Inside the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area
By CAMERON DODD
PRESIDIO COUNTY — A javelina skirts the edge of the road before disappearing into the brush and creosote. The reddish flowers atop ocotillo cactus bloom against the backdrop of the Sierra Parda. The sun shining through parting clouds reflects on Chinati Peak, which is still distant but closer than many people ever see it. It’s a peaceful, pastoral scene save the ceaseless rattling of our vehicle. I grip a passenger-side door handle as the sturdy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department truck rattles as we drive slowly over a rocky ranch road toward San Antonio Canyon. “One day there could be access right off the pavement on FM 170,” Park Superintendent Nate Gold said consolingly from the driver’s seat.
We’re just 20 miles from Presidio but deep in a seldom-visited part of Presidio County: the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area. More than 20 years in the making, the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area (CMSNA) is closer than ever to being accessible to the public. Next week, representative of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will host meetings in Presidio and Marfa to share plans for the park as well as receive community input on public use of Texas’ second largest but heretofore inaccessible state park. In the near but so far unannounced future, the park will open to guided tours, and eventually, public access.
The nearly 39,000-acre, or 62-section, property that the state natural area comprises has been state property for more than 20 years. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) acquired the land for the park in 1996 through a donation by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The Mellon Foundation had purchased the land from its last private owners, Heiner and Phillipa Friedrich.
As nascent as it is, the CMSNA already has several features that could appeal to travelers and thrill seekers. Like the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, the state natural area is rugged and undeveloped, unlike the much larger and more famous Big Bend National Park. But human populations have consistently utilized the land for roughly 8,000 years. The remnants of a nineteenth century silver mining operation are still visible in grated mine shafts, overgrown trails and rusted equipment. Because the Friedrichs were more art patrons than livestock producers, the ranch has not been grazed in more than 40 years. Native grass is more abundant in the CMSNA than other historically overgrazed and eroded West Texas ranch lands. Hardwood trees thrive in the higher elevations of the natural area.
“I’m really looking forward to running guided trips up there,” Presidio County-based backcountry guide Charlie Angell said. Angell has done volunteer work on the CMSNA, and with TPWD permission, gone on exploratory hikes of the natural area. “There are a lot of springs and little waterfalls, all sorts of cool stuff. It’s not going to be for the faint of heart; you’ve got to be in good shape. There are old mining trails that are definitely overgrown and real rugged, not like the national park.”
The park could also appeal to tourists interested in contemporary art. There are several cabins in the natural area that park planners believe late minimalist sculptor and Marfa resident Donald Judd designed. Judd had a working relationship with the Friedrichs, who in the 1970s provided funding for the DIA Art Foundation in Marfa, the precursor to the Chinati Foundation. The cabins have electricity and non-potable but running water and have housed researchers and park planners over the years. Although they need cleaning and restoration work, the cabins could eventually be rented to park guests. Park officials hope the Judd-designed cabins might draw visitors who flock to Marfa to see the Judd’s works at the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation, Gold said.
As superintendent of the state park complex in Presidio County, Gold oversees the natural area as well as Big Bend Ranch State Park and Fort Leaton State Historic Site. Although much of the park planning happens with public input and outside his purview, Gold said he’d like to see the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area be a more developed, accessible state park eventually. That would allow visitors to have a choice between the highly rugged and adventure-oriented experience in Big Bend Ranch and a more accessible camping or hiking trip in the Chinati Mountains, all within Presidio County.
The main attraction in the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area is, of course, the park’s eponymous mountain: Chinati Peak. The 7,730-foot peak is the highest point in Presidio County. From the park’s centerpiece vista in San Antonio Canyon, the site of another possibly Judd-designed cabin, one has a panoramic view of Chinati Peak’s wide, flat summit and its neighbor, the Sierra Parda mountain.
The actual highest part of Chinati Peak is outside the state natural area, but TPWD owns much of the southwestern face of the mountain. The anticipation of access to the formerly all-private mountain has been bubbling over the years among Texas hikers and adventure travelers.
“The natural area’s boundary is maybe 150 feet shy of the highest point,” Angell said. He gets a dozen inquiries a year from people looking to climb Chinati Peak, he said, but always has to turn people away because the area is not open to the public. “Because it has been off-limits for so long, some have called it ‘the holy grail’ of Texas mountains. It’s a silly line, but that’s been stated before.”
Gold hopes the parks department can work out a deal with the summit’s owner, Roy McBride, to allow visitors access to the top of the peak. “It’s going to be difficult to tell people they can get that close and not go to the top,” Gold said.
Although TPWD has owned the CMSNA for more than 20 years, opening the state-owned land to the public has been a long process. There was no contiguous land adjacent to FM 170 for an access road until 2014. The state is still in the process of transferring that land from the Texas General Land Office to the parks department. When it does initially open, the park will only be accessible by guided tour for the time being.
“There are several challenges that need to be addressed before we are able to open this area to general visitation,” TPWD spokesperson Stephanie Salinas said. The department will need to complete the access road as well as other projects that are dependent on state funding. “Unfortunately, we don’t expect development funds for Chinati Mountains State Natural Area to be available until the 2020-21 biennium. Once funding is appropriated, planning, design and construction phases could take several years to complete.”
The good news is that once funding is available, TPWD has big plans for developing the big park.
“TPWD plans include campsites, restrooms and eventually a trail system,” Salinas said. “The upcoming public meeting will be a ‘sneak peek’ preview opportunity for the public to see a draft conceptual map with the proposed layout for the state natural area, ask questions and provide input on the proposed ideas. Once we’ve gathered feedback, our project planners will be able to start the initial stages of bringing these concepts to life.”
The opening of the natural area would put Presidio in between the two largest state parks in Texas, the largest being Big Bend Ranch State Park. Presidio Municipal Development District Executive Director Brad Newton told the Presidio International the city is very excited about the prospect of a second park in the area.
“We’ll be very happy when it opens with at least limited access,” Newton said, adding that the economic impact of having another park in south Presidio County would be significant. A Presidio Municipal Development District commissioned analysis of retail in Presidio found that with the current access to state parks and other recreational opportunities, Presidio has a sporting goods sales potential of more that $2.1 million. “The potential sales tax revenue from groceries and supplies would help. A lot of people have wanted to visit [the Chinati Mountains] for years. Allowing guided access would be a huge step.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s public meetings on the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area will take place in Marfa on Tuesday, March 14 at the Presidio County Courthouse and in Presidio on Thursday, March 16 at the Presidio Activity Center. Both meetings will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, contact lead park planner Justin Fleury at Justin.email@example.com.