The Texas Mountain Trail is an adventure route through the tallest region of Texas. Along the Trail rising land thrust 90 peaks more than a ;mile high. This remote region of stark majesty awaited discovery for countless centuries before it became a home for nomadic Indian tribes who drew from it a meager life. To Spanish adventurers it was a formidable barrier that tested their stamina. Prospectors discovered the land, and some gouged great wealth from its hidden recesses, but not without effort, for mountains yield their treasures grudgingly. The same dramatic vistas on today’s Mountain Trail unfolded for laboring wagon trains, and the ghosts of those sturdy pioneers often intrude into modern man’s consciousness, demanding recognition for taming the primitive land.
The Texas Mountain Trail visits secluded canyons, unspoiled parks, and weathered sites of living history. It leads travelers through wide open spaces where the only boundary is the horizon. But West Texas distances needn’t trouble you. True, the fuel tank should be full before starting long segments of the Trail, because facilities seem far apart when the gauge is nudging “E.” But the highways are excellent, the routes well traveled, and the scenery is magnificent.
A well-stocked picnic basket can be a welcome traveling companion, as many opportunities are provided for roadside picnicking in especially scenic spots.
The starting point is El Paso, the major metropolitan area on the Trail. The route description is presented in a clockwise direction. However, the Trail may be started at any point along the way and driven in either direction by carefully consulting the accompanying map and descriptive copy. See the map legend for information about special Trail signs and arrows.
For the Mountain Trail experience to be complete and rewarding, a copy of the Texas State Travel Guide should be used n conjunction with this supplement. The guide describes cities visited on the Trail along with their attractions. You can also find supplemental information by checking cities in alphabetical order in the Texas-On-Line.
It is fitting that the Texas Mountain Trail begin in El Paso, a city whose location was determined by the mountains themselves. The Spanish named it El Paso del Norte (“the pass of the north”). And through it moved Indians, conquistadores, plainsmen and traders, railroad builders and desperadoes, missionaries and ranchers. Today, commercial traffic and pleasure-bound tourists still keep the pass busy.
It is appropriate, too, that the Trail starts with El Paso’s Franklin Mountains, the beginning of the Rocky Mountains range that extends northward 3,000 miles to Alaska. Geologists say the granite and volcanic rocks of the Franklins are about a billion years old. For those who want a truly close-up mountain experience, hiking Trails from McKelligon Canyon climb into these, some of the oldest mountains on the Trail.
For information about the hiking Trails, and all of El Paso’s offerings, stop at the city Visitor’s Bureau, at 5 Civic Center Plaza (off Santa Fe Street south). Be sure to allow at least a full day for sight seeing in cosmopolitan, bilingual El Paso and in Juarez, Mexico’s largest border city. Obtain details about walking and driving tours, seasonal events, a dozen museums (including the Wilderness Park Museum, which is a great foundation for Trail travelers), the Tigua Indian Reservation, horse and dog racing, Mexico, and especially three historic El Paso missions.
Travelers can visit the missions - Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario 9 a century older than California’s famous group) - on sight-seeing excursion in the El Paso area, or they may choose to save the missions as a quiet finale of their trip, because the Texas Mountain Trails final leg leads by the mission sites.
On the Trail leaving El Paso, desert scenery soon replaces the city’s irrigated greenness. The open land to the north is the southern edge of Fort bliss Military Reservation, which spreads over more than a million acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. Small sand hills dot the land, each caused by strong root anchors of greasewood and mesquite bushes that hold the sand.
Tumbleweeds thrive along fences. Round and green in the spring, they hold their shape as they die. Then, in autumn, brisk winds break the brittle stalks, and the tumbleweeds roll across the countryside, dropping their seeds. Tumbleweeds were an unwelcome gift to North America from Russia in 1873, when a few seeds arrived in a shipment of flax seed.
Those who travel this route shortly after a rain will be treated to the brilliant blooms of flowering cacti and other desert plants. Barren as it looks, the land is rich. It is water that is scarce, and when infrequent rains fall, the dessert species burst into a frenzy of blooming and growth. Those plants with daggerlike leaves are yuccas. In the spring, and occasionally in the summer and fall, their huge, waxy white blooms compete with any hothouse plan for extravagant beauty.
But tough as they are, even cactus, greasewood, and yucca are unable to secure footholds in some spots, leaving typical desert landscapes of shifting sand dunes.
Frontier travelers discovered that precious water was almost always found at an unusual rock formation east of El Paso. The ponds called Hueco (meaning “hole” or “hollow” and pronounced WAY-co) Tanks (1) were a regular stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. Indian pictographs attest to earlier centuries of use.
The site, 28 miles east of El Paso and 8 miles north, is a state park with camping, picnicking facilities, and hiking Trails through the massive boulders. Admission is charged. Rocky hills here reach mountain proportions; 4,900 feet at the tanks; above 5,000 feet nearby. A few miles north of the park, wells dug by the Army and by ranchers produced water at about 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
Continue east through countryside called barren by some but beautiful by others. many varieties of cacti grow in this land where rainfall is less than 10 inches a year. Most abundant is the cholla or buckhorn cactus - thin green arms well protected by spines. the Latin name, Opuntia davisii, is in honor of Jefferson Davis, U.S. Secretary of War when the area was first investigated by an Army team seeking a transcontinental railroad route.
