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One Land, Many Spirits

The Rancherías Loop Trail meanders through dramatic desert scenery and thousands of years of history.

By E. Dan Klepper

Something remedial happens to a desert land once human exploitation ceases and its resources are left to their own devices. The desert ecology, like the surface of damaged skin, slowly knits itself back together, rouging over scars and coaxing precious moisture up from its retreat. Grasslands begin to return, man-made barriers collapse as if old scores are being settled and predators find their way back to a new, burgeoning array of prey. At the same time, all that remains of a desert’s human past, from the lithic scatter of nomadic tribes to the dross of civilized occupation, erodes away one grain at a time until all that is left is the present.

Yet the spirit of its human history survives; a specter as palpable and real as the sensation of static before a lightning strike. The chants of the Comanche, the clatter of Spanish soldiers on horseback, the braying of cattle, the bawling of sheep and the cowboy’s whoop and holler all echo against the forward movement of wilderness in resurrection, good land reborn — at once ancient and new.

Texas has its share of wild and historic places, but none portrays the arc of nature and human intervention more remarkably than Big Bend Ranch State Park. And nothing brings more clarity to the echoes of its past or the profound beauty of its present than a long walk across its mesas and canyons. By donning a backpack, a water supply and a good pair of hiking boots, Texans can do just that on the park’s 19-mile Rancherías Loop Trail.

The trail route is well marked with cairns (stacked rocks) but retains a rough, unbeaten character favored by backpacking and wilderness enthusiasts.

The Rancherías Loop Trail is comprised of waypoints once utilized by prehistoric and historic Native Americans, historic wagon trails created by Mexican and European settlers, and the vestiges of mule paths, ranch roads and jeep tracks. It meanders through rugged canyons, climbs over saddle passes and descends rough, spalling ridges along some of West Texas’ most dramatic desert sierras — the Bofecillos Mountains. Along the way are seep springs, tinajas, abandoned bebederos (livestock troughs) and pilas (water storage tanks), rock windrows, crumbling stone dams, collapsed corrals, adobe ruins and the rusty remnants of more than 250 miles of fence line.

But most striking of all is the presence of an astounding variety of flora and fauna. Thanks to approximately 120 springs scattered across the 301,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park, thousands of plants, birds, mammals and insects thrive in this water-blessed desert.

The park’s Rancherías Loop Trail heads and tails within a mile or so of itself and both trailheads lie conveniently off FM 170, the famed “River Road” of the Big Bend region that follows the lazy ramble of the Rio Grande. The trail route is well marked with cairns (stacked rocks) but retains a rough, unbeaten character favored by backpacking and wilderness enthusiasts. The east trailhead is the suggested starting point for a recommended two-night, three-day hike as it cuts the net elevation gain significantly, and allows hikers to descend for most of the trip after an initial 1,500-foot ascent. Springs are marked on USGS topographic maps as well as the park’s trail guide map, but nature isn’t always reliable, so hikers are encouraged to carry plenty of water.

Rancherías provides backpackers with a sense of wilderness at its best, and every day spent on the trail offers challenges and enlightenment. Hikers starting from the east Rancherías trailhead will enter a dry little arroyo and follow it to the mouth of a box canyon. The trail exits the arroyo here and passes through a gap in a hand-built rock fence — the first indication of the hard-scrabble ranching spirit that at one time prevailed across this entire desert region. Ranch hands once gathered and set stones for the short-walled fence all the way up to the rimrock, using the remnants of a natural rock slide as a base. On the far side of the fence gap, the trail continues along the side of a dry wash and, after crossing a broad saddle of two more drainages, it descends into Acebuches Canyon.

The country appears endless here, illuminating a geography, its culture and an ecology that defies borders. It is big, wild, ancient country, and in terms of geologic time, humans have only spent a few moments passing through it over the course of eons.

Acebuches Canyon is named for the wild olive (Forestiera angustifolia) that grows in the region. The canyon was once used routinely to move livestock to and from the Rio Grande. Now, free from the animals’ trampling and grazing, desert species have rebounded, especially during the monsoon rains and throughout the migration periods. It is a slow canyon to move through only because of its abundance of birds and beetles to be spotted, particularly around the willow shade of the canyon’s seep spring. The canyon also represents a certain kind of unity inherent in this Chihuahuan Desert country. Acebuches Canyon is a designated fault and contact zone between two early and catastrophic events — the volcanic eruptions of the Bofecillos in Texas and the eruptions of Mexico’s Sierra Rica. It is a clear-cut connection between the geography underfoot and that which appears across the Rio Grande, countering maps and mindsets that often end at the river.

The trail eventually switchbacks out of Acebuches, then parallels its rim to its head. Once at the canyon’s head, hikers cross a high saddle that divides Acebuches from Panther Canyon. This saddle and its bit of flat ground make a terrific place to camp for the night and enjoy the top-of-the-world views, the sunset colors and the blaze of stars that follow.

The diverse country that can be enjoyed along the Rancherías Loop Trail may shelter many spirits, but it harbors one heart — Rancherías Spring.

Continuing along the trail as it drops into Panther Canyon requires sturdy knees and strong ankles, especially with a pack of 30 pounds or more. But the descent’s rewards include flowing spring waters and the remains of the Reza homestead, a small historic site that includes an adobe ruin and its attendant jetsam. The Reza family occupied this spot above the canyon floor and its spring almost a hundred years ago. The Rezas spent their days tending an orchard, some vegetable plots and a herd of goats. They produced asaderos, or cheese, from the goats’ milk and sold it, along with the fruits, just a rough burro ride away in the small river settlements of El Polvo (now Redford) and Lajitas. Not much remains of the Reza occupation other than the unstable adobe ruin. But it’s a great place to stop and have a stretch and appreciate the Rezas’ choice of locations. Well above the path of canyon flash floods, the house and kitchen anchor a relatively level patch of ground and offer an intimate view of the spring’s treetop canopy. Dawn and dusk would have been pleasing moments for the Reza family, and the spring’s cottonwood shade would have offered welcome respite against an intense summer heat. Lean years and fat, the Rezas’ lifestyle must have been absent of the troubling complexities that lie beyond the basics, subject only to the routine plagues of sustenance living. And each of the desert’s gifts, from afternoon squalls to cooling sierra northers, must have made life’s struggle toward contentedness a simple and straightforward road.

The trail continues north along the Panther drainage, following a pack route used by the Reza family, where it passes a rock shelter once occupied by archaic hunters and gatherers. Evidence indicates that humans occupied the Big Bend Ranch State Park region for more than 10,000 years. Not much has lasted from the earliest residents beyond stone tools and projectile points, but as survival became more sophisticated, so did its remains. Rock art and burial sites, villages and remnants of agricultural and food preparation sites are scattered throughout the park, evidence that the desert was a busy place. The Spanish military and clergy began arriving a little more than 400 years ago, and clashes with Apache and Comanche tribes provoked Mexican military intervention. Trade routes were slowly established and, by the late 1800s, mining and ranching had moved into the region. The early 1900s saw an increase in the stocking of sheep and mohair goats, but by the 1950s, the Depression, widespread drought and overgrazing put an end to successful ranching in the Big Bend’s desert region. In 1988, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department purchased the land, an area half the size of Rhode Island, and proceeded to establish the largest and grandest park in the state’s park system.

Once the Rancherías trail leaves Panther Canyon behind, it junctions with an old jeep track that takes hikers out of the Panther watershed and directs them west across a wide desert valley considered part of the Rancherías Canyon drainage. A view of distinctive peaks, including Cerro Rancherías, Aguja de la Colmena and the Bofecillos’ tallest — Oso Peak, at 5,135 feet — dominates the horizon. The placid mesquite and white-thorn acacia blanketing the desert here mask the basin’s violent 30-million-year history as an eroding dome created by once-molten rock. The trail continues west across a spread of upthrusting limestone and dry, wiggly washes, ultimately leading to Rancherías Spring.

The diverse country that can be enjoyed along the Rancherías Loop Trail may shelter many spirits, but it harbors one heart — Rancherías Spring. The spring is a surprising wedge of relief after a long hike across remnants of the desert’s former volcanic remains, the heat of which can still be felt in the beating of the sun. And while the spring may have shared its resources with human occupation for thousands of years, it has remained, above all, nature’s domain. It is, in essence, a long artery of green that shades a network of descending springs, driving water over a deep elevation drop all the way to the Rio Grande. Wildlife, including mule deer, mountain lions, tree frogs, foxes, bobcats, horned lizards, the ubiquitous javelina, geckos, coyotes and more than 390 species of resident and migratory birds, partake of the spring’s offerings. Without livestock to trample the delicate vegetation or to sour the trickle of surface water that dutifully graces the rocks and streambed gravel, the area has had an opportunity to recapture its primordial state. Camping above its slice of restorative pallor provides hikers with a view of its verdant canopy that, during an early morning sunrise, sweetens the coral dawn with tanager song. But the most delivering moments are those spent lying within its deep, cool shadows, spellbound by the dizzy flutter of cottonwood leaves. The mind disburdens, the body surrenders and only the deliverance of nature’s embrace remains.

