Big Bend – Off Road in the National Park

Off roading in Big Bend National Park

isn’t the type of off roading that I typically think of. There aren’t tons of rocks to crawl over, canyons or drive through, or high peaks that reveal views. No, in fact off roading in Big Bend is quite different. Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan desert, the very Northern part to be exact. The Chihuahuan desert stretches from North Central Mexico, all the way into the United States. While this desert is home to a few mountain ranges, the southern area of Big Bend is what I picture as the classic desert.

Mile after mile of desert sand, small shrubs, and the occasional sloping mounds. The one respite this part of Big Bend National Park offers is the beautiful Rio Grande River. River Road, the name of the primary road that stretches from West to East in the park, varies in distance from the river. The river is easy to spot most of the time thanks to the amount of green fauna growing around the banks. In the distance, you’ll likely spot the cliffs on the Southern Border of the river which lie in Mexico.

View of a horse shoe bend in the Rio Grande River while off roading in Big Bend National Park

River Road in Big Bend

runs all the way across the Southern end of the park. In total, this drive will take you more than 60 miles off road through beautiful desert scenery. With views of the Chisos Mountains to the North and the Rio Grande and Mexico to the South, there is plenty to keep your eyes searching. The 3rd Gen Toyota 4Runner we took off roading performed flawlessly. Our gear rode safely in the trunk thanks to the awesome storage system I had built only a few weeks prior. At times we traveled at a crawl, slowly rolling over large bumps and rocks, and at other times we flew along at 50 miles per hour over soft sand in the flats.

Along the way we were lucky to find amazing views of the South Rim, wild horses, other desert creatures that were too fast for us to be able to photograph.

Campsite Talley #4

was our final destination. We launched into the off roading experience just after 2pm on Saturday. We would spend the next 4 hours traversing the greater part of the park. The desert was decently well traveled that day. We crossed no less than 6 other vehicles headed from East to West. Areas to pull to the side were not that hard to come by, given that you’re in a desert. No one else had their windows down like we did though. Who knows why! (kidding…SO dusty).

The most difficult run in we had with another vehicle was heading south on Talley road. A single lane, double rut road with 4 foot sloped walls on either side for at least 1 mile, we met a 70’s yellow land cruiser smack in the middle. Thankfully, the 4 wheel drive of the 4runner was up to the task of climbing the side wall!

The campsite itself sat right on top of the Rio Grande. In fact, less than 5 years ago both Talley #3 and #4 were wiped out during floods. It appears that as the river claims back the bank on the North side, these campsites continually move further North.

We had arrived just in time for the last hour of sunlight. We spent it enjoying some time in the frigid water, and exploring the very most Southern point in the entirety of Big Bend. Muddy ground, unique plants, a plethora of wildlife tracks, and some conspicuously placed water jugs were all found during our short exploration.

Backpacking Big Bend National Park

Backpacking in Big Bend

brought me so many new experiences. Day 3 of backpacking Big Bend National Park would be our final day inside the Chisos Mountain Range. The night before we ran into the largest black bear I’ve ever seen, and went to bed listening to every sound outside of our tent very carefully. As the sun began to rise over Emory Peak and touch our campsite in Laguna Meadows, we were awoken by movement just outside our tent. Expecting our bear friend to have returned, I quickly readied my tools. Opening the tent door, I was happily greeted by 2 white tail deer less than 15 feet away.

Being 27 degrees out, I had not wanted to get up in the night to use the restroom, so I decided now was the time. The deer in Big Bend are so tame! They did not move an inch as I climbed out of the tent and walked passed them.

Temperatures below freezing in Big Bend

make for a fun breakfast eating experience. Metal pots, cold water, and a brisk breeze meant that as I poured my ration of water for breakfast into the pot, the water froze! Living in Texas for 7+ years now, I can say that it has been a while since I had dealt with frozen water while camping. Thankfully the stove we had was up to the task and quickly boiling water for our meals. While I waited for my breakfast to reconstitute, I flew my drone up from our campsite in Laguna Meadows to Emory Peak.

