Rough and Ready
The remote backcountry of Big Bend Ranch State Park is finally open to the public. Welcome to the best wilderness getaway in Texas.
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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 the view to remember occurs when the road climbs away from the river to scale Big Hill, seventeen miles west of Lajitas. The twists, turns, steep ascents and descents, and numerous dips for low-water crossings dictate speeds well below the posted 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. To fully appreciate the road and the landmarks it passes between Study Butte and Presidio, pick up a copy of David Alloway’s El Camino del Rio—The River Road ($4 at Barton Warnock Center or Fort Leaton, or $5.25 from Big Bend State Ranch Park, P.O. Box 2319, Presidio, Texas 79845). In this excellent text, Alloway (who leads a desert-survival course; see “Sweating It Out,”) brings the land to life, pointing out such significant features as Three-Dike Hill, where the unusual exposure of magma that cooled in vertical cracks created “fingers of dark rock rising vertically through buff volcanic ash.”
Seeing the Ranch by Car
From Fort Leaton, it is three miles on FM 170 to the turnoff to Casa Piedra, then an additional six miles on an improved gravel road to the ranch gate. Once past the gate (be sure to close and lock it), the road narrows to a dirt track for the eighteen-mile drive to the headquarters at Sauceda. The first few miles on the interior road are fairly bleak, passing through the forbidding rocky scrub of the Teneros lowland, which is dominated by spindly ocotillo and squat creosote. As the road gradually rises into higher valleys surrounded by the Bofecillos Mountains, the dominant range on the ranch, the desert takes on a greener hue, considerably softened by thick grasses and punctuated by lechuguilla, Spanish dagger, and prickly pear. By the time you reach the overlook on a high plateau eleven miles east of the ranch gate, the scenery is downright stunning. From here you can see Ojinaga and Presidio in the distance, framed by the Bofecillos, with the distinctive yellow volcanic ash of Las Cuevas in the foreground.
Unfortunately, everything about the ranch is so new, and the Parks and Wildlife budget is so inadequate, that the only interpretative materials are two brochures and four photocopied sheets given to visitors at the check-in points. These include a map, a sheet of rules (no pets, no removal of vegetation or artifacts, no public consumption of alcohol), and a list of significant historical and geological sites on the ranch. There are now twelve roadside exhibits, but many sites remain unmarked; ranch rangers observe an informal don’t-tell-’em policy to preserve fragile sites and remote treasures that the understaffed park personnel would otherwise be unable to protect—a pictograph was stolen from a site several years ago.
The road continues eight miles beyond Sauceda to the Solitario overlook, the only roadside view of the ranch’s featured geological attraction, which is an eroded lava dome or perhaps the truncated cone of a collapsed volcano. From the sky or on a map, the Solitario appears as a series of roughly concentric circles, nine miles in diameter. The roadside view isn’t quite that dramatic: The perspective suggests a scaled-down version of the Window in the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park—a jumble of hills, drops, uplifts, and canyons descending to the southeast.
Many more dirt roads lead off into the desert, but the only ones currently open are the Llano and Oso loops. The Llano drive goes through mostly flat country, and Oso is a mountain route that comes close to Oso Peak, the highest in the park (5,136 feet). Driving on other back roads is prohibited, though several jeep tracks are targeted for future use. Still, the main ranch road and the loops that have been opened will test the mettle of any sport-utility vehicle and its driver. Conventional automobiles should stay off the loops, which are narrow, primitive, and usually deserted.
If you’d like to know more about what you’re seeing, by all means hire a guide. Without one, I would have missed the archaeological significance of Las Cuevas—the dozens of ancient handprints painted on a shady overhang, the numerous holes in the rock where seeds and grains were once ground into meal, and the nearby remains of huge firepits. I hired Sam Richardson of the Big Bend Touring Society (915-371-2548) to lead me on the twelve-mile Walk Through Time hike from the middle of the Solitario through the Lower Shutup (a natural corral used by ranchers) toward Lajitas. Given the necessity of a shuttle to the drop-off and pickup points, it is the most difficult hike in the park, but it is one of the most exhilarating wilderness adventures I’ve ever had in Texas. Sam’s easygoing manner and his vast knowledge and appreciation of the wild country made all the difference in the world. You can also book a half-day or full-day tour guided by a park ranger for $30 to $50 per person (915-229-3416). Some tours, such as those to Fresno Canyon and Mexicano Falls and to Mexicano Canyon, require up to six miles of hiking. Others, such as the Ranch Heritage tour and the Fresno Canyon and Smith House tour, require no hiking at all.
