Big Bend Nat'l Park

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop Feb 3-7 2009

By Darin Kerr


This is my second visit to Big Bend.  My first visit included hiking most of the high Chisos destinations such as Emory Peak and the South Rim.  As soon as I read about the Outer Mountain Loop (OML), I was convinced it was a challenging hike that I would like to do.  Along the Dodson trail section of the hike, it is said you can go the entire section without seeing a soul.  I found the hike to be quite challenging, but not completely empty of fellow hikers.  The temperatures were moderate the first 2 days, but increasingly warm the last 2.  The warm weather really slowed me down on Day 3 climbing the Blue Creek trail section of the hike.


I always find it interesting to post my original itinerary and then what *really* happened.


Original Itinerary:


Feb 3 – Depart OKC and arrive at park, camp in basin campground.

Feb 4 – Depart basin and hike Pinnacles trail and then down Juniper Canyon trail, camping in the zone camping area.

Feb 5 – Hike the remainder of the Juniper Canyon trail, then the Dodson trail as far as Fresno Creek.

Feb 6 – Hike from Fresno creek, following the Dodson trail to the Blue Creek trail to the Laguna Meadows trail and camp at LW1.

Feb 7 – Hike from LW1 back to basin.  Camp in the basin campground.

Feb 8 – Return home.


In reality, I made some variations from this, and it turned out to be wise choices.  Here’s what actually happened…


Feb 3 Tuesday - Travel day.  I gassed up ($1.79) and left Okla. City around 4am then took the turnpike to Lawton, crossing over into Texas at Wichita Falls.  My next stop was for gas ($1.89) in Abilene.  I decided to take a different direction and ended up going southwest from Abilene, through San Angelo.  I stopped at the Wal-Mart on the west side of San Angelo and bought some last minute food items. 


The drive from Abilene to San Angelo was nice, a few hills with plenty of windmill farms.  From San Angelo, I took Hwy 67 which met with I-10 near Ft Stockton.  I gassed up in Ft. Stockton ($1.89), and then drove due south through Marathon and on to the park.  Total driving time including stops was 12 hours.  I rarely drove more than 65mph the entire way.  I hit a maximum of 70mph in the 80mph zone on I-10.  My car does much better on gas at 65mph (I averaged 35mpg) and it is relaxing knowing that I’m not breaking any speed limits and risking fines.  My Garmin Nuvi performed flawlessly, providing me with accurate arrival times at my various stops.


I arrived at the park in plenty of time to get to Panther Junction and pickup my permit.  The renovated ranger station was really nice, and looked totally different than it did last February.  There was only one guy in line, and the permit process was somewhat short as I had already filled out my solo hiker form.  The ranger asked me some questions about my ability and took pictures of my pack and the sole of my boots with an ancient Sony floppy disk camera.  I got a chuckle out of seeing that museum piece.


I was asked if I was carrying any weapons; I asked if a pocketknife counts.  I felt like I was boarding a plane, not hiking solo in the backcountry.  A firearm would add too much useless weight to a pack anyway.  The ranger reminded me that I needed to turn in my permit upon completion of the hike, otherwise they would have to come to Study Butte to get me and I would have to buy the rescue team dinner and beers. 


I left Panther Junction and decided I’d wait until tomorrow to drop off my cache.  Instead, I headed directly into the basin.  I pulled over at one pull off to take pictures…



… and distinctly smelled burnt clutch.  No, my car is not towing that trailer... I just parked in front of it for a pic as a joke.  However, that smell came at the same time a Jeep passed by on the road, so I wasn’t sure if the smell was my car or the Jeep.  I definitely don’t rest my foot on the clutch, and I don’t allow the engine to bog down.  I never smelled it again during the trip.  I drove on down to the campground and grabbed site #1.  I think the nightly fee is a bit expensive… $14.  Not much else than a covered picnic table and a tent pad.  Well, at least the bathroom was heated.  Only 1 RV was down the hill, and they shut off their generator about 8pm.  2 guys that were just across the drive from me decided to have a conversation that lasted until midnight.  I was too tired to care.  It was a long day behind the wheel, for sure.


