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.

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.

Atop Bush Mountain and Bartlett Peak

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located where the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert meets the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. The park is home to six of the seven named peaks in the Lone Star State that rise above 8,000 feet - including Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.

I solo-hiked to the top of Texas for the first time on December 2, 2014. The day was cold, the hike was strenuous, and the views were amazing. I spent half an hour in silence at the summit before heading back down to the Pine Springs Campground. In the years that followed, I returned three more times to the top of Texas.

After summiting Guadalupe Peak I knew I had to at least try to summit the remaining six named peaks higher than 8,000 feet. My buddy Doyle Lowry agreed to join me in pursuing this bucket list. Thus began our adventure to stand atop the highest peaks in Texas.

Earlier this month, Doyle and I returned to the Guadalupe Mountains to check two more peaks off the list — Bush Mountain and Bartlett Peak. In addition to Guadalupe Peak, we have summited El Capitan, the signature peak at the park, and Hunter Peak, our favorite overlook.
We secured our backcountry camping permit at the park headquarters and hiked up the Tejas Trail toward Bush Mountain. The Tejas Trail is a strenuous trail that starts at the Pine Springs Campground and leads to the Pine Top primitive camping area. The trail gains lots of elevation over this five mile section.

The Tejas Trail intersects with the trail that leads to the Bush Mountain primitive campsite located about two miles to the west of Pine Top primitive campground. This section is also strenuous with lots of ups and downs. Having to carry our water for three days on the mountain made the hike up even more challenging.

The primitive campsite on Bush Mountain is perfectly situated for a day hike to the top of Bush and a bushwhacking trek to neighboring Bartlett Peak. Once we set up camp we settled in for the night and rested for an early morning departure to Bartlett. We started with Bartlett because we knew it would take the most time.

At daybreak, we made our way to the southern edge of Bush to scout out the best bushwhacking route to the top of Bartlett. Once we agreed on our route, we started our descent into a valley that would then lead us to the ridge line we had chosen to take us to the summit. Make no mistake about it, bushwhacking is hard, especially on steep slopes with loose rock and some boulder scrambling mixed in.

The reward was worth the effort. As Doyle reached the top he discovered that our line had taken us directly to the ammo box containing the summit register. The views from Bartlett Peak are amazing. The summit overlooks Salt Flat to the West, New Mexico to the North, and Shumard and Guadalupe Peaks to the South.

We spent a little time at the top and then selected our route back to Bush Mountain. We decided on a different route back, one that took us down into to a beautiful ravine between the peaks. And then, we started the trek back up to Bush and our campsite. Once at our campsite we rested for twenty-minutes and then started up the trail that leads to the top of Bush Mountain.

This hike was a bit easier because we were on a trail and there was not a lot of elevation gain from our campsite the summit. The summit is carpeted in flowing grasses with stands of Ponderosa and Douglas Fir. Bush offers its own distinctive vistas from the summit — absolutely beautiful views of Pine Spring Canyon to the East and rugged formations to the North, looking toward New Mexico.

We were happy that we ticked off two more summits on our bucket list of seven. We only have Shumard remaining in this park and Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains. We will have to bushwhack our way up these two remaining peaks on our list.

The following morning we were up early and started our trek down the mountain using our headlamps. The sunrise was breathtaking. It took us about five hours to descend the 8-plus miles from our primitive campsite to the Pine Springs Campground. We wasted no time in stowing our gear and getting a sponge bath. Even a humble sponge bath was amazing after three days in the same clothes. We felt like new men!

We drove to Van Horn for Mexican Food at Chuy’s and then decided to drive the ten hours back to Katy instead of stopping at a motel along the way for a proper shower. We are happy to have shared this adventure and look forward to the next summit on our list of seven Lone Star summits.

✓ Guadalupe Peak | 8,749 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
✓ Bush Mountain | 8,631 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• Shumard Peak | 8,615 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
✓ Bartlett Peak | 8,508 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• Mount Livermore | 8,378 feet | Davis Mountains
✓ Hunter Peak | 8,368 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
✓ El Capitan | 8,085 feet | Guadalupe Mountains

Death in Big Bend

I love adventure.

Over the years, I have participated in amazing adventures from the Lone Star State to dozens of locations around the planet. I not only enjoy participating in adventures that make my heart race, I like everything about researching, planning, making lists, packing gear, and every little thing associated with preparing for a grand adventure.

I have made an agreement with myself to always make wise decisions when adventuring. In many cases, this means not venturing out alone because alone is dangerous. On a few occasions I have had to make the tough decision to turn around and head back in order to live to adventure another day.

