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Pilot Getaways: Rustic luxury in Big Bend CountryPilot Getaways: Rustic luxury in Big Bend Country

Cibolo Creek Ranch, Texas

Editor's note: We asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA members-only discount pricing for a subscription.
Old movies about Texas often depict the entire state as a desert surrounded by rugged mountains. This is true of only one special region of Texas, the Big Bend Country, where the Chihuahuan Desert unfolds. Within this starkly beautiful country lie numerous ranches, and Cibolo Creek Ranch is one of the grandest, with dozens of springs creating an oasis in the desert.
Joe Pace, Willard Teel, and Scott McGehee fly Joe's Caravan over El Cibolo, the main structure. Photo by George A. Kounis.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.In the 1850s, the original owner erected three separate forts with two-foot-thick adobe walls to guard his hacienda and his workers. In those days, such precautions were necessary safeguards against the fierce Comanche and Apache Indians.

That era is brought to life at the luxurious Cibolo Creek Ranch—not by contrivances that dude ranches might employ, but by authentically restored forts, presented as they appeared at their zenith over 150 years ago. The ranch is a 30,000-acre working cattle property with one of the largest purebred longhorn herds in the U.S. They also have American bison, horses, burros, and two camels. The restored buildings are furnished almost entirely with Spanish, Mexican, and a few American antiques, yet modern conveniences are concealed within the structures. Guests can see ancient Native American cave shelters, explore Big Bend National Park in an off-road vehicle, or simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the desert.

Years ago you had to rough it to set foot in the wilderness of the Big Bend. But these days you can touch down on the smooth, sealed runway of Cibolo Creek Ranch. The smooth landing is the perfect introduction to a ranch-style adventure. This is a Texas guest ranch, but the food is certainly not of the chuck-wagon variety.

Flying There

Cibolo Creek Ranch Airport (TS15) is privately owned, so you must sign a release before landing. Call ahead for the necessary forms, 432-229-3737 or 866-496-9460. You will be asked for your ETA so that they may send a representative to meet you.

The remote Big Bend Country of southwestern Texas is named for the great curve the Rio Grande takes as it winds through the stone canyons. You’ll find Cibolo Creek Ranch Airport 31 nm southwest of Marfa (MRF), about 158 nm southeast of El Paso (ELP), and about 17 nm northeast of the Mexican border. The airport is at 4,400 ft. MSL, and the Chinati Mountains rise as high as 7,726 ft. just 10 nm west. The region is high and often hot, so density altitude and turbulence are considerations. To minimize both, fly in the evening or early morning hours.

At or above 9,500 ft., most routes to Cibolo Creek Ranch are straightforward with two notable exceptions. First, keep in mind the airport is deep within the “Big Bend” of the Rio Grande. The Mexican border defined by the river surrounds Cibolo Creek Ranch for about 180 degrees from southeast through northwest, so you’ll have to make a detour toward the north to avoid the border if you’re arriving from points west of El Paso or from the Corpus Christi and Brownsville areas. Second, watch out for R-6318, where an unmarked, tethered balloon extends to 14,000 ft. MSL (it is used as a surveillance platform by the U.S. border patrol). The Valentine MOA extends northwest of the area as well. For flight following, contact Albuquerque Center on 135.875 MHz. The nearest instrument approaches are at Marfa. CTAF and pilot-controlled lighting are both on 122.9 MHz. The 5,318 x 60-foot Runway 9/27 is crushed rock and asphalt with an emulsion coating. After landing, taxi to the southwest corner where you’ll find tiedowns. The closest fuel is available at Marfa Airport.

History

The founder of El Fortin del Cibolo, Milton Faver, was one of the foremost pioneers of the Big Bend. His most important achievement was the permanent establishment of ranching in the Big Bend area, stubbornly prevailing against American Indian aggression. It is said that he won a duel in Missouri and, fearing he had killed his opponent, fled to Mexico. There, he married the beautiful Francisca Ramirez, and their only child, Juan, was born when he began a Mexico-Texas freight business. He supplied cattle, grain, and peach brandy to the U.S. military and pioneers on their way to California.

