Attractions

Alpine is at the center of a vast, diverse community, connected by the most scenic routes in the state. Reach out to the national and state parks that celebrate the natural beauty of west Texas, or take a quick jaunt to sample the other cities of the region, each with a flavor all their own.

Museum of the Big Bend

Located on the beautiful campus of Sul Ross State University, the Museum of the Big Bend is a must-see for each visitor to the area. It is a wonderful repository of information on the entire Big Bend region with exhibits highlighting the natural and cultural history of the area. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated. Open Tuesday through Sunday. Visit www.sulross.edu/museum/ or call (432) 837-8143 for more information.

Big Bend Parks

Rafting the Rio Grande courtesy of TXDoT

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is grand in scope at over 800,000 acres. Take a ride down in the early morning to explore the diverse biology and geology that make for a variety of scenic trails and incredible vistas. Visitors come from all over the world for hiking, backpacking, camping amongst the high Chisos mountains, down by the banks of the Rio Grande, and across the desert brush. Make all the preparations you need for an expedition down to the park: wear appropriate clothing, carry plenty of water, and call the park for more visitor information at (432) 477-2251, or visit www.nps.gov/bibe/.

 

Big Bend Ranch courtesy of Texas Mountain Trail

Big Bend Ranch courtesy of Texas Mountain Trail

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Just west of the national park is Big Bend Ranch State Park, featuring over 300,000 acres of wilderness. A favorite among locals for its miles of rugged and remote backcountry trails, the park is a great venue for mountain biking, horseback riding, and canoe excursions on the Rio Grande. Find out more information by calling the Big Bend Ranch State Park visitor center at (432) 424-3327 or visiting www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center

A quick ride north of Alpine is the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, a facility established by the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institiute. This 500-acre family friendly facility is an interesting blend of informative exhibits and programs, a greenhouse and botanical center, and picturesque hikes featuring spectacular views of the Davis Mountains. The Center is open regularly Monday through Saturday. For more information on exhibits or hiking, visit www.cdri.org or call the Center at (432) 364-2499.

McDonald Observatory

Trek north, through Fort Davis, to the famous astronomical research facility, the McDonald Observatory. Informative and detailed tours teach guests about heavenly bodies and the tools used to study them. Plan ahead to attend their famous Star Parties, where visitors get closeup views of the dark skies of West Texas through some of the largest telescopes in the world. Visit mcdonaldobservatory.org or call 432-426-3640 for more information.

Rocks & Gems

The Alpine area is home to some spectacular stones that are rare and distinctive, including Red Plume, Black Plume and Bouquet Agates. Rock hunters have come to this region for many years to find specimens of these beautiful gemstones, but most of the best hunting places are on private land.

The best opportunities for the public to see and acquire specimens of local rocks are at the annual Alpine Gem & Mineral Show (April 14-16, 2017), and year-round at the Last Frontier Museum in Antelope Lodge and at Ocotillo Enterprises in downtown Alpine.

Those who wish to hunt their own specimens can attend one of Teri Smith’s Rock Hunts. Smith coordinates with several area ranchers for her groups to get official access to areas with abundant specimens of Red Plume, Black Plume and Bouquet Agates. 2017’s Big Bend Agate Roundup is a series of guided rock hunts running through April. Additional hunts are usually scheduled in the Fall.

Agate Basics

Agate is a hard, durable mineral made out of quartz (silicon dioxide). It occurs all around the world, in every color, and in many different types of patterns. It is as beautiful as it is versatile: Agate has been used in jewelry and other decorative objects throughout history.

Some of the agate patterns are recognized by name and associated with a particular location. This is the case in the Big Bend region, where Red Plume Agate, Bouquet Agate, Black Plume Agate, and Pom-Pom Agate are just a few of the varieties found.

Bouquet Agate - Photo by Steve Ivie

Bouquet Agate – Photo by Steve Ivie / Rockhounding USA

The Big Bend Region of Texas encompasses both volcanic and sedimentary areas. In much of the Big Bend, the volcanic rock did not explode from erupting volcanos, but instead cooled below the surface of the earth. As the magma cooled, heavier elements like metals sank to the bottom of the magma, and the gasses in the magma rose to the top. Millions of these gas pockets were left unfilled when the magma cooled into basalt, allowing the gasses to escape. The agate primarily forms in these empty gas pockets through precipitation (where silica dissolved in water precipitates out and stays in the empty gas pocket, along with trace minerals that cause the colors and patterns). If there are large cracks in the volcanic basalt, agate can grow in there, as well.

The agate that forms in an empty gas pocket is stronger and more durable than the basalt in which it grew. Eventually, the basalt cracks and breaks into small pieces, eventually turning into soil. This process first exposes and then releases the agate contained within the basalt. When first exposed, the agate is usually in the shape of the gas pocket where it formed. An agate in this form is called a “nodule”.   Agate nodules in the Big Bend can vary from the size of an English pea to the size of large watermelon. By the time it’s released, however, it may be broken into pieces which don’t resemble the shape of the original nodule at all.

And agate that forms in cracks or seams can be very large – the Last Frontier Museum in Alpine has a piece of “seam agate” on display that weighs approximately a ton!

Big Bend Agate

In addition to agate, there are other quartz gemstones that occur in the Big Bend. Jasper, chalcedony, and quartz crystals are three of the most collectible, but there’s also petrified wood, and flint and chert. Different publications define each of these categories differently, but the important thing to remember is that they are all hard, durable stones, suitable for use in jewelry and decorative objects.

Red Plume Agate - photo by Steve Ivie

Red Plume Agate – photo © Steve Ivie / Rockhounding USA

You can get some agate of your own by purchasing it, or by going on a rockhunting field trip and finding some yourself. You can purchase agate that is “rough” (just as it looked when it was found), cut into a slab, made into a cabochon gemstone, or set into a piece of jewelry.

Finding your own Agate

The land in Texas is all private land, rather than Federal lands, and as such aren’t available for rockhunting unless you have the permission of the landowner. Other than the Stillwell Ranch which allows rockhunting without a guide, the only way to go rockhunting in the Big Bend is to sign up for a rockhunt with Teri Smith. Teri leads rockhunts to five different ranches, each of which has agate that’s unique.

The rockhunting season includes the cooler months from October to April. For details about Teri’s rockhunts, and to sign up for one or more of them, use this link to visit her website at www.terismithrockhunts.com.

Teri’s job as field trip leader is to take people out to the ranches and help them find great agate.  If someone is new to rockhunting, she’ll spend quite a bit of time with them, teaching them how to recognize the agate in the field, and how to determine that the agate they’ve found might have the pattern they are looking for inside it.  But finding agate is only part of what rockhunts are about.  Rockhunts are about adventure, and the thrill of finding your own agate.  Teri tries to ensure that everyone knows what to look for and where to look, and goes home with good agate and great memories.

Bouquet Agate – Photo by Brad Tanas

Bouquet Agate – Photo by Brad Tanas

Alpine’s Gem Show

Alpine is host to an annual gem show on the third weekend in April. This show runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free, and there are vendors from the Big Bend, from Mexico, and from the rest of the world offering you fascinating gems, mineral specimens, and jewelry.

The above text is © Teri Smith, 2016