FM-170 The Texas River Road
FM-170 is a 120-mile scenic highway starting in Terlingua, near Big Bend National Park, and passing north along the Rio Grande through some of the remotest lands in the United States. Nobody gets on FM-170 by mistake. It is arguably the most scenic highway in the state of Texas, rivaling those near the Guadalupe Mountains or even those in Big Bend National Park. Beth and I have driven this road twice now: once in January 2004 on our first trip together to Big Bend National Park, and again over the Christmas holidays of 2005. The road starts in the Terlingua-Study Butte area, branching off of Texas highway TX-118. The first few miles is basically a scrabble of hotels, businesses and homes, all serving the tourists who come to the Big Bend. On our first visit we took some time to visit the old ghost town of Terlingua, which was at its prime in the 1940s as a quicksilver mining town during World War II. Its population numbered about 2,000 people, but at the war's end, the mines closed and the population shrunk to nearly nothing. Today, Terlingua-Study Butte has about 300 people. Getting technical here, Study Butte is the area right at the TX-118/FM-170 junction, while Terlingua is about 5 miles west along FM-170. But there is no clear demarcation between the two places and even the signs list both names. The "Study" in Study Butte is pronounced "Stoo-dy".
You are now entering Lajitas.
Lajitas Lajitas is the next town north along FM-170, about 18 miles out from the start of the highway. We were forced to wait a short spell for construction, then we rolled into Lajitas. What an odd little place. On our 2004 visit, we noted with much curiosity that all of the locals in Terlingua had nothing kind to say about Lajitas, some were even downright hostile toward the place. It seems that in the recent past it was built up as some sort of resort destination, with faux-front buildings, a top-end hotel and golf course, that sort of thing. The place was dead. The hordes of rich golfing types evidently don't want to travel all the way to Lajitas, and the interesting places, those with character, are in Terlingua, or north into Presidio. The soul of Lajitas had been removed and replaced with an antiseptic resort. I wonder if the builders they'll ever recoup their investment. We stopped into a little store for some snacks. The place was really nice, but no one was around and the storekeeper seemed bored. This is all a shame. The upside of Lajitas is the Burton Warnock Visitor Center for the Big Bend Ranch State Park, just over the Presidio County line to the north. Definitely stop in to this visitor's center.
Big Bend Ranch State Park The next 40 miles or so past Lajitas is the realm of the Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP), a state park addendum to the National Park. This is a relatively new park and is still mostly closed to tourists, although they are slowly adding trails and infrastructure. The road is spectacular here, often twisting and winding up and down the mountainsides. In 2004 we made one stop to hike Closed Canyon, a slot canyon whose waters dump into the Rio Grande. In 2005 we just drove it, enjoying the secenery and steep grades. At the north end of the park we passed through the little burg of Redford. We are kind enough to show you a photo of its sign. We also visited Fort Leaton and noted the amusing signage, in which the two monuments seem to have issue with one another.
The Rio Grande from the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
The Dueling Signs of Fort Leaton
Presidio Presidio is about 55 miles from Lajitas, and the main city along the River Road. It looks and feels like Mexico. In the old days it was just a part of the city of Ojinaga, Mexico. Then the Rio Grande became the international border, and the parts north of the river became the city of Presidio, now in the United States. Ojinaga still exists south of the river and the two cities together are culturally just one big city. We didn't venture into Ojinaga but we did stop for one of the finest true Mexican meals we've ever had at The Patio Restaurant along the business district in Presidio. Wonderful food, and authentic, and delicious. We'd happily move to Presidio and get fat on that food if there was a good job for me there. We also visited the nearby shops that specialize in obvious counterfeit stuff as well as crap from the world over, mainly Asia. We entertained ourselves reading the mangled english on the products. A toy robot advertised that "its arms can waggles", for instance. Whatever the hell that means. You could also buy a combination musical keyboard and ray-gun. Who'd want that? What kid dreams of fighting bad guys then playing keyboards? Makes you wonder what kind of focus studies they do over in Japan, China and that region.
