Packrafting Big Bend National Park: Tuskabout 2020
60 miles of desert hiking in Big Bend National Park followed by a 60 mile paddle along the Rio Grande to return to my car. This took 9 days, including a full day to drive there, and most of another full day to cache supplies around the park. The hiking portion strayed off any official trails and crossed open desert. The rafting took me through the “great unknown of the Rio Grande” including the picturesque Mariscol canyon.
Being a freewheeling graduate student, I’m afforded rare opportunities that most working schmucks don’t have access to. Perhaps the most valuable of these opportunities is the sporadic nature of my profession. There is no clock to punch or traditional 40+ hour work week: instead, there are fixed conference submission deadlines, known months in advance. My optimal workflow is to work moderately hard most of the time (some weekends), and then extremely hard 6-8 weeks approaching a deadline (every waking moment), and then not hard at all for a week or three to mitigate burnout. Early February 2020 brought about a particularly grueling deadline crunch, and awarded me with an opportunity to bask in the wilderness.
Wilderness is hard to come by in Texas. Texas, being mostly a transitional state between the wetlands of Louisiana to the East and the deserts of New Mexico to the West, and does not have a lot of mountains. Nor does it have a lot of public land which makes the backcountry a limited commodity. The jewel of Texas — wilderness-wise — is Big Bend National Park, which encompasses more than 1200 square miles of West Texas desert and 240 miles of the Rio Grande. I set my sights on a reckless Big Bend adventure for more than a year after my first visit back in 2019. My goal for this trip was to kick up the adventure a notch by incorporating paddling into a desert trek.
I’m no stranger to long-distance hiking or off-trail travel. I hiked 2000 miles of the PCT in the banner snow year of 2017 (I had to start grad school, cutting my trip a little short). I hiked about half of the Idaho Centennial Trail in 2018 before falling ill with ehrlichiosis, after which I recovered and cruised the final section of the PCT. In 2019 I hiked about half of the Sierra High Route and most of the JMT. I know how to hike; I usually do these things solo; and I’m quite comfortable with off-trail travel. I don’t know shit about rafting though. As my roommate put it: “I don’t think it’s the wisest decision to do a solo wilderness paddling trip, having never paddled before.” But of course, those words fell on deaf ears.
Since a solo trip requires tons of logistics, and packrafting involves a lot of moving parts, the main gist of the trip can be broken up into three sections:
- Arrival and caching: Schlep my subaru over to BBNP and cache necessary provisions around the park.
- Hiking: Hike around the north side of Elephant Tusk and follow a dry arroyo until it becomes the Rio Grande
- Paddling: Raft my way back to my car.
Weather. Big Bend, being a near-Mexican desert, is best explored when it’s not devilishly hot outside. The highest water occurs after fall monsoons, and water is low in February. During a cold front, daytime temperatures will be in the ’40s, and I had timed my trip to hike during a cold front and paddle once it had passed (and hopefully before the next one arrived).
Section 1: Arrival and Caching
With my deadline completely zipped up, I hurriedly raided HEB for 8 days of thru-hiking staples and began the 8 hour drive to Big Bend from Austin. I arrived in Big Bend at 11PM in a rainstorm. I was intending to sleep in the back of my car at the main park headquarters to be first in line for a permit but the signs at park HQ informed me that this was strictly forbidden. Instead, I found the nearest dirt road, parked on a ‘shoulder’, unfurled my sleeping bag and climbed into the back of my car.
I awoke in my car to a chilly, cloudy day and I drove back to the park HQ. The only thing that could prevent me from attempting this trip was the legal power of the N.P.S. rangers and I rehearsed what I was going to say several times while waiting for the HQ to open. My planning paid off and I was second in line when they opened their doors. When it was my turn, I simply stated with completely unfounded confidence what I wanted to do:
“I want to hike around Elephant Tusk and then put in my packraft and paddle back to my car. I’ve read each rule on your website at least ten times, and look, here’s some printed maps and a very thorough working knowledge of the topology of the park”.
