No Country for Wimps
Black Gap Wildlife Management Area draws backcountry ramblers and solitude seekers.
By Dale Weisman
Perched in a shelter cave high above the desert floor, I gaze across the hardscrabble streambed of Maravillas Canyon and marvel at the emptiness of it all.
I'm in the heart of Black Gap, a 103,000-acre wildlife management area sprawling across southeastern Brewster County. While Black Gap looks as desolate as any empty quarter on earth, it's anything but barren. The floral diversity is astonishing, if you have a keen eye for Chihuahuan Desert plant life beyond prickly pear, creosote and lechuguilla.
Wildlife abounds, too. Black Gap harbors nearly 300 bird species and more than 50 types of mammals, including black bear ambling in from Mexico and reintroduced desert bighorn sheep, icons of the West.
Desert mule deer "berries" dot the talus slope below the rimrock. Mountain lion scat litters the floor of another nearby shelter cave. Spooked by the silence and solitude, I have an unnerving sense of being watched by something hidden in the limestone crevices above me.
Nothing stirs in the immense landscape beneath my alcove. Except for a solitary quail hunter somewhere down in the canyon, I have the vastness of Black Gap all to myself.
Black Gap is the largest wildlife management area in Texas – and the third-largest expanse of public land in the Trans-Pecos behind Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Bordered by the national park to the west, Texas General Land Office (GLO) property to the south and the Rio Grande to the east, Black Gap lies in an empty corner of Big Bend Country known mostly to ranchers, wildlife biologists, hunters and paddlers.
The second-oldest WMA in the state, Black Gap was established in 1948 when the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission – the predecessor to today's Texas Parks and Wildlife Department – acquired ranchland from the Combs Cattle Company for native wildlife research and habitat management demonstration projects.
Despite its 60-year heritage, enormous size and close proximity to Big Bend National Park, Black Gap remains unknown territory for most West Texas travelers. Some 400,000 visitors flock to the national park each year. Most of them speed south of Marathon and past the road to Black Gap, unaware of its scenic splendor.
"Black Gap is absolutely one of the best kept secrets in the state," says Nan Patton, who helps manage the Stillwell Store on FM 2627, north of the entrance to Black Gap. Nan is a granddaughter of Hallie Stillwell, the legendary ranchwoman who rode herd on the Stillwell Ranch in the early decades of the 20th century.
Nowadays, the ranch caters to tourists more than cattle. The Stillwell Store, Hallie Stillwell Hall of Fame Museum and RV Park are the closest things to civilization in this despoblado (unpeopled land). Some days – especially during the heat of the summer – only two or three cars pass this way, heading south on FM 2627 to Black Gap and down to the river.
Springtime brings a flash flood of visitors to the area. Each February, the annual Big Bend-Stillwell Ranch Trail Ride draws more than a hundred horseback riders who venture onto Black Gap's equestrian trails. In March, thousands of campers, anglers and paddlers descend upon Stillwell Ranch, Black Gap and the Rio Grande for spring break.
During the fall and winter, hunters make tracks to Black Gap to pursue seasonal game: mule deer, white-tailed deer, javelina, dove and quail. While Black Gap is best known among hunters, word is trickling out that the WMA is also open for "non-consumptive" use, a prosaic term for recreational activities that embody minimal impact on natural resources.
Growing numbers of non-consumptive users – hikers, backcountry campers, mountain bikers, equestrian enthusiasts, nature photographers and birdwatchers – are discovering that Black Gap offers a less-developed alternative to neighboring Big Bend National Park.
"The main difference between Black Gap and the national park is isolation," explained Mike Pittman, a TPWD biologist and project leader for the Trans-Pecos Wildlife Management Areas, which includes the Sierra Diablo and Elephant Mountain WMAs, as well as Black Gap. "We get calls from people saying, 'I don't want crowds or facilities. I want something more primitive.' They prefer Black Gap over the national park."
While visiting Black Gap last winter, I discovered what rough, isolated and yet captivating country this is. Black Gap occupies some of the lowest elevations of the Chihuahuan Desert found in the United States. The terrain is classic basin-and-range, dissected by cave-riddled limestone canyons and punctuated by two craggy mountain ranges that straddle both sides of the Rio Grande - the Sierra del Carmen and the Sierranias del Burro.
From Marathon, I drove 40 miles south on U.S. 385, and before reaching the northern entrance to Big Bend National Park, I turned left on FM 2627, the only paved road leading to Black Gap. FM 2627 rolls downhill for 28 miles to the Rio Grande, offering the only paved access to the river between the national park's eastern boundary and Langtry.
