jugs. At the end of the Dodson Trail later today, we’ll refill those with the water we cached here a few days earlier. For now, we’ll eat lunch and top of our water. Fresno creek was a really cool place to take a lunch break. The water was only a trickle, but enough to get my MSR water filter in there and draw out what we needed. After a nice 30 minutes break, the weather really started to turn for the worst. Dark clouds were now surrounding the Chisos Mountains above us, and rain was looking imminent. It was time to put on our rain jackets and get moving.

Not long after leaving Fresno Creek behind, it began to rain. It wasn’t a torrential downpour by any means, but certainly hard enough to warrant the rain gear. I thought this place only gets 4 inches of rain per year? Just my luck, I get rained on everywhere I go. Even in the desert! Then, small chucks of hail/snow began to fall. We could feel a blast of cold air being pushed down from the mountains above, which looked to be getting clobbered. You couldn’t see the mountain tops anymore, just dark skies engulfing them. Off in the desert, we saw bolts of lightning here and there as we pushed on. There is no place for shelter out here, so we kept moving with a good pace all afternoon. It didn’t rain on us for much longer than an hour, but all around us the threat was constant.

What a backyard!

Behind the Homer Wilson Ranch. Looks like some sort of old animal pen.

It was getting to be late afternoon and around every turn we expected to see the Homer Wilson Ranch. It was actually getting fairly cold out now and we were both looking forward to getting into our tents tonight. Finally, the Ranch was in view, and after heading up to the bear box to get our cached water/food supplies, we had a peak inside to check it out. Not much to see here, but it was nice to get out of the elements for a minute. We only hiked another 1/2 mile farther before finding a campsite along the Blue Creek Canyon Trail.

As the sun went down the weather looked like it was finally starting to clear up. After setting up camp we didn’t have time to do much of anything, we just ate dinner and went to bed.

Day 4 – January 26th, 2012

Miles hiked – 8.3
Campsite – TM1

 

See the small cave?

blue creek canyon trail small cave

Small, but kinda cool anyways

The skies were clear today when the sun rose and we could not be happier. You could tell it was going to be one of those beautiful cloudless days. While Dan was taking his time waking up and getting ready, I climbed a small rock formation that stowed over our campsite, which looked like it had a small cave near the top. By the time I came back down, he was ready to go.

blue creek canyon hiking trail big bend

Blue Creek Canyon

Today was going to be all uphill as we make our way back up into the Chisos Mountains and over to our reserved campsite at TM1. The route will be Blue Creek Trail to Colima Trail to Boot Spring Trail north. Just as we were about to hit the trail, another hiker passed by our campsite, heading the same way were were heading. We said a quick hello and he was on his way, and we left minutes after him. This guy was cruising and easily left us in the dust with Dan as the pace setter. We were busy taking pictures and marveling at the landscape here in Blue Creek Canyon anyways. The trail itself was loose gravelly rocks in the riverbed, surrounded by jagged red canyon walls. The sunlight had not yet made it’s way into the canyon yet, which would have made for better pictures, but it was still very cool to see.

Maybe an hour or two after hiking up the Blue Creek Canyon Trail, the hiker who passed us earlier was now heading back towards us and back to his car. He said the loose rocks were just too much of a pain to be hiking on all day and decided to skip this trail. He parked his car where we dropped off the water near the Ranch, and was just out for a day hike.

This was farther than it looks!

By late morning, we had made some real progress and were beginning to get closer to the Chisos Mountains. We noticed a cave in the rock face of the hillside on the Northern section of the trail, so we dropped our packs to check it out. It didn’t look far away, but distances can be deceiving. After climbing much higher and farther than anticipated, we were at the opening of the cave. It was much larger than it appeared from below. We spent 20 minutes or so exploring the cave and taking pictures.

Eventually though, we had to leave the cave and get moving. The incline was getting steeper and was fully exposed to the sun now. Dan had a blast exploring the cave and was less of a complainer after this. He enjoyed exploring random cool stuff along the trail like this, he just doesn’t like hauling the backpack around. I like doing that stuff too but the way I figure, the more ground you cover, the more chance you’ll see stuff like this. Either way, I was happy to see Dan in such a good mood. It was another 2 hour or so hike up to the Colima Trail from here. As we got higher up, the view of this canyon from our first day became more familiar until eventually I saw the sign sign for the Blue Creek Canyon fire of 1989 we passed on our first day at a small overlook area.

