Big Bend Ranch State Park: The Complete Guide

Big Bend Ranch State Park

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Big Bend Ranch State Park

Address
1900 South Saucedo, Presidio, TX 79845, USA
Phone +1 432-358-4444

Billed as “The Other Side of Nowhere,” Big Bend Ranch State Park is a glorious chunk of remote desert wilderness that puts you just about as close to the landscape as you can possibly get. The park receives very few visitors, especially when compared to its more well-known neighbor, Big Bend National Park—and that’s what makes this place so special.  

Named for the huge curve in the Rio Grande River, Big Bend is located in the northern Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas, and its dramatic landscape, created by millions of years' worth of geological shifts, is show-stopping. Indigenous settlers have called the canyons, mountains, and valleys of Big Bend Ranch State Park home for more than 10,000 years, leaving behind pictographs, chipped stone tools, and bedrock mortars. Today, this 311,000-acre state park draws hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, and explorers of all types.

Things to Do

Visitors to Big Bend State Park come here to hike, backpack, paddle, fish, birdwatch, horseback ride, and mountain bike to their heart’s content. The park also has the official designation of an International Dark Sky Park, so it’s a fantastic place to stargaze. 

Big Bend has 238 miles of multi-use trails to explore. The most popular biking trails are accessible from the southernmost trailheads in Lajitas, and the park also hosts the is a bit of a mountain biking mecca, hosting the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest each February. You can bring your own horse to the park but you will need to obtain a backcountry-use permit, both for day use and overnight stays, or you can explore 70 miles of rugged, unmaintained dirt roads by vehicle (a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, of course). Refer to the park’s “Roads to Nowhere” Guide, a comprehensive, 20-page guide (complete with maps) to all of these roads.   

Backcountry camping is permitted off of any of the trails within the park, but you will need a permit both for backpacking and camping in the backcountry. And, there are four equestrian campsites located in the park, however, you'll have to bring your own drinking water for yourself and your horse.

You can swim, canoe, kayak, go rafting, or bank fishing at Big Bend Ranch State Park. Colorado Canyon has Class II and III rapids that offer great whitewater rafting. There are several river access points along River Road (FM 170), and plenty of local outfitters that can take you out for the day, depending on your chosen activity.  

Best Hikes & Trails

Big Bend Ranch State Park has miles of pristine trails that will take you off the beaten path and into the remote desert wilderness. Many of the trails are poorly marked, so, pack along a map if you plan to venture far.

  • Closed Canyon: This impressive slot-canyon hike is just 1.8 miles long round-trip, and it’s a must-do. Venture into Closed Canyon and wind your way back on a slippery rock floor. The hike pinnacles at a 12-foot drop-off, which you might need climbing gear and skills to get back out of.
  • Cinco Tinajas Loop: This easy 1.3-mile loop can be combined with other hikes for a longer outing. The trail is poorly marked (as are many of the trails in this park), but it leads you down to a dried-up river bed and the tinajas (water tanks).
  • Rancherias Loop: The park’s crown jewel is a challenging two- to three-day hike (depending on how slow or fast you want to take it) that cuts through the Chihuahuan Desert and offers views of the Bofecillos Mountains. The 19-mile trail is loose and rocky in some parts and goes through the backcountry so proceed with caution (and a very good map)—it’s the Wild West of backpacking in these parts.

Where to Camp

Campers at Big Bend Ranch State Park can pick from drive-up, hike-in, or equestrian primitive sites. Many of the 51 drive-up sites and campgrounds include a fire ring and a picnic table and can be reached by car (although some roads may require a four-wheel-drive or high-clearance rig). If you use the 4x4 road to access a campsite, you'll need to obtain and sign a use acknowledgment form. For more information about the individual sites, Texas Parks & Wildlife created a comprehensive guide with GPS coordinates and photos of each campsite. Permits are required to camp and sites can be reserved online at the Texas State Parks website. Campers will also need to bring their own toilet system when staying at a site without a restroom.

As long as you have the correct permit, you can camp almost anywhere in the backcountry, though there are some restrictions. Your chosen site must be a 1/4 of a mile from any other existing campsite, at least 300 feet from water sources, prehistoric, or historic cultural sites, and at least 3/4 of a mile from trailheads or roads. Backcountry campers are permitted to dispose of human waste with the "cathole" method, however, you'll need to meet a certain set of requirements and attend an orientation. Open fires are not allowed in the backcountry.

