Lone Star Memories
I never made it to Big Bend as a kid. Only long after I had moved north did I trek to the western edge of Texas to discover the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande canyons. Big Bend National Park was definitely worth waiting for, and by the time I arrived, the state had added another jewel to the parklands of west Texas:
Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area
, now a state park.
Purchased by the state in 1988, the ranch covers 280,000 acres of Chihuahuan desert. Though showing the scars of a century and a half of goat, sheep and cattle grazing, the land is a beautiful rugged wilderness. The Chihuahuan desert is distinguished from other North American deserts by the predominance of grasses, chino, oats, silver bluestem and other varieties. Thorny shrubs like creosote, mesquite and acacia have colonized areas disturbed by ranching. Limestone-rich sections display an amazing diversity of cactus species and the endangered Hinckley's oak.
A diverse range of animals have adapted to the desert environment. Javelina are the most abundant large mammal and a favorite prey of mountain lions. This far west, mule deer (rather than the white-tails) are the most common antlered creatures, though elk are also found on the ranch. Golden eagle, turkey vultures and peregrine falcons are among the largest of almost 400 bird species. And bats are perhaps best evidence of the remarkable diversity- fourteen species make their home in the park.
The Rio Grande runs along the ranch's southern boundary. For rafters, the ranch has a put-in at the head of Colorado Canyon, the beginning of day-long floats from 9 to 21 miles. Rapids like Closed Canyon, Quarter Mile and Panther offer Class II and III excitement.
The Rancherias Trail is a 19-mile loop through the heart of the ranch. The three-day, two-night backpack is for serious hikers who are prepared to carry water and route-find through challenging terrain. The trail passes through Acebuches Canyon and into the Bofecillos mountains. Day-hikers can head up Rancherias Canyon for a 9.8 mile round-trip, and families will enjoy the 1.4 mile hike in and out of Closed Canyon. All these trails are accessed from the main road through the park, FM 170.
Campsites are available at two access points along the river, Maderas Canyon and Grassy Banks.
Directions: FM 170 between Presidio and Lajitas runs along the Rio Grande through the ranch. Visitors need to get entry permits at either the Fort Leaton State Historical Park in Presidio or the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication