As we prepped for our trip to Big Bend National Park, TX , we had a few goals: Pattie wanted to plan hikes around big vistas, Andoni wanted to canoe down the Rio Grande, and we both wanted to go backcountry backpacking – for the first time.
Andoni had been to Big Bend in his youth, with his highlight memory being the Window trail and the spectacular view it provided of the desert. As a testament to how long ago he visited there, he remembers fighting his parents, complaining and crying as the hike was a little too out of his comfort zone as a toddler. Nevertheless, he remembered it as a beautiful place which he would be eager to return to one day.
Pattie had never been, but she’d seen the park often featured in the pages of Texas Monthly as one of Texas’s must-do adventures. The fact that it was the desert, made it not as appealing to visit in the summer months when she was off of work, so we started planning a winter trip.
There are three times of year the park is most busy, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break – we decided that if we were going to visit at one of the busiest times of year, we’d make sure and arrive on a day that (fingers-crossed) most people probably wouldn’t: Christmas day. So, after weeks of planning, we traveled home for Christmas, spent time with family and celebrated the holidays, and after presents and breakfast on the 25th, we set off to make the long drive to Marathon, TX, where we’d spend the night and drive into the park the next morning.
How we planned our time
We knew right off the bat that there were two must-do parts of the trip: backcountry backpacking at the South Rim and an overnight canoe trip through Santa Elena Canyon. From there, we were just hoping to get lucky with some trails / campsites. Pattie bought this hiking guide book and this map of the park – both of which were integral in the planning of our trip.
We had 6 nights, 7 days to spend in the park and here’s how we planned it out:
Day 1: Christmas morning + drive to Marathon, TX + camp
Day 2: Get backcountry permits + hike to South Rim + camp
Day 3: Hike back to trailhead + drive to Mariscol Canyon trailhead + hike + camp
Day 4: Drive to Marufo Vega trailhead + hike + camp
Day 5: Hike back to trailhead + Hot Springs + drive to Chisos Basin Campground + camp
Day 6: Drive to Terlingua + launch canoe trip + camp along river
Day 7: Canoe through Santa Elena Canyon + drive to Andoni’s parent’s house for New Year’s Eve
We were a little optimistic there on Days 3-4. Pattie’s Dodge Nitro is our current car-camping vehicle and it isn’t 4×4. It’s an SUV with enough clearance, but as the park ranger at the backcountry office told us, it’s a ‘mall-terrain’, not an ‘all-terrain’ vehicle. So, we changed our plans up to spend two nights on the Marufo Vega trail instead, which worked out much better in hindsight due to time and the length of our hike that morning down from the South Rim. So here’s what our adjusted days ended up looking like:
Day 3: Hike back to trailhead + drive to Marufo Vega trailhead + hike + camp
Day 4: Hike (still on Marufo Vega trail) + camp
Big Bend is a pretty big park. For perspective, the drive from Rio Grande Village (bottom right of the map, to Santa Elena Canyon (bottom left of the map) is about an hour and a half. Here’s how our time looked on the map:
How we planned our packs
In packing plans, the number one focus was weather. The forecast showed highs in the 50s with lows in the 30s, with cold front blowing in on the last day of our trip, changing the weather to dip into the 20s. Yikes! A little cold for these two Texans who are used to sweltering heat and high humidity. Number two focus was weight and space. Since we’d be backpacking, we had to trim down our traditional car camping setup. For more info on how we did this, check out our post on how we did some research and made our decisions on gear.
Here’s our gear pack list, which we distributed across our two packs to even out the load:
Sleep: Andoni: Therm-a-rest Ultralite Sleeping Pad, Sierra Design Zissou Sleeping Bag & Sea to Summit Mummy Liner Pattie: Sea to Summit Comfort Light Insulated Pad, Sea to Summit Air Stream Pump Dry Sack, Sierra Designs Eleanor Sleeping Bag, Sea to Summit Silk Mummy Liner
Other: BioLite Power Mini
* Some links to products in this post are through Amazon Associates and will provide us with a small profit if you choose to purchase through our links. If you do so, thanks for helping us fund future adventures 🙂
After it was all said and done…
How did it work out? Better than we could have hoped. We were able to check off all of our boxes for our original trip goals, and we had time to soak in our experiences and not rush. The South Rim trail was an amazing way to begin our trip, as it provided the most stunning views of the park as a whole. It definitely set our backpacking standard high from the get go. Even though we had to change our plans and nix the Mariscol Canyon trip, it allowed us to take it a little slower on the Marufo Vega trail, to recharge, take our time, and soak in the sights on our second day of that hike. A one night stay at the Chisos Basin Campground gave us a warm dinner and minimal effort to make camp (no hiking in!), and by leaving the float trip to our last night in the park, we ended on a high note – with a full blown camp dinner and a couple bottles of wine. And as if the fates aligned, that cold front held out until the very last minute of our trip. As we drove back to the outfitters spot, the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted into the teens. What’s a great trip without a little bit of luck after all?