The southeast tower at El Cibolo. Photo courtesy of Cibolo Creek Ranch.In 1858, Faver began building his empire on a ranch 17 miles north of the Rio Grande, on the Great Spring of the Cibolo, a reliable water source. He built a massive adobe house and fort, complete with watchtowers, as a defense against Indian attacks. Just prior to the Civil War, he constructed his second fort, El Fortin de la Cienega, just downstream from the Cienega Springs, 15 miles from Cibolo. El Fortin de la Morita, at the beautiful Morita spring, five miles farther, was built shortly thereafter. To water his peach orchards and gardens, he dug acequias (irrigation channels) at each fort. At its height, the ranch ran 20,000 head of cattle. La Morita was the headquarters of the sheep and goat operations.

Faver was a kind and generous man, honored with the title Don, and affectionately known as Don Melitón. When he died in 1889, he was buried in a mausoleum overlooking his beloved El Fortin del Cibolo. His son Juan, uninterested in ranching, allowed a cousin the oversight of Cibolo. Sadly, the empire broke up after Juan died in 1913.

By the mid-20th century, many of the neglected adobe buildings at Cibolo, Cienega, and Morita had virtually melted to the ground. In 1988, when John Poindexter, a decorated war veteran, author, and philanthropist from Houston, surveyed the ruins of El Fortin del Cibolo, he immediately decided to buy and restore the entire property. The purchase ended up taking two years, finally culminating on the Friday before Labor Day, 1990. Two of the ranch’s donkeys were named after the troublemakers who delayed the deal! Each year since 1990, Labor Day weekend has been celebrated with a fiesta of gratitude to the community marking the happy anniversary of the acquisition.

After several years of research and using photos from the Library of Congress, Poindexter raised the forts from the dust, and literally re-fashioned the adobe bricks from the original, eroded bricks at each site. His stated goal was “to return the land, animals, and buildings to their peak historical moment in the 19th century.” Cibolo Creek Ranch was opened to guests in 1993. El Fortin de la Cienega had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976, and El Fortin del Cibolo and La Morita were listed in 1995. In recognition of his pains to rehabilitate the land, Poindexter was presented a “Lone Star Land Steward” award by Texas Parks and Wildlife in 2004.

What to Do

With prior arrangements, you will be picked up at the airstrip and driven the four miles to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Whatever time of day you land, the restored scenery will remind you of the canyons-and-cactus image of Texas depicted in old movies. Set against a hillside, Cibolo perfectly merges with the landscape. The original aquecias (irrigation channels) have been restored, bringing water from the springs to the fields and orchards. All the vegetation, and even the original dry-stacked stone fences, have been restored as originally laid out by Faver. The land is home to a herd of purebred longhorn cattle, the 13 springs of the Cibolo, and dozens of historical sites. The Spanish word cibolo is usually translated as “bison,” and bison, together with native elk and wild turkey, have been reintroduced, while other wildlife abound.

At Cibolo, little water channels run melodiously through two courtyards around which several rooms are arranged. Stone paving, vine-covered wood lattices, potted bougainvillea, and citrus trees make for pleasant surroundings.Virtually all the woodwork and iron was handcrafted on-site or locally, relying on old photographs. Adobe is a very practical building material in a climate where temperatures reach the high 90s, but nights turn cool. Warmed by the sun in the daytime, it radiates warmth during the night. Losing heat toward dawn, adobe keeps interiors cool during the day.

Prepare to savor luxury, though it is doubtful your cell phone will function. There is a lot to do… or not to do. You are in the remote Chinati Mountains, 27 miles from the nearest convenience store. Remember to bring anything you cannot do without, including a hat, flashlight, and a pair of sturdy boots if you plan to hike or ride horses, since the wilds of Texas can be thorny. From the grounds you can see part of Big Bend National Park to the east, and the Cienega, Chisos, and Davis Mountains in the distance. Stroll along the acequias to the gardens, orchards, and a tranquil two-acre pond. There’s even a paddleboat to tool around in and admire the scenery.

Several rooms around the outer courtyard comprise a museum filled with antique photographs, American Indian artifacts unearthed on the property, antique guns, and newspaper articles about Milton Faver and his family. There is also a small historic chapel and a library with about 750 volumes. The tower displays more than 500 artifacts. If you’d like to pay your respects to Milton Faver, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to his painstakingly restored mausoleum atop a hill nearby. You may want to take a stroll about a mile from Cibolo to see some 1,800-year-old pictographs. Ask at the office for directions. Caves throughout the property were used by American Indians, and you can see where they prepared food.

