Big Bend is Better Than Ever
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Laurence Parent
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here’s the latest scoop on how to drive the back roads, run the Rio Grande, and discover secret hikes you won’t find on the map, plus other ways to get the most out of your trip to Texas’ greatest treasure.
DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres–1,250 square miles–of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor. But more life flourishes here than you can imagine: 75 species of mammals, including black bear, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 450 species of birds, and at least 1,200 identified species of plants, a list that is still being expanded. And just about every one of these living things can either stick, sting, or bite you.
Isolation is one of Big Bend’s greatest appeals. Leave your cell phone behind; it won’t work here unless you climb to the top of Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 feet–and the last 25 involve scrambling up an extremely steep slope. Walk into the desert a few hundred feet and you will find yourself wrapped in solitude and silence. Big Bend is still the Wild West, the place where you will discover just how big Texas can be.
Big Bend is our park. About two thirds of the 330,000 visitors each year are Texans. The number ought to be higher: Every Texan should go to Big Bend at least once as an essential step to achieving total Texanhood. The park is so big, however, that–whether you are a newcomer or a veteran–you will have a lot of questions about what to see and do. Fortunately, I know the answers.
How does Big Bend compare with the best national parks? It ranks alongside Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon as one of this nation’s great wildernesses, with scenery that no other national park can match-a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert; its own mountain range, the Chisos; forests of pine, oak, maple, and fir; a river that has carved out three sheer canyons more than a thousand feet deep; colorful badlands; an even more colorful history, featuring banditos, murders, military maneuvers, ranching, and mining; and in international border that you can cross without going through checkpoints.
I’ve never been to Big Bend. What can I see in a weekend? A long weekend, I hope. You can get a feel for the place in two days. Just stick to the pavement and a couple of improved dirt roads. Plan to spend one day on the east side of the park and the other on the west side. Paved roads lead from the park headquarters at Panther Junction around the Chisos and down to the Rio Grande on both sides of the park. Of the two routes into the park, one from the north via Persimmon Gap and the other from the west via the settlement of Study (pronounced “Stoo-dee”) Butte, the northern route is shorter and better, with good roadside interpretive exhibits about the desert.
The tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks at Ernst Tinaja. Photograph by Laurence Parent
Begin your exploration of the park by taking the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, a seven-mile drive over a dirt road that is suitable for a sedan. Pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents from a metal stand on the side of the road and watch for the nineteen numbered signs that explain the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert–ubiquitous creosote bushes, ground-hugging lechuguilla, and as the elevation gradually increases, sharp-toothed sotol. As you approach the mountains, the road swings northward behind a ridgeline, and you enter a forest of giant dagger yuccas, many of which stand seven to eight feet tall.
The visitors center at Panther Junction is situated against the north face of the Chisos. Inside, a giant relief map of the park will give you a sense of the topography and the road network. Outside, a short walking path identifies a number of desert plants.
Continue down the east side of the park until you reach the spur to Dugout Wells, once the site of the schoolhouse for the ranching families who lived here. An easy high-desert hike, about half a mile round-trip, winds through desert scrub to an oasis. As you resume your drive, the elevation drops on the way to the Rio Grande, and the desert loses its lushness. The ruins of Hot Springs Resort, built by a dreamer named J. 0. Langford in 1910, are at the end of a two-mile dirt road, and a quarter-mile hike leads to the springs themselves. Sit on the foundation of the bathhouse and enjoy the healing waters. Pictographs painted in red on the low-hanging rock along the path are testament to previous Indian occupation of the springs.
Past Rio Grande Village, a popular campground with a store where you can get snacks, prefab sandwiches, and drinks, the road ends at a parking area for Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande. Here you can hike into the canyon along a trail about three quarters of a mile long that climbs and descends a hill. Now it’s time to retrace your route to Panther Junction and head west to the Chisos Basin. The turnoff, three miles west of the park headquarters, heads U I) Green Gulch through open Chihuahuan Desert to an elevation of 5,679 feet before dropping a couple of hundred feet into the basin. This sheltered area is the most scenic spot in the park that is reachable byroad, an elevated grassland plain ringed by the peaks of the Chisos on all sides, rising 2,000 feet above the basin. To the west opens a giant V-shaped gash in the mountains called the Window, a drainage for storm runoff from the basin.
Take the Window View Trail, which is level, paved, and short (one third of a mile) to appreciate the grandeur surrounding you. The most noticeable features are flat-topped Casa Grande, elevation 7,325 feet, and the rock spires of Pulliam Ridge. These are remnants of magma that penetrated through volcanic strata eons ago. When the less resistant rock eroded, the spires were left. The basin has the only lodging and restaurant facilities in the park-both at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a no-frills motel. Next to the lodge is a well-stocked store, a good place to get groceries, film, flashlights, and first-aid sundries. The lodge is usually booked well in advance for the spring but is available in summer and after New Year’s.
For day two, head west on the main park road to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a thirty-mile paved road that winds down to Santa Elena Canyon. Unlike the east side of the park, where the formations are largely limestone, the west side of the park is wilder and strewn with surprises-reflective of volcanic activity that tossed around rocks and boulders millions of years ago. The road climbs and drops as it passes by strange formations like Mule Ears Peak and butte-topped Cerro Castellan. Highlights worth pulling over for include the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, once the home of an exceptionally wise steward who eked out a decent living off the land without ruining it; Tuff Canyon, where white globules of extruded lava compose one bizarre scenario; and Castolon, in the shadows of the Sierra Ponce in Mexico, where a former military barracks has been refashioned into a convenience store.
The Chisos Mountains, viewed from Lost Mine Trail at first light. Photograph by Laurence Parent
From here the road parallels the river upstream for eight miles to Santa Elena Canyon. Don’t miss the three-quarters-of-a-mile-long trail into the canyon; if you take only one hike in Big Bend, this is it. You will have to cross Terlingua Creek, which could be dry, sandy, muddy, or wet, so come prepared with old walking shoes. The stunning beauty of sheer 1,500-foot walls hovering above the Rio Grande is as dramatic and ,grandiose a vista as you’ll encounter at close range in the American West. Head out of Santa Elena on Old Maverick Road, a thirteen-mile improved dirt route through eroded badlands that is a shortcut to the park’s western entrance and Study Butte. Ordinary passenger cars should have no difficulty here. Hightail it to the Terlingua ghost town, seven miles west of Study Butte, and participate in one of the Big Bend’s great social events-sitting on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, shooting the breeze, and sipping a cool one while watching the setting sun bathe the Chisos Mountains in ever-changing shades of golden light.
If I want to see the backcountry, do I need an SW with four-wheel drive? Most of the 157 miles of unpaved roads inside the park can be driven in a high-clearance vehicle without four-wheel drive. Some back roads are suitable for a carefully driven passenger car. Four-wheel drive is likely to be necessary only after a major rain. Road conditions are posted at the park visitors centers; it pays to read them before heading off the pavement. If you have any doubt, ask a ranger. And make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and a fully inflated spare tire. Just remember, if anything goes wrong, you will be marooned in the desert, separated from the nearest heavily traveled road by miles of unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and your cell phone is useless.
The three most popular back roads in the park are the Glenn Spring and Old Ore roads, on the east side of the park, and River Road, on the south side. River Road is the longest, most remote drive in the park, stretching east to west for 51 miles, from near Hot Springs to near Castolon. This all-day drive is filled with side routes and historic sites such as the works of the former Mariscal mercury mine. A little bit of everything passes for a roadbed–fine sand, rough gravel, packed dirt, hardened mud, pure bedrock–but despite several bumpy stretches, I never had to engage the four-wheel drive on my last trip. River Road is best enjoyed driving west to east to catch the play of sunlight on the banded limestone face of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico in the afternoon and soak your feet in the Hot Springs at the end of a long day’s journey.
Glenn Spring Road is much shorter (around ten miles) and easier than River Road. It leaves the pavement on the eastern side of the Chisos and heads west and south to the site of a candelilla wax factory and settlement that was raided by Mexican banditos in 1916, leaving four Americans dead. A scattering of lumber from an old corral is about all that’s left of Glenn Spring. The other attraction of Glenn Spring Road is the Pine Canyon spur, a six-mile route out of the desert into the more thickly vegetated lower slopes of the Chisos. Look back and see just how high you’ve climbed. Then you can hike the steep two-mile trail up the canyon, where you will find Arizona pine and bigtooth maple before ending at the bottom of a seasonal waterfall that is one of the more sublime places in the park.
Old Ore Road, a historic route once used to haul quicksilver from the river to Marathon, stretches for 26 miles on the eastern side of the park between the Dagger Flat road and Rio Grande Village. The northern part of the loose-gravel track is flatter and straighter, the southern half considerably rougher with more climbs, drops, twists, and turns. If you’re going to attempt to drive the entire road, budget at least four hours, including stops. Or you can enter from the south and drive five miles to the campsite number one spur road leading to Ernst Tinaja, one of the most photographed sites in Big Bend. A tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks carved out of a canyon by periodic flooding, with a water hole at the bottom, the tinaja is a half-mile walk from the parking area along a dry wash.
Can I get on the Rio Grande? There’s no better way to appreciate Big Bend than to traverse its three great canyons. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande is suffering from a 25-year decline because of demand for its water upstream in Texas, so it’s adios to those fancy guided raft trips with gourmet chefs and string quartets. Accomplished paddlers can still do the canyons in canoes or kayaks. The current is so close to nonexistent that outfitters are recommending that paddlers start at the east end of Santa Elena Canyon and go upstream three miles to Fern Canyon before turning back, a trip that can still take a good half a day or longer, with some dragging required in shallow spots. But by hooking up with Jack Kinslow–like me, an advanced paddler, who I met in Terlingua–I was able to do the entire nineteen-mile run through Santa Elena Canyon over the course of a long day. Despite encountering a few stretches where we had to drag our canoe, the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in Texas made it worthwhile. Next time, I’ll paddle the first ten miles from the put-in at Lajitas to the canyon entrance, then camp overnight before finishing the rest of the trip. You haven’t seen Big Bend until you’ve paddled Santa Elena.
Seldom-seen Cattail Falls, near Oak Creek Springs.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
It’s a shorter ten-mile paddle through Mariscal, the least visited of the park’s three canyons. But the logistics are considerably trickier, since the put-in at the Talley campground and the take-out at the Solis campground are two hours or more from the nearest pavement via River Road. I managed to run Mariscal in a single day by hiring a shuttle and a guide, but the wiser (though more expensive) approach is to camp out at Talley overnight. The guide tipped me onto the Hippie Hermit Cave at the end of Tight Squeeze rapid, a point of interest marked by a peace sign etched into a boulder on the Mexican side. We hiked up the canyon slope, rummaged around, and found a rock shelter that had once been occupied by “Yogan from Broken Knife, Texas.” Boquillas Canyon has enough water to float, its flow recharged by the hot springs around the Mexican village of Boquillas. But even strong paddlers will have a tough time doing the winding 33-mile course in two full days.
