Texas Travel

Trek the ‘Lonesome Dove’ Trail Across Texas

By Peter Simek 11.20.20

When Larry McMurtry published his novel “Lonesome Dove” in 1985, he believed he had created a raw, unflinching depiction of the American West that was true to the reality of life on the Texas frontier.

“I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people,” McMurtry wrote in the introduction to the 2000 republishing of the classic novel. “But, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s “Inferno,” filled with violence, faithlessness, and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of “Gone With The Wind” of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”

McMurtry may harbor some ambiguity over the public’s embrace of his beloved story, but his novel is the rare work of literature that manages to both achieve the author’s ambition of creating a “poor man’s ‘Inferno’” while delighting readers who have fallen in love with his vivid portrayal of a bygone age. “Lonesome Dove” tells the story of two retired Texas Rangers who head north from the Rio Grande Valley with a dream of pulling off an epic cattle drive all the way to Montana. Along the way, they are hunted by Native American warriors and officers of the law; they lose the herd, discover romance, and struggle to check their own grit and ambition against the unforgiving hardness of the Wild West.

“Lonesome Dove” won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a dedicated and loyal fanbase who hold annual fan events and celebrations of the book and the popular 1989 TV miniseries based on the novel. This year, as McMurtry’s novel celebrates its 35th anniversary, we take you on a tour of the places and people who inspired one of the greatest Texas novels.

Finding Lonesome Dove Trail
Lonesome Dove Cattle Trail

Finding the Trailhead

Captain Woodrow F. Call and Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae’s Hat Creek Cattle Company gets its start in the fictional border town of Lonesome Dove. When producers of the 1989 miniseries adaptation looked for a location that matched the novel’s descriptions, they settled on the Bill Moody Ranch, located about seven miles south of the border town of Del Rio.

While the ranch is private, a drive south of Del Rio through the mesquite, hackberry, prickly pear, guajillo, and cenizo brush of the borderlands will situate you in the environment that still evokes the starting of McCrae’s long cattle trail.

Old San Fernando Church, Lonesome Dove

Losing Lorena

Heading north, Call and Gus are joined by another former Ranger, Jake Spoon, who’s escorted by Lorena Wood. They make their way to San Antonio and Austin, where Spoon ditches Lorena for gambling. Of course, the two big Texas cities no longer resemble the frontier towns depicted in the novel. But the TV series made use of Brackettville, where a reconstructed 19th-century San Antonio was already standing from the set of the John Wayne film “Alamo”. The set was reused in the filming of “Lonesome Dove.”

Lonesome Dove Contrabando

Tracking Blue Duck

North of Austin, the party splits as McCrae heads out to find Lorena, who has been kidnapped by a Comanche warrior, Blue Duck. Call and the rest of the cattle train continue north. To follow Gus’ path through the flats of West Texas and the unforgiving expanse of the Texas Panhandle, head northwest from Austin. Make the long drive to Adobe Walls, a Panhandle ghost town that was the site of two major conflicts between settlers and Native Americans.

Lonesome Dove

Kicking Back in Cowtown

As the drive heads north, Spoon embarks on a side adventure, landing himself in Fort Worth. Today, the Fort Worth Stockyards preserve the look and feel of the age when the dusty frontier town was the center of the Texas cattle trade. The stockyard pens, row of Western shops, and daily cattle drives will take you back to the time when Jake Spoon was in town looking for a card game.

Crossing the Red River

During one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, the herd must be driven across the Red River. As they make their way across, the cowboys and their cattle are attacked by water moccasins. The treacherous crossing was likely inspired by the real-life journey of the cowboys along the Chisholm Trail, which crossed the Red River near Nocona. Today, a marker stands near the spot where the trail crossed at Red River Station, a major supply depot and crossing point during the heyday of the great cattle drives.

The Ongoing Journey North

From the Red River, the trail takes the cattle train north toward the promise of greener pastures in Montana. The cattle train crosses the Arkansas River at Dodge City, Kansas, and the Platte River near Ogallala, Nebraska. The Rangers drive their herd through the grasslands of Northeast Wyoming on the way to Miles City, Montana — it’s here where the novel’s climax ensues. Some 300 miles north of Miles City, “Lonesome Dove” would conclude with the Hat Creek Cattle Company establishing the Milk River Ranch.

To experience more Texas adventures on the page, browse our list of quintessential Texas books.

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