The Big Bend region of West Texas hosts an intoxicating mixture of history and mystery. From the Marfa Lights to the McDonald Observatory to the vistas of Big Bend National Park, the world opens up in a way that we’re not used to seeing. So it is no surprise that the area is home to an experience unavailable anywhere else in North America: traveling through a unique piece of American history on the back of a camel.
“You’re doing what a camel is meant to do, out in a place that they’re built for,” says Doug Baum, founder and operator of Big Bend Camel Treks. “To appreciate these animals and this unique history, you truly need to be in the context of where a camel is meant to thrive. In that landscape, you gain the greatest appreciation for them. Short of going to North Africa, the Middle East or India, this is the place to do it. And I’m the only guy doing it.”
A former zookeeper, Doug Baum fell in love with camels 30 years ago. “A chance encounter with camels in Nashville set me on this path. Within a week of working with camels, I was head over heels. They’re gentle, affectionate, comical.” Around that same time, he read a book about how the U.S. Army had imported and used camels in the mid-1800s to explore routes from the Texas Hill country all the way to California.
“Today’s Hwy 90 west from San Antonio through Castroville, Uvalde into Big Bend and the greater southwest, even parts of Route 66 … these are actually old camel trails.”
Camels seemed a sensible choice to explore the interior southwest of North America, which was labeled on maps of the time as “the Great American Desert”. This was right around the Civil War. With secession in 1861, the federals abandoned the camels in Camp Verde, Texas and the Confederate army took control of everything, including the camels.
“I love camels and I love history,” Baum said. “I finished that book in one sitting, and I said to myself, ‘I have to move back to Texas and tell this story!’”
For the last 25 years, Baum has been doing just that, guiding trips on private land in the Big Bend area. A teacher at heart, his desire is to give people an appreciation of this unique slice of American history, along with an unforgettable experience trekking through the West Texas desert on the back of a camel.
Big Bend Camel Treks offers two-day and three-day treks, which include either one or two nights sleeping in tents underneath the big West Texas skies. Almost everything is provided; trekkers need only bring a backpack with clothes, a sleeping bag and good hiking boots, as folks travel some short portions of the trek on foot. Baum’s company provides water and all the meals, usually a mix of Middle Eastern, Southwestern, Mexican, or North African fare.
Along the trail, Baum recounts stories of the camels’ history in Texas, along with the ranching heritage of the west. He shares about the abundant flora, fauna and other wildlife. “The landscape is absolutely gorgeous,” Baum notes. “If we’re lucky we see wildlife like javelina, mule deer, aoudad, different birds, plus the plant diversity of the desert. Cactii, yuca, mesquite and acacia trees.” Desert nights are a special treat, Baum notes, “You hear the coyotes, see the stars. Guests really appreciate the clear nights, the stargazing.”
Spring and fall are the best times for a trek, with mild temperatures and cool nights. Big Bend Camel Treks excursions are usually booked six months to a year in advance, so it is good to plan far ahead by emailing to get on their waiting list. The treks operate out of Cibolo Creek Ranch, a 30,000-acre guest ranch south of Marfa, where people can stay before the trek.
Asked what commonly surprises his guests, Baum points to the temperament of his camels. “Time and again, people tell me they’ve heard camels are mean and nasty. Then they meet my camels, and they’re all just sweet and affectionate, and it changes their minds. I’m a myth-buster.”