Throughout the park, visitors are expected to be mindful of the delicate desert ecosystem. This includes bringing out all waste, only using designated sites (unless you're in the backcountry), and bringing your own firewood. Equestrian campsites also do not have water access. You will need to let park officials know in advance so that they can provide a water tank, if available.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you're not one for primitive camping, stay at the park's bunkhouse or at one of several lodging options in nearby Terlingua, one of the closest towns to the park's entrance. You can also pull your RV into a site in Lajitas and enjoy a round of golf while you're at it.

  • Sauceda Bunkhouse: Inside the park sits a 1960s-era former hunting lodge that holds up to 30 people, bunkhouse-style. One side of the lodge is reserved for men, and the other side is for women. There's a dining hall and a shared commercial kitchen. Pets are not allowed.
  • Terlingua Ranch Lodge: This lodging option in Terlingua consists of several cabins, RV sites, and tent camping. The lodge’s restaurant, Bad Rabbit, serves delicious (and very hearty) home-cooked dishes. Plus, there’s an outdoor pool (a rarity in the desert) and an airstrip on site.
  • Basecamp Terlingua: Here, you can opt to stay in a glamping bubble (with air conditioning!). Some two-room bubbles even come equipped with their own outdoor hot tub. You can also stay the night in a vintage trailer, a tipi, or a casita.
  • Willow House: This boutique hotel is unlike any other in Terlingua. Set at the basin of Big Bend National Park, it consists of 12 luxury casitas and a communal main house, each with uninterrupted views of the Chisos Mountains and Santa Elena Canyon.
  • Maverick Ranch RV Park: Located at Lajitas Golf Resort, this is more than an RV park. You can pull into a site or you can stay in the Badlands Hotel. A majestic golf course, a zip line, a Mexican restaurant, and a pool are all located on-site, offering you a well-rounded inclusive vacation spot.

How to Get There

Big Bend Ranch State Park is located just west of Big Bend National Park on the Mexican border, in the vast space considered the Chihuahuan Desert. The closest towns are Presidio, Lajitas, and Terlingua. Depending on where you’re coming from (and how much time you have), there are a few different ways to get there. If you’re coming from the north, the quickest route is through Alpine, Marfa, and Shafter, along US 67. 

The nearest airport serviced by major airlines is located in Odessa, Texas (about 235 miles from the park). It's about a five-hour car ride from the airport to the park via US 67. You can also fly your own small plane right into the park's 5,500-foot paved airstrip. Just contact the park well ahead of time so that they know you are coming.

Accessibility

Due to the lack of facilities and primitive camping, Big Bend Ranch State Park does not have many ADA-compliant offerings. However, the Barton Warnock Visitor Center at the east entrance has accessible parking spaces, restrooms, exhibits, and an auditorium. The trail in the Desert Garden here, however, has a gravel surface with grades that are not recommended for wheelchairs.

Tips for Your Visit 

  • Big Bend Ranch State Park is the largest state park in Texas and the second-largest state park in the U.S., so keep a map for reference.
  • You can pick up a permit for backpacking, camping, or river-use (or purchase maps, or speak to a ranger) at one of three locations: the Barton Warnock Visitor Center (east entrance), the Fort Leaton State Historic Site (west entrance), or the Sauceda Ranger Station, in the park’s interior. 
  • Unless you’re visiting in the dead of summer when it’s sweltering hot, you’ll want to pack plenty of base layers. Desert nights can get chilly, even when the weather is warm during the day.
  • Remember to drink at least a gallon of water per day in the desert, and more if you’re hiking. Despite what your map may indicate, the park's springs are unreliable, so you’ll want to pack in and carry all the water you'll need.
  • Cell service is spotty at best in the state park and the surrounding area, so don’t count on being able to text and call at will, especially if you’re staying in the park.   
  • Exploring the desert on foot requires sufficient preparation. Before your hike, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. On the hike, bring a map, a flashlight, and a first-aid kit, along with plenty of water. 
  • The Big Bend region is home to more than 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, 75 species of mammals, and 11 species of amphibians. Never, under any circumstances, feed wild animals. Not only does this pose a threat to your health and safety, but it affects the animal’s health and safety, as well.
  • Always be sure to store your food, cooking utensils, and cooler in your car at night (preferably in the trunk), and throw your garbage away in the bear-proof dumpsters and trash cans that are provided.
  • If you’re visiting during the summer when venomous snakes, spiders, and other insects are most active, be sure to check your bedding, shoes, and sleeping bags before using them. And, always carry a flashlight at night to avoid stepping on critters.  
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Big Bend Ranch State Park: The Complete Guide