Along For The Ride: Backtrack to Big Bend 2 (Part 16)
Backtrack to Big Bend - Part 2
It rained all day in Big Bend National Park, which is an arid, mountainous, desert on the southern border of Texas.
As someone who has spent his entire life on the east coast, a rainy day isn’t something that strikes me as unusual, or even dangerous. However, in the context of Big Bend National Park, a little precipitation can have a profound effect on the landscape, and it can even be life-threatening, as I would soon discover.
The Heart of Big Bend
Having spent the past couple of nights at maintained campgrounds in Big Bend, I was ready to experience a more remote camping destination somewhere within the heart of the park.
At the Chisos Basin Visitor’s Center, I studied a map of the park. The remote campsites were all clearly marked. All I had to do was select one in the general vicinity that I wanted explore, and reserve it with a ranger.
The reservation system is a bit strange. When you reserve a remote campsite for the night, you have to pay $12.00 USD for a Backcountry Use Permit. You may reserve a different campsite every night, for up to 14 consecutive nights, and the cost is still only $12.00. However, if you only specify two nights, and later decide to stay an additional night, another permit would need to be purchased.
I reserved a campsite named Robber’s Roost, for two nights, at the southern foot of the Chisos Mountains.
For the first 7 miles, the unpaved route to Robber’s Roost was a well-maintained gravel road. However, for the remaining 3 miles, a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. These roads were at a higher elevation and were mostly unaffected by the recent rain.
The campsite consisted of a small parking area, which could accommodate two or three vehicles, surrounded by three tent pads. Adjacent to the parking, there was a metal locker to protect your food from the wildlife. The site was tastefully edged by logs and rocks, and was marked by a stone sign engraved with “Robber’s Roost.”
To the east and west, it was flat, with the occasional rock formation or plateau. To the north loomed the Chisos Mountain Range, and to the south, the terrain descended into the Rio Grande Valley.
It was serene. When the air was still, it was dead quiet. The passing road ended at a spur, so there was no traffic, and it felt extremely private.
I spent two nights at the campsite, and it was such a sound sleep under a brilliant, moonlit starscape. I felt like Robber’s Roost was a good choice, sight unseen.
A Rescue Mission
Utilizing Robber’s Roost as a basecamp, I set off to explore during the day.
I traveled north, toward the end of the spur at the base of the Chisos Mountains. The park map didn’t show anything of interest there, but it was curious that the road continued, so I wanted to see for myself.
The two-track ended at a hiking trail, where there was a small, two-person dome tent. Upon my arrival, a young man emerged from the tent and flagged me down.
He and his sister had been backpacking over the mountains from the Chisos Basin when the storms hit. Miles from their starting point, they had suffered freezing rain and hail, which they were unprepared for in the typically-arid desert climate. All of their belongings were soaking wet, and they sought to abort their adventure.
They politely asked for a ride back to their vehicle, and I was happy to help them out!
Underestimating the Terrain
I had intentionally waited a day, after the rain, to explore any of the unmaintained roads at the lower elevations of Big Bend National Park. However, I didn’t wait long enough.
My sights were set on Black Gap Road, which was one of the few unpaved routes in the National Park labelled “unmaintained” and requiring high-clearance, four-wheel drive.
Black Gap Road was a deteriorated two-track that traversed plateaus, eroded ridges, and washes. While great care needed to be used in some sections of trail, the Rubicon, equipped with an AEV suspension, and 35” BFGoodrich tires, idled along effortlessly. It was an enjoyable trail that offered a little bit of thoughtful line-picking.
I had driven 2.5 miles when I encountered a section of trail covered in mud, clearly the result of the recent storm. Up until this point, progress had been steady, which gave me far too much confidence. I was wary of the mud, but not wary enough.
With a steady throttle, I eased the Jeep forward into the mud. To complicate matters, the mud-coated terrain was varied, requiring my front axle to climb up a short embankment at an awkward angle. Without traction, this wasn’t happening, and the Jeep came to a stop.
I tried forward again. Nothing. I tried reverse. Nothing.
That was it. I was in a bad situation, and the last thing I wanted to do was dig myself in deeper.
There was no avoiding getting dirty on this one. I was determined to drive out under my own power, but I had my Garmin inReach close at hand, in case I needed to summon assistance.
I turned the Jeep off, changed into swimming trunks, and climbed underneath with a small shovel, clearing the thick mud away from around the tires and low-hanging components. After two hours of grooming the terrain, and lining the ruts with rocks and dry gravel, I was able to back the Rubicon out of its predicament.
At which point, I reversed course and drove back to camp to avoid further risk.
This was the first crisis that I had encountered on my journey, and it was a sobering reminder of how quickly things can go wrong. A wet desert is not to be trifled with.