How do I get to Mexico, and what can I do there? Two villages are across from main areas of the park–Boquillas del Carmen, on the east side, and Santa Elena, on the west side. To go to Boquillas del Carmen, look for the turnoff after the tunnel on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon, park your car, walk a hundred yards down a path to the river, and pay the man in the battered little aluminum rowboat $2 a person for a roundtrip ferry ride to another country. It’s about a mile walk into the village of 125 inhabitants, though for a few dollars more, you can ride a burro or hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town. The only cafe is Falcon’s, where a buck buys either three bean burritos or three cheese taquitos, which you can wash down with cold soda or beer. A curio shop is next door, a cantina a little farther down the dusty path, and the Buzzard’s Roost bed-and-breakfast, celebrated in Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” at the end of the road. Boquillas has no electricity or phone service, but it does have the quaintness of a spaghetti western movie set. A hot springs is on the Mexico side less than a mile upstream from the crossing. Boquillas is the only restaurant option on the east side of the park. Otherwise, order box lunches at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant the previous night or see what’s available at the convenience store at Rio Grande Village.
West of Castolon, a sign on the road to Santa Elena Canyon marks the turnoff to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Once again, park your car and look for a man in a battered boat. He will row you across for $2 a person round-trip. The community of 250 on the opposite bank lacks the quaintness of Boquillas but compensates with amenities such as electricity, a paved sidewalk on one side of the main dirt road, a small museum inside the local primary school, and a concrete plaza of which Soviet architects would have been proud. You have your choice of three cafes, each with a more extensive menu than was offered in Boquillas, with entrees priced around $5 a plate. The green-chile enchiladas at El Ca–on were as good as it gets on either side of the river. The fare at Maria Elena’s, down the street, has more fire because she uses jalape–os instead of the milder chiles verdes. Horses on the Mexican side can be rented at the river crossing for $5 to $30 an hour, depending on what the market will bear. Like Boquillas, Santa Elena lacks telephones, medical facilities, and a border checkpoint.
I’ve driven all over the park on my previous trips, and I’ve done all the short walks. What are the best hikes for someone who doesn’t jog or work out at the gym every day? If you’re unsure of your capability, start in the Chisos Basin. It’s cooler because of the higher elevation and the trails are relatively flat. Two good trails are the 1.6-mile Basin Loop, which climbs around 350 feet-enough for a splendid view through the Window to the desert far below-before returning to the basin, or the 5.2-mile Window Trail. This is a great sunset hike, and you can shave off more than a mile of the distance and around half of the eight-hundred-foot drop in elevation by starting at the campground rather than by the lodge.
For a more substantial test, try the popular Lost Mine Trail, which begins at mile mark 5 on the basin road at 5,679 feet. Chances are you won’t find the legendary silver mine that gives the trail its name, but if you do the two-mile roundtrip up to the first saddle, you will discover the most accessible high-country vista in Big Bend. If you’re up for more, continue for 1.4 more miles along a ridgeline passing by Texas madrone, gnarly oaks, and pi–on pines en route to a promontory at 6,850 feet. From trail’s end you can see Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and the East Rim of the Chisos. (Warning: The eastern side of the upper Chisos complex, including Casa Grande, the upper part of the Lost Mine Trail, and the Southeast Rim, is now closed and will not reopen to hikers until mid-July, after the nesting season for the rare peregrine falcons who reside here in summer months.)
Chisos Mountains on the western edge of the basin.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
The desert offers two easy walking hikes. One is a mile round-trip through flat, brushy terrain from a parking area to the Burro Mesa Pouroff This is a good introduction to how empty and isolated the desert is. Another is the Grapevine Hills trail, reachable by the unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The 2.2-mile walk through a valley full of granite boulders follows a sandy wash, then climbs slightly to a pass. The payoff, about a hunched yards ahead, is a balanced-rock formation that seems to defy the laws of physics.
Hiking is the ideal way to see Big Bend, but it is also the best way to understand how dangerous Big Bend can be. People die here. Always carry plenty of water and wear hats and clothing that offer protection from the sun, especially when hiking on the desert. Hiking in the high country carries its own set of risks. Signs warning about black bears and mountain lions, both of which occupy the high country, should be taken seriously. Three years ago a woman and her three young girls were stalked by a mountain lion for about fifteen minutes near the waterfall in Pine Canyon. Talk to a ranger before attempting a hike that you think may test your capabilities or your knowledge of how to deal with life-threatening situations.
I’ve been to Big Bend many times, and I’ve already done everything you have suggested. Isn’t there something more? The South Rim of the Chisos, at the lip of a 2,500-foot drop to the desert floor, has the best view in Texas: a panorama of the entire Big Bend where the eye can easily follow the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena Canyon, going through Mariscal Canyon, and on to Boquillas Canyon, where it disappears. This strenuous day hike is at least thirteen miles byway of Laguna Meadow, longer if you choose to return byway of other high Chisos trails, such as Boot Canyon and Pinnacles.
You say you’ve done that too? Okay, try the Mariscal Canyon Rim hike. It’s 6.6 miles round-trip from the road to the Talley campsites, with a steep last mile or so before you reach the overlooks for the canyon. This hike is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season and inadvisable for the rest of the summer because there is no shade. Watch out for crumbling rock near the rim.
A little-known trek to Mesa de Anguila, in the westernmost corner of the park near Lajitas, will reward you with a view into the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This vaguely marked fourteen-mile round-trip hike passes through rough open country with a network of trails and is not for inexperienced hikers. Check in at the front desk of the Lajitas resort for a free shuttle through the golf course to the trailhead-and make sure you’re packing plenty of water.
Any hike in the Dead Horse Mountains will put you to the test. All are far from roads and without water. Park literature warns that you need a good working knowledge of a map and a compass and that trails “disappear, reappear, cross other trails, and wind along washes and through mazes of thick, thorny growth.” The Strawhouse Trail leaves the Boquillas Canyon road and follows a drainage basin for fourteen miles before joining the trail to Telephone Canyon, named for a telephone line built by Army engineers during the Mexican Revolution because of the threat of raids by Pancho Villa.
I haven’t attempted to explore the Dead Horse Mountains, nor have I tried Mesa de Anguila, but I am inspired by the route designed by Craig Pedersen, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, who has walked across the entire park. The 95-mile stroll from Adams Ranch, just east of the park, through Telephone Canyon and the Dead Horse Mountains, all the way to Lajitas, took five and a half days and required carrying a seventy-pound backpack and fourteen topographic maps. Food and water supplies had to be stashed in advance in three locations. Still, Pedersen calls it “the best walk of my life.”
Another ambition of mine is to float all three canyons inside the park in a single trip-which can be done in about a week-though the flat stretches between the canyons offer no respite from the sun or the heat during warmer months. Every winter, a handful of advanced river runners attempt the two-hundred-plus miles from Colorado Canyon, west of the park, to the take-out on the Lower Canyons run well east of the park near Dryden. It’s one of the longest, least encumbered-by-civilization river trips in the entire United States.
I’m also looking forward to attempting the big three-day, two-night Three-In-One adventure that Desert Sports concocted for some clients, beginning by hiking from the basin up to the South Rim to camp out the first night, then down to the desert via Juniper Canyon on the second day, where a “sag wagon” awaits with mountain bikes. We will ride down Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads to camp by the river at Talley before paddling canoes through Mariscal Canyon.
The Giant yuccas at Dagger Flat.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
Black Gap Road itself is an adventure that few attempt. It connects Glenn Spring to River Road over an ill-defined, rocky eight-and-a-half-mile track that is the only official back road in the park that is not maintained. Another lightly traveled back road is the forty-mile drive at the north end of the park near Persimmon Gap that winds west along the base of the Rosillos Mountains into Terlingua Ranch and, eventually, Texas Highway 118 north of Study Butte.
I’ve heard that there are secret places that park personnel don’t want you to know about. Is it true?
It’s true. They’re off the map because they’re so fragile that too many visitors would ruin them. Ask around. Locals and parkies (park employees) know many prime spots not mentioned in the guidebooks (did someone say Cattail Falls?) but generally don’t spill to outsiders. A parkie told me about Indian Head Springs, a little-hyped destination reached by taking the dirt road behind the Big Bend Motor Inn in Study Butte for a couple of miles to a parking area that is outside the park boundary. A trail leads past the boundary fence to a field of boulders strewn about the base of a mountain that have more Indian pictographs than any other site in the park. One veteran allowed that one of his favorite hikes is from the basin to the Window, then down a winding, precarious one-thousand-foot vertical descent to Oak Creek Springs and back up again. An easier way to get to see the springs is to take the unmarked dirt road opposite the turnoff to Sam Nail Ranch on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, then hike a level mile to the springs. Step gingerly, though. This is an extremely sensitive ecosystem.
You could also study topo maps and et your own course. Wherever there are springs, something interesting will be nearby. Big Bend is all about discovery. It took me more trips than I could count before I finally “got” Elephant Tusk, understood why the Rosillos are called the Rosillos, and located the landmark known informally as the Tired Backpacker. I’ve been coming to Big Bend ever since I was a kid, and every single trip I learn something new. There are not too many places left in this world where you can do that.
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 24, 2003
"Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the pop hit by Peter, Paul and Mary, may have put the romance in flying. But despite all the nonstops from D/FW Airport to just about anywhere in the world, and as appealing as Machu Picchu on the Same Day sounds, truth is I have neither the money nor the time, much less the patience, to play that fantasy out.
My song is “Sixty Minute Man,” the doo-wop classic recorded by Billy Ward & His Dominoes 52 years ago. I’m not that kind of 60-minute dude (I wish!) but a 60-minute man when it comes to getting away. Give me the road trip that’s brief and close to home.
Unfortunately, sticking to the Dominoes’ theory by getting away in an hour or less around these parts is a real challenge. You can blow an hour in traffic alone and still be stuck inside the city limits.
Avoid rush-hour traffic, leave from the right part of the sprawl, and most important, head in the right direction, and you’ll find the ideal version of Texas, exotic nooks and crannies that are way, way out there, all reachable in LensCrafters time.
Disclaimer: Our 60-minute man assumes no responsibility for speeding tickets caused by trying to get to where you’re going within the officially designated time limit. Don’t rush it.
Twenty-eight miles south of Dealey Plaza is about the most perfect small town in Texas, an opinion shared by dozens of film crews that have used Waxahachie, its gingerbread homes and the surrounding countryside as stage sets. Bob Phillips even stages his annual Texas Country Reporter festival here.
DMN FILE 2002
The Ellis County Courthouse is the centerpiece of downtown Waxahachie.
The 15-block downtown clustered around the majestic Ellis County Courthouse is a mega-flashback, including the meticulously restored, 91-year-old historic Rogers Hotel, a working soda fountain (Weezer’s Classic Cup) and fancy dining choices (LaPrelle, Emory’s Bistro).
Check the Webb Gallery for Venzil Zatoupil’s toothpick sculpture of a Ferris wheel (constructed with 9,900 toothpicks and 140 chopsticks) and an excellent array of other folk art.
