It’s been several years since I backpacked one of my most favorite trails in all of the Big Bend region, the Marufo Vega Trail, located at the far eastern end of Big Bend National Park on the southern border of Texas with Mexico.
This is a strenuous 14+ mile long trail that crosses the southern end of the Dead Horse Mountains, then drops down nearly a thousand feet to the Rio Grande River and traverses the slopes that drop down another hundred feet or more to the river, southward some two miles, then climbs the thousand feet back up to the Dead Horse Plateau.
The Marufo Vega Trail probably is the scene of more “search and rescue” events than any other in the national park, mostly due to its remoteness, the total lack of water, and the extreme heat in these canyons during late spring, summer and early fall. This is definitely a winter hike, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to carry at least a gallon of water per person for this hike.
The trailhead lies on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon. There is a dirt parking area across the road from the trailhead. The trail follows a dry creekbed up Telephone Canyon, passing some of the remains of old ore tram towers that carried ore buckets on large 1″ cables from the Rio Grande River to an ore terminal up-canyon, where the ore was loaded on wagons and hauled by mule to a processing plant in Marathon, TX, some 40 miles north of the current national park. At 1.5 miles there is a trail junction where the Marufo Vega Trail turns right and climbs a steep gully of rocky scree, up to the Dead Horse Plateau. You can also continue on .7 mile up the Strawhouse Trail to the point where another trail junction marked “Marufo Vega” splits to the right and climbs out of the Strawhouse drainage up onto the plateau for another .7 mile to join the Marufo Vega Trail.The trail flattens out and follows dry creek drainages, winding through the ravines and cliffs of the Dead Horse Mountains for another three miles.Suddenly, as you round the corner of a bluff, the lower canyons of the Rio Grande River open out before you with startling grandeur. At this point you are also struck by the fact that the trail has to descend down to that river so far below and traverse the slopes just above the river for 2 miles before you can climb out and up again.The southeastern end of the Dead Horse Mountains collides head-on into the uplifting fault which is the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico. The Rio Grande River cuts a dividing swath between these two ranges. Here, a nearly full moon rises over the 8000′ high peaks of the Sierra del Carmens. It is here that the trail begins its descent of over 800 feet down to the Rio Grande, seen below as a green oasis at the bottom of the canyon:Another mile later, following the descent from the plateau, the trail skirts along the cliffs that drop another 150 feet or so down to the river:At this point I set up camp at one of the most scenic, and secluded, spots I’ve ever found in Big Bend National Park:Down on a sandbar along the river a wild mustang, probably from Mexico, grazes on the lush vegetation that water provides:The cliffs that mark the end of the Dead Horse Mountains, and the plateau from which the trail descends:Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains:Exploring the side canyons requires a lot more time and days, which I will save for another trip:The trail continues downriver with astonishing vistas everywhere you look. The extreme tilting of the fault line can be seen in the massive cliff face on the Mexican side of the river (the tan cliffs on the right):Soon it’s time to begin the 1000′ climb back up through a side canyon, following the Marufo Vega Trail markers back to the top of the plateau:A beautiful redtail hawk kept watch on me as I neared the top of the trail, then effortlessly sailed off his perch and was two canyons over before I had a chance to get a drink of water.Overview of the 14.5 mile long Marufo Vega Trail. The light area of the map without map gradients is Mexico:If you are fit, and in the national park in the winter when temps allow, this is not a trail to be missed. If you continue on up Strawhouse Canyon with a little more time, there is some beautiful native American rock art (pictographs) at the entrance to a box canyon at the end of that trail…but that’s for another trip.
Time to hit the trail…and what better trail than the Contrabando Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park. This is a hike/bike trail, so I opted to “Bikepack” so I could cover the miles more quickly. You pick up this trail from the park headquarters at the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, Texas, and follow it northward until it intersects with Fresno Creek and follows the creek northward through Fresno Canyon.
For this trip I’ll be camping overnight in the area of Fresno Cascades, a dependable water source in the heart of Fresno Canyon, and doing a day hike up a side canyon to the Madrid House, and possibly up to Madrid Falls, a seasonal waterfall in a remote area of the park.
Round trip is about 26 miles, which can easily be done as a day ride/hike, but I want to not be rushed and explore, since I’ve not been on parts of this route before.