Some two miles east of the park rod the Trail enters the Huecco Mountains through Pow Wow Canyon. Layers of limestone left by ancient seas form geometric patterns on the canyon walls.
Soon the Cornudas (“horned”) Mountains (2) appear to the north. These peaks exemplify a type that will become familiar to Trail travelers. Called “intrusive” peaks, they formed eons ago when enormous pressure 30 to 40 miles under the earth’s surface forced molten lava to the surface, intruding into soft sedimentary rocklike limestone and sandstone. As the soft rock weathered away, the harder igneous (volcanic) rock remained. The Trail includes many examples of such mountain formations.
This highway closely parallels the main route (for this area) o the Butterfield Overland Stage and wagon trains. While cruising comfortably in a car, one can lose the imagination to consider the travelers of that time.. This highway, of course, didn’t exist - only ruts of other wooden-wheeled vehicles that had gone before. They gazed on the same cacti and yuccas, the same rocky heights. A trained eye could today discover the remains of their nightly campfires, for their progress was agonizingly slow. More of this land can be spanned by car in one hour than they could travel in three days.
Near Salt Flat is a reminder of an even more rapid means of transportation: a modern omni-directional aircraft beacon sits in a round white building, guiding jets far above. And those travelers will cover more miles in an hour than Trail travelers will drive today.
East of the omni station the Trail easily crosses what was once a formidable barrier to early wagon trains: the salt flats. (3) In recent years floods have washed silt onto much of the salt beds, providing just enough soil for a few plants to grow. but some areas are as barren and white as in bygone times.
During the 1860s and 1870s disputes over the ownership of the salt lakes arose, and several lives were lost in a series of skirmishes known as the Salt War. Mexican nationals considered the lakes public property and refused to pay for the salt. In 1877 the dispute’s climactic event took place at San Elizario when district judge Charles Howard and two others were killed by a Mexican mob. Frontier Fort Bliss was reactivated, and “yellow-legged” cavalrymen moved in to enforce peace. No one was brought to trial, but neither were there any more incidents in the Salt War. In a far-reaching effect, the “war” established that, in Texas law, ownership of land includes its minerals.
A short distance east of Salt Flat, looming north of the highway, is Guadalupe Peak, (4) at 8,749 feet the highest mountain in Texas. Fronting it is the sheer cliff wall of El Capitan (8,078), (5) which because of perspective seems to dominate the taller mountain. They are among the features of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Although the park is not on the Trail highway, no Mountain Trail experience would be complete without a visit to it, especially since it includes four of the state’s five tallest peaks. Park facilities include campgrounds with water and rest rooms. Eighty miles of walking Trails provide access to the high country with its pine forests, and to McKittrick Canyon, accented by a clear mountain trout stream. A park information center is 10 miles northeast of the Trail, on U.S. 62,180. (6)
In that direction , a pair of roadside picnic areas (7) offer a scenic view of El Capitan and an interpretive marker (in westbound park). Another marker points to features of the Trail; Guadalupe Peak. (4) El Capitan, (5) Salt Flat, (3) Sierra Blanca, (56) the Delaware Mountains, (8) and Victorio Peak, (10) 36 miles away.
Back on the Trail, the route enters the Central ‘Time Zone; Texas 54 skirts the Delaware (8) and Apache (9) ranges to the east. The ranges are similar in structure and, strangely, were once ocean reefs and floors. Marine fossils have been discovered in the mountains’ vast beds of limestone and sandstone.
The Trail is traveling through the Salt Flat Basin that runs for many miles, from New Mexico to beyond Van Horn. Unlike most basins on the Trail, this is a “closed” structure. Rainfall from the mountains doesn’t drain into a river; rather it forms shallow lakes that soon evaporate. Some of those salt lakes can be glimpsed to the west, and a large shallow lake (11) to the east may be visible after a period of rainfall. Even when it contains water, nothing grows along its banks, and no animal will be seen drinking the briny water.
West of the highway are the Sierra Diablo Mountains. many are above a mile high; Victorio Peak (10) reaches 6,350 feet. Sears in red sandstone formations on the mountains’ flanks mark sites of man’s effort to extract silver and copper ore. Much of the Sierra Diablos is a state wildlife management area.
Hidden in the Sierra Diablos is Victorio Canyon, site of one of the last great Indian Battles in Texas. Indian burial grounds and pictographs are found there, but the area is not accessible to the public.
A variety of mountain types can be seen in a short segment here. The Sierra Diablos are volcanic Precambrain, some 950 million years old’; coming up on the east are the rounded contours of the Baylor Mountains, (12) which are much younger Permian limestone; then the route swings close by the Beach Mountain, (12) on the west, which are Paleozoic (Ordovician), about 450 million years old. Such are the contrasts on the Mountain Trail - some peaks born of fiery, volcanic violence and others formed quietly beneath long-gone seas.