And magically, the ranger deemed this satisfactory and slid my permit across the counter. Of course I lied several times during this exchange: I fully intended to cache some food down by the Rio Grande (which is prohibited). I also was not planning on carrying a spare life-jacket, and you’d best believe I was going to cache my requisite spare paddle. (a note on my personal rules: I am more than okay caching food and water. Caching gear is cheating unless you never use it and just have to have it to placate rangers)
* Editors Note: Wild West Trail fully endorses and actively encourages no-permit challenges
Permit in hand, I then proceeded with the caching plan. Big Bend is true to its name and is massive. I had two cache locations:
Cache Point 1: Smokey Creek Primitive Site
- 4 days food
- 4 gallons water
- 1 cheapo spare paddle (for the bureaucrats)
I would also drop 9L of water off at a location that I’d hit after the first day of hiking. This second cache wasn’t strictly necessary, but I’m lazy and literally couldn’t fit 15L of water in my backpack.
Cache point 1 was a 90 minute drive from park HQ, 60 minutes of it on rough dirt road that abused the hell out of my poor little Subaru. I spent a good chunk of time scouring the landscape for a cache location that was sheltered enough to not be noticed by humans or animals, and would not wash away if a massive rainstorm came through. The base of a giant thorny bush behind a small hill seemed ideal.
Cache point 2: 4-hour drive along primitive roads from Cache point 1.
- 9L water
I had originally planned to start hiking by 2 or 3PM, but I severely miscalculated the time it takes to drive on these dirt roads. I drove two more hours to get to Rio Grande Village where I parked my car and just as the sun was setting, I began my hike.
Road Walking Because They Told Me To
For permit reasons, I needed to hike at least 5 miles, more than half of that on paved roads. Thus, one of the most remote wilderness trips I’ve done started with a dangerous task that I hate doing: road walking at night. Fortunately, I did not become roadkill, and made camp as soon as I was legally allowed to do so behind a large patch of cacti, hoping to get some shelter from the wind. Upon setting up my bug-net, I noticed a large tear in the sil-nylon floor, and I used more than half of my tenacious tape repairing it before eating dinner. Much to my dismay, I also realized that during some last minute food-bag switch-ups, I had left my gummy worms (my favorite trail snack) in my car. With the roaring wind, the starlit road walk, the gear mishaps and no gummy worms to bolster my spirits, my general unease about this trip hit its zenith.
My roommate may have been right: I don’t know shit about rafting. I lay awake for hours, considering everything that could go wrong and trying to recall my dense network of backup plans.
Section 2: Hiking
There are two fundamental truths I have come to know about deserts. It is almost always windy, and everything is spiky. I awoke for my first full day of hiking to the whistle of the wind. The arriving cold-front brought with it a strong sustained wind. Fortunately for me, this would mostly be a tailwind, but the concern that an easterly wind would act as a headwind when paddling was not lost on me.
I precariously tried to strap all of my paddle gear to my backpack and began my trek. The day’s hike would bring me through nearly 20 miles of desert road, with brief cross-country forays to cut off certain road-walk sections. In a flat open desert, bushwhacking is only a smidgen more difficult than walking on a trail or road, but significantly more interesting. I was slightly concerned that I would be about a day short of food, so I tried not to dilly-dally. Several cars passed me through this road-walk, some of them stopping to inquire why I had paddles and a life jacket clipped to my pack in the middle of the desert.
I made good time, and took lunch in the wind-shelter of the ruins of a house near Mariscol mine. Since I’m mostly a 3-season hiker, it was strange to lay in the sun with a puffy on and still be a little chilly. By mid-afternoon I had arrived at cache point 2 where I had kept 9L of water. The primitive campsite where I had cached my water was occupied by two older gentlemen who watched with amusement as I heaved to put my pack on, now containing 12L of water, full paddle gear, and standard backpacking gear. I then marched right off the road into the drainage of Fresno Creek and bushwhacked until my target campsite for the night. My goal for the day was to rid myself of pesky road-walks and enter the cross-country section of the Elephant Tusk trail, which I accomplished right as the sun slipped below the horizon. I again found shelter from the wind in a big bushel of cacti, and lay my weary body down to sleep. I began to realize that the Osprey Exos is not designed to hold 60lbs of gear, food and water.