The home-made Presidio Welcome sign.
Ruidosa Forty more miles up FM-170 brings us to Ruidosa, a tiny town tucked into a small section of flat space between the mountains and the river. On our first visit in 2004, no one was home, it seemed, but we did get barked at by two dogs who came running at us; we bent down and offered them ear-rubs and the quickly rolled onto their backs. The attractions in Ruidosa is an old adobe church, the La Junta General Store, and the start (or end) of the amazing Pinto Canyon Road. The Chinati Hot Springs are a great place to soak in the natural hot waters, located about 7 miles out of Ruidosa along good graded dirt road. We visited there on both our visits, and we highly recommend it. Be sure to get Cornpone the hound dog to howl if you can.
On our second visit in 2005 we had an enjoyable talk with Ms. Celia Hill, the proprietress who runs the La Junta General Store. She's a retired school teacher who bought and renovated the store about 10 years ago. A wonderful woman with lots of stories to tell, she is Ruidosa's unofficial historian. She informed us that Ruidosa'a population is "17, when everyone's home". She also told us about this cool website that had photos of the ferocious guard dogs of Ruidosa ... hey - that's my website! Small world! Great lady, truly a friendly woman and worth the time to chat.
Candelaria FM-170 continues another 12 miles before finally giving up the ghost in the community of Candelaria, surely one of the more remote towns in the entire United States. Maybe 20 people live here; we saw a few homes and a church. There's a town in Mexico just over the border; we were told that while it's okay for Americans to walk over the footbridge, it's technically illegal to come back that way as it's not an official border checkpoint. We were also told that the locals will look out for you and let you know when the Border Patrol isn't around, so getting back and forth is not as troublesome as it seems. Nevertheless, we didn't want to chance it ... our goal was just to drive to Candelaria just to say we've been there.
This is a very rare instance of a highway "dead-ending". Very few places in the United States do this. But does it really end? Yes, the paved FM-170 ends, but a continuation road called Chispa Road goes on from here. Where does it go, I wondered. We didn't drive it, but the guys at Chinati Hot Springs tell us it eventually worms its way north and east a bit to come out on some FM roads southwest of Van Horn, about 70 miles in all. He told us he's never driven it but says he's heard it's usually passable by most 4wd vehicles. So there you have it: good solid 4th-hand information! He says there are a few big ranch spreads and not much else. The B.P. patrols it.
(Update 12/10/08) The following information was provided to me by Travis Hicks, who worked on one of these remote ranches north of Candelaria: "This Fall (2008), I worked cattle on two ranches past the end of the road. The larger ranch is 110 sections, starting 19 miles down the unpaved road. The land out there is amazing and untouched for the most part. Here is the address of a website about the area: www.circledug.com".
Candelaria is the last town north along FM-170.
Pinto Canyon Road, Chinati Peak and FM-2810 From Ruidosa, the Pinto Canyon Road leads into some of the most beautiful Texas desert/canyon countryside there is. It's an unpaved road for the first 22 miles, and steep in places, but only one small section was nasty enough for us to use 4wd. Even so, a small passenger car would not make this road. Along the way (2004), we stopped and gazed upon Chinati Peak, the highest point in Presidio County ... and pretty much off-limits. It's the only one of the nine Trans-Pecos Texas County highpoints I haven't climbed. It's been climbed (without permission) and I am told it's a tough customer. I'd like to climb it, just don't know when or how yet! But boy, the views were astounding, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. The road eventually crests onto the higher plateau ranchlands and meets up with paved FM-2810, which travels another 32 miles before coming back into the city of Marfa. In 2005, slightly concerned about a slow leak in one of my tires, we passed on driving this road and went out along US-67 from Presidio to Marfa, which was very pretty and scenic, with good eastern views of the Chinatis. We also took in the Marfa Lights that night. We saw some that to me 'might' have been the real deal. I remain mostly skeptical, however.
Chinati Peak from FM-170 (the summit is to the left).
(c) 2004, 2005 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.