Hiking down the mountains at Big Bend

brought us new views even yet. Having summited the Pinnacles Trail on our way in, we got brand new views as we descended the Laguna Meadows Trail all the way back down the the Chisos Basin trailhead. Backpacking in Big Bend isn’t the only way to get this experience! Being a Saturday, we met numerous day hikers on their way up to summit Emory Peak or hike along the famous South Rim Trail. We also saw a beautiful grey fox and many birds. We got to hike through soft, dark volcanic soil and even got new extreme views of the Chisos peaks as we descended deep into the canyons that Big Bend has to offer while backpacking.

In total, backpacking down from Laguna Meadows was approx 4.5mi, but only took about 2 hours. Downhill goes so much quicker than up!

Big Bend Backpacking

offers diverse and amazing experiences. From the wildlife to extending views I am 100% sure that you will find a more Nature Connected Life awaits you should you take the time to visit.

While this brings us to the end of our backpacking portion, we now get to pick up the story as Garrett and I prepared to conquer Big Bend off road – drive across the entire southern end of Big Bend National Park, some 60 miles!

1999 Toyota 4Runner Trunk Storage

A trunk storage system that follows the KISS(Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle.

Project Goals

  1. 2 tiered storage system
  2. Strong enough to hold heavy equipment and water
  3. Easily removable, can be left in for EDC equipment and hide under the trunk cover
  4. Cheap
  5. Fast to build

Project Measurements

  • 48″W
  • 36″D(based on height, back seats recline)
  • ~15.5″H

Tools & Materials

  • Drill/Driver
  • Pocket hole jig
  • Saw
  • Single piece of 4’x8’x3/4″ sanded plywood ($35)
  • Anchor points (2 packs of 4, $4.99/each)
  • 1″ Kreg Pocket Screws
  • 4 Turnbuckles ($2/each)

Instructions

  1. Cut plywood
    1. 1x 48″x36″
    2. 2x 36″x14.5″ or 15″
    3. (optional) 1x 48x 15.5 to put across the back for additional bracing/hiding spot
  2. Measure inside dimensions of wheel weels. Mine were 35″
  3. Mark underside of 48″x36″ outside lines at width from step 2
  4. Use pocket hole jig to drill holes into 2x 36″x14.5″ pieces
  5. Use 1″ Kreg Pocket Screws to mount 36″x14.5″ pieces to the 48″x36″ sheet
  6. Install into vehicle
  7. Mark Positions for anchor points/turnbuckle attachments
  8. Install Anchor points on sides, and top to secure loads
  9. Final Install

How to build a KISS principle trunk storage solution

The KISS principle stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. This idea can be expanded on later to add drawers, shelves, or any other matter of options. For under $50, this solved all of my current problems with my 4Runner for the camping and overlanding trips I take it on. This build is very simple, and hopefully you find the information here useful. Stop procrastinating(like I did for 4 years) and just build it! It’s less than $50!

Backpacking The Chisos Mountains Day 2

Weather during October at Big Bend

is apparently unpredictable in terms of temperature. The thermometer showed 29 degrees inside the tent, thankfully the Texas sun would soon be up. Opening the zipper revealed the view from our Toll Mountain campsite. Superb. The visibility had increased dramatically from yesterday, and we could easily see 10-20 miles looking Northwest. To prepare for our day of backpacking in the Chisos Mountains we made breakfast(this may have been the best breakfast I’ve ever had while backpacking – Peak Refuel Breakfast Skillet topped with Yellowbird Blue Agave Hot Sauce was unreasonably tasty).

Despite the cold 30 degree wind whipping through the pass, the sun kept us warm while we ate and mentally prepared ourselves for the day ahead which would bring tons of wildlife, 10+ miles of hiking, an amazing sunset, and an encounter with the largest black bear I’ve ever seen.

