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TRAVEL

Trans-Pecos Trek

Van Horn is the perfect launching point for a West Texas road trip.

By Russell A. Graves

There’s something cathartic about driving through desert country. The wide-open spaces slip past at a near-hypnotic clip that’s relaxing. Last summer, when spring rains were abundant, the desert displayed blooming yuccas and ocotillo and the fragrant smell of creosote bushes blooming. Framed by mountains, the panorama is spectacular.

I’ve often visited the Trans-Pecos desert, but I’ve never launched an excursion out of Van Horn. There are really two versions of this small West Texas town — the Interstate 10 version that most people know and the off-the-beaten-path Van Horn that takes you through the heart of this desert town and beyond.

The town (in Culberson County) lies in a vast expanse of the Trans-Pecos, a huge region west of the Pecos River. Van Horn is the westernmost Texas town in the Central time zone and lies in a county that occupies a bigger land mass than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. Like other Texas desert towns, Van Horn was established when a reliable water source was discovered just south of town by itinerant travelers. Once the railroad came in the early 1880s, a permanent town was established.

Now, Van Horn lies with one foot firmly in the past and the other solidly in the future.

From Van Horn, I travel north on Texas Highway 54 toward New Mexico. This route takes me through the heart of mountain country on my way to the state’s highest point, Guadalupe Peak. I pass near the Apache Mountains, the eastern edge of the Sierra Diablos and the Delaware Range on the way to my ultimate destination.

While this is a sparsely populated land, it could become one of the country’s centers for space flight. While heading north, I pass by the gate that, if I could enter, would lead me to the West Texas Suborbital Launch and Landing Site. The rocket-launching facility is part of Jeff Bezos’ (founder of Amazon) Blue Origin project. The project’s aim is to facilitate “private human access to space with the goal to dramatically lower costs and increase reliability.” So far, multiple vehicles have been launched from the site.

Soon, I spot the grandest mountain peak in Texas.

Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD

Van Horn is an Interstate 10 landmark for people driving across West Texas.


By most standards, the Guadalupe Mountains range doesn’t fit the conventional idea of a mountainous country. Instead of a collection of individual mountains rising from the surrounding plains, the mountain range is a collection of peaks that rise from an ancient reef that was once part of a prehistoric Pangeatic sea. From Texas, the immense ridge runs north into New Mexico. Where the ridge plays out in Texas, mountain peaks rise from the stone that’s made up of fossilized algae and fungi.

Approaching the range from the south, travelers see the same cragged peaks jutting out as they have for centuries. The state’s signature peak, El Capitan, stands like a sentinel over the West Texas desert, while behind it, Guadalupe Peak rises to the highest point in the state.

My brother Bubba and my son Ryan join me at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and we begin our 4.5-mile, 3,000-foot elevation gain to the top.

The walk is long and arduous and, at times, borderline dangerous. Switchback after switchback takes us up the mountain and past thin soils with exposed rocks. In the ascent we traverse from the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert through piñon pines to big Douglas fir trees lining the north-facing slope at around 6,500 feet above sea level. Dead trees dot the slope, their fibrous innards twisted by the incessant wind that marks the high mountain ranges.

As we labor around the southeast face of the mountain, the backside of El Capitan comes into view. At the pinnacle, a stainless-steel pyramid marks the point. Bubba stops and tells Ryan to lead the way. Ryan obliges with a smile. He’s earned the chance to lead us to the top and does so cheerfully.

While on top of the mountain, I look to the west and see a broad ribbon of green that stands in strange contrast to the otherwise arid climate. It’s the Dell City Agricultural Loop, a place I’ll explore on this trip.

I head down to see the 40,000 acres of irrigated farmland, circle after circle of alfalfa, cotton, wheat and oats. Take a look at an aerial map of the area and you’ll discover the true extent of the greenbelt. Fed by the immense Bone Spring-Victorio Peak Aquifer, the valley is home to an agribusiness complex that seems out of place for this region. In every direction from Dell City, the desert expands. On the eastern flank, the huge Guadalupe Mountains ridge rises from the desert floor. From here I can see the exact point where my brother and my son and I made the ascent.

Because there is water in the desert, the Dell City Agricultural Loop is a surprising wildlife-watching spot. While touring around, I see many Texas horned lizards scampering across the road, scaled quail, scores of jackrabbits and some comical burrowing owls that check me out from their sign-top perches.

To the east and along the bottom of the ridge, I can just make out the salt dunes that have blown in from the dried-up basins to the south. The salt basins are vast flats, remnants of a Pleistocene Epoch lake that was exploited as a source for local salt production until the 20th century. Disputes over ownership of the salt flats broke out in bloodshed on two separate occasions in the late 1800s and nearly erupted in an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico.

By the time I finish reading the roadside historical marker about the salt wars, a massive storm has developed over the Guadalupe Mountains. While the mountains are huge, the immensity of a mature thunderstorm really puts things in perspective. With the wind picking up, I speed back to Van Horn to spend the night at the historic El Capitan Hotel.

Photo © Russell A. Graves

El Capitan rises boldly from the desert floor.


Photo © Russell A. Graves

The art installation Prada Marfa attracts curious visitors.


Photo © Russell A. Graves

An old caboose pays homage to Van Horn's rail history.


Photo © Russell A. Graves

Billowing clouds fill the sky over the Guadalupes.


Photo © Russell A. Graves

Aquifer water makes crops possible near Dell City.


MORE INFO:

VAN HORN

vanhorntexas.us/visitors

GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

www.nps.gov/gumo

EL CAPITAN HOTEL

www.thehotelelcapitan.com,
(877) 283-1220

TEXAS MOUNTAIN TRAIL

texasmountaintrail.com


It’s getting late so I grab a quick bite to eat at the dining room before it closes and head up to my room. Stepping into the hotel is like traveling back in time. I don’t imagine the place looks much different than it did when it opened in the 1930s; the retro lobby and upscale rooms are a welcome respite from my day’s traveling. I unpack and then head back downstairs to look at the lobby’s artwork and sip a drink at the hotel bar.

The other patrons are here from all over Texas to explore the desert by making Van Horn their home base. Some are headed to El Paso, while others plan to head southeast and drift around Marathon and Terlingua.

For breakfast the next day, I stop at a regional convenience store and eat one of Uncle’s famous breakfast burritos, a local favorite. While enjoying my breakfast, I roll the windows down and drive around town. I love the scent of the desert in the morning.

Cruising up and down East Broadway, I study the old gas stations and hotels. These vintage buildings are a glimpse into the sensibilities of road-trippers past. Before the proliferation of the interstate highway system, each little town created its own unique identity, unlike the sanitized sameness that’s the state of today’s highway commerce.

I head south down U.S. Highway 90 to travel a stretch of road I’d never seen. To my right is the Mountain View Golf Course. It’s already too hot to play a round, so jackrabbits gladly occupy the space.

I pass by a huge pecan orchard that seems strangely out of place and wonder about the vestiges of old stores and hotels that lie dormant along parts of the highway. I even stop for a bit at the site of the Van Horn Wells — the original spot that brought Anglo settlers to this part of the state — and read the historical marker that’s alongside the road.

One more stop beckons farther down the road; soon, I see it in the distance. It’s the art installation called Prada Marfa. It’s still some miles down the highway to Marfa, but the isolated art project is a study in curiosity. As I pull up to see the spot, three other West Texas road-trippers have stopped as well. Like me, they are curious about the art installation, they are curious about this part of Texas, and they are curious about what life is like in an isolated part of the state.

We do the only thing that we know how to do here: stare at Prada Marfa and wonder what it’s all about.

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