Now, I know this is a loop trail, but the way I hiked it including the South Rim involves hiking a .8 mile section of the Colima Trail twice. Now on that same stretch of trail, we saw another deer, this time a buck. We also saw some snow in the shady areas. While we were getting rain and hail in the desert yesterday, it was snowing here. I almost wish I could have seen it snowing when I was up here, I’m sure that would have been a cool thing to see. We were covering good ground now that Dan was in good spirits, and we were soon on the Boot Spring Trail heading north. This trail offered some really good views, and we both enjoyed this section.

big bend national park backpacking trails

Before long we were at our destination, the lone Toll Mountain campsite. This was a pretty nice campsite, we both liked this one. We scouted around near camp and found several spots with excellent views. We picked a ledge to eat dinner on and watch the sunset. I could see the Chisos Mountain Lodge where our car was parked from here, but it was a long ways away. The sun’s rays colored the mountains a beautiful shade of red/orange, a perfect way to end our last night in Big Bend National Park.

Day 5 – January 27th, 2012

Miles hiked – 6.7

We woke up early again this morning to watch the sunrise as we hike to the summit of Emory Peak.  The Emory Peak Trail starts only yards away from TM1, so we were able to get an early start. There was still snow present on the trail today, and more-so the higher we climbed. We had excellent views of the sunrise from our position on the Emory Peak Trail. However, not long after sunrise, Dan turned around and headed back to camp. His groin had been bothering him for the last few days, and he decided he had had enough. I continued on solo, and was nearing the top in 20 minutes.

Tallest peak in Big Bend National Park!

Now, the trail was no longer a trail, it became a climb. Reaching the summit requires a bit of scrambling, and I believe this would qualify as a class 3. Once at the top, there is a large radio antenna, but great views all around. At 7,825 this is the highest point in Big Bend. I spent a good 20 minutes up here by myself savoring the experience and taking in the beautiful scenery before heading back down. I practically jogged all the way back down to TM1, I was feeling great! As beautiful as it was, I couldn’t wait to get off the trail now that it was our last day.

Dan was ready to go when I got back, so I packed up my gear as quick as possible and we headed down the Pinnacles Trail which would take us all the way back to our car. The next 2 hours or so were very steep switchbacks. Glad we were going down, but it was beginning to take a toll on my knees. Dan was hurting too, and with only a few miles left we were really starting to look forward to getting to the car. I forgot to bring lip balm (because I never use it any other time, ever!), and my lips were grotesquely chapped now. They were actually cracked and bleeding in spots. Must have been the arid climate.

 

There were some nice views as we descended the Pinnacles Trail, and I still managed to get in a few quick pictures. However, our mission was getting to that car now. We were running low on water too, and after only 3 liters per day each, we were both a little dehydrated. We passed two backpackers heading up the Pinnacles Trail, but neither of us stopped to chat.

We made it back to the car around 11am, and after stowing our gear in the car my first stop was at the Chisos Basin Store for some lip balm. The it was off to the Chisos Mountain Lodge for lunch, as we were both eager for a hot meal. Dan asked the waiter something along the lines of “How’s the food”? And his response was, “We’re the best in the area”. You could tell that this was not the first time someone asked this. The joke was, this is the ONLY place in the area… literally. I don’t think there was any other place to eat within 100 miles. We both ordered burgers, and they were good after being out in the backcountry for a week. Like he said, best in the area. We hit the road around 12:30pm or so after trying to wash up in the bathrooms near the Lodge. I now have a 1,750 mile drive ahead of me, time to get moving!

Complete Big Bend Photo Gallery

Final Thoughts

All I can say is WOW! Big Bend is an incredible place… real solitude, amazing views, challenging and rewarding. The vastness of this area is something I’ve never really experienced. Distances are deceiving here. The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular here, just beautiful.

The trails were easy to follow, I don’t remember losing the trail more than once or twice, and only for a short distance. The bugs were almost non existent when we hiked here in January which was nice. Definitely bring lip balm though! I repeat, do NOT forget to bring lip balm!  Water is a problem, and you need to either cache water at both ends of the Dodson, or carry a ton of weight in water like we did. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, but don’t take someone out here who isn’t prepared for it like I did. Until the 4th day, listening to Dan complain was making wish I had gone solo. After we left the cave though, he was fine.

If you are going to hike here, be sure to include the South Rim in your itinerary. This was my favorite part of the trip personally. I would love to visit Big Bend again someday, but would likely visit other areas of the park since it has so much to offer.

Bottom line – I recommend hiking here if you have the chance. You won’t regret it.

Complete Big Bend Photo Gallery

 

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.

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