The mountains that come into view to the south of Van Horn are the Van Horn Mountains, (14) which will be seen from different vantage points later.
n the mid 1800s Van Horn grew as a wayfaring stop on the Old Spanish Trail. Today the small city still caters to travelers. Accommodations, services, and the Chamber of Commerce are on US 80 Business paralleling I-10. Information about the city and the area is cheerfully provided at the chamber in the convention center, 1801 West Broadway, downtown.
On the Trail highway between Van Horn and Kent, watch for a shady oasis preserved as a picnic area. Of considerable interest to geologists are the Wylie Mountain, (15) to the south. Within them is exposed a layer of limestone 1,400 feet thick, rich with marine fossils of the Permian period, 250 million years ago.
Talc, marble, and brite (used in the production of oil well drilling mud) have been mined in the mountains to the north, and a barite mill (16) is near the Trail.
Two miles east of the mill is an exceptional sight-seeing treat. To the northwest are the Baylor Mountains; (12) then, almost due north are the Delaware Mountains.
(8) On the horizon between those mountain ranges, the Guadalupe mountains are again in view. There is El Capitans sheer face, (5) and just to the right of it, Guadalupe Peak, (4) the highest point in Texas. In the usually transparent air, these mountains are seen across more than 60 miles of space.
On this drive between Van horn and Kent, the Apache Mountains (9) lie to the north ... barren, dunelike hills rolling up to mesa features. Higher than they look, the Apaches reach 5,696 feet.
Watch ahead and slightly to the south of the highway for a prominent peak that becomes visible about 26 miles east of Van Horn. It is Gomez Peak, (17) which rises 6,323 feet, hear the north edge of the Davis Mountains (18) (another treat soon in store on the Trail).
Some 30 miles east of Van Horn, one wonders what frontier tribulation established the name of a small, usually dry watercourse - Hard Luck Creek.
At Kent, the Trail turns south on Texas 118, which traces some of the state’s most scenic landscapes between here and Big Bend. Founded as a water stop on the Texas and Pacific Railroad in the 1880s, Kent remains a remote wayside town.
South of Kent the Trail aims toward the Davis Mountains. Thrusting out of the desert floor, the peaks loom higher as the highway begins to thread among them. These horizontal layers of reddish brown rock flowed molten from the bowels of the earth. Yet today’s mountain, like Gomez Peak directly to the east, are but remnants of an enormous magma flow that geologists call the Davis Mountain Volcanic Field; most of the field has weathered away. Note the sudden change of desert flora in this area; Large yuccas called giant daggers are prominent.
The highway is safe, but should be driven at moderate speed in order to savor the unfolding beauty of the region. If the day is clear, as most days are in high-sky country, another long-range view is in store approximately 23 miles south of Kent. There is a sign points west toward the Van Horn Mountain (14) on the horizon, 60 miles away.
At the intersection of Texas 166 (not part of the Trail) is a good view of Sawtooth Mountain. (19) Its jagged pinnacles are typical of weathered volcanic cores. A few miles farther, deep in the heart of the Davis Mountains, is a spacious picnic area in Madera Canyon. Wagon trains paused here during pioneer days, and modern travelers may catch glimpses of wildlife. A sign in the roadside park points to Mount Livermore, (20) which at 8,383 feet has the distinction of being the fifth highest peak in Texas.
From Madera Canyon the highway climbs to the rim of Elbow Canyon, where the traveler can appreciate a fine stand of mountain juniper. Shortly, McDonald Observatory (21) is visible at the summit of Mount Locke.
A tour of McDonald Observatory should start at the Visitors Information Center. Displays and audio-visual aids colorfully interpret the observatory’s mission.
A printed walking tour leads to major activity sites and describes the function of each. In the larger dome, the size of a 10 story building, a 72 step stairway leads to a viewing window of its 107 inch instrument. Public viewing is available one Wednesday a month, but written arrangements must be made well in advance. Reservations are not required for the Star Parties, held Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, at which 24 and 14 inch telescopes are used.
Davis Mountains State Park (22) is among the Trail’s most pleasant sites. Accommodations are available in the Indian lodge, a charming pueblo-style structure complete with restaurant and swimming pool. There are also tent and Trailer sites, an interpretive center (open June through August), a wildlife feeding station, a scenic drive, and a hiking Trail connecting with the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Rangers present nightly campfire programs in the summer months. the park is so popular that advance reservations for rooms are almost always required from April to September.
The park is in Limpia Canyon named Limpia Creek. The Spanish name means “clear” or “clean.” In wagon train days, weeks of harsh desert distances lay on all sides of this relatively lush oasis. It was a favorite spot that provided rest and refreshment for both people and animals.
Just southeast of the park is one of the most significant historic features on the Mountain Trail; Fort Davis National Historic Site. (23)
Fort Davis, built in 1854, served two purposes. It was a base from which the U.S. Cavalry could wage war against hostile Indians, and its patrols protected a wide stretch of the overland Trails and provided a secure passage for stagecoaches and wagon trains.
The Army’s major tests comparing camels and mules were conducted at Fort Davis in 1859-60. Although camels initially proved promising, the tests were discontinued during the Civil War. The experiment had been authorized by Jefferson Davis, who subsequently became the president of the Confederacy. No further action was taken after the war for fear it would reflect credit on the “traitor.”
