Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Photo © Travperk_photo

The Big Bend 100

TPWD trailblazer takes us across two iconic West Texas parks to create the state’s longest backpacking route.

by Ky Harkey

Quitting after just two days would be failure, but my ankle was swollen and my optimism fading. My hiking partner Anna Claire and I were about to begin day three of our nine-day trans-Big Bend hike, a new adventure we dreamed up. Here we were, pioneering the longest backpacking trip in Texas, connecting Big Bend Ranch State Park with Big Bend National Park, and now I was scared I couldn’t make it.

I inventoried our broken bodies. A thorn had made itself at home in my ankle 8 miles ago. I couldn’t tell which of a dozen weaponized desert plants it had come from. My calf now merged seamlessly with my foot, which was reluctant to hold my weight. My wilderness medicine background and a propensity to imagine the worst convinced me that I was nurturing the beginning of a nasty infection.

Anna Claire’s poor feet were decorated with a set of matching blisters, hard-earned from 10 miles of hiking through thick desert sand. Functional feet were an important component of navigating the unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert ahead of us, and we had just one between the two of us.

A beautiful and brutal yesterday brought us to a broken today. Our second day along this Big Bend through-hike was that rare dichotomy of loving an experience while being completely miserable doing it.

And, oh, the beauty we found. Ethereal beauty in the unlikely stream we traced for miles through the desert, the canopy of cottonwoods with their golden leaves hanging on for life, the surprised expressions of wildlife unaccustomed to human contact. The patient beauty of time, stacking geologic layers for millions of years, eventually giving water the opportunity to sculpt the rock into the remote canyons we wandered.

But, oh, the brutality, too. The relentless sand hiking — plodding along on a beach where each step was a fight. The brutal realizations that chipped away at our innocence as the day progressed:

“This is only halfway.”

“Actually, THIS is only halfway.”

“I’m not sure this is the right direction.”

And later: “I don’t think we’ll make camp by dark.”

Photo © Travperk_photo

Hikers trek the Big Bend 100 through Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Photo © Austin Alvarado

Downstream from Madrid Falls, the third day's destination comes into view at Big Bend Ranch.

We could have been in worse accommodations to labor over our decision whether to continue. Day two had concluded with headlamp-illuminated hiking on the welcoming dirt road into the Sauceda Bunkhouse, the bull’s-eye of 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park and an obvious choice for lodging on our itinerary. We had the benefit of beds and bacon (thank you, kind strangers!) to lift our spirits.

As we deliberated back and forth, eventually Anna Claire offered the wisdom she’d been keeping to herself for most of the morning.

“If it were just me, I’d keep going.”

Gulp. Nothing like realizing that you’re the one being a baby to put a fire under you. We loaded our backpacks, topped off our water and hobbled 12 miles past rock art, desert waterfalls and rock cairns — the only faint signs of hikers before us. Morale waxed and waned, but peaked midday as we got our first glimpse of the Chisos Mountains, which would be in our crosshairs for the next week.

The dream

I keep a detailed map of Big Bend recommendations. If we meet and you mention you’re heading to Big Bend, within a few minutes I’ll have a map pulled up to share everything I know. I’m “that” guy. I collected these recommendations while doing things like leading backpacking trips on the Rancherias Loop and the South Rim, and mountain-biking Big Bend Ranch State Park (including the 56-mile, world-class Epic trail in one day).

I guess you could describe me as hungry for adventure. I rappelled remote canyons in remote stretches of Big Bend, one of the most remote national parks. I spent two days paddle-boarding through the thousand-foot walls of Santa Elena Canyon, and another 10 days canoeing the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. I rang in the new year while snowed-in on the Chisos Mountains.

Each of these trips scratched my adventure itch, but for years I kept coming back to the idea of something bigger. My imagination wove together big-sky mesas, remote canyons and the sky island of the Chisos into what could become the longest backpacking route in Texas.

“Because it’s there!” That’s what trailblazing mountaineers respond when asked why they climb Mount Everest. So why pioneer the longest backpacking trip in Texas? Because suffering with friends makes a better campfire story than playing video games. I yearned to find the edge of my comfort zone, and then push past it. I wanted to milk every ounce of adventure out of our state.

It brings me joy to play some small role in helping others discover the Big Bend that I love. Basically, because it’s there.

The route

Planning the route was like a crude game of connect the dots — researching the limited water sources linked by rarely traveled stretches of trail. I spoke to people who knew the area, scanned the forums for online wisdom and drew on a decade of memories.

The route we settled on began in the northwest panhandle of Big Bend Ranch State Park. On old jeep roads and in and out of sandy arroyos, we traveled through canyons and low mountains that cradle a rich ranching history (feral longhorns are shy reminders of these times). On the southeast side of the Sauceda Bunkhouse, we followed our GPS units, map and compass closely on rarely traveled routes past Mexicano and Madrid Falls. Our fourth and final day in the state park took us along the tail-end of the park’s world-class mountain-biking trails.

Lajitas, the sleepy resort town tucked neatly between the state and national parks, marked our halfway point.

We entered the national park through the Mesa de Anguila, another serious navigational challenge that rewarded us with sweeping views of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. Getting off the mesa and through a 9-mile trail-less stretch of Chihuahuan Desert had me particularly nervous. A high-mileage day took us across the park roads, dotted with families in their cars, and found us approaching the Chisos from the west, with the South Rim, Texas’ pride and joy trail system, as our crescendo.