Deer at Big Bend National Park

are apparently fine with humans. I imagine since they’re protected within the park they’ve learned that they don’t need to run from us hikers. Not even 5 minutes from our campsite, we rounded the corner South on Boot Spring Trail and came within 20 feet of 4 white tail deer. All were 6-8 pointers and hung out with us for a few minutes while they munched on the various plant life on the side of the mountain.

Laguna West

is our destination. Specifically LW3, the furthest campsite west of Emory Peak. To get there, we would backpack South along Boot Spring Trail, cut West through Colima Trail, and follow the Laguna Meadow Trail back North.

A total distance of 4.5mi of varying inclines and descents was a moderate hike through beautiful canyons and along ridge lines of various peaks. Colima Trail was shaded and cool with stiff breezes that kept me in a hat and jacket the whole way. As we began to descend to the Laguna West trail via the Southwest Rim Trail we took in some amazing views. At the time, we didn’t know it was only a taste of what was to come. The final jaunt from the main trail to our campsite was a little over one mile, mostly through tall grass. Thankfully we didn’t run into any snakes!

The time was 3pm. We dropped our gear, set up camp, and prepared for our next hike.

The best backpacking trail in the Chisos Mountains

is probably the South Rim. Now, I haven’t hiked every trail so I can’t say that definitively, but I can say it was my personal favorite. The views are better than those from Emory Peak, the trail is more diverse, and the views on the way to the trail are even amazing. We hustled along for the most part, unsure of where we really wanted to watch sunset from. You can watch the whole hike with binaural audio from my point of view, so go grab a pair of headphones!

This was a 4.2mi hike one way, the only real elevation change is from Laguna Meadows up to the Southwest Rim(~400ft). These were the most amazing views looking out from the Chisos Mountains that I saw on my trip. We easily spent 2 hours just appreciating how the sun kept us warm and played with all the shadows across the horizon. Looking South across the desert, Rio Grande river, and into Mexico was beautiful.

The bear

The sun dipped below the horizon at 7:17pm. A 2.5 mile night hike back to our tent from the sunset perch lay ahead of us. As we passed LW2, Garrett motioned to me.

“Do you hear anything” he whispered, looking above us.

I pulled my hat above my ears, turning my head the same way as his. Nothing. I pushed onward, and as I rounded the next bend in the trail I pointed out the light about 50 feet off of the trail. We were going to have “neighbors” tonight. “That must be what you heard”, I remarked to Garrett.

We arrived at our campsite some 400 feet away from theirs and settled in to our warm, dry clothes that were waiting for us. Passing time as the water came to a boil, we reviewed the days activities and fun moments. Just as I dumped the boiling water from the pot into my freeze-dried dinner, we heard it.

Yelling. Screaming. Clapping. Then nothing. Then again.

I shout “are you okay over there?”

“No! There’s a bear in our campsite!” they reply.

Tying shoe laces, a flurry of movement between Garrett and I as we grab gear and spring into action. Running down through the valley between the campsites the tall grass whips by. I’m the first on the scene. With my 1200 lumen flashlight, I reveal the campsite. There it is, in the edge of my light spill. The largest black bear I’ve ever seen. He’s rummaging through the camper’s backpacks that had been hung from a tree.

I point my light directly into it’s eyes and shout, “Hey!” The bear returns my look. Time is frozen. A 500-600lb bear less than 50 feet away will do that. Garrett arrives and I look over to initiate the trade of the bear spray. In the split second hand off, the bear has already turned 180 degrees, and begins to saunter up into the thick woods above. We continue shouting and throw rocks into the woods.

Our neighbors respond in a shaky tone, “Is it gone, can we come out?”

The conversation that follows causes Garrett and I to shake our heads and chuckle for the next few days. The TLDR; is:

Us: Did you bring bear spray or self defense tool like a gun?

