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Its My Birthday I Can Hike if I Want Too

This year, I didn't want a party; I wanted a chance to finally try out backpacking. I have been eager to get into backpack camping for so long now, but no one I'm close with is interested in this extracurricular activity. I thought maybe I could get away with making it a birthday trip. Guess what, it worked. I was able to wrangle up my boyfriend and his parents, as well as my mom and her fiance. Really I was glad to combine my favorite things for my birthday, being with family and being outdoors. I don't think the excitement was unanimous, but I'd say the majority of the group was looking forward to the trip.


Big Bend entrance sign

I settled on Big Bend National Park for two reasons. It is the most conveniently located National Park between myself and my family. And I have lived in Texas my entire life, and not once have I visited Big Bend. My bucket list includes visiting all 63 national parks in the U.S. If I am going to mark off every one, then I better get started.


Planning for the trip was overwhelming. There is a lot more to consider when you have to pack and carry everything you need for the expedition. Before getting too carried away with purchasing equipment, I needed to secure a backcountry permit. That also meant I had to figure out what trail we would travel and where we would camp. The Big Bend National Park website was helpful when figuring out these details. Thankfully, I scaled back the hike into camp to only 1.5 miles for the parents.

Campsite with a great view

Otherwise, I would have said, let's go all the way to the South Rim, and geez, I would have regretted those 7 miles. So instead of camping at the South Rim, we camped at Boulder Meadows. It turned out to be the perfect location, with a great view and tree cover. The park's busy season is during the spring and fall months when temperatures are not too cold and not too hot. If you can bear low temperatures of 30 degrees, I recommend planning your trip just before spring or after fall. The weather for our trip was perfect, with nights in the high 30s and day temperatures reaching 70 degrees.


It was challenging getting everyone geared up for the excursion. Not everyone in the group had all the gear ready at hand. We all borrowed, shared, and bought what was essential. Backpacking isn't a cheap hobby but can be made more affordable if you work to collect items over an extended period of time. That way, you can research what equipment you need and look for deals throughout the year. Some things will never be on sale, but you can find an affordable version of whatever item you require most of the time. By no means do I have everything I need to go on a solo exploration yet. I am still gathering and testing gear for myself, but I know someone in the bunch will have what I need to get by for the near future. It is always better to research and save up for quality equipment instead of purchasing cheap items that "might" be comfortable. This can make for some long days and nights. It also usually ends up costing more in the long run. Although I hadn't backpacked before this trip, I have done a fair amount of camping, so I did have some gear experience. Some things I will not spare include; shelter, sleeping gear, backpack, and shoes. If these few components are not comfortable or durable, it can really spoil a trip. I have spent a few nights shivering myself to sleep because I thought I was prepared "enough."


Beginning our hike to camp as a group, each person was packing in about 50 lbs. This included 8 - 12 liters of water per person, which translates to 16 - 24 pounds. Water is not a guarantee in Big Bend, and we needed enough for 2 days of drinking and cooking. It's another something you shouldn't skimp on. For the first 100 yards, I could feel my pack shifting on my hips. The gear needed a little time to settle into the pack. I took a moment to do a final cinch on my straps, and from that point forward, I was able to keep a comfortable rhythm as we ascended 700ft, where we would establish our basecamp for the weekend. As a group, it took us about 1 hour and 20 minutes to trek up to camp. It was a great warm-up, and since we had all afternoon to get there, with nothing else planned for the evening, we weren't in a rush. Once tents were set up and equipment organized, we took a short stroll to check our surroundings, where any boulder that crossed our path turned into a scrambling challenge. For dinner, we ate freeze-dried camp food, and let me tell you, I had some of the best chicken pesto pasta I have ever had. My expectations started extremely low but were ruined as soon as I took my first bite. I should have saved that meal for last.



Since we only had one day to explore the park, we made sure to take advantage of the full day. Our goal was to complete the South Rim trail, which was about a 10-mile trek round trip from our campsite. The first 2 miles are a steep incline until cresting at Pinnacles Pass, where the trails split, one towards Emory Peak and one towards Boot Canyon. We continued on the rolling Boot Canyon trail that meets with the South Rim trail around 1.5 miles farther. From there, we walked along the edge of the South rim until we found an unoccupied and exceptional lunch spot. It was relieving to air out my feet, replenish my energy, and sit in the warm sun, all while appreciating the magnificent view.


While I had not visited Big Bend National Park previous to this trip, I know Texas. And Southwest Texas is very dry, so I was skeptical about the scenery of the park. My imagination had it painted as a barren expanse of desert, which is mostly true until you get into the Chisos Mountains. Starting low in the basin and looking up, you can see spectacular cliffs surround you. Once you start climbing, these viewpoints shift, and by the time you make it to the South Rim, you are gazing down at the vast expanse of Chisos mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. There is nothing but Big Bend wilderness, a park that consumes over 800,000 acres as far as the eye can see.


