I’ve wanted to hike the Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park each of the last three times I’ve been to the park. Marufo Vega (MV) is a 14-mile loop that I can now say is the hardest trail that I’ve ever hiked. To me, MV is more challenging than the Hermit’s Rest Trail in the Grand Canyon, a notoriously challenging trail that is unmaintained whereas MV is a maintained one. Maybe my memory of that trail is too remote, but MV is not forgiving. You climb 1,000 feet up, descend 1,000 feet, climb 1,000 feet, and descend it again, all in a 14-mile trail that has no shade, no water, and a gazillion spiny things. As unforgiving as the hike is, the hike is equally memorable and remarkable for its scenic beauty.
I perhaps should have taken more notice when a seasoned park volunteer gave me the detailed map of the trail (you should absolutely ask for this if you plan to hike), indicated a couple of good places to camp, and then pointed to another section and mentioned that it was “sketchy” and that we’d “burn a lot of energy trying to balance on all the rocks.” Even if an alarm bell had rung, it would not have deterred me. This hike has been on my list for more than three years. Still, the volunteer was absolutely right. Sketchy, indeed. I’ll get back to that.
The trailhead begins in a wash that passes through the remains of the aerial tramway that would have carted silver and other metals from the mountains back when this area was a mining district in the early 1900s. We crisscrossed a gigantic rusted cable and passed by the collapsed remains of a tower where large pulleys remained with cable wrapped through. Although MV did not pass an intact tower, one still seemed to be standing father in the distance on the Iron Ore Terminus Trail, which we intend to hike perhaps the next time we come back to the park.
The MV intersects the Iron Ore and Straw House trails in the first 2 ½ miles, but all crossings are well signed and clear. When MV and Straw House first separate, the MV begins a strenuous and precipitous climb that feels as if it is straight up (it’s not!) lasting about a ¼ of a mile. About halfway through the climb, the terrain levels and makes a nice stopping point with a great view down into the wash. Then the climb begins anew. These types of steep ascents make you damn grateful for switchbacks. If you’re not the kind of person who feels obligated to complete every stretch of a trail, skip it: Straw House has another easier connector to MV farther past the first junction with MV. I remember wondering, briefly, whether this first steep ascent was the sketchy part. Nope. Just a really steep climb on looser rock than you’d prefer… until later, when you’d take it back in a heartbeat. Or at least, I would have.
The views from this part of the trail back down into the wash are lovely and sweeping in a grand, dramatic way. The Rio Grande looks like a sparkling gem instead of the muddy not potable river it is. As you descend slightly from the ridge, the vistas of the Sierra del Caballo Muerto (Mountains of the Dead Horse – yeah, coming back to that one) and the Sierra del Carmen are spectacular. The area here is relatively flat or gradually descending, and you meet up shortly with the signpost indicating the connection back to Straw House. At this point, you’ve hiked 2 ½ miles.
From here, MV traverses a wash that is marked well with cairns and at least one metal directional arrow until you arrive at the fork (also marked with a metal sign). We took the south fork because the volunteer had told us this was a popular direction to hike the trail. We encountered some day hikers along a ridge who were just as eager to know where the fork was as we were to know how steep the descent really was. We were both groups of us displeased. By this point, if we had had any doubt about where the sketchy part was, they sure cleared it up for us.
In fact, when we did finally encounter the steep descent, I had turned a corner and let loose a stream of profanity that might have made that proverbial sailor blush. Cactus sometimes grew on both sides of the trail (and almost always on at least one), and the trail was almost entirely covered with scree ranging from loose gravel to a very brawny man’s fist… or foot. Either way, a slip could be treacherous. My husband, burdened with 13 liters of water (28 pounds!) for our two nights of camping, slipped twice. I recommend his approach if you’re descending the South Fork: if you slip, sit down on your tush.
Difficulty of this segment aside, camping by the Rio Grande in this gorgeous canyon with seemingly vertical walls is worth the trip. We had an idyllic campsite near the Rio, and I felt good enough to do something I’ve never done before: Yoga at a backcountry site. I needed the gentle stretching, and the calming sound of the rushing water and the picturesque scenery in front of me made for a calming and quite Zen evening. As we relaxed at our campsite and I scribbled away my thoughts on our first day of hiking, a hummingbird moth flew up to me and rubbed its proboscis over my hand looking for nectar before darting away. What an enchanting way to end the evening as we watched darkness slowly rise up the canyon walls until the sun had sunk fully behind them.
Dawn had similarly enchanting moments. As we hiked about 500 feet above the Rio, we heard a tremendous crashing below us. A small herd of six horses rushed out from the undergrowth of the bank and cantered into the Rio, slowing to a trot and then a walk in the middle of the river. They soon picked up their pace again, crossing into Mexico, and then galloping down the far bank. The whole experience felt magical, and the 10-year-old girl inside of me was thrilled. We asked a park ranger about the horses later, and she informed us they were most likely half-feral horses from Mexico that have been let loose to graze illegally in the park. Still, the awe and wonder I felt at watching their flight across the Rio has stayed with me, and it’s one of my favorite memories from our trip this year.
