The Lower Pecos region in south Texas doesn’t look like much as you drive west on highway 90 from Del Rio. Dry, dull grey or brown, nothing but creosote and cactus. Even Lake Amistad, built by damming the Rio Grande, looks like dry bones after years of severe drought. Long distance trucks fly by without a glance on their way to El Paso or LA. But with over 300 aboriginal petroglyph sites deep in the canyons, this hidden gem holds wonders topped by nothing else in the world, much less in North America.
Rugged canyons protect world-class rock art from over 4000 years ago. Most of these treasures of human creation are on private property with no public access. But several sites are owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Rock Art Foundation, which offer tours for the adventurous to selected locations.
Del Rio, Texas, makes a good base for a visit, with plenty of cheap hotels, restaurants, and bars. Just a short drive away a new world opens up, when you take the time to see.
Friday 6 p.m.
1. Fortifying Your Belly
Have dinner at Wright’s Steak House, a family-owned spot in business more than 30 years. The bartender/owner will make you a margarita to soothe your soul, or anything else you like from the full bar. Order the fried onion rings as an appetizer for about $5.95, but don’t bother asking for a half-order. They just won’t do it. You’ll be delighted with the towering plate of golden rings anyway, and they are perfect for sharing with four people. Excellent steaks are $15-25.00, with full salad bar and vegetables of the day. Be sure to see the year-round Christmas tree. It had big pastel bows, silk flowers, and colored Easter grass the last time I was there. Live music on weekends. Wright’s is located about 8 miles west of Del Rio on highway 90.
Saturday, 9:00 a.m.
2. Prepping Your Senses and Sensibilities
Leave Del Rio about 9:00 and drive about 60 miles west of Del Rio on Highway 90 to Langtry, population 30, clinging to a spectacular golden side canyon on the Rio Grande. Visit the Chihuahuan desert botanical garden at the Texas Highway Department Visitor Center to learn about the many uses of desert plants. Then wander through the Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Opera House. Judge Roy Bean billed himself as the “Law West of the Pecos” in the 1880s-90s, and was infatuated with the English singer Lily Langtry, thus the name.
The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway used to stop here to take on more fuel and water. A small community grew up around the stop to service the train, and a few people took up ranching on the side. Judge Roy Bean ran the saloon and served as Justice of the Peace. He also sponsored boxing matches and kept a pet bear.
Drive down the streets in Langtry to see the crumbling adobe ruins from over 100 years ago. The old white school house from the 1920s now serves as the community center. That and the church where services are held about once every three weeks are all that remain of the village. Drive to the end of the pavement, and proceed carefully on the gravel road to glimpse the majestic canyon. You will need four-wheel drive to go very far, so take it easy. Prepare to leave Langtry by 11:15 for the drive back east on highway 90. Just before you cross a little bridge that says “Eagle Nest”, pull off on the wide shoulder.
Take a good look at the canyon in front of you. Turn your head slightly to the right to see a cleft in the canyon edge across from you, and a big tumbled rock pile. That is Bonfire shelter, location of several spectacular bison jumps during the past 10,000 years. Do not even think of going down there. It is private property (patrolled by shotgun) and extremely dangerous. Instead, read all about it at www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html.
As soon as you cross the Pecos River high bridge, turn left into the White Shaman Preserve. Stop at the gate if it is not open and wait for the guide.
3. White Shaman Shelter
Arrive White Shaman Preserve gate by noon. Eat the sandwiches and apples you brought and put on your hiking boots, preferably with two pairs of socks. Slather on the sunscreen and bug spray. Adjust your hiking sticks. Get your hat and sunglasses, and pack plenty of water. Tours start promptly at 12:30 every Saturday, no reservations needed. Donations of $20 cash per person are appropriate.
White Shaman Preserve is owned by the Rock Art Foundation (www.rockart.org), which vigilantly protects the property. The ancient rock art here is world-famous, and justly so. New research is currently on the verge of breaking the iconographic code to understand what the artists from long ago were telling us in this panel.
