Big Bend Series – Part IV – El Camino del Rio

One of the most spectacular drives in the country is the El Camino del Rio, or the River Road, that runs 51 miles from Lajitas to Presidio, Texas, alongside the Rio Grande River.  At this point the river represents the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.  The river’s headwaters are in Colorado and as it flows it’s 1,248 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico it drops 12,000 feet in elevation.  However, because of damming projects for irrigation, the flow of the river has been greatly reduced to nearly a trickle in some places.  In fact, most of the water you see at this point, originates from the Rio Conchos river that flows into the Rio Grande, from Mexico, just upstream of Presidio.  But in the event of dam releases and heavy rains, the river can become the literal English translation, “Great River”.  This was illustrated to the greatest extent in the flood of 2008, when the river ran 24 feet above flood stage, doing great damage for many miles downstream from Presidio.

Before you leave Lajitas you should make a stop at the Barton Warnock Nature Center.  There you can stroll through a great nature trail, looking at the various plants, trees, and cacti of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Many bird species hang around there also.  The center offers information, passes, books, and brochures. 

Contrabando Movie Set

 Traveling from east to west you will find the Contrabando movie set a few miles outside of Lajitas.  Several movies including Dead Man Walking and other westerns have been filmed there.  You can stroll down amongt the faux building and imagine horses and bandits running with abandon.  A sad note, part of the set, including a fake church was partly destroyed in the flood of 2008.

Contraabando Movie Set

On the right for most of the way are the mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park.  On the left is the river with Mexican mountain ranges beyond that.  There are numerous scenic pulloffs with great mountain and river views along the way. 

Further on you will come across some white volcanic ash formations on the right side of the highway.  They are the El Padre al Altar, translating into the Father at the Altar.  Some of the locals call it Penguin Rocks.  You can make your own judgements after you use your imagination.

El Padre al Altar

Going on, you will see The TeePees on the left side of the road.  This is a popular picnic area, and if you are traveling in a large semi truck or a large RV that may have trouble with difficult grades, this is the place to turn back.  You are coming up on the Big Hill.  On the left is Dark Canyon.  On the right is Santana Mesa.

Dark Canyon

The grade to the Big Hill tops out at 451 feet above the Rio Grande River.  The rocky crag that is at that point is 562 feet above it.  So get your cameras ready.  One time when we stopped, Ann was a little antsy about looking down at the river.  She heard small rocks falling down the side of Santana Mesa across the road.  She looked up with her binoculars and spotted an Oudad (a bighorn sheep) with a young, scurrying among the rocks.

View from The Big Hill

Looking west from this high point you will see the downstream exit of Colorado Canyon, not to mention a fantastic view of the river and surrounding mountains.  Further down another mile or two, you will come across Colorado Mesa on the left.  It forms the north wall of Colorado Canyon, as the river runs behind it.   You then come upon Closed Canyon.  It is a very narrow slot canyon that can be walked easily.  That is if you’re not claustrophobic.  The canyon is narrow that you can touch both sides as you go through, and each wall towers hundreds of feet above.  You can only walk so far though, as you come to a pour-off that can only be negotiated with mountain climbing gear.

The Hoodoos

The Hoodoos.  A geological name some oddly eroded rocks on the left.  Locals call them Balancing Rocks or Anvil Rocks.  Of course, the name Hoodoo comes from an African word meaning “magic”.  There is a new pull-off and parking area there, with a covered picnic table.  The river rapids along here are a favorite of kayakers.

Rancho Moreno

On the north side of the highway further on is the Rancho Moreno.   It is the ruins of the house of the Moreno family.  The entire family, save one, was wiped out with an attack of dysentary in the early 1900s.  Their windmill still stands, but not operative.

Nearing Presido you will find Fort Leaton State Historic Park  It is a reconstruction of a massive adobe-walled trading post built in 1848 by Ben Leaton, a man of dubious character.  He traded with the Apaches, the Comanches and anyone else that had anything to barter, much to the dismay of both the Mexican and U. S. governments.

Ann with ancient 2-wheel cart - Fort Leaton

So ends the brief highlights of this awesome drive.  I hope you enjoyed the photos, from my own trips there, and the narrative.  Maybe you will want to make the trip in the future.