"I assure you, the cow is more sacred in Mexico than in India," laments Julio Carrera, wildlife project chief for the three-year-old Santa Elena Canyon Reserve. He's probably right. Mexico's reserves are lands where rudimentary tasks such as management plans and species inventories trump tourism, and where people live and raise cattle on private inholdings. Indeed, the fate of this particular protected area depends largely on the goodwill of more than a hundred leery ranchers who have run their cattle on the sun-baked badlands for generations. Carrera spends most of his time trying to protect the indigenous bobcats, black bears, and ten endangered cactus species that most cattlemen would just as soon trample.
The refuge's lonely cliffs and wind-blasted gorges can be accessed with Lajitas Stables, a horse-packing outfitter based in its namesake American border town. We saddled up in Paso Lajitas, a hardscrabble village on the Mexican side, and ambled south, winding through the pre-Columbian Indian camps of Las Mangas Canyon, where ocher petroglyphs still decorate the walls. At sunset, we spread our bedrolls by the fire at Rancho Conchanillas, a private cattle ranch, and settled in beneath the stars and the watchful gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe, ensconced in a shrine on a nearby hill. The next day's ride took us through increasingly surreal terrain, several pink tuff canyons in which wind and erosion have molded volcanic ash into virtual cityscapes populated by throngs of hideously deformed, humanoid figures.
I didn't spot any actual humans until the end of our second day, when we clip-clopped down the stone streets of San Carlos, a sleepy pueblecito 20 miles south of the border. At La Gloria, a hacienda inn perched on the lip of San Carlos Canyon, I climbed off my tired horse and marveled at the oasis before me—a rock-terraced garden of red geraniums, white lilies, and pink bougainvilleas irrigated by a whispering acequia and shaded by stands of pecan and peach trees. That evening Gloria Rodriguez, the owner, plied us with chicken mole and sotol tequila on the veranda. We watched the stars come out as Onario Orozco and Lico Miller, our trail guides, sang folk songs into the night.
The remainder of the itinerary depends on the severity of your saddle sores. I continued by horseback deep into San Carlos Canyon to an abandoned silver mine called La Mina Grande. Wandering burros and spinning dust devils are the only residents left in an adobe ghost town that housed 1,500 workers earlier in the century. If that's more than your rump can take, simply stretch out in one of La Gloria's garden hammocks with a margarita and snooze the day away.
BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK
Mountain bikers and geologists can bond over the Solitario, a rare limestone and sandstone laccolith in Big Bend Ranch State Park. An odd arrangement of concentric mountain ranges formed by an ancient subterranean dome of magma that blew its lid and then collapsed in on itself, the Solitario is a mineralogical maze.Geologists get downright giddy mapping 520 million years of history in the jagged, upended flatirons of rock, and bikers flock because they can fly around the Solitario's labyrinthine inner loops like happy-go-lucky rats. "We try to get them interested in the geology," says Jim Carrico, owner of mountain-biking outfitter Desert Sports. "But let's face it, most of 'em just want to ride."
A ranch road winds over the mountains and into the Solitario's isolated center, where Carrico and his charges set up camp near a ramshackle former cowboy outpost called Tres Papalotes. From there, bikers negotiate rolling doubletrack that weaves through a postapocalyptic landscape of shattered limestone. Unless you pack some pretty impressive geology credentials or hook up with Carrico, the only way to see the Solitario without risking a visit by the park's search and rescue crew is by arranging for a guided hike with one of several local outfitters or a park ranger—which shouldn't be a bother, since you're not likely to run into other people anyway.
The park's other unusual geological feature—this is a desert, after all—is an abundance of bubbling springs and, stranger still, some of the state's tallest waterfalls. To visit one of these oases, set out along the Rancherías Canyon Trail, taking care to sidestep the whiplike ocotillos, barbed chollas, and pointy Christmas cacti. After five calf-wrenching miles up a dry, pebbly riverbed, you arrive at the foot of Rancherías falls, spilling off an 80-foot half-dome. Take note of the wetlands at the base, complete with lily pads, maidenhair ferns, cattails, and a cluster of shady cottonwood trees.
Few things can rival that vision, except maybe the sunset drive from park headquarters to Lajitas along Presidio County 170. You'll have to dodge roadrunners, jackrabbits, and stray cattle, but the winding, dipping route parallels the Rio Grande and affords jaw-dropping views of the lonely river disappearing into Mexico's pink and purple Sierra Picachos.
Paul Kvinta's story about the disappearance of journalist Philip True appeared in the June issue.