As soon as Sara took a job in Odessa, Texas, we looked at a map to identify the nearest places to hike and camp. The only National Parks within driving distance of West Texas were Guadalupe, Carlsbad Caverns, and Big Bend.
Over the labor day long weekend, we decided to go hiking and camping in Big Bend’s Chisos Mountain. Unfortunately, the forecast was for temperatures over 100°F (37°C), but that’s typical for Big Bend so we decided to go anyways.
Backcountry Hiking in the Chisos Mountains
Given the high temperatures, my biggest concern for hiking and camping was carrying enough water. You cannot expect to find water sources in Big Bend so you must carry your requirements.
The National Park Service (NPS) recommends at least a gallon per day and I followed that advice. Although probably overly cautious, Sara and I both carried three gallons (~12L) of water for our three-day trip. Unfortunately, carrying 3 gallons of water meant carrying an extra 25 pounds (12kg) of weight in our packs.
Me With a Small but Heavy Pack and Casa Grande
Although temperatures were forecast to be very hot during the day, we expected them to drop into the 60s (<20C) at night so we also needed warm clothing. To lighten our load, we left our stove and cooking gear at home and lived off pre-cooked Spanish food for the weekend. Empanada, Spanish omelette, chorizo, and jamon make delicious hiking snacks!
Backcountry camping permits are only issued in person, during normal visitor center hours, up to 24 hours in advance per NPS rules.
Tip: Stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center if arriving into the park from the north during busy weekends. We drove all the way to the Panther Junction visitor center and, even with the hot temperatures, backcountry campsite availability was limited.
After the 3.5 hour drive from Odessa, we arrived at the Panther Junction Visitor Center late Saturday morning. Unfortunately, this meant the campsites I wanted to reserve on the South Rim were already taken. Big Bend is very popular on long weekends so be forewarned campsites may be hard to find, even in the backcountry.
After reviewing our options, we booked our first night at Laguna Meadow 2 and our second night at Boot Canyon 1. This meant we would have a short first day of only ~3.3 miles (~5.3km) with our heavy, water-filled, packs. We could then hike the East and South Rim Trail the second day after dropping our packs off at the BC1 campsite, ~1.8 miles (~3km) away.
Since we had an annual pass, the backcountry permits only cost $6/night. Without a pass, the cost is $12/night.
Map of Chisos Mountains Hikes and Campgrounds
Above is a map showing our itinerary. The first afternoon we hiked from the Chisos Mountain Lodge Parking Lot, up Laguna Meadow Trail, to our LM2 campsite. The second day we carried our gear to campsite BC1, then hiked the East and South Rim Trails as well as up to Emory Peak. On our final day, we hiked down the Boot Canyon and Pinnacles Trail to our car for the 3.5-hour drive home.
Big Bend supports 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians. Given the dry desert environment, I was surprised at how much wildlife we saw!
The largest threats to hikers and campers are bears, mountain lions, and snakes. Luckily, the NPS provides bear bins at camp sites for storing food. Not only does this help avoid bear encounters but it also keeps smaller animals like foxes, bobcats, kangaroo rats, and javelinas from getting into your supplies.
The coolest wildlife sightings for me were the large Texas Brown Tarantulas. I’m not a huge fan of spiders or anything, but I’ve never seen a tarantula in the wild before.
Texas Brown Tarantula
Luckily, bites from the Texas Brown Tarantula are generally not a serious harm to humans. Although they appear menacing, Texas Brown Tarantulas are relatively docile and their bites won’t kill you. If bit, apply a cold compress and seek medical attention.
Only after Sara shrieked behind me, did I realize I had nearly stepped on a four foot (~1 meter) Black-tailed Rattlesnake. I always expected to hear rattlesnakes “rattle” if I got too close but, in this case, I stepped right over it. Apparently, it stood up as though it was going to bite me but thankfully it retreated to the bushes instead.
Camouflaged Black-tailed Rattlesnake
The Black-tailed Rattlesnake tends to be a passive rattlesnake, relying on its camouflage for protection against predators rather than using its rattles to warn would-be attackers. While my stomach was still up in my throat from almost stepping on the first rattlesnake, a second large rattlesnake crossed the trail between Sara and I. Needless to say, Sara and I were slightly freaked out by how quiet and camouflaged these rattlesnakes were and paid extra attention to where we stepped the rest of our hike.
[toggle title=”What should you do if bitten by a Rattlesnake?”] If you are bitten by a snake, remain calm, try to identify the snake that bit you, and get medical assistance as soon as possible. Immobilize and gently wash the bite area with soap and water and keep it lower than the heart. If possible, avoid moving the muscle, which would spread the venom. Mark the area of the swelling with a pen and note the time on it. Get to a hospital as quickly as possible for anti-venom to be administered. Many hikers carry snake bite kits, which are available at most sporting goods stores. [/toggle]
Sara and I encountered a lot of deer in the Chisos Mountains. At first, we were thrilled to see deer so close. Unfortunately, we quickly realized they had likely lost their fear of humans due to being fed by other hikers and campers.