Feb 4 Wednesday - I allowed myself to sleep in today.  I was up around 7am, took down camp and then drove out to Homer Wilson ranch to drop off my cache.  The Ross Maxwell drive is one of the most scenic stretches of road in this part of the country.  Every turn of the road you are met with stunning vistas.



When I arrived at the ranch, several vans were there.  A group of volunteers were there to work on the Blue Creek trail.  It was a pretty large group, about a dozen college aged kids.  I wrote my name and date of pickup on my 2 containers, then walked down the path and dropped them off in the bear box.  I was surprised the bear box was a good distance from the actual ranch buildings.


It took me about an hour to organize my pack and double check my list to make sure I didn’t forget anything.  I always have this worry that I’ll get out on the trail and find out I’ve forgotten something vital like a camp stove or sleeping bag. 


I finally got on the Pinnacles trail at 11am.  As usual, views back to the north are dominated by Casa Grande:



Just before I reached the summit of the trail, you see this monolith:



The hike to the Toll Mountain campsite took exactly 2 hours, so I stopped there and ate some peanut butter crackers and downed some Gatorade mix.  Gookinaid or powdered Gatorade are definitely a must have for me.  Amazing how much more energized I feel after drinking some.  Another bonus is it can mask the taste of filtered water.  Now if they could just figure out a way to make water taste ok coming from a camelback bladder.


I met a group of 7th graders on a field trip and spoke with their leaders for a bit.  A guy about my age from Dallas crested the trail and I hung around and chatted with him as well.  Before I knew it, an hour had passed.  I needed to make some mileage.  After I passed the trailhead for Emory Peak, I was on trails I had never hiked before.  I soon thereafter got my first good view of Juniper Canyon:



In a few minutes, I passed the corral. 



It didn’t look like it has seen much use lately.  A fairly worn path zig-zagged down the hill, but there was no sign saying where it leads.  Was this the Juniper Canyon trail?   I kept checking my GPS and map as I knew the trailhead was nearby. 


I finally came across the sign for the Juniper Canyon trail and immediately headed UP (?)  Who designed this trail?  Have they ever thought of using switchbacks?  The rough rocky steep trail combined with the altitude had me stopping every 50 yards or so to catch my breath.  Finally, the trail began to descend as it should.  I came across the Juniper Canyon campsite, and investigated.  I was told there should be water down below the camp.  There was several use trails branching out from the camp, but neither one seemed to lead to any water source. 





It was nearing 3pm, and I knew I had quite of bit of distance to cover to get into the zone camping area in Juniper canyon.


I passed what appeared to be a zone camping spot…



… but after checking my GPS and map, I was too far west and too high to be in the open zone area.  A young hiker in his early 20’s passed by saying he was doing the OML over 2 nights.  The speed he was walking, I bet he had no trouble doing it.  He also mentioned he saw 2 cubs and the mother bear near the corral.  I must have walked past that area not 15 minutes before he passed that corral and saw nothing.


I had about 2 more hours of daylight and I figured the closer I got to Dodson trailhead, the easier tomorrow would be.  I passed through some sections of the trail where the grass was over my head.  What ran through my mind was what would happen if a wildfire erupted?  There was a lot of very dry vegetation all through Juniper Canyon.  Active fire suppression can lead to far worse fires.


About 6pm, I finally stopped at an open spot at about 4300 ft elevation.  Someone had created a fire pit with rocks.  I debated camping here, in case a ranger came by and assumed I created the fire pit.  But since this trail was virgin territory to me, I wasn’t sure what else I would find ahead.  I only had about 30 minutes of light left, so I decided to camp here for the night…



Great views from this campsite of the mountains on each side of Juniper Canyon:




From my calculations, I figured I had about an hour of hiking to reach the Dodson trail head.


