Trip Reports of the Southwest Volume II: Rancherias Loop

Location: Big Bend Ranch State Park

Distance: 21.2 Miles

Difficulty: Very Strenuous

The Rancherias Loop leads deep into the wild Chihuahuan desert in southwest Texas, and explores some of the most rugged terrain in North America. The trail is faint and sandy when it is beaten at all, and otherwise it follows loose, rocky canyon bottoms where only the occasional cairn marks the way. The flora along the way also adds to the trail’s ruggedness. Stringy, spiny ocotillo reach ten or more feet up with gnarled branches, cholla and tasajillo cactus trive underneath the ocotillo, and rough desert grasses sporadically populate the sand in between. The only green can be found in a few lush oases next to the springs along the route. While wildlife like bighorn sheep, wild horses and burros, and the introduced aoudad inhabit the region and frequent the springs, the only signs we saw were horse and burro tracks near the springs and a dead bighorn and javelina along the trail. Most publications recommend making this trip into a three day hike, but we did it in two, and here is an overview the hike.

Day 1 – 9 miles

We commenced the hike at the east trailhead, and the first 2.5 miles followed an easy incline through many different arroyos. In between walking in dry riverbeds, the trail was well-worn and easily followed, but the ground in the beds was gravel and smooth river stones. It is extremely easy to get lost in this part of the trail, so keep an eye out for cairns built at the low and high banks, backtrack if you feel you may be lost, and do not climb out of the arroyos unless you are sure the trail leads out. After this section, the trail quickly descends into the Acebushes Canyon, and the sweeping vistas of Texas and Mexico give was to impressive canyon walls.

There is no discernible trail in this canyon, and the cairns are few and far between. Early in this canyon is a small and unreliable spring, called Seep Spring on the map. Note the lush vegetation and the giant desert cottonwoods growing around these small puddles that we found to be only a few inches deep. This is the smallest spring on the hike, and all the springs later in the hike have much larger green areas surrounding them, but this one serves a good purpose in showing what to look for when searching for the later springs. Had we been less prepared and thirstier, we would have filled up water here, but as it was, we passed it by. The exit out the northside after 2.5 miles is fairly well marked though, and the canyon becomes almost impossible to navigate past it. After this incline, the trail traverses over hills and washes until it comes upon the brink of the Panther Canyon, with the old ranch adobe Casa Reza easily in site. This adobe offers some of the only shade on the entire hike, and is next to the Ojo de Leon, a flowing, lush, delicious spring. We stopped here for a couple hours, ate, and waited out the hottest couple hours of sun in the shade of the adobe and cottonwoods. In the late afternoon, we continued north for 1.5 miles in the panther canyon until we stopped for the day a little ways from Panther Spring. The trail veers further up the eastern wall at this point than it appears on the map, and is hard to follow. And, although the Panther spring is more of a stinking, festering puddle than Ojo de Leon, wildlife still use it for water, so the park requires that you camp at least 300 feet away from it.

Day 2 – 12 miles

Panther canyon ends just a little ways north of the spring, and after following the wash for less than a mile, the trail intersects a very seldom used jeep trail, which really serves as just a wider hiking trail. After a very easy 2.5 mile decline westward on this road, a looming mountain jutting north from the mountains on the southside of the road seems to block the trail. The jeep trail starts tracking north around this mountain, but then turns right to start going northeast. The loop splits off from the jeep trail at this point and continues west, slowly veering southward. After crossing over two washes, the Rancherias Springs can be viewed to the left only a hundred yards or so off trail. The trees here were stunning. They were giants. Two of us couldn’t meet our hands wrapped around the big ones, and they looked hundreds of years old – a monument to the longevity of these springs, and relics of a distant past. This is the last water for the trail, and the ranger informed us the sometimes the first few springs are dry, and water can only be found bushwacking for miles down the Rancherias wash, but you will need to fill up with water here. The next part of the hike traverses the Lower Guale Mesa, and provides sweeping views of surrounding canyons and tall, black mountains in Mexico. The trail is straight and well marked with cairns as it passes endless ocotillo on the plain. The final three miles descends downhill over rocky terrain and eventually reaches the Rancherias Canyon. From here, the west trailhead is slightly less than a mile away. The west trailhead is about 2 miles up F.M. 170 from the east trailhead, and the fastest way to gt back is to walk or jog, and ride your thumb.