Natural-surface roads in the interior of Black Gap and adjoining GLO land also provide public access to the Rio Grande, leading to 25 miles of state-owned river frontage and 25 rustic fishing camps. Some 220 miles of unimproved roads crisscross Black Gap's rugged interior. Most of these roads are open to the public and easily traversed by high-clearance vehicles and mountain bikes. A designated equestrian trail meanders 12 miles from a parking area in the WMA's interior down to the river.
In addition to the fishing camps, 26 more primitive camp sites dot the backcountry, offering few creature comforts beyond fire rings and covered shelters. There's no potable water; visitors must bring their own drinking water. The only public bathroom is a composting toilet near the headquarters.
The austerity of Black Gap's visitor amenities is typical of Texas' WMAs. While state and national parks are managed primarily as recreational resources for people, the needs of native wildlife take precedence at WMAs like Black Gap. "When there's a conflict between people and the natural resource at a WMA, the resource usually wins," explains Pittman.
A case in point: Tens of thousands of acres at Black Gap are set aside as desert bighorn sheep habitat, off limits to the public. Black Gap is part of the historic range of native bighorns, which vanished from West Texas in the 1940s. Early efforts to reintroduce desert bighorns at Black Gap in the 1950s met with limited success due to disease and predation. In recent decades, reintroduced bighorns have gained a steady foothold at Black Gap, as well as other WMAs and private ranches in the Trans-Pecos. West Texas now harbors nearly 1,200 bighorns on both public and private land, including about 130 head at Black Gap and adjacent ranches.
At Black Gap, water means life for bighorn sheep and other animals. About 90 percent of the water available to wildlife at Black Gap comes from an ingenious man-made watering hole called a "guzzler." A form of rain catchment system, a guzzler uses angled sheet metal, concrete aprons and natural rock slopes to channel rainwater into cisterns equipped with self-leveling water troughs. More than 30 guzzlers lie scattered throughout Black Gap to give wildlife a foothold in this thirsty land.
At times, Black Gap is no country for humans. Summer temperatures often soar above 110 degrees. After a monsoonal downpour, flash floods scour streambeds and low-water crossings, making some of the natural-surface roads impassable for hours or days.
"Black Gap can be a harsh environment," said Pittman. "A flat tire out here can mean life or death."
Black Gap has no developed trails beyond the graded interior roads. If you plan to hike, be prepared to bushwhack cross-country through brushy, rocky terrain - prime habitat for Black Gap's five species of rattlesnakes.
"Everything out here sticks you or cuts you," said Dewey Stockbridge, a youthful, soft-spoken TPWD wildlife biologist who lives and works at Black Gap.
"I really haven't touched the vastness of the area," he added. "There's a lot more to see here than meets the eye if you get out and explore."
From Black Gap headquarters, Dewey and I drove down a graded road that passes through the so-called "Black Gap" – a natural cleft in a ridge of dark volcanic rock that leads into the WMA's vast interior and down to the Rio Grande, about a 14-mile drive one way.
Our first stop: the wind-blown summit of Radio Hill, a volcanic promontory topped by a radio tower. The view was sublime – a 360-degree panorama of blue ridges and faraway mountains, including Mexico's majestic Maderas del Carmen range.
Beyond Camp 8, the drive is especially picturesque. The route passes through aptly named Maravillas Canyon, one of several prominent canyons in Black Gap. Maravilla is Spanish for wonder, and the scenery indeed evokes awe. Shelter caves honeycomb the canyon's sheer headwalls; erosion-sculpted hoodoos and monumental boulders brood overhead; and distant mountains rise above it all like massive limestone layer cakes.
After an hour of driving, we reached a crumbling adobe building perched above the Rio Grande. Dewey called this forsaken outpost the Burnt House ruin – one of Black Gap's several historic ranching structures. From the ruins, I walked down to the Rio Grande, where thickets of giant cane, as invasive and tenacious as water-hogging tamarisk, choked the river bank.
As we drove back to Black Gap headquarters, an 11-point mule deer buck, followed by a female, bounded in front of Dewey's truck. We were lucky to see them, Dewey told me, adding that the best places to watch for wildlife are near the guzzlers, especially at dawn or dusk.
That evening, I stayed in the headquarters bunkhouse while a gang of javelinas invaded the yard, then vanished like ghosts in the night. A full moon rose over Black Gap, illuminating the stark desert landscape like a celestial spotlight.
The next morning, I drove on down to the Rio Grande. From Black Gap's northern entrance, it's only a 20-mile drive to the river on FM 2627, a gorgeous sightseeing route by car or bicycle. The highway meanders along the western edge of Black Gap, through dark basalt ridges and over creamy limestone foothills of the Sierra del Carmen.