Stop in at the Ellis County Museum on the corner of the square for driving-tour directions to places that appeared in such films as Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful, Places in the Heart and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” music video.
From Waxahachie, it’s a 15-minute drive west on FM66 – which, for romantic purposes, will be referred to as Texas Route 66 – to Maypearl, through a rolling countryside where tract homes are beginning to pop up, the kind of setting that so intrigued David Byrne when he filmed True Stories, the quirky paean to specialness, around Dallas.
Casting director Carla James says Maypearl “may be the most beautiful place on earth in the spring.” The wide open spaces hold up pretty well, too. The reward at the end of the road is a real, honest comfort meal at the Busy Bee Cafe, a classic chat ‘n’ chew where CFS on Mondays for lunch is $5.75 with tea and dessert. The Busy Bee is now open on some evenings, and on weekends there’s music by touring Texas singer-songwriters at the Back of the Bee.
Head home by taking FM157 north from Maypearl to Venus, 10 miles away. The old bank on the corner of the humble rectangle that passes for the town square and part of the covered sidewalk on the main street were used as a backdrop when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were playing Texas’ most notorious bank-robbing couple in the film Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.
Rogers Hotel: 100 N. College St., Waxahachie. 972-938-3688 or 1-800-556-4192. www.rogershotel.com
Webb Gallery: Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. 209-211 W. Franklin, Waxahachie. 972-938-8085. www.webbartgallery.com
Ellis County Museum: Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. 201 S. College St., Waxahachie. 972-937-0681.
Busy Bee Cafe: Mondays through Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., also Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Fridays from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. 301 N. Main St., Maypearl. 972-435-8222.
OFF-ROADING A CONVERSATION AWAY
Sure, that Hummer may look like a tank and act like a rugged off-road vehicle on a four-lane superslab. But has it really ever been deep in the mud or crawled up a pile of rocks? Put that big-wheeler hog or jimmied Jeep to the test at Tim McGill’s AGR Wheelin’ Ranch. The street-legal off-road ranch is 69 miles northwest of Denton and the Interstate 35 split. Overnight at the Nocona Hills Motel and Campground or the Nocona Inn.
AGR Wheelin’ Ranch: Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays by appointment. Take I-35 north to Gainesville, go west on U.S. Highway 82 for about 30 miles, go right on FM1815 until it dead ends, go left on FM1956, right on FM3301, then enter the Nocona Hills gate on the left. $20 a day for vehicle and driver, $5 for each additional passenger. 214-435-7196. www.agrwheelinranch.com.
Nocona Hills Campground and Motel: FM3301, then left on Nocona Drive, left on Country Club Drive, Nocona. 940-825-3445 (campground) and 940-825-3161 (motel).
Nocona Inn: 219 Clay St., Nocona. 940-825-8800.
HIGH ROLLING ON THE LONE STAR SAVANNA
Glen Rose, about an hour southwest of downtown Fort Worth, used to be known for its outstanding examples of petrified wood architecture and the dinosaur tracks in the bed of the Paluxy River. These days, it’s a nature hub, beginning with Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, part drive-through zoo and part breeding and research facility for native, exotic, threatened and endangered wildlife including giraffes, rhinos, zebras and wolves. Self-guided tours ($16.95) and behind-the-scenes guided tours ($35, $25 for kids) are fun, but overnights in the Lodge or the Foothills Safari Camp, inspired by lodges in Kenya, are dreamy.
Hunters and nonhunters gravitate up the road to Rough Creek Lodge, an even higher-end rustic luxury lodge that features upland bird, deer, and hog hunting, fly fishing, bird watching and fine dining.
On the same road is Dr. Rickey Fain’s Quail Ridge Ranch, a more intimate five-room version of Rough Creek, with a main lodge, upland bird hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and gourmet meals. The ranch is a showcase of sound stewardship, with the land restored to its native condition of more than 100 years ago.
Hico, 20 more miles down State Highway 220, is about as Western as a Western town can get in these parts, with saddle shops, a Billy the Kid Museum (the outlaw William H. Bonney allegedly hid out here and died an old man) and Dublin Dr Pepper served at better establishments.
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: Daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Three miles southwest of Glen Rose just off U.S. Highway 67. $16.95, $12.95 seniors 62 and up, $10.95 children 4-11. All ages half-price on Wednesdays. 254-897-2960. www.fossilrim.com.
The Lodge at Fossil Rim and the Foothills Safari Camp: Inside the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose. 254-897-2960.
Rough Creek Lodge Executive Conference Center Retreat & Resort: Take Highway 67 west through Glen Rose. Take a left on County Road 2013, about 12 miles outside of Glen Rose, then go about four more miles and look for the signs. 254-965-3700. www.roughcreek.com.
Quail Ridge Ranch: 1755 County Road 2013, 13 miles outside of Glen Rose. 1-866-897-3618. www.quailridgeranch.com.
RUN FOR THE BORDER
IRWIN THOMPSON / DMN
Check out Oklahoma’s recently upgraded WinStar Casino.
OK, the WinStar Casino in Oklahoma isn’t Vegas, much less Ciudad Acuña. Then again, Acuña isn’t Acuña anymore. And it isn’t Bossier City, La., either. What the Chickasaw Nation’s former Touso Ishto bingo is, is a long hour’s drive from downtown Dallas, half the distance to the Louisiana line, which translates into more quality time when you get there to fritter away whatever coinage you’ve brought with you.
The recently expanded and upgraded 110,000-square-foot layout has two spacious casinos with more than 1,000 slotlike video lottery terminals operating bingo, poker and eight-liner-type games, as well as off-track betting, a mega-buffet, an upscale restaurant specializing in Southwestern cuisine and a theater bringing in “name” talent (Jimmy “JJ” Walker!).
What WinStar doesn’t have is booze. No alcohol is served. To compensate, save enough running change to motor north up Interstate 35 to Exit 24 for a suite, cottage or floating cabin at Lake Murray State Park and Resort and throw yourself a party.
WinStar Casino: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning. I-35 north to Exit 1, near Thackerville, Okla. 580-276-4229. www.winstarcasinos.com.
Lake Murray State Park and Resort: I-35 north to Exit 24, go east two miles to the park, which is just north of Thackerville. 1-800-257-0322 or 580-223-6600.
Stop obsessing over the St. Augustine, Bermuda and bent grass and get out in real nature. Just east of Greenville, 60 miles northeast of downtown Dallas, is the Paul Mathews Prairie Nature Preserve, a pristine meadow of grasses that were here before people were. The prairie’s good earth has never been broken by a plow and is one of the last remnants of the once vast, 12 million-acre Texas Blackland Prairie, a surviving chunk of wild America in a region that’s been otherwise tamed or paved over.
See what Spanish explorers and early pioneers were talking about when they described grass as high as a horse’s belly. The sweep of the sea of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass waving in the wind is downright exhilarating. In springtime, the prairie is about as close to heaven as you can get in Hunt County.
Paul Mathews Prairie Nature Preserve: From the U.S. Highway 69 junction in Greenville, go west on U.S. Highway 380 for 4 1/2 miles, then north on FM903 for two miles, west on County Road 1116, then west two miles to County Road 1119. Look for the wood sign marking the prairie. (There’s no parking lot or building, just the meadow.) For more information or directions, call the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 903-455-1510.
This Athens may not be in another country, but to scuba divers, it’s close enough. Until recently, they had to settle for Possum Kingdom northwest of Mineral Wells or Lake Travis near Austin for some semblance of diving clarity, if they couldn’t make it to Cozumel for the gin-clear stuff.
That was before Calvin and Shannon Wilcher and their son Alex took a 7.5-acre spring-fed quarry six blocks from the town square and 70 miles southeast of downtown Dallas and salted it with underwater wrecks including singer Ray Price’s first touring bus and a Lockheed C-140 Jet Star. They constructed entry docks and a full-service dive shop and let the 35-foot visibility (sometimes ranging up to 70 feet) do the rest. The result is Athens Scuba Park, an unexpected haven for divers and swimmers, with scuba instruction, RV hookups and overnight camping.
Next up to take the underwater plunge: A Dallas DART bus will become the newest attraction when it’s pulled into the water on Nov. 1.
East of the scuba park is another water attraction tailored for the rod-and-reel crowd, the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. The Texas Parks & Wildlife’s tribute to fishing includes a Fishing Hall of Fame museum; replicas of streams, lakes, and wetlands; catch-and-release fishing in stocked ponds (tackle supplied); aquariums; dive shows; and a hatchery and lab.
Athens Scuba Park: Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Camping available. $15 per diver per day, extra for camping. 500 Murchison St., Athens. 903-675-5762. www.athensscubapark.com.
Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center: Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. 5550 Flat Creek Road (FM2495), Athens. $5.50, $4.50 seniors, $3.50 ages 4-12. 903-676-2277. www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/infish.
German towns have a rep for being well-built and neat as a pin. Muenster, a small, close-knit community of 1,500, is 73 miles from Dallas and Fort Worth on U.S. Highway 82, just south of the Oklahoma line, and it plays to the stereotype.
Surrounded by a wide-open landscape of rolling hills that sprawl west all the way to the foothills of the Rockies, the town was settled by German immigrants in 1889. Over the years it has managed to retain much of its Old Country charm in the forms of the Catholic church (the town’s most prominent structure), restaurants serving Westphalia-inspired cuisine, three meat markets that grind their own sausage, a bakery with all the requisite sweets, a town museum and a main street of shops and stores. You can also buy your natural dog food direct from Muenster Milling, endorsed by Nolan Ryan and Howard Garrett, the Dirt Doctor.
There’s one motel in town, the A-OK, and Miss Olivia’s bed and breakfast, and plenty of other overnight options are available in Gainesville, 13 miles east.
The town rolls out the barrel for Germanfest every April. The Muenster Chamber of Commerce (940-759-2227) and the North Texas Info Web site (www.nortexinfo.net/gfest) have the details.
Muenster Milling: Open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 202 S. Main, Muenster. 1-800-772-7178. www.muenstermilling.com.
A-OK Motel: 700 E. Division, Muenster. 940-759-2268.
Miss Olivia’s Bed & Breakfast: 319 S. Denton, Gainesville. 940-665-5558. www.missolivias.com
Caprock Canyons Trailway Ranger, Clyde Dudley, keeps careful watch over the 64-mile trail and its spectacular scenery. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The Real Texas: Caprock Canyons Trailway
Rails to Trails
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Forrest MacCormack
History pulses along the Caprock Canyons Trailway as it courses by ancient flatlands, wild canyons and authentic, old Texas towns.
