Big Bend keeps most of her treasures tucked away. Unlike many of our national parks, especially those found in the West, where natural attributes tend to confront visitors head on, Big Bend compels its visitors to go looking for its special places, the scenic rewards. Not much, aside from the Chisos, are exposed out in the open. Therein, I learned the park’s message. To have a meaningful stay, visitors must go out and make a serious effort. In contrast to the typical national park tourist, you’ll need to go more than a few hundred feet from the roads. When you do your exploring at the cusp of the day, you’ll be sure to get more bang for your buck. And that is exactly the strategy I followed, as I sought to find the natural elements to invigorate my connection to this land. A good starting point was up in the Chisos Basin. I can rely on mountain peaks to touch something deep within me.
A huge, angular range of cliffs and rock peaks, the Chisos are the southernmost mountain range in the continental U.S. and the only range to be contained completely within a national park’s boundaries. Born of volcanic fire, they were shaped by the forces of erosion, sedimentary rocks exposing the harder igneous intrusions beneath. Completely surrounded by hot desert lowlands, the mountains are going through a long process of recovery—from logging and over grazing.
Surrounded by craggy peaks, four of which exceed 7,000 feet, the Chisos Basin is a huge forested depression within the heart of this range. Lying at an elevation of 5,400 feet, the Basin is a place that needs to be seen to be believed.
There is only one place where the ring of mountains has a break . . . only one place where water collected from precipitation can flow out of the basin. Cutting a deep V in that rocky barrier, a seasonal stream has carved through rock, creating Oak Creek Canyon; and at its terminus, hikers will reach what has been called the Pouroff. Rocks worn slick as glass from cascading water and cliffs towering high above your heads makes the Window Trail the most popular hiking trail in the Chisos Mountains.
After following the trail through an open arid landscape, the closer you come to those cliffs, the more interesting the trail becomes. The usually dry streambed leads you into an increasingly deep and overgrown canyon as you make your way to the “V” in the rocks.
Framed by vertical cliffs, the lower end of the canyon contains several small pools of collected water as well as a succession of water-polished rocks. The final drop-off is a doozie—more than 2,000 feet straight down.
Inspired by our experience in the Basin, we headed back to our camp on the eastern edge of the park. Better weather conditions give me hope . . . more trails await.
The Old Ore Road was first utilized in the early 1900s to transport ore from Mexican mines to the railroad station north of today’s park boundary. A rough dirt “track”, the route was forged by mules and pack trains a century ago. Today it leads to one of the park’s “hidden” attractions—for those who dare venture across an unforgiving desert landscape (high clearance vehicles recommended).
One thing’s for certain when it comes to hiking in Big Bend . . . you can’t avoid walking through sandy washes (dry streambeds). They’re everywhere, and generally provide the most unencumbered route to your destination. They’re just not the easiest pathway to trod through. The Ernst Tinaja Trail was no exception—at least the initial mile or so.
But you soon learn the effort expended was worthwhile. Entering a canyon lined with layers of colorful sculpted rock, the trail leads to an oasis that is one of the few places in the park that always contains water.
In Spanish, a tinaja is a large, earthenware jar which is descriptive of Ernst Tinaja, appearing to be a deep hole hollowed out of the limestone canyon floor.
It’s the convoluted rock layers lining the canyon that really are the highlight of this trail. Like layers of a delicious cake in all shades of pastel hues, it’s a great place to sit awhile, take in the whole effect and just marvel at the wonders that nature manages to create.
And it’s here in the backcountry of Big Bend.
Over 100 years ago (1909 to be exact) an optimistic (some might’ve called him foolhardy) guy by the name of J.O. Langford made his way from Mississippi to this southernmost area of Big Bend. Actually, the banks of the Rio Grande wasn’t initially his destination, but rather he had just struck out with his—take note—pregnant wife, as well as 18-month old child, seeking to improve his health. Over the years, malaria had taken a heavy toil on his body and like many people of that day, he thought the drier climate would improve his life. During a stay in an Alpine, Texas hotel, he first learned about the curative waters of a hot spring near the Mexican border. Even after being told there was “nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans”, he went to the county surveyor’s office and filed his claim under the Homestead Act, sight of the hot springs unseen.
