WILD, WEIRD WEST TEXAS Visitors can raft Rio Grande, traverse moonscape terrain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The eerie, irregular horizons of West Texas are at their most photogenic beginning in late February. That's when bluebonnets -- the state flower -- bloom along the Rio Grande and transform already interesting geological vistas into dazzling panoramas.

In addition to these botanical beauties, at least 60 varieties of cactus bloom in profusion throughout West Texas from February to May, lending a special cachet to the area's primary attractions -- the 1,100-square-mile Big Bend National Park and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The geologically complex Big Bend landscape, strewn with unfamiliar, unexpected contours and strange inhabitants like pink snakes and kangaroo rats, is as awe-inspiring today as it was when an 1896 visitor wrote, "Nowhere have I found such a wild, weird country."

The moonscape terrain along the 90-mile stretch of road from the town of Alpine south to Lajitas (a gateway to Big Bend Country) is especially dramatic in the light of a rising sun. En route, in the ghost town of Terlinqua, squatters live in roofless, abandoned houses once owned by a generation of candelilla wax makers and cinnabar (mercury ore) miners who strove to survive in this frontier outpost.

Lajitas is a company-owned likeness of a one-street Western town. There you can join a rafting party on the Rio Grande, which forms Big Bend's southern border and the U.S. border with Mexico. The 4 1/2 -hour float down a 15-mile stretch of Colorado Canyon is the easiest of five navigable canyon runs available. Ranked a manageable Class II, this section of the narrow, silt-filled river flows adjacent to a newly added 215,000-acre section of the park.

A professional guide takes charge of each five-passenger raft for the relaxing ride, interrupted at midday with a lunch on the Mexican side of the river. So hypnotic is the slowly passing scene of chunky basalt canyon walls that after several hours of motion in the eddies and currents, one can imagine crowds of faces -- eyes, noses and mouths -- sculpted at various angles in the rocks. Relentlessly, faces can appear to flash in and out of view like unexpected encounters.

(Also unexpected were snipers in the Mexican hills who took aim at tourists making a similar raft trip on Nov. 19, 1988. There was one fatality; no further incidents have been reported.)

Before heading into the park, take time to visit the Lajitas Museum and Desert Garden. A gem of a museum, it focuses on native Texas geology and wildlife, including weapons of Ice Age hunters, prehistoric bones and animals common to the area.

From Lajitas, it is a 40-mile drive through dramatically rugged landscape to Big Bend National Park Headquarters, where you can see an orientation film and gather information about the area's hidden beauty and dangers. It is especially important to carry ample drinking water while touring.

The young Chihuahua Desert comprises about 97 percent of the Big Bend National Park. Although it's a green desert, filled with prickly pear, sotol, mesquite and Mexican persimmon and their spiny, prickly, waxy and thick-skinned cousins, safety precautions are important.

The entire range of the Chisos (Chee-sos) Mountains, with peaks rising nearly 8,000 feet, is contained within the park. Once home to Indians and badmen who hid out in these mountains, the heights now serve as biological islands, harboring lofty Mexican pinyon, oak and juniper; they isolate plants and animals unable to survive in the desert heat below.

The Basin restaurant is a welcome rest stop, with a spectacular window view overlooking the desert. Horseback riding and hiking are available. From there it's a 30-mile trip by car to the mouth of St. Elena Canyon for a thrilling close-up view of 1,700-foot canyon walls that form a section of the Mexican border. The horizon is squeezed into a ribbon of light overhead, and not even radio waves can penetrate the silence. Only occasionally do the walls echo with shouts and laughter as overnight float groups complete the 19-mile passage through the canyon.

While heading north to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, take time to get acquainted with typical West Texas towns. In the railroad town of Alpine look for the Woodward Ranch, a 4,000-acre spread of opal- and agate-bearing volcanic hills, which yield 70 varieties of gemstone -- plus a unique Texas red plume agate.

Don't miss stopping at nearby Mount Locke (altitude 6,791 feet), where a white movable dome houses the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory, with a 107-inch reflector telescope that is the world's third largest. Inside this research facility, astronomers can gather and store light 25 million times fainter than anything the naked eye can see. For the public, daily tours and after-dark "star parties" permit out-of-this world views through smaller telescopes. The last Wednesday of each month is the only time the public has access to the 107-inch telescope; reservations should be made six months in advance.

Along the steep motor ascent to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, pull over at rest stops to enjoy timeless views of the vast desert below. The park is comprised of a marine fossil reef formed 250 million years ago under a warm shallow sea, which now towers dramatically over the surrounding plains. The reef, made of skeletal remains of plant and animal organisms and calcium carbonate, comprises the four tallest mountains in Texas, including Guadalupe Peak at 8,749 feet. El Capitan (8,085 feet) is considered the finest example of an ancient fossil limestone reef on earth.

There are 80 miles of easily accessible hiking trails through this botanical wonder, where desert plants mingle with evergreen and deciduous trees -- remnants of an Ice Age forest that flourished in West Texas. A good choice is the five-mile round-trip hike through McKittrick Canyon to the Stone Cabin built by geologist Wallace Pratt, who correctly predicted the presence of underground oil. Drinking water is essential, and hikers can purchase containers at park headquarters.

For a change of pace after leaving the park, one of the most memorable Western parties likely to be found anywhere is available at Indian Cliffs Ranch en route to El Paso. It was built by a German family dedicated to preserving American cowboy traditions. A sunset hay wagon ride across the prairie takes the visitor to Fort Misery, where reproductions of a bunkhouse, lookout tower and jail house resemble a movie set.

A singing cowboy guitarist entertains nonstop by the campfire, where guests sit on bales of hay and chow down on rattlesnake meat (it does taste like chicken), steak and beans. At any minute, coyotes could be howling from the top of a nearby mesa as the visitor takes time to savor the vast emptiness of this remote country.

You'll probably be ready for a night at the El Paso Hilton at this point. Certainly it's worthwhile exploring El Paso (population 510,000), which wraps U-shaped around the base of the Franklin Mountains, where the Rockies officially end. From the heights, there's a dramatic overview of the year-round, snow-free pass used by early pioneers moving westward.

At one end of the metropolis you'll see the Sun Bowl and the University of Texas at El Paso. Across the valley there are dTC

important early missions, including Corpus Christi de la Isleta, dating from 1681, and the Tigus Indian reservation, which is known for handmade crafts and local-style cooking. An interesting museum at Fort Bliss is devoted to the history of air-defense missiles.

For more information write the Texas Department of Commerce, Tourism Division, Box 12728, Austin, Texas 78711, or call (512) 462-9191. For a Texas State Travel Guide and official state map call (800) 8888-TEX.

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