On October 20, 1541, Franciso Vasquez de Coronado wrote to the King of Spain, describing the remarkable landscape he had encountered during his exploration of the American Southwest. The Spanish adventurer had come upon the Llano Estacado, a huge mesa spanning northern Texas and eastern New Mexico. “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” he wrote. “With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
As I stand at the western end of the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway nearly half a millennium later, I can see pretty much what Coronado saw on his fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold: perfectly flat grasslands sprawling to the western horizon with little interruption, save for the neatly ordered rows of corn, sorghum, wheat, peanuts and cotton. But once I head east a couple of miles on the trail’s wide gravel bed, following the path blazed by thousands of modern explorers on bicycle, horseback and foot, I encounter a different view altogether. The plateau drops off dramatically to another kind of rough country-rolling hills and valleys. Those contrasting vistas are the calling cards of this Texas rail-trail, colored by the direct connection to deep history and richly ornamented by such picturesque railroad artifacts as the 46 bridges and one tunnel. But for some of us, it’s the privilege of savoring sweet isolation and absolute solitude that puts the Caprock Canyons Trailway in a class of its own.
To navigate this spacious open country, travelers of yore needed something, anything, to help them figure out exactly where they were. Coronado began a history of references to the tabletop plain’s few landmarks as “stakes,” thus the name Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. A jagged 300-mile-long palisade, known as the Caprock Escarpment, that runs southwest to northeast divides the higher Llano from the rolling plains below, and there’s no better place than the trailway to witness this geological transition of the famous Red River Valley The “breaks” are particularly vivid two miles east of South Plains, a vaguely defined settlement at the rail-trail’s western end, where the high plateau drops-up to 300 feet in some places-forming red dirt canyons pocked with arroyos, washes, pour-offs, and even hidden creek bottoms bristling with cottonwoods, willows, oaks, pecans and mesquite. During rare wet periods, there’s even a waterfall or two. It’s the stuff of a Western movie. Only this is the real thing.
Since ancient times, the Caprock canyons and the Llano above them have been nomadic country. The land is too tough, too harsh ever to be really settled. Prehistoric peoples moved through with the seasons. Modern Plains Indians, notably the Apache and Comanche, traded with comancheros, people of Mexican descent in New Mexico. Briefly, ciboleros, New Mexican hunters, moved into the area, following in the footsteps of the Native Americans to hunt the plains buffalo, and doing it so efficiently that they killed them off. Third and fourth generation descendents of Anglo pioneer ranchers and farmers still work the land, trying to hang on.
Tomas Hinojosa, Quitaque Riding Stables owner, leads a pack of trail riders in Caprock Canyons State Park. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The ideal way to get a feel for this wild country is to cycle, hike or ride horseback along the Caprock Canyons Trailway at a pace similar to that of the people who moved through here centuries ago. Buzz through the still-wild frontier by car at 70 mph and you miss the nuances. The distant honk of a sandhill crane on a clear, mild winter’s day. The crackle of branches signaling a family of white-tailed deer or pronghorn antelope moving through the brush. The sight of a young rattlesnake sunning on the trail a few feet from a horned lizard that skitters into the grass. The sudden flap of quail flushed out of the tall grass by the sound of a bike tire rolling on a cinder path. Paw prints and scat on the trail, vivid evidence of mountain lion or bobcat nearby.
A little knowledge of the past, whether measured in geological time or on the more fleeting human scale, will summon ghosts-of cataclysmic floods and creeping erosion; of buffalo herds rumbling across barren valleys; of migrating flocks on the Central Flyway above; of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief; of Charles Goodnight, the first mythic rancher of the Texas Panhandle; and of the spring cattle drives from Matador Ranch, a few miles south, all the way up to the South Saskatchewan River in Canada, one of the longest, most storied livestock migrations in the cowboy kingdom.
The railroad arrived in 1928, late by Western standards. Denver Road general manager Frank Clarity promoted the idea of a South Plains spur of the Fort Worth-Denver railway to connect the cotton and farming hub of Lubbock, Texas, with the town of Estelline on the railroad’s main route. He was honored by having the tunnel on the new line named in his honor. But the Fort Worth-Denver South Plains Railroad didn’t last long. The growth of the trucking industry and a declining agricultural base made the line a luxury for its parent company, Burlington Northern, to operate. The line was abandoned in 1989.
When the railroad pulled out, local citizens already were ruminating about the idea of converting the corridor to a one-of-a-kind trail. The late OR. Stark, Jr., a banker and local booster in the little town of Quitaque (pronounced “Kitty-Kway,” and named by Charles Goodnight after the Indian word for “end of the trail”), along with two area pastors, since departed, organized grassroots support for the rail-trail, while the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took the initiative on the state level. They figured the trailway would complement the newly opened, 14,000-acre Caprock Canyons State Park and could be maintained and operated by the park’s staff. Residents of the three farming and ranching towns along the trailway-Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline-were behind the concept, since each was losing population (a plight common to small towns throughout the Great Plains). With no industry or natural resources to promise salvation, tourism via the trailway was a last, best hope.
“O.R. Stark saw the natural beauty of the Caprock and knew it would be an asset, not just for the community but the whole area,” his son, Randy, says. “The hardest part about making it happen was all the waiting. It took two years to get it going, mostly because he had to deal with the state”; navigating through a government bureaucracy takes time.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) eventually stepped in to help the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department acquire the rail corridor for recreational use, funneling federal funds for infrastructure improvements to the state through federal transportation ISTEA grants. For its part, Burlington Northern was happy to donate the land, structures and trestles once the rails had been sold for salvage.
In 1993 the Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park was officially dedicated. The rail-trail is composed of six segments, five to 17 miles long, and has eight access points along the way. The first two segments, Quitaque Canyon Trail and Los Lingos Trail, extend 22 miles from South Plains to the town of Quitaque. The most scenic stretch, Quitaque Canyon, traverses the escarpment and passes through one of the few railroad tunnels in Texas. South of Quitaque, the Los Lingos Trail crosses the Valley of Tears, so named for the sobs of captured Anglo pioneer women and children being held by the Comanches before being sold off to the comanchero traders of Mexican descent and taken west into New Mexico.
Interpretive markers on the trailway lay out all the details.
The 10-mile Kent Creek segment that runs along the trickling creek bed links the towns of Quitaque and Turkey, each sporting populations of about 500. The trail’s 32-mile eastern half, running from Turkey to Estelline, population 150, cuts through soft hills and valleys-prime Texas ranch and farmland. On the 12-mile Grundy Canyon Trail segment, between Tampico Siding and Parnell Station, wide-angle views encompass the Cap rock Escarpment all the way to the banks of the Red River. And on the easternmost Plains Junction Trail segment, just outside Estelline, wild turkey and pronghorn antelope are frequently spotted.
While the entire trail can be done in a day, my wife, Kris, and I opted to start at South Plains and ride the Cap downhill into Quitaque. Roland Hamilton, Quitaque mayor and owner of the Caprock Home Center hardware store, shuttled us up to our starting point. As we cruised up the road to South Plains, Hamilton shared a little lore, mostly about the Valley of Tears and the Ozark Trail. (Founded in 1911 by a man from Arkansas, the Ozark Trail ultimately spawned Route 66, the storied Mother Road that linked the Midwest to the West Coast. There’s still an Ozark Trail marker to be seen in Tampico, if you know where to look, Hamilton told us, and another buried under the highway in the middle of Quitaque that folks talk about digging up someday and putting on display.)
Once on the trail, Kris and I saw not another soul for four hours, save for a man and a boy crouched above the entrance to Clarity Tunnel. They told us they’d arrived early for the evening bat emergence. Every night from March to October, they explained, up to 50,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the tunnel en masse, spiraling into the sky for their evening meal of insects. While the phenomenon also attracts the interest of coyotes, raccoons, snakes and raptors, we didn’t stick around to witness the amazing emergence, but walked our bicycles through the 582-foot-long tunnel, half expecting a band of outlaws on horseback to meet us midway.
Throughout our ride, we kept a slow, purposeful pace, pausing on the bridges to examine the gullies and creek beds below, and stopping more than once to savor total silence, a sensation known to precious few city folk. That alone was worth the price of admission.
We made it to Quitaque as darkness fell, in time to chow down at the Sportsman’s Cafe and relive our afternoon on the trail. After dinner, we packed it in for the night at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse, too tired to do much but go outside to look at stars, then crawl into bed.
Next morning we headed over to Caprock Canyons State Park, in the heart of canyon country, three miles north of Quitaque. We could have spent the day riding there, since there are more than 30 miles of paved roadways and off-road bike trails to negotiate among the spectacular red rock formations. Instead, we drove around, hoping to spot the official state buffalo herd, which lives behind a high fence in one corner of the park. The rarely seen bison are descended from the herd Charlie Goodnight put together from remnants of the southern herd that once roamed the Great Plains.
Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline offered eerie evidence of the steady depopulation of the Great Plains over the past half-century. Each town’s main street summoned visions of Larry McMurtry’s “Last Picture Show”-blocks of sturdy, red brick storefronts, most of which have been boarded up and deserted. The buildings have outlasted the people they were built to shelter. Now they stand as mute monuments to another time. With no resources to pluck, the water table of the Ogallala Aquifer steadily being lowered, and the vast expanse subjected to some of the most extreme weather on earth (the trailway is in the heart of Tornado Alley), it’s safe to say Caprock Canyons is in no danger of being overrun by seekers of the Next Best Place, nor is Quitaque destined to become the next Moab. For me, that was beguiling, as much a draw to biking the trailway as the scenic plenty.
Sure, it would have been nice to dial up a bike shop on the cell phone when Kris blew her tire near Clarity Tunnel. A place to eat that serves fresh greens would be okay, too. The upside to the absence of those amenities was an up-close and personal encounter with an authentic, rural Texas that is getting harder and harder to find.
Along the trailway, that authentic Texas was everywhere. Staying at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse was like visiting the rural Texas grandparents we never had. The Hotel Turkey is that rare railroad hotel that hasn’t been gussied up too much; it still functions like a railroad hotel, just without the railroad. The breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros at Galvan’s Mexican Food in Turkey were as filling and autentico a breakfast as I can find in Falfurrias, 600 miles south. The Midway Drive-In halfway between Turkey and Quitaque, one of the last four drive-in movie theaters in Texas that still show first-run movies in the summer, was straight out of “American Graffitti.” The western horizon at sunset, which lit up the sky with streaks of flaming reds, oranges and pinks, was just like the one buffalo hunters and seekers of gold must have seen: glorious, radiant and unsullied.
The few people who do live along the trailway are some of the friendliest folks I’ve met traveling across Texas. Take Wilburn Leeper, the 67-year-old former mayor of Quitaque and president of the Caprock Bike Club, who’s racked up probably more miles riding the trailway than anyone else. Leeper appreciates the big views and isolation of the trailway. That’s why he is involved with Caprock Partners, the organization that helps support the state park and trailway, and helps run the group’s moonlight ride on the trailway every fall. “It’s the expanse of it all,” he says dreamily, explaining why he’s become hooked on cycling the route whenever he can. “It seems like you can ride forever.”
