Big Bend National Park – Outer Mountain Loop – Backpacking

Resources/References:

http://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/bc_outermountainloop.htm

http://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/oml-itinerary.htm

The Nat Geo topo map is a very helpful resource. Also I had a book by Laurence Parent – which I kind of skimmed through to get some details.

The Plan:

The NPS Website gives a good itinerary for the Outer Mountain Loop. It’s supposed to be a 3 day 2 night itinerary, and after looking at it closely, reading the top map, and with the South Rim hike under my belt in less than 8 hours and not feeling all that exhausted after that hike, I decided to do the itinerary exactly as it was on the NPS suggestion. I have read in forums that the South Rim hike is probably a better backpacking route for people looking for less of a challenge and more views – I actually agree with this – the South Rim is absolutely beautiful, and you could do the Emory side hike as well. Also, if you did the South Rim, there are established backcountry campgrounds all along. For the Outer Mountain Loop, you’d have to Zone Camp – meaning, locate your own area where you want to pitch your tent. ‘

We did plan to cache water at the bear box near the Homer Wilson Ranch. I was thinking that about 5l per person might cut it till we got to the Fresno creek. On a previous South Rim hike I used up about 750ml of electrolyte mixed water and 2l of water itself. That was also roughly 8 hours and an entire day. So, I was thinking we’d manage with 5l of water each.

For the hike, I had invited a couple of my friends – Vivek, Mihir and Shyam, of which Mihir and Vivek made it while Shyam did not. Shyam had just done the Half Dome hike the week before – and he claims he was recovering from it, although I personally think having done Half Dome, this wasn’t challenge enough for him. 😉 I had most of the equipment required, and even had some spare stuff, so in terms of equipment we would be fine.

Food Planning:

Instant noodles is always a good option. Mountain-house type freeze dried meals are good, but vegetarian options are hard to come by, not to mention the food is real expensive.

After doing a lot of research as to how much calories we would need considering we would be backpacking, and how much weight we would ideally want to carry, I narrowed down in Idahoan Mashed Potatoes , Knorr Instant Rice, Noodles for Lunch and Dinner and some Muesli and Instant Oatmeal for breakfast, Apart from this, I carried some Hot Cocoa, coffee powder, milk powder and Stevia. Also, trail mix for 3 days and about 6 cliff bars each. We finally decided to make one meal Indian and carried Paneer Butter Masala and Pulav 🙂 from MTR. Basically dip in boiling water and eat. These are heavier to carry, but hey, at least one meal needs to be good 🙂

Water Planning:

I carried a 3L bladder for water and 2 750ml Polar bottles for water-electrolyte mix. I generally use Powerade mixes with water. I don’t like the sugary Gatorade bottles, but electrolytes are essential while hiking.

Weight Planning:

A lot of work also went into weighing each common item and making sure everyone was roughly carrying the same weight. I didn’t want people to grumble at the end of the hike and feel they carried more than others 🙂 To make sure everyone believed in the fariness of the system, I had a luggage weighing scale – with which to weight the packed backpack before the hike. All of us averaged around 35 pounds, with some variation of course. 35 pounds with good packs and with hiking poles to  support the weight during climbs is generally pretty decent. It’s not ultralight, but it’s not heavy either, unless you are really scrawny.

We did carry a bear-canister just in case. Most of the weight was from the packs, the sleeping bags/pads and the tents. I had to leave behind my camera and my pillow! because they would contribute another 500gms. 🙂 When you tack on a pound to 35+ pounds, every pound matters, and wants become needs very quickly.

Execution:

Some things fell apart quickly 🙂 I would have ideally wanted to leave around 5pm on Friday, reach Big Bend around 12am, 1am ish, sleep for 5-6 hours and start the hike on Saturday morning at 9am sharp. The Visitor center opens at 8:30 in the Chisos Basin, and you’d need to get backcountry permits before heading out on the hike. So leaving before 9 would not have been possible.

