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.
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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 118 (800-839-7238 or ffoc.net). Lone Star Mine tour $60 per person; other Jeep tours start at $40.
On the River Road between Lajitas and Redford.
4. Wheel Around
The River Road
Even if you aren’t heading to Chinati Hot Springs (see “Get Soaked,”), find some excuse—global warming and energy conservation be damned—to wheel along the River Road, alias FM 170, northwest from Lajitas to Ruidosa. For 86 miles, it flirts shamelessly with the river, which responds with frequent peeks, flashing like cheap silver or tarnished brass depending on the time of day. Sometimes, from a hilltop, the squiggling river lies fully exposed, with the gray-green mountains of Mexico as a backdrop. The road, evidently overjoyed with the relationship, swoops down and out of arroyos, flings itself around hairpin curves, squeezes between hoodoos, and climbs at least one grade (some say the steepest of any state highway) that can leave RVs gasping. Should you need to stop and catch your breath (or smoke a cigarette), alluring pull-offs abound, from riverside campgrounds to trailheads into the canyons of Big Bend Ranch State Park, which hugs the road on both sides for long stretches. There’s also a roadside park with flamboyant giant tepees, a fake adobe village outside Lajitas that is really a movie set, and a real adobe village upriver from Presidio that’s quaint enough to be a movie set. All this dramatic flair seems contagious, even for the livestock that roam the open range the road often crosses. Once, I came around a corner to face four horses taking up both lanes, all perfectly abreast, as though they were practicing for a part in Bonanza. Allow at least two hours each way. Many points of interest are marked on maps of Big Bend Ranch State Park, available at tpwd.state.tx.us and at the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center (one mile east of Lajitas on FM 170; 432-424-3327).
5. Go Deep
Balmorhea State Park
I wasn’t the only kook—I mean, adventurer—to drag sixty pounds of scuba gear from my car all the way to the edge of the pool at Balmorhea State Park. (I tell you, there’s a lucrative business opportunity here for some enterprising cart renter.) A whole school of divers was being certified in the deep end, and a group of regulars from Las Cruses, New Mexico, was holding court under a shade tent. While gear-free swimmers frolicked (tauntingly, I thought) in the 74-degree waters that gush from San Solomon Springs at nearly a million gallons an hour, I sweated in the heat as I strapped the buoyancy compensator to the tank, connected and checked the regulator, reconnected it correctly, inflated the BC, maneuvered the whole mess into the water, jumped in after it, wriggled into the overinflated BC—a graceful move enhanced by the incredibly slick pool bottom—and struggled to attach my weight belt. Then I descended . . . and it was all worth it. Hanging weightless just above the bottom, where inky-black catfish cruised, with twenty feet of sparkling water between me and the sun, surrounded by scores of darting, silvery tetra fish snacking on whatever I was sloughing off or stirring up, I was chilled and thrilled, breathing underwater in the desert. From Balmorhea, go 4 miles southwest on Texas Highway 17 (432-375-2370 or tpwd.state.tx.us); $7 per person 13 and up. Funky Li’l Dive Shop (432-375-2572 or toyahvale.com) is across the street and rents dive gear.
6. Get Soaked
Chinati Hot Springs
The first raindrop, the size of an egg yolk, plopped on my windshield the instant I pulled up in front of my cabin at this historic retreat in a remote canyon north of Ruidosa. Then, as the temperature plunged from 102 degrees to 75 degrees in less than fifteen minutes, the celestial performance, complete with brain-rattling thunder and retina-searing lightning, began in earnest. For the grand finale, the sun broke through a slot of open sky just above Mexico’s Sierra Chiva, projected a double rainbow against the agitated gray eastern sky, and splashed every west-facing surface in DayGlo orange, while the cottonwoods along Hot Springs Creek applauded the show. At this point, I fully expected winged unicorns, with leprechauns astride (or at least an old lady on a bicycle), to go flying by. But I had the whole place to myself, and I made the most of both of the outdoor pools, one on a hilltop that’s a refreshing 80 degrees, the other a hot-tub-for-fifteen down near the creek that’s a relaxing 95 degrees, and both fed by the gurgling artesian springs that have drawn people here for centuries. Then, with the swamp cooler in my cabin humming a lullaby, I made like Rip Van Winkle. From Ruidosa, go 7 miles northwest on Hot Springs Road (432-229-4165 or chinatihotsprings.com). Baths and pools $12.50 per person per visit; overnight camping $15 per person; cabins and rooms from $75 to $115.