Or Randy Stark, a banker like his daddy, who considers the trailway the region’s calling card. “1 saw last year where Caprock Canyons State Park had 115,272 visitors. That’s quite a bit to be passing through a town of this size. That shows what a tourism economy can do, especially with the farm economy the way it is. We like having visitors, but we still want the slow, country way of life too. We get a little of both here in Quitaque,” says Stark. “I’m a photographer,” he adds. “What I enjoy most is all the scenic spots, all the canyons, and how the light is always changing how they look.” Since he tries to capture scenes at the end of the day, when the lighting contrast is sharpest, he’s been exposed to the calls of the wild. “1 hear coyotes howling all the time. If you’re on the trail at sunset, I guarantee you’ll hear the coyotes. I’ve heard as many as six at once, howling and barking away. One night on a full-moon ride with a club from Dallas, someone recognized the cry of a mountain lion. And wild turkey-you can find them mostly in the creek beds towards the latter part of the day.”
Or Raymond Roy, an Amarillo accountant who has spent so much of his free time around Quitaque, fishing, hunting and just kicking back, that he finally bought the Sportsman Cafe, Quitaque’s social hub and culinary heart and soul. When Kris and I ate dinner there, Roy took it upon himself to come over to our table and introduce himself. “1 knew you weren’t from around here,
when I saw her taking her purse with her to the salad bar,” he said, nodding to Kris. Locals don’t need to fear for their valuables, because everyone knows everyone else. “1 just wanted to make you feel at home,” Roy said. It’s hard to be a stranger on this rail-trail.
By the time we headed south toward home, we were making plans for a return trip in the fall. That’s the sweetest season of them all, according to Randy Stark, with warm days, cool nights and none of the wind or violent weather that defines springtime on the plains. Kris was ready to buy up half the downtowns of Quitaque and Turkey, drawing up plans for each building in her mind. Me, I was still buzzing, happy to have savored the real Texas few Texans get to know or see.
BEFORE YOU GO: Bring your own water, food and tire repair kit. In summer, pay heed to the extreme heat advisory included in your trail map. Although there are pay telephones at six stations along the trail, a cell phone comes in mighty handy. Fall is prime time, weather-wise.
GETTING THERE: Lubbock, the closest gateway with regularly scheduled air service, is 69 miles southwest of South Plains, the western terminal of the trailway, via State Highway 207 South and U.S. Highway 62 South and West. The Caprock Canyons Trailway is easily accessible from U.S. Highway 287 at Estelline, 101 miles southeast of Amarillo, and 238 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Quitaque, at the junction of State Highway 86 and Farm to Market Road 1065, is 98 miles southeast of Amarillo, via U.S. 287 to Claude, State Highway 207 to Silverton (a scenic route that cuts across Palo Duro Canyon, the second biggest gaping maw in the United States), and State Highway 86 East.
TRAIL ACCESS AND EQUIPMENT: The trailway is maintained and managed by Caprock Canyons State Park. You can buy trailway entrance permits ($3 per person) at park headquarters. There are eight trailhead access points with parking areas, spaced about 10 miles apart along the 64-mile trailway. The most popular trailheads are in Estelline, at the eastern terminal of the trail on U.S. Highway 287; at Quitaque; at Monk’s Crossing, 4.5 miles east of the Clarity Tunnel; and in South Plains, at the western end of the trailway.
If you want to do the trail the old-fashioned way, on horseback, contact Quitaque Riding Stables (806-455-1208). Queen of the Valley Tours (806-983-3639) offers guided tours of the Quitaque Canyons and Los Lingos trail segments on an old school bus.
For bicycle rentals, shuttles and repair kits, contact Roland Hamilton at the Caprock Center hardware store in Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260).
WHERE TO STAY: Roland Hamilton’s spacious family farmhouse about two miles east of Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260) is comfortable, and a real bargain at $50 for two. The house has nine guest beds, and porches from which to watch both sunrise and sunset.
More upscale accommodations are at the Quitaque Quail Lodge B&B (806-455-1261), a country-style, ranch house and hunting lodge featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and hiking trails.
The Hotel Turkey (806-423-1151, www.turkeybb.com) in Turkey is a 1927 railroad hotel that was converted to a bed-and-breakfast, though the rocking chairs on the front porch remain.
There are seven designated backcountry campsites on the trailway, plus campgrounds with RV hookups and additional backcountry campsites at Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque.
WHERE TO EAT: The Hotel Turkey cooks dinners on weekends. The Saturday night special is mesquite-grilled steak with all the trimmings; two-day advance reservation only.
Groups of 20 or more can enjoy Comanchero breakfasts and Chuckwagon suppers at Joe and Virginia Taylor’s Circle Dot Ranch (www.circledotranch.com), a working cattle ranch five miles from South Plains (March through October, by advance reservation only).
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Caprock Canyons State Park schedules wildflower walks, history and nature tours, star parties and other events throughout the year.
The Bob Wills Museum in Turkey features memorabilia of the King of Western Swing, the Texas original fusion of jazz, swing and country. The Turkey Heritage Association stages a free talent showcase jamboree at the Bob Wills Center the first Saturday of every month. Celebrating its native son, Turkey goes full-tilt boogie on Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday of April.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park c/o Caprock Canyons State Park (P.O. Box 204, Quitaque, TX 79255-0204, 806-455-1492, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/caprock/caprock.htm), Quitaque Chamber of Commerce (www.fnbquitaque.com), Turkey Chamber of Commerce (www.turkeytexas.com). For more cycling information, visit the West Texas Cycling Web site (wtcycling.com).
by Paul Burka, Jane Dure, Michael Hall, Christopher Keyes, John Morthland, Joe Nick Patoski, Eileen Schwartz, Patricia Sharpe and John Spong
(alphabetical, by city)
Unless otherwise noted, all places take credit cards.
ABILENE: Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q We didn’t catch pitmaster Harold Christian singing gospel songs to his customers, but we’re told that isn’t an unusual occurrence. This cozy little room, packed with nine picnic tables, seven booths, and a congregation of athletic trophies, is where Abilene gets its primo meat, smoked for twelve to fourteen hours over oak in a fifty-year-old box pit: brisket, pork ribs, chicken (on Fridays), turkey breast, German pork-and-beef sausage, and ham. A thin, spicy sauce is poured over the meat, which we usually don’t like, but it just lightly seasons the brisket, which was all fall-apart tender. Specialties include hot-water jalapeño cornbread and blackberry cobbler that made us weak in the knees. Brisket plate $5.95. Rating: 4.5. 1305 Walnut, 915-672-4451. Open Mon, Tue, Thur & Fri 11-6:30, Wed till 2, Sat till 5. by Katy Vine
AMARILLO: Beans N Things The plastic cow still stands guard on the roof of Shirley and Lawrence Bagley’s order-at-the-counter restaurant, with its knotty pine walls and lunchroom tables. At three-thirty in the afternoon, the hickory-smoked brisket and mesquite-smoked ribs had gotten a little dry and “shreddy” but were redeemed by honest flavor. The sausage was commercial, but the same was not true of the puckery-sweet coleslaw with a hint of tarragon vinegar or the eight-hour-cooked pinto beans. Take your pick of mild or spicy sauce, both opaque and on the thick side. Besides barbecue, the kitchen turns out a range of homey dishes, including breakfast burritos, fajitas, and Frito pie. Brisket plate $5.99. Beer. Rating: 3.5. 1700 Amarillo Boulevard East, 806-373-7383. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 8:30-6:30. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: BBQ World Headquarters Why this place hasn’t developed a huge following is a mystery, because in its six years of existence, it has quickly worked its way up the barbecue ladder in Austin. One reason is the quality of the brisket: Certified Angus beef. It’s slightly fattier than some but marvelously tasty and tender. The pork roast is not just picnic-quality but good enough for Sunday dinner. Pork ribs, baby back ribs, chicken, and (unfortunately salty) pork sausage from Mike’s Barnyard in Liberty Hill round out the meat menu, and everything is smoked over oak. The borracho beans bristle with bits of pork and sausage; the creamy coleslaw has character and crunch. You can eat inside the little corrugated-metal-and-cinder-block building, with its cheery red and blue vinyl tablecloths, or sit at a picnic table outside on the asphalt. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.6701 Burnet Road, 512-323-9112. Open Mon-Sat 11-4. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: John Mueller’s BBQ In 2001 John Mueller left the family business in Taylorthe famed Louie Mueller Barbecue, which was started by his grandfatherto open up his own place in East Austin, where he has quickly risen to the top of the local ‘cue heap. The bare-bones cinder-block building with a frame-house annex out back radiates blue-collar, duct-tape funk despite the parade of athletes (Ben Crenshaw, Major Applewhite), legislators (Mueller did a catering gig for Speaker Tom Craddick this spring), and other celebs coming through the screen door. And the oak-smoked meat tastes right. Mueller is usually at the counter, ready to slice it to order and serve it on a butcher-paper-lined tray. Just be sure to stipulate lean or fatty on the brisket (we’re fools for the latter). The pork ribs, pork chops, smoked T-bones, and prime rib rock too. The all-beef sausage, made according to John’s own recipe, comes from the Taylor Meat Company. Choose from two sauces at the condiment tablethe runny, peppery kind that Louie Mueller’s is famous for or a thick, sweet one that will appeal to the Salt Lick and County Line crowd. Brisket plate $7.95. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 1917 Manor Road, 512-236-0283. Open Mon-Fri 10-8, Sat till 6. by Joe Nick Patoski
BELTON: Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que There’s something about a pit. At Schoepf’s, the cooking pits (where they smoke the brisket over mesquite coals for half a day) are out back and the serving pit is on the patio; you go there first and pick out your ribs, chicken, brisket, oryumpork chops, then take them inside to get your sides. The meat is sold by the pound and is so moist and smoky you don’t need sauce, though it’s dished out on the sidevinegar based and pepperyif you want it for occasional dipping. Afterward, Schoepf’s is a fine place to linger, sitting at your picnic table and watching the locals doing the same thing. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 702 E. Central Avenue, 254-939-1151. Open Mon- Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 9, Sun 11-3. by Michael Hall
BRADY: Lone Star Bar-B-Q Spare but spacious, with basic Hill Country hunters’ decor, Lone Star offers exemplary brisket and thick, flavorful pork chops with a light salt-and-pepper rub, cooked Llano-style over mesquite. The pork ribs are fatty but tasty; the sausage is so-so. The tart, pale-red vinegar sauce far surpasses its sticky-sweet companion. Good sides. Brisket plate $6. BYOB. Rating: 4. 2010 S. Bridge, 915-597-1936. Open daily 11-9. by John Morthland
BURNET: Burnet County Barbeque The counter sits at one end of this stone roadhouse and the smallish dining area at the other, with a wood-burning stove for wintertime warmth. Mesquite-cooked brisket (up to eighteen hours in a pig-iron pit) and substantial pork ribs exude smokiness and powerful flavor, as does beef sausage from Elgin; the thick tomatoey sauce does the meat justice. The fruity, almost nutty slaw has a hint of celery seed, the beans are fortified with jalapeños, and the potato salad is mustardy and quite chunky. Several kinds of scrumptious pies (dense pecan, puddinglike chocolate, and more) are baked by a local woman. Brisket plate $6.75. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 616 Buchanan Drive (Texas Highway 29), 512-756-6468. Open Sun & Wed-Thur 11-6, Fri & Sat till 7. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by John Morthland
