More surprises in Big Bend Country. How about a Hollywood movie set? There is a 50 mile scenic drive along the Rio Grande on Texas Highway 170 between Lajitas and Presidio. It runs along the southern boundary of the Texas Big Bend Ranch State Park. About 15 miles west of Lajitas is the Contrabando movie set. It is named for a nearby canyon and not a movie. Built in 1985 for the western “Uphill All the Way” (I never heard of it either), it saw steady use for 20 years. Two Larry McMurtry books – Streets of Laredo and Dead Man Walk – were filmed here. Heavy flooding in 2008 inundated the set in eight feet of water. It survived and has been repaired, waiting for the next Oscar winner to be filmed here. The Rio Grande, marked by the yellow arrow, is just a gurgling brook these days.
We’ve braved some hazards in our adventures but this was a first. This bad boy is standing right at ground zero of a geocache near Fort Richardson, TX. Since it didn’t look like he was going to mooooove on anytime soon, we did. That’s a little geocaching humor. Somebody stop me.
Big Bend National Park is full of surprises and this is one of them. In the far southeast corner of the park, a geothermal spring bubbles up from the bottom of the Rio Grande River. A relic of the area’s ancient volcanic past, it is crystal clear, laden with healthy minerals and is a constant 105 degrees – about the same temp as a hot tub. In 1909, an entrepeneur named J.O. Langford built a bathhouse to corral the springs and opened a health resort. Besides the bath house, it had a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins that rented for $1.25 a night. People came from all over the world to soak in its healing waters and there are all kinds of stories of people being made well from just about everything. In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs and the foundation of the bath house are still open to the public. You can soak in it all you want (although you can’t do it naked like the old days). If you get hot, you can hop into the Rio Grande to cool off, then climb back in. It is the most popular destination in the park. In addition to the springs, you can explore the ruins of the old resort facilities. There’s also a geocache there, so how could we resist? The yellow arrow points to the spring. The water in the enclosure is all spring water. It flows into the river over the outside wall.
Big Bend National Park is just amazing. This enormous crevice is Santa Elena Canyon. The orange dot in the foreground is the lovely Natasha getting us credit for the virtual geocache located here. The canyon is contained in an escarpment that rises 1500 feet and was once the bottom of a primordial inland sea. The Rio Grande River carved out this channel millions of years later. Texas is on the right; Mexico on the left. Santa Elena Canyon runs to the northwest about eight miles. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but this section of the Rio Grande, which is flowing towards you, wasn’t navigated successfully until 1885, when the Texas Rangers pulled it off. All that showed up from previous attempts were planks and splinters. You can hike about 3/4 of a mile into the canyon. At the end of that, the walls go completely vertical right out of the water and the canyon is only 30 feet wide. We made the hike and were not disappointed. And much to our surprise, we had the place to ourselves.
Our west Texas geocaching trip took us all the way to the border today. Here’s Natasha grabbing one on the bank of the Rio Grande near La Linda, Mexico. There used to be a border crossing here but it was shut down after 9/11. Next up – Big Bend National Park.
We found a cool little town named Albany about 30 miles north of Abilene, TX. Had a bite to eat at this 1907 drug store and soda fountain that’s still going strong. Very cool place and very nice people working there. It’s right on Main St. You can’t miss it. There are a dozen geocaches in town and lots more in the surrounding area. Once again, geocaching took us to a place we never would have seen otherwise.
Downtown San Antonio is home to one the most beautifully developed urban areas in the country – The Riverwalk. Many cities boast about how they have a “Riverwalk” but none come close to the one in San Antone. First conceived in the 1960’s, it has been evolving ever since and now extends all the way to Alamo Plaza. The river part of it is a man-made canal filled with water diverted from the San Antonio River.
The canal is lined on both sides with restaurants, shops and hotels, all in southwest decor and very classy. You won’t find any run down tourist traps here. You can find just about any cuisine in the world and dine year round indoors or out. Dining and tour boats ply the water. Lush and gorgeous botanical gardens abound throughout the area. The Alamo, the IMAX theater, the convention center and other city highlights are all within walking distance or you can take the trolley.
There are at least two dozen geocaches right on the Riverwalk and many more just a short distance off of it. Some are virtual, some are the real thing. You can cover the whole Riverwalk and work off those great meals on the veranda with some geohunts. They present some unique challenges. The narrow canal area and tall buildings can interfere with a good GPS signal. And of course, you’ll be dodging muggles (non-geocachers).
Overall, it is a safe, friendly and fascinating place to visit. We are not usually enamored with commercial places, preferring to go off the beaten path, but we thoroughly enjoyed the Riverwalk. Bring your appetite, your walking shoes and your GPS. You’ll need all three.