It took 11 days to reach their new home (people were tougher back then, you know—or they died prematurely). Upon arrival, the Langfords discovered a Mexican family with 10 children already living on the land. Instead of evicting the “squatters”, Langford allowed them to remain. They became the best neighbors anyone could have asked for.
After a 21-day treatment of bathing and drinking the spring water, J.O. regained his health. Convinced of its curative powers, he set about building a permanent dwelling for his family. Then he opened the springs to other bathers. He charged 10 cents a day, or $2 for the whole 21-day treatment. In addition to running the bathhouse, he became a schoolteacher, a self-taught doctor, and a postman. Besides the bath house, there was a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins rented for $1.25/night.
In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs are still open to the public and the foundation of the bath house can be seen. It is one of the most popular locations in the park.
The row of motel-like rooms had cozy interiors—each with a wood-burning, stone fireplace, stone flooring and a hand-painted wall, each unique in their depiction of various scenes from life in the southwest.
A short trail leads to the hot springs, a small, concrete-enclosed, shallow bathing area. Flowing at a rate of 250,000 gallons each day, the 105-degree mineral water overflows into the much cooler Rio Grande. In early morning, as steam rises into the air, chances are you’ll have the place to yourself. Otherwise, it’ll be every man and woman for themselves and the little pool can become jam-packed.
From my point of view the real treat lies further along that hot springs trail. After following the riverbank for awhile, the path takes a turn and heads uphill. High above and directly below that same hot spring, is one of the iconic views of the Rio Grande. So perfect, in fact, that I would be taking this trail one more time . . . at sunrise the following morning—by now you should know that’s my customary time.
Starting with the semi-ghost town of Terlingua.
Only one campground is found on the western side of the park—Cottonwood, having primitive, smallish sites with no hookups or generators permitted—there are a couple of private RV resorts not far from the park’s entrance. The town of Terlingua being the hub (of sorts).
This town has seen better days. Some folks might call it quaint or quirky. Others see it as an artsy place. Asking me, I’d say it definitely has the look of a place forgotten by time . . . but still hanging on by tooth and nail.
The discovery of cinnabar – from which the metal mercury is extracted – in the mid-1880s, drew miners to the area, creating a city of 2,000 people. Cinnabar was apparently known to the Native Americans, who prized its brilliant red color for body pigment and pictographs. Various Mexican and American prospectors reportedly found cinnabar at Terlingua in the 1880s, but the remoteness and hostile Indians discouraged mining. A man named Jack Dawson reportedly produced the first mercury at Terlingua in 1888, but the district got off to a slow start. It was not until the mid-1890s that the Terlingua finds began to be publicized in newspapers and mining industry magazines. By 1900, there were four mining companies operating at Terlingua.
Cinnabar production had peaked during the first World War and by the start of the second World War the Chisos Mining Company had filed for bankruptcy and the miners began to trickle out. By the end of the war it was a bonafide ghost town. Now, the only remnants of the mining days are a ghost town of the Howard Perry-owned Chisos Mining Company and several nearby capped and abandoned mines.
I’m sure real estate around here goes for bottom dollar. On the other hand, there’s some great “fixer-uppers”.
In the 1960s, however, people began returning to Terlingua. In 1967 the world’s first Chili Cook-Off was held here, and thus Terlingua gave birth to the now famous event. It put the town on the map. Among the founders of the first chili cook-off in 1967 was car manufacturer Carroll Shelby (of the famed Carroll Shelby Chili Mix), who owned a 220,000-acre ranch nearby. On the first Saturday of November, over 10,000 “chiliheads” convene in Terlingua for two annual chili cook-offs: the Chili Appreciation Society International and the World Chili Championships.
The current citizens represent a diverse brand of individuals. They are a collection of loners, artists, eccentrics, and outcasts – maligned individualists who have fashioned their own crude American Dream in the anonymity of this remote corner of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The only B&B we found in town, we can attest to its good food and pleasant ambiance.
