Backpacking Big Bend National Park - Outer Mountain Loop
Stretching 40.45 miles, the Big Bend National Park Outer Mountain Loop is a backcountry, mountain traversing, and solitude finding hike. Popular with many visitors, mainly the first few miles, this trail is well manicured while offering outstanding backcountry views few people get to see.
Backcountry Permits and Fees
Backcountry permits must be obtained in person – no online system is available.
These can be bought at Panther Junction, operating hours are 9-5, with special holiday hours. Each permit costs $12 (as of 2018) and are relatively simple to get, although they are not unlimited. I visited during Thanksgiving weekend, one of the busiest of the year, and was able to snag a permit just before closing time.
Caching Water at Homer Wilson Ranch
Every hiker must cache water at Homer Wilson Ranch. Park rangers will not give you a permit if you do not. 35 miles proceeding the water drop is desert, and water is hard to find.
The cache is located 20 miles south of Panther Junction, and not to worry, the road is paved. There is a well marked parking area at the Homer Wilson Ranch pull-off, where the park has provided a bear box for caching. I cached 1 gallon and planned to use it for my third and final day of hiking.
Note: be sure to write your name and date of pick-up on the water container. Rangers or other hikers can potentially take your water if it lacks the proper label.
Food and Water for the Hike
Water: On day 1 I was carrying 1 gallon of water and two full 1 liter Nalgene bottles. Fun fact, 1 gallon of water weighs 8lbs. I was not planning on finding water for the entire first day and most of the 2nd day.
This amount of water proved the perfect amount. I was able to drink as heartily as I liked and I ran out a few miles before the water cache. I was lucky and found water on the trail in the desert portion but if you are planning the same hike, I would not plan on finding any!
Food: Every meal brought along was cold and did not need a stove or water to rehydrate it. I decided, because of the water scarcity, the most efficient method of eating would avoid cooking altogether.
Usually, I enjoy cooking dehydrated meals and having more diversity but I minimized because of the conditions. It proved to be a great choice and I am happy with the overall lightweight abilities of stove-less cooking.
- Cliff bars
- Homemade trail mix
- Peanuts, chex mix, dehydrated pineapples, and dehydrated apples
- Homemade beef jerky
- Cured Ham
Day 1: Chisos Mountain Basin Trailhead
Total Mileage: 17.89mi
Climbing out of Chisos Basin
The trailhead is located in Chisos Mountain Basin. I started on Pinnacles trail around 9:30am. The air was cool and the mountains hid the sun for the ascent. Juniper trees grow abundantly and the air has a fresh taste to it. Big Bend is miles away from large urban areas and the air quality is fantastic.
From Chisos Basin to the base of Emory Peak, the trail is almost entirely uphill. I was happy I started in the morning, if I had direct sunlight beating down on me, it would have made the incline that much more difficult. I passed a few people, it was Thanksgiving weekend, and the park was popular.
The Emory Peak trail is a separate, 1.4 miles, one-way extension to the Outer Mountain Loop. The Park Service has been nice enough to provide bear boxes at the trailhead and I stashed my pack inside, along with most hikers planning on summitting.
The trail is uphill but for most of the way it is well groomed. Only towards the peak does the hiking turn more into rock climbing. There are some vertical sections and if you are inexperienced, this could prove to be a difficult traverse. The top of the mountain offers 360degree views of Big Bend National Park as well as neighboring Mexico. The topography of the park is majestic.
After leaving Emory Peak behind, the trail to the South Rim is long but well maintained. The paths are virtually manicured and the park service has built a few bridges that make the hiking quite pleasant. The trail descends into a Boot Canyon before the ascent to the rim begins. Neither incline is as steep as the initial climb out of Chisos Basin.
Climbing out of the canyon, the South Rim rewards hikers with an amazing view. To the south, the desert spreads out below. The steep-walled canyon cut by the Rio Grande looms ominously in the distance. It also provides a bird’s eye view of the terrain that will be covered in the 2nd day of hiking.