I picked up Mihir in the morning, and he didn’t get much of a sleep the previous night either. Vivek’s flight landed only after mid-night – thanks to it getting delayed. After some thought, Mihir and I decided we would pick him up, and whisk him away directly to Big Bend without coming back home. I did get a  good night’s sleep the previous day, and was reasonably fresh, so I was confident of driving without feeling sleepy. We left a little after mid-night, stopped for a coffee, and started on the drive. As always, there were loads of deer on the road, and one of them decided to cross the road right in front of the car – thankfully I was alert enough and managed to slow down/brake. Next up there were a couple of raccoons in the middle of the road, and when they saw a car approaching, they were pretty much frozen, and didn’t move. I had to bring the car to a stop to avoid hitting them. Thankfully there were no cars behind me. Another raccoon did cross the road in front of me, and I managed to avoid it as well. I can unfortunately not say the same for toads. It is entirely possible that I ran one or two over. :/ It was beginning to rain pretty heavily now, and we hadn’t yet made it to I-10. We finally made it safe to I-10 without contributing to the road-kill. I-10 is a little better in terms of road-kill than the 293 highway is. It was a pretty uneventful drive except for the rains. I had to drive at or below speed limit for most of the time. (which sounds entirely normal, but I do like to go a little above to make up for time 🙂 )

Day 1: Saturday

We reached Fort Stockton at around 6 in the morning, and by this time, I was a little sleepy. Sun was also almost up, so I decided to let Mihir take over on the wheel, and wanted to catch a little bit of a nap. I had slept some 40 minutes, when Mihir decides to wake me up because there was a guy running on the opposite side of the road, and it looked like vehicles were parked there. Turns out, it was some running event! Dang It! That was all the sleep I got.

We finally got to big bend at around 8am in the morning, and continued driving towards Panther Junction. We went in, got our park permits, and also got our back-country permits. It was at least 09:30 at this point. A lot of areas in the park looked clear weather-wise, but from what I could make out, there were dark clouds right above the Chisos Basin. We were not really prepared for hiking in the rain (Although I was carrying an umbrella and a rain jacket) – and thought that if we arrived at the Chisos Basin, and it was raining, we’d cut our hike short to 2 days, and just camp at the Basin Campground.

By the time we started driving towards the Chisos Basin, it was becoming clear that a hike in this weather would not be possible. We reached the basin campground, and found enough empty campgrounds. Obviously the more sensible people had left the campground in such weather and left to the Chisos Basin Lodge instead. From the campground, we went to the Chisos Basin visitor center, and checked the weather report – the weather report said the obvious – rains throughout the day but the next two days would be clear. Also of concern was that the night time temperatures in the Basin would be in the high to low 40’s (F). In terms of clothing, I wasn’t prepared for cold weather, but my sleeping pad was insulated and I had a sleeping bag rated to 30F (which should be comfortable to about 40-45F). We next checked the Basin Lodge to see if there would be any openings – we would get a good sleep and we would get to keep the equipment nice and dry – but no luck – there were no empty rooms and we were asked to check back after 4.

We went back to the campground, picked a spot, pitched the 2 person tent in the rain – which resulted in the tent floor getting a little wet! Dang it! Next time I should use the cover on top first before laying the tent. I never thought about pitching the tent when it was actually raining. It was also getting considerably windy. We then decided to eat something – so after some poorly made coffee (Hey, not enough milk powder, and no sugar and Stevia instead makes your coffee taste pretty bad.), we made some instant rice, and that wasn’t too bad. The second round of the instant rice was pretty bad, and it got burnt at the bottom. :/ Shucks!

After this, I took a short nap in the tent after wiping the floor with paper towel. I didn’t manage to sleep really, but just lying down on the sleeping pad inside the tent was comforting.

By evening – around 4:30pm, 5pm, the rains had subsided considerably and we decided to go on a small hike – we decided to do the “Basin Loop” which is really pretty small. The trail was fully slushy, and I decided to wear a pair of crocs and carry hiking poles 🙂 The other two got their shoes thoroughly covered in wet mud which was almost clay like. We headed back to the campground, re-pitched the 2 person tent because it caught wind like a sail, and decided to uproot itself from the ground. We also pitched Vivek’s 1 person tent. After this we probably had a coffee in the evening.

For dinner, we made noodles – which tasted quite wonderful after the disaster that was lunch. (Burnt instant rice.) I think we also had a pack of Idahoan after this, and instant mashed potatoes don’t taste all that bad when your out camping. In comparison to us who were cooking on a tiny stove and eating meals that were more about weight and calories than taste, there were others who were cooking way better food!

From my photos, we were done eating dinner and doing dishes by around 8:40pm. We were all tired – since we hadn’t gotten much to any sleep the previous night. We decided to retire to bed early. I did check the temperature a little after going to bed and it was 13 C. Yikes!

Day 2: Sunday

The next morning, I think all of us were up early, but the temperatures outside was not inviting. I checked the temperature on my watch and it read 11 C. We finally decided to wake up and get a move on. After having coffee followed by Instant Oatmeal, we decided to pack up our stuff and head out. I think we were done packing the tents by around 9:10 am. However from my photos by the time we got to the trailhead it was 11:30 am. I can’t tell you what we did in those 2 hours, but that was some rotten execution. I’m sure we packed and re-packed our backpacks, we washed the utensils from breakfast and we all changed into hiking clothes, but still ~2.5 hours for that is unacceptable.