Them: We have some bells

Us: Just shout real loud if it comes back

And that is my story of the largest black bear I’ve ever seen. No photos, no videos. In a day in the age of cell phones, I’m happy to say my first response is still to help others rather than just take a video.

Backpacking the Chisos Basin

Backpacking in the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park is amazing. If you ever have the chance, I highly recommend the trip. The Chisos Mountain Range is the only mountain range completely contained within a national park in the U.S.

Arrival

Riding into the park

is like being on another planet. Stretching desert landscapes barren of anything taller than the occasional yucca made me think about the natives of this land. How the heck did people live out here in this climate during the heat of Texas summers? How did they manage to travel such great distances across these landscapes? Could I survive the same?

It’s beautiful. Garrett and I didn’t say much for the first bit as we drove through the park. Besides the surprisingly young and good looking park ranger who provided us our 7 day pass to the park, I think we were caught up in our own imaginations and observations. Slowly we began to comment on the scenes in front of us, which naturally lead to taking some photos and videos of our drive in.

Passing Panther Junction, the last stop for fuel and air, we moved on towards our trail head in the Chisos Mountain Basin. As we turned onto Basin Junction Road and climbed the the 1400ft to the basin, the change in temperature became quickly apparent. Dropping from the high 70’s to the low 50’s in the basin we became much more excited to be hiking and sleeping outside. We stopped in to the visitors center, selected our campsites, took the chance to use plumbed restrooms for the last time in the next few days, and prepped our bacpacking gear.

The Practical

Alright real quick, here’s the practical if you’re going to do something similar to what we did

  • Fill up with gas in Marathon, TX to avoid over-paying at Panther Junction
  • Park entrance fee was $30 for 7 days in October of 2019(subject to change)
  • Camping site fees were incredibly low. $6 a night I believe?
  • Reservations in the Chisos Basin are only available November 15-May 31. First come first serve at all other times
  • Parking lots get really full. We parked in overflow which added ~1 mile to our hike(a hard, sucky mile, too)
  • This is your last chance to use restrooms with plumbing

The Pinnacles Trail

is a 3.8mi+ hike from the Chisos Basin visitor center. An elevation gain of just under 2000ft had us breathing hard, and going back and forth between complaining as we got our hiking legs on, and oo-ing and ah-ing over the unbelievable views from the switchbacks. Looking out from the trail, views of the surrounding peaks, the basin below, and The Window kept us going. Carrying a backpack with camping gear of course adds difficulty, so if you’re just doing a day hike you’ll likely conquer this a bit faster than our 3 hour time.

Toll Mountain

is the campsite at the base of the Emory Peak summit trail. The campsite sits on top of the pass between Emory Peak, and, you guessed it, Toll Mountain. The wind really whips through this camp site, so if it’s going to be 30 degrees like it was for us, make sure you come prepared!

Emory Peak Summit Trail

is 1.5mi hike with 830ft of elevation gain. The last ~150-200ft are up a rock scramble that many will be uncomfortable with. We began our summit at 615pm. The sun was already below the horizon, so we went prepared with jackets, hats, and headlamps. This hike was surreal. After hiking ~4.5mi to our campsite with our packs, it was a welcome change to be hiking with minimal gear. Garrett wanted to take his time, so at some point I pushed ahead, leaving him to his own pace. The views were amazing, especially at dusk. I have a full video of the Emory Peak Summit Hike with Binaural Audio that will be uploaded, so if you want to experience it for yourself, grab your headphones and have a gander. We stayed up until after dark, played a bit of flashlight tag with neighbors ~2500ft below us at their campsite, and enjoyed 2(yes, two!) lightning storms on the horizon. The hike down was chilly, and we were glad to have dinner and get some sleep. In total we spent just over 2 hours climbing up and down the Emory Peak summit, including our time taking in the views from up top.

Exercise – Weekly Challenge 002

The goal of these challenges is to help you notice more about the nature around you. That means that you should get rid of distractions. You’ll only be doing yourself a disservice.