Veteran guide Mike Long, who knows the Lower Canyons better than anyone.
7. Float Away
Lower Canons of the Rio Grande
The release form required by the National Park Service of those who float the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River lists the following hazards: rockfalls, poisonous snakes, wild and domestic animals that may cause harm, fire, the unpredictable forces of nature, leghold traps, and, for good measure, poison bait. But Mike Long, a river guide with Desert Sports, stresses that the trip’s biggest danger—its isolation (or in release-form speak: accidents or illness without means of prompt evacuation or medical attention)—is also its siren song, one that’s lured him back more than a hundred times. “It’s one of the few places in the United States where you can go for two weeks and not see anybody else,” he says. The Lower Canyons trip typically requires seven to ten days to run the 83.5 miles from Heath Canyon Ranch to Dryden Crossing. Wrap it in rock walls more than a thousand feet tall and sprinkle it with secreted hot springs, nesting peregrine falcons, Class IV rapids—all with nary a cell phone jingle in earshot—and you’ve got the makings of a trek that surpasses memorable and enters attitude-skewing territory. Desert Sports: in Terlingua on FM 170, 5 miles west of Texas Highway 118 (888-989-6900 or desertsportstx.com). Lower Canyons trip $1,300–$1,600 per person (camping gear, meals, and shuttle transportation included).
8. Be Cool
I’m always afraid that if I don’t keep my thoughts entirely hip when I’m here, the whole shooting match—minimalism, tattooed peeps in black, and nuevo adobeism—will disappear in a poof, like Tinker Bell snuffed out by human doubt. Lacking the hip gene, I thought I’d steal some suave by eavesdropping. So I hung out along the railroad tracks next to the Food Shark, a mobile restaurant serving Mediterranean fare like “Marfalafels,” and leaned an ear toward the hopping boccie court. I sipped a superlative latte at Coffee and Wine and pretended to read the paper. I went next door to the Marfa Book Company and loitered near the other patrons. I perused the chard and cukes at the Saturday morning Farmstand Marfa. I popped into Galleri Urbane to sidle up to folks pondering the photos of wannabe Mars travelers, decked out in homemade space suits. But people seemed to be talking mostly about food, dogs, television, Internet connections, and, once, mohair. No existential ramblings, no provocative art-speak. They were, however, excited about coming attractions, like Adobe Moon barbecue and the Thunderbird’s performance center/bar/catering kitchen (see “Home on the Range”). Finally, it dawned on me. Marfa’s lure isn’t its heralded (and endlessly maligned and dissected) hipness. It’s all that energy, with more than enough to go around. For information about businesses and events, go to marfacc.com.
Blazing a trail through Big Bend National Park (thank heavens for the topo map).
Big Bend National Park
If you fail to see the allure of bushwhacking the desert in Big Bend National Park, if you think the desert looks mind-numbingly homogeneous as you whiz through it in your car on the way to the Basin, then you need to spend a little quality time with one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s 7.5-minute topographic maps of the area. (It takes 31 to cover this 801,163-acre beast of a park.) Considering all the natives, Spaniards, soldiers, ranchers, revolutionaries, and scalawags who have trampled these parts over the centuries, you probably won’t be the first human to stumble onto Glenn Springs or Robber’s Roost. But you can join a relative handful of the parks’ annual 300,000 visitors who strike out for the backcountry. But here’s the kicker to your walkabout: The feds don’t give a hoot if you go off-trail. (Okay, so cutting switchbacks in the fragile high mountains is not good, but it’s not forbidden. And do not think this laissez-faire policy extends to camping; see the succinct rules at the park’s Web site.) The feds do not, however, want you to be stupid: Take lots of water, don’t hike alone, don’t depend on your cell phone, don’t kiss snakes, etc. Start off foolproof, perhaps with a half-day trek up a knobby knoll with your car in sight at all times. As you begin to expand your range—and veterans swear you’ll get hooked—you’ll want to carry that tantalizing topo map and a GPS device with you. “With those two things,” one ranger told me, “it’d be nearly impossible to get lost.” Nearly. From Marathon, go south on U.S. 385 for 70 miles (432-477-2251 or nps.gov/bibe). Maps available at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. Seven-day pass $20 per vehicle.
