Hiking the Rancheria Grande

by Carolyn Henderson

To walk where Spanish settlers walked hundreds of years ago and native tribes lived their lives, even thousands of years ago is an inspiring experience. Members of the El Camino Real chapter Texas Master Naturalist and El Camino Real de los Tejas National Trail Association got to experience it firsthand Saturday in a guided tour of a trail in development.

The group after their hike

The trail is part of the El Camino Real Trail that spans a good part of Texas. The part travelled Saturday, June 2, runs across the Cedar Hill Preserve, owned by Mike and Joyce Conner, and the Baumann Ranch. The Conner property is being developed as a native flora and fauna preserve, and the adjoining Baumann ranch is still a working cattle ranch. It is now part of the National Trail Association, and it is being prepared for study and hiking for organized groups in the future.

The trail head

The wet swales were probably formed by water traveling in a path through the area in wet seasons then later used by travelers.

Mike Conner talks about the wet swale

The trail head begins in a woody area on sandy loam soil complete with a fancy new outhouse somewhat like your grandparents had in this area. In many areas a hiker can actually see the trodden
path taken by Spaniards and Native Americans dating back hundreds and probably thousands of years ago. They are most discernable by swales that bank the path. A swale is a buildup of land running along each side of the ancient trail. It looks a bit like a street curb might look today. There are both dry swales and wet swales. The dry swales were strictly roads/paths taken by travelers.

Dry Swale (photo by Michelle Lopez)

There also are signal trees believed to have been formed by the native tribes to give direction
then later used by the Spaniards. Artifacts from both groups have been identified by archaeologists
studying the area. Post Oak trees primarily were used to form these trees.

Signal Tree

When you come out of the wooded area, you are then on an uphill stretch to reach the very high hilltop. The top of the hill is like a meadow looking out at the woods below and nearby hills or “mountains.” Sugar Loaf Mountain is very near and visible from this hilltop. It is believed that this hilltop where we were was a village for a native tribe or tribes over the years. Tonkawa artifacts have been identified from the area. There was a great deal of speculation by the hikers that the different tribes sent smoke signals to each other from these hill tops. A visit to Sugar Loaf Mountain has long been a rite of passage for area high schoolers.

This area is part of the Rancheria Grande Los Brazos de Dios. An archaeological dig in the area around Alligator Creek and Pin Oak Creeks, both of which cross these properties, a few years ago found evidence of very early Spanish settlements.

Trail loop

Mike Conner and Dr. John Pruett, tour guides for the adventure, and Mr. and Mrs. Baumann, explained the history and discoveries while the rest of us recovered from the climb. Joyce Conner etched a map of the trail into a homemade tabletop. It sits at the top of the hill.

Joyce Conner’s tabletop map

Going downhill was easier, but one could certainly feel the rising midday temperature. An appreciation of what people had to go through to get anywhere hundreds and thousands of years ago is brought home when hiking this trail.

The Baughmans (center)

There is a book titled The Archaeology of Rancheria Grande Los Brazos de Dios, written by Sergio A. Iruegas, archeologist, and Melinda T. Iruegas, about the discoveries in the area. It is currently out of print, but there are copies at the Cameron and Rockdale libraries. If you own land in that area, you may be sitting on artifacts.

Mike Conner talks about the trail

White Ibis Sighting

by Michelle Lopez

I went to check our pond to see if the 1.5 inches of rain made a difference, and I was surprised to see two birds in the pond that I did not recognize. I didn’t have my binoculars or any of my bird watching stuff with me so I got the best pictures and video I could with my phone.  My dog Whiskey was also excited to see them…too bad she scared them away. Hopefully they will come back.

I used my Merlin app to identify the birds, it told me that they were Juvenile White Ibis, and they are rare in this area. I confirmed it with my Sibley’s Bird Guide. How exciting! 

Volunteering at the Gault Site

by Michelle Lopez

by Michelle Lopez

My husband Oscar and I went to the Gault Archaeological site and helped clear huge trees and branches that had fallen during a recent tornado. Got to meet some fellow Master Naturalists from other groups. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet Dr. Mike Collins, who bought the land/site and donated it to the Archaeological Conservancy to be able to preserve it.

The entry. We are always up for more field trips here!

There was also a film crew who are in the process of making a documentary about the site. It was exciting learning about the history, and I’m still very surprised that this place has been there for so long and I only heard about it when Dr. Clark Wernecke taught an archaeological class about it. It was fun meeting him as well; he’s a very cool guy.

About the film

Olive Talley is doing an awesome job on this documentary trying to get the word out about this hugely important site that literally changes everything scientists thought they knew about when people were living here locally. This site suggests 20,000 years ago!! That’s much earlier than 13,500 previously thought for the Clovis culture. 

Clark W. explaining about the site.

Here is a link to be able to follow the documentary. 


Enjoy some photos from our day!