Chisos Mountains

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: May 13, 2022

The Chisos Mountains are the heart of Big Bend National Park in southern Brewster County (at 29°16' N, 103°18' W). They extend twenty miles from Punta de la Sierra in the southwest to Panther Junction in the northeast. Among the highest peaks in the range are Emory Peak (7,835 feet above sea level), Lost Mine Peak (7,535 feet), Toll Mountain (7,415 feet), and Casa Grande Peak (7,325 feet). Shallow, stony soils on the mountains support a flora that includes Douglas fir, aspen, Arizona cypress, maple, ponderosa pine, and madrone.

The Chisos Mountains and the surrounding lowlands sit in a sunken block bounded on the northeast by the Sierra del Carmen and Santiago Mountains and on the southwest by the Sierra de Santa Elena. The mountains were pushed up to elevations of more than 5,000 feet above sea level by a great deformation during the Cenozoic era. During this uplift, however, formations from the Cretaceous period, between 66 million and 144 million years old, were also pushed up, and are still found occasionally high in the mountains.

In the eighteenth century the Chisos Mountains became the base of the Mescalero Apaches, who raided the Spanish settlements in Coahuila and Neuva Vizcaya, south of the Rio Grande. In 1747 Governor Pedro de Rábago y Terán of Coahuila led the first full-scale European expedition into the Big Bend. In the 1770s and 1780s Lt. Col. Hugo Oconór and Col. Juan de Ugalde led several campaigns against the Mescaleros, who had moved down into northern Mexico, and succeeded in driving them as far north as the Guadalupe Mountains. In the nineteenth century the Comanche Trail, used by Comanche raiding parties striking into northern Mexico, passed through the Chisos Mountains. By this time, however, White settlers, traders, and soldiers were also using the pathways through the mountains, and eventually cattle ranchers replaced hostile Indians as the primary occupants of the range. Since 1944 the Chisos Mountains have been part of Big Bend National Park.

Several explanations of the origin of the name of the range have been offered over the years. One held that chisos means "ghost," and that the mountains were named for the ghost of the Apache chief Alsate, who hid in the mountains for a time. Another version was that chisos was the plural of chis, meaning "clash of arms" (chischás in Castilian), since some reported hearing battle sounds at night in the mountains as the ghosts of Spanish soldiers returned to fight again. A third story was that chisos was a corruption of the Spanish hechizos, "bewitchments" or "enchantments." The mountains were almost certainly named, however, for the Chizos Indians.

Clifford B. Casey, Mirages, Mysteries and Reality: Brewster County, Texas, the Big Bend of the Rio Grande (Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1972). Walter Fulcher, The Way I Heard It: Tales of the Big Bend (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959; rpt. 1973). Arthur R. Gomez, A Most Singular Country: A History of Occupation in the Big Bend (Santa Fe: National Park Service; Salt Lake City: Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University, 1990). Elton Miles, "Terlingua and Los Chisos: The Place Names," Journal of Big Bend Studies 1 (January 1989). James B. and Margaret S. Stevens, "Stratigraphy and Major Structural-Tectonic Events along and near the Rio Grande, Trans-Pecos Texas and Adjacent Chihuahua and Coahuila, Mexico," in Geology of the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos Region, ed. Patricia Wood Dickerson et al. (San Antonio: South Texas Geological Society, 1990).

  • Military
  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Trans-Pecos Region

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Martin Donell Kohout, “Chisos Mountains,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 13, 2022