CANADIAN: Cattle Exchange Patrons who come for ‘cue benefit from this Panhandle restaurant’s dual status as a steakhouse. The 1910 building has been beautifully restored, and the amenities include, believe it or not, cloth napkins. Smoked over mesquite, the brisket is tender and reasonably moist, the sausage full of flavor, the ham better than most. Two saucesthe spicy, snappy “original” and a milder “sweet”allow for custom seasoning. Although the potato salad is a tad timid and mayonnaisey, the beans, cooked with tomato, green chile, onion, and bacon, would be hard to improve upon. The whiskey-sauce-drenched sourdough-bread pudding may make you woozy. Brisket plate $8.99. Rating: 4. Second and Main, 806-323-6755. Open Sun-Thur 11-9, Fri & Sat till 10. by Patricia Sharpe
CONROE: McKenzie’s Barbeque The strip-mall location didn’t bode well, but once we got a whiff of the oak burning in the pit, we knew this place was serious about its barbecue. The brisket is well executed, and the meaty pork ribs kept us gnawing and licking our chops long after we should have stopped. The only thing we weren’t crazy about was the thick, A-1-ish saucethe excellent meat can stand on its own. The McKenzies are yet another Texas family with barbecue in their DNA: Darin McKenzie runs things in Conroe; his brother, Kevin, runs the original McKenzie’s, in Huntsville; and their sister, Shannon, owns a Bodacious outpost in Longview. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 1501 N. Frazier, 936-539-4300. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-8. by Eileen Schwartz
CORPUS CHRISTI: Bar-B-Q Man Restaurant What is success? Not having to work on the weekend. So don’t expect to find Malcolm DeShields here on Saturday or Sunday (the original Bar-B-Q Man, DeShields’ father, M.O., kept the same sweet hours). The place does plenty of business during the week with refinery workers and white-collar types. They come for DeShields’ huge portions of mesquite-smoked Certified Angus brisket and spare ribs and a bronze-hued house sauce that bites back. An off-putting chain-link fence surrounds the property, but inside it you’ll find the Bar-B-Q Man’s spacious dining rooms and a patio with pool tables, a dance floor, and a bar. Service is cafeteria-style. Brisket plate $8.95. Beer and wine. Rating: 4. 4931 I-37 South, 361-888-4248 or 888-4296. Open Mon-Fri 11-8. by Joe Nick Patoski
DALLAS: Baker’s Ribs A sweet, spicy, gooey glaze puts the finishing touch on melt-in-your-mouth hickory-smoked pork ribs, and the lean, thick-cut brisket (cooked for twelve to fifteen hours) and zingy beef sausage are almost addictive. The pork loin is more flavorful than most, and the chicken breast has a smoky surface and a juicy white interior, but the ham, turkey, and sauces are humdrum. Standout sides include potato salad heavy on the dill, creamy slaw with celery seeds, brisk marinated-tomato salad, and jalapeño-spiked black-bean-and-corn relish. Though larger than Baker’s Commerce Street flagship, this outlet is just as good. Brisket plate $7.25. Beer. Rating: 4. 4844 Greenville Avenue, 214-373-0082. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-9, Sun 11-8. by John Morthland
DALLAS: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Now the flagship of a chain that gets justifiably mixed reviews, the original Sonny B’s can itself be erratic. But when the ancient, custom-built pit (stoked with hickory) is producing up to snuff, the burnt-crust brisket is almost, but not quite, falling-apart tender, and the pork ribs are almost, but not quite, falling-off-the-bone tender; the former dazzles on sandwiches. Ignore the other meats and the sides, except for the whopping golden-brown onion rings. The thick, sweet sauce is marginal. Customers still eat at one of about twenty cramped school desks or outside in (and on) their cars. Brisket plate $6.99. Beer. Rating: 4. 2202 Inwood Road, 214-357-7120 (other Metroplex locations). Open Sun-Fri 10-4, Sat till 3. by John Morthland
EAGLE LAKE: Austin’s BBQ and Catering You have to fight for one of the two picnic tables out front or sit on your car hood if you want to eat at Ron and Denice Janow’s converted gas station, where the old garage bays are filled with smoke from two portable cast-iron pits. Meat is serious business here in hunting country, and this is some of the most serious barbecued meat in Texasoutstanding brisket meant to be eaten with your fingers, five-star boneless pork, and pork ribs with a tantalizing pecan flavor and a peppery kick. Save room for the buttered potatoes and the usual sides, as well as banana pudding, coconut pie, and 7-UP cake. This place is definitely worth the thirteen-mile detour off Interstate 10. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 507 E. Main, 979-234-5250 or 800-256-0166. Open Thur-Sat 8-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
EAST BERNARD: Vincek’s Smokehouse The tan brick exterior is plain and institutional, but inside, Vincek’s exudes a sense of place, from the “Jak Se Más ” (“How Are You?”) Czech welcome on the menu board at the end of the long meat counter and the homemade bread, kolaches, and tea rings in the bakery case to the local polka CDs for sale and the posters advertising the Triumphs playing Riverside Hall. Even the sweet abuela who cut our order spoke with a slight Czech accent. The pecan-smoked brisket was first-rate, with a salty bite and the obligatory red ring, and the ribs were exceptionally meaty, but it was the spicy, coarsely ground sausage that hit the spot. Choose between the too-sweet house sauce and a runny, vinegar-based type. Sides include Spanish rice and coleslaw with a pucker-inducing tang. Brisket plate $5.75. Beer. Rating: 4. Texas Highway 60 and U.S. 90A, 979-335-7921 or 800-844-MEAT. Open Tue-Sat 7-6, Sun 8-3. by Joe Nick Patoski
ELGIN: Crosstown B-B-Q This unassuming little operation, with its bare plywood walls and minimal decor, was packed with folks when we visited, including what must have been the entire Elgin High School baseball team. We liked its lean, subtly spiced sausage more than any other local links we sampled. The oak-smoked brisket and chicken were moist, and the peppery ribs meaty and tender. Standard sides. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 3.5. 202 S. Avenue C, 512-281-5594. Open Sun-Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 10. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Eileen Schwartz
EL PASO: Chris’s the Brisket BBQ The beef rib is still king in El Paso, but unlike other ‘cue joints way out west, where the ribs come like snow cones (they taste like whatever syrup is poured on top), these ribs have no marinade. Instead, a simple salt-cayenne-and-black-pepper rub allows the ribs to taste like ribs: tender, rich, never stringy. Pit boss Chris Ivey treats the rest of his meat with the same care, producing a shiny black crust over a thin red ribbon on the brisket and a crunchy black skin on the sausage, all smoked over pecan. Ivey says his secret is never to leave the meat and the fire unattended, and he gets to his pits each morning at three o’clock. The early start allows him to make potato salad, chili beans, and coleslaw fresh each day and also whip up several cakes for dessert. His sauce is intentionally bland, and so is the restaurant’s interior. The only decoration was a tableful of slow-pitch-softball trophies and a Christmas tree, which was still up in April, festooned with yellow ribbons in support of the troops. Brisket plate $6.50. Rating: 4. 11420 Rojas, 915-595-0114. Open Mon-Fri 11-3. by John Spong
[please visit Texas Monthly for the remaining fifty]
The Best of the Best
by Paul Burka, Michael Hall and Joe Nick Patoski
(in no particular order)
Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q
The name “Cooper’s” has long been synonymous with Llano, but now the Mason operation of the same name has overtaken its distant cousin. Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q was opened in Mason in 1953 by the late George Cooper, whose son Tommy (also deceased) cloned it a decade later in Llano. Today the two are entirely separate, though both continue to follow the founding father’s formula: Let customers select their own meat straight from the outdoor pit and then take it inside to be weighed, sliced, and priced. And quite a selection it is too, covering the whole barnyard: beef, pork, chicken, goat, andoh, happy moment of discoverylamb ribs, the very thought of which sets the mouth to watering all these weeks later. On weekends, the mesquite-smoked fare expands to include T-bone and sirloin steaks and pork loin. The brisket is without flaw in taste or texture, sweet and juicy; it may be the best in Texas. The beef sausage is prepared in Austin following an old Cooper’s recipe, according to owner Duard Dockal, who took over from George Cooper twenty years ago. The flavor is on the mild side, a condition that can quickly be rectified by an application of Dockal’s homemade sauce, a piquant concoction whose distinctive orange color announces the ample presence of mustard. You can’t go wrong here; even the sides are homemade. The only drawback is that the cinder-block dining room has just four rectangular bench-style tables, with one more outdoors. For a nice alternative, order your food to go and dine at Fort Mason Park, about three quarters of a mile south of the pit on U.S. 87. Brisket plate about $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 5. S. U.S. 87, 915-347-6897 or 800-513-6963. Open daily 10:30-5:30. by Paul Burka
It’s been three years since Kreuz Market was forced to vacate its storied, century-old premises and relocate down the road, a move that remains a topic of conversation among conspiracy theorists. Owner Rick Schmidt’s sister and landlord, Nina Sells, wanted to double his rent and make him pay for improvements. Rick refused to pony up. But despite any lingering bad blood, Texas Barbecue Nation is better for the family feud. Kreuz’s huge new location accommodates three times as many diners, in two giant dining rooms and a long, breezy porch. Shiny and crisp at first, the interior of the metal-roofed building is slowly getting a satisfying smoke patina. The woodpile around back covers almost an entire city block and may be the largest in the free world. Traditions from the old site remain: The only utensils provided for the meat are plastic knives, a symbolic nod to the days when diners sitting at Kreuz’s counters had to use knives chained to the wall. And the optional sides avocados, yellow cheese, and onion slicesare as quirky as ever. As before, potato salad and coleslaw are not sold, though in a bow to popular demand, pinto beans have been added to the menu (to tell the truth, they were pretty boring the last time we tried them). Though the first year was shaky, the post oak-fired pits are now turning out some of the best, if not the best, meat anywhere on earth, notably the amazing brisket (a caveatit can be too salty), the spicy, garlicky coarse-ground sausage, a smoked pork chop that trumps any rib, and boneless prime rib for the discerning barbecue fan. No sauce. No need. Brisket plate (with beans only) about $5.45. Beer. Rating: 5. U.S. 183, just north of town; 512-398-2361. Open Mon-Fri 9-6, Sat till 6:30. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Going to Louie Mueller Barbecue is like going to barbecue church: You open the screen door and walk into an expansive room with a high ceiling and ancient walls. To your right are images of Texas music icons, people like Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And then there’s the air, rarefied andsmoky. It’s the smoke that sanctifies Louie Mueller’s, from the food to the people who eat there religiously. Mueller’s has been open since 1949, and it’s been in its current location, a former basketball court, since 1959. Founder Louie’s son, Bobby, took over in 1976 and has kept up the quality for more than a quarter of a century. And that means doing things the way they always have: simply, using a basic salt-and-pepper rub on the meat and cooking it using post-oak coals for about six hours. The brisket issurprisesmoky, the smoke somehow penetrating every molecule of the meat. Mueller’s beef sausage has the consistency of meat that was put into the casing manually, not by machine (check out the understated jalapeño links; you can taste the pepper as well as its heat), and the pork ribs are juicy. The sauce is dispensed, as it should be, in a little cup for dipping. No need to cover anything up. The sides are homemade; try the spicy pinto beans. In 1974 the Muellers put up a bulletin board that customers could attach their business cards to, and in a matter of months, the white cards were beige. You can peek under the top layer for a glimpse of past customers or add your own card. Soon, it too will be covered in smoke, the badge of honor. Brisket plate about $6.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 206 W. Second, 512-352-6206. Open Mon-Sat 10-6. by Michael Hall
