Big Bend Ranch State Park
A Route through Ancient Volcanoes and Modern Desert
Big Bend Ranch State Park is just west of Big Bend National Park, in far west Texas along the Rio Grande. Much of it is a great eroded volcanic field from 20-30 MYA. The higher country is not as high as the Chisos Mts. in the national park, so it doesn't have the juniper and pinion forest up top; it's all desert vegetation with some cottonwood groves at springs in the draws. We had been curious about this park for some time, but no one we knew seemed to know much about it. It is not highly developed.
Thanks to John Shannon from this forum for suggesting the Big Bend Chat web forum, which turned out to have a section about the Ranch, with some additional information. I also called the park to ask about backpacking, and the ranger recommended this 17-mile Rancherias Loop, which has a couple of well-placed reliable springs, eliminating the need to carry more than one day of water at a time. Parts of this route are marked with cairns, as the park has not constructed trails. Non-constructed paths are wearing in on some of these stretches, but not all, and where the route follows the canyon bottoms, much of the surface is loose coarse sand and gravel. Other parts of the route are on old jeep and abandoned wagon trails. The loop is about 17 miles, which doesn't sound like that far, but some of it is slow going, and there's a lot to see. The park recommends taking 3 days/2 nights, and they have it just about right.
It takes a full day of driving to get from Austin to BBRSP. We left Austin in the late afternoon, camped at South Llano State Park in Junction, and made it to the Barton Warnock Visitor Center in Lajitas, just east of the park, by about 3:00 p.m. the following day. The park requires a permit and orientation for overnight camping in the backcountry. The orientation included a thorough explanation of lots of rules, plus a photocopied topo map and the ranger's explanation of the route, with details relating to where people have gotten confused in the past. It was all very helpful. (The same permit and orientation service is also provided at Ft. Leaton State Historical Park, east of Presidio. for visitors arriving from the west.) We were assigned a campsite down by the river not too far from the trailhead. After setting up, remaining winter daylight allowed time for a visit to Closed Canyon. There is a ridge parallel to the north bank of the Rio Grande here; Closed Canyon is a drainage that cuts across this ridge, from the desert floor to the north down to the river. The canyon is quite deep and narrow in places, similar to some of the side canyons we hiked in Grand Canyon NP. It's a short hike of about ¾-mile in before a pouroff that would require rope, canyoneering skills, and a liking for very cold water, to pass.
In Closed Canyon.
The next morning was partly overcast and not so cold, good weather for a nice hike. We parked at the East Rancherias Trailhead on Hwy 170. The route across the desert is marked by some pretty big cairns, towards the entrance of Acebuches Canyon. Once in the canyon, our pace slowed in the loose fill on the canyon floor. A good leg workout! We settled in to enjoying the exposed volcanic landscape and muted desert vegetation in winter. Where the route left the canyon floor for the rocky hillsides, to circumvent dropoffs or over the divide into Panther Canyon, the going would sometimes be tricky, with cairns not always easy to find, and plenty of rocky slopes to negotiate. Sometimes we had to stop and pull all the stickers out of our shoes and socks. We saw many birds but they were always too fast for our little cameras.
East Rancherias Trailhead
Entrance to Acebuches Canyon
Bird nest with side entry. We saw lots of these, made with different materials depending on what vegetation was available in the immediate vicinity.
Small seep spring.
Walking in the canyon floor.
Company on the trail.
Exposed traverse between canyons.
Near the top of the saddle between Arcebuches and Panther Canyons, we lost the cairns completely at a spot where it was not entirely clear whether to head for a gap on the left or on the right. After giving up wandering around looking for cairns, we actually pulled out the trusty old map and compass, oriented the map, and determined the right-hand gap was correct. Most of the time on constructed trails we don't really need to figure anything out, and it was fun to get to use this basic skill for a change. (Especially since it was successful. Probably would have been less fun if we had messed it up.)
The beautiful muted pastel colors of the winter vegetation were hard to capture in photos, but this gives a taste of it. We were surprised to find so much exquisite color on this hike. One of the highlights!
Spring at Casa Reza, near our first night's camp. We put up the tarp a little ways uphill from the spring area. Probably not necessary, but some clouds were coming over. It didn't rain or blow. Peeking out at night, no clouds, many stars!
Casa Reza, an old ranch outpost.
Cottonwoods and morning sun, looking down towards Casa Reza spring.
Rock shelter in Panther Canyon, with smoke-stained ceiling, a stone metate, and several inches of flood mud on the floor.
There is another spring, Panther, a couple of miles north of Casa Reza, but it is not really accessible, in the deep canyon bottom with extremely dense vegetation. Another mile or so north of there, the route comes out at a jeep trail. The orientation ranger had suggested to us that many hikers prefer to take a bit of a short cut near the junction, But there was no obvious informal path in the direction of the short cut, and the distance either way wasn't all that much, so we stayed with the cairns in the arroyo up to the regular junction.
Jeep trail. Lots of hill geology all around us on this stretch.
Wild burro near the cutoff for Rancherias Spring.
Nearing Rancherias Spring, the hikers' route is marked to leave the jeep trail, and cuts across the desert towards the spring area. Partway it follows a series of branching arroyos. At some point where it leaves the arroyos for the desert upland, we lost the cairns again, and after retracing a number of times, we gave up and just followed the arroyo bottom all the way to the spring. A relief to see those cottonwoods poking into view over the next rise! Entering the cottonwood grove in late afternoon winter sunlight had a magical feel, with cascades of golden leaves above and underfoot, and whispered rustling all around with the slightest breeze. Wow! We camped under the trees on a rise some distance upstream from the spring area, and had some time to explore a bit before dark. We didn't put up the tarp on this second night, no apparent need. We found Rancherias Spring water standing in shallow pools stretching down the arroyo, with lots of burro tracks all over. Not the most attractive of water sources! With just MicroPur for treatment, we ran the water through a bandanna first, which took out most of the algae and other floaties. This water wasn't the best-tasting, but neither of us suffered any ill effects.
Morning sunlight, cottonwood grove, Rancherias Spring.
It took some exploring around to find where the route leaves the Rancherias Spring area, but in the morning we were again following cairns up the hillside. From here the route turns south again to complete the loop. It climbs gradually around the heads of side canyons and around ridges to the top of Guale Mesa, where it follows an old wagon route for several miles.
Layers of tuff and basalt around the head of a side canyon.
Old wagon route across Guale Mesa. Driving across the west, we often think about "what's up on top?" as we pass the mesas. Well, here we are!
The way ahead, back down towards Rancherias Canyon.
After dropping off Guale Mesa, the route emerges near the mouth of Rancherias Canyon, where another trail (and another full day of hiking for those with the time) goes up the canyon bottom. Our loop route took a lovely final detour off the wagon track through a narrow side canyon with resurrection ferns and many birds. A nice treat! The West Rancherias Trailhead puts the hiker about 2 miles from the car at East Rancherias TH. Only 10 minutes or so after we struck out along the highway verge for that final walk, a state park pickup truck pulled up and the nice rangers gave us a ride in the back with the dogs, to our car. Cool! They said in a couple of days they would be heading up to the Rancherias Spring area to fix the cairns to make the route easier to follow.
You may have noticed in this narrative that we don't mention meeting other hikers. That's because there weren't any. Not one, in 3 days! During a holiday week! Solitude indeed.
We had a couple of hours of daylight left, so we drove around west and north to the entrance to the center of the park, the road in to Saucedo Visitor Center, and found a car camp site at Rancho Viejo. A great windstorm blew up, making the old windmill there clank loudly for hours. Robert can sleep through anything, but I can't. Multiple-use-make-your-own-gear tip, discovered in my extremity: bits of foam sliced off the corner of a Ridgerest can make effective earplugs!
Sunset, Rancho Viejo.
Cuevas Amarillos, volcanic tuff cliffs riddled with formerly-inhabited caves, near Saucedo.
Cinco Tinajas, pools in in the canyon bottom, short hike from the entrance road in the center part of the park.
We barely brushed the surface of this large, beautiful desert wilderness park. One of the rangers told us there are an estimated 3,000-4,000 archaeological sites, with surveys only beginning. The volcanic landscape is mostly exposed, nice for geology buffs. Not at all crowded (!). A long way from anywhere.
Gear notes: This is for my gear. I don't keep tabs on Robert's gear much. He likes a larger pack and more clothing and personal items. We split up the food about evenly. I had the kitchen and the tarp. The Dakota 20 GPS is brand new and I didn't even know how to use it yet, or have proper maps on it, so it didn't help much, it was just a toy. The REI Watersack holds 2 ½ gallons but I only put about 1 gallon in it at a time.
Pack: Mariposa Plus w/BPL liner sack
Shelter: ID 8 x 10 silnylon flat tarp
Sleeping: REI Sub-Kilo W, solar Ridgerest (the blue one) regular but cut down to the length of a short (48") b/c when I bought it last year they didn't have the short on the market yet, GG polycryo groundsheet.
Kitchen: BPL 1300 pot w/lid and caldera cone kit; 4 oz. alcohol; BPL 500 cup & lid, REI long-handled titanium spoon, bandanna, OR ditty bag to hold it all.
Safety: Fire kit (matches, a few REI storm matches, a little spark-lite striker and a few tindertabs, and about an inch of candle, all in a miniature aloksak); first aid kit (a few bandaids, a few benadryl tablets, mini-tube of 3-way antibiotic salve, safety pins); one of those tiny rolls of duck tape about ½ left, minidroppers of sunscreen, deet, and Dr. Bronner's, a space pen and small note pad, compass, photocopied map, Dakota 20 GPS, whistle, Photon Freedom light, SAK Classic (for the scissors), small Mora knife (for making emergency fires), small OR ditty bag.
Personal: Travel toothbrush, travel interdental brush, 6 unscented baby wipes in a snack ziplock, Canon Powershot SX210 IS camera, 1 spare camera battery, another bandanna for my pocket (kept separate from the cook kit one because I have allergies and blow my nose on it a lot), drivers license, visa card, and car key zipped into my back pocket.
Water: A dozen or so MicroPur tabs, 2 1L Aquafina bottles, 1 REI watersack.
Clothing (both worn and carried): REI Sahara pants, Ex Officio DryFlyLite shirt, Smartwool microweight tank, midweight ¼-zip, and lightweight bottoms, 2 prs. underwear, 2 prs. Smartwool Adrenaline crew socks, Smartwool balaclava, REI Nevis primaloft puffy jacket, Patagonia Houdini windshirt, Marmot Precip rain jacket, Vasque Blur trail runners with green Superfeet in them, Sunday Afternoons sunhat, REI All-Season gloves.
Other: Birdiepal umbrella, GG Lighttrek fixed poles.