The Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park in Texas is extremely strenuous but a spectacular day hike (if you are a fast walker). The entire loop is 14 miles round trip and temperatures can exceed 100 degrees (38 degrees C) with no water available anywhere along the trail. In fact, it is so difficult that several have died along the trail – so don’t take it lightly!
Luckily I met a couple of rangers in the morning and they reminded me to take plenty of water with me. At the head of the trail there was another sign advising visitors to take extra water so I turned back and put some more water in my rucksack. At least that was what I thought!
Unfortunately, as I was unpacking my rucksack someone disturbed me and I merely repacked the same water I took out from my rucksack a moment earlier. So in fact I took no extra water, which came back to haunt me later.
Big Bend National Park Deaths
Hiking the Marufo Vega Trail was probably the most difficult project in my entire life – and nearly resulted in my death. I visited the Marufo Vega Trail on my second day in Big Bend National Park. When I got my Big Bend Backcountry Pass I asked the ranger to recommend a secluded area with no people and he told me about the Marufo Vega Trail.
Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the US, with less then 1% of US national park visitors coming here. The park is also one of the largest in the US, coming in at number 14 on the 20 Largest National Parks in the US list . In fact, it is larger than Rhode Island itself! So if you enjoy solitude, this is the place for you!
During registration, the ranger warned me to take plenty of water and only go if I felt confident enough. I had plenty of water in the car and there was no problem with my confidence, so I set off on my big adventure hiking along the Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park’s desert.
This walk was during my road trip around Texas. Read the itinerary here: Driving Around Texas – Trip of a Lifetime
I started the hike at around 11 o’clock but by then it was already VERY hot and I was sweating a lot and breathing heavily climbing up the steep hills. The trail is very steep and rocky in places and I live in England so I was not used to the heat. I was drinking generous amounts of water in the belief that there was plenty more at the bottom of the rucksack.
Lunch on the Marufo Vega Trail Hike
I got as far as Checkpoint 4 without a problem and this was where I stopped first to have something to eat. I sat there for about half an hour and met only one person. In fact, during the entire day’s hike only about five hikers walked past. At the time I thought it was quite amazing walking in perhaps the quietest part of Big Bend National Park – but it was also to my detriment later in the day.
The route between Checkpoints 4 and 5 is quite easy but the views are amazing. The checkpoints are simple metal signs with arrows pointing out the direction of the trail. Unfortunately most of them were quite obscure and rusty, which made them very difficult to spot.
Along the trail on both sides are thousands of cacti, yellow and pink flowers and red, yellow and orange rocks – a hikers’ paradise! However, there are no trees and the few shrubs that there are have huge thorns so I tried to avoid them as far as I could. Not having trees also meant I could not stop anywhere in the shade which started to bother me after a while as it was getting very hot.
The Going Gets Tougher
Having passed Checkpoint 5, the trail started to become very difficult with a steep decline into a canyon. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon but this spot made me think it might look like this. The canyon had steep vertical walls on both sides and nothing else but cacti and a few shrubs. It was super quite and as it was getting later in the day, the sun was rising higher – and so did the temperature.
Being in the canyon made it feel even hotter and as the trail was on the sunny side there was no shade anywhere. I had no sun tan lotion so I started burning pretty quickly. Luckily it wasn’t sore to begin with but by nightfall I could barely touch my shoulders.
Getting to Big Bend National Park: Scenic Drive from Sanderson to Marathon
By the time I reached Checkpoint 6 I was into my second 750 ml bottle of water. I was drinking quite generous amounts of water as it was very hot. Also, I thought that I had plenty of more water in the rucksack. I even used some water to pour over my head as I was overheating – ready to faint.
On the map that the ranger gave me it said that after Checkpoint 6 the trail would be difficult to spot. Fortunately, I managed to find it and about 2-3 hours later I reached the river. Here I stopped a little to bath and eat.
Dinner by the Rio Grande in Texas
The river bank was sandy in another canyon with some huge vertical walls on both sides. It never felt so good to pour cold water over my body! I was absolutely burning up in the heat even though it was only mid-March. I can’t imagine how hot it gets here during the summer months…
Mules and horses walking around here left their footsteps in the sand so I was convinced I was on the right track. I finished the second bottle around this time and put the empty bottle away. Stupidly I did not take out the third bottle just yet, thinking I would do it further up the road. I was still very optimistic I would reach higher ground that night and camp out on the hilltop. I didn’t want to camp near the river in case of a flash flood, which happen regularly here and it was raining for hours the previous night, so I wasn’t going to risk it.
