I took my friend L’Rissa on her first backpacking trip to Big Bend National Park in October 2017. It was an awesome time. We challenged ourselves mentally and physically but we completed one of the hardest things either of us have ever done. We also learned a thing or two about backpacking in a desert.
It’s hard. Bring water. Lots of water. And unless you like making things unnecessarily harder than they have to be, do NOT hike up the Pinnacles Trail. Take the trail counter clockwise and start with the Laguna Meadows Trail. Other than that, take your time and enjoy every step. Because as exhausting and hot and difficult as it is it’s that much more rewarding when you get to the South Rim and look out at the Earth below you. Consider bringing tissues, because more likely than not, you’re going to cry when you see the view.
Before you get to the park, make sure you stop by Marfa, TX (about 1.5 hours from BiBE) to check out the Marfa Ghost Lights. No one knows what the source of the lights are but some people believe they’re ghosts while others say it’s just a reflection of cars and campfires. Check it out and come up with your own opinion of what they could be!
When we arrived at Big Bend National Park we were convinced this was the mountain we’d be backpacking. It wasn’t and I’m still not sure if I’m bummed or relieved about it.
Despite the exhaustion that had overtaken us by this point (~5 miles in) we couldn’t wipe the grins off our faces.
TIP: Always check, double check, and triple check your back country permit to verify that the campground you’re setting up camp at is the one you registered for.
After unpacking, fixing the tent, and settling in for the night we realized we were at the wrong site. Thankfully, the three ladies who actually registered for site NE4 were angels and let us camp out with them in exchange for coffee.
I underestimated the strength of the sun and didn’t pack any sunblock or t-shirts, resulting in a ferocious sunburn, heat blisters – my nose turned into a giant scab for a week, and gear blisters from my 40 pound pack rubbing on my bare shoulders for hours each day. Even so I think our motto for the weekend was, “We earned this.” Every blister was worth it because every step and every switchback we found ourselves looking out at some incredible landscape, overwhelmed with euphoria.
This picture doesn’t do this moment justice. Here I was sitting on a ~1,000 foot cliff on the South Rim, making some of the friends I made along the trail so uncomfortable they had to look away. But me being me, I couldn’t pass up a terrifyingly cool photo-op.
On our second day we were able to leave our packs at our campsite while we made the ~11 mile round trip hike to the top of Emory Peak (8,000′ elevation). Leaving our packs turned out to be a great decision that day because it’s by no means an easy hike, and the last bit of the hike requires you to literally rock climb in order to make it to the top. It was also brutally hot and one 32oz nalgene bottle is not enough water to keep you properly hydrated all day. I can only imagine what that would’ve been like if we made the trek with all our gear. Thankfully, about halfway through the day we came across some day hikers with a little trail magic who gave L’Rissa and me two 16.9oz water bottles each.
If you are reading this and are one of those wonderful humans, THANK YOU.
Since we trekked up the Pinnacles we had a really nice time coming down via the Laguna Meadows Trail. Even though we were in a rush to get on the road to head home, it was an easy enough hike that we got to stop every once in a while to take in the view and enjoy our last couple of hours outdoors before we spent ten hours in a car heading back to the industrial jungle we call home.
Having completed my first ever desert backpacking trip there’s not much I would’ve done differently. I’d definitely pack some tshirts and sunblock and bring a larger water reservoir for my backpack. But other than that, the only thing I’d recommend is spending more time there. There is so much to do and see in the park and there are even cool things to do in the surrounding cities!
The next time I visit I plan to stay for at least 5 days, giving me time to do the Outer Mountain Loop, check out the Marfa Lights for more than a couple of minutes, visit Terlingua, and buy Clay Henry III (the goat mayor of Lajitas, TX) a beer.
Planning a Trip to Big Bend National Park?
You can find all this information on the web, but I’ve summarized it below so you don’t have to navigate through all the different links and pages on the BiBe NP website.
- The entrance fee to Big Bend National Park is $25 for one vehicle with up to 15 passengers . Backcountry permits are an additional $12/permit.
- Call the park if you have questions. Not only will the staff have all the answers but they also know the park like the back of their hand and are full of tips, tricks, and useful information.
- Big Bend National Park does not allow hammocks. There is a contract you must sign agreeing to not use a hammock in the park.
- Big Bend is a desert. Don’t forget your water. It is recommended you bring at least one gallon of water per person per day. There are some streams along the trails but it is not advisable to rely on them as they rarely have water, and when they do they are contaminated with animal feces.
- If you want to camp in the frontcountry and venture onto the trails for day hikes there are a number of campgrounds that you may reserve at least four days ahead of time between November and April/May. Otherwise, all campgrounds are first come, first served
- If you want to backpack and camp along the Chisos Mountains or Outer Mountain Loop trails you cannot order a backcountry permit over the phone or by mail. You must acquire your permit from the visitor’s office in person up to 24 hours prior to your scheduled trip start time.
- If you plan to backpack the 30 mile Outer Mountain Loop you’ll need a 4WD/high-clearance vehicle and about 2.5 to 3 hours to cache your water at Blue Creek/Homer Wilson Ranch and the Juniper Canyon trailhead.
- You DO need a bear canister if you are backpacking the Outer Mountain Loop.
- You DO NOT need a bear canister if you are backpacking along the Chisos Basin.
- Each campsite has a bear- and critter-proof storage container for you to store anything and everything a bear may want to investigate.
- If you arrive to Big Bend NP late at night and find there are no available campgrounds there is an overflow parking lot near the Chisos Basin Campground. Do this at your own risk, but there were a number of people who slept in their cars in the overflow lot overnight so they could be first in line for a campground or backcountry permit. We informed the visitor’s center employee helping us with our backcountry permit of our sleeping arrangement and paid a campground fee for that evening.
- Don’t forget to LEAVE NO TRACE. There are no garbage cans in nature. If you bring it in, pack it out.
- Be safe, stay hydrated, and enjoy the park!
Have you been to Big Bend National Park or seen the Marfa Lights? Have you shared a beer with Clay Henry III? What was your favorite part of your visit to Big Bend? Let me know in the comments below!