Seeking some inspiration for your next great hiking adventure? Look no further than our Hike of the Week series! Each week, we bring you some of the most breath-taking, challenging, and rewarding hikes the world has to offer.
This week we're highlighting the Outer Mountain Loop Trail in Big Bend National Park.
Featured Photo: Outer Mountain Loop (photo by Len Hardy)
Why this Hike?
If you're seeking a challenge in one of America's most remote National Parks, this 3-day, 2-night hike may be just what you are looking for. With steep ascents through canyons, desert grasslands, pinon and juniper woodlands, and the Chihuahuan Desert, the Outer Mountain Loop offers a surprising diversity of terrain to explore.
- 30-mile loop trail
- 5,700 feet of elevation gain
- Best time to visit: November through April
- Two locations are available for caching water. The most commonly used and easily accessible storage box is at the Homer Wilson Ranch. The second is located at the end of Juniper Canyon Road, though the Park Service warns that a high-clearance vehicle is required to get to this area. It should be noted that caching water is prohibited in all other NPS-provided storage lockers. Also, only water can be cached in the two lockers listed above. Food and other equipment may be removed.
- If you are into birding, this trail is the perfect place to do so! Big Bend NP boasts the most bird species of any national park (at least 450 to date.)
- The park is also surprisingly diverse with plant life. There are over 1,200 species of plants, with some of them found only in the park and nowhere else in the world.
Before you pack your bags, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The Outer Mountain Loop is a very strenuous hike. Only experienced hikers should attempt it. The park's website states that many people do not finish the entire hike due to travelers underestimating the strenuous elevation gains and extra water requirements in the hot, desert climate.
- It is strongly discouraged (if not prohibited) to hike this trail during the summer. Even with the best preparation, you may not be able to carry and cache enough water to stay hydrated between May and October.
- It's worth noting that there is no shade along the Dodson Trail section, which comprises all of your second day's journey.
- Cell phone service is limited throughout the park. It is especially important to inform someone of your itinerary if you plan on attempting this hike. Park rangers frequently have to rescue hikers on this trail due to dehydration and heat-related illnesses.
- Although this is fairly standard among many backpacking trails, keep in mind that campsites must be at least ½-mile away and out of sight from roads.
How do I get there?
If you will be flying in, Midland International Air and Space Port is the closest commercial airport to Big Bend NP. It is a very remote park and this airport is still 195 miles away and a 3-hour drive. It is worth mentioning that you can get flights into Midland from larger Texan cities, such as Dallas, Houston, and Austin, as well as Albuquerque, NM.
From Midland International, head east on La Force Boulevard. Take a slight right onto Sloan Field Boulevard after a little over half a mile. Follow the signs and get on the TX-40 Loop.
After about ½ mile, turn left onto TX-349 S and continue for 1.3 miles. Follow the signs for Interstate 20 and merge onto I-20 W. Continue on 33.5 miles.
Next, turn south onto FM 1050 S. Continue for 58.5 miles. Once in Fort Stockton, follow signs for 385 S. Travel 40 more miles and you will finally reach the park entrance as 385 S turns into Main Park Road.
If you don't mind the extra driving and would like to take somewhat of a road trip on the way in or out, El Paso International Airport is 290 miles to the northwest of Big Bend (a 4½-hour drive) and San Antonio International Airport is 410 miles to the east (a 6-hour drive).
The following map outlines our recommended route.
We recommend a 3-day, 2-night trip for the Outer Mountain Loop Trail.
- Day 1: Juniper Canyon (11 miles)
- Day 2: Homer Wilson Ranch (10 miles)
- Day 3: Pinnacles Trailhead (9 miles)
The Outer Mountain Loop Trail consists of several trails. Most hikers choose to start at the Chisos Visitor's Center, where the Pinnacles Trail begins, and travel in a clockwise direction.
Start your trek with a moderately strenuous climb out of Chisos Basin and to the base of Emory Peak. You will gain about 1,400 feet of elevation. This segment is said to be a nice little warm-up for the more challenging ascents and descents that await you further up the trail. You will also be rewarded with picturesque views of the surrounding pinnacles and eventually the Sierra del Carmens.
After passing Emory Peak and its trailhead, you'll begin the Boot Canyon Trail portion of the hike. The trail is so named after a rock formation you'll find to the east that resembles a giant boot jutting up out of the surrounding landscape. You'll notice the Arizona cypress trees towering taller and taller above as you reach Boot Canyon. Be sure to enjoy this shade (and well-marked trail) while you can.
Next, you will reach the Juniper Canyon Trail, where you will descend back into the Chisos Basin. This area may feel a bit like a roller-coaster as you begin by climbing up to about 7,000 feet only to be followed by a long, sometimes precipitous and precarious, descent (over 2,000 feet in just 3 miles). The grade of the descent does level out in the last few miles before reaching the old Juniper Canyon camping area. Several cleared areas for tents can still be found in this area. This is where you will be spending your first night.
Day 2 begins with the Dodson Trail. Although this section of trail gains about 1,200 feet of elevation, the ascents and descents are not nearly as strenuous as the ones you went through at the end of the first day. However, this section can be tricky. The desert portion at the beginning of this section can be brutally hot, provides no shade, and can make the trail hard to follow. Make sure you have plenty of water reserves and watch for hiker-made cairns along the way.
You will climb a small hill after a while and be rewarded with wonderful views of the basin as well as the South Rim looming above you. After descending the other side of this hill, the trail becomes easier to follow again. Continue following an old stream bed until you reach the Blue Creek Canyon Trail. Don't forget to pick up your water caches at the Homer Wilson Ranch and head up the trail a little way to find a campsite for the night.
On your last day on the Outer Mountain Loop, you will begin your long ascent back up to where you started on the South Rim. This section of the trail can feel especially exhausting due to the lack of shade.
After about six miles of arduous climbing, you will eventually come to trees again. Aside from the welcoming shade, you will finally reach the top of the South Rim here as well. This also marks the beginning of the Laguna Meadow Trail and the final stretch of your desertland journey.
This section provides much-needed, easier hiking, which serves as a nice cool down to the terrain covered both earlier in the day and your entire hike. Take pleasure in the alpine-like meadow and shady forest as you gradually descend back down to the trailhead.
What will I need?
It goes without saying that you will want to bring a quality sunscreen and plenty of water for this hike. You might want to consider using a larger water bladder, if possible.
The ultralight and airy Breeze Mesh Bivy is the perfect shelter for the warmer weather in Big Bend National Park.
Low temperatures average between 50°F and 65°F during the suggested hiking time of November through April. Consider a breathable mesh bivy or tent and accompanying tarp for sleeping in the warm temperatures, as well as a versatile quilt. These pieces of gear are great at varying temperatures, making them ideal for the Outer Mountain Loop. Also, don't forget your sleeping pad too!
Some lightweight trekking poles may become your new best friends on the steep climbs along this trail. (Not to mention you can use them as support poles for your mesh tent!)
No one wants to sit on the hard, rocky ground at the end of a long day. Do yourself a favor and invest in an inexpensive and incredibly lightweight inflatable sitting pad.
For a comprehensive list of what to pack for your trip, be sure to check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!
Do I need a permit?
Before you start your journey, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit at either of the two visitor centers within the park during regular business hours. The permits are $12.
Also, keep in mind that there is a $30 park entrance fee if you do not already have a National Parks Pass. Your entrance fee grants you access to the park for seven days.
Although this is certainly a challenging hike, many who have completed it have described it as being “transformative” and “life-changing”. Have you completed the Outer Mountain Loop Trail or any others in Big Bend National Park? What other challenging hikes would you like us to write about? Leave us a comment below!