While vast amounts of ink have been lavished on the changes in the Central Texas barbecue mecca of Lockhart, fifteen miles to the north, nothing much at all has changed at City Marketwhich is a real good thing. With roots going back 45 years, City Market has all but perfected the arcane art of smoking meat. You become a patron of this art when you walk into the main dining room and proceed to the primitive-looking pit room at the back. You can’t miss it; just look for the line of fellow museumgoers and the posted warning “Please don’t hold door open.” Breathe deep when you walk inside: barbecue heaven. Now squint through the air, dense with smoke. The pit crew, led by manager Joe Capello, Sr., himself, is most likely the same bunch that was stoking the pits, taking your order, and slicing the meat the last time you visited, no matter how long ago that was. After you gather up your butcher paper full of post oak-smoked meat, head back through the main room to the center counter for beans, potato salad, thick slices of yellow cheese, beer, Big Red, and IBC Root Beer. On weekdays, locals outnumber tourists jamming the long tables in the two wood- paneled dining rooms, where almost equal numbers of Anglos, Hispanics, and African Americans gnaw in harmony on out-of-this-world beef brisket, celestial pork ribs coated with a mysterious bronze glaze, and juicy, coarse-ground homemade beef sausage. If you must, you can slather on some sauce; it’s thin, mustardy, and loaded with pepperlike everything else, Central Texas style at its best. Brisket plate about $5.25. Beer. Rating: 5. 633 Davis, 830-875-9019. Open Mon- Sat 7-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
Out-of-towners who crunch their way across the gravel parking lot, past the post oak-stoked fire at the back of the redbrick building, and into the big old bare-bones dining room might not realize that anything has changed here if they failed to notice that the name on the building is now Smitty’s Market and not Kreuz Market. That’s because the brisket at this Lockhart destination is still primo, the coarsely ground handmade sausage is sublime, and the pork chops are thick, sweet, and delicately smoky. Those in the know spring for the succulent, juicy boneless prime rib; since it’s cooked to be perfectly medium-rare right when lunch begins, it’s more subtly flavored than Smitty’s longer-smoked brisket. Just as in the old days, all the meats are sold by the pound and slapped onto butcher paper. Now three years old, Smitty’s is named for Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, the father of owner Nina Sells. Although the restaurant’s first few months were up and down, it seems to have hit its stride under manager and pitmaster John A. Fullilove, Sells’ son. Yes, sometimes the brisket can be a tad dry and the rub too salty or not salty enough, but there are times when Smitty’s is even better than its predecessorand that’s saying a lot. In a concession to modernity, the dining room now offers potato salad, beans, and coleslaw. Likewise, diners are grudgingly provided with plastic spoons and knives but not forks, a reminder that in the old days, folks weren’t too proud to eat with their hands. And as always, there’s no sauce anywhere on the premises. Brisket plate about $5.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 208 S. Commerce (though most everyone uses the rear entrance fronting U.S. 183), 512-398-9344. Open Mon-Fri 7-6, Sat 7-6:30, Sun 9-3. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Barbecue is nothing less than the national food of Texas, and from a mom-and-pop joint in Eagle Lake to a temple of brisket in Taylorwe’ve searched out the best. On your mark, get set, dig in!
THIS SMOKIN’ THING IS GETTING out of hand. The custom of cooking meats over wood fires has been going on since before there was a place called Texas, but in recent years the concept has gotten so refined and peculiar thataside from the basic truth that Texas barbecue is superior to every other regional stylenobody here can agree with anybody else about anything.
We learned this the hard way six years ago, when Texas Monthly first weighed in with our picks of the state’s top fifty barbecue joints. We thought we’d covered the territory and then some, but we should have known better. The insults started coming fast and furious, via letters, telephone calls, and e-mails, the general drift being, “How on earth could you have missed [fill in the blank]?” Frankly, we’re still stinging from the critic who called us a bunch of “city boys.”
This time around, we doubled the size of our barbecue SWAT team to ten intrepid souls, who risked indigestion and clogged arteries chasing chimney smoke around the corner and into the next county, drove more than 21,000 miles to visit 360 places, got three speeding tickets, and gained more than thirty collective pounds in search of today’s best barbecue. Our new, revised top fifty includes 18 places from the old honor roll. Leading the pack are the five that we’ve anointed the new best of the best: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart, and Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor (which were in our top three six years ago), City Market in Luling, Smitty’s Market, in Lockhart, and Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason.
Clearly, Texas Barbecue Nation is in a state of flux. Witness what has happened in the intervening years to our holy trinity of 1997: Kreuz Market, Louie Mueller’s, and Cooper’s in Llano. In Lockhart, the small farming community that many consider the capital of Texas barbecue, a business disagreement between Rick Schmidt and his sister, Nina Sells, led to Schmidt’s relocating Kreuz Market down the road. Sells moved into the old location and dubbed it Smitty’s. Over in Taylor, Louie Mueller’s head honcho, Bobby Mueller, and his son John had words, leading John to leave the hallowed, soot-encrusted family business started by his grandfather to open his own place in Austin. Meanwhile, devotees seeking out Cooper’s in Llano, the personal favorite of the president of the United States, have been complaining about inconsistent quality, escalating prices, and crowds that never seem to thin out. Cooper’s didn’t make it into our top five this time, and after a particularly unhappy visit, we almost kicked it out of the top fifty. But at the last minute, we relentedbecause when Cooper’s is on, it’s on.
The changes that have affected the biggies are mirrored across the barbecue spectrum: The Gonzales Food Market dropped its prized beef ribs from the menu recently when the wholesale price got too expensive. Billy Pfeffer, the longtime pit boss at Dozier’s, in Fulshear, died a couple of years ago. Tough brisket ruined a SWAT team member’s otherwise perfect atmospheric experience at Novosad’s, in Hallettsville, this winter. The independent culinary entrepreneurs, who still dominate the ‘cue realm, are getting squeezed by chains that are beating the old-timers at their own game.
But perhaps it’s only natural for the barbecue world to be in constant turmoil, since the very origins of the craft are in dispute. Did barbecue start with the Czech-German meat markets of Central Texas that cooked up their unsold meat every Saturday in the days before refrigeration? Should African Americans get the credit, for having brought the tradition over from the Deep South? Or should we tip our hats to the early Anglo cowboys and Mexican vaqueros who dug deep pits, covered the meat with wet cloth or leaves, and slow-cooked it over coals for hours, following in the foodways of nomadic peoples in the Big Bend who cooked edible plants in pits 10,000 years ago?
Then there is the great dry-wet divide. Dry refers to two related methods of barbecuing meat: the modern-day cowboy-vaquero style (directly over burning coals, popular in South Texas) and the Czech-German technique (more slowly and over indirect heat, typical of Central Texas). These methods produce a nice crust on the outside and meat that is tender but firm. Dry barbecue is eaten with the sauce on the side, if at all, and said sauce tends to be runny and spicy. Wet is all about African American and Southern styles that emphasize even slower cooking (up to 24 hours) and yield moist and tender brisket and ribs that fall off the bone. Wet also refers to the fact that, as often as not, the meat is automatically drenched in sauce, which is typically sweet and thick.
Beyond cooking styles, what meats qualify as “real” barbecue? In Texas, brisket, ribs, and sausage are the bedrock. Big-tenters also embrace chicken, pork loin, pork chops, fajitas, ribeyes, prime rib, and sirloins as long as they’re slow-cooked with smoke. (Here, I have to weigh in with my own opinion: Prefab turkey breasts and ham don’t count. They’re usually just one step up from deli loaves and thus doomed from the start. And don’t get me started on barbecued crab, barbacoa, or anything grilled over flames or cooked in an oven. They may be delicious, but they’re not the real deal.) It goes without saying that within this carne-copia, folks have strong individual preferences. For some, brisket is the standard. Others are true to ribsno bones, go homebut they divide into two camps, beef and pork. Sausage purists split over beef, pork, or beef-and-pork and can argue the merits of the hot links common in East Texas but appreciated statewide (fat, stubby, and finely ground, in a tight red casing) versus the coarsely ground Central or South Texas blends (more loosely packed in crinkly casings).
Wood too is a burning question. Name your smoke and you define your ‘cue: oak and pecan, found mostly in the central and north-central parts of the state, give a strong, aromatic flavor; mesquite, abundant in South and West Texas, imparts a distinctive sharp taste that turns bitter if the meat is cooked too long. Hickory, native to East Texas, lends a classic, mellow smoked flavor and is common throughout the South, although it is often shipped as far away as the Panhandle and El Paso (where any kind of wood is hard to come by). A footnote: Although I know some places use gas in addition to wood to speed the process, to purists, gas equals sissy ‘cue.
The appropriate sides set off a whole other firestorm. Are beans, potato salad, and coleslaw the perfect complement for meat, or does more exotic faresay, green beans, baked potatoes, rice and its variations (Mexican, Cajun, rice salad), or macaroni and cheesestrike the right balance? Are sides even necessary when just a piece of white bread, a slice of onion, and a pickle or a jalapeño will do? Finally, what is the best drink to wash it all down: iced tea (sweet or unsweetened?), beer, or Big Red?
But all this controversy is just part of the fun. So in that spirit, let’s stir the pot with our choices for the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas today. In a state that’s got around a couple thousandfrom shacks where you eat the meat off of butcher paper with your fingers to places with waiters, silverware, and cloth napkinswe had to make some hard choices. We know you may not agree with all of them, but, heyeverybody’s entitled to his or her opinion. We’re ready for your outraged cards and e-mails asking how we could have missed (fill in the blank). Just don’t go calling us city boys.
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike
Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty.
There are hikes, and there are blister-popping, back-breaking, toe-throbbing, mind-bending hikes. Hiking across the Big Bend falls into the latter category. That became clear once five other reasonably sane, able and physically fit adults and I set a course across 70 miles of empty desert, rugged mountains and steep canyons, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food and water on our backs for six days and five nights.
Only a handful of people have attempted to transect the bend where the Rio Grande makes its grand detour through three majestic canyons in extreme Southwest Texas on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. One of those people, Craig Pedersen, told me about his solo trek. When Laurence Parent, the photographer with whom I collaborated on the book Texas Mountains, proposed it, I couldn’t resist. We both thought we knew Big Bend pretty well, having hiked the South Rim and the desert and floated its canyons.
But walk across it?
That was a new one. Maybe that’s because the Chihuahuan desert isn’t the most user-friendly terrain on earth, limiting long hikes to winter months, and only with considerable planning, support and desire.