We found it fascinating to wander around the old cemetery. All of the deceased had been Mexicans, it seems, and the style of the cemetery was distinctly Mexican. There are all kinds of headstones and graves in the cemetery. Many graves are marked with a simple wooden cross. But some are quite elaborate. Many of them have a small stone shrine that shelters trinkets of various kinds.
Housed in the old company store of the Chisos Mining Company, The Terlingua Trading Company is the spiritual descendant of the old Trading Post operated by Rex Ivey for the trappers, settlers, and cowboys along the Rio Grande. His son, Bill Ivey, and his family, carry on the tradition as the owners and proprietors.
And so it goes in Terlingua.
Once on the park’s west side, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road gives easy access to most all that area’s interesting sights. Maxwell served as Big Bend’s first superintendent, from the park’s inception through 1952. When he began serving in July of 1945, he supervised 4 employees and had an annual budget of $15,000. At that time, the park had no paved roads, no electricity, and the nearest telephone was 100 miles away. While superintendent, Maxwell laid out the route of the road today named in his honor to highlight the more spectacular geologic features on the west side of the park.
The 30-mile paved road showcases some of the more noteworthy historic and geologic features of Big Bend. With the drive providing easy access, we spent a solid three days taking in some of the highlights.
Several hiking routes in a variety of lengths have their trailheads along the drive. We can highly recommend the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff.
Following one of those ubiquitous dry washes, the trail leads to the base of colorful cliffs that make up Burro Mesa. One of those special places that you truly need to see in person, the hike takes you into a hidden box canyon where a high, dry waterfall is waiting. Desert wash plants and magnificent geology surround you in this worthwhile roadside stop.
The piece de resistance awaits at the end of this scenic drive. As I wrote in Part One of my Big Bend post, the Rio Grande passes through three major canyons on its passage through the park. Mariscal Canyon is difficult to reach, requiring a drive on a rough dirt track several long miles to see it. Boquillas Canyon, on the park’s eastern border, is easy to get to via a paved park road and a short hiking trail, but only the mouth of the canyon can be seen. Further exploration is not possible with steep rocky walls dropping down to the river.
Santa Elena Canyon is a whole different story. It is the most impressive geological feature along the Rio Grande, a 1500-foot gash that runs for eight miles in the uplift that forms the Sierra Ponce Mountains. When the light is just right (no, we were there too late in the day) and the river not to high (sorry, water flow was at one of its higher levels), one can get great photos at the mouth of this canyon. Yet it wouldn’t be a total waste of our time; this canyon has a pathway leading in. Some benefits could be salvaged from our efforts.
After crossing Terlingua Creek, the trail climbs several short switchbacks and then gradually descends along the banks of the Rio Grande. Hikers are surrounded by lush riparian vegetation and 1,500-foot towering vertical cliffs of solid limestone.
This trail follows the bank of the Rio Grande as it cuts through the Mesa De Anguila. It’s a short hike, but the stunning views in the canyon make it one of the top attractions of Big Bend.
If you time your hike in the late afternoon, you’ll find warm light bouncing off the inner canyon walls, illuminating the usual pea-soup green river. Dropping down to water level amidst clumps of trees and bushes, it’s a place to stop and savor in this magical time of day. Don’t miss it if you come!
Every path and route taken in reverse will appear in a totally different way—that surely held true for our return trip. The extra bonus was the reality that most significant landforms were to be found on the east side of the road. Let the afternoon light shine on!Otherwise dull and lifeless rocks can shine with an unbelievable inner glow given the perfect time and angle of light.
And impressive sights such as Cerro Castellan, rising more than 3,000 feet above the desert floor, will seem to explode in brilliant boldness. A sight like this surely had my photographic juices flowing.
If the fates are smiling and your stars are aligned, you might just be around to witness the last great light of the day. In Big Bend, more often than not, you can count on having a show such as this.
Big Bend might have gotten off to a slow start for us, but the park closed out with a climax. The sights we saw, the trails we took, the whole story of this place left us with some indelible images . . . both in photographs and memories. Not a place to zoom through (that would never be worth the effort), but rather to give more than a few days within its borders. But isn’t that the way it should be in places so vast and varied as Big Bend?
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris