|With the cold winter months rapidly approaching, I envy those feathered aviators who are able to head south for more temperate climes. The further south they fly, the better the climate, and the more exotic the destination. However, unlike our winged brethren, we pilots look for more in our winter destinations than just warm, sunny days. We also want comfortable surroundings, a variety of exciting activities, dramatic scenery, andoh yeaha runway.
A popular winter destination for both avian and human snowbirds is the rugged, isolated Big Bend region of southwest Texas. The mild weather, rocky landscape, and free flowing waters of the Rio Grande provide terrific habitat for birds and scenic adventures for people.
Big Bend, named for the great U-turn the river makes here, is the farthest south one can fly in the desert Southwest without contending with customs and 12 inch N numbers. Cradled at the bottom of the Bend is the rustic, dusty, western-themed resort of Lajitas on the Rio Grande, offering a comfortable environment for pilots and the perfect headquarters for outdoor adventure.
Lajitas (la-HEE-tahs) includes all the modern amenities human snowbirds seek, such as a full service hotel and a well-kept nine hole golf course. The area also offers plenty of outdoor recreation, including horseback riding, river rafting on the Rio Grande, and easy access to the unique and varied beauty of Big Bend National Park.
Lajitas is not one of those namby-pamby citified resorts. Unlike many tourist resorts of the Southwest that try to artificially recreate a western frontier town, Lajitas really is a desert outpost far from civilization. Therefore, be prepared to appreciate the genuine weathering on the facilities, the authentic dust and realistic power failures, as well as the sometimes quirky service of the real western desert denizens who work at the resort. The AAA travel guide gives Lajitas on the Rio Grande a respectable 3-diamond rating.
Easy aerial access to the resort is provided by the private Lajitas airstrip (17XS), found on the El Paso sectional. Further study of the chart confirms that this southernmost point in Big Bend is truly remote: it is 100 road miles to the nearest interstate highway and 350 miles to El Paso, the nearest big city of. If there was ever a place ideally suited for a fly-in resort, it's Lajitas.
Thorough map study is definitely the key for navigating to Lajitas, since the nearest VOR is too distant to be of much use in this mountainous area. If you don't already have a GPS, consider buying or borrowing one for this trip.
As the name Big Bend implies, this region is surrounded on three sides by Mexico, and unannounced excursions across the border are frowned upon by officials of both countries. Fortunately, the border with Mexico is clearly defined by the Rio Grande, so stay north of the river and you'll be fine. Flying over Big Bend is beautiful. On our last flight south, we took time to sightsee the region's rugged mountains and steep canyons. This is perfect country for aerial exploration, since most areas are accessible only by horse, foot, or airplane.
Big Bend is littered with airstrips. It seemed that around every hill we came across another runway carved into the desert floorsome abandoned, with a thin trail leading up to the remnants of a miners mountainside shack, and others still actively serving ranches, stores, or motels. Mindful that we weren't the only snowbirds wintering in these parts, we avoided the sensitive nesting areas along the river (shown on the sectional chart), and maintained a respectful 2000 foot AGL over the national park.
Upon reaching Lajitas, you will find the airstrip on the northeastern edge of town. The single runway (04-22) runs parallel to the highway in a shallow valley, with higher terrain west of the runway. Mexican airspace begins less than a mile off the departure end of runway 22. True to the authentic rustic character of Lajitas, the asphalt runway has deteriorated to the point that many pilots consider it a loose gravel strip, rather than paved. A low pass to check the windsock (on the hill at the southeastern end) and to clear the runway of livestock and children is in order before committing to land. There is plenty of room for the standard left traffic pattern on both sides of the field.
The tiedown area is at the southwest corner of the runway. There are anchor cables, but bring your own ropes and chocks. There is also an open-sided hangar (more like a big sun shade) that you may use after obtaining permission from the hotel front desk.
The hotel is just a short walk past the rodeo grounds and up the hill from the tiedown area, but if you have luggage or golf clubs, a call to Lajitas front desk on Multicom 122.9 will dispatch a ride. There are two rental cars available for fly-in customers, both wonderfully authentic Cowboy Cadillacs. Our Chevy Lumina rental blended in perfectly with its surroundings: no hub caps, worn shocks, and neither the trunk nor the drivers side door would unlock. (My wife rather liked this last feature, since I always had to open her door first.) Though this classic is a bit pricey$45 a day with 150 miles per daythe freedom to explore that it presents is well worth the price. They also have a minivan to transport your whole crew and can make arrangements for a larger fleet of vehicles if you are planning a group fly-in.
The climate in Lajitas is perfect for snowbirds. Fall and winter are excellent times to visit, with fall offering light wind and cool temperatures along with golden cottonwood leaves. Winter brings mild, crystal clear days and crisp, star-lit nights. Spring is another popular time of year to visit Big Bend, when the desert plants and wildflowers of the Chihuahuan desert are in bloom and the weather is equally delightful. (Beware of the late spring winds, however, that often blow in the afternoon.) Early summer is not the best time to visit, as even many of the hardy local residents flee the blazing heat and incessant wind-driven dust. Late summer can be surprisingly pleasant though, with cooling afternoon thunderstorms tempering the heat and setting the stage for colorful sunsets.
Airplanes have populated the clear skies over Lajitas since 1919, when U.S. Army DeHaviland DH-4 biplanes on border patrol became a regular sight overhead. The patrols were necessary to defend American interests along the Rio Grande from Mexican bandits, including the notorious Pancho Villa. Prior to these raids the Lajitas area had remained pretty sleepy. Long considered the best river crossing of the Rio Grande between El Paso and Del Rio, Lajitas didn't see much activity other than the occasional rancher or quicksilver miner. That changed in 1916 when General Black Jack Pershing established a cavalry post at Lajitas to protect southern Texas from the raiding bandits. This tiny frontier town became one of the most remote outposts of the U.S. Cavalry.
Today the resort community of Lajitas on the Rio Grande trades heavily on its cavalry post heritage. Many of the resorts hotel units are faithful reconstructions of the buildings which stood in Lajitas during Pancho Villas day. For instance, the Cavalry Post motel is built on the original foundation of Pershings army post barracks, and the Officers Quarters hotel buildings are exact replicas of the original buildings, right down to the adobe bricks made on-site in Lajitas. Some of the Officers Quarters rooms have fireplaces, and all have balconies or porches with views of the golf course and surrounding mountains.
If proximity to the pool is important, request a room in the Spanish style La Cuesta motel. Victorian rooms with an airport view are on the second floor of the Badlands Hotel, above the shopping boardwalk. List price for all of the above units is $75, with specials available via the Internet (www.lajitas.com).
Budget accommodations are provided by the resorts La Placita motel; these smaller rooms run about $20 a night less and are further away from the pool, restaurant, and shopping. Various sizes of condominiums and houses are also available for rent by the day, week, or month. For an even tighter budget, or to get the full frontier experience, try the campground, equipped with picnic tables and coin operated showers. Call Lajitas reservations toll free at 800-944-9907 or 877-LAJITAS (525-4827) for more info.
One of the few original buildings left in Lajitas is the historic Lajitas Trading Post. Dating back to 1899, it was built to serve the needs of the areas mercury miners and ranchers. It still serves as general store for resort guests as well as local residents from both sides of the border. Heeding the warning of the hotels desk clerk about the foul tasting tap water, we stocked up on (surprisingly) reasonably priced bottled water at the trading post. LajitasDon't Drink the Water is a popular slogan for T-shirts and coffee mugs in the gift shops that line Lajitas boardwalk. In addition to souvenirs, the boardwalk houses a handful of shops selling local art, Mexican and Guatemalan handicrafts, genuine western wear, a drug store, and the Lajitas version of a convenience store.
The boardwalk should also be your first stop when choosing and outfitting your Big Bend adventureassuming, of course, you wont be spending the entire visit on the golf course or in the saloon. You can rent outdoor gear, bicycles, or even a canoe at Desert Sports (www.desertsportstx.com or 888-989-6900). They also organize back-country bike trips.
For less strenuous modes of exploration, see the folks at Big Bend River Tours (www.bigbendrivertours.com or 800-545-4240). They will help you plan any conceivable adventure in the Big Bend region, including raft trips down the Rio Grande. Day trips through the rapids and the 1500-foot sheer cliffs of spectacular Santa Elena canyon are popular, as are the overnight trips further downstream through the most remote stretches of Big Bend National Park. You can also book land-based adventures here, taking four-wheel-drive trips even further back into the wilderness or more sedate scenic drives on the paved roads in the park.
Riding tall in the saddle is another popular, and authentic, way to explore the Old West surroundings. The Lajitas Stables (www.lajitasstables.com or 888-508-7667), located directly across the street from the airstrip, can arrange an outing of one hour or several days for you and your posse. Combination horse and river trips are also available.
All this adventure can make even the most delicate snowbird mighty hungry. Open for breakfast through lunch and then again for dinner, Lajitas Badlands restaurant rustles up some pretty tasty Mexican and gringo grub. The adjacent saloon is open nightly, and provides carefully measured drinks, plus live music on weekends. If you arrive hungry (or you just need to replenish some of those recently burned-off calories) during the weekday hours of 2 to 5 p.m., when the restaurant is closed, the Frontier Drug Company on the boardwalk serves sandwiches, sundaes, and floats at their lunch counter. There is also an enticing Mexican bakery in town near the boardwalk.
Since we had rented the Cowboy Cadillac, we decided to be our own tour guides by spending a day exploring Big Bend National Park. Though one of Americas largest parks, its isolation makes it one of the of the least visitedan ideal combination for those looking to get away from crowds and civilization. We began our tour by driving up to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, hidden high above the desert floor in the mountain range that dominates the park.
As the road climbs into the mountains, the prickly desert creosote bush and ocotillo gradually give way to tall, cool pines. At the top there is a short scenic trail and small visitors center. Signs along the trail warn of the frequent black bear and mountain lion encounters hikers have on certain park trails. You can learn more about the park and its wildlife at this excellent website: www.nps.gov/bibe/.
Anxious for our next discovery, we left the cool pines of Chisos Mountain and headed south toward the Rio Grande and the ghost town of Castolon. The general store in Castolon sells milk and bread to its neighbors across the Rio Grande and has a snack bar with sandwiches for tourists.
A more adventurous dining option involves climbing aboard a rowboat for a ride across the river to the neighboring Mexican village of Santa Elena, where two restaurants serve authentic Mexican lunch. The border between the U.S. and Mexico exists here in name only. The river is viewed only as a minor obstacle to travel, rather than an international border. There are no checkpoints or customs, just folks united by the common goal of making a living in this remote and difficult land. People from both countries travel back and forth across the river freely as part of their daily routine. You do not need a visa or passport to visit Santa Elena, just a few dollars to pay the rowboat operatorand a few more to get back!
Continuing past Castolon, the road follows the river and ends at the mouth of famous Santa Elena canyon. A short, though occasionally steep, trail allows you to hike a quarter of a mile into the dark gorge, to the point where the river fills the canyon from one sheer, 1500-foot vertical limestone wall to the other. Even hushed whispers echo back in this dramatic chasm. A well maintained dirt road to Panther Junction at the parks west entrance completed our sightseeing loop and provided stunning views of the Chisos Mountains illuminated by the golden glow of sunset.
The next morning, we burned off the remainder of our rentals allotted miles by taking a drive along the scenic River Road. This breathtaking stretch of Highway 170 parallels the Rio Grande west from Lajitas toward Presidio through Big Bend State Park. The narrow, two-lane road labors up steep mountains, then dives into valleys and hugs sheer cliffs as it tries to follow the rivers serpentine course through the wild countryside. The low, early morning sun brings out the myriad of colors in this desert wilderness, and the soft, verdant foliage along the river banks provides a sharp contrast to the jagged red mountains.
Spending this brief weekend in temperate Lajitas made me even more envious of the feathered snowbird who can spend the entire winter here. As we reluctantly climbed into our aluminum bird for departure, we were already planning our next adventures in Big Bend. We scarcely noticed the skies turning cold and gray on the flight north, as our thoughts remained in the dry, sunny warmth of Lajitas on the Rio Grande.
|The Lajitas airstrip (17XS) is south of the Marfa VOR (MRF) on the 160 radial for 62.8 DME, and approximately 38 nautical miles southeast of Presidio, TX. The coordinates I use in the GPS are N 29 15.55, W 103 44.55. Field elevation is 2364 feet. Runway 04-22 is 4700 x 60 feet, but the encroaching sand and gravel has narrowed the usable width.
There are no services on-field. The closest airports with avgas are either Alpine-Casparis (E38) or Marfa (MRF), both 67 nautical miles north of Lajitas.
Be very careful with your fuel planning, as there is currently no fuel available at Presidio. Auto fuel is available in Lajitas; it is not unusual to see an aircraft taxiing on the highway to the gas pump at Gloria's convenience store along the boardwalk.
Night operations are prohibited, due to the surrounding terrain and lack of airfield lighting. Detailed airport information is available on-line at www.airnav.com. Call the hotel front desk at 877-525-4827 for current runway conditions. The front desk monitors 122.9.
Gerrit Paulsen lives in Albuquerque, NM, and has been flying the Southwest for over twenty years. He has amassed more than 4000 flight hours, first as an Air Force helicopter flight engineer, and now as pilot of the family Cessna 172M. Gerrit holds a Masters Degree in Aeronautical Science, specializing in Education. He is currently working as a Senior Instructional Designer for Lockheed Martin, developing classroom and flight simulator training lessons for Air Force helicopter pilots and crew members.