Big Bend Day 3: Is This Right?

Miles hiked: ~9

[Sorry for the long, long delay in posting. Spring semester took over!] Just before we fell asleep last night, we poked our heads out of the tent. Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park are both designated “dark sky” sites, and despite the cold night air, I didn’t want to miss any opportunities to stargaze. The last bit of dusk was still fading, but the sky was still inky black, with more stars than I’d ever seen.

In the morning I wake to a suspiciously grey light filtering through the tent walls. A deep, slightly damp cold settled in overnight and is still with us. Cyn slept very poorly in the low temperatures. Shivering, I open the tent and am dismayed to find we’re surrounded by grey clouds. No desert sunrise for me. It takes some significant willpower to change into our cold hiking clothes and pack up.

We head out into the wash. It’s a slog through deep sand in the cold. Every five or ten minutes, we reach a set of boulders or a pile of thick brush and we have to stop to assess. “Is this right?” we keep asking each other, looking for signs that we might have inadvertently gotten off-trail. But we keep finding cairns ahead, so we climb over the rocks (slippery with frost) and push through the brush and keep on. It is very slow going. We pass what is most likely Panther Spring, a medium-size water hole in the rocks, and then reach a more intimidating set of boulders. Hmm. Cyn scouts around and finds the trail above to our right. We bushwack up out of the wash, relieved that we don’t have to climb these boulders, but frustrated to realize that we could’ve been on good solid trail for a while now. [“Good solid trail” is a reach, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the trails we’ve done on steep hillsides in the past have been purposely built flat across, cut into the side of the hill so that what you are actually walking on is flat. Not so in Big Bend Ranch State Park. These trails are just slightly worn paths on the side of the hills. So while I am happy to be out of the wash, feeling like I am going to slide down a few hundred feet if I lost my footing at all is not much of a relief. -Cyn] (At this point I’m pretty sure that there are two sets of cairns sometimes — one for the actual trail and one paralleling in the wash.)

Foggy morning in a wash.

And so we begin climbing — sometimes following the trail easily, sometimes searching for cairns and just making our way over to them however we can. Despite the persistent fog we still get some sweeping views. It’s cold, and the climbing is sometimes steep, and around every curve of a mountain I hope to see the old jeep road, where we’ll turn west. Finally, we arrive at the junction and trade high-fives to celebrate: for the next few miles we get to hike luxuriously on this road, which is relatively flat and requires no stop-and-go route-finding. It’s too cold to take a break at the junction (Cyn observes that the cold misty air has clung to my beard as frost), so off we go.

First climb of the day.
Bird’s nest in cactus near the jeep road junction.

Ah, this is the life. We hike briskly, the road laid out ahead of us as far as we can see, and I let my brain power down a little. The clear trail here is a welcome reprieve from the constant focus we’ve had to maintain to find our way so far. I stash my trekking poles in my pack and pull my sleeves over my icy cold hands, enjoying the easy walking. There’s loads of good camping up here. We break for lunch in a little ditch, trying to stay out of the wind, and then head on until, with a bit of sadness, we reach the end of our time on the jeep road. [Those three miles went by so fast! -Cyn]

Freezing on the jeep road.
Cyn, enjoying the foggy views and easy walking.

Back on “trail,” we travel through a wash for a while (“Is this…right?”) and then climb up a bit to find stands of cottonwoods below. In those trees, we think, is where Rancheria Spring ought to be, our other possible water source. We scramble down and I search all through the woods along a wide dry creek bed. But no water. We must not be in the right spot. I find a tiny mud puddle, where water once was, and think I spy some animal tracks nearby. These woods are officially creeping me out now, and I’m grateful that Cyn insisted on carrying some extra water last night, because it means we have just enough to get us through tomorrow and don’t have to keep searching here. I contritely acknowledge my hubris yesterday (my time in the desert on the PCT definitely made me more cavalier about water, but this trail is no PCT) and thank Cyn for her foresight.

These little silver metal arrows are the only trail markers, and they only appear very occasionally. But quite helpful when you can find them.
Looking down at the cottonwood stands, where we would not find water.

Up again, the last big climb of the day. We’re headed for Lower Guale Mesa, where the topo map indicates potential for lots of flat campsites. We wind along the edge of mountains, sheer cliffs rising up next to us. And then we reach the flat expanse of the mesa, and even with the fog all around, the views are beautiful. It’s flat here, but covered in thorny desert plants and low shrubs, and we split up to find a suitable campsite. By the time we pitch our tent, the wind has picked up, and we’re very, very cold. We make trail pizzas: tortillas, ketchup, pepperoni, string cheese, and kalamata olives. Not bad. I eat mine standing up, hopping from one foot to the other to try to stay warm.

Cliffs surrounding us on the last climb of the day.
Trail pizza (the ketchup is under the pepperoni).

In the tent, wind howls all around us, and we shiver in our quilts, my hands almost too cold to hold my phone so I can read an e-book, even with gloves on. [We are in the tent by no later than 4 p.m. It is just so cold so the exploring and hanging around we expected to do on these short hiking days seems not at all appealing. -Cyn] As the sun sets, Cyn begins to feel frightened by the relentless cold, and I tell her stories from my surprise desert snowstorm near San Jacinto to reassure her. The line between discomfort and actual danger can be hard to assess sometimes, especially when you got so little sleep the night before. But our water bottles aren’t even a little bit icy, we ate lots of calories, and we’re all tucked into our puffy down layers. I lie awake listening to the wind until sleep finds me.

One thought on “Big Bend Day 3: Is This Right?

  1. It’s really interesting to hear how different the experience is on a less-travelled (less-made, less-waymarked, less-hospitable!) trail. Thanks as always for your write ups.


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