The stars at night, are big and bright... *clap clap clap clap*
June 16, 2010 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Big Bend v. Guadalupe Mountains: Help me not die out in the deserts of West Texas in August! (Part Two In a Series)

Thanks to you, Mefites, I have started the gradual transformation to grizzled outdoorsman. In April, following this question, I went hiking with friends for an afternoon in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco! Total success!

Building on that experience, I have planned a little camping trip with a friend for August. Taking your advice, I am sticking with someone who a) knows what she is doing; b) has the gear already; and c) will run slower than I will and consequently be eaten by a mountain lion before I am. We've decided to visit West Texas for approximately a week of fairly relaxed camping and hiking (no backcountry campsites on this trip), set to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower on the night of August 12.

My question comes in multiple parts but boils down to one very crucial issue: Should we go to Big Bend National Park or Guadalupe Mountains National Park - or are we crazy to do either? Assistance, guidance and suggestions for any or all parts are welcome.

Beauty: I have been to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad, NM, and I remember it being beautiful. But I've never been to Big Bend, so I can't compare the two. Is it even fair to compare the two? Are there good photo collections online of these two parks that might help make the decision easier?

Climate: What is the climate like in the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chisos Mountains in August? What role does elevation play in that climate? Are we just going to tromp out into the desert to bake ourselves to death? Or is proper hydration and regular shady rest sufficient to enjoy some time out in the deserted wilderness of West Texas?

Hiking: Should we climb Mt. Emory or Guadalupe Peak? Is one easier than the other? Is this just a dumb idea for August? Are there other hikes in the Chisos Mountains or Guadalupe Mountains that we should not miss? Are these two hikes beyond the physical capabilities of a novice like me? Are there things I could be doing at the gym to get ready for this, like that crazy stair-stepper machine?

Gear: Do we need anything special? Snake bite kit? Rain tarp? Bear repellent? SPF 1000? If you asked me about camping in East Texas during the summer, I'd tell you you were crazy. Period. But then I'd also tell you you'd be stupid to do it without mosquito netting and bug spray. Is there a West Texas equivalent?

Light Pollution: According to resources on the web, it looks like Big Bend has slightly darker skies. Has there been a comparison? What are the best resources you know of for finding dark skies? Easiest dark sky map to read? And do you have experience stargazing in either location?

Creepy-Crawlies: I'll die a terrible screaming death if I wake up and there is a tarantula on me. And if I find a scorpion in my shoe, I might never be able to put on another pair of shoes in my life. It's that serious, y'all. Does that make this a terrible idea? Or are my chances of being surprised by a scorpion pretty low? Is there some standard protocol for keeping your sleeping space safe from real life monsters?

Thanks for all your help with this, MeFi.
posted by greekphilosophy to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Personal experiences: Big Bend is pretty goddamn hot in January. There's also not much relief in the way of elevation. Guadalupe is warm - t-shirt and shorts if the sun's over the horizon - in March. The hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak has a lot of shade, but I got sunburnt on the exposed top.

My recommendation? Honestly? try Utah. It'll still be hot, but between Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches, etc. you can get some good hikes, with some elevation relief. Also, regarding star viewing/skies, Natural Bridges is the darkest part of the contiguous 48 states. I've done Utah in mid August, in a car whose A/C broke down somewhere in Oklahoma. I survived by drinking water. I've been in Texas in March with a cheap-ass who didn't want to run the A/C and ruin his awesome mileage (i.e. myself), and it suuuucked.
posted by notsnot at 8:28 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been to both and I like both but I like Big Bend a whole lot more. There's also more to do in that area. If your plan is to do serious hiking in West Texas for six days straight in August, I would revise your plan. I wouldn't even consider doing Guadalupe Peak in August; that sounds horrible. The McDonald Observatory is well worth a visit, even for people who are less interested in stargazing than you seem to be. Rafting down Santa Elena Canyon is also a lot of fun.

