A navigation challenge for experienced hikers, bring plenty of water!
Big Bend - Telephone Canyon Trail
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Distance: 35.00 Miles
This is a challenging hike for reasons I will detail momentarily, but it is also highly rewarding and enjoyable if you prepare adequately. I do hesitate to write a review as this trail has a “hidden” aspect to it. The trailhead is in a very remote section of the park and many websites do not even list it, so it has become a seldom-traveled route for Big Bend’s biggest remoteness aficionados. I feel there is a risk that more information on this hike will encourage ill-prepared people to attempt it, but at the same time I hope to give enough warning to anyone who is unaware of why attempting it is so dangerous.
Your ability to safely hike this trail does NOT depend on your fitness, intelligence, or willpower. Instead it depends on two factors: bringing plenty of water and your ability to navigate poorly-marked terrain. This hike is 17 miles in and 17 back with many sections going as slow as a mile every 30-40+ minutes. I do not recommend doing this in the summer as high temperatures will conspire with little/no shade to get you in serious trouble. Be very careful of freezing temperatures in the winter as well because cold fronts move in fast. You must look at the weather and have 3 solid days of good temperatures ahead of you in case you are unable to get in and out with just one night’s rest. My group hiked 19 miles on day one and 15 on day two from sunrise to sunset. The weather was perfect with highs in upper 60s and lows in the mid-40.
You must have a GPS and download the route. In fact, you should have two. You will get lost in the mid-section no matter how smart you are or how great your sense of direction might be. You should also print out a detailed topographic map with the route clearly traced. Next, you need to BRING PLENTY OF WATER. I carried 12 liters and had little less than 2 leftover at the end. There is no way to refill unless you hike 3-4 miles further at the end through private property to refill at the Rio Grande.
On to the hike:
It starts at the Telephone Canyon campsite #2 (TC2) off Old Ore Road. The trail is perhaps a bit more “wild” and narrow than usual but perfectly navigable. You will go mostly uphill until you come across an old dam where you can make final adjustments after the warm-up. Past that point the trail continues to look fine, but you’ll start coming across sections where the trail completely disappears into open areas where the plants are more spread out. This will be your first indicator that navigation is going to be tricky. Follow the cairns carefully and backtrack if you’ve gone a ways without spotting another cairn or the trail again. Do not be shy about using your GPS.
Approximately three miles in you will drop down into a small wash or river bed. You go left / north, but cairns will also follow south for people who want to go into the Ernst Basin (pay attention to the cairn marking the exit to this wash for when you are coming back out!). After going north you will see several cairns pointing you out of the wash. Ahead is the hardest three miles of the trail. You must start climbing steeply through a narrow trail to the highest point in the route. The top of this mountain offers outstanding views and is not too hard to follow as there are a surprisingly good number of cairns.
Descending into the canyon is by FAR the hardest part. Keep your wits and remain calm. Cairns will become sparse and the trail will continuously disappear. Things will feel completely cross-country at times, but the trail is certainly there and you have to pay attention. There will be a section where you enter another wash that is heavily overgrown and not fun to navigate. We actually traversed too far down the wash because we missed a cairn on the left meant to lead us out of the wash & onto a small trail. Eventually you do find a very slim path (we called it a goat-trail) that properly drops you down into Telephone Canyon. There are cairns here as well, but finding this place is going to be very challenging on the way back! Note your location on the GPS, which I’m assuming you have used extensively by now.
Once in the canyon, the trail is still challenging and slow. The river bed is heavily overgrown and the cairns are no longer a thing. You must think of this area like a spider web and cross vegetation “islands” when your wash dead-ends so that you can find another one. You just have to move east toward the widening canyon. The path does become easier the further east you go. You will find the intersection with the north end of the Strawhouse trail after hiking the canyon for about 4 miles. It is hard to miss as there are two giant cairns and it’s a nice little oasis with shade and large rocks to sit.
Very few people head east beyond this point (most come up Strawhouse and head west out of the canyon). Continuing to go down the canyon is actually very easy and quite beautiful. The river bed will be wide and you can make excellent time to the eastern terminus. You will know you are almost there when you see a clay house/structure on the left side. The ONLY tricky part of this leg is paying attention to find cairns before the clay structure that will guide you out of the wash. You will then find a trail that quickly turns into a very old road. You will finish when you find a cattle guard and a barbed wire fence. Congrats!
Just a few notes on the return trip: do not meander into side canyons on your way west, use your GPS to stay on the “main road”. Finding the trail back out of the canyon is tricky and climbing out is just as frustrating as climbing in. Watch for cairns that guide you out of mini-washes. We camped two miles from the east terminus and made it all the way back in one day.