Amistad National Recreation Area

Photo above: View of the 1929 steamplant at a former power plant now below Amistad Reservoir. Right: Sunset over Amistad National Recreation Area. Source: National Park Service.

Amistad National Recreation Area

Amistad National Recreation Area

It's a reservoir caused by a dam on the Rio Grande River bordering Texas and Mexico, and now Amistad provides a place to boat, hike, water ski, and camp in a desert lake environment while history awaits, both below the surface and on its border. Yes, it's a hot place. Yes, it's a wet place. And while you boat there, you may wander into another nation. Beware of that and know the rules about border crossings, either on the lake or on the land. It's also a place with a history footprint; unfortunately some of that has been lost to the brine, although some of it does remain in remote locations. Ask where when you go and how to get there. It may require a boat.

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Cave painting at Amistad

Amistad Then

Construction of the dam and flooding of the area caused many historic structures to be lost beneath the water, including 14.3 miles of Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, three former power plants and associated structures, plus a number of Native American sites. The park was established by the International Boundary and Water Commission in 1965 and transferred to the National Park Service in 1990. Some remnants of the past heritage remain, although they can be hard to find. The tunnel still exists, as well as the Shumla Station, although it has been moved from its original site. The South Pacific Railroad's Painted Cave Station, not the buildings, but the more modern version of rock painting from the railroad era, graffiti, can be seen while visiting Parida Cave, which has Pecos River pictographs in the style, but perhaps less elaborate than Panther Cave.

Railroad History - Captain William Monroe, working for the Southern Pacific Railroad, built two tunnels near the Pecos River at its junction with the Rio Grande in 1882. The first was the initial railroad tunnel in Texas. Mr. Meyers built a saloon and store near the construction camp. A railroad station, Painted Cave Station, was constructed between the Pecos River crossing and Flanders Station, now part of Seminole Canyon State Historic Park. Other stations, such as Shumla, were built along the line. Amistad Dam - A solution to the floods and droughts along the Rio Grande River had been a major problem for decades with the first dam built, Elephant Butte, in New Mexico in 1911, which solved problems along the middle Rio Grande, but did nothing in the area of the Pecos River. Falcon Dam was built in the lower area in 1953, but the 1954 flood proved that it was insufficient and that a larger dam needed to be built. Work on the Amistad Dam began in 1963 and would be completed six years later. New power plants were added on both sides of the dam in the 1980s.

Photo above: Some of the amazing Rock Art at Panther Cave. The whole pictograph is one hundred and fifty feet long. Photo Courtesy of National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area. Below: View from inside Parida Cave. Photo Courtesy of National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area.

Parida Cave, Amistad National Recreation Area

Amistad Now

Amistad is about friendship; it's what the word means. Now, with the completion of the dam in 1968, that friendship was about sharing water resources, both in control of floods as well as irrigation to mitigate the problems of drought. The reservoir covers 65,000 acres with a shoreline of 851 miles, 547 in the United States. It now provides hydroelectric power, nearly 300 million kilowatt hours per year in two plants, one on each side of the border. Of course, to most visitors today, it provides the backdrop for recreation. Camping, hiking, hunting, houseboating, fishing, and scuba diving, to name a few. Some of the campsites have spectacular views of the water, albeit in a hardscrabble desert backdrop and a very hot much of the year tableau. While much of the history has been overwatered and no longer available to witness topside, you can still access rock art in the upper reaches of the park at Panther and Parida caves. You're talking rock art four thousand years old and other archeological sites in the area that are ice age inspired. Kind of a shame some of it is below water level now.

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Amistad NRA


Things You Should Not Miss

1. Get a feel for the history and opportunities at Amistad NRA by heading to the Visitor Center and watching one of several films. "The Transparent Border" discusses the Amistad park. "Spirits of the Canyon" and "Windows to the Past" talk above Indian rock art. "A Land of Contrast" discusses Big Bend National Park, if that's on your agenda as well. Most films are about thirty minutes long.

2. Use your boat. There's seventy-four miles up the Rio Grande River to explore and other rivers as well, taking you to unique canyons and fishing spots, plus places to camp. If you intend to head into Mexican waters, please ask at the Visitor Center about the permits required and rules of the lake. This is a bring you own boat park with no boat rentals available at the moment. For those with their own, public boat ramps exist all over the northern and southern shores of Amistad Reservoir.

3. Use your feet. It's hot here and hiking should be relegated to those fit enough to brave the elements. Be smart and prepared for the heat and terrain. There's a guided hike most Saturday mornings, but whether you want to be guided or head out on your own, there's a variety of trails from the short interpretive kind under a mile in length to longer hikes like those at Figueroa Ranch.

Photo above: Southern Pacific Railroad Bridge and US-90 Highway Bridge over the Amistad Reservoir. Source: National Park Service.

Visitor FAQ