The Rancherias Loop is the most difficult trail I have hiked in Texas, and it offers solitude not easily found on any other public land in the state. We truly felt alone out there, and found much solace in the silence of the desert.

Backpacking basics: Equipment Crash Course

Backpacking might seem like a daunting challenge and the first place people begin to get confused is with gear. “What should I bring?” seems to be the first question on most people’s mind, and this handy guide is here to help.

As a bit of a disclaimer, all of the information in this article should be taken with a grain of salt. It features equipment that I use personally, and have practiced with through the course of my adventures. Secondly, in the interest of disclosure, if you buy anything from any of the links in this article, MGG Outdoors will make a small commission. (It would really help us out if you did!) These product might not be the exact products we use on the trail, but we will make sure they are of equivalent quality, and if for ANY reason you disagree please contact us via the contact page. So, on with it.

The first piece of equipment you will need is a backpack. Backpacks are the most important piece of equipment in your inventory and it’s important to remember you will wear it throughout the day, for miles on end. Therefore be ready to drop some coin on a quality bag. I use a Teton Sports 65 L. At 65 Liters it has been a bit small for extended trips. You might find better utility in a larger, metal framed pack in terms of weight distribution and pack space, but this pack has served me well.

The next items on your list should be a sleep system. Here in Texas, nights are warmer, so I usually opt for a hammock system. The system I use is very affordable, It consists of a budget hammock, bugnet, and rainfly. These are the closest items that I could find, thanks to their simplicity these budget products have done well. To keep warm at night I use a simple, rectangular sleeping bag. fashioned with cord to hang outside the hammock (I’ll write an article on how to do this later). A simple top quilt and your standard base layer will keep you warm. Bring along an emergency blanket as well, they can help on an unexpectedly cold night. This system can suffice down to around 30 degrees fairly comfortably depending on your preference of sleeping temperature.

Food and water are next on the list of essentials, so a stove, cookset, and water filtration system are in order. The Sawyer Squeeze filter has been a great system to clean water from potentially unsafe sources. This is a great budget cookset that includes nearly everything you need to prepare meals on the trail except stove fuel. I would also recommend a metal cup to prepare and consume hot drinks and a solid bag that will contain your cookset, food, and fuel. To carry water, a great lightweight solution is a large, wide-mouth disposable water bottle (I use an Ozark 3L) and either a Nalgene or an average sized disposable bottle for on the trail hydration. (Please reuse these, plastic lasts forever and it’s better to be in your pack than the ocean) I’d also like to add a small, standard first aid kit to this portion because its important to your health. This one will work great.

Personal items are next on the list. The most important personal item in your bag will be your rain gear. This is a very personal preference, but I use your standard yellow raincoat for high visibility in an emergency as well as the extra length it provides to keep my pants dry. After that comes clothes, pack a pair of socks and underwear for every day you’ll be on the trail, and a pair camp clothes (I use sport shorts and a t shirt). Camp shoes are also important. I use these because if i need to cross a river I can slip them on and not have to worry about getting my boots wet. A good knife is always a good thing to carry, I would recommend a short, non-folding knife in a good leather sheath this fits the bill well. A trowel for burying your human waste is very important because it keeps animals from running into your poop. A flashlight is also an essential, I use this one because it is USB rechargeable, waterproof, and the battery lasts long enough for at least a week long trip.

Finally, consumables. First, ziplock bags. These are essential, food waste, used baby wipes, and any other trash you might generate will go in bags to pack out because you should always practice “leave no trace”. Next would be personal hygiene. Carry your standard deodorant, and dental care stuff, as well as baby wipes dry shampoo, and a small hairbrush. Baby wipes work much better than toilet paper because you get clean with less. They also work to get the rest of your body clean, and with a hairbrush and a travel sized dry shampoo bottle you can feel clean any time you want. Just remember to always pack out your trash rather than leaving it on the trail or burying it. Duct tape for everything from shoe repair to rainfly repair is great to have. I like to get an old plastic card such as a hotel key and wrap a good amount around it so it fits conveniently in your pack.

These are the base items you will need to get into backpacking (you’ll need to get food, water, etc, and I’ll cover that in my next article “packing for your trip”). I like to bring along a few luxury items to make camp life a little more enjoyable. First my harmonica and a deck of cards for obvious reasons. I also like to bring a portable power bank to charge my phone, and a speaker to play some music around the campsite. I never go on a trip without trekking poles because they make elevation change MUCH easier, as well as a hand towel to wipe out everything from my cookset to the sweat from my brow. Benadryl is a great sleep aid, and I like to keep it with me just in case I have a restless night and of course it helps with allergies if you have them. Lastly, a simple pain management aid like Ibuprofin or Tylenol is good to have in case you have any sort of pain while you’re out there.