Finally! The first day where I was able to hike up a hill. The Elephant Tusk trail links the Elephant Tusk primitive site to the Dodson trail and, while marked as a ‘pack trail’ on the USGS quad maps, is not maintained and has not been maintained for a long time. It is no longer included on the official park map. But to me, this is thrilling. I was hiking extremely close to Elephant Tusk mountain, a solitary rocky outcropping directly south of the Chisos mountains (possibly the most appealing hiking in BBNP), and then navigate narrow ravines to hit the right outflow of Fresno Creek. I had jogged about a mile of this trail the previous year and I was prepared for the rugged non-existent path lacking any markings.
The first several miles of the old elephant tusk trail cross flat open desert, and has iron posts driven into the ground every several hundred yards as a navigational aid. I don’t understand why this was done: if you dead-reckon your way to the east face of Elephant Tusk and bushwhack, you proceed just as efficiently when compared to the scanning for these iron posts. Once the terrain was steeper, the posts disappeared and the cairns were nearly nonexistent. This is exactly what I signed up for!
Regarding travel through desert mountains, game trails and arroyos are the primary highways for animals and humans alike. When the arroyo is wide, it might as well be a dirt road. When the arroyo is narrow, it becomes overgrown by reeds, cacti, and the dreaded ocotillo: this is the only spiky plant that grows tall enough to reach my packraft and I would have been so bummed if it punctured on a spiky desert plant before I even dipped into the Rio Grande. For narrow arroyos, it meant pushing through dense brush, squeezing past spiky plants, and scrambling to avoid deep tinajas.
As is typical when I bushwhack, I don’t think deep thoughts about life, liberty, and my pursuits of happiness. Instead, my eyes stay peeled for optimal micro-navigation and lining up my topo maps with the terrain. In terms of bushwhacking appeal, the Elephant Tusk trail is the most beautiful and challenging portion of the hiking section of this trip. The main highlights are the main discomforts, and along these lines, the peak experience occurred when I tried to sidestep past a thick patch of brush along a rocky ledge and slipped and fell crotch-first into a cactus. The future generations of Michael Jordans were, thankfully, preserved, but I had to stop and double over in laughter at the notion of just dicking down a cactus.
After a few short detours and wrong turns down the wrong arroyos, I arrived at the rim of Fresno Creek where the Elephant Tusk trail joins the Dodson trail, one of the most heavily trafficked trails in the park. It was manicured and mindlessly easy to follow, and I felt relieved that I had completed the most challenging portion of my hike. I was proud that I did this with high spirits throughout, didn’t break any of my gear, and only got stabbed by about 10,000 cacti.
I lunched at a beautiful overlook by mid-afternoon and the clouds magically cleared up. It became a warm sunny day, and it made for particularly pleasant trail-hiking. I even ran into a few other groups of hikers who were hiking the outer mountain loop, and I had the opportunity to boast a little about why I was carrying a boat 30 miles from the nearest paddle-able water.
Only an hour or so of trail-hiking afterwards, I diverged from the Dodson trail and turned onto the significantly less-traveled Smokey Creek Trail. This is an official trail according to the park, but it only goes about halfway down the Smokey Creek drainage before turning east toward Mule Ears trail. Going downstream is significantly easier than upstream because of the downhill aspect, but also because I can just follow gravity and end up where I want to go — not the case when going upstream.
Exhausted from humping >10L of water through several thousand feet of cross-country climbing, I made camp at a beautiful overlook where I watched the beautiful desert sunset turn into a cloudless night under a moonless sky. Perhaps the most ‘fish story’ part of my trip then happened: I heard a cry off in the distance like a woman screaming. I believe this was a mountain lion, and equipped with this thought, shivers shot down my spine. I’m a big juicy snack for a mountain lion since I have a proclivity to hike solo during dawn and dusk. I briefly debated whether my trekking pole or paddle would be a better weapon should I happen to have an apex-predator showdown the following morning.