10. Go to Ruins
Terlingua Ghost Town
Folks attempting to embrace the current “green” building craze by constructing 10,000-square-foot mountain vacation homes from plantation-grown Indonesian mahogany would do well to study the ruins of Terlingua, which scored ghost town status when the mercury mines hereabouts closed in 1946. Okay, so the Perry Mansion relic, once the lordly home of the Chisos Mining Company’s owner, was ostentatious in its day, but the miners themselves built small and with local materials (that is, rocks and mud). Even the Terlingua Cemetery is made from rocks and mud, along with the occasional wooden or iron cross. Although the mercury market collapsed, the stone-and-adobe walls of these vacated structures remained, eventually luring a new generation of Terlinguans, who kick-started an artist-outfitter-maverick economy in the seventies. The epicenter of this bustling so-called ghost town is a pair of co-joined enterprises: the Terlingua Trading Company, a globally focused gift shop (think Oaxacan wood carvings) with a regionally focused bookstore (think both national best-sellers and the site-specific, like Tales From the Terlingua Porch, a chapbook by Blair Pittman), and the Starlight Theatre, a reincarnated thirties movie house that’s now a restaurant. From Study Butte, go 4.5 miles west on FM 170 (if you pass the pirate ship, you’ve gone too far). Terlingua Trading Company and Bookstore (432-371-2234 or historic-terlingua.com). Starlight Theatre (432-371-2326 or starlighttheatre.com).
11. Fly High
Isn’t this a recurring dream of mine? Soaring high above the earth without the assistance of an engine? Only it seems I’m always hanging on tight to a magical telephone directory, sofa cushion, or some such, not tucked safely inside a two-seater glider under the extremely capable control of pilot and flight instructor Burt Compton. Of course, first we had to be towed to 2,000 feet by a souped-up Cessna. This was the bumpiest portion of the trip but still so cool because I was being towed by a plane in the air. Then Compton released the towrope, floated away from the Cessna, and my dream sequence began in earnest. From my front seat in a carbon-composite-and-Plexiglas tube attached to a slender 54-foot wing, I looked down on the compact metropolis of Marfa and the mammoth hydroponics tomato greenhouse and out to the Davis Mountains far in the distance. Turkey vultures and hawks vied for attention, while I kept an eye peeled for dust devils and a bright-yellow crop duster buzzing the area. Fortunately, unlike most dreams, this one is easily conjured as long as the weather cooperates. Given Marfa’s status as a premier glide spot—its lofty potential comes from the surrounding mountains and its location at a dew point front—lift is seldom a problem. Ten state records have been set there in the past five years. With Compton’s lifetime experience with gliders, he knows how to read not only the skies but also his passengers and tailors the fifteen- to twenty-minute rides accordingly. My husband, Richard, for instance, was thrilled to take the stick and climb the thermals. Compton sensed I’d prefer to keep the thrills to a minimum, and he took us down in a gentle spiral. It’s nice to have someone like that in charge of a dream. From Marfa, go north on Texas Highway 17 for 3 miles to the Marfa Airport (800-667-9464 or flygliders.com); rides start at $80 per person; age, height, and weight restrictions apply. By appointment only.
12. Root For the Underdog
Big Bend Ranch State Park
You’d think given the race for superlatives in this region—highest, longest, hottest, oldest, darkest, coldest—that Big Bend Ranch State Park would be struggling to qualify to play with the region’s venerable heavy hitters. After all, it didn’t even enter the competition until the nineties. But just listen to these chest-thumping stats: 118 perennial springs and three of the four highest waterfalls in the state. The most flamboyant geologic showboater here is probably the Solitario, a circular uplift of the Ouachita fold belt that exposes 500 million years of the earth’s rocky history. And if a plan proposed last February is approved, trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders will go from 68 miles to a record-busting 242 miles. (Big Bend National Park has only around 150. Nah-nah.) I’m ashamed to admit I’ve traveled through the park and never really explored it. Not that I haven’t tried. Twice this summer, when I was within an hour’s striking distance, heavy downpours transformed the 36-mile dirt road that leads to the interior into a path that my car, which has the clearance of a horned toad, feared to tread. On my next attempt, I’m renting a Jeep. On FM 170 between Presidio and Lajitas. Permits and combinations to the locked gate to the interior of the park must be obtained from park headquarters (432-229-3416 or tpwd.state.tx.us). $3 per person. Camping from $8 per site. Accommodations (3-bedroom ranch house and dormitory-style lodge) at Sauceda Ranch Headquarters from $25 per person. Call ahead for information.
