The Homer Wilson Ranch Trail

Big Bend National Park is an adventure-seekers paradise. From short day hikes to longer thru-hikes or off-road four-wheeling to night time star gazing, Big Bend is a Texas treasure that just keeps on giving.

Those interested in learning about the history that preceded the official establishment of the national park in 1944 can roam among the ruins of some of the original homesteads in this wide part of Texas. These sites are accessible by way clearly defined trails, mostly half a mile or less in distance one way.

The Homer Wilson Ranch Trail (or Blue Creek Trail) is one of my personal favorites. The Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch was established in 1929 and was one of the largest in Texas, comprising more than 28,000 acres — home to 4,000 sheep and 2,500 goats. The ranch was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The trailhead is located at a scenic overlook a little less than 8 miles from the northern end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This overview offers sweeping vistas of Blue Creek Valley — once the operational center of the Homer Wilson Ranch. If you look carefully you will see what remains of the old line camp on the bank of Blue Creek.

The trail leading to the old line camp is an easy downhill stroll that crosses two drainages and then climbs to the house on the bank of Blue Creek. For many years, this ranch house was home to Wilson’s foreman, Lott Felts.

Although abandoned in 1945, what remains of the ranch house is more than enough to give visitors an idea of what ranch life must have been like in the days before the establishment of the national park. The house was well built, featuring a flagstone floor, high ceilings, a centrally located fireplace, and a covered porch.

Hidden in the surrounding brush are the remains of a circular corral for the training of young horses, a rainwater cistern, a dipping vat and chute for sheep and goats, and a few other remnants of ranch life. The entire area is a time capsule worth exploring.

The half-mile hike back to the parking area is all uphill but not difficult at all. When hiking in Big Bend, always remember to take a hydration pack or bottled water — even on short hikes. If you are interested in hikes that will help you to learn about the history of Big Bend National Park, definitely include the Homer Wilson Ranch Trail hike on your day-adventures agenda.

From Curbside Trash to Cabin Treasure

I have always been attracted to broken things. I think it’s because I enjoy looking beyond the actualities in something tossed aside to consider the possibilities. Giving broken and discarded items a second chance can yield some pretty cool results.

A couple of weeks ago I drove a friend home from a meeting and noticed a large trash pile in front of his neighbor’s home. Among the bulging bags of garbage was a yellow bench that looked to be in pretty good shape — at least it did from a distance.

I walked over, picked up the bench, and put it in the bed of my truck. When I got it home and did a closer inspection, I discovered all of the reasons why the bench had been tossed to the curb.

All of the joints were wobbly and weak. The mortise and tenons on one of the cross-braces had rotted away. The paint job was a globby-bad mess and there was considerable dry-rot on one of the armrests.

No worries!

I could not wait to get the bench to the cabin to start the repair and restoration process. I made a list of things I would need and only had to buy some wood dowels and plastic wood filler for this project. I had everything else in my shop. This project would cost me about $15.00 total.

The first thing I did was to address all of the loose joints. I cleaned and sanded these areas and then drilled holes and glued in reinforcing poplar dowels. I then reattached the horizontal cross-brace using poplar dowels. I clamped everything together to give the glue time to dry.

The next step was to address the dry rot in the armrest. I applied layers of pliable plastic wood and built the area up. Once it dried I sanded the area down, following the shape of the armrest. With this final step complete it was time to paint the bench.

I wanted to keep with the Texas-themed outdoor furniture at the cabin, so I painted the bench red and then added a small lone star medallion in the center of the backrest. I used the official Texas flag shades of red, white, and blue.

I love the finished product. We will keep this bench on the small front porch of the cabin where it fits perfectly. Cheryl and I enjoy sitting on the porch in the evenings, waiting for the stars to populate the Big Bend night sky. We will enjoy sitting on our salvaged bench that only took a few dollars and a few hours to be transformed from curbside trash into another little cabin treasure.

Hot Springs Loop Trail in Big Bend

Big Bend National Park is one of the absolutely must-see places in the Lone Star State. Bordered by a 118-mile stretch of the Rio Grande River to the South, the park encompasses more than 800,000 acres of magnificent Chihuahuan Desert landscapes.

