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Soothing Springs

Destination - Chinati Hot Springs

By Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 11 hours /
  • Austin - 10 hours /
  • Brownsville - 14 hours /
  • Dallas - 12 hours /
  • El Paso - 5 hours /
  • Houston - 12 hours /
  • San Antonio - 9 hours
  • lubbock - 8 hours

Darkness catches me halfway through Pinto Canyon, a spectacular gorge southwest of Marfa.

The road I'm traveling is an old one; it's been used by ranchers, army troops chasing Pancho Villa and modern-day drug smugglers. Today it's traveled mainly by seekers of ease at my destination, the Chinati Hot Springs resort.

F.M. 2810 peters out 32 miles from Marfa, but before it does I spot a herd of pronghorns just over the fence. Bumping along the washboarded caliche road that leads the last 20 miles to the Rio Grande, I sink into Pinto Canyon as the sun smears gold and red streaks behind the Cuesta del Burro and Sierra Vieja mountains to my right. On my left the Chinati Mountains, jagged and rough in daylight, transform into soft purple pillows. Twice poorwills flutter from the road as I approach. Their membership in the goatsucker family makes them cousins of the mythical chupacabra. If such did exist, this magnificently desolate country is where I would look for it first.

Manager Wendy Harbin welcomes me to Chinati Hot Springs, though the warmth of her greeting pales in comparison to the tail-wagging antics of resident dogs Bully and Hermantito. After being thoroughly sniffed, I unload my gear and immediately take advantage of the 7-foot sunken tub in my room. The 109-degree mineral water is the perfect antidote for too many hours in the car. Once again I am reminded that Big Bend's remoteness is both its curse and its blessing.

At dawn I walk along Hot Springs Creek, which runs just 20 yards from my cabin. Birds bring the bushes and cottonwood trees alive. A killdeer flits along the side of the draw, while black and Say's phoebes preen and pose atop rocks, stumps and cottonwood trees. A cactus wren reveals its presence first with its call and then offers me a leisurely look. In a walk of no more than 300 yards I also see a Bewick's wren and blue-grey gnatcatchers playing tag around a creosote bush. I hear but never see hawks riding the morning thermals above the desert.

Roadrunners work the cabin area for brunch as I return from my walk. Over the next two days at various locations at the hot springs and nearby I see cactus wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets, canyon towhees, northern cardinals and pyrrhuloxias.

I've often thought of desert streams as being like islands turned inside out, with land surrounding the water. A stream no more that a foot wide and two inches deep spreads a bountiful buffet of life with multiple main dishes; by comparison, the relatively few species offered by the desert are merely dessert. In one tiny pool after another I find tadpoles, planaria, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs and backswimmers stroking through the water. The abundance of water-bourne life inches from arid rocks impresses upon me the precious nature of water in the desert far more than anything else could.

An after-lunch visit to the Ocotillo Unit of the Las Palomas WMA, seven miles away by dirt road, is postponed by the arrival of strong winds carrying a heavy load of dust from the bed of the Rio Grande. I pass the time with another soak in the hot tub and a perusal of bird, plant, reptile, amphibian and mammal field guides. Dust veils even the mighty Chinatis for a time, but by evening the air is so clear it seems the stars will cut my eyes if I look at them carelessly. A half-moon obscures only the faintest stars, and to the northeast the Big Dipper stands on its tail, pointing to the North Star across the creek. At creek's edge, a male Great Plains leopard frog advertises his presence to females, sounding like a thumb rubbed across a balloon.

As I sit eating my supper of salmon fillet, ribeye steak and baked potato cooked on the outdoor grill, Bully and Hermantito - who had declared themselves my best friends the instant the steak hit the grill - suddenly abandon me, dash across the creek and up the slope opposite. The reason flashes briefly into view: a gray fox darting up the hillside. The next night I learn this is a regular occurrence and one of the high points of the canine contingent's day.

The Big Dipper is standing on its head the next morning as I pack my gear for a trip to the Ocotillo Unit of Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area in pursuit of scaled quail. The thermometer reads 40 degrees, but the air perfumed by creosote bush is calm and feels absolutely wonderful. Morning desert air and fine wine seem to me close kin - soft but with an edge, pure yet laden with muted undertones of a rich complexity of flavors.

At the Ocotillo Unit, the box canyon behind Gate 7 beckons. For the first 200 yards silence presses down upon me. However, plentiful javelina tracks in the sandy bed of the wash promise more. Suddenly, there he is, standing not 30 yards away, every hair on his back erect. Then, as my eyes become accustomed to looking for javelina profiles, one after another materializes among the creosote bush and catclaw. Four troop across a slope 20 yards away, then a clatter of rocks on the opposite side of the canyon draws my gaze. Two groups of young javelinas dash for the rimrock along a narrow ledge as several adults streak along the base of the cliff.

As I near the head of the canyon, white-throated swifts swoop from holes in the cliff face to catch their breakfast of flying insects. The quail that I seek are breakfasting somewhere else.

That somewhere else turns out to be the La Junta General Store in the hamlet of Ruidosa, which lies just a mile east of the Ocotillo Unit on FM 170. Proprietor Celia Hill scatters a coffee can full of maize at the edge of the parking lot as I watch. "The blue quail show up about noon every day," she explains. But what comes sprinting down the hill instead to gobble up the free groceries seems unreal. I have never seen Gambel's quail before, though I know they range along the Rio Grande. Now there are 30 or more busily pecking away just yards from me, their little teardrop topknots bobbing.

Seeing the quail is the perfect send-off for a drive along FM 170 from Ruidosa to Lajitas. Much of the drive is through Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area, and a slow pace rewards me with sightings of loggerhead shrikes, common ravens, roadrunners and even a few ducks on the river. I saw my only mountain lion in the wild along this road a few years ago, and I can still remember how its long tail stretched out behind as it ran, then stopped and looked at me from 10 feet away as I stopped my car. Water had worked its magic in the desert that day, too: the cat was heading back into the Chinatis after drinking from the Rio Grande.

That evening there's time for another soak in the soothing water of the hot springs before packing for the return home. Bully and Hermantito entertain me by begging for scraps from my supper. The Chinatis glow softly in the moonlight, and the creek seems to murmur, "You'll be back."

You can count on that.

Getting There

This resort is way past the middle of nowhere. Presidio or Marfa offer the last chance for gasoline; a small store at Ruidosa, seven miles away by dirt road, has basic groceries. While ordinary passenger vehicles can make the trip, good tires are a must, and an extra spare is recommended. RVs should not attempt the Pinto Canyon road (FM 2810 from Marfa; the first 32 miles are paved; the last 20 are not). From Presidio, take FM 170 north to Ruidosa, then Hot Springs Road.

Be prepared to cook your own meals, either in the community kitchen or over a campfire. Your cell phone will not work here, but the staff will take phone messages and post them at the office. Both cabins and tent camping are available, along with hot mineral baths. Drinking water is available.

For more information contact Chinati Hot Springs: (915) 229-4165; www.chinatihotsprings.org.

Birding and hiking are available on the property and at the nearby Ocotillo Unit of Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area. For guided birding trips, contact Jim and Barbara Hines of Big Bend Birding Expeditions: (915) 371-2556; e-mail bbbe@brooksdata.net.

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