Known as the finest existing example of Southwestern frontier forts, much of fort Davis has been restored in painstaking detail, yet ruins have also been left in their weathered, haunting dignity. An excellent National Park Service museum displays artifacts, photographs, and dioramas of the fort’s colorful history. the sheer rock wall behind the fort is an ancient lava flow.
As impressive as the structures, ruins, and museums are, another element is often most vivid for Fort Davis visitors. It is an elaborate sound re-creation of a military retreat parade, complete with the sounds of a mounted review and music from manuals of 1875. Echoing over the empty parade ground, the ceremony sets a mood that transports one to the previous century, evoking a personal experience in vivid history.
The town of Fort Davis grew adjacent to the military post. It has served as the seat of two counties; Presidio County from 2875 to 1885, and the later Jeff Davis County since 1887.
Scenic vistas unfold along Texas 118 between Fort Davis and Alpine. Six miles south of Fort Davis the highway bisects an old ranch headquarters, (24) portions of whose adobe walls remain in the right-of-way. A marker gives details. A picnic area shaded by cottonwood trees is near the ruins. Several summer camps, both private and group operated, are in this area.
Soon the landscape changes, leaving behind the green coolness of the Davis Mountains. The Trail moves into areas of vat ranch operations, several of which are headquartered in the town of Alpine. The mountains that gave Alpine its nickname of “The Alps of Texas” can be seen rising in the distance.
Alpine is the seat of huge Brewster County, largest of Texas’ 254 counties. Natives comment that their county’s 5,935 square mile area is larger than Connecticut. Sul Ross State University is here, noted for its outstanding geology department. On campus, the Museum of the Big Bend offers excellent exhibits. In July and August the Sul Ross Theatre of the Big Bend presents a series of summer stock productions in an open air amphitheater. Climate and scenic location make the town a popular vacation area, and mineral specimens of the region attract rock collectors. Refer to the state travel guide for details, and the Chamber of Commerce, at 801 West Holland ( the eastbound land of US 90), for city and area information.
Wide-open spaces spread due south, and it’s wise to fill your fuel tank in Alpine. This drive crosses generally flat desert terrain punctuated by volcanic intrusions. Highway signs point to major peaks and elevations, including 6,700 foot Mount Ord. Consider the effort that was required to mount the microwave tower up there!
A prime rock-hunting area is available 16 miles south of Alpine - the Woodward Ranch, (25) which offers opportunities to hunt and collect the famed red plume agate of the region, plus other prized mineral specimens. A modest charge per pound is made for rocks collected. There is also a rock and lapidary shop.
A few miles south of the Woodward Ranch is one of the area’s few shady spots. (26) It is easy to visualize earlier travelers who welcomed this rare shade - Indians (pursued or pursuing), Spaniards in their unsuitable suits of armor, Trail-worn cowboys, and cavalry troopers on long, sun-baked patrols.
In this open land, where rainfall may be less than 10 inches a year, only the hardiest plants can survive - mesquite, cactus, catclaw, sage, and the ever-present greasewood. to early inhabitants, greasewood was both medicine and building material. Its twigs and leaves, steeped in boiling water, made a healing poultice for man and animal; parasitic deposits from leaf undersides, mixed with pulverized rock, made cement.
As the Trail approaches a picnic area about 26 miles south of Alpine, other mountains come into view: Elephant Mountain, (27) on the east at 6,200 feet, and in 14 more miles, Santiago Mountain, (28) a 6,521 foot truncated cone of volcanic rock. On its flattened summit is “Progress City” - at least that’s where the “city” would have been had out of state buyers of lots in the early 2900s actually built there. Chances are, the wily promoter himself never climbed to the summit.
Along the Trail, travelers may occasionally see herds of beautiful, swift, fawn-and-white animals locally called “antelope.” The correct name is pronghorn, and the animals are natives of treeless parts of the United States and Mexico. Once roaming in uncounted thousands, they were reduced by slaughter until fewer than 2,000 remained in 1920. Now protected, the herds have increased substantially, and regulated hunting is permitted during the specified season. If you do see a herd, note that at least one of them is always standing with head erect and watchful... the herd lookout. When running at full speed, pronghorns may equal the speed of a car.
This is hawk country too, and the chances are good that you’ll see the raptors on telephone poles patiently waiting for a careless rodent or reptile to provide a meal.
Along with a welcome absence of traffic congestion is a pleasantly informal habit of local drivers. As they pass, drivers will often raise their hands in a small salute of camaraderie to a fellow traveler. It’s an amiable gesture seldom seen on today’s crowded highway, and it deserves a response. Wave Back!!!
As more typical desert species of yucca and ocotillo intrude on the greasewood, new mountains rise in succession; the Chalk Mountains (29) on the east and Agua Frio, (30) Packsaddle, (31) and Hen Egg mountains, (32) whose distinctive shapes were landmarks for early explorers. Then, to the east, a series of volcanic intrusions into a series of volcanic intrusions into Cretaceous limestone from the Christmas Mountains. (33) Within those mountains is the state’s only active flourspar mine. (34) Fluorite occurs when hot, volcanic magma come in contact with limestone. Fluorine combines with lime to form sparking fluorite. Beyond the Christmas Mountains the Trail nears Big Bend National Park. (35)
Although the Trail doesn’t actually enter Big Bend, a visit to the magnificent national park should be a :must”. It’s the premier attraction on the entire Texas Mountain Trail. Where the Trail turns at the intersection of Texas 118 and FM 170, continue on Texas 118 to the town of Study Butte, and then on into Big Bend.