More than once I have thought about Sir Ernest Shackelton, one of my adventure heroes. In 1908, he made the hard call to turn back when he was within reach of the South Pole. After assessing his situation, he determined that if he pressed on he would run out of food and die on the way back. He later wrote to his wife, “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”
I recently purchased a copy of “Death in Big Bend” by Laurence Parent. I spotted the book at a gift shop in Terlingua. I was immediately intrigued because, now that we have an off-grid cabin outside of Big Bend National Park, I am doing a bit more hiking at the park. The book is a collection of 17 stories of death and rescue in Big Bend National Park.

While most visitors to the park enjoy an incident-free vacation that becomes a memorable part of their adventure narrative, a few have not been so lucky. The stories in this book are well written and illustrate what can happen when only one small things goes wrong on an adventure. Once one thing gets misaligned, then it often triggers a series of other missteps that often lead to tragedy.
I recommend this as a must-read for any adventurer or anyone thinking about hiking at Big Bend National Park or Big Bend Ranch State Park. Too many times I have come across people on the trail who appeared ill-prepared, hiking miles from the trailhead with, at most, a 16-ounce bottle of water.

Once while hiking in McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas / New Mexico border, I came across a couple in serious need of water and nutrition. I had it and offered it freely. I recently wrote about what I carry in my day-hike backpack. I carry this little extra weight even on short day hikes just in case. I was able to help this couple on one of those just in case days.

The stories in the book are captivating. I could not put the book down once I started reading. Spoiler alert — most of these stories are heartbreaking but instructive. Some of those who got in trouble overestimated their abilities and underestimated the hostility of the Chihuahuan Desert, resulting in tragedy. In each case, just one small thing could have changed the equation to equal life instead of death.

Whether your adventures take you to Big Bend or other locations, I recommend reading this book. If nothing else, the stories will cause you to reevaluate your planning and to take a second look at your gear, your route, and your preparedness. I remain committed to careful planning lest I become the next story of death or rescue in Big Bend.

A Little More Progress at the Cabin

We are now a little more than two years into our off-grid adventure. If there is one thing that Cheryl and I have learned along the way it is that progress is made in small but intentional steps. This past week we took a few more small steps by working on projects both inside and outside the cabin.

My friend Doyle and I had scheduled an adventure to complete two more of the 8,000+ foot peaks in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. However, because of camping restrictions due to the pandemic we decided to reschedule that trip. Instead, Doyle agreed to help me get some work done at the cabin and also do day hikes at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

We started by installing the base cabinets on the kitchen end of the cabin. Cheryl and I purchased the cabinets and countertop at Lowe’s. A friend gave us the sink. The process was fairly easy. We had to add only a couple of shims to get the cabinets both level and plumb. We secured the cabinets and countertop in place and then cut the opening for the sink and dropped it in place.

I will add Lone Star themed drawer pulls after we paint the cabinets. We debated whether to stain or to paint the cabinets and have agreed to paint them — a bold Southwest color to be revealed soon. I will also add a faucet powered by an electric pump and plumb the sink to drain into a gray water jug. We will use the gray water to irrigate our trees.
Doyle also helped me to dig out rain catchment basins under fifteen of forty-something mesquite trees on the property. My hope is that by digging water catchment basins under the trees, extending from the trunk to the drip line, we can give them a little more advantage when the monsoon season returns in June.

Cheryl and I are in the process of photographing and identifying all of the trees, shrubs, and plants on the property. We are also nurturing the native grass in hope of seeing it thrive. And, we are doing some research on the birds in the area and what we can do to attract more birds. There are some pretty little birds in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Doyle and I set aside time to do some day hikes at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The park road just outside of Lajitas follows the Rio Grande River and is one of the most scenic drives in Texas. We followed this road from Lajitas to Presidio where we found a Mexican food place that was open and allowed us to eat on the porch.

We explored the Hoodoos, a cool place with a name that sounds like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The Hoodoos features some amazing natural formations and easy access to the river. The vistas from the Hoodoos are absolutely breathtaking.

We also hiked Closed Canyon. This hike reminded me of Petra in Jordan. The narrow canyon walls provide shade and cool breezes. The most important thing to keep in mind is when to turn around. As the canyon descends know your limits. Keep in mind that it is easier to scramble over a boulder and go down than its is to scramble up a boulder and go up.

I will write about the Hoodoos, Closed Canyon, Rancherias Canyon, and the Redford Cemetery in future posts and include plenty of pics. As I explore other hiking trails at Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park I will write about these adventures as well. Since our cabin sits between these two parks, this is now our big backyard. I have to explore!
And, of course, I have to say something about the Big Bend skies. We were privileged to see some amazing sunsets as well as one of the coolest moonsets ever — a little after six in the morning. We always look forward to the vast skies in the Chihuahuan Desert. They never disappoint.

Thanks for following our off-grid adventure.

Balanced Rock at Big Bend National Park

Balanced Rock is one of the most popular hiking destinations at Big Bend National Park. This geological feature is very cool and frames some of the most spectacular views in the park.