At around 5pm, after dinner, I started walking uphill. It was still pretty hot and the water was pouring down my neck and back. Carrying my heavy rucksack uphill wasn’t much fun at that point! I still hadn’t realized that I was running out of water, so I opened the third bottle and had a couple of big gulps. It was at this point that I got lost.
Getting Lost In The Desert
There were several trails in front of me and I was convinced I was on the right one. I even had a map with me from the ranger so I carried on walking the same direction until the track disappeared from under my feet…I did not panic at first as I thought I would find the track easily with the help of the map. Problem is, it was a poor quality photocopy and I just could not find Checkpoint 7 however hard I looked. I decided to carry on walking straight, hoping that I would arrive at the other side of the loop and eventually find the trail back to the car. I kept walking and found no trail and it was still very hot so I kept drinking a lot of water.
After about an hour of wandering I gave up looking for the trail. I must have walked a good hour when I suddenly heard a loud noise and the bush rattling. I turned around and saw a wild animal, which I later found out was a Desert Big Horn Sheep. It’s the size of a deer, but with two twisted horns. It saw me too and started running away from me but that same moment I spotted the trail just next to the animal! I totally took it for some sort of divine intervention as it then lead me to the trail I needed.
Only a Coors Light!
I kept walking on that trail for another 30-40 minutes when I lost it again. I wasn’t about to descend again so I decided to stop and have a break. It was at this time that I started looking for more water in my rucksack and figured out that all I had left with me was a can of Coors Light! I was planning to drink it after I pitched up my tent as a “desert special”. Panic started to sat in, thinking I was in real big trouble as there was absolutely nobody around to give me water!
I was lost and I had no water. I had very little food on me. All I had was a few Reese’s, some bread, some beef jerky and some beef sausages. I also had some canned chicken broth but it was so salty it made me even thirstier…
After I got completely lost, I kept wondering around, hoping to find the correct path. I even attempted to climb one of the hills but then I gave up. On top of one of the cliffs I witnessed perhaps the most beautiful sunsets in my life and then I turned around. I thought it would be best to walk back the way I came as I did not want to get even more lost with no water on me.
Walking In The Dark
It was getting dark so I had to walk as fast as I could possibly walk. I even had to jump up and down massive boulders and maneuver around the shrubs with the massive thorns. The problem with the Marufo Vega Trail in the dark is that you cannot see anything and some of the cacti have huge thorns! Luckily only one or two pricked me! However hard I tried to get to the river before dark, I couldn’t so for quite a distance I walked in the dark.
I know I previously said I wouldn’t sleep near the river but when I got lost and figured out I had no water left I wanted to go back to the river to find my bearings. Also, I was ready to drink the filthy water in case I couldn’t get any other source of water!
Luckily I had a torch with me and that helped me avoid the cacti and shrubs and to watch my next step. Otherwise I would have had to spend the night sitting on one of the rocks because there was absolutely no flat ground to set my tent up on.
On the way up I managed to memorize some of the larger rocks and formations and also some of the shrubs and cacti. I also memorized the shapes of some of the cliffs by the river. I could see the silhouettes of the larger cliffs in the distance even in the dark – so I followed them. I also hugely relied on my gut instinct in the dark – one bad step and I break my leg…
I was walking in a wash and so I figured that it could only lead me to the river. These washes are normally filled with water during the rainy season when there are flash floods. So I just carried on. I also listened to the insects and followed the direction where the most noise came from. The insects like to stay by the water so it was a no-brainer.
My Near Death Experience
Between the wash in which I was walking and the river, there was a relatively big hill which I could not climb. There was absolutely no point in doing so anyway because the other side would have just been a vertical fall into the river, so I carried on walking – by this time downhill. But even the wash was not without its dangers. From time to time there were dried out waterfalls. Had I walked into one of them it would have meant a fall and a broken limb and/or certain death as some of them were 5-10 meters deep!
If I had broken my leg there I would have died of dehydration the next day for sure because nobody was around. Anyhow, I was walking carefully in the dark and I stepped aside and looked for another way if I could not see the ground continuing. I did this because I knew the darkness ahead meant there was a fall in front of me.
I walked like this for over an hour and I was becoming desperate to find the river. Problem is, there was no positive sign that I was getting any closer! Only my gut instinct was telling me it was the right direction. From time to time I also recognized some of the shrubs and cacti and also noticed my own footsteps from when I was walking up. It reassured me that I was going the right way and to lift my spirit I had some of the beer.
Still No Trail – Getting Desperate
The worst was that I had absolutely nothing to drink other than the beer, half of which I’d already downed. The big rucksack on my back with the sleeping bag and tent did not help either. I was becoming quite tired of walking all day in the heat. By then it was well after 930 pm and I was about to give up when I found sand between the rocks. I figured I must have been very near the river if there was sand between the rocks!
