Rob Greebon Photography
Winter Quest for the South Rim
Big Bend’s premier hike offers spectacular scenery … if the lack of water and winter's bone-chilling cold don’t stop you.
When my brother said he wanted to go backpacking, I figured it was finally time to do the best hike in Texas.
My brother, Roger, lives out of state but was in Fort Worth for the year, and we wanted to spend time together outdoors. I knew just the trip.
Big Bend’s South Rim.
The South Rim is legendary in Texas hiking. The 13-mile loop is often cited as the top hike in the state. Its edge-of-the-world scenery and dramatic elevation changes can take your breath away in more ways than one.
I had never done it. And now I was obsessed with doing it. I was on a quest — a quest for the South Rim.
And, like any quest, we had to slay some dragons along the way.
The pandemic plan
Christmas 2020 was approaching. The holidays, usually a time of hope and joy, were instead filled with uncertainty. We faced a season with no family get-togethers and limited celebrations. We were still very much in the middle of the strange, unsettling pandemic.
Roger and I have backpacked together several places — Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Colorado — and he was excited to go to Big Bend National Park for the first time.
I was able to find available backcountry campsites at Big Bend. That was a good start.
I considered the South Rim a gaping hole in my Texas hiking résumé. I felt like the history buff who had never visited the Alamo or the water park fan who had bypassed Schlitterbahn.
I’d done plenty of day hikes in Big Bend and a couple of backpacking trips. I’d rappelled through canyons on Big Bend’s remote Mesa de Anguila. I’d done the Outer Mountain Loop, a three-day, 30-mile backpack trip that covers much of the same ground as the 13-mile South Rim hike — except the South Rim itself.
What’s so great about the South Rim?
It offers one of the greatest views not just in Texas but in any U.S. national park. It’s a 2,000-foot drop from the mountains to the desert, with the Rio Grande and Mexico visible in the distance. When Backpacker magazine came out with its list of 100 best miles of trail in the national park system, five of those miles were along the South Rim.
All right, then! Onward to the South Rim!
Or so I hoped.
My oldest child Lou, home from college, wanted to come. Roger and his husband, Kent, said they’d meet us in Big Bend. We would bring masks, keep our distance on the trail and bring our own food and water.
I plotted a route that had us spending one night on the Pinnacles side of the Chisos Basin, one night on the East Rim and one night on the Laguna Meadows side, completing the classic loop in the upper Chisos Mountains that takes hikers along the South Rim. We’d have plenty of time to summit Emory Peak and ramble down Blue Creek Canyon as side trips.
When we arrived at the park, we found the road to the Chisos Basin closed temporarily for maintenance. As we waited in the car for the road to open, listening to music, my phone happened upon a selection from Amahl and the Night Visitors. I turned it up. It was the Christmas season, after all.
The Gian Carlo Menotti opera tells the story of the Three Kings and a shepherd boy. My brother and I (and our father) had been in a production of it when we were growing up. Kent, too, had starred as Amahl when he was a boy. The music has remained a part of our family culture ever since.
“I still remember all the words,” Roger said when we met him in the Chisos Basin, launching into This Is My Box, as sung by King Kaspar. “This is my box. This is my box. I never travel without my box.”
Roger, a classical musician, is known to break into song when it fits the moment.
I had already been singing some of the lyrics in the days before the trip when Lou had revealed a problem: a red and sore little toe. It had an ingrown nail, and it was getting infected. We iced it, elevated it and treated it as best we could.
When Lou was able to put on hiking boots and walk, I thought of the moment in Amahl when (spoiler alert) he ditches his crutch: “He walks … He WALKS … HE WALKS!”
Starting the Hike
After the long drive to the park, it felt good to finally hit the trail, despite our heavy packs.
Our packs were especially burdensome because, in addition to our usual camping gear, we were having to carry all the water we were going to need for four days. Ugh.
The springs at Big Bend were looking grim. The latest reports on the message board Big Bend Chat said Boot Spring was offering a meager “few drops per minute,” and the Boot Canyon tinajas (rock depressions that hold water) were “very dry, occasionally scummy small pools — emergency only."
That meant carrying water. Our four-day trip translated to four gallons of water each. A gallon weighs 8 pounds, meaning each of us was carrying 32 pounds just in water weight. I’d never carried that much water before, and I was grudgingly accepting the fact that I’d be carrying the equivalent of a 3-year-old child on my back in addition to camping gear and food.
