Trip dates: Dec 22-23, 2019
Caltopo map here: https://caltopo.com/m/U0H1
Just before Christmas I made a "quick" trip to Big Bend National Park on the way from Boulder Colorado to Austin Texas. Like the majority of other backpackers there, I did the Outer Mountain Loop (30 miles, +/- 7000'). This is mountainous, rugged terrain but compared to what I'm used to in Colorado, the biggest challenge was the lack of water. There are two sanctioned NPS bear boxes (roughly equally spaced) available for cacheing water. The Homer Wilson site is on a 2WD road but Juniper Canyon requires 4WD. I only used the Homer Wilson site.
I did the route in two days primarily to eliminate heavy water carries. When I was there, Fresno Creek was flowing strong at it was easy to fill my bottles at ~1.5 L/min. The whole route could be done without any water cache under these conditions (but I agree with NPS that you should always cache water). Big Bend Chat appears to more frequent water reports than NPS.
Driving through Guadalupe Mountains NP
I drove far out of the way to get a chance to see Guadalupe Mountains NP. Google will tell you that the fastest way to get to to Big Bend NP from Boulder is to take I-25 down to Las Vegas NM, 85 to Vaughan NM, then US 285 to Fort Stockton, Texas and then US 385 to Big Bend.
If you look at a terrain map, it's fairly obvious this is a stupid way to go.
I was planning on taking the turn at US 54 at Vaughn NM (the junction in top of this map) but missed the turn. The scenery was like this for the nest 180 miles. This photo is actually particularly scenic as you can see the mountains in mountains I'm supposed to be driving nexts too. Ordinarily I would have turned around but I wasn't going to reach Big Bend till 11pm as it was so I kept going. I don't like the term "flyover country" but you can miss 3 hours of this.
Around Carlsbad NM the scenery started to get more interesting. From Carlsbad I jumped on US 180 to make a drive-by of Guadalupe NP. This is highly recommended.
Carlsbad NM appeared to be an interesting place. At one point I passed a house that had built sandbag walls around the yard with a 25 foot flag pole flying a flag that said "Trump/Pence 2020: Go fuck yourself". I really wanted to take a picture but I kept thinking about the arsenal that guy must have in his bedroom.
I really had no idea that Texas Mountains could be so beautiful.
Big Bend NP
I didn't really have a clue what Chisos Basin would look like. This is the best part of not googling photos of where you're going beforehand.
While driving into Chisos Basin from the north, I couldn't help but think ahout Tolkien-esque fortresses built into the mountains. I didn't take pictures because I was sure I'd take them on the way out; this is stupid choice when you're forgetful.
There is a significant bear population in Chisos Basin. I think they stick to this area because of the the basin catches more water than anywhere else around which results in abnormally high amounts of vegetation. There was a TON of bear poop- I was very surprised. It rivaled the amount I'd seen in Glacier NP. I suspect the high amounts of poop result from dry, barren conditions that slow down decomposition as opposed to comparable bear population.
The other challenging part about Big Bend compared to Colorado was all the sand. This got in my shoes and ground my feet to bits. I wound up doing 2-3 foot treatments per day which involved applying a thick salve to my feet and letting it dry.
After completing the OML I camped at Cottonwood Campground because of its proximity to Santa Elena Canyon. I woke up before dawn and drove the few miles to see it.
It's not hard to see why Big Bend is a national park. I'll be back.