This gave me a bit of encouragement and I carried on walking for another half an hour. Unfortunately there was still no river in sight and I was absolutely exhausted by then so I sat down a little again. I began to contemplate setting up camp there. In the end I forced myself to keep on walking until the river. I knew it would be much easier to find the track from there in the morning and I also preferred to walk in the dark when the sun wasn’t burning everything up.
About 20 minutes later I began hearing the water and I almost started running towards it! The moment I saw flat ground I pitched my tent up and went to the river to wet my towel and clothes. I also put my head in the water to cool down a little. It was around 1030 or maybe even 1100 by then and unfortunately the mosquitoes were everywhere. They were literally eating me up so I went inside the tent. I drank the juice from the chicken broth and put myself away for the night.
Camping Out in Big Bend National Park
It was the most miserable night I ever experienced. I was completely dried out and my lips were sticking together. My tongue stuck to my mouth and all I could dream about were water fountains, vending machines and the water that I had left in the back of the car! A recurring theme was sipping cold, peach flavored iced tea in the car or coconut juice in Angkor Wat! I was in quite a lot of pain as well from the sun burn and my feet were in agony from walking all day in sand, on rocks and jumping over the boulders.
I even had some sort of a premonition (or maybe just hallucination) that I would meet people the next day. In my “dream” there was also a tent with a lot of water outside it which I could drink from freely. With this I fell asleep and had a miserable night by the river
Setting off from the River
In the morning I got up around 6AM and started walking straight away. Not having anything else, I finished the last sip of beer and went to the river to wash myself before I set off. Knowing how hot it gets in the canyon I made my t-shirt wet and I also soaked the towels in water but I put them in a plastic bag to keep them wet for later.
I started walking along the river looking for the trail from the previous day. Thanks to my foresight I took photographs of the entrance to the river and the canyon walls the day before! Thanks to this it was easy to locate the track back to the car.
Meeting the Strangers – The First Sign
The only problem was the trail was on a steep ascent and I felt exhausted, hungry and thirsty. I nearly fainted at least half a dozen times before I got to flat ground again. From here I just had to walk until Checkpoint 6 before the trail started to ascend again. All the while I was looking out for walkers hoping someone would have some water to spare.
I walked at least two to three hours when I saw someone standing on a big rock looking towards the river just before Checkpoint 6! I was ecstatic, I’d never been happier to see a man in my entire life!
By the time I got to him I was very near death. I was completely dried out, my tongue stuck to my pallet and I was ready to drop off. But just then I reached him and a group of people and I recognized them from the day before!
Read: Visiting Del Rio in Texas
Without hesitation I asked one of them if he could spare some water but he told me he had to ask his friends if it was OK…! As it turned out they only brought enough for themselves. Suddenly I thought he would not give me any water! All sorts of things went through my head there! Thankfully after some deliberation they filled one of my bottles halfway up so I had about 400 ml of water for the rest of the walk.
I was very thankful and after a short chat I decided to not waste my breath and said goodbye. I tried to ration the water but I was so hungry and thirsty by then that I ran out of water again just after Checkpoint 5. At this point it was one of the steepest climbs again. It was past 1030AM and started to get hotter again…
Desperation Sets In Again!
About an hour later I was becoming ever more desperate to get to the car. I had another 3-4 hours to walk and I just didn’t feel able to do it. The heat was literally killing me with absolutely no shade in sight. This was when I got the wet towels out to cool myself and pushed myself to the limits walking for another hour without a sip of water.
Then another miracle happened. I met a couple walking past and all they were carrying was some food and about two gallons of water. We started talking and I told them about my plight. This time I didn’t even need to ask, the guy just opened his special rucksack which was full of water and filled two of my bottles up! How amazing I thought! And he told me where his tent was and said that he had left three gallons of water outside it!
Another Nice Texas Road Trip: Scenic Drive Along TX Highway 170
Crazy as it sounds but the premonition came through. He said I could just fill up my bottles again when I get to their tent! I could not believe how lucky I was and it happened almost exactly the way I had foreseen the night before!
The Last Stretch Out Of Big Bend National Park
The water they gave me lasted me all the way to their tent where I filled up a little more to last me to the car. I got back just after lunch – exhausted, dirty and hungry. My arms, face and neck were literally roasted and red like a herring.
My feet were in total agony as well. Previously I planned to stay another night at the Chissos Mountain Trail but I decided against it. Number one it was full of tourists and I had enough of adventure for the rest of the year! So I let the rangers know I was safe and sound and headed to Presidio for the night, ending my little adventure in Big Bend National Park.