The largest state park in Texas, Big Bend Ranch State Park encompasses 311,000 acres and spans Brewster and Presidio counties. Adjacent to the National Park on its eastern side, the State Park includes several open range cattle ranches, which raise longhorn cattle. Known for its less-visited backcountry, the state park offers hiking, horseback riding, river trips and mountain biking.
The state park shares the same Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem as the national park, and common animal sightings include fox, javelina, mule deer, coyote, owl, mountain lions, bob cats and a host of reptile species. There is also a herd of feral burros.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is the home of the second highest waterfall in Texas, Madrid Falls. The falls are difficult to access but provide a special reward for the advanced adventurer. Colorado Canyon is the only canyon in the park carved from volcanic rock, making it a wonderland of native desert plants such as yucca, cacti and grasses. Other canyons in the park were eroded from limestone, creating vertical walls more inhospitable to plant life. Short river trips through the canyon and viewing points from the road make Colorado Canyon a popular destination.
Though the area was once referred to as El Despoblado, or The Uninhabited, it has a rich and varied history. In the early 1900s a few hardy ranchers began buying holdings along the Rio Grande between the town of Presidio and Lajitas. Gus, Gallie, Graves and Edward Bogel headquartered their ranch at Sauceda, where their buildings and corrals can be visited today. As their ranch passed through several owners over the next five decades, it became one of the 15 largest ranches in the United States. By the time the ranch came to Robert O. Anderson in 1969, it helped make him the largest private landowner in the country. Texas Parks and Wildlife purchased it in 1988 with the help of many preservation groups and individuals. The Park opened on a limited basis in 1991, and became fully accessible to the public in 2007.
Just as in the National Park, the State Park is dotted with prehistoric sites from the various peoples who have populated the Big Bend region for over 10,000 years. More than 500 of these sites have been surveyed, including camps and middens, petroglyphs, metates and the remains of structures. Spanish explorers, U.S. army caravans experimenting with camels, ranchers, Mexican revolutionaries, miners, farmers and settlers have all left their distinct marks on the harsh landscape.
What to Expect in Big Bend Ranch State Park
The Barton Warnock Visitor Center, located just east of Lajitas, provides permits, maps and sage advice from park rangers to visitors. For casual adventurers, there are many short hikes and informational guides along Highway 170, and park signage clearly marks trailheads. Known as the River Road, the drive from Lajitas to Presidio alone is worth a day trip, as the winding highway follows the Rio Grande and provides stunning views and many roadside viewing points. Short hikes along the way provide glimpses of the fascinating geological history of the area.
The Hoodoos trail, a short jaunt with a fabulous view of highly eroded volcanic tuff formations, is one of two trails in the park that allows leashed dogs. The other, Closed Canyon, allows visitors to explore a narrow slit canyon. At 1.4 miles round trip, it’s a perfect introduction to the area. Visitors must be cautious, however; if there is a chance of rain, even outside the immediate area, the canyon is prone to dangerous flash flooding.
Fort Leaton State Historic Site, just outside Presidio, is one of the gems of the State Park. The site has been occupied since the late 1600s, when the Spanish were attempting to establish presidios (forts) along the Rio Grande. The vast adobe structure was a private residence built to house a small handful of families, and dates back to the early 1800s. It later became the original county seat of Presidio County. For a five dollar entrance fee (free with a State Park permit), visitors can tour the beautifully preserved and restored 23 acre site and see how life was lived on the frontier. A small visitor’s center and gift shop provides current park conditions for visitors beginning their adventure from the west side.
Summer temperatures on the Rio Grande can soar well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and careful planning and caution are necessary for a pleasant trip to the State Park. Permits are required for all camping, horseback riding and river trips, and it’s always wise to talk to a ranger about your plans to get the most up-do-date information on road and weather conditions. One gallon of water per person, per day is the standard minimum for hiking in the Big Bend but may not be adequate for advanced hikes. The State Park and the river road sometimes see sudden, extreme flooding from desert storms; the many arroyos that cross the roads can wash away a vehicle in only six inches of water. If in doubt during a park adventure, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. As with all state parks, the collection of plants, animals and artifacts is strictly forbidden. Take only pictures, and make lots of memories!