At Big Bend, be sure to check out The Window, a fairly easy trail with a breathtaking view at the end.

As for special gear, estimate the amount of water you will need. Then double it. Sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat are excellent ideas.
posted by grouse at 8:34 AM on June 16, 2010

Guad peak is awesome. Its an old CCC trail which means railroad-type grading up what is probably some of the most rugged terain out there.

Big Bend in August? no thanks. thats going to be *hot*
posted by H. Roark at 9:02 AM on June 16, 2010

Light Pollution: I was in Big Bend in March with clear skies and no moon, and there were so many stars out I couldn't pick out constellations. If you're coming from the city, be prepared to have your breath taken away.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:11 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I camped in Big Bend in August twice back in the '70s and I don't remember it being that bad, but I was a teenager then, grew up in San Antonio, and was used to working outdoors in the summer. The stars and meteor showers were fantastic. The Chisos mountains were cooler and greener than in Bouquillas canyon or Santa Elena canyon. The only critters I remember were the 3am garbage can raiding racoons and a feral donkey standing in the middle of the highway in the middle of nowhere, but your experiences will probably be different. Oh, and the bats in Santa Elena canyon that would come out at dusk and skim drinks off the Rio Grande. It actually rained at Bouquillas while we were there. I heartily recommend it and wish you the best of times!
posted by Daddy-O at 9:49 AM on June 16, 2010

I have experience only with Big Bend - loved it there. Gorgeous and diverse landscapes. I'm from South Louisiana, so if you're from/very familiar with East Texas we have similar background climates, and honestly I don't remember it being miserably hot (in August.) Just normal hot, in the mountains at least.
Ooh, if you're there during the Perseids I bet that would be stunning. One of my favorite things about Big Bend was how many "shooting stars" we saw even on a non-shower night.
posted by lilbizou at 9:51 AM on June 16, 2010

Both of those sound miserable and horrible to me, as far as heat goes, and this is coming from someone who goes car camping in the desert where it's over 100 out. A while back someone brought one of those laser thermometers, and in the coolest shady area, where some water had spilled and cooled things off a bit, it was 102. No one was hiking, or venturing out of our shaded area much.

If you do this, expect to be drinking at least a gallon of water a day even if you are sitting around not doing anything. For working outdoors in the summer heat, I often wear a camelback, and go through about 3 liters of water in about 3 hours. It looks like the average high temperature in August for Carlsbad is only 94, which would be a nice cool temperature for hiking, but that's the average.

(After considering that the park isn't Carlsbad, I find this site, and see that it hasn't even hit 100 yet in "The Bowl", and most days only get up to the 80s, so I retract my appraisal of miserable and horrible)

Is there some standard protocol for keeping your sleeping space safe from real life monsters?

Keeping the tent zipped up will keep bugs out. Human-sized real life monsters, not so much.

Oh, and pay attention to the wind when you set up, it's easier than figuring out where the tent went later on.

Also, you should bring salt and some sort of potassium. Some people find that in higher temperatures they loose a lot of sodium and potassium through sweat, if you stop sweating even though you are drinking lots of water and peeing a lot, and still feel hot, this is likely the cause.
posted by yohko at 10:44 AM on June 16, 2010

After I got back from Big Bend, I had a legion of small wounds, cuts and bites on me that I received from the aggressive plant and insect life there. I had a great time.

Make sure that you have a daypack (for side trips) and canteens or water bottles that can carry a gallon (a gallon) of water. Otherwise, stay close to camp and water sources. You can't hike safely if you are thirsty, and I've drunk a gallon of water in the desert in under two hours (under harsh conditions).

To avoid some of the aggressive insect life, clean up after your meal (all traces of food residue on cooking vessels, trash, uneaten portions, etc) completely by sunset. The ants are prowling at dawn and sunset, when the day is cooler, and they'll find your food, and have a party, and be super pissed of when you disturb them. Seal your bags of garbage tightly.

