Mesa de Anguila rises abruptly in the westernmost reaches of Big Bend National Park in southwestern Brewster County (at 29°13' N, 103°41' W). Beginning just below Lajitas on its upper end, the mesa runs some eleven miles in a southeasterly direction, reaching a high point near its middle of 3,883 feet above sea level and ending in high, sheer cliffs at the mouth of Terlingua Creek on the Rio Grande. On its southern exposure the mesa drops precipitously in walls some 1,500 feet high to form the United States side of Santa Elena Canyon. Mesa de Anguila is actually the northern tip of a high, uplifted fault block that continues into Mexico, where it is known as the Sierra Ponce. Across it the Rio Grande has cut its impressive gorge. The mesa is bounded by the Tertiary-age Terlingua fault zone, where geologic formations include the Upper Cretaceous Boquillas, consisting of thin-bedded "flaggy" limestone with lesser siltstone and mudstone, and the Lower Cretaceous Buda limestones, Del Rio clay, and Santa Elena limestone. Mesa de Anguila is one of the most prominent land features in the national park; its rugged eastern face forms the western edge of the Sunken Block, a huge, irregular trough or valley encompassing most of the park. The mesa lies within the Chihuahuan Desert, and the vegetation, characteristic of Chihuahuan Desert scrub, includes various semisucculents and shrubs such as lechuguilla, sotol, yucca, ocotillo, and creosote bush. The candelilla wax plant, which has been of economic importance to the area, also grows commonly on the limestone slopes and ledges of Mesa de Anguila. The name Mesa de Anguila has several possible origins. Spanish anguila means "eel," but "Mesa of the Eel" is hard to explain. The name may have come from a Spanish ángel ("angel") or águila ("eagle"). Yet another possibility occurs in a folk tale that claims the name referred to a Comanche, Angulo, who was allegedly the last of his people in the region. According to the tale, Angulo lived in caves on the mesa and in Santa Elena Canyon, which were known as las cuevas de Angulo.
Man has lived in the vicinity of Mesa de Anguila for millenia. Ancient pictographs and other indications of aboriginal occupation have been found in at least one area of the mesa itself. In historical times the routes of the great Comanche raiding trail into Mexico straddled Mesa de Anguila. The trail split to the north, with one fork crossing the Rio Grande at the north end of the mesa near Lajitas and the other fork crossing the river below the mesa between Santa Elena and Mariscal canyons. Probably the earliest written description of Mesa de Anguila by an American was provided in Maj. William H. Emory's report on the United States-Mexico joint boundary survey after his party scaled the mesa to view Santa Elena Canyon in 1852. In 1860 Lt. W. H. Echols, leading an army expedition of camels through the Big Bend, also rendered a description of the high cliffs of the mesa that form the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. Robert T. Hill, in his notable journey down the Rio Grande in 1899, referred to the mesa as the Sierra Santa Helena, claiming that he could find no name for it on the published maps of the day. He noted that his party could see the great escarpment of the mesa for a week after passing out of Santa Elena Canyon. Nowadays, Mesa de Anguila is still accessible only by foot. Several primitive backpacking trails lead over its rugged terrain.
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Ross A. Maxwell, The Big Bend of the Rio Grande (Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin, 1968). Ross A. Maxwell et al., Geology of Big Bend National Park (Austin: Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas, 1967). William W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967). A. Michael Powell, "Vegetation of Trans-Pecos Texas," in New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook (Socorro, New Mexico: New Mexico Geological Society, 1980). Ronnie C. Tyler, The Big Bend (Washington: National Park Service, 1975).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Mesa de Anguila,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 27, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
April 1, 1995