Balanced Rock is accessed by way of the Grapevine Hills Trail, an easy 2.2 mile out and back hike with an elevation gain of 80 feet. The trailhead is located approximately 6 miles off of Highway 118 down the Grapevine Hills road. Although this is a well-maintained dirt road, make sure that your vehicle has reasonable clearance.

This is a pleasant hike, especially in the morning or late afternoon. The trail winds its way through a little valley in the Grapevine Hills, featuring some of the most spectacular rock formations in the park. Take the time to enjoy the views and the varieties of desert flora along the way.

The final quarter mile leads up some boulders, so you will have to do a little scrambling — nothing too difficult. The trail ends at the Balanced Rock. From this point you will enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding area with the distinctive Nugent Peak off in the distance.

As with all hiking in Big Bend, be sure to take plenty of water and a trail snack. It’s always good to be prepared in case something unexpected happens along the way and you have to wait for help. And remember my hiking mantra: pace and place. Hike your pace and watch where you place your feet and you will have an enjoyable hike.

Mule Ears Peaks at Big Bend

The picturesque Mule Ears Peaks is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at Big Bend National Park. The twin pillars of black igneous rock that jut up from the desert floor are hard to miss.

The Mule Ears Spring trailhead is located at the end of a short spur off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The sign at the trailhead advises hikers to carry plenty of water — advice that should be heeded, especially in hotter months when temperatures can easily soar past the hundred-degree mark.

The Mule Ears Spring Trail is a moderate 3.8 mile roundtrip trek that winds through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains. The mostly rocky trail that leads to Mule Ears Spring skirts Trap Mountain and crosses several arroyos. The spring has created a desert oasis that nourishes thick stands of cottonwood trees, ferns, cattails, and a variety of desert shrubs.

Before arriving at the spring is a rock corral, a reminder of the resourcefulness of early sheep and cattle herders in the area. The corral is constructed of rock that was dry stacked and fitted together without the benefit of mortar. The fact that it still stands is amazing. If those stones could speak what wonderful stories they would tell about the challenges faced by early settlers to the area.

Mule Ears Spring is a turnaround point on the trail. However, you can hike through the vegetation and continue on a well-defined trail that leads ever closer to the peaks. The trail eventually leads to a bluff that offers absolutely spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert and the peaks.

The desert is rich with life and with beauty. You will enjoy the bigger views along the trail but don’t overlook the desert flora along the way — sotol, lechuguilla, yuca, ocotillo, and several species of cacti. The trail to Mule Ears Peaks is definitely worth adding to your day hiking itinerary on your next visit to Big Bend National Park.

The Window Trail at Big Bend

Beyond the Pecos River lies the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, that wide part of the state that boasts some of the most magnificent vistas in the Lone Star State. This is where the Rio Grande River makes a dramatic turn, giving Texas its distinctive and recognizable shape.

In the southernmost part of the trans-Pecos is Big Bend National Park, a place Lady Bird Johnson once described as “the very edge of the world.” Big Bend was established as a national park in June 1935. Encompassing 1,252 square miles of land, this national park is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

From the riparian region of the Rio Grande River to the rugged peaks of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend offers outdoor enthusiasts more than 150 miles of hiking trails. These avenues offer access to the amazing geography and geology of this region that is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and more than 600 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The Window Trail is one of the most popular treks in the park. This 5.2 mile roundtrip trail is an easy hike for anyone in reasonable shape. The trail begins near the Chisos Mountain Lodge and descends 800-feet over a 2 mile stretch to a magnificent overlook of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are places along the way to stop and rest or to just sit in silence and listen to the sounds of the breeze and the birds.

At one point the trail descends slightly into a streambed where the rocks have been polished smooth by the flow of water. Steps carved into the rocks make it easy to navigate this section of the trail that leads to the breathtaking overlook flanked by rugged cliffs.
I should note that the overlook drops 220 vertical feet to the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The rock at the overlook is slick, so you should exercise lots of caution and not get too close to the edge. If you happen to be there in the evening, this notch is a great place from which to watch the sunset.
There is a junction a quarter mile from the end of the Window Trail that leads to the Oak Springs Trail. It is worth hiking the section of this trail that ascends to a ridge that offers unobstructed views of the Chihuahuan Desert. The views from this ridge are truly breathtaking.

The Window Trail and Oak Springs Trail will not disappoint. It’s worth taking the time to add these short day hikes to any visit to the park. The views at the end of the Window Trail and from the ridge on the Oak Springs Trail make it worth every step.

A final word to anyone planning on hiking in Big Bend — please make sure that you read the signs at the respective trailheads. These signs will help you to get oriented, understand the time commitment required, and remind you to always take water with you (at the least).

I have seen far too many hikers on trails at the park who ventured out without water. It is important to stay hydrated and to be prepared in case of any unexpected injury or delay that might occur along the trail. That is just hiking smart.