13. Rein Supreme
Even if I had four legs—or eight for that matter—I couldn’t have traversed the rocky road to the 5,420-foot summit of Scobee Mountain with the plodding grace of Captain, my steed. And had any number of my legs been on the ground when a rattlesnake slithered right under them, I would have reacted much more hysterically than Captain or the mule named Rosie, ridden by my guide, and veteran wrangler, Kelly Sufficool; both animals merely danced for the briefest moment and snorted once for good measure while the snake disappeared in the brush. Otherwise, the three-hour sunset ride into the R. M. Sproul Ranch, a 13,000-acre portion of the original spread Robert Stuart Sproul laid claim to in 1886, was delightfully uneventful but highly entertaining. (A tenderfoot can’t ask more of a horseback ride, except maybe thicker saddle padding and ibuprofen-chip cookies.) There were vermilion flycatchers performing aerial somersaults against a backdrop of lush vegetation along Limpia Creek. There was the little log cabin, for rent to overnight guests and guarded by a fearless roadrunner. And to top it all off, there was the panoramic view from the top of old Scobee that played like an IMAX documentary about the turbulent love affairs between mountains and storm clouds. Lajitas Stables at Fort Davis (yes, there’s one in Lajitas as well): between the intersections of Texas Highways 17 and 118 (800-770-1911 or lajitasstables.com/fortdavis.htm); sunset rides $55 per person. R. M. Sproul Ranch (432-426-3097 or rmsproulranch.com): two-bedroom Hidden Cabin $110 per night.
14. Stare at the Stars
Okay, so 100,000 people visit the McDonald Observatory every year. So the thrice-weekly Star Parties, especially in the spring, can be as congested as a Harry Potter premiere. And the special viewing nights can go on until the smudges you’re peering at begin to resemble down pillows rather than nebulae. Oh, but the stars, spilling all the way to the horizon against a night sky so dark it seems in danger of falling on you. This rarity—a simple starry night—in a light-soaked world draws you back to Mount Locke, chilly even on summer nights, attracting you like cosmic dust to a black hole. Even the daylight visits have their thrills, what with the live-action sunspot surveillance (don’t try this at home) presented in the auditorium and the tours of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the kind of high-powered hardware needed to confirm the existence of a recently discovered quasar 12.7 billion light-years away. That means that the light astronomers see left the quasar long before our solar system was even a twinkle in the universe’s eye. From Fort Davis, go north on Texas Highway 118 for 16 miles (877-984-7827 or mcdonaldobservatory.org); day pass $8; Star Parties Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays $10; special viewing nights several times a year $40–$75 (reservations required).
15. Drink Up
Let’s raise a pint to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, the world’s first nonreligious food-safety regulation. When Duke Wilhelm IV enacted it, he probably didn’t imagine its far-reaching effects some five thousand miles away in the small Texas town of Alpine. (The duke was primarily aiming to keep stuff like soot, poisonous seeds, and hallucinogenic mushrooms—weird even by medieval standards—out of beer.) Edelweiss brewmeister and Bavarian native Harry Mois does tinker a bit with the limits of the original law, which allowed only hops, barley, and water in the production of beer. But ever since firing up the state’s highest microbrewery in the summer of 2005, he has held to the law’s wholesome essence: no weird stuff. The upshot, at least as far as the Brewster Brew I sampled, is a crisp, hoppy pale ale that could compete with the best of America’s microbrews. Despite the historic Holland Hotel’s Southwestern style, a signature of renowned architect Henry C. Trost, the restaurant/brewery has the whiff of an authentic German beer hall about it, thanks to the high, beamed ceiling, the wide-open space, and the lingering scent of bratwurst. This Bavarian flair is sure to be fanned to even greater intensity during the upcoming third annual Oktoberfest, complete with oompah band, regulation Alpine finger wrestling, and the ever-popular liter-mug-lifting contest. In the Holland Hotel, 209 West Holland Avenue (432-837-9454 or edelweissbrewery.com). Open daily.