THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW about Big Bend Ranch State Park is that it is more of a ranch than a park. A real ranch gate bars the way into the interior—and it’s locked; you have to get the combination at the Fort Leaton visitors center to go in. Beyond the gate are dirt roads, a herd of Longhorns, and a rugged and untamed land that still belongs to deer, coyotes, antelope, javelina, mountain lions, and black bears. It is desert backcountry, where an ever-present coating of dust covers the jeans, fills the nostrils, and blankets Suburbans and Range Rovers. And it is huge: 287,000 acres, more than four hundred square miles. Big Bend Ranch is the real thing, not one of those gentrified Washington County weekend-hobby ranchettes with white picket fences and manicured grounds.
Those who accept Big Bend Ranch for what it is will discover the best wilderness experience that Texas has to offer. Its Chihuahuan Desert hinterlands are full of surprises: lush springs, narrow canyons, fractured mountains, here and there a waterfall, and the arid and forbidding Solitario, one of the strangest geological formations you are likely to see. As long as you make your way without whining, like a real rancher is supposed to, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of pleasures.
Keep in mind that, despite the similarities in the names and the fact that they are only an hour apart, Big Bend Ranch and Big Bend National Park have little in common except that they share the same desert environment. The national park has lower deserts, higher mountains, the alpine microclimate of the Chisos Basin, and more spectacular points of interests, such as Santa Elena Canyon and the South Rim. The ranch is considerably wetter, with 116 active springs, 86 of them flowing year-round—an estimated one third of all fresh water found in the Trans-Pecos. The national park is far more developed, with paved roads and ample amenities for visitors. Although the state has owned the ranch since 1988, the dirt road to Sauceda, the ranch headquarters, has been open to the public for only a year and a half. The new visitors center at Sauceda, with restrooms and shower facilities, has just been completed, and the bunkhouse is being remodeled to accommodate couples. The improvements have made the ranch more user-friendly, but as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s executive director, Andrew Sansom, told me, “It’s not Big Bend National Park. It’s more like being in a park in the Third World.” In other words, Big Bend Ranch is not for everybody. But for me, knowing that there remains in Texas a place this rough, this solitary, this intimidating, is somehow reassuring.
Before You Go
If you plan to explore the interior of the ranch and you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle, consider renting one. Conventional vehicles can negotiate the road to the interior, as long as the driver proceeds with caution. Mind the curves, the occasional teeth-rattling effect of the washboard surface, gravel buildup in dry washes, and the random large rock in the middle of the road. Do not attempt to travel the interior of the ranch in wet weather. Make sure that the gas tank is full, the spare tire is in good shape, and stock up on food and water, just in case. Wear a hat and rugged shoes or boots. First-aid kits, tire-repair kits, and other emergency items—a compass, topography maps, and a knife—may come in handy. Cellular phones won’t; they can’t pick up a signal on the ranch. Three gas stations near the intersection of U.S. 67 and FM 170 in Presidio are open seven days a week; the Texaco station provides towing and automotive repair service (915-229-3259). Gasoline is also available in Lajitas at the Lajitas Trading Post, open from 7 to 9 daily.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is in the extreme southwest corner of Texas. From any of the population centers in the eastern half of the state, the driving distance is daunting—560 miles if you are coming from Dallas. The nearest airports with scheduled service are in El Paso and Midland, each more than two hundred miles from the park entrance near Presidio. (The spectacular drive from the national park to Presidio on FM 170, the River Road, goes through a piece of the ranch.) Amtrak stops in Alpine, a 90-mile drive from Presidio.
When to Go
Fall and spring. The weather on the ranch is similar to that at the national park, only hotter in the summer. Highs regularly exceed 100 degrees. The heat moderates and rain chances increase in July and August. October and November and mid-February to mid-April are about as ideal as it gets, with highs ranging from the sixties to the nineties.
The Lay of the Land
The ranch’s two main points of entry are Lajitas, twenty miles west of the national park, and Fort Leaton, three miles east of Presidio. Both entry points are reached from FM 170, but Fort Leaton is much closer to the dirt road into the interior of the ranch. You will need to buy a permit to enter the interior or gain access to the Rio Grande, but driving through the ranch on FM 170 is free. Permits to use the river are available at the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, in Lajitas (915-424-3327), and at adobe-walled Fort Leaton, once the private compound of a nineteenth-century scoundrel named Ben Leaton (915-229-3613). Fees are $6 for adults, $4 for children. (Remember: Fort Leaton is the place to get the combination to unlock the ranch gate if you are headed to the ranch interior.)
The River Road
Even if you don’t want to brave the interior, you should include the River Road on your next trip to the Big Bend area. FM 170 was here long before the ranch became a state park and remains one of the quintessential Texas driving experiences. The route mostly follows the cottonwood-lined Rio Grande, but