In 2012, Big Bend National Park was awarded International Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark-Sky Association. The park boasts the darkest skies of any national park in the lower 48 states. There are no words to describe the breathtaking nights in this wide part of Texas.

Big Bend National Park also has a variety of hiking trails for every skill level — all of which offer their respective spectacular vistas. Whether you are interested in a tough multi-day thru-hike or a short and easy stroll, Big Bend does not disappoint.

The Big Bend Hot Springs Trail is a 1.2 mile loop trail with a modest 144-feet of elevation gain. The trailhead is located at the end of a two-mile gravel road that descends down a rough, narrow wash to the Hot Springs Historic District. There is ample parking there.

The Hot Springs Historic District preserves the history of this popular location in the park. In the early 1900s, a man from Mississippi named J.O. Langford was suffering from malaria-related health concerns. He traveled to Alpine, Texas with his pregnant wife and young daughter in hopes that the desert climate would improve his health.

While in Alpine, Langford heard about hot springs along the Rio Grande that would cure anything. Without having seen the place, Langford headed to the county surveyor’s office and filed a claim under the homestead act to secure the hot springs and adjacent land. He then loaded up his wagon and traveled eleven days from Alpine to his newly-acquired tract.

After Langford regained his health by taking a three-week treatment of bathing and drinking the spring water, he opened the springs to others seeking to improve their health. He built a bath house over the springs and charged 10 cents per day or $2.00 for a three-week treatment.

A country store, restaurant, post office, and lodging followed, making the area a popular tourist destination. The remnants of these buildings still stand as mute testimony to the attraction of the hot springs.

The Hot Spring Loop Trail leads to what remains of Langford’s bathhouse. The hot 105-degree spring water is retained in the perimeter of the old foundation, forming a large square bathtub. Soakers can sit and gaze at the Rio Grande and across to Mexico.

The Hot Spring Loop Trail continues for a bit beyond the hot springs and then takes a turn up the bluff. The views from this section of the trail are magnificent. Distant purple-hued mountains draw your eyes upward past the sagebrush and ocotillo that look like something transplanted from a Martian landscape.

The trail eventually loops back toward the trailhead and parking area, descending behind the remnants of the old general store. The hike is relatively easy and the views are better than spectacular. If you visit Big Bend and are limited on time, then this is a must-do hike that will reward you with great views.

Fort Davis Drug Store Restaurant

Fort Davis, now a National Historic Site, was established in 1854 in the heart of the Davis Mountains. The site is one of the best surviving examples of a frontier military post built to protect mail carriers and travelers along the San Antonio Road.

After the Civil War, several regiments of Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to Fort Davis and served under the command of Second Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point. These soldiers served admirably and played a key role in keeping travelers safe.

The present-day town of Fort Davis surrounds the well preserved ruins of the old fort and is the county seat of Jeff Davis County. Situated on Limpia Creek at the intersection of State Highways 17 and 118, the town boasts beautiful views of the surrounding Davis Mountains.

The main drag is lined with quaint shops and a variety of eateries to satisfy every appetite. Flanked by the historic Hotel Limpia on one end and Stone Village Market on the opposite end, everything in between is stroll worthy. Shop owners are welcoming and super friendly.

After several days of hiking at Big Bend National Park and Davis Mountains State Park, my friend Doyle and I headed to the historic Fort Davis Drug Store for lunch. This cool restaurant features delicious made-from-scratch meals — including amazing desserts and a vintage 1950’s style ice cream soda fountain.

I ordered the Mile High Hamburger and added Pepper Jack cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickles and a side order of homemade onion rings. This burger features a one-third pound all-beef patty and is served on toasted Kaiser buns.

The patty was cooked to perfection, the bacon was more on the crispier side like I prefer, and the buns were slightly toasted and very fresh. From the first to the last bite, this burger was delicious. And the onion rings were the perfect compliment. So glad I ordered this burger. It was more than enough to fill me up and energize me for a final afternoon hike.

Fort Davis is off the beaten interstate path but definitely worth a visit, not just for the food, but for the shops and a look at the historic old fort. I look forward to returning on a future day trip from our place in Big Bend. I hope you will add Fort Davis to your future Texas road trip bucket list. You’ll be glad you did.

Sunsets and Stars at Big Bend

From ancient times, mankind has had a fascination with the sky and all things related to the heavens — a curiosity that is far less common today because we tend to spend our evenings indoors.

David, the young shepherd boy who became the most famous king of ancient Israel, spent much of his boyhood under the stars. His fascination with the heavens led him to write the eighth psalm in which he concluded that God placed a greater value on him than on any stars or planets in the cosmos.

When I was a much younger man, I explored the ancient paths of Machu Picchu, a lost city of the Incas, nestled high in the Andes Mountains. I learned about the profound knowledge these ancients had about the night skies. The Inca constructed many structures in harmony with what they understood about the heavens.

I have had the privilege of looking up at the heavens from locations around the globe far from the light pollution that robs so many of an unobscured view of the stars. I have spent hours gazing at the darkest skies in the world from Darfur to the steppes of Mongolia to vantage points high in the Himalayas.

The heavens are one of the reasons we started our off-grid adventure in Big Bend — a place that boasts some of the darkest skies in the United States. Big Bend is famous for its magnificent star-studded skies bisected by the visibly bright band of the Milky Way. There are no words. You have to experience these skies for yourself.

Every dark night in Big Bend is preceded by an explosion of colors as the moon chases the sun toward the welcoming western horizon. Sunsets in Big Bend are breathtaking and never — and I do mean never — disappoint. Each and every evening, the sun leaves its impermanent signature across the sky in ever-changing combinations of colors.

There is something good about contemplating the heavens and slowing down enough to watch the sunset introduce the night. We should all do more of this — looking up at the stars more than down at our feet and the mire of the moment. It’s hard not to dream or to smile or to breathe in wonder when we look at sunsets and stars. God gave us these gifts for a reason — so make the time to unwrap them. You will not be disappointed.

Shafter Ghost Town

The Lone Star State has more ghost towns than any other state in the Union, by some estimates as many as one-thousand.

Ghost towns are the decaying remains of yesterday’s progress — of what once was. Each ghost town has its unique story of a time when life coursed through its streets, nourishing homes and businesses and dreams.

People are the lifeblood of any community. But when circumstances force folks to leave behind a place that sustained them, then the pulse of that particular place weakens until its heartbeat can no longer be detected.

Shafter, once known as “the richest acre in Texas,” is just such a place — a ghost town slowly decaying among sagebrush and ocotillo at the east end of the Chinati Mountains in southern Presidio County. Located between Presidio and Marfa along US Highway 67, a handful of folks still live in the vicinity of Shafter.

As the story goes, a freighter turned prospector named John W. Spencer found silver ore in the Chinati Mountains in 1880. Spencer showed his find to Col. William R. Shafter, commander of the First Infantry Regiment at Fort Davis. Shafter had the sample assayed.

When Shafter learned that the sample showed small amounts of profitable silver, he wasted no time in recruiting two army friends to buy the land surrounding Spencer’s claim. However, because they lacked the technical expertise to mine the ore, they struck a deal with a California mining group in 1882.

The mining company then formed the Presidio Mining Company in 1883 and bought out the interests of Shafter and his friends, including Spencer. The mining company recruited Americans, Mexican citizens, and black Americans to work the mine.

The Presidio Mining Company provided housing, a company store, and a company doctor for mine workers — and so the town of Shafter was born. The town was granted a Post Office in 1885. Over the years the population of Shafter grew until it peaked at about 4,000 in 1940.

In 1942, the mining operation shut down for good because of labor disputes, lower grades of ore, flooding in the mines, and a depletion of silver reserves. Once that happened the population rapidly declined. By 1949, the population of the cemetery was far greater than the twenty or so folks who chose to remain in Shafter. In 1976, the Shafter Historic Mining District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, little remains in Shafter. The Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, established in 1888, is still in operation. Mass is celebrated there on the third Sunday of each month at 2:00 PM. The church is the only building in the area that has escaped the ravages of time.

A small museum housed in a cinder-block building is open to the public and features lots of old historic photos of Shafter through the years. It’s worth strolling through the history of this out-of-the-way place. Lots of interesting stuff here.

The Concordia Cemetery is worth a visit. Like the old cemetery in Terlingua Ghost Town, the names and dates on many of the grave markers have long since faded away.

The waters of Cibolo Creek trickle gently nearby, nourishing a ribbon of green through the stark desert landscape. Beyond the creek, a few homes remain where a population of 11 and maybe a few more folks have chosen to remain among the ruins of what once was the richest acre in Texas.

A Picnic Table in the Desert

I am convinced that food tastes better at the cabin.

Long before Cheryl and I pack the truck to make the long trek to our little off-grid cabin, we make lists. I make careful lists of projects and the supplies we will need to complete them. In the weeks prior to our trip I purchase those items and stockpile them in the garage.

One of the very best things about our time at the cabin is meal time. Cheryl plans all of our meals because I know absolutely nothing about cooking. She makes lists of the groceries we will buy in Katy and the remaining items that we will pick up in Alpine, just an hour from our cabin.

Our closest neighbors live a quarter mile south of us. We have enjoyed getting to know this family and make it a point to do a hot dog and hamburger cookout with them, complete with s’mores, every time we are at the cabin.

This little tradition prompted us to think about a picnic table. So, we bought a picnic table kit and paint — the official colors of the Texas flag. What I envisioned was a tabletop painted with blue and red with a white lone star smack dab in the middle.

We started by laying out all of the pieces and hardware. Then we painted all of the parts plus the underside of the tabletop and seats before assembling them. This step made things a lot easier - certainly much better than later crawling under the table with a paint brush.

Once assembled, we measured and marked the middle of the table and seats. We painted one side blue and the other red. The weather was perfect for painting. We had a little cloud cover and plenty of heat to quickly dry the paint.

Once the tabletop was dry, I marked out the lone star and outlined it with painters tape. The white star was the perfect finishing touch. Our table has Texas painted all over it. We really like it and can’t wait to invite the neighbors over later this week to officially inaugurate it with food and fellowship with friends.

One of the best things about being off-grid and outdoors is a good meal prepared on a campfire or camp stove and then sharing that meal with others. Our hope is that friends who stop by to visit, camp, and boondock will all enjoy delicious food and good fellowship around this table.

Blessings of the Off-Grid Lifestyle

I love the challenge of making off-grid living comfortable. Off-grid does not have to mean spartan or miserable. Off-grid is about harnessing alternative ways — like solar power or rain catchment — to provide for household needs in a setting far removed from the conveniences of the grid.

Cheryl and I are having a great time working on our off-grid cabin in the Big Bend of Texas. We have made the most of every trip over the past three-plus years of traveling to and from our little place — and it shows. We can now walk into our cabin and enjoy a very comfortable stay.

As we continue develop the property, we are now focusing on fencing our new adjacent tract to the north. We have added all of the cedar fence posts around the perimeter and are now adding t-posts between the cedar posts. Once this is done we will start stretching and securing the welded wire field fencing.

One of the things on our list this past week was to install a six-foot gate to give us more convenient access to our north tract. Our son Jonathan joined us for a couple of days and helped me install the gate. Cheryl and I are very happy to not have to walk the long way around to work on the north tract.

In addition to adding the new gate, Cheryl and I spent some time clearing fence line in order to add t-posts along our northern boundary line. Clearing brush is always tedious and hard but once it’s done sure makes it easier to drive t-posts — and later to stretch the rolls of field fencing.

We also took a day to dig out catchment basins around the mesquites on the north tract. Because the Chihuahuan Desert averages only about 12 to 14 inches of rain per year, we want to give the mesquites every advantage to capture and take long sips of water after a rain.

Cheryl asked me to add some clothes hooks in the bathroom — a place for hanging clothes at the end of the day. I was more than happy to oblige and scavenged through our container for leftover items to use. I found three hooks, leftover talavera tiles, and some lumber and trim and turned these into a nice little clothes bar. I enjoy doing these impromptu projects that don’t require a set of plans.

Our final project was to dig an experimental swale and line it with pea gravel to capture rain water. We hope to develop a micro-riparian ecosystem along the swale. Time will tell if this will help nurture some of the native grass and promote the growth of other native flora.

All things considered, we had another productive visit to the cabin. The good thing is that we do not have to do anything in a hurry — but we do have to do things right so that we don’t end up having to do them over again. Not getting in a hurry is also giving us time to enjoy reading, bird watching, going for drives, savoring the quiet, taking afternoon siestas, and enjoying the magnificent night skies — all blessings of the off-grid lifestyle.