Just south of the turnoff to Black Gap's Camp 17, FM 2627 enters a blank spot on the map – more than 20,000 acres owned by the Texas General Land Office. Some of the GLO land, including prime river frontage, was once a part of Black Gap. In a complex land swap completed in late 2005, TPWD and the GLO exchanged thousands of acres to simplify fragmented boundaries between the two agencies' properties and eliminate a checkerboard pattern of GLO in-holdings in Black Gap.
A few miles down the road, FM 2627 comes to an abrupt halt at a barricaded one-lane bridge over the Rio Grande. Originally christened the Gerstacker Bridge and recently renamed the Hallie Stillwell Memorial Bridge, it's popularly known as La Linda Bridge. Opened in 1968 and closed by U.S./Mexican authorities in 1997, the bridge once served the fluorspar mining village of La Linda – now a ghost town – across the river.
Scrambling up a limestone bluff overlooking La Linda Bridge and the Rio Grande, I spotted a half dozen bedrock mortar holes along the cliff and imagined prehistoric predecessors sitting here and grinding nuts and seeds thousands of years ago.
The whine of a dirt bike suddenly broke my reverie. A bearded, sun-baked man rode up on a battered motorcycle and introduced himself as Fred Keller, a security guard for the nearby Heath Canyon Ranch. Satisfied that I was on the right side of the law, Fred invited me for coffee at his ramshackle trailer, perched on a ridge overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico.
"You see a lot sitting here," said Fred. Like some "Rambo of the Rio Grande," he monitors the border and river corridor with high-powered night-vision binoculars, watching for illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.
"This is probably one of the least explored parts of Texas," said Fred. "It's so rugged, vast and huge. There are places out here that will take you all day long to go a few miles."
After two days of hiking and driving around the area, I barely scratched the surface of Black Gap – and its vast potential for recreation and ecotourism.
"I think there is a significant potential for recreational use in the area," said Tyrus Fain, a Marathon resident and president of the Rio Grande Institute, which promotes the economic, cultural and natural resources of the Rio Grande corridor in Texas. "This area is similar to Big Bend Ranch State Park, but a lot more accessible. Black Gap gives visitors to Marathon and the national park another place to go."
Fain, a managing partner of the Consortium of La Linda (COLINDA) believes that the reopening of La Linda Bridge as an official border crossing could help put this undiscovered corner of the Big Bend on the map for ecotourism. Backed by the Rio Grande Institute and Museo Maderas del Carmen (a Mexican conservation organization), COLINDA is spearheading the effort to preserve and reopen the bridge for non-commercial traffic.
Once slated for demolition, La Linda Bridge stands a chance of being reopened some day for ecotourism, potentially linking Black Gap and Big Bend National Park with a 514,000-acre protected area in Mexico's lofty Maderas del Carmen range in the state of Coahuila.
According to Fain, Black Gap's future as a recreational destination also hinges on another prospect: the transfer of all or part of the GLO land adjoining Black Gap to TPWD. The jewel of the GLO land is Horse Canyon, which offers spectacular scenery, several primitive campsites and easy access to the Rio Grande for anglers and paddlers.
"If political stars align the right way, the land will be returned to TPWD for management at least in part as a recreational area. That's what COLINDA would like to see happen. It gives our interest in the bridge a more coherent program, and it extends tourism in this part of Brewster County," says Fain.
Whatever the future may hold for the GLO land, La Linda Bridge and the entire El Carmen-Big Bend corridor, I'll return to Black Gap time and again to hike, camp and explore.
The secret is out: Black Gap is a special place that deserves to be appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts who want to "take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints."
- Black Gap Wildlife Management Area headquarters is located about 58 miles south of Marathon, via U.S. 385 and FM 2627.
- For hunting closure dates and additional information, call (432) 376-2216 or (432) 837-3251.
- Public access to Black Gap WMA is by permit only. Visitors must have either an annual public hunting permit ($48 per year) or a limited public use permit ($12 per person, age 17 and older). Permits must be obtained in advance of visiting the WMA, and permit holders must register at a self-registration station at WMA headquarters. For permit information and applications, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112.
- Black Gap visitors must bring their own potable water and food and pack out all trash.
- Visitors venturing into the backcountry on the WMA's natural surface roads should bring first-aid supplies and a basic car repair kit. Watch for flash flooding during rainy periods.
- The only restroom facility at Black Gap is located at the headquarters campsite.
- All campfires must be in the provided fire rings. Only "dead and down" wood may be collected for firewood.