For years Study Butte (STEW-dy beaut) was a genuine ghost town, named for an early prospector and mine manager. Recent land and tourism developments have brought newcomers to Study Butte, and today’s visitor s will find small cafes and rock and souvenir shops. A Trailer park on the bank of Terlingua (“three tongues”) Creek has a grove of cottonwoods that demonstrate what a little water and care can produce in this arid land.
Beside the Trail, travelers will come across an old mine head that stood abandoned for years. Struck by lightning in July 1982, the head frame was destroyed, and a fire that started in low-grade petroleum deposits underground burned for many months.
On the Texas-Mexico border in a giant loop of the Rio Grande called the Big Bend, this huge national park spans 1,100 square miles of thorny, sun-baked desert - awesome, shadowy canyons - cool, forested highlands - and stony mountain towers looming nearly a mile and a half high. Refer to the state travel guide for a summary of Big Bend’s abundant points of interest, its astonishing variety of wildlife, and its visitor facilities.
This was the first national park created in Texas and was carved out of the southern section of Brewster County. No place could have captured the eclectic spirit of the state more vividly. Canyons, mountain ranges, deserts, and the great Rio Grande share more than 800,000 untamed acres in Big Bend National Park. The Chihuahuan Desert creates the setting for the park. This desert is the wettest and highest in North America. It rises to elevation of 6,500 feet in Mexico and 5,000 feet in the United States and receives between 8 and 12 inches of rain per year. The Chisos Mountains serve as the centerpiece. And the “big bend” of the Rio Grande sets the mood as it swings southward through Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons.
No other national park has the number or variety of cacti seen at Big Bend. About 70 different kinds have been recorded. And no other national park hosts more bird species--at last count, they totaled more than 400. Each spring, as if to remind Texans that preserving Big Bend was the right thing to do, the Colima warblers return. The little grayish birds with white breasts and yellow rumps breed only in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend---and nowhere else in the country.
But best of all, drive in to the National Park Visitor Center at Panther Junction (signs point the way) for a personal introduction to Big Bend.
Visiting Big Bend is much more than just sight-seeing. It’s an experience of Nature in awesome dimensions. Allow plenty of time here. You entire Mountain Trail adventure will be enriched!!
The Mountain Trail between Big Bend and Presidio follows one of Texas’ most spectacular highways, FM 170. Locally known as El Camino del Rio (“the river road”), it parallels an old Spanish Trail used to transport silver and other treasures more than 200 years ago. During the days of Mexican banditos, army mule trains packed supplies over the same Trail. Later, during Prohibition, the still remote Trail was used by smugglers.
Many legends of buried treasure are told about this road, and it’s been confirmed that in 1876 a pioneer freighter, August Santleban, transported $350,000 in silver and 40,000 pounds of copper through this wild country. The route he followed was the Chihuahua Trail, which stretched from Chihuahua, Mexico, into Texas at Presidio, then through Fort Davis and San Antonio to the Gulf Coast port of Indianola.
Four miles west of Big Bend, on El Camino del Rio, is the ghost town of Terlingua - once a boisterous mining town of 2,000. Abandoned for decades, a small trading post has reopened in the old company store, and operators of river-rafting expeditions have made their headquarters here.
The largest ruin still visible is not, as it may appear, a hotel with arched porch. Rather, it was the winter home of the mine’s owner. Legend says the owner’s Easter bride spent but one night in the house that was built for her and then departed for a more civilized locality.
About 1906 the mine’s owner found that his new Columbia automobile was unsuited to the primitive roads here, and he had it sealed in a double-wall adobe garage. Discovered in the 1940s, it is now on display at the Central Texas Museum of Automotive History in Balstrop.
In 1967 Terlingua was the site of the first in a series of zany “World Championship” chili cookoffs. Held on the first Saturday of November, one of the contests takes place at Villa de la Mina, a motel-type facility at the site of an old cinnabar (mercury ore) mine some three miles west of Terlingua. Year-round, visitors are welcome to search the old mine’s tailing heaps for specimens of cinnabar, agate, and other minerals.
Continuing on the Trail, the next community is Lajitas, which took on the aspects of a village in 1915 when U.S. Army troops were stationed here to protect the area from the elusive Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa.
In recent years Lajitas (la-HEE-tahs) has seen development unparalleled in its history. Lajitas On The Rio Grande is a complex of homes, condominiums, restaurant, motels ( one built on the foundations of an Old Army post), tennis courts, and swimming pool. Float trips through the Rio Grande’s canyons are available here; reservations are required. The former Lajitas Museum and Desert Garden is now the visitor center for the Big Bend Ranch State natural Area. Renamed the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, it offers a showcase of desert plants, animal specimens, and dioramas of desert life. Open daily, the center provides an enriched understanding of the 336 square mile Big Bend Ranch as well as the vast Chichuahuan Desert, which sprawls over thousands of square miles in Mexico and the U.S.