The scenery and the company brightened my mood. From the mile-high elevation of the Chisos Basin, we could see the desert floor below us through the famous Window, while mountains such as Casa Grande and Emory Peak stretched toward the sky above us.
“Climb every mountain,” Roger sang as we headed uphill on the trail, in a selection from The Sound of Music. “Ford every stream. Follow every rainbow till … you … find … your … dream.”
kathy adams clark | KAC productions
We hiked to our Boulder Meadows site and set up camp, and the quickly dropping temperatures chased us into our tents after the sun went down. Lows near 20 meant the nights and mornings were going to be uncomfortably cold.
We weren’t prepared for how bone-chilling cold it would be. Lou and I stayed just warm enough — our sleeping bags had liners, and we had layers of clothing. But Roger and Kent suffered, and shivered, all night. They woke up miserable.
“I can’t even function,” Roger said. “This is killing me.”
Roger had trouble moving his hands and jaw. He seemed partially frozen. Kent stayed in his sleeping bag as long as he could. They didn’t have their warmest gear — that was back home — and they had skimped on warm clothing to cut down on pack weight with all the water we had to bring.
All our water bottles were frozen solid. The Nalgene bottles and gallon jugs and other water containers looked as if we had just emptied all the ice cube trays out of a freezer.
Our campsite’s position on the side of the mountain meant we were not going to get direct sun for a long time.
Roger and Kent were ready to bail. The cold was too much, and they needed to warm up.
They wanted to hike out, stay in a hotel and try to find warmer gear.
I tried to figure out ways to salvage the trip. C’mon, I was on a quest, remember? Was I dreaming an impossible dream?
Lou and I were ready to continue camping, but we didn’t want to separate from Roger and Kent. Being together was one of the main points of the trip.
I wasn’t ready to give up on the South Rim just yet.
My mind raced. I knew two things: We needed to get moving, and we needed to find sunlight. I figured that, if we hiked, we might not be in the sun till we reached the top of the Pinnacles Trail switchbacks, still a couple of miles away. I devised a compromise. What if we hiked to the rim of the Chisos (where the sunlight would be), attempted our Emory Peak summit hike and came back to camp by afternoon? Roger and Kent could stay in a hotel, and we could meet up the next day and still hike to our third-night campsite at Laguna Meadows. From Laguna Meadows, we could — here’s the important part — make it to the South Rim.
They agreed. Anything sounded better than standing around the campsite in the freezing cold. Whew — quest intact.
Getting moving helped warm us up, and finally, on one of the switchbacks, we found the sun. That ball of fire was never more welcome. Once we reached the rim, we basked in the sunlight.
Hiking to the summit of Emory Peak seemed as if it might even be fun. We were feeling good, and we made it to the top of the peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains, giving us a commanding view of the national park.
After Roger and Kent left, Lou and I stayed and camped for the night. After bundling up for the cold, we shared amazement over the incredible stars that filled the sky, and we watched Orion slowly rise over the horizon.
We met some nearby campers who mentioned that they had gone to the South Rim the previous day at sunset, when the colors and textures took on a special quality.
We could do that, I thought. Hey, my quest just got an upgrade.
Russell Roe | TPWD
The South Rim
We hiked the next morning to
our agreed-upon spot and met Roger
“Good morning, Star-shine,” Roger sang, using hand gestures as he belted out a song from the musical Hair. “The Earth says hello.”
I guessed he was feeling better.
The hike up to Laguna Meadows was grueling but beautiful. We needed only a two-day supply of water at that point, and Roger and Kent brought more clothing to stay warm.
There was plenty of sunshine in Laguna Meadows, and the desperate times of the previous day started to fade.
We decided we had time to nap in our tents before embarking on the afternoon hike to the South Rim. I love a good camping nap, and ours meant we were well-rested for the hike — another upgrade for the quest.
The South Rim was about three miles away, and I savored the anticipation on the hike.
We arrived about an hour before sunset. All of a sudden, there it was — the South Rim. We marveled at the wide-open views, the subtle colors of the desert and the beauty of the hills and mesas. We could see the mountains of Mexico in the distance and spent time trying to figure out where the different canyons of the Rio Grande might be.
Lou pointed out how the mountains acted as a “sky island,” providing enough moisture and cool weather to support pine trees and fir trees, in contrast to the scrubby desert below. The sun was setting and painting the desert in rich tones and shadows. The sheer cliffs provided a balcony seat to what looked like the edge of the world.
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