Sleep in a tent, with an attached floor (this is pretty much all tents these days), and keep the screen zippered closed at all times. It keeps both the crawlers and the flyers (mosquitoes) out. Shake things before you put them into the tent. If your pack has been on the ground, your sleeping bag or blanket might have picked up some hitchhikers.

When you pack your tent up, watch out for scorpions and centipedes that have taken shelter under the tent floor. Don't pack up your tent wearing open toed shoes. Shake the tent off before you re-stuff it, and try not to rub it on your body when you are shaking it. Hitchhikers, again.

Don't ever stick your hands or feet or face anyplace that you have not looked first. This means vigorously shaking out your boots in the morning, and not sticking your hand into shadowed handholds while you are climbing rocks, and not standing right next to overhanging rocks on the ground.

Do not casually contact vegetation. The spines on a mesquite bush in Big Bend will drive this lesson home, but there now fire ants in Big Bend National Park. Any place that there are deer there will also be ticks.

Avoid walking in "complex" environments, such as rockpiles and downed trees. This is also called "habitat", and it has residents. Like snakes.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:07 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

...and remember Edward Abbey's infamous words: "Everything in the desert either stings, sticks, or stinks..."
posted by dbmcd at 11:16 AM on June 16, 2010

I know total idiots who have camped in Big Bend in August and come out just fine, but also know someone who had to be evacuated for heat stroke from there in May.
The numero uno most important thing in camping in West Texas in the most brutal part of the summer is to have adequate water at all times. It is HOT HOT HOT HOT HOT and DRY. It is hotter than in East Texas, just not nearly as humid (as in there generally is no humidity, so if you are from a muggier clime, you should be prepared to have your nose all dry and bloody and stuff). The sun beats down on you. There are scorpions and fire ants.
If you have the money, invest in those nice shirts, shorts, undergarments, and pants made of the SPF fabric that wicks sweat. Your sweaty ass will thank you.
Oh, and SPF 1000? Yes, basically. Especially if you're a paler person, you probably want to wear sleeves and pants during the day and/or wear really sweatproof sunscreen and reapply often, because the sun will fry you otherwise.
posted by ishotjr at 11:42 AM on June 16, 2010

Do not casually contact vegetation.

Do bring tweezers and needle nose pliers, in case either casual contact or finding you have entered a more attached sort of relationship with the vegetation.
posted by yohko at 12:23 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would say go to Big Bend if there's access to the river (even better if there are trails along it) and maybe skip the big hike up the mountain. I've never been to either place, but I've spent the last ten summers working outside in the Southwest, and here is the conclusion I've come to:

Summer desert + hanging around a river + swimming + wet cotton clothing (i.e. desert air conditioning) = lovely and easy for beginners to enjoy

Summer desert + more desert + backpack = beautiful but not easy for beginners to appreciate because it's so fricking hot

Other thoughts:

The most important part of desert camping is learning how to hid from the sun. Take a siesta in the shade during mid-day. Whenever you stop for a drink, hunker down under a tree. Camp in cool shady places. And I disagree that you need fancy SPF clothing. You just need a light cotton long-sleeve shirt and light cotton pants and a hat that covers your face and maybe your ears and your neck. I wear cheap button-down shirts from Walmart and either pajama bottoms or Danskin pants (my male friends often wear hemp pants) and a baseball cap all summer on the river (with lots of sunblock on anything left exposed) and I've never gotten burned.

Plan on drinking a gallon of water a day per person, plus cooking water.

Know that you have to take precautions for scorpions and other creepy crawlies, but you're probably not going to see a whole lot of them. Don't roll out your sleeping bag until you get in it, open rocks away from you, and pack your shoes into your backpack or into your tent before you go to bed. For context, doing this is like locking your door every morning as you leave for work when you live in a pretty good neighborhood: you do it because there's a chance something bad might happen if you don't, but the likelihood is that it won't. I've been sleeping outside under a tarp (no tent floor, just a roof) the whole time I've been camping in the Southwest, and I have never woken up to a creepy-crawly on me, and I don't know anyone who has.