An informed guide leads each tour. The climb down into and up out of the canyon is moderately steep, and it can be very hot. It is not recommended for those in poor health or with mobility issues. The tour generally takes about two and one-half hours.
4. Cool off in the Pool
This being hot desert country, almost any Del Rio hotel you stay in will have a pool. The Ramada Inn’s two pools (indoor and outdoor) and three hot tubs are highly recommended. Plunge into the cool water to lower your body temperature, then soak your bones in a hot tub. Your muscles will thank you. Next, time for a nap in your dark air-conditioned room.
5. Dinner Again at Wright’s
This is the best place to eat I have found in Del Rio. Try the chicken fried steak with real homemade mashed potatoes and gravy or the 16 oz. garlic encrusted ribeye. Really good. They also have fish, quail, and frog legs.
If it is dark when you come out, and the sky is clear, look up. The Milky Way spreads out like heaven itself here in the desert. Better yet, drive further out of town and find a side road to park on. Then stretch out on the hood of your car and drink in the night sky.
6. Canyon of the Winged Anthropomorphs
Leave Del Rio by 8:00 a.m. for the 40 mile drive west on highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park (432-292-4464). Pay your entrance fee and tour fee of about $8.00 per person. Wander the small but well done museum that explains human life from the Paleolithic era to the present in this area. Listen to the explanation of rock art and watch the informative video while overlooking the canyon. Put on your hiking boots, etc., use the restroom, and meet on the back deck at 9:55 for the tour to Fate Bell Shelter. Entrance to the canyon is by guided tour only.
Tours leave Wednesday-Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. from September through May, and 10:00 a.m. only June through August. If you are lucky you will get an informed guide, but sometimes you get an intern that is pretty green, so you never know. The hike in and especially out is moderately strenuous and very hot. Carry water with you. Do not put your hands and feet anywhere you cannot see, i.e. in rock crevices. That’s where rattlesnakes like to hang out.
You will see two rock shelters on this tour, the largest of which is named Fate Bell, for the rancher who once owned the property. Fate Bell is a huge rock shelter where 30 people or more could have lived comfortably. And live they did, as evidenced by the sotol matting still visible in the disturbed cave dust floor. Stay on the rubber mats put down by the park service at all times in order to prevent further damage. Flint flakes are everywhere on the floor as well, but do not be tempted to take them with you. Look but don’t touch. Please.
Fate Bell shelter is inspiring now, and must have been almost overpowering 4000 years ago. Notice how the paint goes all the way down below the current floor level. It probably continues down several feet, but we may never know, as any archeological digging would likely destroy the art that can be seen today. It’s a real dilemma that frustrates many a concerned person. The paintings cover the entire expanse in this shelter, so look carefully as you go.
The brightest and best preserved grouping is the “winged shaman” at the left end of the shelter. No one really knows their meaning, but they are powerful images, nonetheless.
7. The Joy of Running Water
When the tour is over, you will likely be covered in sweat, so drive up to the campground and take a shower to cool off. Hot and cold running, courtesy of the Texas state parks. Put on clean clothes. Believe me, you will feel much better. Then eat the sandwiches you brought (you did, didn’t you?) and drink plenty of liquid. This is the time for that bottle of Gatorade.
Leave Seminole Canyon State Park and turn left onto, you guessed it, highway 90. Within about 2 miles you will see a sign for a scenic overlook. Turn left there and wind around past the old mobile homes. You will come to a roadside park with a magnificent overlook of the Pecos River. The view is spectacular. Look far to the left to see the conjunction of the Pecos and the Rio Grande. From here, it’s time for the journey home, or to continue on your way. Happy Highways!
If You Go
The Ramada Inn Del Rio, 2101 Veteran’s Blvd (aka highway 90), 78840, 830-775-1511, www.ramadinndelrio.com is a good hotel with two swimming pools, three hot tubs, an excellent gym, dining room, etc. A room with two queen beds is about $60.00 per night. There are many other inexpensive motels along this strip, as well as lots of chain eateries. The Wal-Mart is one of the best-supplied I’ve ever seen, and is great for that forgotten sunscreen or hat.