Overland in Big Bend

Woah what a day… And caution to the reader – unedited post and photos ahead…

This morning, Evan and I got up and foraged the neighborhood for breakfast tacos while George finally completed the installation of his new offroad lights he got for Christmas.

Chili Pepper Cafe, Terlingua

The duration of the installation work ensured that we would all be in a position to see the lights in action before we’d be able to make it back tonight. Even so, we decided to push forward with the original plan.

What’s that burning smell?

We drove into Big Bend National Park and were greeted with a highway information sign that flashed, “GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN. NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING” next to the closed fee station, but open roadway. So I suppose that at least answers our questions about Monday night.

We hit up the fuel station in Panther Junction and then drove on to the beginning of Glenn Springs Road. George and Evan both aired down their tires when we got off the pavement. Those more experienced than I would laugh at me, but I’ve never actually done that. So I made a modest drop from the 35psi down to 28 and I have to admit, it does make a difference. And for the rest of the day, I’d take all the advantage I could find because this escalated rather quickly.

We were only on Glenn Springs for a short while before turning off onto Black Gap Trail, George’s Jeep trail. The couple cars ahead of us were a little more stoutly equipped, which has always made me feel a little conflicted: we do pretty awesome stuff in mostly-stock vehicles, but also it means we lack the insurance afforded by driving an indestructible tank. Black Gap quickly started throwing us side-to-side over rocks and high ridges, but with ample stops along the way to take in the incredible scenery while letting the blood pressure go back down.

At one point, we stopped in a wash to let another caravan pass us. They took one look at us and our vehicles and said, “You thought that was tough? Just wait until you get to the next bit. You’ll never make it. But you can turn around in that area.” That seemed both ominous and annoying.

And then we got to “The Step.” It’s the feature on Black Gap that’s a make-it-or-break-it situation for the people who run this trail. It is a 24 inch vertical ledge (or, if you’re traveling northbound, drop-off). There are a bunch of stacked rocks below it to make a bit of an incline, but they shift as you drive up and it’s a very narrow passage.

I was intimidated having heard about this. After the other caravan’s comments, I was nervous, but also surprisingly determined. And then the Renegade kinda lept up the ledge with very minimal scraping of its right-side rock rail, which is what that’s for… And it’s the shortest of the three. Then Evan in the Landy got up without incident, just a little scraping of his back bumper because the Discovery’s departure angle is so shallow. That’s the longest of the three. And then it just left me.

[Uh, I should get this photo from Evan, I suppose. But he went to bed.]

I’ll admit… I covet mine neighbor’s automatic transmission. Only in this particular instance. But as we learned on the road into Bar Ten Ranch, and again a time or two on one of the OATs, I have a hard time approaching the combination of extreme uphill start in low range over an obstacle with any measure of finesse. And so it was again today. I got half way up the rock pile at The Step and froze. I was on the right line, but just had to get going again.

Wheeeeee. I’ll take that whiskey now.

I lurched up the hill and then shot over the rest of The Step in a great commotion that surprised me even more than it did Evan and George. And except for the “mudflap symphony” created by the rear flaps getting caught on rocks (expected), I didn’t run into any other trouble.

We took a little break after that to catch our breath, then continued down the trail. It quickly became obvious that the day’s original schedule was a bit too ambitious because we were about two hours into Black Gap Trail and had only covered 5 of its 9 miles… But thankfully it started to let up. There were a few more challenging bits and then we were dumped onto River Road, a backcountry road that runs the entire width of the park.

We decided to head east a mile to make a detour to see an abandoned cinnabar mine and settlement below. That was awesome. Usually old mining towns are fenced off or pretty well destroyed. This one was in remarkable shape and had a huge brick building high up on a hill that processed the mercury ore they were excavating, and it was all open. So we walked up there, poked around, didn’t touch the poison bricks, watched the sunset, had a beer, and took more photos.

Realizing how late it was becoming, we headed out west on River Road because despite it being another 20-30 miles of overland driving, it was still shorter than doing 10-20 miles overland eastbound then having to take the highway around the whole park again. Just to be sure, we asked Google Maps and Garmin Navigator what to do, and they both seemed to think the appropriate route suggestion was to take Black Gap Road again, which is asinine for a navigation application to ever suggest something like that to someone without a major warning.

He’s so very proud.

Then George got to use his offroad lights. (Disclaimer: I poke fun, but I also got to use my offroad lights. Yay!) It was properly dark before long and we had a good hour or two of fun in and out of washes paralleling the Rio Grand until we hit the service road to head back to Terlingua. It was a really really fun road, and then there was that time I got charged by a wild horse.

I get that it doesn’t look like much in this format, but a full-size black horse charging you in the middle of the night, even while inside a vehicle, is a little unnerving.

Quick stop back at the edge of the pavement for Evan to reconnect his sway bar. We thought about reinflating tires, but it was super late, super dark, and super cold, so we went ahead.

We got into town and both restaurants we went to had already closed, so we returned to our motel and ate the lunch we’d packed but forgotten to eat while we looked through photos from today.

Today was a helluva day and I loved it, but it was basically 90% driving. Tomorrow I’m hoping to show off some of the park on foot. We’ve got one 5 mile hike I want to do, and I’ve also earmarked four 0.5-2 mile hikes to sprinkle in between less ambitious overland driving. And we’ve got two more days to stretch it into also, which is nice.