Me With Carmen White-tailed Deer
Below are five good reasons why you should NOT feed wildlife:
Don’t Feed the Wildlife!
Big Bend and the Chisos Mountains also supports lots of interesting insects and arthropods.
When taking rest stops, take the time to look for the smaller stuff – you’re sure to see some interesting creatures!
One cool insect we regularly saw was this black and yellow Desert Lubber Grasshopper. As with many other brightly-coloured insects, lubber grasshoppers are toxic and make small mammals and birds sick if eaten.
Desert Lubber Grasshopper
Since we only had to hike ~3.3 miles (~5.3km) up the Laguna Meadow Trail to our first campsite, LM2, we had a relaxed start to our day. After parking at the Chisos Mountain Visitor Center, we hiked the short trail to “The Window” for lunch.
The Window Trail, Chisos Mountains
We then started our hike up the Laguna Meadow Trail with our heavy water-filled packs. The Laguna Meadow trail offers some tree shade, but it was still an extremely hot hike during the Labor Day long weekend in early September.
Casa Grande Mountain and Start of Laguna Meadow Trail
After reaching our campsite, Laguna Meadow 2, we quickly pitched our tent and locked our food in the bear bins. Although the LM2 campsite did not provide great views, it offered shaded areas to pitch our tent. Emory Peak was also lit up beautifully as the sun set.
Emory Peak Sunset View from LM2 Campsite
After setting up camp, we walked part of the Blue Creek Trail hoping to find a scenic viewpoint for dinner. Although we found decent viewpoints along the trail, there was a thick haze of pollution over the valley. From what I’ve read, pollution from Mexican and American factories regularly cause this haze – a sad reminder of what consumption does to the environment.
That evening, we left the fly off my tent and were treated to a spectacular star-filled sky. The night temperature cooled enough to sleep and we even had to use a light sleeping bag as a blanket.
The morning of day two, we had a relaxed breakfast, broke down our tent, and packed our gear approximately 2 miles (~3 km) to our Boot Canyon campsite. We saw loads of wildlife, and I almost stepped on a rattlesnake, making me watch the trail extra closely the rest of the weekend.
Sara and a Carmen White-tailed Deer Near the Boot Canyon Campsites
After ditching our gear in the BC1 campsite bear bins, we set off to hike the East and South Rim Trails.
After conquering the East and South Rim, we hiked up Emory Peak in the late afternoon. Emory Peak is the highest peak in Big Bend National Park at 7825ft (2384m).
Back at our campsite, we met a couple who had seen a black bear with four cubs near our campsite that morning. Black bears do not usually concern me, as they tend to avoid confrontation, but they can be much more aggressive with cubs around. Sara and I were extra cautious about putting all of our food, water, and scented toiletries in the bear bins but I wished I had brought bear bangers and bear mace with me, just in case.
[toggle title=”What should you do if you encounter a Black Bear?”] Bears usually avoid people so do your best to travel in groups, talk loudly, and be aware of your surroundings. Bears can move quickly so if you see a bear, do your best to give it as much space as possible by slowly backing away (don’t run). Avoid being between a bear and its cub or a food source. If the bear does approach, try to scare it away by shouting, waving your arms, and throwing small stones. If a black bear attacks, use your bear mace, if you have it, and fight for your life. Kick, punch or hit the bear with whatever weapon is available. Concentrate your attack on the face, eyes and nose. Fight any bear that attacks you in your building or tent.[/toggle]
Since our campsite at Boot Canyon had too much tree coverage to see the stars, we put the fly on our tent the second night. This made the tent slightly warmer, but I much preferred the fresh mountain breeze that we had in Laguna Meadows the night prior. Although the Boot Canyon campsites serve their purpose, they do not offer much as far as scenery. If I return to the Chisos Mountains again, I would definitely try to book a campsite on the North-East or South Rim Trails, even though this would mean carrying our heavy packs further.
Although the Boot Canyon campsites serve their purpose, they do not offer much as far as scenery. If I return to the Chisos Mountains again, I will definitely try to book a campsite on the North-East or South Rim Trails. This means carrying your gear further but the views are worth it.
After another great night’s sleep, we packed up our camp for the walk back to Chisos Mountain Lodge. The walk down the Boot Canyon and Pinnacles Trails offered spectacular scenery. Hiking without the weight of water and food in our backpacks was splendid!
Splendid Boot Canyon Scenery
View up to the Chisos Mountains after a Great Backcountry Long Weekend
Backcountry hiking and camping the Chisos Mountains is a challenge in the summer months given the heat, but I thoroughly enjoyed our trip and would definitely do it again. If you find yourself in West Texas or Big Bend National Park, this unique mountain range is worth a visit!