Rest and Small Projects at the Cabin

Cooking on a propane cooktop is challenging. At least that’s what Cheryl tells me. But somehow, it really doesn’t matter if the pancakes are too crispy or if something ends up on our plates a little on the burnt side. We are convinced that everything just tastes better at the cabin.With every trip to our cozy little off-grid cabin in Big Bend we become more convinced that life is better at the cabin. There is something calming about being surrounded by mesas and mountains, chaparral and cactus, and a night sky overcrowded with stars.

Cheryl and I spent Spring Break at the cabin. Our goal was to rest, piddle around doing small projects, feed birds, worship at Terlingua Ranch Community Church, enjoy the company of friends, and eat at The Chili Pepper Cafe, our favorite Mexican food restaurant in Study Butte. I am happy to say that we did exactly that and enjoyed every minute.

On our list of small projects was to set some t-posts on our new tract, paint our 55-gallon utility water barrels black, and do a few other little things that have been at the bottom of our project list because they are not essentials, just preferences.


We spent part of an afternoon setting t-posts between our cedar posts on the new tract. We did the better part of the western side of the tract. Only four more t-posts to set on that side and we will be ready for the next step which is to stretch field fence topped by a strand of barbed wire.
I painted our utility rain barrels black so that they will absorb more heat during the day. We supply these barrels with rain water from our larger tanks behind the cabin. This is the water we use for hand washing, dish washing, drawing water for our bird watering stations, miscellaneous projects requiring water, and bathing. I also painted the base on which these barrels sit.

I spent another afternoon splitting firewood, something I have been wanting to do for a long time. I also reinforced our firewood rack and then re-stacked all of the newly split wood. We now have enough wood to last us for several visits. I also did a little maintenance work on our composting area and added a new light to our outdoor shower area.
Some friends stopped by to camp and to visit the national park. They could not have asked for better weather for hiking and exploring Big Bend. And the moonless nights made the night sky all the more dramatic. There is no way to explain the beauty of the night sky in Big Bend — you just have to experience it.
We live a short distance from Little Burro Country Store which is the closest place to pick up provisions. I made a quick run there to buy our favorite Mexican fruit popsicles and met Pam, one of the locals who stopped by on her horse. You can count on meeting interesting folks at the Little Burro. Pam owns the nearby Cactus Farm and the Greasewood Grocery Bed and Breakfast cabins.
We always enjoy arriving at the cabin and always feel a tinge of sadness as we drive away. But we are grateful for how God uses this place to refresh our souls and revive our spirits. It is always worth the 600-mile drive from our home in Katy to the vast expanses of Big Bend that still take our breath away.

Wild Burros at the Cabin

There are particular signs along Highway 118 between the Little Burro Country Store, one hour south of Alpine, and Study Butte near Terlingua Ghost Town that caution drivers to watch for burros.

Feral burros have a long history in the wide spaces of Big Bend. They are somewhat iconic and conjure images of rustic days gone by in the old west. Burros just look good on the Chihuahuan Desert canvas painted in the colors of creosote, ocotillo, and distant mesas and mountains.

When it comes to the burros of Big Bend, there are folks who hate, love, or just tolerate them. Those who dislike these braying equids argue that they cause damage to Big Bend’s ecosystem. Others say the opposite. Concerned about the impact of burros at Big Bend Ranch State Park, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is exploring non-lethal methods for removing or managing the wandering wild herds.
Earlier this month, I had my first close up look at the burros of Big Bend at my cabin. Near the end of a good day of working on projects, I looked to the South and noticed a herd of about 25 burros just outside our fence in the direction of Red Bluff. I walked over to the fence and just stood there enjoying the sight.

The burros hung around for a while and then wandered toward the road and moseyed north toward Legions Road. They stayed in the immediate area a couple of days. The next day I saw the burros hanging out near Jackass Flats where a few of their kin live on a fenced tract behind the Little Burro Country Store.

As for me, I weigh in on the side of liking the wandering desert burros. I say that strictly from a personal and not an environmental perspective. I will do more research and read both sides of the what-to-do-about-burros argument. In the meantime, I hope to see them again.