If you have not visited Big Bend I encourage you to do so. It is well worth the drive from any place in the state or the nation.

Guadalupe Peak 4.0

I stood at the top of Texas for the very first time four years ago. In search of my next adventure, I had researched Guadalupe Peak and then set off to solo hike to the summit on a cold December morning. And what an amazing adventure it was!

I summited Guadalupe Peak a second time and then a third time after bushwhacking to the summit of El Capitan. Since I was in the neighborhood and so close to the peak, a buddy and I decided to go for the peak, a third summit for both of us.

This month, I led a group of men and boys from my church to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to do something hard. We drove six-hundred and fifty miles for the opportunity to stand at the top of Texas.

In preparation, I had told the group that hiking Guadalupe Peak is hard. The hike along the steep and winding trail to the top is rated as strenuous. I knew for a fact that it would not be any less strenuous for me on my fourth bid.
We met at the trailhead at 6:30 in the morning while temperatures were still tolerable. Huge amounts of excitement swirled in the morning breeze and mixed with bits of anxiety as we waited like race cars with engines revved high.

We took a moment to share final thoughts about our adventure, we prayed, and then we hit the trail. Every guy knew that the first mile and a half would be the hardest because of the steep elevation gain.
Like a brick wall, the first mile and a half stop those who are either unprepared or don’t want to summit badly enough. This is where we have to decide whether we are willing to push past the pain.

The heat only added to the difficulty. As the morning wore on the temperatures continued to creep higher until they inched past the hundred degree mark. Our bodies craved hydration and electrolytes and power bars.
Every man and boy quickly settled into his respective rhythm as they trudged up the trail, slowly eating away at the elevation. My hiking mantra on this particular trail is pace and place — maintain a steady pace and watch where I place my feet.

Every one of the guys hiked his own hike and just past mid-morning, we began to populate the summit and feast on the amazing views. I felt just as excited as the day on which I first solo hiked to the top of Texas.
Standing at the summit of Guadalupe Peak with an amazing band of brothers was worth every hard step along the way. This is something we did together — a shared adventure, a reminder that we must do life in community with other men because alone is dangerous.
One thing is certain, the guys on this adventure will always share a special bond. We made it to the top of Texas on one of the hottest days of the year. We watched out for and encouraged one another. We enjoyed great fellowship. And we did it as a band of brothers.

If you are in search of adventure and in good physical condition, consider a trek to the top of Texas. This is one of the coolest bucket-list adventures in the Lone Star State. Although the hike is hard, the reward is worth it. Do your research. Hike prepared. Push past the pain. Enjoy the view.

Salt Basin Dunes

Immediately west of the towering escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains lies an other-worldly landscape. The Salt Basin Dunes rise modestly above the surrounding salt flats, the remnants of an ancient sea. These dunes of snow-white gypsum are formed by the collaborative artistry of the winds and the white sands of the salt flats.

The process is not entirely complicated. When the winds whip across the salt flats they pick up tiny crystals of gypsum. When these airborne grains slam against the western wall of the Guadalupe Mountains they are deflected upward and then fall back to earth to form the undulating landscape of the Salt Basin Dunes.
From the top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, the salt flats seem strangely out-of-place in the otherwise desert-looking landscape. They have the appearance of snow blanketing the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The sight of the salt flats from Guadalupe Peak is quite spectacular and beckons exploring.
The Salt Basin Dunes are a part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park and are accessible by ranch roads not far from Dell City. This day use area offers access to the salt dunes by way of a two-plus mile hike. Because this is a delicate ecosystem, visitors should stay on the trail and not break the fragile cryptobiotic crust beyond the trail. This thin crusty topsoil is essential for preventing erosion, producing soil nitrogen, and stabilizing the soil for vegetation to take hold. So, don’t bust the crust!
The dunes themselves are pretty spectacular. Although this seems to be the most inhospitable of environments, animal tracks in the sand indicate the presence of nocturnal animal activity.  Various desert plants also accentuate the stark white dunes. Yucca, cholla, cactus, and various grasses have staked their claim to life on these shifting dunes.

While the view of the dunes is beautiful from atop Guadalupe Peak, the view of Guadalupe Peak is awe-inspiring from the dunes. You can, in fact, see five of the seven named peaks in Texas that rise over 8,000 feet. From north to south you can see Bush Mountain, Bartlett Peak, Shumard Mountain, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan keeping vigil over the dunes.

Regardless of when you visit the Salt Basin Dunes be sure to carry more water than you think you’ll need, a snack or two, and sunscreen in your day-hike bag. Stay on the trail. Have fun exploring the dunes. Take lots of pics. Take a moment to stop and enjoy the silence of the desert. Look toward the east and breathe in the beauty of the Guadalupe Mountains. And, leave no trace but your footprints in the sand.