Christmas Mountains Summit • Range Highpoint: Christmas Mountains
• Southern Brewster County

Date Climbed
December 19, 2005

5,728 feet

8 miles

3 hours

1,800 feet

Cool, pleasant

2,388 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

The Christmas Mountains as seen
from Big Bend National Park

Terlingua Ranch, with the
Christmas Range behind it
and pointy Corazon Peak
to the right

The mountains as seen
from Terlingua Ranch

A view of the Chisos
Range about halfway up

The summit, left of center

The final approach

The summit cairn

Another Chisos Mountains view
from the summit

South view...
unnamed little peak there

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The Christmas Mountains are a compact range with impressive prominence located near Big Bend National Park, about 80 miles south of Alpine along highway TX-118, and 60 miles from the National Park's main western entrance. The range was privately owned for many years, then in a limbo status for many years as the state's General Land Office (TX-GLO) owned it, hoping to sell it to the Federal Government and be included as part of the Big Bend National Park. Of course, something that simple has dragged on now for over twenty years.

Beth and I were in the Big Bend area, staying at the Terlingua Ranch, which is north of the National Park about 20 miles off the main highway via a network of dirt and lesser paved roads. In fact, we blundered and assumed the Terlingua Ranch was located in the town of Terlingua, so we drove there first, only to discover we'd overshot our correct exit by 25 miles. We finally rolled into the Terlingua Ranch as dusk was turning into darkness. Fortunately, the proprietors had left our key available for us to get into our cabin, and we settled our bill the next morning. I made a leisurely walk to the main office to gether information about the area. Terlingua Ranch serves tourists as well as a smattering of locals who bought land in a huge subdivision of plots north of "the Ranch". The main offices also include a restaurant and occasional entertainment, things hard to come by in these very remote parts of Texas. It's situated in a valley surrounded by stark desert peaks, and is very lovely. The accommodations are basic but decent.

In regards to Christmas Mountain, I had made no advance plans for hiking this peak since I did not know our lodgings would be so close to this range. But now that we were here and the Christmas Mountains right there across the valley, I was naturally curious if it would be possible to hike the peak. So while I visited the offices, I looked over their topographical maps. I also struck up a conversation with the guy in the main office, carefully broaching the subject so as not to overplay my hand. It helped to notice that the entire range was up for sale by the TX-GLO for about $450,000. This was a good "in" to bring up the subject. The man himself wouldn't grant me any permissions to enter on the Christmas Mountains land as the Terlingua Ranch does not own it. He didn't know who did, or had a vague idea, or maybe just wasn't telling me much. He was nice, and did let on that an old road goes to the range crest.

The day had started with a surprise: dense fog coated the low valleys. It didn't lift until late morning, and when it did the day revealed itself to be a gorgeous warm, winter Texas desert afternoon. I was able to gather some waypoint figures from the maps at the Ranch office. The more-detailed 1:24K quad maps showed all the ridges and things like that, but for some reason, not the old road. On the other hand, the broader 1:100K map showed the old road. There was no way to photocopy the maps, so I took notes on a sheet of paper. This would have to serve as my "map". I drove some roads, and successfully worked my way to the base of the range. The aforementioned old road is visible as it cuts up the side of the foothills, so I aimed for it. I parked in an open area well below the start of the mine road. From the truck, I walked to the base of the hills. The road was chained shut with a single light-gauge chain. That was it, no contact information, no signs telling me to get lost, nothing. So I went in.

The hike went well and I moved quickly. If I were to run into a dead end, I'd like to know sooner than later. In time the road worked up and over some lower hills, offering great views of the Chisos Mountains to the south. The road reaches a highpoint 2.5 miles in, then drops about 200 feet, then regains some of that elevation before ending very near the western ridge at a small saddle. The summit was just a quarter-mile walk to the north, mostly over rock and some game paths. A substantial cairn sits at the summit. Clearly, people have been here before me. The register had one other name in it from early 2004, and I may have been the only person to visit the summit for all of 2005. It had taken me 1 hour, 40 minutes to gain the top, covering 4 miles one way, with 1,800 feet of gain. The views were superb, but I only stayed five minutes. The walk out took one hour, and I was back to our cabin by 3 p.m. The hike, which I had not planned for whatsoever, was an unexpected success.

