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Hallie's Country

Silhouetted against a timeless Chihuahuan Desert landscape, Rhonda Cole and Sandy Smith, riders on last year’s Stillwell Ranch-Big Bend Trail Ride, find shade in the mouth of a shelter cave.

When backcountry enthusiasts need a Big Bend fix, most make tracks for the obvious places: Big Bend National Park, the Rio Grande, Big Bend Ranch, and the Davis Mountains.

There’s another side of Big Bend that’s often overlooked—a sprawling swath of Chihuahuan Desert south of Marathon and east of the national park. It straddles FM 2627 all the way to the Rio Grande and takes in not only Stillwell Ranch but the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, once part of the Stillwell range. I call this despoblado (the unpeopled land) “Hallie’s Country.” Dominated even today by horses and cattle, this land was her stomping grounds for most of the last century.

Best known as a “ranch woman” and hailed as a “Yellow Rose of Texas,” Hallie led many lives: schoolteacher, newspaper reporter and columnist, author, lecturer, justice of the peace, and chili-cookoff judge.

Trail-riders’ horses graze beneath a sunset sky.

The Stillwell Ranch headquarters—essentially the Stillwell Store—lies 46 miles southeast of Marathon. Drive south of Marathon on US 385 for 40 miles. Before reaching Persimmon Gap and Big Bend National Park’s northern entrance, turn left onto FM 2627 and drive 6 miles to the Stillwell Store and RV Park. The store opens daily 8-9. Free, self-guided tours of the Hallie Stillwell Hall of Fame museum next door are available during store hours. RV sites are available on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Primitive campsites are available for $5 per person per night, including hot showers and bathrooms at the store. Campfires and pets allowed. The ranch is open to equestrians and rock collectors and offers shuttle services for Rio Grande float trips. Note: RV sites and campsites are especially popular during mid-March (spring break season). For details, call 432/376-2244, or visit

The 21st annual Big Bend-Stillwell Ranch Trail Ride and Wagon Train takes place Feb. 9-14, 2008. For details, call the Stillwell Store.

BLACK GAP Wildlife Management Area, owned and operated by Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept., is in Brewster County on the Rio Grande, adjacent to Big Bend Natl. Park. A Limited Use Permit (buy from TPWD before coming) is required for entry. From Marathon, drive south on US 385 for 39 miles to the intersection of FM 2627. Take FM 2627 south for 17 miles to the headquarters. Black Gap is open year round, except during special-permit hunts that take place some days during Oct-Feb. Activities include camping, bicycling, hiking, horseback-riding, wildlife-viewing, fishing, and hunting (with proper permits). For more information, call 432/837-3251, or visit, and click on “Wildlife Management Areas.”

MARATHON offers visitors to Hallie’s Country a choice of accommodations, campgrounds, and restaurants for all tastes and budgets. The best-known lodging in Marathon is the historic Gage Hotel, offering guest rooms in the original 1927 hotel and in the deluxe Los Portales addition, as well as rental homes beside the newly opened Gage Gardens. Room rates range from $76-$330 per night. The hotel’s Café Cenizo opens daily for breakfast (Mon-Fri 7-10, Sat-Sun 7-11) and dinner (Sun-Thu 6-9, Fri-Sat 6-10). The Gage is located at 101 US 90 West. For details and reservations, call 432/386-4205 or 800/884-GAGE; For information about other Marathon attractions, call the Marathon Chamber of Commerce at 432/386-4516, or visit

From the January 2008 issue.

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