The Parks and Wildlife Department offers guided full-day bus tours twice a month. Tours leave Fort Leaton on the first Saturday of each month and the Barton Warnock Center on the third Saturday. The cost is $60 and includes lunch. For reservations, call 512-389-8900.
Since this is a ranch, it only makes sense to see it on horseback. You can bring your own steed—trailer parking is available at Sauceda—or arrange a guided trail ride with Linda Walker, the owner of Lajitas Stables (888-508-7667).
The interior road and the Oso and Llano loops are the only paths officially open to mountain bikers, but that’s still more than 25 miles of off-the-beaten-path cycling. The loops in particular are loaded with blind drop-offs, steep grades, and water crossings that will satisfy any thrill-seeker. The last leg of the 30-mile Chihuahuan Desert Challenge bike race, held in February, passes through the park’s extreme southeastern corner. Desert Sports in Terlingua organizes bicycle tours (915-371-2727 or 888-989-6900).
Although more than one hundred miles of trails are projected for future use, at present there are no marked trails with signage in the interior of the park and just three that can be accessed from the River Road. The Closed Canyon hike (1.5 miles round-trip) leads toward the Rio Grande along a tight, shady path that most children should be able to negotiate. The Rancherias Canyon trail (9.6 miles round-trip to Rancherias Falls, an eighty-foot waterfall) requires a full day along relatively flat terrain. To actually see the falls up close, you’re better off taking the western trailhead of the Rancherias Loop. The 19-mile loop, which rises two thousand feet in elevation from either the west or east trailhead into the Bofecillos canyons, is the sole developed long-distance trek on the ranch, a recommended three-day venture.
Dozens of jeep roads diverging from the main road in the ranch interior function as unmarked trails leading to pouroffs, springs, and tinajas, the jewels on the desert. But since many of these sites are extremely fragile or contain archaeological artifacts, such as rock art, park personnel are understandably reluctant to give out directions. I did coax from them information about three jeep-road hikes that I promptly checked out.
The easiest was a quarter-mile walk from the interior road to Agua Adentro, a series of small spring-fed pools shaded by cottonwoods near Las Cuevas. This hike began 10.5 miles before the Sauceda ranch headquarters. Another hiking trail, 8 miles from Sauceda, led to Ojito Adentro, a 35-foot waterfall plunging into a pool adjacent to a maidenhair fern—choked overhang, all of it tucked into a tight canyon crevice. The 2-mile hike requires some stamina and agility, because a fair amount of climbing is required. Considerable care should be taken at the falls not to trample over mosses to get closer to the falls—and to avoid the abundant poison ivy. My favorite hike, though, was an effortless 1.5-mile walk to Cinco Tinajas. From the turnoff a mile from Sauceda, the path starts out through harsh desert scrub. After tramping up a dry creekbed and scurrying over boulders and slickrock, I came upon the first of several pristine pools in the pouroff. Keep in mind that these backcountry hikes head into dangerous and remote country where you will not encounter a vehicle and very likely will not see another human being. Longer hikes should not even be attempted without an experienced guide and a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The ideal way to experience Big Bend Ranch is to enroll in one of the regularly scheduled group activities on the ranch. These all-inclusive packages are worth the price ($350 and up), considering how much a newcomer learns. Seminars scheduled for 1998 include the spring Longhorn cattle drive, several photography workshops, and desert survival. You can also join a trail ride this November and apply for seasonal hunts for quail, javelina, and exotic game. For dates and prices, call 915-229-3416.
