Texas Big Bend Country | Fort Leaton State Historic Site – El Fortin De San Jose

The story of this land started in 1773 when the Spanish Garrison at Presidio Del Norte (at present, Ojinaga of Mexico) established The Little Fort of Saint Joseph or El Fortin De San Jose to protect the local farmers. In 1810, the post was somehow abandoned until Benjamin Leaton and his spouse Juana Pedrasa purchased the property from Juan Bustillos in 1848. Attracted by two important resources namely the water (Rio Grande) and the fertile floodplain soils (Rio Conchos) in this area of La Junta, the couple and their three children made this place their home. After they expanded and fortified the adobe structures into a square, operation as trading post began and served as private fortification for soldiers, traders, explorers, freighters and native American/Anglo settlers on Chihuahuan Trail.  
Located between Redford and Presidio
El Fortin de San Jose - how it began?
One of the earliest trading post on Chihuahuan Trail
Main entrance into the patio
Welcome to Fort Leaton
The story of Fort Leaton continued with a few episodes of ugly turns following the death of Benjamin Leaton in 1851. Juan Pedrasa Leaton remarried Edward Hall and they continued the trading post operation albeit unsuccessful. In 1862, John D. Burgess bought the property, expanded and continued the trading post operation. The refusal of the Halls to leave the fort upset Burgess. He was charged with Edward Hall murder in 1872 but his family continued the operation for the next 12 years. In 1927, the Burgess sold the property and abandoned the site.
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Texas Big Bend Country | Scenic Drive FM 170 – The River Road – El Camino Del Rio

El Camino Del Rio is a Spanish word for ‘The River Road’. Ranked as one of the top 10 most scenic roads in Texas, the stretch over 50 miles from Lajitas to Presidio is unarguably stunning! Some said it is one of the prettiest roads in America. The ruggedness and scenic beauty of the area combined with over 50 miles of ridge road by Rio Grande is a must-see!
Scenic River Road - El Camino Del Rio
Excellent paved road of two-way traffic on two lanes, the River Road is almost hugging the cliff with twists and drops along the sun-drenched Rio Grande.

We decided not to leave Big Bend Country without seeing this spectacular vista. After leaving Terlingua town, we passed by some old mining sites and then the sight of open desert with some signs of civilization indicated we had reached Lajitas.
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Texas Big Bend Country | Lajitas – The Gateway to The River Road

Lajitas is a Spanish word which means ‘flagstones’. It is pronounced as ‘La-HEE-Tahs’. Located 13 miles west of Terlingua, this small town stretches less than half a mile on Texas Ranch Road 170. Lajitas is also the gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park from east.
Lajitas - a border town on Texas Mountain Trail
The story of Lajitas began in 1915 as a village when an army post was established to protect the Big Bend area from Mexican bandit Francisco Pancho Villa. Then, it was left forgotten until recent years whereby development has just taken place.
Lajitas Security Post
Lajitas Security Post
Surprisingly, we saw the sign of ‘Lajitas Airport’ before reaching the town. Guess it could be operating for internal flights or small aircraft.
Lajitas Boardwalk
Badlands Hotel at Lajitas
Apparently, on the river side of Lajitas is now occupied by two rustic rows of five-star hotel. Sitting on the same ground includes theater, spa, antique shops, bakery, art gallery, saloon and a fine dining restaurant.
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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Adventure begins
If you happen to visit Texas Big Bend National Park with a limited time for sightseeing, be sure you put Santa Elena Canyon Trail at the top of your list! The sight of Rio Grande cut vertically the limestone walls of 1500-foot height is amazing! A definite must see. And Santa Elena Canyon Trail is the best spot to catch this impressive view!
Santa Elena Canyon hiking trail after the picnic area
Giant boulder..from Terlingua Creek
The switchbacks on the cliff (white railings under the shade)
The power of Rio Grande
The hike has just began
Prickly pears and Santa Elena Canyon
The trailhead begins at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive near the picnic area. A round trip takes about 1.6 miles and generally, the trail is a short and easy hike. Following the ‘Santa Elena Canyon Trail’ sign led us to walk on a fine sandy ground pathway, passing through an area of lush vegetation. The next marker on our trail was Terlingua Creek. Fortunate for us, when we were there, the creek was almost dry so there was no barrier at all. On wet season, you may have to wade the water if it is not too deep and safe to cross.