I followed the Northeast Rim Trail in a loop, enjoying the precipitous cliffs and views. The trail eventually connects back to Boot Canyon and I retraced my steps for about half a mile before taking Juniper Canyon Trail
Juniper Canyon: End of Day 1
The descent into the canyon was steep and arduous. I quickly realized how tired I was as the sun cast shadows across the valley floor. Cold air swept in and my knees were tired of the constant decline.
I ran into three groups of thru-hikers on this section, everyone was looking for a place to camp. The trail flattens out and walks through dry desert washes. Here, once flat enough, the brush disappears and drier plants take over. There is open camping, well marked with a sign, and finding a private area is not hard.
I ended up setting my tent in a wash and passing out for a few hours before dinner. The stars that night were brilliant. I saw so many shooting stars I lost count. Even the planets resemble a light show, blinking reds, and blues as they slowly orbited the sun. Big Bend National Park has the darkest night skies in the lower 48 and for that show alone, it is worth going.
Day 2: Desert Hiking
Total Mileage: 14.99 miles
In the Desert
Waking up to a strong sunrise, the desert promised an exciting day of hiking. The trail gently flattens out as it follows dry washes south. It does make a westwardly turn after passing the Juniper Canyon road parking area.
The trail is labeled the Dodson Trail and it climbs over desert hills. There are some old stone ruins, remains of an old ranch.
The surrounding desert environment is full of cactus and spiky plants. I was happy to be wearing pants as my legs were constantly brushing against vegetation. While there are no large mountains to climb, the topography is undulating enough to make the day exciting and harder than expected.
Finding Water in Big Bend National Park
With temperatures in the desert 5-15 degrees warmer than in the mountains, water became a great concern. I was lucky enough to find some water holes at the Fresno Creek crossing. There was cold water bubbling out of the rocks and I stopped for lunch alongside it.
The number of insects near this little puddle was astounding. Large Lubber Grasshoppers were prevalent everywhere. DRagonflies circle my head and I even caught a praying mantis. The water holes were home to a small family of frogs and it was clear that life was thriving in the desert.
Water Cache at Homer Wilson Ranch
As the trail continues eastward, it comes up on a large hill. Views to the East are breathtaking and the desert scenery is majestic. Pointed rock formations reach out of the desert floor. Twisted plants cover the unforgiving landscape and Big Bend shows off its true wilderness colors.
Homer Wilson Ranch is easily distinguished by the large abandoned buildings. Leaving my pack at the base of the trailhead to the road, I made the easy climb to retrieve my water.
A good place to take a break, this resupply point could not have come a mile too soon. I had drunk everything by that point and an additional gallon was well received.
Setting up Camp in Blue Creek Canyon
Upon entering Blue Creek Canyon, its astonishing rock formations offer enjoyable hiking. Red rock spires enclose the wash. Steep walls block out the sun and the hiking was pleasant, especially after being in the desert sun all day.
As the canyon continues up in elevation, the wash gets narrower and narrower. I hiked about as far as I could and stopped when the canyon walls prevented any more good camping spots. I set up the tent on a flat, sandy stretch and enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep.
Day 3: Back into the Chisos Mountains
Total Mileage: 7.57mi
Out of the Canyon
Climbing out of Blue Creek Canyon turned into an exercise of endurance. The trail quickly increases in slope and it makes for an arduous climb. Over 1400 feet of elevation is gained in this section and there are relatively few switchbacks to simplify the hiking.
Towards the top of the canyon, the view looking back is phenomenal. The whole trail is laid out below and to see where the hiking started and ended did wonders for my morale. I even stumbled across mountain lion scat. The trail winds just below Emory Peak and it is possible to see the radio towers at the top.
End of the Trail in Chisos Basin
After climbing out of the canyon and passing beneath Emory Peak, the hiking becomes easy. No more steep inclines exist and the trail widens. This close to the basin sees much more foot traffic and I started to run into day hikers once more.
There is a great view of the basin and I sat there for a few minutes enjoying the breeze. It’s basically all downhill and it was a quick descent to the parking lot.
Big Bend National Park – Outer Mountain Loop Trail Stats
Total Mileage: 40.45 miles
Cumulative Elevation Gain: 6,345 feet
Total Days: 3
Water Used: 3.5 gallons (3 of which was packed in)
Be sure to check out all the maps available from Wild West Trail