Three Days in the Field, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Nov 09
By: Melissa Gaskill
Bring a flashlight and your hiking boots to this remote outdoor heaven.
The town of Terlingua straddles several miles of FM 170, an eclectic string of mostly odd buildings amid cactus and brush on dun-covered hills. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, but those who look again find colorful history, inspiring views and nights dark enough that stars still put on a show. Best of all, Terlingua makes a great base from which to explore the wonders of Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and the scenic River Road.
My family arrived on Friday night, stopping first at the no-frills Chili Pepper Café for authentic Chihuahuan beef tacos made from scratch. Down a dirt road through the Ghost Town, an envelope taped on the office door at La Posada Milagro Guest House instructed us to proceed up the rocky hillside, where our key dangled in the door. The four guest rooms, formed from the dry stacked rock ruins, enjoy wide open views that include Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains and Mule Ears, and peaks in nearby Mexico.
From the spacious gravel patio, we watched as the setting sun behind us painted the distant cliffs and peaks before us in a riot of colors, eventually fading to deep blue. Cue the clichés — stunning, jaw-dropping, breathtaking, magnificent. Darkness brought a chill to the desert air, but a ready-to-light fire pit kept us comfortable. More stars appeared as it grew darker, and I had the poignant experience of explaining to my 15-year-old city child that a hazy cloud spilled across the blackness was, in fact, the Milky Way galaxy.
The next morning, after coffee, fresh juice and handmade tacos on the ocotillo-covered patio of the guest house’s coffee shop, “Espresso ... Poco Mas,” we headed to Big Bend River Tours, one of several outfitters in Terlingua. Since we had only one day, a professional guide seemed the way to go. Jack Lowery has worked for BBRT since 1999, and even he hasn’t seen all of Big Bend’s 800,000 acres. But he’s certainly seen a lot of it, and we counted on him for a memorable experience. He combined an off-the-beaten-path hike to Ernst Tinaja with an iconic one, The Window, for our Big Bend Day.
Reaching the first required about five miles of bouncing on high-clearance, four-wheel-drive road. The actual hike covers roughly two miles round trip, ending at the eponymous tinaja (a Spanish word for water vessel), a rock-lined pool of water that seldom dries out. The hike is a scenic study in Big Bend’s complex geology, covering millions of years in its short mile.
Following a picnic lunch, we drove into the Basin, a bowl in the center of the Chisos Mountains, igneous rock exposed by eons of erosion. The Basin’s higher elevation and twice-as-abundant rainfall create a green island in a sea of desert, where temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler. Inside the ring of peaks ranging from 5,688 to 7,825 feet sit a visitor center, store, campground, picnic area and lodge. The Window, a notch formed by water erosion between Ward and Vernon Bailey peaks, drains all the rain that falls in the Basin. Starting near the visitor center, the trail follows the natural drainage for nearly three miles, through open chaparral slopes, terminating at the pour-off at 4,600 feet. The westward view from here makes the uphill return hike worth every step.
If you have another day (okay, we cheated and took one), hike the South Rim trail, where vistas of the Basin, Blue Creek Canyon and Boot Canyon and of the 2,500-foot escarpment to the Sierra Quemada, Santa Elena Canyon and Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen will have you filling up the camera memory card. The entire trail is rugged, taking hikers up and down for 14.5 miles, pushing the limits for one day, but numerous backcountry campsites make it easy to turn it into a two-day trip, and route options cut the distance to 13 miles, or nine, sans the escarpment overlook.
The trail ascends on steep switchbacks and steps through evergreen sumac, mountain mahogany, madrone, beebrush, junipers, pinyon pines and even quaking aspen. We spotted several Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer, found here in the Basin, as well as bright blue Mexican jays and wrens, rock squirrels and canyon lizards. On a rest stop at Boot Springs, we spied fresh scat likely left by a resident black bear. Mountain lions prowl the area as well, so keep a watchful eye. Pick up a Chisos Mountains Trail Map for $1 in the visitor center, or tote a copy of 100 Classic Hikes in Texas by E. Dan Klepper, which covers this and many other Big Bend area trails.
That evening, La Posada’s outdoor kitchen-with-a-view tempted us, but we opted to dine at the Starlight Theatre restaurant in the former mining camp movie theater next door. Generous portions of chicken tacos and pork medallions revived us all. We didn’t mind when our waitress requested “Amarillo by Morning” from the guitar player and took a short break to dance.
The next morning, we headed to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, 12 miles west, which serves as an eastern gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park. It would take weeks to explore this 300,000-acre park. But we got a taste at the Warnock’s indoor exhibit on 570 million years of geology and natural history, and a self-guided tour of the outdoor botanic garden, home to hundreds of plants from the Chihuahuan Desert’s five biological landscapes.
We had lunch on the spacious outdoor patio at Lajitas Resort’s Candelilla Cafe, then continued on FM 170, aka the River Road. It rises and falls, winding along the Rio Grande from Lajitas to Presidio. A picnic area featuring large fake teepees provided a stop to gaze into Mexico and ponder the work of floods of historic proportions in September 2008. The rushing water dramatically altered the river landscape, removing dense invasive brush and sculpting new gravel bars and channels in the river.
Roughly 20 miles from Lajitas, we hiked Closed Canyon, a tall, narrow slot canyon. It extends about 1.5 miles to the Rio Grande, but depending on rainfall and other conditions, water-filled tinajas can render the route impassable. While we managed to scramble around a few of them, steep walls and an impressive beehive finally stopped us, probably less than a half-mile from the end. I recommend this unusual hike, even if only for a short distance.
Fort Leaton State Historic Site anchors the western end of River Road. First built in the late 1800s as a trading post, the presidio now features both restored rooms and others revealing original adobe bricks and stucco. An indoor exhibit covers the area’s natural and archaeological history, as well as that of residents in the 15th century. Park staffers put together a notebook of impressive photographs from the 2008 floods.
From Presidio, we headed north on Highway 67 to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Luxurious guest rooms featuring fireplaces, tile floors and rustic furnishings occupy an adobe fort built by Milton Faver in the 1800s and restored by current owner John Poindexter. Some rooms look out on a spring-fed stream through a lush courtyard, others on a serene lake. Accommodations include three meals a day, served family style.
Our final day’s agenda included a tour in a modified Humvee, with open seats offering a 360-degree view. Our guide, Dugan Taylor, headed up a ridge bristling with cane cholla and brushy grass. Cibolo Creek Ranch covers 30,000 acres of the Chinati and Cienega mountains, where visitors in the 1800s described an “ocean of grass” as high as a horse’s belly. Overgrazed first by cattle, then sheep and goats, that ocean became a wasteland of invasive creosote, cedar and mesquite. The ranch is restoring the grassland with selective removal of invasives and ongoing maintenance, and has reintroduced bison and elk.
We viewed the falls, then bounced through a narrow passage between two hills to emerge at 5,200 feet with a sweeping view of the ranch and all the way to Mexico. The route descended a steep slope to the Cibolo creekbed, lined by about a dozen rock squatter’s ruins. Taylor pointed out rock paintings from 800 to 2,500 years old, and along the way we spied jackrabbits, mule deer and a variety of birds.
We headed north, reluctantly, toward home. In three days, we may have hit the highlights of Terlingua, but just barely. On the long drive back to Austin, we plotted our next visit.
• Big Bend National Park, nps.gov/bibe, 432-477-2251
• La Posada Milagro Guest House, laposadamilagro.net, 432-371-3044
• Lajitas Resort, lajitas.com, 432-424-5000
• Big Bend Ranch State Park, tpwd.state.tx.us/bigbendranch
• Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, 432-424-3327
• Fort Leaton, 432-229-3613
• Cibolo Creek Ranch, cibolocreekranch.com, 432-229-3737