I awoke about 14 miles from the Rio Grande, which means that I would end up touching Mexico by day’s end. The plan was simply follow the Smokey Creek drainage down to the river, trails be damned. Navigation was simple and honestly I felt silly even carrying quad maps for this section. I crawled out of my bug-net to no apparent mountain lion threat and heaved my excessively heavy backpack onto my back and began hiking. Occasionally, I would climb out of the wash when it got too narrow and overgrown. When I checked my GPS I saw the ‘trail’ counter-intuitively follows weird braids in the arroyo. Perhaps they were the more efficient route but from a purely topographic perspective, it seemed a roundabout way to proceed. So follow the wash I did. Beautiful narrow ravines gave way to wide open desert and a spectacular view of the Mule Ears peaks. I know that these are notoriously chossy and not amenable to climbing (having claimed lives in the past), but I earmarked the potential for some summit-bagging in Big Bend for future adventures on the less dangerous routes. Elephant Tusk comes to mind and requires only a class 4 rappel for 30 feet or so (or so I’ve read).
After several hours of cruising down the Smokey Creek highway, I rejoined the River Road and approached the old Smokey Creek primitive site where I had cached my water, food, and spare paddle. I hurried my pace to a near run as I got close to the cache point 1, because I couldn’t quell my nerves. I wasn’t worried about a bear eating my food: no way they can crack my bear-can in a sandy wasteland, but a curious animal might have moved my belongings around. I was fully prepared to play a dangerous game of geocaching so I could eat dinner that night. Much to my relief, my cache belongings were right where I had left them!
I ate lunch on a sandy beach of the Rio Grande while I attempted to shift gears from hiking mode to paddling mode. This was where I left my comfort zone: I hadn’t seen anyone since the previous afternoon, and I wasn’t really planning on coming across anyone else on the river. I was utterly alone, with extremely limited paddling experience. I’d never taken my raft on whitewater but the outfitters I had called the previous week assured me I wouldn’t come across any class >II rapids. My primary concern was soaking all my gear and spending a cold night or two in the unseasonably chilly February air. But I was as far from my car as I would ever be, so the only thing to do was inflate the boat, re-rig everything and make a couple of miles of paddling.
I put into the Rio at about 4:30 in the afternoon and quickly found that the Rio Grande is not that grand at all. The depth was rarely more than 3 feet deep, the water was generally flat-water, and any fast sections were incredibly shallow. Popping the tubes of my raft wouldn’t be nearly as likely as puncturing a hole in the floor of my boat. I hadn’t yet mastered the techniques to preserve my hull integrity and I took some hard skids that first day. I also foolishly organized things poorly and ended up with wet hiking shoes AND wet wet-suit booties, leaving me with no dry footwear by the time I pulled out onto another sandy beach and set up camp.
As I lay on the beach watching the sun set, I finally began to think that I might just complete this trip without any major problems. My hike went swimmingly and was the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on all year. Paddling, especially on flat water, was trivial and relaxing. Morale was high.
Section 3: Paddling
I woke up for my first full day of packrafting, excited that I wouldn’t have to lug water all over the desert and finally take advantage of the 10lbs of paddle gear I had strapped to my backpack. The first thing I learned is that packrafting is sloooow. Even the setup for packrafting is slow. Normally, when I backpack, I can wake up, eat breakfast, tear down camp and be hiking in half an hour. For packrafting, I have to do everything I would do for backpacking, but also move my boat down to the river to temper, and then change into paddle gear, and then stow everything into its respective location on the boat. This adds a significant overhead to my morning routine. Also, one of the things I like least about hiking is the first mile or two in the morning before my body shakes off the morning cold and starts pumping out heat. The relative ease of paddling, and the crisp morning air makes morning paddling less comfortable than morning hiking.
After paddling for an hour or so, however, I begin to find my groove and relish in the sheer beauty of the Rio. A river teeming with foliage and life in an otherwise inhospitable desert is a magical thing. The complete silence broken only by the rhythmic sloshing of my paddles propelling me through the water became my soundtrack. Being able to make forward progress in flatwater sections while relaxing completely is truly wonderful. Most importantly, being able to lay down all day and not work my legs was like a resort vacation compared to hiking with a heavy pack.