Tonight’s meal was Mountain House spaghetti with meat sauce.  It’s one of my favorites for some reason.  The moon was out and lit up the desert below.  I turned in about 8:30pm and read my book for a while before finally going to sleep.  Temperature dropped into the 40’s which was perfect for my 20F sleeping bag.


Feb 5 Thursday – Since my original plan was to only hike as far as Fresno Creek, I didn’t bother setting my alarm.  I woke up about 7:30 when the first rays of sun began to hit my tent.  What a view looking towards the southeast:



I broke camp and headed SE down the trail at 9am.  At 9:45am, I made it to the trailhead at the Dodson trail:



I was pumped as I was much closer to my goal than I thought.  I figured I wouldn’t see a soul for the rest of the day.  The parking lot at the trailhead was deserted, but there were very fresh vehicle tracks. 



Nice view looking back towards Juniper Canyon from the first part of the Dodson:



No sooner than I headed along the Dodson trail, I met a group of 4 trail workers who were clearing brush along the trail.  I asked them where they camped, and they said they camped at Rice Tank.  Seems like a long way to travel to get from camp to the work area.  The last worker I met along the trail assured me I would find water at Fresno Creek.  That was great news, as I was down to about 3 liters of water.


The Dodson was much steeper than I ever imagined by looking at contour maps.  Many of the climbs are fairly short, but not many utilize switchbacks.  Going down the loose slopes was as hard for me as going up.  I slipped several times, but fortunately never fell down.


In many places, the thorn bushes were so dense that I had to hold up my hiking poles like vertical deflectors to push the thorns away from my legs.  Luckily, I had left the legs on my pants, saving me from a lot of scratches.  In several spots, the thorns were higher than me and these really slowed me down.  I was wearing REI nylon pants which are pretty tough.  I didn’t get a single tear in them.  I was also wearing nylon gaiters which helped keep the thorns from catching my shoelaces.  The only drawback of the pants and gaiters is they are hot.  My pants were so soaked with salt by the end of the 4 days, they were stiff.


The eastern section of the Dodson does not afford many expansive views.  All you see is the next ridge, followed by another, etc. 



I passed Dodson spring (dry), and noticed someone had placed this rusty water pail along the trails edge:



You do get some fleeting views of Elephant Tusk Mtn:



Fresno creek was my next stop.  I crested the ridge overlooking it and the first thing I saw was a dry wash.  I was somewhat panicked at this, considering by this point I had less than 1 liter of water.  However, the further down the hill I went; I began to see water trickling through in places.  This was a sight to behold!  I got out my water filter and pumped 8 liters of water.  The filtered water had a somewhat funky taste to it, but I suffered no ill effects.



(The water did make my Katidyn Hiker Pro filter smell pretty funky, even after airing it out overnight.)



Sidenote:  even though the Dodson trail was narrow and steep, it was well cairned.  Someone would have to really not be paying attention to get off trail.


It was only about 2pm and I got out my map and did some thinking.  Since I could legally camp anywhere along the Dodson trail tonight, I thought I would try and make as much distance as I could, which would make tomorrows climb up Blue Creek shorter and more enjoyable.  I am glad I made this choice.


Not long after I left Fresno creek, I came upon the intersection of the Elephant Tusk trail.  The trail was heavily overgrown and looked like it hadn’t seen a hiker in months.  I crossed the remnants of a barbed wire fence…



… but other than that saw no other evidence of the ranchers that used to live here.  Either it was covered in vegetation or was far enough off the trail I couldn’t spot it. 


The moon was rising in the east:



I didn’t take as many pictures along the Dodson as I would have liked, as I was trying to cover some ground and didn’t want to make too many stops.


After slogging through the fine gravel of Smoky Creek for what seemed an eternity, I came across a sign and 4 large cairns.  I headed up the short climb and found a great camping spot with a view of an unnamed peak of 5917 ft just to the southeast:



It was about 5:30pm and I figured I had covered enough ground for today.  No sooner had I setup my tent, I heard voices.  I looked down Smoky Creek and saw a group of 3 hikers coming up that trail.  We exchanged greetings, and they headed west on the Dodson trail. 


