Orlando man and stepson die in Big Bend National Park

A view from the Marufo Vega trail in Big Bend National Park, where a 14-year-old boy passed away this weekend; his stepfather was also found deceased at the site of a motor vehicle crash. Photo courtesy of Big Bend National Park.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — On Friday, National Park Service rangers and Border Patrol responded to a call for help along the Marufo Vega trail on the eastern edge of Big Bend National Park. A 14-year-old boy was found dead along the trail; a 31-year-old male was also found dead at the site of a motor vehicle crash near the trailhead. 

The park’s communications center received a call for help around 6 p.m. The 31-year-old male and his two stepsons, aged 14 and 21, had gone for a hike. The 14-year-old fell ill and lost consciousness along the trail, and the stepfather decided to hike back to their vehicle and drive for help. 

The 21-year-old attempted to hike back to the trailhead with his unconscious brother. Their vehicle — a Winnebago camper — was no longer in the parking area. He walked along the road and hitched a ride to a ranger’s house to ask for help. 

Around 7:30 p.m., the 14-year-old was found dead. Around 8 p.m., first responders discovered the van, which had been driven over the edge of an embankment of the Boquillas Canyon Overlook just a few thousand feet from the trailhead. 

At press time, officials had not yet released the names of the deceased, but could confirm that the family was from Orlando and that the 21-year-old had returned home.

The three had been hiking the Marufo Vega Trail, a strenuous 14-mile loop most often promoted as a backpacking trail. Park service brochures advise that the route can be difficult to follow and that there is no shade or water along the trail. 

Last Friday also happened to be the hottest day so far this year in that part of the park. Nearby Rio Grande Village recorded a sweltering 119 degrees — the highest in the park. “It typically sees the hottest [temperatures] and is among the hottest in Texas,” said Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Big Bend National Park. 

The park averages between one and three fatalities a year, often from heat illness — though VandenBerg explained that the park doesn’t receive official causes of death from medical examiners for their final reports. “It is safe to say that the majority of these unfortunate incidents are cardiac-related or the result of another underlying condition that is exacerbated by heat and strenuous activity,” he explained. 

Marufo Vega is a particularly deadly hike — even in relatively cooler weather, the trail is still extremely exposed. Over the years, major search and rescue calls along the trail span February to October, with February being the statistically riskiest month. (In February 2002 alone, 14 people were rescued along the trail across two major search and rescue efforts.) 

Over the past decade, the trail has seen three summertime deaths. On August 3, 2013, Nicholas Bull, a 24-year-old graduate student working an internship at the Apache Corporation in Midland, went hiking along the trail with two friends. 

As temperatures climbed toward 108 degrees, the group ran out of water. One decided to hike back to the trailhead to get help; Bull and the remaining hiker separated from each other. His body was eventually found 200 yards from the trailhead. 

On July 2, 2019, the trail also claimed the life of Richard Merrill, a software engineer contracted by NASA at the time of his death. He was planning to go on a morning hike to a scenic overlook just a few miles down the trail and return by 2 p.m — his body was found later that day not far from his destination.

Merrill was a moderator on Big Bend Chat, a forum dedicated to aficionados of the remote desert park. His expertise — and relatively modest plans along a route he’d followed before — made it all the more surprising that he never made it back to the trailhead. 

Friends and family have spent the past few years trying to figure out what happened. The weather that morning was relatively mild for the season, hovering around 90 degrees. He left behind a locker full of digital evidence: GPS tracks, his last photograph. His backpack was still full of Gatorade. 

Big Bend Chat founder David Locke still wonders. “When Richard died, it was a real eye opener for me,” he said. “If he could die out there — even though he knew all the risks, even though he knew all the precautions, and he took them — what the hell? How does that happen?”

Locke said that the discourse on his page after this weekend’s incident has been starkly divided. Some want the government to jump in and close sections of the park during the summer — or at the very least wipe Marufo Vega off the map. Others feel the park’s many heat warnings are sufficient. 

VandenBerg said that — legally speaking — the park is doing its due diligence by educating park visitors as much as they can about the dangers of the heat. He cited Johnson v. U.S. Department of the Interior, a 1992 federal appeals case filed in the wake of a rock climbing accident at a national park. 

The Johnson case ruled that the National Park Service is not responsible for preventing all death and injury from voluntary recreation — and that the agency doesn’t need to take on unnecessary risk in their attempts to recover a lost or injured hiker. “We train on the idea that our first priority on a [search and rescue] is to protect ourselves … as we are not helping the situation if we create more patients during the incident,” he said. 

Locke said it was important to coach people to think about their outdoor adventures holistically —  beyond just bagging peaks and crushing miles. “You’ve got to think about the whole journey,” he said. “The most dangerous part is coming back down.” 

The ability to survive, he noted, isn’t just about being fit or having the right gear. “You’ve got to be aware of your own abilities, but some people are completely warped in their understanding of what they’re capable of,” he said. “People who have survived situations like that — it stems from their will and their emotional state, and being able to keep their emotional state in control.” 

As both summer temperatures and park visitation figures soar, Locke, VandenBerg and other folks invested in the future of the park are hoping every visitor makes it home alive. One thing that the park absolutely can’t control is the weather. “This tragic event is a reminder of the unforgiving nature of the desert in summer,” VandenBerg said.