Other than a brief midday lunch along a gorgeous shore, I stayed in my boat the entire day. I began to experiment with different techniques to handle the shoal-y sections of the Rio. Anytime the river dropped, the current increased, and to maintain the invariant cfs flow, the depth decreased to low enough to cause me to scrape the bottom of my boat. For this, I experimented with two different techniques.
I will use Roman Dial’s terminology here, but I didn’t read about these until I returned home. The first technique is known as “walking the dog”, where I hop out of my boat in shallow sections and grab onto the “tail” of paracord tied to the stern and simply let the current take my boat where it wants it to, while I patiently follow along behind in shin-deep water. The second technique is known as “starfishing”, where you throw your legs onto the tubes of the raft, thereby removing all weight from the floor of the raft. My variant on this, I call ‘frog-legging’ where you let your knees rest on the raft with the soles of your feet together, and you clench your butt, a similar action to the yoga bridge pose. This brings the weight of your body on the tubes, but also allows for greater paddle control.
As the sun sank lower into the sky, I found myself on a beach on the Mexican side of the river, where I used my raft to set up a wind shelter and made camp in the lee. The westerly wind was warm and the night was mild. I ended up falling asleep while stargazing outside of my bug-net, tired after a long day of paddling.
Okay, oof. Paddling is harder than I thought it’d be. My arms felt heavy as I woke up and I weighed my route options. I had more than enough food and water to make it back to my car if I kept up yesterday’s pace, or even significantly reduced it. Mariscol canyon was 12 miles from where I woke up, and I was concerned that I would be unable to find good camping in the canyon. If I ran the canyon today, I would not be out of it until the sun had set. Not wanting to rush my adventure, I leisurely paddled the 12 miles to Talley and found a nice Mexican beach to sun myself and eat lunch.
Feeling the fatigue of the hike and paddle, and enjoying the warm cloudless day, I decided to take a half-day’s rest and post up on the beach for the rest of the day. This was possibly one of the best decisions on my trip. Normally when I trek solo, I tend to move as long as there is daylight, seldom taking breaks — as is the thru-hiker mentality. On the other hand, the Rio Grande is possibly the best paddling in Texas and I’d be remiss if I didn’t stop and smell the roses for a bit. I propped up my raft to make a shady Cabana and I alternated laying naked in the sun and in the shade. I also took this opportunity to dip into the whiskey I was carrying with me all week. With each passing hour and each passing sip, I felt my mood lighten and by the time the sky turned dark, I was ecstatic in a deep state of relaxation and decompression. I watched as the mountains that formed Mariscol canyon turned a deep golden color and then fade into darkness. As usual, the stars in Big Bend were magnificent: the longer you look, the more stars one sees. I slept without my bug-net so I could see the stars better, and excitedly thought about the highlight of my paddling trip, which I’d hit in the morning.
After a surprisingly chilly night, I awoke to frost covering my backpack. Not wanting to waste any time and eager to get into Mariscol canyon, I ate a cold breakfast and hurriedly broke camp and rigged my raft. The morning was cold, but I was excited for what should be the most exciting rapids of the trip, and the prospect of paddling in an otherwise inaccessible canyon, penned in by steep rocky canyon walls.
I thought I was aware of what canyons were like. I was wrong. I was flabbergasted by the immensity and beauty of Mariscol Canyon. A narrow chasm of rock and water, shaded for most of the day, with exciting but easy rapids awaited me. I took time to dilly-dally as much as I could, balancing the chill with minor spurts energy where required to maneuver my raft. Words and photos don’t do the experience justice, if you’re considering a Big Bend paddling trip, definitely do not skip Mariscol canyon. I had not seen a human since day 2, so the remoteness only added to my wonder.
Alas, all good things must end, and the canyon walls abruptly broke to a much wider section of river with broken canyons penning in the Rio. I heard the sound of human voices, and lo and behold, I ran into another group of humans! It was a river ranger and several NPS volunteers doing an overnight trip from Talley to Solis, hitting only Mariscol canyon. They had two canoes, and a PACKRAFT! I chatted with them while they ate lunch about my adventure, about the upcoming weather, and we marveled together at how astoundingly pretty Big Bend is. They informed me that a cold front was moving in and it would bring an easterly wind that would be a gnarly headwind for me. I was hesitant to hang out for too long since I wanted to make some miles before I had to battle a headwind, I was also technically not carrying a firepan (my cookpot counts, right?) or a second lifejacket as the park requires.
