October 2007 Park of the Month
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Desert Wilderness Awaits at Big Bend Ranch State Park
In the borderlands of the far southwest corner of Texas near the confluence of Mexico's Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande lies one of the last true wilderness areas of Texas, where human presence is dwarfed by nature's grand scale. Big Bend Ranch State Park covers roughly 300,000 acres in the high country of the Chihuahuan Desert in a remote land where "the rainbow waits for rain."
When most people talk of "going to Big Bend," they are referring to Big Bend National Park about 40 miles south of Marathon, Texas, that enjoys considerable tourist traffic, especially during Spring Break and holiday weekends. Big Bend Ranch State Park, the "other" park in Texas' southwestern corner, exists mostly under the radar, offering adventure travelers an unparalleled, solitary backcountry experience amid otherworldly scenery.
El despoblado - the Spanish word meaning the unpopulated, empty place -- may look barren and Godforsaken from a distance, but closer observation of Big Bend Ranch's almost surreal landscape reveals a fascinating world of natural and cultural wonders, and stark contrasts.
Born of water and fire, the land here showcases 600 million years of the Earth's natural history. The ranch's terrain was shaped by ancient seas, the shifting of tectonic plates and volcanic activity that left behind bizarre rock formations, caves, canyons, mountains, waterfalls, springs, arroyos prone to flash flooding and an impressive diversity of plant and animal life.
Human occupation of this cradle of Southwestern civilization dates some 10,000 years. Artifacts of these ancient peoples -- at first nomadic hunters and later farmers of corn, beans and squash - dot the ranch in the form of pictographs, burned rock middens, projectile points, grinding stones and the like.
Later, in the early 1500s, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca passed through the region, followed by priests, soldiers, horse traders and other adventurers heading north from Mexico. In 1860, the U.S. Army Camel Corps under the command of Lt. W. H. Eckols traveled through the area, likely traversing the park's Teneros Creek. Mexican ranchers in the late 19th century raised goats and sheep, followed by Anglo ranchers who began arriving in numbers shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
A 27-mile improved, but bumpy ranch road leads to Sauceda, the park's headquarters that includes a ranch house, wool born, bunkhouse (Sauceda Lodge), maintenance buildings and a Visitor Center. Park guests will find overnight accommodations in the handsome, tile-roofed ranch house, known as the Big House, and the more rustic bunkhouse that can sleep a total of 30 people in male-female segregated quarters. Hearty meals served in the bunkhouse's spacious dining room can be arranged by prior arrangement. The park entry fee is $8 for up to six people.
The Visitor Center's exhibit hall is a good place to get a feel for the challenges of ranch life faced by hearty pioneers who coaxed a living out of a rugged environment through periodic droughts and other hardships. The physical remains of at least 28 historical ranches, including the old Chillicote-Sauceda Ranch, lie within the boundaries of Big Bend Ranch, according to the exhibit, "Making a Living - Where There's Water, There's A Way."
Historic photos of old ranch houses, windmills, cattle branding, as well as artifacts such as animal skulls, dinosaur bones and rocks bring the exhibit to life. Park visitors are likely to run across historic ranching artifacts - rock walls, water tanks, stock pens, pieces of ranching implements and the like - while exploring the park. Showers and toilet facilities, and well-stocked Texas State Park Store and park offices also are part of the Visitor Center.
On your trip to the ranch, be sure to schedule enough time to stop at the seven wayside exhibits along the main ranch road that climbs 1,300 feet in elevation from the River Road (Highway 170) to Sauceda. The roadside exhibits interpret the park's outstanding natural and cultural features such as the Chihuahuan Desert, the area's ranching history, the park's water features such as desert springs, wildlife and its world-class geology (dikes, bolsons, volcanic vents and mountains).
Pay special attention to the "Things That Bite & Sting" information. Among the amazing diversity of animal and plant life to be found in the desert environment are several varieties of rattlesnakes, scorpions, velvet ants and centipedes. Yucca, sotol, agave, prickly pear cactus, ocotillo and other desert flora have thorns.
The variety of wildlife to be seen in the middle of a desert is remarkable. During my recent visit while driving up and down the main ranch road, I spotted roadrunners, jack rabbits, a toad, a skunk, a javelina, lizards, a deer and a skinny, black snake with a yellow stripe. That's not counting the dozens of songbirds, raptors and other birdlife I spotted. And, the ranch skies - chock full of constellations, orbiting satellites, shooting stars - dazzle even the most casual star-gazer.
With 400 square miles to roam, Big Bend Ranch State Park offers everything from riverside camping and rafting on the Rio Grande to mountain hikes, wildlife photography and horseback and mountain bike rides. A new Public Use Plan for the park is being implemented this fall that will offer much greater access to the ranch's interior via 83 additional miles of hiking trails and 44 miles of four-wheel drive roads. In addition, visitors will be able to choose from among 24 primitive campsites in the backcountry strategically located to ensure privacy and take advantage of choice scenery.
Plan on staying at least several days at the park to get the full impact and schedule plenty of time to get there. It's a half day's drive from Dallas and Houston, and the nearest major airports are four hours away in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. To gain access to Sauceda, visitors must obtain proper permits beforehand at Fort Leaton in Presidio or the Baron Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is located on a ranch road off State Highway 170 about 30 miles northeast of Presidio. It is one of 110 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information about the park visit the Big Bend Ranch State Park web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle