Big Bend Ranch State Park
Hiking under the volcano in the Lower Shutup Canyon
By E. Dan Klepper
Along the southern interior of the state’s volcanic behemoth known as the Solitario lies a certain nameless ridge that rises affably above the desert floor. It is modest in size, lacks any distinctive features and, unlike much of the surrounding geography, it doesn’t reveal much evidence of the area’s dramatic geological upheaval. It is just another bump in an extremely bumpy landscape. But for the hiker who has signed up to tackle Big Bend Ranch State Park’s latest Solitario adventure, a short hike up its flank at sundown provides a surprising reward. From its peak, the vast Big Bend country and all its mountain sentinels spread from horizon to horizon in a Gulliver’s stunning view: Santiago, La Mota, Chinati, Sierra el Matadero, the Chisos to the east, the Bofecillos westward, the Davis Mountains far north and Mexico’s Sierra Rica down south. A glance closer in and just beyond the ridge’s gentle footing reveals a rolling tilt in the lay of the land. It is in fact the Solitario’s edge crumbling towards the head of the region’s major drainage — a lightning-shaped canyon called the Lower Shutup.
This brief ridge climb with its spectacular sunset view is a great way to limber up the hiking legs or work up an appetite — two important preparations for enjoying the park’s three-day, two-night, fully supported camping and hiking Solitario package. It’s also a good opportunity to take a glance down at the first night’s campsite just below the ridge and feel a bit lucky to have found a relatively flat spot for a tent. The term “level” is not a word in the Solitario’s vocabulary, a world where volcanic shenanigans have shoved, folded, exploded and eroded the landscape into topographic chaos.
The park’s Solitario adventure is a fun way to travel through the Big Bend Ranch country without lugging a 50-pound backpack. Hikers need only to carry enough water, lunch and personal essentials for the all-day Lower Shutup hike. Meals are provided, including excellent breakfasts and dinners created over an open campfire by the park’s top chef, Victor Rivera. Tents, sleeping bags and personal camping gear are transported along a separate route from campsite to campsite by support vehicles, leaving the hiker free to focus on the joys of nature, including the traverse down the Lower Shutup.
This endeavor, a strenuous all-day hike led by park staff, demands intermediate-level fitness and a constant attention to footfall. The Lower Shutup terrain is comprised of gravel beds and rocky drops, and to negotiate its relentless downward flow requires a sense of balance and good knees. Trekking poles and comfortable hiking boots are highly recommended, as is plenty of water. If the standard-issue cold burrito sack lunch is not your idea of hiking fuel, then stuffing a selection of favorite lunchtime energy food into the day pack is also a good idea.
The hiking route is pure geological time travel, as it snakes through the Solitario caldera and out the Lower Shutup canyon where walls of terra-formed turbulence have been exposed through eons of erosion. The remarkable results are irresistible to the curious, inspiring a thorough and time-consuming examination. The Lower Shutup eventually plummets in a neck-breaking fall before continuing all the way to the Rio Grande but hikers veer west and out of the drainage just before the pour-off. The route continues cross-country through a maze of arroyos, ridges and eerie volcanic landscapes before opening up and landing in sprawling Fresno Canyon. Hikers’ camping gear and Victor’s vittles await there along one of Fresno’s broad alluvial fans, a perfect campsite to pitch a tent and gather around the campfire. Waking early the following morning provides an opportunity to catch a blood-orange sunrise and the moon still hanging above the Solitario’s shark-tooth rim.
The Lower Shutup hiking and camping package is offered during the cooler December, January and February months. A call to the Sauceda Headquarters of Big Bend Ranch State Park at (432) 229-3416 should provide hikers with scheduled dates and fees for upcoming Lower Shutup adventures. Reserve early, because the space is limited and the hiking popular. And don’t forget to bring protection. A hat and sunblock are essential. The Solitario has been dormant for millions of years, but its light still shines hot and bright.