My friend Ken, his son Derek, and his grandson Alec made a trip to Big Bend to hike the classic “Outer Mountain Loop,” a 4-day, 3-night epic backpack journey across the high trails of the Chisos Mountains, down into the high desert south of the Chisos, and finishing at the trail up Juniper Canyon and back into the high Chisos. At least, that was the plan…until a 1300+ acre fire in the high Chisos complex shut down all hiking and camping on the central and eastern sections of the mountains. With the trail closures, we opted to cut the trip a day short and do the hike without the return across the mountains.
Ken, Alec and Derek at the trailhead in the Basin area of the Chisos Mountains. The Laguna Meadow Trail, and connecting Blue Creek Trail, were not affected by the fire, so the first day (and second day) were as originally planned.
We had a great time wandering around together through the desert, an unusually cool trip for this time of the year. This Outer Mountain Loop is not for novice hikers, as it requires a lot of planning to insure adequate water for multiple people. Be sure to use the expertise of the Big Bend National Park staff in making plans for this trip.
For years, I’ve hiked and backpacked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. This is the only mountain range totally contained within the boundaries of any national park in the U.S., so it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an isolated habitat. That said, I’ve gone years between black bear sightings there, and it’s not due to a lack of bears; rather, to an abundance of habitat that is removed from human contact.
But that is changing.
For the past 6 months the trails and remote backpacking campsites have been closed to humans, due to closures for Covid-19. October 1 the backcountry sites were re-opened for backpacking, and I took advantage of the first sites available. I was curious to see if anything in the high Chisos complex had changed with a lack of intrusion by humans, and boy, has it ever. BEARS WERE EVERYWHERE.
After reaching my campsite, a wonderful, secluded site down a side trail in Boot Canyon, I unpacked and set up my tent. It was late afternoon, so I sat on a stump with my book, and unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for a snack. Nothing out of the ordinary attracted my attention, but for some reason I looked up from my book, and to my shock, I was being watched by one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen…a mere 25 feet away, right in my camp…and sniffing the air and licking his chops with an eye on my sandwich:
A beautiful male animal of 300 pounds or more.
He had walked into my camp without making a sound…not a twig snap or a leaf crinkle, his huge paws caressing the ground like cat feet. He watched me with curious interest, and showed no fear when I stood and waved my arms and shouted for him to move on. That’s not a good sign. He slowly moved off through the juniper grove and disappeared. I fully expected him to return in the middle of the night, but thankfully I never saw him again.
I put a bottle of water and my camera into a day pack and headed up Boot Canyon toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, the high rim that drops off into the desert and overlooks the mountains in Mexico. I had gone less than a mile when I walked up on this very large bear in the middle of the trail, having quenched his thirst in the water contained in the tinajas from the last rains. This was definitely not the same bear that came into camp, a slightly different color, but was similar in size.
Very health and fatted up for the coming winter.
A short distance on up the trail in the upper reaches of Boot Canyon, I rounded a corner and walked up on a sow and her cub, just off the trail, drinking from the only dependable water source in this part of the mountains. This is usually a bad scenario, so I was careful not to approach, and certainly to not get near the cub. I worried that the youngster might approach me out of curiosity, but it kept its distance and shortly moved off up the hillside, showing a little fear of me.
A sow and her cub along the trail, drinking and snacking on a sparse crop of berries. One of this year’s cubs, still dependent on mom, but gaining in size.
On the way back to camp I was startled by two rare Del Carmen Whitetail deer. These deer are found only here in the Chisos, and across the river in Mexico in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains. These deer have spent generations among humans on this mountain and have no fear of humans.
The situation with the bears coming down using the trails in the absence of humans is critical. If they lose their fear of people, it’s only a matter of time before a careless hiker feeds them and they begin to habituate to humans as a source of food. Even if no one is injured by the bears, increased sightings and close proximity contact will surely lead to artificial control of the bears through removal or destruction.
The April, 2020, issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine’s cover story spotlights The Big Bend 100, a new 100-mile-long through-hike across the largest national park and the largest state park in Texas…Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The route description is available at www.bigbend100.com.
This month my good friend and longtime hiking buddy Joe joined me to hike several sections of the 50-mile route through the state park. Since both these parks cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Chihuahua Desert, our main concerns were finding water where very little exists, and route-finding through an area of desert where no established trails exist…two factors that have the potential for disaster for the unprepared. In fact, just the day before we started out on the first leg of the route, there had been a search-and-rescue event to save lost hikers on the same trail we were attempting.