We spent some more time down in Big Bend National Park, including a great climb of Emory Peak two days later, on the winter solstice. We also retraced our drive up highway FM-170, the Texas River Road, through Presidio and up to Candelaria, staying at the Chinati Hot Springs before heading home.

Here is some background about the Christmas Mountains that I have collected since our hike:

From what I can gather, this seems to be a summary of situation: The Christmas Mountains was purchased by a land conservancy group (The Mellon Foundation?) in the late 1980s, with intentions on selling it to the National Park Service for inclusion into Big Bend National Park. The BBNP is interested, but needs congressional approval to make such a large purchase, not to mention all sorts of preliminary studies and surveys. Money and other issues get in the way. The Land conservancy group then unloaded the parcel to private owners but the deed restrictions are so severe that literally there is no legal development of any sort allowed in the Christmas Mountains. The Texas General Land Office then bought the land, again thinking the BBNP may be buying it soon for the Park. Again, the deal falls through. The GLO still owns land, but allows some outfit called the Cristmas Mountains Association (CMA) to manage it. The CMA is apparently a loose aggregate of locals living nearby who are willing to cover the lease costs and upkeep. The land will probably (in the very long term) become part of the National Park, but in the meantime it is in a prolonged limbo.

I mention all this because a few months later I got an angry email from the leader of the CMA upset at my climb. In the email, the writer called me every name in the book (with many misspelled) and questioned my honor and decency and so forth. This was the first time I had heard of the CMA in any way, shape or form. The Terlingua Ranch people certainly didn't say anything about them and there were no signs at or near the range attesting to their purview.

Texas law heavily favors the landowners when it comes to posting land against trespassing. So while it is safe to assume anything not on a highway or in a city is probably private, I certainly did not feel like I was approaching some heavily posted section of land when I came upon the Christmas Mountains. There were no homes or obvious infrastructure in the hills. Other than the light-gauge wire spanning the road at the base, I saw nothing else, not a sign or anything. If this was the extent of the CMA's "posting" the land, it is pretty scant. Given the land is for sale and that I'd be on a road anyway and that in anywhere else outside of Texas it would be just fine to hike on such a road, I felt 100% comfortable hiking the road. Just what does the CMA do, I wonder? Judging by their email (I got one other from the treasurer), they certainly don't practice their spelling. I conclude that the CMA don't do much at all other than to issue emails retroactively. It must be all their budget allows. The irony is that somehow they were alerted to my trip report probably from someone, many months after the fact. They probably would never have known otherwise. As you can gather, I am not a fan of the CMA.

Updates: The situation is very fluid, and I check in on the latest happenings every couple of months (I just Google "Christmas Mountains Texas"). The land just wasn't attracting any buyers, so the GLO agreed to "open" access via a one-mile boundary that the Christmas Mountains tract shares with the National Park. This looks nice on paper, but in reality this common boundary is very remote from any roads and probably not likely to see much visitation at all except by the most hardiest (or insane) of hikers. Also, I noted recently that the Terlingua Lodge is closed, perhaps temporarily. I do not know if that means no access at all, or it just means the accommodations are closed. People still live there, so maybe the closure is temporary. The insinuations seem to be that opening up the Christmas Mountains to hunters might draw some funds (via permits) to the locals. Of course, this is a controversial point since the Big Bend National Park people still maybe might possibly want to consider maybe possibly purchasing the land or not, maybe. There's a lot of rancor in the debate, and I leave it as an exercise to the reader to check out the action on your own time.

Update, April 2011: Potential good news: It appears public access will be allowed now up the old mine road via the Terlingua Ranch, which itself has re-opened. This is fantastic news and I want to thank Dr. Paul Burger for alerting me of this development. Please read the Terlingua Ranch website for information on how to legally obtain access to Christmas Mountain.

(c) 2005-2011 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.