Snakebit kits are useless (for example see note from Wilderness First Aid professionals WMI on 3rd page about the Sawyer Extractor). It's more important to watch where you walk (which is usually helpful just in avoiding prickly plants) and never put your hands blindly down a hole or under a rock. I've heard from WMI too that one of the most common places people get bit by snakes is on the nose because 20-something year old guys like to pick up snakes and look them in the eye. So, um, don't do that either.

You'll be fine if you listen to your body and to your friend who is more experienced. Drink more water than you think you should, and don't get so focused on specific goals that you don't take a break when you need one. The desert is the most fun when you live at a leisurely pace.
posted by colfax at 3:05 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh! Go to Big Bend!

I wrote my recommendations for hikes to not miss and things to do here, but I'll add to that:

- Big Bend is not hot in August. That sounds wrong, right? I've been in August, and it was over 110 degrees. How can I say it's not hot? There's no humidity. The saying, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity" is so true. Like me, you are probably used to your heat coming with humidity. You can get yourself hurt that way. Drink water even when you aren't thirsty. One gallon of water is 8 pounds, and you need to carry it with you at all times. Also, wear a hat.

- Anyone can do Big Bend hikes. I've hiked every trail in Big Bend, and I'm not a star athlete by any means. Just take your time, and enjoy yourself. Wear good shoes and socks, and bring a camera on your hikes. And your water.

- Special gear to pack: Quarters. Please see the post I linked to, to find out why (hint: showers!).

I am so jealous of your trip. The first time to see Big Bend is a time you will never forget.
posted by Houstonian at 4:15 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You know, you asked for photos (you asked for it!). Below is a repost of my answer to the previous question, but with photos. Click through to see what I mean.

- Big Bend National Park (not the state park) is over 1200 square miles, and you also want to see some of the things outside the park (quite a distance away, actually). So, be settled that you will not be able to see the entire park, and that, like most people, you'll return again and again to see the rest. If you like scenic views, hiking, water rafting, history, geology, camping, animals... this is all at the park.

- When you first enter Big Bend, go to one of the information shops. Pick up some of the maps/booklets as these are invaluable. They cost $1 - $3 each, and are worth it as they give maps as well as information about what you see on each trail and drive. The books are labeled "Road Guide" (several in the series), "River Guide" (again, several), and "Trail Maps" (yes, quite a few in this series, but the "Chisos Mountains Trails Map" is the best one).

- One early morning, go to the restaurant in the park. There is only one, and it is in the Basin, which is at the center of the park (Chisos Basin). The coffee is terrible, and the food matches the coffee plus is overpriced. You are there strictly for the view. One entire side of the restaurant is windows. Sit near the windows and watch the sunrise through the Basin. It is startling.

- After seeing the sunrise, take the short-ish hike down. The trail (Window Trail) starts near the restaurant, and is easy enough even if you are not a hiker. It is 2.6 miles long.

- After finishing that trail, leave the restaurant area and drive the very short distance to the Lost Mine Trail, a 4.8 mile hike. These are marked very carefully to explain all the plants and views that you will see, and it is another of the most-popular hikes. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps blasted the rocks to make the steps that are part of the trail. You can still see where they laid the dynamite to do this - they are now the little round indentions in the rock. The views are fantastic.

- On another day, if you are a true hiker or just up for a lot of walking, do the rim. The rim is divided into several trails, mostly East Rim Trail and South Rim. The Emory Peak trail is actually my favorite - this is the highest point you can get to, and only the last mile or so is tough, with the trail reduced to basically rock. You don't have to be an athlete to do it, but you need to be determined.

- Another sunrise moment that should not be missed is seeing the sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon. Drive most of the way, then the hike to the canyon is only a few minutes. The sun blasts across the canyon walls, which turn gold and pink. Bring a camara.

- If you like desert, desolate areas, hike the Panther Pass trail. I love it, but not everyone does.