The encounter with the horses did cause me to ponder again the name of these mountains: caballo muerto (dead horse). We saw abundance evidence of horses at our campsite along the Rio and had assumed that the droppings and hoofprints came from trail horses. With how steep that descent was, though, I could envision no trail horse whose life I would risk on such a trail even though the trail is designated for use by pack animals. I just couldn’t risk my or anyone else’s horse like that; the descent on either fork would be worthy of Olympic-level trail riding as I see it. Worse, as we came to the bottom of the spur from the South Fork to the river, we encountered a partial skeleton of an equid, a horse, mule, or donkey of some kind. It’s not hard to wonder how the mountains earned their name, notwithstanding the sight of those majestic horses racing across the Rio.
The trail along the Rio is about two miles in length, and it’s a good warm-up for the ascent up the North Fork. We met two day hikers just as we were turning toward the fork. After the sketchy South Fork, we were keen to know about the footing on the North Fork, so we asked them about it. I took to these day hikers immediately when they commented upon the vast difference in our experiences with the trail due to our packs but settled on the description of “technical but not treacherous.” We wished each other a pleasant hike and proceeded toward the North Fork.
Our map indicated that finding the North Fork coming from the South could be problematic, and I can certainly understand why. Animal trails cross the area, which must change substantially whenever it rains and the piles of silt and earth move. We had no trouble: three easy-to-see signs pointed us in the right direction – and up!
The climb up the North Fork lacked my shocked profanity, and the two day hikers’ assessment of technical but not treacherous was spot in. In fact, for most of the hike, I found it fully and pleasantly manageable without any qualms or anxieties and could even see how a horse might descend safely with its rider until we came to a section near the top of the canyon where we had to essentially boulder climb up different sections of rock face. I had to put the trekking poles away for the scramble up. Yes, it was manageable with packs, and finding reasonable footing on the rock face was manageable too. Still, I may have repeated my mantra that I sometimes find myself repeating (I am not afraid of heights!) when I find myself near anything steep and feeling anxious about it. I am, in fact, quite scared of heights. The climb was definitely technical, not treacherous. I loved it.
From here, the exciting bits of the trail are mostly behind you. We continued hiking and reunited with the main portion of the trial. Shortly after parting ways with a man who complained about the lack of wildlife on the trail and was quite out of breath for the Herculean feats ahead of him, I did something I haven’t done during our entire trip: I slipped and fell. Right as the two charming day hikers from earlier ran up behind me. Yes, ran. They were trail runners up at 6:00 a.m. to run a 14-mile trail that gains and loses 2,000 feet of elevation. I have serious crushes on them both. Either way, only my pride was hurt (the man mollified me by telling me about one of his falls earlier on the trail), and they raced off unfazed by the midday heat as we trudged on.
Speaking of the heat, the heat at midday on the desert floor with a full sun beating down is fierce. I’m not sure whether the temperature gauge on my wristband was accurate, but at one boiling period under the sun’s unobstructed gaze, the display read 101.8. Usually, it read about 90. That is really hot to be lugging around a backpack in a shade-free area. On a related note, I drank nearly a gallon of water on that day’s section of the hike, and we had started at 8 and finished by 2. Also, it was December 28 and THAT hot!
We took a slight detour on our return trip and exited at the Straw House junction rather than descend that first climb. Straw House was markedly easier. Sure, the trail still had its own perils, namely an obese naked man rubbing his belly in his, umm, exposed tent immediately adjacent the trail, but I assume he is not a permanent fixture there. We took this trail detour in the hopes of seeing the petroglyph (or pictoglyph? I can’t remember which) that the volunteer had mentioned would be in the canyon along this route. Although we failed to find them, the detour was well worth it. Hiking through the canyon was delightful. As many times as we pass through areas worn smooth by what must be tremendous flash floods, the geology and force of nature is always something to be marveled ta. And marvel we did between the occasional lamenting about not finding ancient artwork. Straw House reconnects with MV shortly after exiting the canyon, and then it’s an easy mile hike in the wash back to the trailhead.
This hike is fantastic, and it makes for a wonderful night to break up the hike about midway at the Rio. As enjoyable as the hike is for its scenery, this hike is not easy, nor is it to be undertaken lightly. Here are a few suggestions to help you better enjoy it.
- Do not attempt this hike in the summer. You’d be stupid.
- Be mindful of the temperature before starting out. See above.
- Start early to beat the midday heat.
- Wear layers; the desert is cool in the morning and roasting in the afternoon.
- Wear a wide brimmed sunhat. A ballcap doesn’t count.
- Wear sunscreen!
- Be reasonably fit. Only you know what that means, but a 14-mile loop with significant elevation change and some sketchy places is not a gentle nature trail in the woods.
- Trekking poles were helpful for us. Make sure they’re at the right height; arms should be at about 90 degrees with the pole on the ground, though make sure to increase their length a little when descending.
- Have a map – you can get a detail map from the visitor center.
- A gallon of water per person per day. No joke.
- Bring enough food. You’ll be hungry!