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Big Bend Chisos Mountains hike

The signature backpacking trail in Big Bend National Park is the Outer Mountain Loop. It is a 30 mile plus loop starting and ending at the Chisos Basin. Despite only being 30 miles, it is a rugged, remote, incredibly beautiful, and a challenging backcountry adventure. Do not let the short distance in Big Bend Chisos Mountains lull you.

Related: Outer Mountain Loop tips

Solo hiker permit requirements

Big Bend Chisos hike

Looking down on the Chisos Basin from the Pinnacles Trail

Big Bend National Park Outer Mountain Loop

I had hiked this trail over 25 years ago when I was in high school with my dad and a friend. I knew what the loop entailed. When I signed in at the ranger station to get my permit I had to complete a special solo hiker entry form with information about my clothing, color of my backpack and rain gear, information on my car, and a signed note from my mother (just joking on the last one although I did leave my mom as my emergency contact). I had to have my picture taken as well as a picture of the sole of my shoe.

Big Bend Chisos Mountains

A picture of me at the beginning although not the one taken by the park

If I became lost, they wanted as much information in case they had to rescue me. Many people underestimate the dangers of the desert hiking and become lost, dehydrated, and exhausted and have to be helped out of the park. I needed to check out of the park as soon as I got done with my hike, so they would not send out a search party.

Big Bend dangers: heat, fire, critters

They went over the three main dangers. They are heat, fire, and critters. Big Bend is in a dangerous drought and the meadow and tree covered Chisos Mountains are as dry as the desert below. It would not take much to spark a fire on the mountains and create an extremely dangerous situation for those camping on top. The ranger told me that the route I was hiking down was the escape route, so if I detected any hint of fire, I should proceed forward on my planned hike or turn around and come back depending on where the fire is located at of course.

Bear mountain lions Big Bend

Big Bend Chisos Mountains – Sign as you enter the Chisos Basin to let you know that you are not at the top of the food chain here

Not much was said about critters. There are mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and black bears in the park. I saw no sign of any of them. The animal that harassed me the most was the fly. I could not believe that a desert could house such an array and quantity of flies. I only got bit by a couple, but every time I stopped, I was swarmed.

Biggest threat is lack of water

The biggest threat to your safety is the heat and subsequent lack of water. I was carrying over a gallon and a half of water, and I had another gallon stashed 20 miles into the hike, but the ranger suggested I carry more. I bought two more liters at the store and stuffed them into an outer container in my backpack. This proved to be vital.

Big Bend Chisos Mountains

The containers for stashing water at the Homer Wilson Ranch near the park road

This meant I had over two gallons, and when I picked up the pack, I could feel it. My pack must have weighed close to 85 pounds. My backpack hiking Isle Royale National Park was 65 pounds, and this felt much heavier. A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, so I had close to 20 more pounds in water. I staggered forward to start my hike wondering how I was going to climb the Chisos Mountains at over 7,000 feet.

Pinnacles Trail

I did not have long to find out as the Pinnacles Trail goes immediately up into the Chisos Mountains from the Chisos Basin. I was soon hiking up and over switchbacks to the top of the Chisos Plateau. It was tough, but I made it without a hernia. I then deposited my pack into a bear proof container and hiked with only water to the top of Emory Peak: at 7,825 feet, the highest point in the park.

Big Bend Chisos Mountains

The beginning of the Pinnacles Trail coming out of the Chisos Basin

Big Bend Chisos Mountains

Big Bend Chisos Mountains – The Pinnacles Trail starts to ascend to the Chisos Mountains

Big Bend Chisos Mountains

Big Bend Chisos Mountains -The first goal was to climb the Chisos Mountains

I met two day hikers, Scott and Ryan, from Houston at the top of Emory Peak. We walked back to where my pack was together. I had a nice conversation with them for over an hour, which was good because they would be the last people I would talk to for two days.

Big Bend Chisos Mountains

The pinnacles

Chisos Mountains Big Bend

Big Bend Chisos Mountains – Looking down on the Chihuahuan Desert after getting to the top of the Chisos Mountains

Big Bend Chisos Mountains and onward to Juniper Canyon campground

I put my albatross back on and continued with my hike. Fortunately, the first day was only a little more than six miles, not including the 3 mile detour to Emory Peak, and I had already hiked 5 miles. I was starting to tire and each incline was a lot of work. Soon though, the sign for Juniper Canyon campground pointed the way to my first night’s stay.

In Big Bend the Chisos Mountains are quite a different animal than the desert below. It is cool and temperate on top with meadows and trees, which provide much needed shade. No campfires allowed in Big Bend, especially due to the extreme drought. I pulled out the old Granddad and had a few sips of whiskey, and I watched the beautiful Texas stars come into view. A whippoorwill chirped in the distance was the only sound as I leaned against a log and soaked in the solitude.

Camping Big Bend

Big Bend Chisos Mountains – Camping at the Juniper Canyon campsite

Continue with the adventure

I knew tomorrow was going to be a son of a bitch. I had to hike down the Juniper Canyon Trail. After this, it is 12 miles across the open Chihuahuan Desert, but tonight I was happy to be high and cool in the Chisos Mountains.

The journey continues here: Big Bend Juniper Canyon hike

Adventure on!