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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Less than a mile drive from the River Access took us to Santa Elena Canyon Overlook.
Left canyon wall belongs to Mexico, right wall is United States
Standing right at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, the giant walls seemingly forbidden but profoundly beautiful. Santa Elena Canyon is one of the best highlights at Big Bend National Park. A visit to Big Bend is not complete without seeing this majestic canyon. The cliffs rise vertically for over 1,000 feet. These vertical walls of pure limestone is indeed magnificent! Texas makes up the north walls while Mexico makes up the south.
Anatomy of Santa Elena Canyon
Heading six miles upstream the river is the Rock Slide, a challenging spot to all canyon navigators. Peering down from the canyon rim, a boatman with 1852 Survey said it would be ‘impossible for a boat to pass this fall in safety’. Some claimed as they entered the sheer-walled gorge, there was no escape, no place to climb out. ~ Big Bend NPS
Santa Elena Canyon - Majestic!
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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Santa Elena Canyon River Access

You must be wondering, did we actually bring along a raft or canoe to float on the Rio Grande River? Otherwise, why should we be here at the river access point. The answer is “How I wish we did!”. Too bad we didn’t.
Detour to Santa Elena Campground. We steal a glimpse of Cerro Castolon
Santa Elena Campground - Colors of Fall
Left turn ahead is Santa Elena Canyon River Access
Seeing a couple of trucks at the parking bay confirmed our instinct that this is definitely a place of attraction.  One of the vehicles was equipped with canoe racks on its wagon. Bushes here were green and taller than me. Following our heart led us to a path, advancing nearer to the water. As we reached the river bank, we were greeted by a uniformed man – the park’s river patrol staff. He was in the midst of moving his canoe out from the water. After exchanging greetings and a brief chat, we took a short walk towards east along the muddy river bank so that we could get on the middle patch. The ground here was carpeted by mainly sandy soils and pebbles. Water was pretty shallow. And here, we were shaded by canyon wall despite sun was shining bright. I heard that the international border lies in the middle of Rio Grande and guess we were standing right on it! So, were we on the land of United States or Mexico? Or neither of both?
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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Castolon Historic District

Castolon Historic District is the place to catch the glimpse of Big Bend’s past. Located at the western side of Big Bend National Park, it is accessible either via Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or Old Maverick Road. However, the Old Maverick Road is an unpaved road only recommended for high clearance vehicles.
Arriving at Castolon Historic District
Formerly US Army's barrack
Vigas and latillas made up the porch
What I recalled vividly when we arrived there, the weather was very hot. Guess it is the venue to experience the temperature of Chihuahuan desert albeit we were there on Thanksgiving weekend, almost in the winter. Despite hiding under the porch of the Visitor Center, how I wish I could have an ice-cream!
Store is opened year round
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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Tuff Canyon

Approaching Tuff Canyon Overlook
Tuff Canyon is recommended as a worthwhile stop by the park’s trip planner. It is located before the stunning peak of Cerro Castellan at mile 20 from Castolan-Santa Elena Junction.
Spectacular vista - Cerro Castolon (left) and Santa Elena Canyon wall (right)
The sight of Tuff Canyon from East Overlook platform
The power of water created layered rocks on canyon wall
Tuff Canyon from East Overlook -  a dry creek
Cerro Castolan is a layered mountain formed from pyroclastic rocks of a lava dome at its pinnacle. Rhyolite, breccia and basalt are the layers that made up this mountain from top to bottom. As I got off the car, my eyes were glued to this incredible rock – Cerro Castolon. An inspiring sight to behold. Indeed a significant peak on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Nobody should miss this giant rock!

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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Mule Ears View Point

The sign says 'Mule Ears View Point'
Brown hills and spires near Mule Ears View Point
We traded off the stop at Burro Mesa Pouroff that arrived after Sotol Vista Overlook with Mule Ears View Point which came up next. The landscape at Big Bend National is fascinating. Beautiful panorama is enormous. Each mile we made was rewarded with different spectacular scenery. If I were have a chance to visit without the time constraint, I would love to visit and walk through every single trail in Big Bend National Park.
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Texas Big Bend National Park | Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Sotol Vista Overlook

‘Sotol’ is the name give to a speer-like plant that thrives on cooler, north facing terrain usually found at midway between the deserts and mountains. Also known as ‘Desert Spoon’, the scientific name is Dasylirion wheeleri from the lily’s family. During April to May, sotol plants produce a stalk 10-20 feet high which claimed the name as ‘Desert Candle’. Since thousands years ago, the early inhabitants at Big Bend consumed the roasted heart of Sotol as food whilst the leaf fibers were used to make sandals and ropes.
Sotol Vista Overlook
Sotols color the desert and mountains
In 1981, a fire was ignited when lightning struck a sotol plant nearby this spot at Big Bend. Fanned by winds and coupled with thunderstorm, the fire began to spread, wiped down the slope yet it was allowed to burn. A total of 680 acres of land were affected but interestingly the fire burned in a form of mosaic leaving many ‘islands’ of green. Revegetation began with the nutrients released after the fire and within few years, the place was covered by cacti and grasses again. Natural-occurring fire is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is just how nature takes its course.
Sotols plants (right) are evergreen shrubs
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