Getting in the Fall Spirit

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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:

  1. Scenic drives, some of the best in the country and an almost endless amount of miles to choose from.
  2. Trees in specific places
  3. Other plants that are not trees that also have leaves or other displays of fall color
    ocotillo with leaves
    Ocotillos with leaves will create fall color, Photo by Angela Linda

    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.

    close up photo of yellow leaves
    Aspen leaves, photo by Ruslan Sikunov on

    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.

    Chisos fall colors, photo by Joe Blowe

    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.

    Ocotillo leaves turning red, photo by Brad Sutton/NPS

    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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    Leatherstem, Jatropha dioica

    You may notice the naked brown “leather stems” of this shin high, clumping plant after the first frost or you may notice the green staghorn shaped leaves throughout the spring, summer and fall. The leaves under perfect conditions some years will turn lovely autumn colors before dropping off for dormancy. Jatropha dioica is known locally as leather stem but you may also hear it referred to as Sangre de Drago. When cut, these stems and roots drip a red dye that is reminiscent of blood. The sap has historically been used to “stop the flow of blood from slight wounds” (Warnock, 1970) and as an anesthetic especially for toothaches.

    Leatherstem, Jatropha dioica
    Leatherstem, Jatropha dioica

    The flowers are tiny and short lived, you may never notice when Leatherstem is in flower during the summer. The flower is followed by a fat green seed pod that contains a large seed which is easy to handle. White winged doves feed on these seeds (Warnock, 1970) I have had success propagating these seeds they don’t seem to need much special treatment.

    I have also had very good success transplanting the clumps of stems. This high success is probably due to the thick fleshy roots as those characteristics will almost always transplant better than woody roots. You can find leatherstem growing commonly around Lajitas and on the mountainsides of Terlingua Ranch. It seems to grow taller in rocky volcanic soil but is also found to grow in rocky limestone soils. I find it commonly along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park where in some instances the clumps of stems grow to above my knees.

    The Ethics of Wild Harvesting

    Wild harvesting of plants to propagate and use personally can be accomplished in a legal and sustainable manner. It is legal in some cases to forage seeds, berries, leaves, cones or mushrooms for personal use from public lands such as any land administered by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife or the lands designated as Parques Nacionales in Mexico but you should first contact the respective park service to ask specifics and or obtain permits.
    –Do not collect plants or plant parts from public lands without the proper procedures in place.
    –Never collect endangered, protected or sensitive species even on your own property.
    –Do not enter private lands for any purpose if you do not have permission to do so.
    –Harvest first from areas that will be disturbed by development.
    –Make sure you know your plant and can make a positive identification.
    –Never harvest the first plant you see, find the healthiest population that does not appear to have been harvested.
    –Never take more than ten percent or more than you need
    –Always ask the plant if it wants to go with you first. Yes, really.
    –Fill holes, spread the seeds of collected plants and return to the area later to monitor the effects of your harvest.


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    Warnock, B. (1970). Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas. Sul Ross State University.