This time of year we are all well aware that the season is changing. The days are getting shorter, the North wind is pushing it’s way into town with a coolness not felt for months, and there is a stream of cars driving South on highway 118 as the transient souls who live out the summer months in far away Northern climes return to re-claim their own patch of the dirt lot. It is fall in Terlingua and the chili cook-off posters are up in the store windows. (There are two chili cook-offs, both claiming to be the original, one and only, international championship….a story I need not delve into, you can google it and come up with a few different variations as to why two?) Regardless, the chili cook-offs (along with Shelby Mustangs) are what put the modern version of Terlingua on the map and hence, one of the reasons each and every one of those transient souls including myself and possibly your own self too eventually made it down to claim our own patch of the dirt lot. These facts are Terlingua ancestry, just as much as cinnabar mining and State or National Parks.
What autumn in Terlingua is certainly not well known for is leaf-peeping, the term for loading up the car and taking the scenic route in order to admire the natural display of color from the leaves of trees. There are some very valid reasons for this, they are:
- The chili cook-offs invite TX DPS to patrol the roads vehemently and we locals aren’t always on our best behavior when it comes to complying with all known vehicle rules and regulations
- Lol, not many trees
We are not completely out of luck though because we do have some decidedly terrific things working in our favor if we wanted to do some autumn leaf-peeping, they are:
- Scenic drives, some of the best in the country and an almost endless amount of miles to choose from.
- Trees in specific places
- Other plants that are not trees that also have leaves or other displays of fall color
Where to drive and what to see
When I lived in North Carolina as a younger adult, leaf-peeping season was so popular that the traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway would fill the roads until it was almost not enjoyable to participate. Luckily I knew how to enjoy the season by getting off the main drag and onto the backroads. Here we don’t have this headache to worry about as the traffic even on a busy day is never too bad (yet!) so stick with the most popular routes in the State or National Parks.
Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive down to Cottonwood campground and go hug a tree, a big cottonwood that will drop yellow leaves on you. Maybe you should bring a rake and try to make a pile or at the very least there should be enough leaves to lie down and make a leaf angel.
If you plan to drive around from Thursday to Saturday of the first weekend of November make sure you have all of your i’s dotted and t’s crossed on your vehicle to (hopefully) avoid getting pulled over by law enforcement. License plate lights out is a very common reason for citation and absolutely do not drive if you have been drinking alcohol.
When you are finished lying around under the giants continue on down to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon and see what the large stands of Coyote Willow have to offer. Even if your timing is off, spending an afternoon in the quiet shade of Santa Elena Canyon is never a disappointing affair. The Basin road is also perfect for an afternoon toodaloo and oh yeah there are lots of trees up there. If you want to get up close and personal with the slick hues of the Quaking Aspen, Madrone or Bigtooth Maples you will need to hike up one of the trails to the top, they are steep, rocky and not for strolling so prepare appropriately for a big hike ahead of time. However if leisure is more your style you can walk the very short and very sidewalked Window View trail to admire the bowl of fruity pebbles that is autumn in the Chisos Basin, absolutely no judgement from me for not being a bad-ass rim hiker.
Headed in the other direction, if you drive across the Terlingua Creek bridge then continue on FM 170 along the River Road to Presidio you can spot some large cottonwood and willow trees in Terlingua Creek and at Panther Canyon without the need to get out of your car. The River Road is also a good bet for thick stands of ocotillo and leatherstem which provide their own miniature display of fall leaf-peeping but you may want to walk around to enjoy the color close up.
What is it all for?
We will not be putting leaf-peeping on the list as one of Brewster County’s top attractions but who cares, not everything you enjoy has to be the best you’ve ever had. Sometimes we need to stop and take a step back to remember why we are here on the Earth and to enjoy the small little pleasures and fall in Big Bend is certainly one of them. I am sure there is a good and valid reason you spend your time here reader and I emplore you to enjoy yourself. If taking a scenic drive and leaf-peeping is valuable to you and you are enjoying your time here on the planet then it is valuable to us all.
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