I said my goodbyes and proceeded to paddle downstream. After a short snack and mid river siesta, I heard the ranger’s crew off in the distance, quickly gaining speed on me. A packraft without a pack on it and a canoe were both faster than my setup and they rejoined me as we floated together for a mile until they had to pull out. I exchanged packrafting tips with the girl in the Alpacka, and chatted park policy with the ranger. I admitted to not carrying a second lifejacket and skirting by on a technicality with my firepan, and the ranger did not seem eager to write me any tickets. I respect the park rules where I can, and I always practice leave-no trace backcountry travel, and it seems like these rules are more for conservation of the park and safety for inexperienced paddling groups (I didn’t mention that I, myself, was quite inexperienced).
After the ranger crew pulled out at Solis, I got to paddling. The ranger pointed out some nice campsites and I was eager to make miles before the headwind started. Unfortunately, the headwind started soon thereafter and I spent the rest of the afternoon crawling along while paddling hard. None of the river features were challenging, but the headwind tunneled through San Vicente canyon and became unbearably strong. I felt like I was sprinting for several hours, while making only minimal progress. The upside to this is that any break I took essentially caused me to float upstream, allowing for more time to gawk at the scenery.
I made camp in Texas about 12 miles from RGV, utterly exhausted, my skinny little noodle arms hanging from my torso like… well, like wet noodles. Speaking of, I cooked a massive noodle dinner with peanut-butter and spam and ramen noodles and laid in the grass for my last night looking at the Milky Way. Tomorrow, I hit the Hot Springs, Hot Springs Canyon, and my car (and the promise of a cheeseburger).
As much as I love the wilderness, there’s something magical about the prospect of returning to society with climate-controlled rooms and infinite numbers of cheeseburgers. I was tempted to lay in bed and bask in my last campsite but I wanted to drive back to Austin that night instead of having to sleep in the back of my car somewhere in central Texas. I started my paddle, thinking that the cold calm morning would lead into a mild calm day, reckoning that the cold front had missed me entirely.
Once again I was incorrect, and the headwind returned with a vengeance by 9AM. The air was chilly and the choppy waves and spray kept me wetter than I would have liked. I was glad to have my wetsuit, but I was also eager to pull up to the Hot Springs. After hours of grinding, I ran into some commercial canoeing outfitters who pointed out that the hot springs were just up ahead. I didn’t waste time chatting and sped off to the prospect of a warm bath with human conversation. I spun my raft into the eddy formed by the hot spring outflow and yanked my boat onto the shore. I stripped off my clothes and immersed myself in the refreshing bathwater of the hot springs. The ranger I met yesterday suggested that I do exactly this, and then I could discuss my adventure with the other hot springs visitors “like a hero” (ranger’s words, not mine). While stuffing my face with chocolate, I regaled tales of my journey to the other bathers, with a deep feeling of pride and accomplishment swelling in my chest. This a bold adventure, even for me, and at this point, I had all but completed it. There was only 2 miles or so left to RGV, with no apparent risk, so I was in no hurry. I laid in the hot springs for an extended period of time, and alternated between the springs and the Rio, all while eating the last of the “good snacks” in my backpack.
Knowing that an 8 hour drive still lay ahead of me, I didn’t relax too long, and donned my still wet (and now very cold) clothes and expertly mounted my raft, pushing off into the mild rapids near the springs. Hot Springs Canyon is exceptionally pretty and felt like a victory lap to me. I was mostly shielded from the headwind, and I lay on my boat basking in the scenery. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the insanity of carrying a boat in a desert, and the utter calm one gets when one hasn’t seen humans for more than 4 days.
This might just have been the perfect vacation. When I reached the RGV pullout, I let out a whoop of elation and wiped a tear or two of joy from my eyes. I pulled my boat out, retrieved my car, and began the long, celebratory drive home back to Austin.
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