Big Bend Day 2: Texas Forever

In my experience, there are two kinds of park rangers: the ones who are like “yeah climbing that bear-infested mountain is no big deal you’ll be fine,” and the ones who seem to take it as a personal mission to scare people before sending them out into the backcountry. At Big Bend Ranch State Park we get the latter.

It didn’t help that for various reasons I trusted Toby to do all the research for this trip. So I have no idea what we are in for and when the Ranger starts talking about how rugged the trails are and how hard water sources are to find, I start to panic. But Toby looks calm [note: I could literally feel Cyn’s anxiety shifting the atmosphere next to me, so my “cool, no worries” side really kicked in. –Toby], so we make a plan with the ranger to do the ~20-mile Rancherias Loop over three nights (most people do two but we had some time to kill since our original plan was a 50-mile loop). I’m 90% sure he said this is “the hardest trail in Texas.” If not, he said “one of the hardest.” But we are experienced backpackers with an emergency beacon so sure, why not.

We drive about 13 miles west, right along the Rio Grande, looking at this incredible water source in the middle of a vast desert and contemplating the devastation of a wall that would cut wildlife off from that source. I wonder how many people supporting a wall have ever been here, especially when we pass a “Resist! Rednecks for Beto!” sign on the side of the road later in the trip.

We park and head out into the desert, turning away from the river and Mexico and into a wash that winds back into the mountains. We’re in the wash for at least an hour and it is beautiful but a slog, since we are hiking through deep sand with all of our food and four liters of water each. We see cairns up on the ridges on the side of the wash and don’t know if there’s a trail up there to hike on, or if they are just showing us that we are following the right branch of the wash. But we also can’t see how on earth we would get up there to check, so we decide to just keep going the way we’re going since we know we’re headed in the right general direction. . . until we hit a wall of boulders taller than me. I manage to scramble up, but the wash seems to be leading into a closed U of a ridge, and I don’t see any way over that. So now we know what the ranger was talking about.

We hunt around for quite a while and finally I see a cairn out in the distance; we should have taken a right turn a while back. We make our way to that cairn without a trail, but then relocate the footpath when we get to it. Then we are hiking along a plateau and it is beautiful. We can see the road below far in the distance, and can’t believe how far we’ve come. I turn to Toby, mime a beer in my hand, and toast, “Texas Forever” (Riggins, 2006). That becomes our exclamation throughout the day as the desert keeps unfolding beautiful new views in front of us.

Then the trail drops us down the side of a ridge, loose rocks everywhere, making the trail barely distinguishable from everything else around us. We stop many times to check which way we think we should go, trying to guess where we are eventually headed. We can locate ourselves on the GPS on Toby’s phone, but the trail isn’t marked on there. So we try to match up the topographical lines on the GPS with those on the trail map, and this is a mostly successful strategy of figuring out if we are in the right general spot, if not whether we are on the trail itself. [If this trail is one of the hardest in Texas (and that’s what I heard the ranger say too!), it’s because it requires constant vigilance regarding both the rugged terrain and the route-finding. It’s tough physically, but the mental concentration was its own kind of exhaustion. –Toby]

Finally we are back down in another wash and set up for lunch in the shade, enjoying a break from the sun (sun that we would desperately miss the two days after this). Then we are back up and hiking. Trudging through deep sand, stopping to scramble over boulders, hoping that we are still on the trail and not just following the wash because it’s there to be followed.

Eventually the wash stops making sense. Too much scrambling, too much underbrush, no clear place it’s leading to. Then we see a cairn that seems to indicate that we should go right, so we do. And then we see another cairn and another. I spend so much of this trip silently thanking the people who stopped to put up these markers. We also see two people up on a hill maybe a half mile off. That must be the way.

It’s an uphill slog for a while. At one point Toby says, “you are like the little engine that could today!” I ask what he means and he admits that while I’ve been hiking continuously he’s been behind me taking microbreaks. I feel proud since I’m usually slower. And it’s true that I feel stronger than I expected to feel, especially since I came on this trip pretty out of shape. I feel like I can slog forever. I wonder about elevation on previous hikes and if that affects me more than I realized.

After the uphill, we are picking our way down a steep trail that’s basically all scree, trying not to turn our ankles, thinking it might be okay to be done for the day soon. And then we see the casita the ranger told us about off the in the distance, the one that marks Casa Reza spring, the most reliable water source on this trail.

When we finally get there, the two people we saw earlier are coming up the very steep hill from the spring. “Sorry, we took all the water,” the dude jokes. We get down there and it’s a desert miracle. Water is just pouring out of the ground, making a clear running stream that disappears back underground a little bit later. Toby says he’s just going to fill back up to four liters since there is another source on the second day. But the ranger made that sound really hard to find, so I fill up my four bottles and then a two liter bladder that I put in my pack.

We scramble up the hill to the casita, long abandoned. We look through the windows at what is left behind and try to figure out how the hell anyone ever got a huge iron stove all the way out here, when we barely made it with the about 25 pounds we have on our backs [I think I was at about 30lb this first day, since I was carrying all of our food. –Toby].

And then it’s time to find camp. We are between mountains which means it will get cold and dark well before the sun sets for real. The other pair of backpackers has chosen a flat spot with a great view but it’s really exposed. We feel a little superior as we move on to what we imagine will be a more practical tent site, but after hiking a mile on a ridge running along a wash we’ve found literally nothing flat. Except that wash below. Toby and I debate for a long time about whether that’s safe for camping. When we went to Joshua Tree every ranger and sign and map exclaimed “Never camp in a wash!” because of the danger of flash flooding. But there’s literally nothing else and no one has said that to us here so maybe it’s not as dangerous? Toby drops his pack and scouts around trying to get up high to see if he can see anything promising. Nothing flat and lots of spiny underbrush. The wash it is. We find a little spot tucked behind a boulder and hope that will provide some shelter from the wind. Toby sets up the tent while I set up our cold-soak ramen dinner.

I pull up my pant leg and inspect all of the scratches that I got walking through spiny desert bushes and cactuses. At first I was trying to avoid them but that is just impossible here. So instead I spent the day learning which spines grip less than others, sometimes trying to choose the plants with shorter spines or bendier branches over the hard ones with long spikes. Or sometimes on a narrow part of the trail with a steep drop off on one side, I chose to walk through the ones with the huge thorns anyway because the choice is between that and falling off the side of a mountain. Today was really fun and also really hard. I’m glad I get some visual confirmation of that at least. –Cyn

Toby early in the hike, wondering if trudging through all of this deep sand is really necessary.


We did a lot of scrambling up boulders taller than us throughout the hike, but this is the only picture I got.


Texas Forever.
Me on the ridge, just after taking the previous photo.
A cairn helping us find our way. Some were like this, some were a tiny stack of a couple of rocks that you really had to hunt for. Later on there were cairns as tall as us. We appreciated every one.


Me hiking through a wash. Sometime after lunch.


This was the first potential water source, Seep Spring, which we passed up because we knew more was coming. That’s the whole thing on the left, apparently enough to support a stand of cottonwoods that surrounded it. Also pictured are the remains of an unlucky deer scattered on the trail. [This scene was fairly unsettling. –Toby]
Toby taking a break on an uphill climb in the afternoon sun.


Casita in the middle of nowhere.


Toby coming back from scouting out potential campsites. We ended up camping where I was standing.

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