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24 Responses to Big Bend Chisos Mountains hike

  1. Andy April 29, 2014 at 5:45 am #

    Hi Ted, sounds like a great hike. An added thrill knowing there’s the possibility of a bear or lion encounter, something I don’t get much of on my local walks. Love to get over that way someday.

    And the old grandad – an often essential component of bush walking!
    Andy recently posted..A Stumble Through the Amazon – Madidi National Park

    • Ted Nelson April 29, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

      Not being at the top of the food chain always adds an interesting dimension to any adventure.

  2. Leigh April 29, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    That scenery looks very familiar. Truly beautiful country. Hiking and surviving in the desert is hard work. I cannot imagine doing what you did with a pack that heavy. It’s interesting being out there all alone isn’t it. Last year was the first time I was by myself with no one around for 2 + days. You really have to love your own company.
    Leigh recently posted..Two Days in Dresden, Germany

    • Ted Nelson April 29, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

      I was so tired, I was quite boring company for myself 🙂 I would never hike with this much water again. There are alternatives, which I will discuss in future post. There is another place to stash water, but they recommend a 4W vehicle and there are springs that might have seasonal water.

  3. Hank Vlietstra April 29, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

    Excellent blog-entry! I very much enjoyed that writeup, Ted! That is one heavy humdinger of a pack! I might have approached 70 before, but never 85!!

    • Ted Nelson April 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

      Thanks Hank! My pack hiking for a week in Michigan was near 65 pounds last year, and I thought that was murderous, but this was back breaking.

  4. Renuka April 30, 2014 at 4:45 am #

    Great views! Hiking must have been exhilarating. I love hiking and when I have scenic surroundings, the joy doubles!
    Renuka recently posted..Travel Blogs I Loved In April

    • Ted Nelson April 30, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

      The joy tripled here in Big Bend as the views were doubly gorgeous.

  5. Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) April 30, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    85 pounds, Tedward?! Wow. That’s amazing. Judging by the photos, it was worth the haul. I look forward to reading more about your Big Bend adventure.
    Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) recently posted..Visiting the Reichstag in Berlin

    • Ted Nelson April 30, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

      Yea, it was ridiculously heavy. Only good thing is it got lighter as I guzzled water, and of course I put a dent into the Old Granddad too 🙂

  6. Jenna @ Green Global Travel May 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    Looks like a great hike and beautiful scenery. That pack sounds so heavy–necessary, but heavy! I love hikes that make you feel far away from civilization–it’s always so peaceful and rejuvenating.
    Jenna @ Green Global Travel recently posted..GO GREEN TIP #103: 5 Hobbies That Can Offset Your Carbon Footprint

    • Ted Nelson May 3, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      It sure was nice not to see a human for a couple of days, although when I did, I was happy to hear my own voice and talk.

  7. Charles Higgins May 2, 2014 at 1:44 am #

    Sounds like a great trip..glad there were no critters

    Charles Higgins recently posted..Mandalay Bay Beach – best aquatic playground in Las Vegas

    • Ted Nelson May 3, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      Only hordes of flies, but at least flies go to bed. Night time was nice and peaceful.

  8. Erin at The World Wanderer May 3, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    This looks like quite the adventure! I really admire your spirit, Ted! Even though, I’ve gone hiking and camping, I’ve never gone alone, or where there was anything too threatening. One day, I’m sure I’ll get there, especially if I keep reading your inspiring posts!
    Erin at The World Wanderer recently posted..A Stylish Solution to a Rainy Day: GoGoGolosh.

    • Ted Nelson May 4, 2014 at 1:55 am #

      It is safer to go with someone, but that is not always an option. I do enjoy solo camping from time-to-time. It clears my head and makes me appreciate people, civilization, and life in general.

  9. Jason Hussong May 3, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    Sigh. I so miss this place. I really do have to make it a point to get back.
    Jason Hussong recently posted..The Irish Coastline

    • Ted Nelson May 4, 2014 at 1:56 am #

      I feel the same way Jason, and I just returned. Big Bend is a place that draws you back.

  10. Trips By Lance May 8, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    I’m seriously in awe of this adventure. I’m passing it on to some hiking-loving friends who might want to follow in your footsteps.
    Trips By Lance recently posted..Hotel Review: Westin Memphis Beale Street

  11. Pola (Jetting Around) May 10, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    Whoa, a permit? This is no beginner game. I would love to see that area (loved your FB updates!), and I might just have to hire you as my guide!
    Pola (Jetting Around) recently posted..Ziplining in Wisconsin with Lake Geneva Canopy Tours

    • Ted Nelson May 11, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

      Thanks Pola, would love to be your sherpa 🙂

  12. Tonya February 19, 2016 at 5:27 pm #

    Hi Ted! We’re going in April. How long (time) did it take for you to go cache the water and get back to the start? And do you know how long it would take to cache at the Juniper road stop as well? We’re driving from Dallas, and just trying to plan out how long it will all take before we get on the trail.


    • Traveling Ted February 22, 2016 at 2:28 am #

      Hi Tonya,

      I think it took about an hour and 15 minutes – perhaps a little longer. It is 24 miles so 48 round trip. I have never driven to Juniper Canyon, but according to Google Maps it is 27 miles and one hour and 20 minutes one-way in the other direction as Homer Wilson. You are looking at about 3.5 hours of driving if you cache at both places. It is recommended to have 4 wheel drive if driving to Juniper Canyon, but it is probably doable without in April, but definitely check with ranger. Have fun! It is a wonderful hike.

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