Photo © Rob Greebon/Images From Texas

Camping along the Big Bend 100.

Photo © Travperk_photo

Silhouetted hikers make their way down a hill.

The adventure begins

On a cold morning in late December 2017, we took the first steps of our adventure. Our bodies were fresh, and enthusiasm was high. For the next nine days, our job was the simple act of moving from one spot in the desert to another, while surviving.

We walked trails, arroyos and dirt roads and blazed cross-country. We envied the grace of invasive aoudad on steep terrain. We talked; sometimes we moved in silence. We felt big and we felt small. While we walked, we dreamed of our sleeping bags and imagined what the next day would hold.

We lived out of our backpacks and lamented every ounce of unnecessary weight. We cursed the sun in record heat and begged for the sun through frozen tent walls. We admired the miracle of water, the miracle of trees, the miracle of the waxing moon and the miracle of delicious trail snacks.

We were humbled when we thought about how our “vacation” was a way of life for the Native Americans and ranchers who had called this home; our route was often the same as that of migrants seeking a better life.

The path had plenty of challenges.

On day seven, I chipped back ice and stowed my gloves — no sense in getting them wet for the task before me. On the banks of icy Terlingua Creek, I submerged our leaking sleeping pad.

Submerge, flip, inspect, flip, submerge, inspect … there it was.

The pin-sized hole letting the air escape. The one blemish on this pad that meant waking up cold, the dimples of the ground having found their way through the flaccid pad.

I marked it and took one last glance at the setting full moon and glowing morning sun on the cliffs behind me, the same we gingerly descended the day before. Of all the days I’ve sweated and sunburned in Big Bend — it’s just my luck that the day I get elbow-deep in a creek is the coldest of the year.

Last night we slept poorly, suffering from a nasty combination of 15-degree temps, the soon-to-be-mended hole in the pad and coyotes waking us to howl at the full moon.

The cold front had frozen most of our water. Even our filter had ice in it, limiting its use. There is no gratitude for the sun like waking up cold and waiting for it to rise.

With clumsy, cold fingers, we shook the frost off our tent and packed our bags. This familiar morning process marked a week on the trail for us.

Coming off the Mesa de Anguila the day before tested all of our navigational skills as we followed faint game trails, watched the GPS and looked for the rumored break in the cliff line. Even with 17 miles ahead of us, this morning’s dirt road and well-worn trail would be a welcome change from the tedious off-trail navigation we’d faced getting here. By the end of the day, we’d step foot on the foothills of the Chisos — the only mountain range entirely inside a national park — that had been our beacon all week long.

Photo by Ky Harkey / TPWD

The sun sets over Mexico from the Mesa de Anguila at Big Bend National Park.

The end is near

For 90 miles, we’ve walked our way toward the South Rim of these Chisos Mountains. We’ve suffered through sand, worried over maps, gotten lost, found our way again, made fresh tracks in virgin desert dirt, sometimes even crawled and finally climbed our way toward the greatest view in Texas.

When we finally sit down on the South Rim, it’s more than a week’s work coming to a close.

We did it!

We warmed tea on our small stove and devoured another dehydrated dinner. Exhausted and tired of being tired, we watched the sun set on the Despoblado, the uninhabitable land we had just inhabited for a week.

When we first set out, our aim was a 120-mile stretch that spanned the length of both parks. “The Big Bend Both Route” was what we had in mind. Our original plan had us finishing east of the Chisos, bushwhacking through creosote and side-stepping sotol stalks to finish in Rio Grande Village.

But something on the South Rim changed our minds. Why were we doing this? Why does anyone set out to suffer across the desert?

In the architecture of our experience, we had miscalculated. Migrating from the South Rim back into more pain and uncertainty was not the bitter taste we wanted from this experience.

We had spent 90 miles approaching one of the greatest destinations in Texas. This was the experience we were looking for, the memory we wanted to stash away.

That evening, we let go of certain aspirations and reworked our plan to let this experience come to a close in the Chisos Basin, walking one of Texas’ greatest trails.

Alligator junipers and century plants cheered us through the finish line as we took the final steps of what is now the Big Bend 100, Texas’ longest backpacking route.

Ky Harkey is director of interpretive services for Texas state parks.

Photo by Ky Harkey / TPWD

The end is in sight — the Chimneys formation punctuates the landscape as the Chisos Mountains (the finish of the Big Bend 100) get ever closer.

Photo by Ky Harkey / TPWD

Read This to Stay Alive!

This tour of Texas’ largest state park and national park offers 100 miles of the best backpacking in Texas, truly one of the best winter escapes. But heed this warning: Everything in Big Bend is trying to kill you!

Every year, hikers die by getting lost or over-trusting desert water conditions. The Big Bend 100 requires a LOT of planning and knowledge of current conditions. Never risk your life on fleeting desert water sources — always have a backup plan for what you will do if an anticipated water source is dry.

This route offers exceptional navigational challenges. Expect off-trail navigation hazards through rarely traveled remote sections of these parks.

If you seriously consider attempting this route, or something similar, we highly recommend first backpacking the Outer Mountain Loop, the Mesa de Anguila or the Rancherias Loop as minimum tests for your preparedness for the Big Bend 100.

Find more information on this route at BigBend100.com, at the Big Bend 100 Facebook group and by speaking to experienced Big Bend hikers.

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