River Deep, Mountain High

There’s more to Big Bend than the Window and the Mule Ears, just as there’s more to the Big Bend region than the magnificent national park. Here are fifteen can’t-miss things to do the next time you’re in far West Texas, from scuba diving in the waters of Balmorhea and gliding in the clouds above Marfa to floating down the Lower Canyons and soaking in Chinati Hot Springs.
A view of the Rio Grande from the Boquillas Canyon Trail, in Big Bend National Park.
Photograph by Sarah Wilson

1. Dig the Past

Ten Bits Ranch

If the past two million years were condensed into a single day, Ten Bits Ranch would be buzzing with seaside dinosaur stampedes, tectonic uplifting, volcanic eruptions just over the hill, and early peoples’ hunting-and-gathering to a fare-thee-well. Evidence of this hoopla is not exactly hidden, but it does take a canny guide to decode it, like archaeologist Steve Wick, who owns the ranch with his wife, Jennifer. My three-hour tour of their spread, which also boasts swell off-the-grid overnight accommodations masquerading as a tiny Western town, began with a short but steep hike to prime real estate circa 2000 BC to AD 1500: a south-facing cliff, peppered with shallow caves and protective overhangs, which offered farsighted vistas and cooling breezes. Once I knew what to look for, proof of ancient enterprise was everywhere—chipped flint, bedrock mortars ground deep into the Santa Elena limestone, indications of fire (and maybe even a smokehouse), and rock polished slick as snot by thousands of footsteps and behinds. For the next part of the tour, we drove a short distance to what Wick proudly calls his backyard. What initially looked to me like acres of boring gravel mounds turned out to be hard-packed clay striped with a layer of the Cretaceous Aguja Formation, 75-million-year-old sediment Wick refers to as “swamp stuff.” And who lived, died, and fossilized in this ancient swamp? Dinosaurs. Lots and lots of dinosaurs. Wick has unearthed the remains of duck-billed hadrosaurs, sideneck turtles, and rhino-esque chasmosaurs. Some of which he ships off to the University of Texas at Austin and a few he displays in a glass case in the Ten Bits dining hall, including teeth from a Gorgosaurus (T. rex’s slightly smaller precursor) and the bony armor of a Deinosuchus riograndensis, a forty-foot-long crocodile who probably munched on those tyrannosaurs. From Alpine, go south on Texas Highway 118 for approximately 65 miles, then head west on North County Road for 2.3 miles (866-371-3110 or tenbitsranch.com). Guided hikes $35 per person; cabins start at $159 (two-night minimum).


The Davis Mountains, where birders have found paradise in the desert.

2. Wing It

Davis Mountains Preserve

My struggle to describe my day spent traipsing around this Nature Conservancy preserve in three hundred words or less drove me, in desperation, to imperfect haiku:

Sky Island floating
In the sea of Chihuahua
Thirty-three thousand acres

But after eight more stanzas, my fingertips numb from miscounting syllables, I still couldn’t do the place justice. How, for instance, can I explain that “sky island,” despite its lyricism, isn’t poetry but instead a scientific designation for a mountain range surrounded by desert? In Texas, we’re talking the Chisos and Davis mountains, and like many a classic island, they harbor unique critters and plants; the Livermore sandwort and fringed paintbrush are found only in the Davis Mountains. In 1997 the Nature Conservancy began the preservation of a hunk of the island, which is lorded over by 8,378-foot Mount Livermore, by purchasing a portion of the historic U Up U Down Ranch. This secured, among other things, a bit of birder heaven. I spied acorn and ladder-backed woodpeckers, a black-headed grosbeak, a white-breasted nuthatch, and—yes, I’m bragging—a buff-breasted flycatcher. (Okay, so John Karges, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy who can bird by ear, had to point them out to me, but they’re still going on my life list.) I also saw a sheltered stand of aspens, their daintiness belying their Ice Age roots; jungles of Mexican dwarf oaks, madrones, and huge pines, including one whose fire-scarred trunk bore the claw marks of a honey-seeking black bear; and the kinds of forever views that could drive a gal to permanently spew poetry. October 5–7: Open weekend (includes car camping, hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding); free but reservations recommended. Take Texas Highway 17 south to the Y at Fort Davis and turn north on Texas Highway 118 (432-426-2390 or nature.org).

 3. Take the Back Road

Lone Star Mine

When can statistics make me swoon? When they tally the surprising diversity of the Big Bend region: 168 varieties of butterflies, 120 types of yellow flowers, 78 species of mammals, and 31 distinct lizards. The source of this fount of figures was Kevin Sexton, a Texas master naturalist at Far Flung Outdoor Center, who led me and two couples on a half-day Jeep tour north of Lajitas to the peak of Tres Cuevas Mountain, which rises straight up more than one thousand feet from the desert floor (a fact made real during the gravity-defying ascent). Of course, there were show-and-tell moments aplenty about the Lone Star mercury-mining operation that dug in here in the forties, like how the miners earned 75 cents to $1.25 a day for an eleven-hour shift. And while the view from the top of Tres Cuevas, which takes in a sideways slice of Santa Elena Canyon, the undulating Solitario, and nearly every other rock star in the region, was stunning, the botanical trivia stole the show. The desert, it seems, is really a well-barbed pharmacy. Feeling run-down? Steep the leaves of a bush known as Mormon tea for a low-level ephedra pick-me-up. The resin of the creosote bush is antifungal and anti-inflammatory, and it contains antioxidants. But should you get too cozy with the prickly plants, especially the thorn-throwing pitaya, Sexton recommends a quick on-and-off application of a modern invention: duct tape. Far Flung Outdoor Center: in Terlingua on FM 170, about half a mile west of Texas Highway


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