Big Bend Ranch State Park
The Final Frontier for Risk Takers
Photos and Text by Alex Gulsby
“Do not get yourself in a mess. You are in the middle of nowhere. If you find yourself in need of urgent medical attention, you will probably die. Don’t break your leg, your arm. Don’t twist an ankle. We won’t be able to help.”
It was a colorful depiction of the warning I’d heard hundreds of times before. And the Park Ranger was right – Big Bend Ranch State Park is in the middle of literal nowhere, nestled in one of the most unforgiving landscapes this side of the border. The state park even had a catchy slogan, “the other side of nowhere.” Fair enough.
The route we had planned was ambitious. 30+ miles in 90 degree desert heat with one bushwhacking summit and only one water station on the map that we would reach at the end of day 2. I was with a solid group of folks that I trusted with my life, including Tay Babe who had become my inseparable partner on Colorado summits for the past 3 years.
Admittedly, however, we didn’t know much about our route before we set off that morning. We knew we wanted to summit Fresno Peak on Day 1. We knew we needed water. We knew we wanted a 4 day trip…But for the majority of our group, we had never been to the state park. We turned to the Park Rangers for advice.
“You’ll need to speak to our volunteer over there to discuss trail details.”
That was a new one for me, but we obliged and sought the advice of a wide-smiled 70-year-old woman at the front.
“That route seems like quite the doozy. Oh man…I sure haven’t done it. Have fun!”
Tay Babe and I exchanged curious looks. We left the ranger station knowing nothing but what the topo read. In the morning, six of us set off from the Puerta Chilicote Trailhead.
I had 15 lbs of water in my pack, my trusty MSR camp stove kit, a sleeping bag and a first aid kit…totaling somewhere around 40-45 lbs. The morning began in high spirits and the scenery was breathtaking.
I’ve always been a sucker for the desert, and as we reached the Fresno Canyon overlook and pinpointed Fresno Peak and the Flatirons across the way, I couldn’t help but feel the epic stoke of having a solid team. We hiked through the canyon, crossed the flatirons and reached our first ‘pathway,’ indicated by the dotted (not dashed) lines on the map.
Three cairns signaled the next leg of our journey and we set off into the Los Portales pathway, calculating which way we would need to bushwhack up to Fresno Peak somewhere in between. This section was only 1.8 miles and would take up the remainder of our morning, we planned. And…it was epic. Our hike turned into a canyoneering expedition, with massive sandstone walls seeming to engulf us on both sides. We were crawling, crimping, scooting, climbing and etching our way through what was becoming an extremely intricate canyon system.
Two and half hours passed and the three cairns we saw at the entrance had long since disappeared. Taylor and I exchanged looks again as we all studied the topo and made more and more difficult decisions with the compass. “Left…left…right…right…left.” Three hours passed…Four hours in the Los Portales canyon system…and we hit a dead end. The path we were on was becoming more and more dense, and very less and less like a trail.
We quickly realized that several of our group members were running low on water already, and the sun was beginning to tick-tock too low across the sky. We should be out of the canyon by now. It wasn’t fun anymore. We lost the trail…lost the pathway.
Josh, an old time boy scout and now nuclear engineer studied the compass…studied the map…studied the sun. We made a decision. We needed a birds eye of the canyon. Josh and I set off together to scale the rim of the canyon while the rest of the group waited below. We stayed within eye shot of each other and took two different routes over the last hill
When I reached close to the rim, I looked below me and my heart sank. The canyon we were following snaked perpetually forward. It was clear that we were nowhere near where we needed to be, and if we were to continue in the direction we were going, we would be hiking into the dark.
Then I heard those four simple words every girl loves to hear, “I see the trail!” Oh yeah, babe. Josh yelled to me over the roaring wind and went to figuring out how to get the rest of the team over the rim and down to the real trail below. He disappeared from sight and too much time began to pass. “Josh?” I inquired into the wind. Silence. The wind sucked my voice away. “Josh!”…a little louder this time. Silence. “JOSH!”
At last, he appeared, and with a plan nonetheless. We reconvened with the group and 45 minutes later, we were really and truly back on track. Calculating, we had actually ended up close to 300 feet from the summit of Fresno peak, but with no feasible route in sight. We moved on. Back on track, we faced our next big decision. On our current route, water was becoming an issue. The Crawford House was still over 14 miles away and our sun was waving goodbye.
And as a team, as a community, we made the pride-swallowing decision. We needed a bug-out route. We’d take the north route and merge with the Righthand Shutup pathway. Done.
We all fell asleep at 7:30PM that night, and didn’t move until 7:30 the next morning. We followed the shutup through the morning and reached our vehicle by 2PM the next day.
But despite all this chaos, some fear, discomfort and one risky rattlesnake situation…we all came out of the event unscathed. Since our backpacking expedition gone awry, I can’t help but have a deeper appreciation for this desert landscape I sometimes call home.
We were on the other side of nowhere. Bees, wasps, snakes and plants everywhere had tried to kill us. We were lost and there was no one around to care. No one at the ranger station had warned us of the winding canyon system we intended to traverse. Later, we would learn that “pathway” just referred to something “passable.” And sometimes, that’s how it is.
Back at the Ranger Station, the resident employees were impressed. “I don’t think I’ve known anyone to attempt Fresno Peak before.” It was the first report they had received of the conditions of Los Portales…and we all learned something that day.
We all took showers and I watched the remains of the desert backcountry swirl down the drain…another expedition closed. I pulled thorns out of my hands and legs the entire drive back, and thanked God for the opportunity to get lost in the backcountry.
This is a map tracing our intended route (red) and actual route (green)."
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