That’s it! These items will be the base of your trips, and unless you’re facing some uncommon challenges, you should be set for a great trip. Thanks for reading!

Trip Reports of the Southwest Volume I: Eagle Rock Loop

Location: Ouachita National Forest, Arkansas

Distance: 26.8 Miles

Difficulty: Moderate

The Eagle Rock Loop is a premier hike in Arkansas, and it really has it all. Any hiker will quickly become mesmerized on this trail that winds through southern deciduous forest amidst the awesome Ouachita mountains, a part of one of the few mountain ranges between the Appalachians and the Rockies – the U.S. Interior Highlands. The rivers provide plentiful water along the way, but present pressing obstacles at any turn, so pack a pair of crossing shoes. And while the trail mostly ambles along easy river banks, it also carries you up and over 2500′ mountains without switchbacks. It is doable in three days, and has many trailheads, but we will start from the southwest.

Day 1 – 8.5-9 miles

The trek commences at the Athens-Bigfork South Trailhead. Be sure of the directions before you drive there because you will lose phone reception in the forest roads. The Athens-Bigfork trail (ABT) starts with a 1.1 mile stretch before joining the Eagle Rock loop, and descends 800 feet into the Viles Branch Canyon. Fill up on water here if you need to. From here, the ABT marches up and down six consecutive ridges over the next 7.5 miles, with 100′ to 700′ elevation changes without switchbacks. During this stretch, you have to buckle down and keep moving forward. Be sure to keep on the proper trail during this portion, as there are many side trails to and from public hunting units. Once you finish, you will have the hardest part of the hike behind you , but you have to get through it first. Take it easy up the inclines, and soak in the views along the entire way, you’ll have plenty. You can fill up water in seasonal creeks between every ridge along the way. At the top of the sixth and final ridge, a spur trail diverges to the Spirit Rock Vista. Camp anywhere off this trail and you will get to experience some of the best views in the entire state to woo you into sleep.

Day 2 – 10 – 10.5 miles

Descend 400′ over .6 miles from Spirit Rock Vista and rejoice! You’ve conquered Arkansas’ greatest ridges. Over the next nine or so miles, you will hike alongside the Little Missouri River, maintaining a very slight wading up to 15 yards across the river 7 times (at depths up to waste-deep) and crossing one bridge at the Little Missouri Falls. Here is another opportunity for splendid vistas.

Choose a campsite that suits you, and let the lazy Little Missouri lull you to sleep.

Day 3 – ~10 miles

Hike south to the Albert Pike Recreation Area, and proceed up a 300’ridge. After you peak the 1 mile ascent, descend another 400′ over another mile until you reach a chest-deep crossing. I saw my dog swim in deep water for the first time at this crossing, and took a picture with my friends in the water. Scroll up to the top of the article to enjoy this glorious photo again.

After another 3/4 mile, the trail crosses the Little Missouri

The Eagle Rock Loop is a tremendous adventure that offers a great challenge to any hiker.

Follow this link to buy detailed maps sold at ranger stations directly from the producer. http://www.ouachitamaps.com/Eagle%20Rock.html

Opinion: Hammock Camping

Hammock camping, Pikes Peak CO

In the very beginning of my venture into overnight backpacking I, like many others faced a choice in shelter, hammock or tent. This choice is often made in haste, with many opting for a tent because that’s what is traditionally used. However with any choice in gear it’s important to spend some time researching what is right for you rather than what fits within the status quo.

With a tent there are many advantages and I think it’s important to highlight them so that you can make the choice that’s right for you. To start, a tent is spacious and offers room to keep gear out of the weather. With a tent you never have to worry about your pack and everything inside of it getting wet because it can be kept with you, safe from exposure to the elements. A tent protects against critters that want to hide out in you bag (in most cases) and generally allows people to feel comfortable moving about within their own space.

However the main advantage of a tent over a hammock is in more extreme conditions. In weather below 30 degrees it becomes incredibly difficult to stay warm in a hammock without filling you pack with a really bulky underquilt that weighs much more than your standard 10 degree bag. With a tent, pad, and quality sleeping bag you can feel comfortably warm even as the temperature drops close to 0 degrees. This point goes further in rainy or snowy conditions.

