Bend It Like Texas: Backpacking in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, Texas
text & photography by Ryan Stikeleather

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Hindsight is 20/20

There are two important things that I learned on my hike in Big Bend:

  • Never leave your camera behind
  • Always leave your preconceptions behind

Big Bend is not a National Park I ever planned on visiting. I had heard about it. I had even heard good things about it. But, it's just so far away...and in the desert...and it's hot. I don't like hot. I'm a winter kind of guy. I like the cold and the snow. My idea of high temperatures is anything above 72°, and Big Bend is most definitely above 72°.

Just the Facts

  • Location: Big Bend National Park, Texas (out in the middle of nowhere)
  • Trail: South Rim Trail
  • Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
  • Elevation Gain: 2395 ft.
  • Distance: 11.9 mi. (loop)
  • Trail Use: Hiking, Backpacking, Camping
  • Trail Condition: Well maintained and clearly marked
  • Bring Your Dog: No
  • Fees: $25 vehicle entrance fee (good for seven days) $12 backcountry camping fee
  • Access: Open Year Round
  • Big Bend National Park map

Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, and like most deserts the temperature can be swealtering during the day and freezing at night. For this very reason, I picked March as my trip date. The weather was perfect! This would be my first solo hiking/camping trip in fifteen years. Not that I haven't been camping/hiking in fifteen years, but I've done all of them with my wife and daughter. I've always had somebody to share the trip with. I wasn't sure if I would enjoy it as much without my family.

Wait! I Thought You Never Wanted to go to Big Bend?

So, if I never planned on going to Big Bend, how did I get there? Great question. I just so happened to be in San Antonio, TX for an extended period for work and thought this would be a better use of my time than sitting around wishing I was home. Plus, it's a National Park. They don't just pick some random spot and hope people will like it. I started to do some research and what I read sounded good. It is one of the least visited National Parks, but not because it doesn't have anything to offer. Ok, things are sounding better, but it is still not a sure bet just yet. I had the time, so why not make the best of it with a weekend trip. The trip west, from San Antonio to Big Bend, would take about seven hours (and that is just to the parking lot). I got up the next morning and was on the road by 4:45 am. I should have left earlier, but I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was dreading the long drive and not sure that I even wanted to go. But, I put my lazy thoughts aside and went for it.

I’ll skip over the drive…let’s just say it was boring.

I arrived at Big Bend around 11:30am, and made my way right over to the backcountry camping permit office. All backcountry camping in Big Bend requires a permit. I was glad I had read this ahead of time or I would have just started hiking. A pleasant NPS employee greeted me and helped me pick my camping spot. There was only one other group camping and I pretty much had my choice of camping sites. She recommended SW4 (best spot on the South Rim!) and got me on my way. A large portion of the Southeast Rim Trail is closed February-May due to Peregrine Falcon nesting. Luckily, I knew about this as well, so I was pleased with my campsite selection.

I should also mention that there is no water in the backcountry. Well, at least not water that you would want to drink. So, come prepared. I packed in two liters of water plus two 32 oz. water bottles. This was just enough, but if I had run into trouble, I would have run out. So, don't skimp on the water.

Switchbacks: A Love/Hate Relationship

The route to South Rim is a giant loop and you can choose to take Pinnacles Trail or Laguna Meadows Trail. I took the Laguna Meadows Trail, which works its way around the Western edge of the Chisos Basin. The trail winds up and up a little over four miles and passes through many shady areas. In fact, it had a lot more forest than I was expecting. When your hot and tired the cool shade of the trees is hard to beat. And, yes, lots of switchbacks. This is when the trail really starts to kick your butt. It felt like several miles worth and was the toughest part of the hike.

Time to suck wind on one of the many switchbacks

The steady climb up the hillside and multiple switchbacks started to slow me down. I rested on the trail more than I would have liked, but I also stopped to take pictures as well. I used picture taking as an excuse to stop and take a break more than I would like to admit. The trail gains nearly 2000 ft. in elevation over the four miles and passes through open meadows of tall grasses, before finally connecting with South Rim Trail. Once on South Rim Trail you get a break from all the switchbacks and get your first views of the valley below. The hike was going well, the weather was pleasant with a nice breeze. I couldn’t have asked for a better day to hike. Several groups passed me going down, but I had most of the ascent all to myself. I had hoped to reach my campsite (SW4) by 4 pm. And I made it by 4:30 pm, not too bad.

So, You Did Have A Camera!

Yes. I had my phone, which does have a camera. The best camera is the camera you have with you. But, I could have had such better pictures! I was worried about the weight from all the extra water that I convinced myself I didn't need my DSLR. And, I didn't think there would be anything worth taking a picture of. That was a big mistake and I will never go on a hike without it again. I'm not saying you can't get great pictures with your phone. It is just something I wish I had thought through.

Amazing Sunrise from the South Rim Trail

I set up camp and explored my surroundings before finally going to the rim to check out the view. The view from the top is stunning! I actually gasped. Perfectly silent, no one around…not even a breeze. Standing on the edge, a thousand foot drop below, you can see for hundreds of miles. The valley is filled with an endless number of peaks that stretch in all directions, highlighted by the warm glow from a setting sun. I had not felt this isolated in a long time. I sat up on the rim for about an hour just taking in all the my surroundings. If you could transport yourself back in time thousands of years, I bet it would look exactly the same. This is why I wish I had my camera. I just don't think I have the right words to express how beautiful the view is from the rim.

SW4 campsite on South Rim Trail

As night fell, I was anticipating the opportunity to see some stars. The big city lights of San Antonio make it difficult to stargaze and I couldn’t wait to see the Milky Way again. Big Bend is know for being free of light pollution. According to the official website, it has the least light pollution of any other National Park in the lower 48 states. However, shortly after sunset the wind started to pick up and some clouds rolled in. Plus the moon was bright, almost full, making it difficult to see what I was after. I turned in and set an alarm with the hope of seeing some stars later on. The wind never stopped, blowing hard against my tent, and only picked up as the night went on. I poked my head outside a few times and gazed up…nothing but heavy clouds. Disappointed about missing the stars, and with the strong winds, I had trouble getting back to sleep. I crawled out of my bag few hours later, break down my camp and hit the trail.

Who Needs Preconceptions Anyway

I began my descent through Boot Canyon Trail. Even though the wind was still strong and sustained, I wanted to enjoy the early morning glow and cover a good distance before the sun was high in the sky. Boot Canyon Trail felt like a different place altogether. The open fields of tall grass and thick forests were replaced with dark grey rocks and water worn creek beds hedged by canyon walls. This section of the trail reminded me of another hike I took at Lost Maples State Natural Area. The hard rock path collected small pools of water. If any wildlife were around this would be the spot to see them. I hiked in solitude again until the junction for Emory Peak. The trail was all downhill from this point and I only passed three couples on the way to the parking lot. I wanted solitude and the Chisos Mountain Trails provided this almost the entire time.

Along Boot Canyon Trail

Now that I was there, seeing this incredible environment, I started to realize how narrow I had allowed my world to become. Big Bend National Park is a place I would never have thought to go to just because it was far away. But it gave me everything that I was looking for; solitude, peace and quiet, a challenging trail and a spectacular vista isolated from the rest of the world. Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the lower 48, and that's too bad. There are few places that I would recommend going out of your way to see, but this is one of them.