- If you like the idea of camping in this area, the prettiest area is the campground in the Basin. This is most popular for tent camping. However, do know that there are not showers in this campground. The showers are found at the Cottonwood campground (near Santa Elena canyon). They work on timers, activated by quarters, so bring quarters.

- If you don't like the idea of camping, there is a lodge next to the restaurant in the Basin. It is plain but clean and warm. However, you usually have to make reservations 1 year + in advance. Alpine, Texas is the nearest place to look for lodging, as well as shops, restaurants, places to rent a raft, and so on.

- In my opinion, the best drive in the United States - rivaled only by Highway 101 along the West Coast - is El Camino Del Rio (The River Road), which is FM 170. It goes from Study Butte to Presidio. This is a day trip round-trip, through very mountainous area. Again, the views are amazing. Please note the little white crosses on the sides of the road, mostly on the curves. Drive carefully so your passage is not marked by one of those crosses! Many years ago, this road was called Muerte del Burro (Death of the Donkey).

A few practical notes about Big Bend:

- Take the notes about animals seriously. Food goes in the little boxes at the campgrounds. If you leave food in your car, bears will tear through your car to get it - and they don't use the doors. I've seen snakes, tarantulas, black bears, and mountain lions. So, read the information beforehand (available at the visitor centers) about what to do if you encounter the animals.

- You'll also see roadrunners (much smaller than the cartoons lead you to believe), jackrabbits, and tiny mule deer and whitetail deer which only exist in this area. You'll also see herds (packs?) of javelina, which are almost blind and extremely curious, and use their sense of smell to identify the things around them - so they get close to you, but are only curious about you!

- Drink water, even when you are not thirsty. This area is a "green desert" and you need more water than you think. At least, this is true if you are not from a very dry area (as a Houstonian, this gets me every time). A little backpack with water, a hat, sunglasses, a camara, and maybe something to eat is a good idea - you'll have all you need, and you won't be trying to carry it all in pockets or your hands while you walk around.

- Bring a camara with lots of memory or film. Believe me, whatever you think you'll need, you'll actually need twice as much. And, since you are hours (in driving distance) from the nearest real town, bring everything you need or be settled with paying a fortune.

Enjoy your trip! There is something magical about this area. Its vastness, and knowing that these mountains have stood here since the beginning of time, somehow put the troubles of our world into perspective. I hope you will fall in love with it as much as I have.
posted by Houstonian at 5:19 AM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Summer desert + hanging around a river + swimming

I looked into doing a rafting trip in Big Bend some time back, and at that point in time it was recommended that tourists in the area avoid touching the river, possibly due to all the factories upstream, or possibly due to sewage treatment issues.

Maybe things have been cleaned up, but I suggest you check on the current pollution levels before swimming.
posted by yohko at 12:04 AM on June 23, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, AskMe! WE DID IT!


Big thanks to Houstonian, whose personal take on so many of the trails and the wildlife helped us decide what to do.

My friend and I left Galveston in the morning on Monday and made our way to San Antonio - deciding to break up the drive rather than do it all in one go and risk missing sunset. I think this was a good idea. We got there early enough to realize that we had forgotten to run by REI in Houston and so we were left shopping at Academy. Not as great a selection, but it did the trick.

We spent the night on the Riverwalk and were ready to go early in the morning. The drive out to Big Bend is itself a treat and I'd recommend it to anyone. You leave the flat, pale green of the Gulf Coast, with our palm trees and salt marshes - and the terrain slowly melts into plains and scrubby bushes before bubbling up into the Hill Country around San Antonio. By the time you are on the other side of San Antonio, the terrain changes every time you turn a corner or go over a hill. Each mountain is slightly less green than the last before you suddenly realize you are looking at a butte and that you're in the desert.

