By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The Texas Mountain Trail (designated by the Texas Highway Department) leads you through West Texas. It’s the least populated area of the state, and boasts 90 mountain peaks that stretch a mile or more into the sky. For centuries American Indians had the area completely to themselves. Spanish adventurers came and went, but the barren desert didn’t seem like a land of opportunity to them. The prospectors arrived next; however, most of them decided that getting to the good stuff wasn’t worth the effort.
In modern times people consider wide open spaces and lofty peaks worth protecting, and well worth seeing. We’ve always loved mountains, just as we enjoy following the wagon trails of pioneers. Seeing what they saw expands our lives across centuries instead of years.
The Texas Mountain Trail starts in El Paso, the only big city on the route. It’s snuggled up against the southern hook of New Mexico, and right at the Mexican border. Follow the route southeast along the trail to find your own adventures all the way to Big Bend National Park, and then north by another scenic road.
1. El Paso
Take a day to explore El Paso before you start down the trail. A stop at the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau (1 Civic Center Plaza) is a good beginning. You can gather local information about walking and driving tours, visit any of a dozen museums (including the Wilderness Park Museum), and take in El Paso’s three historic missions: Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario. The visitors center also offer brochures and maps of the surrounding areas.
2. Wagons, ho
When you’re ready to leave El Paso, head southeast on Interstate 10. Along the wide open places, you’ll see the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains. If you wanted to see the northern end of the Rockies, you would have to drive 3,000 miles to reach Alaska.
3. Hills and what grows on them
Drivers must keep their eyes on the road, sadly, but passengers will certainly notice the small sand hills dotting the land. They’re built atop the root systems of greasewood and mesquite bushes. You’ll also see lots of tumbleweeds. Leonard Franklin Slye, better known as Roy Rogers, helped make these skeleton plants famous in the song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers musical group. During the growing season, Russian thistle, as it is also known, is green. The plant maintains its circular shape even after it dies. Then autumn winds turn it into a genuine tumbleweed, as it rolls across the desert and prairies, dispersing seeds along the way.
4. Van Horn
This town is well worth a visit. The community’s history dates back to the mid-1800s when it was a stop on the Old Spanish Trail. Today’s travelers drive different vehicles, but they still come. Most of the town’s businesses are on old U.S. 80, which parallels I-10. You’ll be able to get information about Van Horn’s history and current attractions at the town’s chamber of commerce, located at 1801 W. Broadway. When you’re ready to leave town, head out on State Route 90 toward Marfa.
This is a good place to spend the night hoping to view the mysterious “Marfa Lights.” The ghost lights have been spoken of and written about for decades. They are said to flicker out in the desert at night for no known reason. We looked for the lights when we were there, but had no luck. But hey, there’s another reason to stop in Marfa — the Chinati Foundation contemporary art museum. There you’ll find a large complex of more than a dozen buildings and abandoned warehouses from the former Fort D.A. Russell. The buildings and 340 acres were purchased by American minimalist artist Donald Judd as a place to display that style of artwork. As you leave Marfa on U.S. 67, keep an eye out for Chinati Peak to the north, the tallest peak in the Chinati Mountains.
This highway leads southeast to historic Presidio. Located just across the Rio Grande from Mexico, it played a significant role in the history of both Mexico and the United States. When Mexico won its independence from Spain, this village gained still more significance as a stop on the Chihuahua Trail from Mexico to the United States. When the U.S.-Mexican War ended in 1848, the Rio Grande became the international boundary, and Presidio became the nucleus of a new Texas community.
7. El Camino del Rio (“River Road”)
The Mountain Trail, FM 170 between Presidio and Big Bend National Park, oozes history. It parallels the 200-year-old Spanish Trail used to transport silver and other treasures. Legends of buried treasure aren’t all true, but this one is. In 1876 pioneer freighter August Santleban transported $350,000 in silver and 40,000 pounds of copper on the Chihuahua Trail from Chihuahua, Mexico, into Texas at Presidio, then through Fort Davis, to San Antonio, and then to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Four miles west of the entrance to Big Bend National Park lies the ghost town of Terlingua, once a mining enclave 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 there. The largest ruin that remains is not a hotel, as it may appear. It actually was the winter home of the mine’s owner.
9. Study Butte
Named for an early prospector and mine manager, Will Study (pronounced Stoo-dee), the name remains. So does the town. Recent land developments brought newcomers to Study Butte; now visitors find small cafes and souvenir shops. No word of things that go bump in the night. Besides, it’s located near the entrance to Big Bend National Park.
10. Big Bend National Park
The Chihuahuan Desert is the wettest and highest in North America, and Big Bend National Park is the place to see it. The desert rises to an elevation of 6,500 feet in Mexico and 5,000 feet in the United States, and receives 8 to 12 inches of rain a year. No other national park has the variety of cacti seen at Big Bend, totaling approximately 70 species. And no other national park hosts more bird species — in excess of 400. Allow plenty of time for the drive, and make the Panther Junction Visitor Center your first stop. Here you’ll be introduced to some of the features in a park with an altitude range from 1,850 to 7,835 feet. Canyons, mountain ranges, and deserts aren’t all you’ll see, but we think they’re the best part of Big Bend. Book your campground reservations early. After leaving Big Bend the way you came in, head north on State Route 118.
Locals refer to the town’s namesake as antelope. It isn’t easy to see pronghorn in the wild, but on this part of the trail you just might spot a herd of the swift, fawn-and-white-colored animals. You won’t have much trouble seeing them if they’re around, since they gather in treeless areas. When running at full tilt, pronghorn’s speed may equal that of a car!
This is the county seat of Brewster County, the largest of Texas’ 254 counties. Alpine’s Sul Ross State University is noted for having an outstanding geology department, which seems appropriate given the surroundings. The school’s Museum of the Big Bend is a good place to head. Then visit the town’s chamber of commerce at 801 W. Holland for more information about Alpine and Fort Davis. Continue north to Fort Davis, where state routes 118, 17, and 166 meet.
13. Fort Davis
Just southeast of Fort Davis, the town, is the Fort Davis National Historic Site. The military people based at the fort were charged to patrol and protect a wide stretch of the Overland Trail, and to determine whether camels or mules could best serve as beasts of burden in the region. Much of Fort Davis, built in 1854, has been painstakingly restored, while other ruins were left to age unspoiled. The National Park Service museum displays a large collection of artifacts, photographs, and dioramas describing the fort’s colorful history, accompanied by a sound re-creation of a military retreat parade.