The early days of this road are recalled by the name of the first creek west of Lajitas; Contrabands Creek, (36) which the Trail Highway crosses about three and a half miles west of the village.
Two miles farther is Fresno Creek, (37) The small spring-fed stream flows year round, a feature that made it of precious interest in the early days. In this area the ancient Mexican village of Flores can be seen across the river. The community’s cemetery is at the very top of a steep hill -- a strenuous climb for funeral processions.
A couple of miles west of Flores, erosion has formed fantastic shapes in the limestone and volcanic ash deposits of this area. Locally these formations are known as Penguin Rocks. (38) Within a mile is a roadside picnic area overlooking the Rio Grande. Across that international boundary, Old Mexico appears virtually unchanged since the Spanish conquistadores traveled this way centuries ago. The picnic area features colorful shelters built in the Indian teepee style.
Here the Rio Grande threads its way between two separate lava flows that met at the current river site. In Texas, they are the Bofecillos Mountains.
The next five miles of the River Road evoke admiration from engineers for it design ingenuity and praise from all travelers for its scenic grandeur. Here is the “big hill,” (39) which was a real challenge to highway builders. The grade here - 15 percent - is the maximum found on any regularly traveled Texas highway. (A short portion of Spur 78 to McDonald Observatory is steeper.)
About one and a half miles west of the summit of the big hill, the Trail crosses Panther Creek bridge. (40) Those adventurous enough to hike up (north) the canyon can see some interesting plants and rocks here.
Eagle Crack, (41) an almost hidden canyon leading to the Rio Grande, is accessible from the Trail highway in this area. Photographers can find striking canyon shots here. The next canyon west is Tapado Canyon, (42) where evidence of early Indian habitation is found in paintings on ledges and in small caves.
Watch the mountains to the north for a couple of miles. Traces of a Trail can be seen on the barren flanks. for years it was a smugglers’ route, but today it is used as a ranch Trail for feeding and salting livestock.
Along this section of the River Road the Trail passes through the town of Redford, a retail center for surrounding farms and ranches. It is an old town, having evolved from a much earlier settlement called Polvo, an early-day fort and customs station on the Rio Grande. The salt cedar that lines the banks of the river is of fairly recent origin and is consider a pest by many. Nine miles west of Redford, a cable stretches across the river, (44) It is used by the International Boundary and water Commission to take flow measurements in the center of the stream. Based on the findings, water is allocated to the United States and Mexico for irrigation.
Just east of Presidiio, 25 rooms of the original 45 room Fort Leaton (45) have been restored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. this state historic site, originally established as a frontier Spanish mission in 1759, is open daily. Portions of the present structure were raised on the abandoned missing site in 1846. Ben Leaton, the first Anglo-American colonist in the area, made it a private fort and trading post in 1848. A colorful legend tells of his first efforts to establish friendly relations with area Indians. he invited a large group to a banquet. All went well, but Leaton awoke the next day to find both his guests and his livestock gone. He made no complaint, but later invited the same Indians for another feast. At the meal’s climax he unveiled a small hidden cannon and touched it off, killing the entire group in the banquet hall. Whether that story is fact or not, those were indeed violent times on the frontier.
The War Between the States drained manpower from throughout the Southwest and weakened the defenses of all settlements. Indians, still resentful of the intrusion of white men, seized the opportunity to mount strong counter attacks. Many of the frontier settlements, including Fort Leaton, were abandoned.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain, a village on the Rio Grande, though still deep in Mexican territory, developed as a stop on the Chihuahua Trail that led from Mexico to the United States. The community fort, known as Presidio del Norte, was north of the river. After the Texas War for Independence and the subsequent U.S. - Mexican War, the Rio Grande became the international boundary, and the Presidio site became the nucleus of a new Texas community. The Mexican town south of the river is Ojinaga.
North of Presidio the straight highway traverses typical desert scenery, but the horizon is broken by a great mass of volcanic mountains. Ascending the foothills near Shafter, note the Lincoln profile (46) to the west; it is pointed out by a highway sign.
The old mining tow of Shafter has had its ups and downs. It is said that the soldiers from Fort Davis camped here and accidentally discovered silver being melted from rocks on which they built their campfires. That was possible since silver deposits appeared on the surface, but it’s also true that there was evidence of mining in the area long before the soldiers built their fires.
The area, once called “the richest acre in Texas,” produced some $18 million dollars in silver. In the early mining days, steam engines were fueled with wood from forests in the Chinati Mountains. When the wood was gone, oil was hauled by mule wagons from Marfa to provide fuel.
Mining activity ended in 1952, but interest was renewed during the late 1970s silver boom, and many test holes were drilled. When the value of silver dropped in 1982, all exploration ended again, but the potential remains. Shafter’s church, used in the film the Andromeda Strain, is of interest; historical markers have been placed here, and the cemetery is said to contain 2,000 grave, mostly unmarked, in this city where the boom-time population was only about 3,000.
