Big Bend Ranch’s new Contrabando Dome Trail offers a peak at the region’s rugged history.
By E. Dan Klepper
With the help of the nonprofit Big Bend Trails Alliance, Big Bend Ranch State Park recently created a new 4-mile spur off the Contrabando Trail network. A raucous rollercoaster named the Dome Trail, it rides roughshod over a cinnabar prospect mining region known as the Contrabando Dome. The new multi-use Dome Trail sports a serpentine network of sandy arroyos, stony jeep tracks and bright yellow humps and hilltops that interlace a cross-section of Chihuahuan Desert low country. Along the way, hikers, bikers and equestrians benefit from colorful orientation kiosks and interpretive signs that provide lessons in the area’s history of mining, smuggling and ranching.
The Dome Trail highlights the area’s cinnabar mining sites and includes waysides detailing prospectors’ struggles to bore over 2,000 feet of drill holes in their search for the red ore cinnabar. When heated in furnaces and then allowed to cool and condense, the mineral produces the quicksilver of legend — mercury. During World War II quicksilver was worth almost as much as gold is today, bringing nearly $200 per flask. But the dome prospectors struck out. It is likely the dome area gave up its mercury eons before mining began by allowing it to escape via evaporation through faults in the dome’s strata. Not so, however, for a number of other mines nearby, such as the Whitroy and Fresno mines, which yielded a fortune for a few lucky Big Bend prospectors.
Dome Trail travelers have the opportunity to imagine the hardscrabble desert life of these early-20th-century laborers by examining the ruins of the miners’ living quarters (as well as their outhouse) along the trail. But the challenges of rough and rugged living are most apparent at the Contrabando Waterhole. Dome travelers must pass this site once they complete the Dome Trail spur and converge onto the main Contrabando Trail for their return to the main trailhead. Here, Lajitas founder H.W. McGuirk made his second foray into Big Bend ranching by building stone fences, corrals and an elegant limestone home. However, a contamination of his sole water source — the beautiful green tinaja that can be seen far below the trail — forced him to abandon the site after only two years.
The Dome Trail can be reached by starting at the west trailhead of the main Contrabando Trail system just off FM 170 and west of Lajitas, then by following the Contrabando Trail to the west Dome trailhead. The Dome Trail leaves the main Contrabando Trail here and continues in an up-and-down semi-circle of fun before converging back onto the Contrabando Trail at the east Dome trailhead 4 miles later. The route is well marked, although the total mileage for a complete loop (beginning at the west Contrabando trailhead, traveling the full 4-mile Dome Trail and then returning to the west Contrabando trailhead) is approximately 10 miles. Planning for a full day of hiking or an entire afternoon of biking, including carrying enough water, snacks and sunblock for the adventure, is suggested. Be sure to obtain a permit and a map at Barton Warnock Environmental and Education Center at the eastern entrance to the park, adjacent to Lajitas. And remember, as you hike, bike or ride horseback through the Contrabando region and admire its ruins, its scatter of artifacts, and the native plants and wildlife that abound, the century-old law of the historic region still applies today — no smuggling allowed!