Rancherías provides backpackers with a sense of wilderness at its best, and every day spent on the trail offers challenges and enlightenment.

Leaving Rancherías Spring, the trail continues west and south, and enters Lower Mesa de Guale. The mesa, once dense grassland, has been rendered a broad expanse of ocotillo and desert brush by the overgrazing of thousands of sheep. The livestock are gone, but the remarkable forests of ocotillos that have replaced them create a desert woodland of sorts, their reedy branches shadowing the pathway. The trail follows an old wagon route that troughs and crests across the hummocking mesa, where its high points are occasionally crowned by cairn sentinels. The stacks of rock are head-high, offering a ghostly illusion of figures stranded in the distance. The unique profile of Sierra de la Guitarra appears to the east and south in a slow reveal, its broadside replicating the shape of a guitar. To the west, the edge of Tapado Canyon drops a thousand feet and stretches almost 2 miles from rim to rim.

Upon reaching the southern edge of Guale Mesa, the trail begins a sharp and steady descent that leads ultimately to the west trailhead. The long descent also provides spectacular views in an around-the-world sweep of the Chihuahuan Desert’s Texas and Mexican sierras. The country appears endless here, illuminating a geography, its culture and an ecology that defies borders. It is big, wild, ancient country, and in terms of geologic time, humans have only spent a few moments passing through it over the course of eons. Fortunately, Texans now have the opportunity to take a turn of their own.

And if luck is with them, the mesas and canyons will run crimson with the blooming spikes of a million ocotillo, as if all the blood and sweat of human effort had spilled across the Chihuahuan crust and arisen one last time, if only to tint the desert’s humble bloom.

In the Desert, Be Ready for Extremes

By E. Dan Klepper

Despite dry conditions, deserts are subject to sudden and intense storms that often generate deadly lightning and hail. Avoid high points during a storm and make an effort to locate shelter well before a storm arrives. Be aware that canyons and arroyos can flash flood even if the rain is not falling in your location.

The human skin requires protection from the desert sun in all seasons. Wear a hat, sunscreen and a large shirt with long sleeves of lightweight cotton or other breathable material. Long sleeves may sound like an anathema in the desert but creating space between your skin and your shirt allows air and perspiration to cool your body. Despite the pleasure that wearing shorts provides during long, hot hikes, long pants are recommended for hiking desert trails. A damp bandanna around the neck also adds a remarkable degree of comfort to desert hiking.

Avoid camping in critical management zones around springs. Camp at least 300 feet or more from springs and natural water sources. Do not rinse clothes, dishes or your body in springs or tinajas.

Any water sources utilized along the trail should be filtered and purified before drinking.

Do not disturb any relics or artifacts that you may come across. The remains of human occupation tell an important story about the history of a place. Removing them destroys their link to the past. It also breaks the law. However, your trash and any previous hiker’s recently discarded litter you might come upon should be carried out of the park and disposed of properly.

Be aware of desert plants and wildlife that may be less than friendly. Remember that everything in the park is protected, including potentially unpleasant cactus such as cane cholla and critters like scorpions and the tarantula wasp. Desert life usually exists in reasonable harmony unless someone comes along and accidentally rolls over it. Getting stuck or stung as a consequence is not a valid reason to stomp the life out of the perpetrator. Watch where you sit down to rest or spread your bedroll or tent, wear proper hiking gear and avoid reaching beneath rocks and overhangs.

Carry a compass, topo maps and the park’s trail guide and trail map with you and know how to use them. Understand basic first aid and rudimentary survival techniques. Be aware that emergency wilderness rescue is extremely limited.

Remember, backpacks get heavy when hikers try to cover all contingencies. Get together with your hiking partners and pare down duplicate items. A lighter backpack makes hiking all the more pleasant. A good rule of thumb for loading your pack — reduce the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves.

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