We started the hike around 11:30 from the Basin trailhead. The plan was to take

Pinnacles + Colima + Blue Creek on Day 2 and

Blue Creek + Laguna Meadow on Day 3 to return to the Basin trailhead.

I felt pacing at about 2 miles and hour and taking enough breaks in between, we should be done in about 7 hours, so we should be done around 6:30 pm. Unfortunately, I had not accounted for the heavy packs and the more frequent breaks we took. By 4pm, we had done 5.57 miles and needed to do another 5+ miles before sundown. Initially, Mihir was setting the pace and I was last on the single file. After this point, I wanted to set the pace if we were to make before sun-down. We were walking pretty fast, and I almost missed the Blue Creek trail marker 🙂 Mihir and Vivek were faster hiking down than I was – I like to keep a even heart-rate and don’t rush through on the way down considering also that I am not extremely sure-footed on the way down. Let’s say one of us did end up falling – this is part and parcel of hikes, and as long as it’s a minor fall, we do some first aid, and try and get moving after that. By 6:15 pm, we had done 9 miles, and still had about 2 miles to go. At the pace, we would be cutting it fine with respect to the sunset. The other two were pretty tired by this time.

Bear Spotting!

At around 6:45, we spotted a bear not too far away from the trail. Trouble was, the trail was headed right where we spotted it. After stopping on our tracks, we decided to carry on with caution after the bear went into the mountains. We crossed this point armed with hiking poles and stones 🙂 (and knives of course – if it came to that.) Thankfully, the bear never showed up after that. Having seen the bear, and with the sun almost setting on us, I had to literally jog to make sure we camped by sunset.

We reached the Homer Wilson Ranch by 7:30 pm. We were too tired to head to the bear box and come back down. We decided we would cook food, eat, pitch out tents for the night, and then consider stowing our food away at the bear box. We all had enough water in person for the cooking and drinking at night, so we didn’t need to use the water from the cache yet.

We had some hot cocoa, and then after cooking and having delicious Pulav and Paneer Butter Masala, and having pitched out tents, we headed out to wash the utensils. After washing utensils, we wanted to take the food and trash to the bear box, but in the dark, even with flashlights, we couldn’t find the trail leading to the bear box. So, we decide to put the trash in a plastic bottle, and the food in the bear-canister that we had carried, and leave it nearby. After this, we all retired to bed for much needed rest.

Here’s data from the hike:

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 12.11.30 AM

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 12.11.00 AM

Day 3: Monday

I woke up again at around 7am, but it was too cold outside. After some time, I decide to go dig myself a cathole 🙂 Wasn’t all that bad or big deal. The trowel did come in handy. After the others had woken up, we took stock of the situation, and decided we would not hike back to the Chisos Basin campground. I personally wanted to do the hike, and would have at least wanted to do the hike without carrying some of our gear out, but in the end I decided it was best not to push anyone.

After having noodles for breakfast 🙂 followed by some bad coffee, Mihir walked to the road near the bear box, hitched a ride to the Basin campground and got the car back. In the meantime, Vivek and I finished packing all our stuff. We decided to walk up to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Highway and wait for Mihir there. At about 12:30 Mihir arrived back with the car. We hiked down to the Homer Wilson Ranch, collected out packs, and left to the car. Once in the car, we drove the the Pather Junction visitor center, told them we had made it back 🙂 and left. By the time we were outside the park, it was already 2pm. We had to drive to Austin, and by my estimates, we would reach around 9-9:30 ish.

Lunch at Alfredos – Fort Stockton:

We all stuffed our faces with food at this Mexican restaurant. The food was pretty ok, and we were finally having decently cooked meals after more than 2 days, so that was a welcome relief.

Almost Running Out of Fuel:

At around 6pm, I noticed that I was almost out of gas! I was hoping and praying that a gas station exit would come some time soon. Thankfully Ozona was close by – we finally reached the gas station with the Car Range reading 0 miles! Yikes!

I got myself a coffee, told the attendant their Gas Station was a Godsend 🙂 and we hit the road again. By the time we were done with the I-10 stretch, the sun had set again. I hate driving on 293 at night because of the animals, but we were nearly home and just wanted to get back. Picked up some food on the way, came back home, took nice hot showers after 3 days had dinner, and slept well deserved sleeps. 🙂

Some pics from the hike:

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