Seven miles north of Shafter the impressive Elephant Rock (47) is indicated by a highway sign, and two miles farther is a good view of Chinati Peak (48) to the west, whose summit reaches 7,730 feet. Geologists say this region is the biggest volcanic center in Texas and estimate the age of Chinati’s rock at 32 million years.
The land here is unchanged from the days when countless buffalo made it their home. It is now devoted to vast, sparsely vegetated ranches. A cowboy from the previous century would find it perfectly familiar, except for this thin ribbon of highway and the airplanes now used by large ranches to supplement sure-footed cow ponies.
About 25 miles north of Shafter, highway cuts reveal more evidence of volcanic phenomena. Easily recognizable black lava flows contrast vividly with the nearly white volcanic ash that appears in the cuts.
Marfa, a clean, neat town, had its genesis as a railroad stop but has become a ranching center. The surrounding ranches are huge, spreading over multiple thousands of acres. The grass in the fields, though apparently sparse, is a species of highly nutritious native grass on which livestock thrive.
The Marfa combination of weather and topography also attracts soaring enthusiasts. Massive updrafts and mountain waves have allowed many sailplane pilots to qualify for their soaring badge here. Fortunate travelers may occasionally spot one or more graceful sailcraft soaring over the mesas and peaks.
For other recreation, Marfa offers tennis courts and a swimming pool at Coffield Park, rock hounding, a mile high golf course, and the unusual Art Museum of the Pecos, which features monumental sculptures.
The quaint courthouse recalls a time when early residents sought to have their public buildings reflect an elegance that, in most cases, they were unable to achieve in their personal structures. The nearby Paisan Hotel ( 207 North Highland ) was completed n 1930. It is now a resort hotel featuring Spanish decor and recalling the days when hotels were the center of social activities. tours of the hotel are available, and the Chamber of Commerce office n the lobby offers details on the city and region, as well as tales of the eerie “Marfa ghost lights.”
The flatlands between Marfa and Van horn are technically not plains but basins composed of material eroded from the adjacent mountains. Such processes have left the igneous intrusions visible today. Chances again are good to see pronghorn herds grazing in fields along the highway.
t may be noted from a highway map that few side roads branch from the highway along this stretch of the Mountain Trail. The highway, and the paralleling Southern Pacific Railroad, are thin ribbons of civilization crossing a land that is largely uninhabited and essentially unchanged from its primitive state. Mirages on the road and dust devils in the fields are not unusual sights.
Along here the Trail highway generally follows the old Overland stagecoach Trail - a route used even earlier by 49ers in the gold rush days. these are the ranch landscapes featured in the 1950s motion picture Giant, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
Near the intersection of FM 505 (not part of the Trail ) and US 90, Trail travelers can see to the northeast the other sides of two mountains seen before: Sawtooth (19) and Mount Livermore. (20) These were viewed on the drive through the Davis Mountains and Madera Canyon. Here on the southwest side of the range, it is some 15 miles to the Livermore’s peak, a bit farther to Sawtooth. East of Livermore there is no higher mountain in the United States.
The town of Valentine was named by railroad builders, who first reached the site on February 14, 1882. A good water well was drilled, always an important factor in this arid land, and the town grew as a switch point on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad. Since it retains its “Valentine” postmark, the post office is a busy spot n February, when thousands of cards are remailed here.
To the southwest lie the volcanic Tierra Vieja (“old land’) Mountains. (49) This highway parallels the range for about 32 miles, with Valentine about midway. A fault scarp, whose pressure broke the earth’s surface, can be seen along the flat lands between the highway and the mountains. Faulting is still occurring in this young geologic region; the strongest earthquake recorded in Texas (6.4) was in 1931 near Valentine.
Renegade Indians, smugglers, and bandits once found refuge among the remote peaks of the Old Land Mountains, whose maximum altitude reaches 6,467 feet. An old coal mine once operated there, and a railroad skirted the northern end of the range in the previous century. today it is a vast, almost uninhabited ranching area. Beyond the mountains the land falls sharply to the Rio Grande.
Straight ahead, seeming to block the highway, are the Van Horn Mountains, (14) the only Trail landscape seen on three occasions from different vantage points. Those traveling the Trail n a clockwise direction saw them first when in Van Horn originally, then from a scenic overlook 60 miles away, and soon close up when the Trail nears Van Horn again.
With irrigation, and a two crop growing season, the desert produces vast yields of alfalfa, row crops, and grain, and there’s a new crop under way n the young pecan grove to the north side of the highway.
Near Lobo is a historical marker (50) at the roadside cites Van Horn Wells, a rare water hole once used by Indians, wagon trains, and stagecoaches on the famous Butterfield Overland Mail Route.
For those Trail drivers who started in El Paso and followed the route of this story, the last leg of the Texas Mountain Trail lies generally west between Van Horn and the starting point. Two miles west of Van Horn the highway slices into a minor range called the Carrizo Mountains. (51) Here a hillside picnic area with rustic arbors contains an interesting historical marker about the San Antonio-California Trail, which once used this pass. From this vantage point the traveler can see yet another, different view of the Van Horn Mountains.
