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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Road Trip-Thanksgiving 2014 – Post 1 of 8 – Drive from Austin,TX to El Paso, TX and drive from El Paso, TX to Phoenix, AZ

This is the first in a series of 8 posts, not including the introductory post.

1. Drive from Austin, TX to El Paso, TX and drive from El Paso, TX to Phoenix, AZ (Day 1,2)

Day 01- 11-21-2014 -> Austin, TX to El Paso, TX

I had already fueled my car and packed my stuff the day before and loaded it into my car. So I was prepared, and wanted to leave early in the evening directly from work to save some time, and to try and miss the traffic on Loop 360 in the evening. I managed to leave around 4:45 pm.

My Destination was a motel in El Paso, TX and according to Google maps, it was 567 miles away and would take me ~ 8 hours to get there. I would have expected to reach around 01:00 am Austin time, which I found out was 02:00 am in El Paso, TX.

The route was to get to RM 2224/ Bee Caves Road, on to 71, on to RM 3238, 12, W Hwy 290, 281, 290, I 10 and keep driving on I-10 till you reached El Paso. Google Maps was doing some crazy things right after I started where instead of showing 8 hours, it kept saying 10 hours. I was’t sure if it had the right route, so I had to stop at a Chevron on RM 2224, and make sure I had the right route before I headed on. With 8 hours, and sun going to set pretty fast, I didn’t have any plans of seeing any thing on the way. Also, since I had to do the driving duties, I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping less and visiting more places, or the time before hand to plan properly to stop at National Parks/ State Parks/ Historic Sites …etc. I think I’ll have to keep that for another time.

By the time I hit Hamilton Pool road (RM 2238), it began pouring suddenly, and pretty heavy at that. My visibility was pretty badly reduced. It rained for the next one hour or so – not the ideal way to start on a road trip. 🙂 The Lyndon B Johnson State Park and Historic Site on Hwy 290 would be something I’d like to visit – but it’s close enough to Austin that I should be able to do it on any weekend. Fredericksburg was also pretty interesting to see – again close enough to Austin to do any time, so I’ll not feel too bad about not stopping there.

Other places I might have been interested to stop at: South Llano River State Park, Caverns of Sonora and McDonalds Observatory. Big Bend seems out of the way, and too close to Mexico, but I’d want to do it some day.

The MobilyTrip app crash caused the data to get wiped out, so I’ll have to look for the fuel bill or a photo I took to see where I was stopped. Found it from a photo to be Fort Stockton, TX. Interestingly at the gas station, the gas was just being filled as I got my coffee and came back out. It’s amazing that gas stations can run out of gas – good thing they don’t need to go anywhere 🙂

Near El Paso, I 10 runs pretty close to Mexico. But like someone remarked about the drive, it was pretty uneventful, boring long stretch – the only exciting thing about which is the high speed limit. I guess I didn’t lose much by driving after sunset – no views, vistas …etc.

Transcript from Journal Entry recorded on Voice Recorder 01:11 am Mountain Time:

05:30 pm rain stopped. 06:30-06:45 pm, reached Fredericksburg, TX. 07:30 pm hit I-10. Speed limit was 80mph. Decent amount of traffic – not alone on the road. Dead carcasses of animals on the sides of the road. Already dark. Deer carcasses on the sides. One wolf like animal crossed the road in front of me. Should have been able to stop if it had stopped on the road. Another animal came out from the left side, (i.e., the median side) peeked out and then went back in. I was a little surprised to see animals come from the median side of the road. Good thing I was driving with high-beam on. 08:00 pm had a bread slice from morning left in the car. 09:15 – 09:30 pm stopped for gas and Subway. Subway was closed. Google maps was giving wrong directions to the open Subway. Had to check with someone, who was able to direct me to the right place. Fueled the car, and got coffee. Maybe started around 10:00pm – search for Subway cost me some time. Half an hour’s stop including the fueling and dinner. Had half the sub. 270 miles left to El, Paso. On reaching Ramada El Paso, check in clerk took his own time to get me checked in. He did make a remark about how he has interestingly never been to Austin, but been to California instead. When asked where he was from, he was from El Paso. Pretty funny if you think about it. He also made a remark about not stopping at any of the smaller towns on the way and how they could be dangerous. I should read up on that. Went to the room, wolfed down the remaining half a sub, and hit the bed. The room itself was pretty ok – nothing fancy. But I was tired and just wanted to sleep.

Some research on animals one can spot on I-10:

http://www.texasalmanac.com/topics/environment/wildlife

Can’t really say what animals I spotted apart from deer. There were at least a couple more.

 Day 02- 11-22-2014 -> El Paso, TX to Phoenix, AZ

This was a drive I undertook eagerly, since I’d get to be back in Tempe and Chandler, where I have lived for the past 3+ years. The only small disappointment was when I found out that El Paso was also on mountain time, and I wouldn’t gain any time magically when I arrived at Phoenix. The breakfast at Ramada was alright. They had boiled eggs, bread, cereal …etc and the quality of food was pretty ok. I took some coffee to go for the road.

To Do: Add More on Day 02, check to see if there is a recorded journal – add it’s transcript. Add some photos.