Temperature was very mild that night, probably barely dropped into the mid 50’s.  The sleeping bag was almost too warm to be comfortable tonight. 


To protect my food on the Dodson, I used a Ratsack which is basically a steel mesh bag with a Velcro enclosure.  I did nothing more than lay it over a bush near my tent each night:



Feb 6 Friday – In retrospect, today was one of the most challenging hikes - both physically and mentally.  High pressure definitely was in command today, with daytime temps reaching 80F.     


I broke camp and was on the Dodson trail headed west just after 8am.  I crossed the first ridge and spotted the 3 hikers I saw the previous night camped about 50 yards off the trail.  They appeared to be preparing to break camp. 


After about 45 minutes of hiking, I came to the saddle which offered the expansive views looking across the west half of the park.  Santa Elena canyon was clearly visible in the morning light:




Some folks with too much time on their hands built these cairns:



By about 9:30am, the Dodson trail finally began turning to the north and I knew the ranch couldn’t be much further.  By 10am, I finally spotted the bear box on the trail leading to Homer Wilson Ranch.  From this direction, you spot the bear box before you see the roof of the ranch house.  I dropped off my pack in the ranch house.




It appears some recent (?) work was done to shore up the roof on the ranch house.


I then walked up to the bear box to pickup my cache:  1 gal of water, and a small bag with a couple of Mountain House dinners and some assorted trail snacks.  I took about an hour break there while I reorganized my pack and refilled my water containers. 


I probably should have cached 2 gals of water, but hindsight is always perfect.  I had about 4.5 liters of water in my pack when I reached my cache, and left with a full load of about 7 liters.  It was about 11am and quite warm in the midday sun.


The first several miles of the Blue Creek trail utilizes the normally dry wash of Blue Creek, and it was very slow going slogging through the pea-sized gravel of the stream bed.  It made me wish for the firmer trail of the Dodson (even with the thorny plants).  There were plenty of cairns, so it would be very hard to get lost on this trail as well. 


I passed the Red Rocks area of the trail:




The heat was increasing as I climbed, and I found myself stopping for brief rests in patchy shaded areas.  Those areas were becoming scarcer as I continued up the canyon.  I ran into a couple hiking downhill to the ranch, and exchanged trail conditions.  Not long after that I came across an interesting cave along the canyon wall.  A rough trail led up to it, but I wasn’t in the mood to do more climbing:



I was finding myself getting overheated, so I decided to find a shady spot and heat up some water for a Mountain House dinner.  I figured some real food with fluids followed by a short nap would perk me up.  I was so tired after I ate, that I just laid right down on the fist sized rocks in the dry wash and went to sleep. 


No sooner than I had awakened from my nap did I hear the crunch of boots coming downhill towards me.  I was met by a pair of volunteer rangers.  They were doing a key exchange with another ranger that was hiking up Blue Creek.  My permit was requested, and I turned my pack around so it could be read.  They asked me a few general questions, which I assume is to assess my mental alertness in case I was having trouble with the heat.


I still had about 1400 ft of climbing to do, so I set my GPS to display altitude and I would check it periodically to judge how much further I needed to go to reach the Laguna Meadows trail junction.  My Garmin 60csx batteries were getting low, so I swapped them out for a fresh set of Sanyo Eneloops.  I got about 20 hours of usage out of a set of rechargeable batteries, which is right in line with specs.


Once you leave the shade of the trees, the upper section of the Blue Creek trail is quite brutal.  Here’s a nice view looking back southwest:



I knew it wasn’t too much further when I could make out the antenna on top of Emory:



The trail switchbacks face southwest, making for a very hot and steep climb.  I do believe I was saying a few choice cuss words by the time I finally came across the sign for the BL1 campsite.  I knew that once I passed that campsite, the trail intersection wasn’t far away.  I cannot imagine anyone attempting this trail in summer during midday.