The ranch contains 28 miles of major roads to the three forts, and more than 50 miles of improved roadways that access almost every corner, making it an ideal place to bring your mountain bike. Take the switchbacks up the emergency road to the ridgelines for a great view, and follow it to Shafter, five miles away. You can also see an abandoned airstrip and a beautiful, 100-foot waterfall.

At Cibolo Creek Ranch, things are easy and unstructured. You are encouraged to “just ask” about anything you’d like to do. Some activities should be arranged prior to your visit, but you could drop by the office and with 24 hours’ notice, general manager Terri Stiers or manager Paula Cavness may be able to set you up. Day trips for shopping and sightseeing in the Mexican border towns of Presidio and Ojinaga, 30 miles south, are an option. Trips into Big Bend National Park, Fort Davis, the McDonald Observatory, or the town of Marfa with its Chinati Art Museum (see Pilot Getaways Nov/Dec 2006) are also available. You may want to visit Shafter, an 1880 silver mining boomtown five miles south of the main hacienda at Cibolo. It became a ghost town, and is the location where the 1971 movie The Andromeda Strain was filmed.

If you choose horseback riding, a wrangler will lead you through the canyons or into higher elevations of the Chinatis. The geology of the mountains delivers abundant water at a wide range of ranch sites, resulting in a landscape of lush trees juxtaposed against rocky landscapes and tall mountains. Spring brings a profusion of cactus blooms. A full-day ride with extra side trips and lunch is available, half-day $85, with lunch $100.

Ask about a driving tour of the ranch in a four-wheel-drive or an elevated touring vehicle, which is great for photography. While bumping along trails among the creosote bushes and cacti, you might see bison or desert bighorn sheep, and you will encounter camels whose ancestors were brought from the Middle East in 1856 (you may have spotted a couple of them on the land adjacent to the airstrip). Most trips are $75 per person.

The Big Bend area of Texas is legendary for birding, with about 450 species, and many can be seen all over the ranch. Wrens, warblers, and vireos are spotted in open areas. In the woods, listen for buntings and woodpeckers while you explore nearby springs or the waterfall above Cibolo.

Kids in particular enjoy free catch-and-release fishing on the ranch pond, and since they use baloney at Cibolo, baiting the hook is not a problem. There’s also a target shooting range and skeet shooting. You have a choice of more than 20 types of shotguns to try on clay targets, target shooting $65 per person, skeet $75, plus ammunition for both types of shooting.

Hunting trips can be arranged with advance notice. Elk, pronghorn, and bison graze in the meadows along with aoudads (a large, horned sheep native to North Africa). Maintenance-hunting of exotic species can be done year-round, but is subject to the number of animals available. Hunting is also sometimes available for native birds and animals in season; contact the ranch manager for prices, seasons, and other specifics.

Some of the rooms are beside the pond at El Cibolo. Photo by George A. Kounis.

In addition to all these activities, you might just choose to relax in the heated pool, hot tub, or indoor Jacuzzi. There is a TV in the game room and plenty of movies to watch, but most people enjoy socializing around the pool or sheltered stone fire pits and aiming a telescope at the stars. You can enjoy a massage at the spa by making advance arrangements, $145 per hour.

Where to Stay

Your stay will be tranquil no matter which of the three forts you choose to stay in. All are of adobe, with exposed cottonwood beams, furnished in late 19th-century style. Hundreds of historical artifacts, paintings, and photographs are displayed throughout the structures. The high beds have stools for a leg up, and are dressed in sumptuous quilts and down comforters. The bedside lights are all authentic oil lamps, converted to electric. The rustic armoires are for clothing, not TVs or telephones. Books, original artwork, Mexican fireplaces, and pottery set you in a Southwest mood, as do the acres of Saltillo tiles and colorful woven rugs.

El Cibolo, the main fort, has 21 spacious guestrooms, including elegant poolside rooms, and two enormous suites, El Presidente and The Master Suite. The latter is available only when Mr. Poindexter is not in residence. Each of the bedrooms reflects a particular theme through the use of coordinated furnishings. At Cibolo you’ll be close to all ranch amenities, including the spa, gym, games room, and the dining room.

Things are more rustic at La Ciénega, 30 minutes and 15 miles away. It is at the foot of a mountain with several caves and an Indian mound. Five rooms are in the old fort and five rooms are in the adjoining hacienda; all offer lots of privacy. La Ciénega may be reserved in its entirety for up to 20 people or by individual guestroom or suite. For children, one tower is outfitted as a garrison with cavalry bunks, footlockers, and military items. Another tower displays ceramic, glass, and American Indian artifacts. A swimming pool and hot tub, kitchen, dining room, fireplace, and multimedia room add to comforts. A chef can be supplied to cook for you, or you may bring food with you from Cibolo. Most meals are served on the wide veranda.

