America's Scariest Trails: Big Bend's Deadly Past

With more than 200 murders recorded here, it's no wonder the Chisos Mountains are named for ghosts.
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With more than 200 murders recorded here, it's no wonder the Chisos Mountains are named for ghosts.

Native Americans, Spanish soldiers, cowboys, ranchers. They've all died here, some brutally, some gloriously, some mysteriously. All contributed to the name Chisos, which is thought to derive from the Spanish hechizos, meaning "bewitchments" or "enchantments," or from the Castilian chis ("clash of arms"), due to reports from early visitors that they heard the ghosts of Spanish soldiers.

The most famous of the fallen: Chief Alsate, the last leader of the Chisos Apaches, who was killed by a Mexican firing squad in 1882. "They say that when his body hit the ground, the mountains shook," says Andrea Lankford, author of Haunted Hikes.* Soon after his death, Alsate appeared to Lionicio Castillo–who had betrayed the chief to Mexican officials–and terrified him so badly that Castillo himself vanished. According to legend, Alsate then made his impression, literally, on the mountains. If you view the Chisos from the north, you can see the outline of his face etched in the peaks and valleys. Some say he's also responsible for the Marfa lights, glowing orbs that are regularly seen in the desert northwest of Big Bend.

Alsate has plenty of company. As recently as 1978, hikers reported seeing the apparition of a man wearing a serape in Bruja ("witch") Canyon. According to Tales of the Big Bend, others have seen the daughter of a Spanish don who drowned herself in a pool rather than succumb to her bandit captors; La Llorona, or the wailing woman, who drowned her babies in an attempt to lure a man and now roams the Rio Grande in search of them; and an Indian warrior who carries a torch while guiding other spirits to the Happy Hunting Ground.

Even a spectral bull inhabits Big Bend. In 1891, Fine Gilliland and Henry Powe fought over the coveted animal–which had no brand–and Powe died in the ensuing gunfight. Shortly after, a Texas Ranger shot and killed Gilliland. Following the deaths of both would-be owners, the bull was finally branded: "Murder." The phantom bull now roams Big Bend as a harbinger of death and murders to come.

Hike it
Tackle a difficult 14.5-mile loop from Chisos Basin, a natural rock bowl at 5,400 feet, to the sheer ridge along the 7,000-foot-plus South Rim. backpacker.com/hikes/54074