The stretch of the Rio Grande that borders the ranch is easily accessible from River Road and is an excellent introduction to river rafting. A fourteen-mile float through Colorado Canyon has a minimum of whitewater (several mild class II and class III rapids when the river is up). Between the Bofecillos on the Texas side of the river and the Sierra Ricas rising above eight thousand feet on the Mexico side, the canyon brims with exceptional scenery. Shorter half-day trips can be run from Madera (sometimes known as Monilla) Canyon to Grassy Banks or from Grassy Banks to Lajitas. The latter is ideal for casual floaters and families with young children. The rapids are minimal and there are banks on both sides of the river to explore. The big thrill on my last trip was looking around Herrero, the dead-on rendering of an adobe-and-rock village that was built as a movie set for Uphill All the Way and later used in Streets of Laredo and Dead Man’s Walk. Each building seems as weather-worn and authentic on the outside as the real adobe structures elsewhere along the river, and the interiors, mostly pastiches of plywood and fiberglass, lent considerable insight into the fantasy and reality of moviemaking and set design. One of the buildings even has a working toilet. No matter what part of the Rio Grande you float, be aware that strong headwinds from the southeast can slow the progress of rafts and canoes. Be prepared for sudden changes in the weather too.
For guided floats and equipment rentals, try Big Bend River Tours in Lajitas (800-545-4240), Far Flung Adventures in Terlingua (915-371-2489 or 800-359-4138), Rio Grande Adventures in Terlingua (800-343-1640), Texas River Expeditions in Study Butte (800-839-7238), and Desert Sports in Terlingua (915-371-2727 or 888-989-6900).
Where to Camp
This wild country was made for camping out. Camping on the ranch is permitted at designated sites only and the privilege is included in the $6-per-person-per-day fee you pay upon entering the park. All sites are primitive and unimproved—no water or electricity. Unisex composting toilets are provided at sites near River Road that accommodate twenty campers each at the Colorado Canyon, Madera Canyon, and Grassy Banks river access points. These typically fill up fastest. Ten campsites, accommodating a total of two hundred campers, are located on or near the ranch interior road, the most popular being Campo de la Vibora and the most remote being Pilar Montoya, at the end of the road, beyond the Solitario overlook. The latter’s location near a watering tank for cattle requires some fancy footwork around numerous cow patties. Bring your own firewood and stoves. To reserve a campsite, call 915-229-3416.
Lodging on the Ranch
The rustic route is the long metal-sided barracks known as the Lodge, which has room for fifteen men and fifteen women in separate areas. Two and three people sleep in partitioned cubicles for $15 a night, linens and towels provided. It’s not as bad as it sounds. There’s a fireplace between the sleeping quarters, with chairs, sofas, tables, and satellite television for the naturalistically challenged. The atmosphere is ideal for reading, exchanging tales with other adventurers, or listening to lectures in the evening. The Lodge also houses the kitchen and dining room for Sauceda.
If you’ve got the money, honey, splurge a little: Round up as many as seven friends or kinfolk and rent the red-roofed, white stucco Big House, the willow-shaded three-bedroom, two-bath residence where the owners lived back when the place really was a ranch. The $320-a-night tab includes breakfast. When the entire house isn’t rented out, individuals can book a bed for $40 a night. Either way, the price is a bargain, considering the level of comfort in the middle of nowhere. You can doze off on the porch swing or lounge around the fireplace in the living room decorated with the requisite antler and horn trophies, with the contented satisfaction of knowing exactly how Giant’s Bick Benedict must have felt. Reservations are advised for lodging at Sauceda (915-229-3416).
Lodging Off the Ranch
The Three Palms Inn in Presidio has doubles starting at $39 a night (915-229-3211 or 229-3436). Motel Ojinaga, two miles into Mexico, has doubles for $30 a night. The Lajitas on the Rio Grande Resort, seventy miles from Sauceda, offers a motel, hotel, condominiums, or homes for rent, priced from $55 to $150 a night for two people (915-424-3471 or 800-944-9907). There are R.V. parks and private campgrounds in Presidio, Lajitas, and Terlingua.
Eating on the Ranch
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are prepared and served camp-style at the Sauceda lodge dining hall. The emphasis is on meat and potatoes. The beef fajitas were some of the best I’ve ever had. Vegetarians, picky eaters, and those on specific diets are advised to bring their own food. Breakfast is $4, lunch $7, and dinner $9. Cash or check only. Reservations are strongly recommended (915-229-3416).