La Morita is an even more remote, romantic, one-bedroom cottage in an isolated red granite valley, a 45-minute drive across the ranch from El Cibolo. The adobe structure is surrounded by a large grove of cottonwood, ash, and pecan trees. La Morita is the most rustically furnished, and at the request of the Texas Historical Commission, its fort was left partially unfinished so as to display a restoration work. There is no electricity, although there is hot water on tap, a gas-log stove, and old-fashioned kerosene lamps. Mexican benches, large tables, chairs, and an old wooden ice chest sit outside. Meals are served at El Cibolo or may be picked up at El Cibolo on a daily basis in a cooler. The ranch will either supply you with a vehicle or pick you up at specified times for meals.

Rates for rooms in any of the three forts are $350–$880 per night. Meal plans include breakfast, lunch, hors d’ oeuvres, and dinner for $75 per guest per day for all guests over the age of five, 432-229-3737 or 866-496-9460, www.CiboloCreekRanch.com.

Where to Eat

The pleasures of the table are considerable at Cibolo Creek Ranch. Griselda Menchaca and her family lovingly prepare and serve all the epicurean delights and oftentimes, people drive or fly from Marfa for lunch or dinner to sample them. Mealtimes are social occasions here, a chance to mingle with the other guests. However, the ranch will accommodate any guests who would rather dine in privacy.

Three gourmet meals per day are served family-style at a large dining table, or out on the veranda or patio. Colorful masks from the Mexican state of Guerrero adorn the walls in some dining areas. The formal dining area presents a collection of oil paintings as well as important American Indian artifacts found on the ranch. Wander into the kitchen and talk to Griselda, the quintessential chef of cross-cultural cuisine. She uses vegetables and fruits from the ranch’s organic gardens, and works magic on such dishes as roast venison or antelope, grilled honey and chile-glazed quail, beef tenderloin in red wine sauce, or orange cauliflower and spicy habanero chili biscuits, all paired with suitable beers and wines. Desserts run the gamut; hazelnut cheesecake and tres leche cake are the most popular. You’ll find a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks, bottled water, and ice by the kitchen. There’s no room service, but you can stop in the kitchen for a snack of freshly-baked cookies, homemade potato chips, cheese, or fruit. Especially after the evening meal, guests often take the opportunity to socialize around the firepits under the stars. If he is in residence, John Poindexter usually joins his guests.

Transportation

When you call the ranch to arrange for landing permission, give them your ETA so ranch guides can pick you up at the airport. They will also take you anywhere on the ranch; however, you must rent a car if you want to visit Big Bend National Park, Marfa, Fort Davis, or the border towns of Presidio and Ojinaga. The ranch will arrange a rental car for you. If you stay at the more remote La Cienega or La Morita, guides will either drive you back and forth to Cibolo Creek or provide you with a ranch vehicle.

From the mountain ranges to the flora and fauna, no destination captures the quintessential Texas experience like the rescued ranch of Milton Faver. Guests often say they feel as though they are in an Old West film. They feel the spirit of the Comanches, the pioneers, and the Mexicans who simultaneously called this land home. The ranch is unique in that its guests can definitely indulge in la buena vida in a unique, remote hideaway. It’s the perfect place to plunge yourself into history while indulging yourself Texas-style.

—By Tamara Brown

  • The airport is four miles from the ranch, so you need to make advance arrangements for transportation. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Aerial view of Cibolo Creek Ranch Airport (TS15) facing north. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • After landing, you’ll likely see camels on the land adjacent to the airfield. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • The aircraft featured in this article is a 2001 Cessna Caravan flown by Joe Pace. Photo b George A. Kounis.
  • Meals are major events at the ranch. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • The decor throughout evokes the history of the ranch. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • A guided four-wheel-drive tour lets you explore the 25,000-acre ranch. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • You can explore the nearby Chinati Mountains on guided horseback tours. Photo courtesy of Cibolo Creek Ranch.
  • La Cienega offers ten guestrooms for families or groups in a fort 15 miles away from the main ranch. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Rooms have antiques and are decorated in a Southwest style. Photo courtesy of Cibolo Creek Ranch.
Topics: Travel, US Travel

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