From the trailhead, the route crests a ridge and descends 200′ down into a drainage of Leyva Creek, a dry creek bed that drains this section of the mountains:
At about two miles, we find our first water, at a bedrock wall and pouroff across the creek:
A short distance down the creek e come upon another water feature, beautiful deep pools cut into the bedrock by years of flow:
Further along this “dry wash” we spot an igneous “dike,” formed by lava forced up into cracks and fissures in the earth which cools, then is exposed by eons of erosion, with more water pushed to the surface by the bedrock. The many prints in the sand are from longhorn cattle, deer, elk, javelina, desert bighorn sheep, aodad sheep, and the occasional bear or mountain lion:
Our campsite the first night was at the base of a beautiful granite wall, complete with a stream of running water just out our front door:
A short hike down canyon yields more water, not to mention fantastic views of the strata that makes up the interesting geology of this area:
After a beautiful, clear, cool night filled with stars, satellites, constellations, a few meteors and the Milky Way, we awake to the clamoring of the hooves of a group (herd or flock, whichever you prefer) of aodad (barbary) sheep. These are non-domestics imported from Africa years ago for hunting by area ranches, and are now running wild across west Texas, competing for scant resources with native species, such as desert bighorn sheep:
We headed north from camp for a day hike to find the trail that follows Terneros Creek to its intersection with Leyva Creek. Along the way we came upon a small cave that had obvious prehistorical use by native people, near a livestock pen that probably dates to the middle of the last century. We found rock art at the entrance, and the ceiling of the cave was blackened by years of fires burning for warmth and cooking:
Instead of following the designated trail that follows an old ranch road due north, we diverted through a side canyon, an extension of Lava Canyon, that shows on our topo maps to contain water. In fact, it contained LOTS of water:
At the end of the canyon, it turns into a form of “slot canyon” before opening out into Terneros Creek:
After returning to camp, the day hike ended with a cool night under the stars, and a 5.5 mile hike back to the trailhead on the third day. We passed many signs of spring in full bloom, such as these Big Bend Bluebonnets:
From the trailhead at Cinco Tinajas, the route passes the Sauceda Ranch House, now the location of the park interior headquarters, then follows the Leyva Loop ranch road to the Puerta Chilicote trailhead, and the start of the Mexicano Falls Trail which begins the second half of the route, and the remaining 25 miles of the Big Bend 100 through the state park. This section uses slightly more established trails, complete with cairns to aid in navigation:
Some of the flowering cactus along the trail includes rainbow cactus as well as claret cup cactus in bloom:
The trail follows cairns across solid rock until it drops down through a drainage to a spring indicated by telltale cottonwood trees:
At the bottom, a pouroff holds water in small tinajas, which can be filtered to replenish water supplies. This series of tinajas (spanish for “earthen jar”) features a large panel of rock art above a pool:
From here the trail climbs 200′ over a saddle and follows the trail of cairns to a spectacular overlook above Mexicano Falls. This is the second highest accessible waterfall in Texas, and unlike Madrid Falls (which I covered in the previous blog post), it is more intermittent in flow:
My campsite was on a high mesa just past Mexicano Falls, and I was treated to the warm glow of late light:
As if that wasn’t enough, the sunrise next morning was breathtaking:
The views down Arroyo Mexicano, with the “Flatirons” of the Solitario (a round “lacolith” left from the volcanic activity of ancient times) in the distance:
Moonrise over another adventure on the trail:
From Mexicano Falls, you can continue on southeast to the Mexicano Falls Trailhead, then down another half mile to Chorro Vista Camp, where you pick up Chorro Vista Trail which drops down to Madrid Falls. From Madrid Falls follow the Arroyo Primero Trail through Chorro Canyon, past the Madrid Ranch another mile and a half to Fresno Cascades, where you pick up the East Contrabando Trail which follows Fresno Creek for 11 miles to the end of the Big Bend 100 in Lajitas, at the East Contrabando Trailhead, all covered in previous posts.
Little known to most, we have an aquatic wonder right here in the Big Bend, in the Chihuahuan Desert, the driest region in the state. At 100′, it is the highest waterfall in Texas accessible to the public (although not easily accessible). It lies deep in the heart of Big Bend Ranch State Park. I spent a full day riding my mountain bike the 11 miles up East Contrabando Trail to Fresno Cascades, then hiking with day pack the remaining 2.5 miles, with the last mile up Chorro Canyon off-trail up the dry creekbed, then bushwhacking through rock and trees and reeds to one of the most beautiful grottos I’ve ever seen:
After an 11-mile ride on mountain bike up the East Contrabando Trail, accessed from the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, TX, it’s time to hit the trail through Arroyo Primero for 2 1/2 miles, past the Madrid Ranch Homestead (covered in a previous post), then up Chorro Canyon mostly off-trail to the box canyon that features Madrid Falls and its accompanying pools and grotto:
Along the way, I pass the first Big Bend Bluebonnets of the season, growing in the dry creek bed of Fresno Creek. Officially lupinus havardii, this is the tallest of the lupines:
After passing the Madrid Homestead, you will cross a wide dry creek and continue up a well-defined trail to the sign “Primero Trailhead” that marks a hard southerly left turn. Continue on due west up Chorro Canyon:
The trail is faint, then when it disappears, just follow the path of least resistance up the dry creek bed, until you see the first signs of water, flowing from the falls and its pools:
The canyon makes a hard left, up into a box canyon where you get the first glimpse of the top of the falls:
From this point, stay out of the deep drainage and follow a fairly well-defined trail around the right side of the canyon until you begin to hit the lower pools:
From here it’s a matter of bushwhacking your way through reeds, rocks, and the growth that accompanies water until you finally reach the pool at the base of the falls. There is a small upper falls (not visible in this photo, that drops into a small upper pool, then continues over the main falls:
It’s hard to describe how this lush grotto feels when you encounter it in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert after a long, warm, dry 13-mile hike/bike. It’s a true slice of heaven:
After spending lunch here, and re-hydrating from the hike (don’t drink this water unfiltered…animals use this as a water source and it contains bacteria such as giardia), it’s time to enjoy the lower pools on the way back out of the canyon:
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 Creekand 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.”