Gateway to Big Bend
It’s time you get to know Presidio.
The Junta de los Rios region of West Texas is marked by the collision of worlds. Here, set in starkly beautiful country where the meanderings of the Rio Grande join the Rio Conchos, river meets river, Texas meets Mexico, water meets desert.
Amid all these junctions is Presidio, population 3,301. The town is the northwestern gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park and walking distance to Ojinaga, Mexico. It’s a friendly and welcoming home base for a Big Bend vacation — and an interesting and art-filled destination on its own.
My partner, Cano, and I drive out to Big Bend the third weekend of March. The bluebonnets, extra-tall and lanky cousins of the Central Texas specialty, are in full swing. The ocotillos have no leaves, but the tips of their stalks are adorned with scarlet flowers.
We’re staying the first couple of days at a historic church, built in 1914 as St. Joseph Church and now owned by Charlie Angell of Presidio’s outdoor adventure outfit Angell Expeditions. When we pull up to the church, the structure, looming out of creosote scrub, appears hauntingly beautiful in the diffuse light — a snapshot of another time. A bright pink VW Bug parked outside grounds us in the present day.
We park alongside the Volkswagen and make our way in. Although it retains the architecture of the old church, the space is less reverent now. A colorful horse statue occupies space where pews might once have stood, and in place of an altar, a decrepit organ is set front and center, adorned with a dead whip scorpion and a card that reads, “Not Today, Satan.” On the wall is a framed painting of one of Angell’s dogs.
Within minutes of arriving at our lodging, a light rain begins to fall. Big Bend Ranch State Park gets around 10 inches of precipitation each year, so it’s a surprise to see the drops hitting the dusty earth. We head to the Big Bend Ranch check-in at Fort Leaton to find out what’s safe to hike before the drizzle turns to rain.
Since we likely can't hike it later in our trip if this rain keeps up, the ranger recommends we speed-hike Closed Canyon, a slot canyon located a short drive along FM 170 (also known as the River Road) from Fort Leaton.
We pull off at the parking lot for Closed Canyon and venture into its walled seclusion. Gravel blankets the ground, telling of past rains that washed over the rocks. Overhead, horned animals peer mischievously over the canyon's edge, their silhouettes alien against the white sky.
I think for a moment they are bighorn sheep — the park has been working to restore its bighorn population — but alas, they are aoudads, the bighorn’s non-native cousin.
As we walk the canyon, we meet other park-goers, including the Stone family from Austin. Bonded by the mutual sighting of the aoudads, we talk about school, life, death and whether or not extraterrestrials exist.
“I’ll probably never see you again,” says Ally Stone, a fifth-grader, when we part ways at the parking lot.
Probably not. But it’s enough to have met each other just now. This is something I love about traveling to parks: being immersed in nature brings people together. We drive away smiling.
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
For dinner, we check out Presidio Trading Post & Cantina, a burgers-and-beer outpost on the outskirts of town. (If you’re looking for a proper bar, forget about it; the only place in Presidio with a liquor license is the seldom-open American Legion). My fried pickles are perfect, and I snack absentmindedly as members of the Presidio High School class of 2003, here for their 20-year reunion, reminisce and belt out ballads.
Post-burgers, we drive back to the church and bundle ourselves in blankets as the rain continues to fall through the night.
By the next morning, it’s bone-chillingly cold, and the entire interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park, accessible only by dirt road, is closed to visitors. Instead of hiking, we decide to spend the morning in town.
Our first stop is a local staple, the Bean Cafe, run by Presidio local Hector Armendariz. It’s a great place to hear the latest news. On this particular morning it floats around the cafe that there’s a blanket of snow on the ground in nearby Alpine. The original messenger, and owner of an ice-covered truck in the parking lot, drove from Alpine an hour ago.
We’re torn on what to do for the rest of the morning. Presidio’s sister city, Ojinaga, nearly 10 times the size of its Texas neighbor, is within walking distance, and we contemplate visiting. But if it’s too cold for hiking, it’s too cold for walking across the border. I make a mental note to come back on a warmer weekend for shopping and dining in OJ.
