Friday, January 25, 2013

Jan 25 - Castalon and Santa Elena Canyon

Today we drove down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from the Castalon/Santa Elena Junction in Big Bend National Park to explore it's southwest corner. Our first stop was at the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, where one can walk a short trail around and through the remains of the early ranch. Old Sam started ranching here in 1909 and finally gave up in 1946... over-grazing, they say. The land and native grasses could not recover from the ravenous appetite of thousands of cattle and sheep. The desert may appear rugged and adaptable, but when it comes to life, things are very tenuous. Today, there's not a lot to see at the old ranch-stead, but what is here stands as a monument to hopes and perseverance of those early settlers.

Down the road a few miles is a trailhead to the Homer Wilson Ranch... or at least what's left of it. We walked the half mile or so down to the old ranch house. The structure is still in relatively good repair... surprising as it was abandoned in the early 1940's. It was the center of one of the largest ranches in the area (ultimately over 28,000 acres), and focused on sheep and goats.

Just a short distance from the Homer Wilson trailhead is Sotol Vista, a place to view the Rio Grande Valley to the south from an elevated overlook. We pulled camp chairs out and had a snack while studying the view... a neat thing to do on occasion, if for no other reason than to commandeer the pace of your day away from the damn clock. So who's gonna care if I sit here all afternoon?

The Chisos Mountains dominate this part of the park. Their volcanic nature is the origin of the many unusual rock formations and other land forms between them and the river, a mere 15 miles away. Thick layers of white volcanic ash jump out at you in various places, in contrast to the reds, purples, light tans, and dark browns of other layers. This drive is certainly one of the more eye-appealing in the Park.

Castalon was a small unincorporated village on the US side of the river (border), adjacent to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. During some border problems from 1910 to 1914, the US Army set up an outpost here to provide a military presence to keep the situation under control. Once the problem was resolved and the Army left, the village struggled while attending to the needs of nearby ranchers and farmers. In 1940, the official population was just 25. Some of the original Army buildings are still here, one of which serves as a Park Visitor Center and small convenience store.

The nearby Cottonwood Campground is a good place to camp (well, ok, the only place to camp) if you're exploring this corner of the Park. And the best hike down here, in my humble opinion, is the hike into Santa Elena Canyon, about 8 miles further and at the end of the paved road. While standing between the two sheer thousand-foot-high walls of the Canyon, it's hard to imagine the meandering trickle of water known as the Rio Grande River had the power to cut through all that rock.