I felt relieved once I was on the Laguna Meadows trail, knowing I was done climbing for the day.  The trail felt like a superhighway compared to the trails I had covered over the past few days.  I passed the composting toilet then took the spur trail that led to the Laguna West campsites.  I’d like to thank the member (TheWildWestGuy) on that recommended the LW1 campsite.  It was perfect for a single tent and had a few pine trees for shade.  Views of Emory Peak were inspiring. 



In addition, the campsite is several hundred yards off the main trail and was very secluded and quiet. 



I did see a large mound of bear scat right on the spur trail to LW1, but never saw any bears.


I had drunk 6 liters of water today, leaving me with 1 liter to get me down to the basin.  I figured that would be plenty considering the basin was only about 3.3 miles away.


Feb 7 Saturday – I woke up around 5:30am and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I read my book for a bit then began breaking down camp around 6:30am.  The temperature last night must have never dropped below 60F, as I was sweating in my 20F bag.  I kept peeling it open until I’d get a chill, and then pull it back over.


The Laguna West 1 campsite was a bit exposed to wind, but offered awesome views of Emory Peak.  Both sunset with the mountain almost glowing orange and the sunrise coming around Emory was well worth it.



I broke camp and was on the trail about 8am.  I was only a few hundred yards from the campsite when I saw a beautiful male deer, with an 8 to 10 point rack on his head.  The rack looked pretty ragged, making me think he had been in a number of fights with other males.  There is a section of the spur trail covered in buffalo grass (?):



The hike down the Laguna Meadows trail to the basin only took about 90 minutes. 


Just my luck, a group of 4 college aged girls were beginning their hike and they cheered me as I finished.  I think I picked up the pace a bit just to show off!


The first thing I did when I got to my car was pop open the rear hatch and grabbed a Monster drink from the cooler.  It wasn’t ice cold, but anything tasted better than plasticky water from a Camelback. 


After unloading my gear, I took my permit over to the ranger station and dropped it off; telling the ranger on duty that there was still flowing water at Fresno Creek.  I guess I won’t be buying the rescue crew a round of brews in Study Butte after all!


I felt pretty lucky that I completed the OML without any injuries other than a few very minor scratches and one very large blister on the ball of my left foot.  My shoulders were a bit sore, but nothing major.


Tonight I was supposed to camp in the basin.  I thought about it for about 1 second.  I said to myself I should try and get a room at the Lodge as a treat for completing the OML.  I cleaned up a bit in the bathroom at the ranger station, changed shirts and walked up to the office.  They had a room available for $116/night.  I agreed, as a real bed and a warm shower sounded pretty good after 4 days on the trail. 


What good is a celebration without a Chisos Cheeseburger?  I went over to the restaurant and ordered one.  That hit the spot, for sure!   I stopped back by the desk, and they handed me the keys to room 114, which is up the hill away from the parking lot.  I made one last stop at the lodge store and bought me some real 6 point beer.  A beer sure tasted good after the last 4 days.  The room was very quiet and I could sit on the porch and look to my right and see Casa Grande looming over me. 



Feb 8 Sunday –


Instead of driving out the north exit of the park, I decided to take somewhat of a detour and drive out the west exit…



…then north to Alpine, TX.  It was a very scenic drive, passing through some ruggedly beautiful peaks with some early morning low-level cloudcover:



The wind was hitting 40 – 50 mph almost the entire way home.  I drove through some pretty intense dust storms near Odessa/Midland.  The wind did help fuel economy, as I logged 39.7 mpg on one tank.  I filled up at Alpine, and made it all the way to just west of Wichita Falls before refueling.


Would I do the OML hike again?  Hmmm… I’ll have to think on that one, as that was pretty grueling, even spread out over 3 nights.  Squeezing that into 2 nights would have been even tougher.

Thanks for reading my trip report...  any questions or comments please send to