The Carrizos, along with the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, are the oldest mountains in Texas;’ Precambrian formations that date back 1,200 million years. The peaks reach more than a mile high.
Seven miles farther is an industry whose products have paved hundreds of miles of Texas highways. It is the Gifford Hill Quarry (52) and rock crusher. Blocks of very hard, raw stone are split from the hillsides, and huge machines crush, grade, and screen the rock into precise size groups to meet the various specifications for highway engineers and building contractors.
The Trail now leaves the Carrizo Mountains and enters a broad desert flat. In that flat is another mining crushing mill, (53) which works with a far different material, talc. The soft, fine-grained mineral is ground to a smooth powder, graded by color, and then shipped out to be used in cosmetics, paint, ceramics, and other industrial applications.
Far to the south another majestic range is now in sight. The volcanic Eagle Mountains (54) were once a favorite haunt of Apache Indians. The highest peak, near the center of the range, rises to 7,496 feet.
As the route crosses Eagle Flat, a typical Western feature, Eagle Flat Mesa, (55) rises just north of the highway. Of Permian limestone, formed in an ancient sea, its long flat to is at an elevations 5,000 feet.
This is also devil’s country, according to topographic names. Far to the north, just visible on the horizon, are the Sierra Diablos (56) (“devil mountains”). On the other side of the highway (to the south and ahead) is the long escarpment of Devil Ridge. (57) The landscape does have an eerie quality, especially around dusk. One can easily imagine the mood of early travelers here, as they made lonely camp at nightfall amid this immense isolation.
For today’s traveler the vast landscapes flow by with effortless ease, and soon Sierra Blanca, the county seat of Hudspeth County, appears. The town takes its name from the intrusive Sierra Blanca (“white mountain”) Peak, (58) whose classic summit towers 6,950 feet and is prominently visible to the northwest. Directly south, younger Cretacious mountains present a folded and faulted appearance.
After years of confusion when the county and railroad used Central Time, the city Mountain Time, and the schools halfway between, Sierra Blanca has settled on Mountain Time and no longer do invitations and other information give both times.
The Texas-On-Line describes the stuccoed, Spanish style adobe courthouse and the monument to the joining of the rails of the transcontinental railroad that occurred n 1881.
West of Sierra Blanca the Quitman Mountains (59) lie to the south, with their peaks rising to 6,500 feet. In these ancient mountains are abandoned lead, silver, and zinc mines. The range is cut in two by the Rio Grande, and the continuing mountains in Mexico are easily visible.
South of the Trail, roughly paralleling it, is FM 192, which follows the former route of El Camino Real - a road used first by Spaniards and later by military authorities of Mexico, Texas, and the United States. Fort Quitman, which served from 1858 to 1`877, was on FM 192, but all remains of the frontier outpost have disappeared. A disintegrating, abandoned replica can be seen at the intersection of I-10 and FM 34. A marker gives details.
Nine miles west of FM 34, the Trail leaves I-10 and joins Texas 20. This older highway affords better views of the Upper Rio Grande Valley’s lush, irrigated farming.
The Trail highway passes through the historic town of Fort Hancock, which grew around another vanished frontier fort, cited by a historical marker.
An immense cotton producing region is headquartered in the town of Fabens. Numerous cotton gins process high-quality, long-staple cotton grown by irrigation mainly from the Rio Grande. Other irrigated crops include alfalfa, vegetables, peppers, corn, and pecans.
Watch for another change of Trail highway numbers half a mile northwest of Fabens (Texas 20 and FM 258). About nine miles farther (where FM 1110 intersects the Trail ) is the village of San Elizario, with its historic San Elizario Presidio Chapel and Los Portales (“the arcade”). Except for its historical markers, this tiny plaza with its whitewashed tree trunks, well-worn benches, and gazebo could have been lifted bodily from interior Mexico.
Refer to the state travel guide for summaries of three mission/chapel sites here in southeastern El Paso and for information about the fascinating Tigua Indian Reservation near Ysleta Mission. FM 258 continues by these sites, then rejoins Texas 20 (Socorro Road) toward downtown El Paso. On the south are Ascarate Park and Cordova Island, site of the Chamizal National Memorial, which commemorates U.S. - Mexico friendship. Open daily.
Here in El Paso the Mountain Trail ends. Trail travelers have gazed on immense mountain and desert landscapes, have seen the efforts of men - puny but persistent - in this dominion of primitive nature. Even in modern vehicles, Trail drivers who have spanned these miles have gained some personal insights into the mystique of the Great American Frontier.
Those who have completed the entire Trail can speak with authority about much of Texas’ mountain region. But a word of caution, please: The vastness of Texas dwarfs even these mountains, and there re other regions to discover before the whole can be measured. Against these barren peaks and arid desert basins, compare tall, green forests, rolling from horizon to horizon, shining rivers and lakes, moss hung bayous, and hundreds of miles of golden sand along the sea. That too is Texas, and there re other Trails, listed within the Texas-On-Line to guide you through every part. Such is the purpose of the Texas-On-Line; planned pleasure whether it be shopping, learning, or mapping a driving trip to make the most of every minute. God Bless, and Happy Trails to You and Yours, the staff of the Texas-On-Line!!!