We decide instead to drive around town; we noticed some beautiful murals on the way in and want to take a closer look. Under the supervision of the Presidio Municipal Development District, a movement is underway to revitalize the downtown; the walls of several buildings already burst with colorful murals of flowers, palm trees and the life-giving river, and more are planned.
Next we pay a visit to the Presidio Farmers Market, located between St. Francis Park and Presidio City Hall near St. Francis Plaza. Today there are only two booths (no one wanted to stand in the cold), selling homemade cupcakes and birria tacos. Of course, we have to try everything. We make off with two cupcakes and a tres leches cake in a cup from Kanella and Spices, sold to us by Antonella Padilla and Brayan Bailon, Presidio High School grads raising money for college at New Mexico State University, and eight cheesy, greasy birria tacos from OJ’s La Birreria.
When we finish feasting, we’re seeking a beautiful drive, so we embark again on the River Road to the Barton Warnock Visitors Center on the other side of the park. The road is bordered on one side by the wild expanse of Big Bend Ranch, and on the other by the sediment-darkened Rio Grande; it’s often named one of America’s most scenic drives.
The drive hypothetically will take about an hour, but Cano and I are both photographers and can’t resist pulling off at nearly every overlook; most impressive is the Big Hill, a giddy precipice from which our entire field of view is occupied by the mountains towering over the river below.
For our last meal in Presidio, we head to El Patio, which locals have been recommending all weekend. I order a bean burrito, and Cano orders the special of the day, which arrives resplendent with deep red enchiladas, a taco dressed with fresh and crispy cabbage, and a chile relleno. Pleasantly full, we head out of town.
OASIS IN THE DESERT
On our last night, we’re staying at Chinati Hot Springs, about an hour and a half outside of Presidio. The drive out takes us northwest of town between the Rio Grande and the Chinati Mountains, which will soon host a new state park. The mountains have a different feeling than the Bofecillos range that makes up Big Bend Ranch — we're higher up, and vegetation is closer to the ground. Wildflowers line the roadsides, and coveys of quail scatter into the brush as we pass.
We stop briefly at the historic Ruidosa Church El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus, a 1915 church with beautiful adobe arches. A local nonprofit, Friends of the Ruidosa Church, is working to restore it. We arrive at Chinati Hot Springs as the sun is setting, painting the mountains shades of gold and pink.
The springs are not open for day use; you have to book one of the resort’s cabins, which range in price from $150 to $230 (consider booking early if you want to spend a full weekend there, as reservations fill up fast).
This policy guarantees that the springs, which are funneled into a large outdoor hot tub beneath a stand of whispering cottonwoods, are not overcrowded. Quite the opposite; we stay there on a Sunday, and have the whole resort to ourselves.
It’s still chilly, and we waste no time shedding our hiking clothes and donning swimsuits. The springs are almost painfully hot at first — the water emerges from the earth at 113 degrees Fahrenheit — but within a few minutes we adjust and spend the rest of the night dipping in and out of the mineral-rich water, which has long been said to have healing powers.
We are able to remain in the tub for only a few minutes before turning lobster-red, and the cool desert night is the perfect contrast. Had we visited on a warmer weekend, we could have availed ourselves of the resort’s cold pool, which sits atop a hill overlooking the cabins.
There’s no cell service at Chinati Hot Springs — a fact listed as an amenity on the website. It does feel luxurious to leave behind the blue light of our screens for the pale glow of the stars.
The next morning, I’m up at sunrise to soak up more hot tub time. The clouds of the weekend slowly burn away as the sun rises, and golden light spills onto the quivering leaves of the cottonwoods. The chill of the weekend feels like a distant memory, and I luxuriate in the heat of the sun on my face. In this land of contrasts, a sudden change in the weather shouldn’t surprise me. Somehow, it still does.
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