Then the real magic on the drive happens when you turn off at Ft. Stockton toward Marathon and Big Bend. All of a sudden, mountains start looming on the horizon, and you lose cell reception almost immediately. Looking out across those plains and at those mountains, I could finally see why the cowboy experience became so romanticized. And then the gritty reality of our location came back in full force as we passed a mandatory Border Patrol stop. (They don't care about you heading down there. They just want to talk to you on the way back.)

We made it to the park well before dark, paid our entry fee ($20 for a week), and chatted with Ranger Barb about what we should see. She suggested The Chimneys Trail, and told us all about the petroglyphs down there in the dry gulch. We were impressed and added it to our itinerary.

As we made our way into the park, dust devils swirled on the open plains around us. One even caught the car in its vortex of sand! And just then, without any warning whatsoever, a huge long pink snake slithered out into the highway in front of me and was under the wheels of the car before I knew what was happening. We're just not going to tell Ranger Barb about that, ok?

We stopped at the main Visitor's Center and picked up maps and information. That's where I learned that I had murdered a whipsnake. Oops.

We made our way to camp and managed to get a PRIME location. Seriously. Campsite 42. Don't pass it up if you have the option. It has a perfect sunset view of The Window out of the basin. It has a shelter and a bear box and a tree and is reasonably close to the restrooms but not so close that you're hearing people all night. Amazing location. The temperature was PERFECT. A dry 70/80 with a nice cool breeze. And just then, a family of javelina wandered into camp and started snorting around like a small pack of Mr. Magoos. They couldn't see anything and so sneaking up on them was really not necessary. If they had been able, they would have told us to get off their lawn.

The next day we went crazy. We climbed Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. We estimated and brought what we suspected was enough water and HOW WRONG WE WERE. We ran out shortly after making it back to the Emory Peak Trailhead... with another 3 miles and 2000 ft. of altitude to go. Ouch. But we lived. And it was a great experience and we learned our lesson. We finished the day up with a drive down to Boquillas Canyon to take showers and then we got hotdogs from the overpriced - but terribly convenient - convenience store in the Basin.

The next day, we hiked down in the desert out to see The Chimneys and although we were on the desert floor and it was hotter than the mountains, it was not uncomfortable AT ALL. Warm, yes. But with a nice breeze. Sunny, yes. But with a nice wide brimmed hat and long sleeves this wasn't a problem at all. Animals? Eh. A couple skinks and a jackrabbit. A lot of really pretty plants. And some great views of the Santa Elena Canyon off in the distance. Will do a lot more desert hiking next time. Afterward, we drove down the scenic highway and saw Santa Elena Canyon, which we couldn't get into because the water was too high. But it sure do have a purty mouth!

Back at camp, I was puttering around our dinner when I looked toward The Window and noticed Sasquatch! Okay, no, it was a bear! Rambling through the undergrowth about 100 feet away! We called everyone from nearby campsites and went looking for him to see what he was up to. I took my own Loch Ness picture where you can see the dark outline of a little bear. Oh. Also. They're little! I was worried about a 4000 lb gorilla. This bear - identified by Ranger Jenny as a mother - was probably the size of a large raccoon. Ok, maybe a little larger. But certainly not larger than my dog. Upon learning this, I was a little disappointed that we had chosen relatively "bear free" trails.

That night, the meteor shower peaked. The peak was, honestly, subtle. Especially since there had already been some pretty spectacular fireworks in the sky the two previous nights. One meteor left a visible tail that my friend swears was there for 20 minutes. I'd have given it ten, but even that is pretty spectacular. We lay out on reclining armchairs that I picked up from CVS, which won accolades for best gear of our trip, and we drank Abuelita hot chocolate. Mmm.

Anyway, AskMe. You were great. You helped me camp successfully, for the first time ever! In a gorgeous place! Without dying or killing anyone else in the process! (May the whipsnake rest in peace!) Now I just have to decide where to go next...
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:17 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your photos are awesome! And now you totally have bragging rights -- "Yeah, I did Big Bend... hiked to the top of Emory Peak... in August!"
posted by Houstonian at 2:44 PM on August 16, 2010

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