Big Bend National Park view from South Rim

Rainfall in the park is recorded at an average of 12.47" a year. It is amazing how flora and fauna can thrive in such a dry environment. Bears, mountain lions, whitetail deer, and javelina make up some of the 75 species of mammals in the park. There are also 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians. We did see many deer and birds during our trip, but no bears or mountain lions. Some were disappointed by this, and I was not one of those people. I have heard too many horror stories accompanied by large wild animal sightings that it's okay if we don't cross paths. There were signs that they inhibit the park and that alone made me feel minuscule.


Speaking of feeling minuscule, Emory Peak is the tallest point in the Chisos mountain range, at 7,832ft. We hadn't planned on having time to detour to its peak during the trip, but I held out hope we could manage it during the evening of day 2 or the morning of day 3. As we descended the South rim to Pinnacles Pass and as sunset quickly approached, it was looking less and less likely that we would be able to complete Emory Peak at all. Tyler knew I was really looking forward to experiencing as much of Big Bend as we could during our short stay, so instead of just talking me out of the extra 1.75-mile hike to Emory Peak, he computed how long we had to complete the hike before dark. With one hour to climb a little over 800ft, we ditched our extra weight in the bear box and set out with only the essentials. I could already feel my body aching from the day's long walk, and we still had 2 miles back to camp, but what're an additional 3.5 miles? I was worried that 1 hour wasn't enough time to complete a steep climb, but as we set off up the trail, my body felt rejuvenated each step of the way, like I hadn't already walked 8 miles.


Emory Peak Big Bend National Park

To summit Emory Peak there is a portion of the route that requires an abrupt climb up large boulders. We reached this section around 5:15 pm, putting us 15 minutes ahead of schedule. You would think having experience bouldering would make this an easy finish line to cross; I beg to differ. Having a fear of heights and knowing that my body was exhausted, I couldn't push myself to clamber up the boulders. It makes me sad looking back on the adventure that I couldn't achieve. However, I knew I would be pushing my limit too close to the edge. Summiting Emory Peak is a challenge for another day and gives me a reason to return to Big Bend National Park.


Our return hike to camp that night was memorable. The journey began at 5:30 pm atop Emory Peak and ended at 7:40 pm when we reached basecamp. As soon as we began our descent from Emory Peak, it became a quick realization that I had wasted any excess energy on the side trip, and the final 3.75 miles would need to be managed slow and steadily. My trekking poles became my best friend, alleviating the pain in my knees. My pinky toes continued to rub sore and stopping to rest seemed to punish me more, so I kept pushing on, knowing that a hot meal and sleep would soothe all. Around 7 pm, darkness encompassed us, at which point our headlamps led us down the mountain by a single beam of light. It was so quiet it became eerie, sensing animals were watching you. At the same time, it was peaceful, feeling like we were the only people in the park. Looking up at the night sky, you can get lost in the Milky Way and all the constellation of stars.


By morning my legs were the tightest they have ever felt before, which makes sense because I had just strained my body walking over 13 miles in half a day. But once I got moving, my muscles started to loosen up, and I was ready for more. Unfortunately, day 3 meant we had to pack up and head out. A quick breakfast and tear down of camp was all we had time for, with a long 8-hour drive home. Although the hike down the mountain was bittersweet, instead of looking up the abrupt path to camp, we were now peering through the hills and cliffs out onto the rest of the mountain range, making our goodbye picture perfect.


The trip was short and sweet, a great introduction to the world of backpacking. It was a grand journey for the whole bunch of us, and I am so glad that it wasn't plagued with injury or illness. There are many things that I still have to learn about the outdoors and about the physical feats my body can endure. Experience is the only way to gain this knowledge through trial and error. Overall the trip was a success, and I can't wait for the next one. It took 26 years to discover what I love. There is no stopping me now!

 
Blue represents our trail to camp, with the star noting our campsite. Pink is the trail we took day 2, which circled around the South rim. Green is the hike up to Emory peak that Tyler and I managed to squeeze in last minute.

In the above image, the blue hashed line represents our trail to camp, with the star noting our campsite. The pink hashed line is the trail we took on day 2, which circled the South rim. The green hashed line is the hike up to Emory peak that Tyler and I managed to squeeze in last minute.

 

Resources-


Here are some resources for those who are interested in backpacking, camping, or just hiking;


Checklist -


Choosing a backpacking pack -


Choosing a sleeping system -


Choosing hiking shoes -


Gear I found exceptionally helpful, but not required -

(Note this list is specific for my Big Bend Trip.)

Links for the items I used are connected for easy redirection.


Gear I carried but didn't use -

(Note this list is specific for my Big Bend Trip and could be helpful for other trips.)

Foot Blister Balm

Gaiters

Chaffing Cream

Solar Charger

Feet Warmers


Websites where you can do your own research, buy gear, and plan your next or first adventure -


Don't forget the gear you might never use but should always have with you, including a first aid kit, fire starter, compass and map, multi-tool, and bear spray (where required).


Now get out there and leave no trace!

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