Map of the route, with numbers for reference to points of interest I describe along the way:
My bike, ready to roll. It’s a Motobecane full-suspension 27.5+ with 2.8 tires, outfitted with RockBros handlebar bag and seat bag to hold a sleeping bag, tent, air mattress, clothing and other miscellaneous gear. Location #1: A plant called candelilla grows in the area. It was used to make candles and other paraffin substitutes in the early part of the last century. The remnants of a candelilla processing operation are still found along the banks of a dry arroyo:
Location #2: At about 7 miles the trail passes an abandoned mercury mining operation, the Fresno Mine, which operated off-and-on from 1935 – 1956. From here the trail turns westward toward Fresno Creek:
Location #3: The trail crosses Fresno Creek and climbs gradually through Fresno Canyon. Along the way you can find remnants of the Old Government Road, a roadway constructed in the 1910’s by the Army to move troops to protect the border during the Mexican Revolution. An old line cabin used by early ranchers near Fresno Creek, and cottonwoods line the banks of Fresno Creek, near Fresno Cascades, where the water is forced to the surface by limestone deposits:
Location #4: Fresno Cascades…a dependable water source in the Chihuahuan Desert, historically used by paleo-indians and cowboys. Water is forced to the surface and flows into tinajas (water holes in the rocks), then goes underground to resurface downstream. The remains of what might have been a grain storage cache, or perhaps a temporary sheep corral…park authorities are not sure. From there the trail climbs up an old ranch road over a low pass and continues on to the old Madrid Ranch:
After dropping my bike, I set out on foot, up and over the saddle separating the Fresno Creek and Ojo Blanco Creek drainages. Along the way I am scolded disapprovingly by a red tail hawk. Below, the Ojo Blanco drainage is an oasis in the desert, the telltale cottonwood trees appearing everywhere a spring reaches the surface. An old beverage can, circa 1950’s-60’s vintage, carries an ignored message, “Dispose of Properly…Please don’t Litter.”
Location #5: Madrid Ranch – following the old ranch road trail for about 1.5 miles beyond Fresno Cascades you approach a very large grove of very tall cottonwood trees. This marks the location of Trough Spring, and the Madrid House, where the Madrid family homesteaded in the early part of the 20th. century. Nearby, a tall waterfall (Madrid Falls) derives its name from this family. A date palm grows around the spring. A friend familiar with this area speculates that the date palm, not indigenous to the Chihuahuan Desert, grew from discarded dates carried by cowboys as trail snacks. These occur in several places around springs in BBRSP. The Madrid House was actually a very well built, large adobe house, where you see remains of beautifully plastered interior walls, plus an obvious addition…a bedroom added as the family grew, showing occupation for a number of years. Madrid Falls lies out of view up a side canyon:
Location #4: Fresno Cascades Camp…the day was getting late, so I passed on trying to hike back to Madrid Falls. I’ll save that for another trip. My campsite was just above the cascades, near enough to water that I was serenaded all night by the water dropping over the cascade into a pool that never filled, but went underground as fast as the water flowed into it. Sunset was wonderful, and the nearly full moon shone all night:
Location #2: Fresno Creek to the Fresno Mine, and home…a lot of the creek crossings have been washed out by summer rains. Dropping down off the bank into the creek bed and back up the other side can be hazardous, and sometimes require dismounting. The trail, normally a dry creek bed, requires a little extra peddling effort due to the soft, water-soaked surface. I stopped at the Fresno Mine and hitched my trusty steed to an old hitching post for a rest. I’d like to know the story about the dual outhouses:
I rode/hiked for two days and saw no one. The trail is both beautiful and historic, with grand vistas. Take PLENTY OF WATER. Yes, there is usually water along this route (be sure to filter), but it cannot be guaranteed year round. Be sure to put this one on your “Bucket List.”
It is generally assumed that the desert of the southwest has two colors: green and brown. The green would be the desert during the rainy season and brown would be the rest of the year. However, there are “islands” that rise above the desert floor that reach up into other climate zones by the nature of their altitude. One such island is the Chisos Mountains, located centrally within Big Bend National Park. This past weekend I went on a quest to photograph the magnificent fall foliage of the bigtooth maple trees, found mostly in upper Boot Canyon above Boot Spring at an elevation of just under 7000′. My timing was perfect, the maple leaves having just turned to their magnificent technicolor shades of red, orange and yellow.
So, if you thought you had to go to Maine, or the Smokey Mountains for fall color, look closer to home. You just might find what you seek out in the desert.
The gem of the High Sierras of California
There are three hiking trails that transect our country from north to south, one in the east, the Appalachian Trail, one in the central Rockies, the Continental Divide Trail, and one in the west, the Pacific Crest Trail. In addition, there are a number of shorter “thru-hikes” on shorter point-to-point trails, the most famous, and arguably the most scenic, being the John Muir Trail of the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It runs from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 United States. It runs for 210.5 miles up and down the passes and basins of the Sierras.
My good friend, Joe, his wife Sara, and I spent 9 days backpacking the most scenic (and I must add the most vertical) 65 miles of this trail during the first two weeks of September.
Day 1 started west of the town of Bishop, CA, at the trailhead at 9800 feet elevation, then climbed up past Long Lake, Sadderock Lake, and up over Bishop Pass at 11,980 feet in a driving rain and sleet, hands frozen to our hiking poles, plodding through a river flowing down the trail with lightning dancing off the adjacent 14,000+ foot high peaks. A nice way to start the trip.
We made camp below the pass in the upper Dusy Basin at about 11,300 feet elevation. The rain and sleet cleared just before we made camp, and the aspenglow on the peaks was magical. Overnight temps held at about freezing, not too bad for this elevation.
On day 2 we drop down through the Dusy Basin drainage, headed for LeConte Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings River. We have a total descent of 3140 feet to our low elevation of 8700 feet at Grouse Meadows.
After we set up camp at a campsite in Grouse Meadows, we are joined by two “thru-hikers,” a man from Akron, OH, with the trail name “Just Jeff,” who is finishing up the final 200 miles of his 2400 mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. His partner was Christina, a solo girl from Belgium doing a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail from south to north. Thru-hikers are characterized by light packs and no unnecessary gear, including food. They are always hungry and always ready to eat any and all extra leftovers.
Day 4 we climbed 1500 feet up and over Mather Pass from Lower Palisade Lake in a cold rain, then down 1100 feet into the upper basin below Mather Pass.
Day 5 we break camp and head down the wide, beautiful basin, down about 1000 feet to the trail junction at the Middle Fork of the King’s River, then climb back up 1000 feet to Lake Marjorie for the next night.
Day 6 we leave Lake Marjorie and climb 1080 feet up and over Pinchot Pass, then drop down 3670 feet to the beautiful Woods Creek Suspension Bridge for camp.
Day 7 starts cold and early, leaving the low point of 8510 feet elevation and heading up over 2000 feet to the Rae Lakes at an elevation of 10,550 feet.
Day 8 greets us with a beautiful reflection on upper Rae Lake, then it’s to work, climbing up 1430 feet to the summit of Glen Pass, then down over 1400 feet to the Kearsarge Pass trail junction, and back up past Bullfrog Lake to make camp.
The final climb: up and over Kearsarge Pass (11,835 feet) and down to the trailhead and the end of the trail.
This was a backpack trip I’ve always had on my “bucket list,” and it was definitely everything I expected, and more. There are many guide books available on the trail which include advice on access points, permits required, and all the other pertinent info you need to know in planning a hike on the John Muir Trail. Happy Trails.
It’s still only mid-February here in the Big Bend, but you would never know it by the weather. So far, this is the second consecutive mild winter in a row, and I was fearing a lack of wildflowers again this year, after a total bust last spring. However, my wife and I took a backroads trip through Big Bend National Park on Valentine’s Day, and the profusion of early wildflowers was astonishing. Here is a sample of our day out:
We’re also looking forward to a spectacular blooming of the cactus as we get later into spring, but for now the “hills are alive” with the perfume that is the signature of wildflowers in the Big Bend.
Yes, you’re reading correctly…that’s BIKEpacking, not BACKpacking. A fairly recent phenomenon is emerging, and it’s called bikepacking…hitting the trails for overnight camping using a mountain bike. More and more trails systems are allowing mountain bikes on the trails, along with animals such as llamas and horses. One such system is found in my back yard, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Here is a look at the trail system originating at the East Contraband Trailhead, and marked in yellow is the 8.5 mile long route I followed on my first bikepacking shakedown trip:
After checking in at the park headquarters at the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, TX, and obtaining the necessary permits for entry and overnight camping, I parked in the park maintenance area (for a better degree of protection for my Jeep than on the road at the trailhead) and hit the trail.
Here is a look at my basic bike setup…full-suspension mountain bike with a front handlebar pack and an under-seat pack for my tent:
The trail I followed is a the least technical route from this trailhead, not wanting to test my riding skills too quickly with an extra 10 pounds of gear on my bike, and a small backpack weighing in at about 15 pounds, due to the quantity of water needed for backpacking in the desert. In this case, I’m carrying 4 liters of water, which amounts to about 12 pounds of weight:
The trail is a combination of mining road and some sections of single-track which wind through the hills, climbing from about 2400′ elevation up to 2750′ where I made camp.
There is a lot of history in this area, some dating back to early paleo-indians of some 10,000 years ago, and more recent history, such as this candelilla, or wax, factory along a dry arroyo:
Buena Suerte trail climbs for some 7.5 miles up to an old mining area, which dates from the early 1900’s up until mid-20th. century. This is a private in-holding owned by the Lajitas Resort, so camping is not permitted on this property, but it’s an interesting site to explore if you’re very careful, as there is still a lot of derelict machinery here:
The trail splits to the left, or northeast, and becomes single-track before dropping into Fresno Creek at a major trail junction:
It was in Fresno Creek that I came upon the scourge of the desert: wild burros. These animals are remnants of early attempts at settling, mining, prospecting, wax making, plus invasives coming from Mexico. They are a menace to native plants and animals, and if I had a gun, I’d shoot every one:
Back to the task at hand, my campsite for the evening, with a warm glow of the setting sun off the nearby hills:
After a warm (50 degree) night, the morning sun was a welcome sight, along with views down the Fresno Creek drainage:
Shell fossils in the rocks are a reminder that this once was the bottom of a shallow inland sea:
The ride back to the trailhead was a “hoot” as it is mostly downhill. I made a detour down a more technical side loop to test my riding skills with the added weight and a backpack, and all went smoothly:
And so, if you’re new to bikepacking like myself, or a veteran of many technical trails, you can find a challenge to fit your taste here in Big Bend Ranch State Park. But keep in mind that this is very remote, rugged country which requires a level of expertise in self-rescue in the event of mechanical failure or an accident requiring medical attention. Also, plan to come here in late fall, winter, or early spring due to extreme, deadly heat other times of the year.