Marufo Vega Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

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.

P1100456 Ore tram

Day 1

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.

P1100466 Strawhouse 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.

P1100477

Suddenly, as you round the corner of a bluff, the lower canyons of the Rio Grande River open out before you with startling grandeur.

P1100490 Mtns & River 2

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.

P1100493 Moon S del C 2

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:

P1100504 M Vega Trail

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:

P1100520 Mtns 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:

P1100525 Tent

Down on a sandbar along the river a wild mustang, probably from Mexico, grazes on the lush vegetation that water provides:

P1100521 Horse

The cliffs that mark the end of the Dead Horse Mountains, and the plateau from which the trail descends:

P1100523 Tent

Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains:

P1100570 S del C sunset

P1100575 S del C Tent sunset

Exploring the side canyons requires a lot more time and days, which I will save for another trip:

P1100603

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):

P1100615

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:

P1100631

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.

P1100643 hawk

Overview of the 14.5 mile long Marufo Vega Trail. The light area of the map without map gradients is Mexico:

Map

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.

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texasflashdude

Photography and Travel, specifically adventure travel and backpacking in remote North America, give me an excuse to stay outside. If kayaks, bikes, backpacks, Jeeps, archeology, geology and wildlife can be included, all the better. Having spent my life working in the fashion and photography industries, I love the unusual, the spectacular, and the beautiful. God has given us a wonderful world in which to live, and I try to open others’ eyes to its wonders. I have shared nearly 50 years of this indescribable wonder with my wife, Jodie, and we go everywhere together. I hope you will share some of our journey with us.

5 thoughts on “Marufo Vega Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

  1. Your photos were so compelling I had to do a bit more reading about the area. I smiled when I got to this section of the Wiki entry: “There are no rivers, paved highways, or towns in the Sierra, which has been called one of the most remote places on earth.”

    I should say so. It’s one thing to read that description, and quite another to see your photos. What an experience.

    I noticed the phrase “sky island” in the description of the area, and did some exploring of that, too. Who knew there was such a thing as a Sky Island Alliance? Well, now I do.

    Just a wonderful post. I’m going to have to work some to get fit enough for an adventure like this, and probably won’t. But I can get fit enough for something a little less challenging.

    1. Thanks for the comments. The Sky Islands are an obscure biosphere group out to the west of us. My favorite place in this area are the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. There are many birds found there that are found nowhere else in the U.S., and it’s very accessible by roads that crisscross the mountains.
      The Sierra del Carmen is quite remote, as your research indicated, but it’s also a reserve set aside as a Mexican National Park. Since it’s just across the river from Big Bend National Park, there has been an ongoing attempt to set up an international park, much like the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park along our northern border with Canada. So far there are too many political obstacles to overcome to make it a reality. Maybe someday.
      As for getting fit, just keep getting out there. I know you do a lot of hiking for your writing and your photography, so don’t write off your ability to take a leap in fitness to get to some less accessible spots…it’s so worth it. At 73, I just backpacked a 69-mile section of the John Muir Trail (unsupported) this past September, and I’m nothing special athletically. I live by the adage, “You don’t quit hiking because you get old…you get old because you quit hiking.” Keep getting out there; your observations are a treasure.

      1. Now I am grinning. Your observation (“You don’t quit hiking because you get old… you get old because you quit hiking”) reminded me of a story.

        While my mom still was alive, I would accompany her to doctors’ appointments. One day, she decided to take a little conversational detour, and asked her doctor, in my presence, just how long I was going to be able to keep working on boats. Shouldn’t I consider a different occupation? The doctor looked at me and asked how long I’d been doing such physical work. When I told him I’d been at it about fifteen years, he looked at Mom and said, “As long as she keeps doing it, she can keep doing it.”

        It’s the same wisdom.

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