With a combined million and a half acres of public lands among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, the Big Bend is the only region of Texas where you can actually contemplate a journey like this. I’d witnessed as Laurence scaled Mount Livermore and scooted around the Chinatis like a mountain goat while carrying 60 pounds of equipment on his back, so I knew he could do it. I figured I could, too. Six years ago I completed an eight-day, three-canyon crossing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon complex, though Tarahumara Indian porters and several burros accompanied us on that hike.
Laurence plotted a 70-mile route from Rio Grande Village, near the terminus of the paved road in the southeastern part of the national park, to Lajitas, the gated resort at the national park’s western boundary. We each rounded up two friends to accompany us, and hired Desert Sports, the Terlingua outfitter, to provide shuttles and water drops.
The night before departing, we met Raymond Skiles, a national park wildlife biologist, who’d hiked from Adams Ranch, east of the national park, to Lajitas solo, only he hiked over the Chisos Mountains instead of skirting the range, as we were planning. He offered advice on where to camp on the Dodson Trail and climb the Mesa de Anguila and plenty of encouragement. At least he didn’t think we were crazy like everyone else seemed to.
On March 2, Laurence, Shelly Seymour and Jeff Whittington, my two friends from Dallas, and I hit the trail under the cottonwoods of Rio Grande Village around 11 a.m., carrying small day packs for 3 miles to the Hot Springs, where our shuttle driver, Rick Willing, met us with our big backpacks. From there we bushwhacked across the desert towards Glenn Springs. Everyone was able; conditions were perfect, though Laurence complained he was coming down with a cold. The sun stayed behind a cover of high clouds most of the day, keeping daytime temperatures in the 70s, and it didn’t rain.
No rain was important. Several long miles were through bentonite, a spongy, absorbent clay formed from volcanic ash that turns to mush when wet. It hadn’t rained in a couple weeks, but I was certain if it had rained one day more recently than it actually had, we would have gotten bogged down in the soil.
We didn’t see another soul after Hot Springs, though we did cross a well-worn path of footprints northbound from San Vicente, Mexico. But there was still plenty to see. The low desert was in early spring bloom, awash with tiny white and pink bicolor mustard, yellow composites among the prickly pear, ocotillo, dagger, pitaya and candelilla, with bursts of Big Bend bluebonnets that perfumed the air.
The foothills of the Chisos and familiar landmarks such as Mule Ears Peak and Elephant Tusk appeared to be another world away.
Geographic weirdness was everywhere. Grasslands alternated with expanses of nothing but rock, sand and gravel. Fist-chunks of burnt wood littered one quarter-mile, as if a pit cooker had just tumped over, only this wood was petrified. Some ridges were so devoid of vegetation and so violently uplifted by geological forces that their tilted layers resembled marble swirls. Wildlife sighting was limited to Jeff spooking a giant jackrabbit, Laurence spotting a coyote, Shelly tracking a hawk and a swarm of bees buzzing past. No black bear or mountain lion. I kept focusing on Rick’s advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A gallon a day, minimum.” I kept drinking even when I wasn’t thirsty.
We finally reached Glenn Springs just after sunset, almost making camp in a cemetery until Shelly recognized the crude wooden crosses and cairns – remnants from the early 20th-century village that was raided by bandits in 1916. We ate and talked, Jeff admitting he almost “bonked” that afternoon. “I would’ve thrown up while we were resting on that big rock, but all I had in my stomach was Starbursts.” That prompted me to eat all my freeze-dried dinner to carb up, even if I wasn’t that hungry. Falling asleep was easy.
The second day’s hike was 12 miles with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. After following the Glenn Springs and Juniper Canyon Trail dirt roads into the grasslands, we met Rick, who delivered water, and Keri Thomas and Elizabeth Comer, two friends of Laurence’s. Keri had climbed Pico de Orizaba, the 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, with Laurence the previous year. Elizabeth ran marathons. Like Jeff, they were both 34. Unlike Jeff and the rest of us, neither had been to Big Bend.
Progress slowed on the Dodson Trail, part of the Outer Mountain Loop, due to the steep ascent. By late afternoon, we passed behind Elephant Tusk, the landmark peak that appeared so achingly distant the day before.
We stumbled into camp by Fresno Creek in Fresno Canyon, a tiny trickle in a tight crevice in the sparse woodlands beneath the South Rim of the Chisos, less than an hour before sunset. We enjoyed supper within earshot of running water and gazed upon stars like nowhere else. Elizabeth lost one of her big toenails. Laurence complained of blisters. Carrying all that photo gear was having an effect. I developed saddle sores on my hipbones. My clothes were getting funky and my hair matted, but I slept so well that I was busted the next morning, along with Shelly, for snoring.
Day Three began with sunlight playing off the South Rim and the dulcet tones of Elizabeth’s voice, “Yea, it’s fresh underwear day.”
We started late in the morning with a steep, 500-foot ascent to the highest point of our trip, a mile above sea level. Jeff sprinted ahead of the rest of us so he could pause in solitude and get what he calls “epiphanies.” So far, he’d had one and a half, he reported.
At the saddle of the Chisos, we could see where we’d been and where we were going, from the Del Carmens to the Mesa de Anguila. It was difficult comprehending how far we’d already walked. Near its end, we veered off Blue Creek Trail and bushwhacked through high desert. We were an hour late to Ross Maxwell Drive, the paved road where Rick Willing waited with another water, food and underwear swap, and the weather forecast – 20 percent chance of rain today, 50 percent tomorrow, which explained the overcast skies and refreshingly cool breezes.
Fresno Creek had been a camper’s delight. The lunar surface beneath the Chimneys, the landmark cluster of small pointed pinnacles where we made camp on day three, was creepy. No breeze, an impenetrable darkness brought on by thick cloud cover, the way wolf spiders’ eyes glowed when a flashlight shined their way, the story Jeff told during dinner about camel spiders in the Sahara that ate their victims’ flesh and the sounds of little things scurrying around my sleeping bag prompted me to crawl into Shelly’s tent, until I crawled out again minutes later because my nose was so stuffed up from a lingering cold. Somewhere near dawn, I crawled back in after the rain started.
The flesh on two of Laurence’s toes had become infected and oozed pus. My lower back and right hip throbbed. Elizabeth’s toes were getting torn up too. Jeff said he had picked up my lingering head cold. Now it was raining. Did we dare go back? No way. We donned rain ponchos and pressed on. The rain was enough to draw the fresh scent from creosote – the perfume of the Chihuahuan desert – but ceased within the hour.
As we left camp, Laurence pointed out some petroglyphs near the base of the southernmost pinnacle. The first 5 miles below the Chimneys was a pleasant stroll through low desert, including several washes thick with Big Bend bluebonnets. The last 5 miles were mostly along Old Maverick Road, the dirt road shortcut to Santa Elena Canyon from the park’s west entrance.
We made a final water/food/underwear/socks/trash exchange at Shelly’s SUV parked by Terlingua Abaja, and made camp on a grassy bank of Terlingua Creek. Santa Elena Canyon was behind us, less than 2 miles away. Its 1,500-foot vertical west wall was the one we were supposed to climb the next day.
Day Five: The flesh on the bottom of three of Laurence’s toes had been rubbed raw. There was a 30 percent chance of rain. I wondered about Keri and Elizabeth’s resolve, especially after observing Keri shave her legs the night before. We could declare victory, celebrate what we achieved, and ride back to Terlingua in Shelly’s SUV.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked Laurence, who was staring at his feet.
“Go for it.”
He was hurting, but he was too proud to bag it now.
We skirted the base of the mesa for 3 miles, picking our way through grassy plains and around ridges of bentonite, looking for an old, unused pack route up the canyon wall that Raymond Skiles told us about. Keri was nearing heat exhaustion to the point that Laurence proposed blowing off climbing the mesa and cutting across the flats towards Terlingua until Shelly spotted a cairn that marked the way up.
It took a little under an hour to scale the front wall, with considerable difficulty. On top, we discovered several more walls beyond. It was a terribly long slog. Almost every day of the trip someone would ask late in the afternoon, “How much farther?” The reply was always, “Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” This time it wasn’t funny.
“Today’s been a bitch, y’all,” Laurence declared as we finally dropped backpacks on a rolling plain near Tinaja Lujan. We’d covered 8 miles in seven and a half hours.
“I was getting demoralized,” Shelly admitted. “I’m freaking exhausted and want to get it over with,” Jeff said. Elizabeth was busy applying moleskin to her feet. Keri was exhausted. I didn’t move for 30 minutes after I dropped my pack, I was so tired.
Thunderstorms lit up the night sky as I fell asleep. When I heard a loud clap, I dragged my sleeping bag into Shelly’s tent. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and rain came down hard for close to an hour.
At daybreak, the air had a pristine scent. “I’m glad we’re alive,” Laurence muttered as he emerged from his tent. “That lightning was less than a mile away. We’d pitched our tents close enough to each other that if one had been hit, all of us would have fried, with no one left to do CPR.” Elizabeth said she had a dream that we’d taken too much water from the tinaja and were being punished by the storms.
We were exhilarated. The views from the top were stunning. We could see the Sentinel marking the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande, the village of San Carlos 12 miles into Mexico, mountains in every direction. The walk down the mesa was positively chatty.
We paused at the last, great sweeping vista before our final 1,000-foot descent to Lajitas. The end of the trail was a golf course. The unnatural green of heavily irrigated grasses prompted grumbles and proposals to turn around. A golf course resort was no place to end a rugged adventure. “I’m feeling post-partum,” Shelly said on our final few hundred yards towards the course maintenance building. I saw a Coke can tossed among the creosote. This time I didn’t bother picking it up.
Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park and project manager of planning for Big Bend Ranch State Park, picked us up. In his four and a half years as national park super, he said he knew of only two parties who’d hiked across the Big Bend like we did. As for the golf course, he laughed. “People like you and me just don’t understand golf and jets.”
Somewhere on the drive back to Desert Sports, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. The greasy hair and stubbly beard were not a pretty sight.
I fetched my car and drove Jeff back to his vehicle at Rio Grande Village, our starting point. The hour drive gave us time to ruminate on what we’d done, punctuated with several “We did that?” epiphanies, along with a full view of Santa Elena and the Mesa de Anguila sloping towards Lajitas. From the road, it looked as flat and smooth as a baby’s bottom. We knew better.
The shower back in Terlingua was delicious. For the rest of the evening, I took great pleasure in answering Terlingua friends and acquaintances when they inevitably asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Laurence’s feet finally healed, though he had a head cold for two more weeks. Jeff said he had flu-like symptoms for three weeks once he got home. Elizabeth, Keri and Shelly had their complaints. My lower back required some manipulation to get right and still acts up now and then. Despite all that, we’ve all said we’d do it again. Walking across the Big Bend will do that, to a few souls at least.
- Have you been to Big Bend Ranch State Park? Blog Joe Nick about your adventures.
- Did you hear Joe Nick talk about his hike on the Glenn Mitchell Radio Show?
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS