Off Road Travel in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is amazing! It is remote, isolated and located in far Southwest Texas. It is becoming more popular each year and currently averages 300,000 visitors per year; a low visitor count when compared to National Parks such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, which average over 4 million visitors per year.
To visit Big Bend requires commitment. It is 100 miles from Stockton, Tx to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center, then another 47 miles to Chisos Mountains Lodge at 5,400 feet. This is the most direct route from Interstate 10. After departing from Stockton, the next city is Marathon with a population of less than 500. Before leaving Stockton, be sure to stock up on supplies. Nothing against small towns, but they are small; with a smaller selection of what may be needed to survive the desert and mountain environment.
Visiting Big Bend requires preparation to ensure comfort and survival; especially if hiking in the desert/mountains or driving remote primitive dirt roads. Preparation for each activity should be addressed well in advance of the trip. The National Park Service provides safety tips on preparing for all activities, including driving, hiking, canyoneering, river rafting, etc.
The following is how the Cajun Trippers prepared for our off road travels, but first I have to say…
This place is awesome!
Three hundred thousand people per year can spread out over 801,163 acres and disappear, if traveling where most tourist will not or can not access. There were many times that we saw no one on the hiking trails or driving the primitive dirt roads during our April visit. For Tricia and I, there was an immediate connection with this high desert environment. This “connection” was confusing, strange and surprising for me. After all, I am from the swamps of South Louisiana; I have crawfished with snakes nearby, hunted alligators, camped in the swamp, have been ‘carried-off’ by mosquitoes; just love that swamp aroma! This high desert connection is hard to explain. Maybe it was the beauty of the desert floor, the isolation, the scorching dry desert heat, the cool mountain air, or the amazing scenery when driving and hiking in the Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan desert.
Off Road Travel Preparation
In the earlier paragraph I stated “There were many times that we saw no one driving the primitive dirt roads during our April visit.” This is not an exaggeration. Although unlikely, it is possible that a vehicle break-down may result in an extended stay in the desert. How long this extended stay lasts depends on the ability to make repairs, the remoteness of the location and/or the time it takes for someone to arrive to provide assistance. Comfort and survival depends on preparation. Be prepared to survive; mother nature owns the desert.
Two of the roads defined by the Park service are improved dirt roads and primitive dirt roads. The difference between the two; more effort is made to maintain the improved dirt roads, whereas, the primitive dirt roads may not be maintained. Also, a high clearance vehicle may be safely driven on the improved dirt roads, whereas a high clearance vehicle, with four wheel drive, should be used on the primitive dirt roads. Although the park service calls these dirt roads, the off road trails we traveled consisted of sand, gravel, small rocks, large rocks and a small amount of dirt. Since we were planning to travel on some of the primitive dirt roads, we drove our stock 2006 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
Don’t over estimate the vehicle condition, the vehicle capability, or driving skills.
Inform friends or Park Rangers of travel plans; expected departure time, route and return time.
Read and adhere to the safety tips as found at the National Park Service website.
The vehicle and supplies
The recommended vehicle type to drive the dirt roads of Big Bend is a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle. Our stock 2006 Wrangler was a perfect match for the desert and mountains. Although, 4WD was not needed on this trip, it was good to know that it was available if needed. It is also recommended that desert travel be planned with two vehicles. We were traveling alone, therefore, we were cautious when traveling off road. Additional gear and supplies include:
Locking storage: A custom locker was designed and fitted to replace the back seat of the Jeep. The locker was large enough to store 4- 1 gallon jugs of water, food, a 6-pack ice chest, tire repair kit, survival items, small electric air pump, hand tools and other items.
Water: For our day trips, we traveled with a minimum of 5- 1 gallon jugs, and 2 back packs capable of holding 3 liters of water. This seems like a lot of water for two people traveling for an off road day trip, but a break down in the desert could result in a long day, an overnight stay, or two days.
Food: Just as we brought extra water, we brought additional food in case of emergencies. Our “day food” consisted of sandwiches, fruit; food we thought we would enjoy. Our emergency food included granola bars, protein bars, trail mix and extra fruit.
First aid kit: Purchase a first aid kit, and add to that kit as needed. Additional medical supplies should be based on physical condition and health of the travelers.
Survival gear: Listing survival gear may seem unnecessary, but traveling in the desert can be hazardous. There are many good web sites and books that provide expert advise; consult these, purchase the necessary gear and learn how to use the gear. As an example, learn how to use the compass prior to the trip.
Vehicle break down: A well maintained vehicle is important; do not travel in the desert in a vehicle with known mechanical issues. Two break downs to be specifically prepared for involve an overheating engine or a flat tire. We packed spare radiator hoses, hose clamps and coolant. We also packed a hi-lift jack, full sized spare, tire repair kit and a portable air compressor. Also packed were tools and other items we thought might be needed to make repairs on the trail.
Self rescue: If stuck on the trail, be prepared for self-rescue. Know how to use the equipment for self rescue. On our trips, we packed a hi-lift jack, snatch block and recovery straps.
The dirt roads
There are many miles of dirt roads to travel and explore in Big Bend. Some are more hazardous than others. Here are the improved dirt roads and primitive dirt roads we traveled:
- Improved: Old Maverick Road
- Improved: Hot Springs Road
- Primitive: Old Ore Trail; North to Ernst Tinaja
- Primitive: Paint Gap Hills Road
Road conditions at the time of our trip did not require 4 wheel drive, but conditions can change due to weather, or other unforeseen reasons.
Last Minute Purchase!
Before visiting, Tricia and I “did our homework” and purchased supplies and equipment based on our research and recommendations from others that traveled in desert environments. We were well prepared, but I wanted to share one last minute purchase. When we initially arrived at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, we purchased Death in Big Bend by Lawrence Parent. I mention this not to scare or discourage people from visiting Big Bend, but it may prompt others to question their preparation. As this book describes, it is easy to become dehydrated, disoriented and experience severe complications while visiting Big Bend.