While all these advantages are present with a tent, there are a few thing to consider when making this decision. First, do you expect to be camping at temperatures below 40 degrees the majority of the time? For most, backpacking is a summer hobby and depending on where you live the answer is no. If that’s the case with you consider the pros of a hammock.

First and foremost, a hammock is comfortable. You might disagree at first, but sleeping overnight in a hammock is not as simple as lying with your head and toes pointed at the trees because it leads to an arched and subsequently painful spinal position. I’ll be posting a guide on hammock camping that explains in depth how to avoid this soon. Next is the ground itself. With a tent it’s important to find a piece of dirt that is level and generally clear of debris that could make your nights sleep uncomfortable. With a hammock, the ground can be as pitched and rock covered as it might be and all you need for a comfortable nights sleep are two trees 12-20 feet apart.

Furthermore, in warmer temperatures hammocks tend to shine. Here in Texas a summer night might not get lower that 70 degrees but the breathable fabric and a breeze offers a cool and comfortable nights sleep. Hammocks are not only comfortable, but economical. The entire hammock setup that I use regularly cost me right around 65$ excluding an under quilt. Hammocks also generally weigh less and take up less pack space than a tent. With a hammock you also are much less concerned about having a failure, you are far more likely to snap a tent pole than you are a hammock strap.

For all of these reasons, I would encourage the beginner backpacker to look into hammock camping as your shelter of choice, especially if you’re on a budget and you plan on camping in warmer weather. Thanks for reading!

The Task at Hand

Jack Woulfe, Shawn Graybill on the Eagle Rock Loop

In every backpacking trip everyone has responsibilities, cleaning up after yourself, maintaining an efficient pace, keeping morale high, and carrying the weight of the belongings they have brought with them to name a few.

Every night and every morning every member of the team or the soloist has basic responsibilities that maintain efficiency and pace to complete the task at hand. This is done around the clock without question for experienced backpackers and provides us with a metaphor for our lives off the trail.

On the Guadalupe Peak summit trail Shawn and I discovered first hand the importance of maintaining these responsibilities while on the trail. We were still relatively new to hiking and wanted to face our first major challenge, the tallest peak in Texas.

While climbing we realized we bit off more than we could chew. We were exhausted before noon and every step became a challenge. “Hiking is what we do for fun, and there is no need to rush” I said to Shawn, “There isnt any reason we need to push hard.” At roughly 2 P.M. we got a wake up call in the form of a thunderstorm overhead, and we were forced to moved quickly to reach a camping spot and take shelter before being pounded by rain.

In that rush, we were pushed harder than we were comfortable with, but with the threat of lightening overhead we were motivated to fulfill our obligation of effort to the trail. We learned firsthand the importance of maintaining the obligation we had, even without the storm, to put forth our best effort.

In hiking, and in life, we have an obligation to push ourselves past where we are comfortable even when we have no consequence of a failure to do so. This way, when a storm approaches, or a job is lost, or a strain is put on our relationships, we are prepared to succeed. In your life off of the trail always remember, putting your best effort forth is always a necessity. The paths that life takes us through are difficult to navigate, and can only be done through perseverance, dedication, and a commitment to our obligations both on the trail, and off.

Shawn Graybill, Guadalupe Peak Trail

Lilly the Leader

This is Lilly.

Lilly is my pup.

Kylie and I adopted Lilly from an animal shelter at 4 months old.

She loves me more than I love me, and I cant get over that.

My good friend Lilly was a gift I never expected to receive, my then girlfriend (now Fiance) Kylie was surprised when I stopped at the animal shelter in Houston, TX. She insisted we couldn’t afford a dog, and didnt have the time. “We can just go take a look for fun!” I said as I parked my truck in the parking lot. “The worst that could happen is we come home with a dog!”

And then we did.

We watched her roll around with a tennis ball bigger than her mouth and we were sunk. Sunk deep into that puppy love that makes young adults make poor financial decisions, it was there our journey began.

Lilly was well trained as any good dog should be and we had our ups and downs as any kids trying to raise an animal can be expected to have. The wilderness brought us together in a beautiful bond between a man and his dog working together to conquer it.

I first learned of this primal connection on the trails of Bastrop State park. It was my first adventure alone and I couldn’t resist the company of my now 1 year old furball of a best friend. I was hesitant to let her off of her leash at first but after a mile or so of walking she gave me the confidence I needed in her obedience to let her go. What happened next astounded me.