These videos are released every Saturday, but feel free to work on them at any pace you’d like.

This week’s challenge is to exercise outside. Our doctors would tell us that we need at least 20 minutes of cardio 3 times per week. Not many of us get that regularly, but this week we’re all going to get some exercise in. Try to spend at least 10 minutes doing this!

Find a spot outside, and pick an exercise. Try to pick something that gets your heartrate up above resting levels. Here’s a couple ideas if nothing comes to mind.

  • Jog
  • Hike
  • Swim
  • Ride a bike

Or if you want can find some others to join you

  • Frisbee
  • Football or soccer

Good luck, be safe!

Look Up – Weekly Challenge 001

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFNRv3mpa-s

The goal of these challenges is to help you notice more about the nature around you. That means that you should get rid of distractions. You’ll only be doing yourself a disservice.

These videos are released every Saturday, but feel free to work on them at any pace you’d like.

This week’s challenge is to simply find a place to lay on the ground and look upwards. Take 5 to 10 minutes out of your day, find somewhere you can lay flat on your back and just look up. Night, day, rain, or shine.

Let your breathing slow down and concentrate on what you’re seeing. Don’t let your mind wander quite yet. Spend at least 5 minutes trying to concentrate on what your senses are bringing in. Sights, sounds, and everything else that may be more subtle. If you have the time, once you’ve done that now you can let your mind wander. It’s the perfect time to figure out what in life is most important to you this week.

Camping at Krause Springs

Join us for a short camping trip to Krause Springs in Spicewood, Texas.

A quick trip with friends to camp outside always makes for good memories. This was a quick trip for us as we both needed to be back for Saturday night engagements, so we arranged to leave our day jobs a bit early on Friday and headed out to Texas hill country.

Krause Springs in Spicewood is only a short 45 minute drive from Austin(where we’re from) so we arrived by 5pm. A quick survey of the land to choose our campsite, unload our gear to set up camp, and we were soon headed towards the beautiful butterfly and wind chime gardens.

Dual hammock camping setup at Krause Springs
Dual hammock setup at Krause Springs

Krause Springs Hiking

After a walk down an old stone wall, we wound up at an amazing hollowed out Cypress tree larger enough to fit 5-6 people inside of. It seems someone had a fire in there at some point(not cool, man.). But amazing to be inside of!

Person inside hollowed out cypress tree
Hollowed out cypress tree at Krause Springs

We finally made our way down to the springs and just enjoyed the sound of the waterfall for a while. Now this is what nature is about!

This waterfall has big stalactites hanging down, no doubt hundreds of years old. Krause Springs is all natural and flows year round. Plenty of limestone to produce more of those stalactites!

Waterfall at Krause Springs

Campsites, fires, and Krause Springs

Back to camp. Get a fire going. Talk to some neighbors and help them get a fire going because they forgot their lighter and had no kindling. Note to readers: always remember fire!

An easy evening around the fire was just what we needed after 2 absolutely crazy months of work for both of us.

Sitting by the campfire at Krause Springs
Campfire at Krause Springs

We slept in pretty late the next morning because we had seen that a storm was supposed to be rolling in around 4am and out around 8am. When we finally got out of our hammocks after 8:30 the sky was split, but no rain. The fire was restarted from coals we’d hid the night before under some rocks, and breakfast was an awesome hash of Texas venison, potatoes, onions, fried eggs, and avocado.

Breakfast hash krause springs camping with venison, potatoes, eggs, onion, and avocado

Spend the next 5 hours chasing snakes, swimming, jumping off rope swings, and making new friends. To me, that’s an ideal Saturday. Check out these splashes!

After some long naps in the hammocks, it was finally time to leave. We’ll be back Krause Springs.

I highly recommend that if you’re ever in the central Texas region and have the time that you stop by Krause Springs. Even if you can’t camp overnight, Krause offers amazing gardens, swimming, and beautiful nature scenes.

Krause Springs Waterfall Funny Face