Lilly ran ahead, which concerned me at first but she never went further than 10-20 yards, and she never left the trail. After about 3 miles I realized what was happening, Lilly see’s herself as a leader. She needs to be in front because in her head that is where she belongs.

Since that hike we’ve gone on many more, that summer we hiked a particularly sandy trail in Sam Houston National forest. It was well over 95 degrees the entire time but still Lilly charged to the front. For miles Lilly never gave an inch on her 10 yard lead, stopping only for water when we called her back. After a while she got tired.

Still she refused to let anyone be ahead of her. She accomplished this by sprinting forward to the next shady spot on the trail, sitting down and waiting for us to catch up. When we got within 10 feet of her she would hop up and go forward again, without fail, until the hike was complete.

Lilly on the Eagle Rock Loop Trail in Arkansas

On that day, Lilly taught me what it means to be a leader. She taught me if you want to be ahead you have to earn it. You have to want it bad enough to put your body on the line, and never falter when faced with adversity. She taught me a leader is determined to not only to be ahead but to stay close enough to the pack to inspire people to strive to be where you are. To push further and faster than you ever would have thought to go. She has inspired me on every trip we’ve been on in the same way, and I imagine she will continue to inspire me on every trip to come.

5 ways to F*** up your day hike

Featured on @moore.natural on instagram

Do YOU wanna hike in the great landscapes the world has to offer? Is it a little too early on in your skill set to go camping overnight? Are you worried long miles might be a little too tough? If so day hiking is for you, and if you don’t want to f*** up your day hike, don’t follow this handy guide (but read it anyway).

  1. Leave your water at home

“Yeah man there’s like 4 rivers on the way, a water bottle and a filter is all we need.”

No. Not only is this incredibly lazy, it goes against the spirit of outdoorsmen nation wide. Preparation and planning are what make a good hike a great hike. If you walk 2 miles out of your way to get to that perfect camera angle and run out of water you might notice you’re a bit patched at first, but by the time that next river rolls around you’re going to be drained.

2. Leave crap on the trail

“Dude paper bags are biodegradable and this one is gross, I’m leaving it here”

I say f*** up your hike in a transitive sense, if you don’t pick up your trash, you f*** up someone else’s hike. In the same sense someone can do it to you. Paper degrades faster than plastic, yes, but it’s still on the trail tomorrow, and odds are someone will hike that trail tomorrow. Don’t leave an eyesore, pick up ALL of your trash, including but not limited too, cigarette butts, napkins, paper bags, and yes, even used toilet paper.

3. Keep your trip a secret

“We’re going to be gone for like 4 hours, nobody else is going to care that we’re going hiking”

This one is VERY common, and might be the most underrated. If you are like me and you have a busy college or work life, nobody really is going to realize that you weren’t home when you were planning to be. They might no even notice that you didn’t come home from a day hike that night. If you’re in a tight spot that could mean 2-3 days before help arrives, rather then them coming to look for you right away. NEVER assume a hike is going to proceed as planned and always have someone who will come looking for you.

4. Start late

“Bummer we slept in till 1, I’m sure we could still catch up on our hike though”

Unplanned nighttime treks can be a scary thing for even the finest outdoorsman. Uneven, rocky terrain can be an ankle destroyer when you can’t see the rocks and low hanging tree limbs can catch you completely by surprise. The is further amplified when your “day hike” turns into a “dusk hike” or even a “night hike”. Often people will carry only their phone for light because hey, it does have a flashlight (just so you know that flashlight SUCKS). It is best just to mitigate this risk. If you’re more than just a few hours behind, either reschedule, or take everything you need to stay overnight, just in case.

5. Bring someone who has different expectations than you

“Come on, just come with me, it’ll be lots of fun!”

A hiking companion is one of the easiest people to get to know. You walk for hours on end in a serene environment enjoying each others company in nature. The unfortunate truth about our hobby is that it isn’t for everyone. If someone who is timid to go is expecting a short, enjoyable afternoon hike and they find themselves miles from a trailhead, and wanting to be anywhere other than where they are, there’s a good chance they aren’t going to want to hike again. If you want to bring someone along who is inexperienced be sure the expectations of the hike are clear and an appropriate mileage and difficulty is selected

Hiking is lots of fun, it’s good exercise, and it provides an opportunity to see some of the best things that Mother Nature has to offer, but it’s important to remember that planning, and etiquette are both important, and in order for you to have your best experience you need to plan, prepare and execute well. Stay safe out there.