Billed as “The Other Side of Nowhere,” Big Bend Ranch State Park is a glorious chunk of remote desert wilderness that’s just about as close to the original 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.
History of Big Bend Ranch State Park
Named for the huge curve of the Rio Grande, the Big Bend is a geologically fascinating region. Located in Far West Texas, in the high desert setting of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, the area is rich with dramatic landscapes borne of millions of years’ worth of geological shifts. And 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 in the land.
Texas Parks and Wildlife purchased the former ranch land in 1988, and the park opened on a limited basis in 1991. It wasn’t until 2007 that the general public had more than limited access to the park’s majesty. Today, this 311,000-acre slice of unspoiled natural wonders draws hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, and explorers of all stripes.
What to Do
Visitors can hike, backpack, paddle, fish, birdwatch, ride horses, and mountain bike to their heart’s content in Big Bend Ranch State Park. The park has also been officially designated an International Dark Sky Park, so it’s a fantastic place to stargaze.
- Day Hiking: There are 238 miles of multi-use trails to explore here. Closed Canyon is an impressive slot canyon that’s just 1.4 miles, round-trip, and it’s a must-do. The stunning 9.8-mile Rancherias Canyon Trail makes for the perfect all-day hike, as it provides an in-depth look into the park’s jaw-dropping geology. If you’re looking for something shorter, the Cinco Tinajas Loop (1.3 miles), the Hoodoos Trail (1.1 miles), and the Ojo Adentro Trail (1.4 miles) are all popular day hikes.
- Backpacking: The park’s crown jewel is the majestic Rancherias Canyon Loop, a challenging two- to three-day hike (depending on how slow/fast you want to take it) that cuts through the Chihuahuan Desert, jutting into several small canyons and cresting the ridge of the Bofecillos Mountains. The trail is loose and rocky in some parts, and not very well-marked, so proceed with caution (and a very good map)—it’s like the Wild West of backpacking out here.
- Mountain Biking: The most popular biking trails are accessible from the southernmost trailhead at Lajitas; these include the Rincon Loop, the Contrabando Trail System, and the 57-mile Epic Ride.
- Off-Roading: Explore 70 miles of rugged, unmaintained dirt roads by car (in your high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, of course); the park’s “Roads to Nowhere” guide is a comprehensive, 20-page guide (complete with maps) to all of these roads.
- Birding: More than 300 species of birds reside in the state park, so bring your binoculars and prepare to hit the trails—Ojito Adentro is a prime birding spot.
- Horseback Riding: You’re welcome to bring your own horse to the park—it’s a fee of $2 per horse per day, and you must obtain a backcountry-use permit for day use or overnight stays. And, there are four equestrian campsites in the park, most of which have water and corrals.
- Paddling: Swimming isn’t really an option in the Rio Grande, but canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and free bank fishing are. Colorado Canyon has class II and III rapids that are great for whitewater rafting or floating. There are several river access points to be found along FM 170, and plenty of local outfitters to choose from, depending on what you want to do.
Where to Stay
Campers can pick from drive-up or hike-in primitive sites, or equestrian sites. Except for the backcountry campsites, all sites can be reached by vehicle (though some roads may require four-wheel-drive or high clearance). Whichever type of site you choose, just be aware that this is what you’d call roughing it; there’s very little in the way of camp amenities. Hipcamp also has several sites and campgrounds listed that are located near the park.
Not one for camping? If you want to stay in the park, there’s always the Sauceda Bunkhouse, a 1960s-era former hunting lodge that holds up to 30 people, bunkhouse-style. There are also several lodging options in nearby Terlingua, which is one of the closest towns to the park entrance. Terlingua Ranch Lodge consists of several quaint cabins, and 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). At Basecamp Terlingua, you can opt to stay in a bubble (really), vintage Airstream trailer, or tipi. La Posada Milagro Guesthouse, the El Dorado Motel, and the Holiday Hotel are all inviting, unassuming, and centrally located hotels in town. And on the other end of the spectrum, if you feel like splurging: Willow House is a boutique hotel unlike any other in Terlingua. Set at the basin of Big Bend National Park, it consists of 12 luxury casitas, each of which boasts uninterrupted views of the looming Chisos Mountains and Santa Elena Canyon. (For a full list of Terlingua lodging options, see here.)
When to Go
The best time of year to visit the Big Bend region is in the spring or fall, when temperatures are mild and not too hot or cold—the desert is a land of extremes, and it gets mighty hot in the summertime (especially in July and August) and mighty cold in the winter (snow days aren’t totally unusual; and at night, temperatures can dip near or below freezing). If you do decide to visit during the summer, be aware that temperatures can reach as high as 130 degrees in the sun; you should plan to carry plenty of extra water and stay off trails in the afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day.
All of that being said: There isn’t a bad time to visit the Big Bend, per se (so long as you’re attired appropriately)—with the glaring exception of spring break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Although it’s not as crowded as its national park neighbor is over the holidays, the state park sees the majority of its visitors during these time periods. And part of the beauty of visiting the state park is being alone in the desert, or almost alone, anyway.
How to Get There
Just west of Big Bend National Park, the state park is located on the Mexican border, in the vast space of 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 to the state park. If you’re coming from the north, the quickest route is through Alpine, Marfa, and Shafter, along US 67.
And, pro-tip: The River Road (or FM 170) skirts the southern boundary of Big Bend Ranch State Park; it’s been touted as one of the most beautiful highways in all of North America, and it’s worth driving the entire stretch. Just reserve plenty of time for stops along the way.
Hours of Operation, Entrance Fees, and Permits
Big Bend Ranch State Park is open daily. Reservations are highly recommended for both day use and camping. Entrance fees are $5 for 13 years and older, and children under 12 years get in free.
If you need to pick up a backpacking, camping, or river-use permit (or purchase maps, or speak to a ranger), you can do so at 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.
Tips for First-Time Visitors
- Orient yourself beforehand. Big Bend Ranch State Park is the largest state park in Texas and the second-largest state in the U.S. It’s helpful to orient yourself before you go, to say the least. Obtain a map via Texas Parks and Wildlife.
- Pack layers. Unless you’re visiting in the dead of summer (when it’s sweltering pretty much all the time), you’ll want to pack plenty of base layers—nights in the desert can get pretty chilly, even when the weather is warm during the day. Ideally, you have base layers that are moisture-wicking and help to prevent chafing: a.k.a the perfect hiking attire.
- Drink water. You should be drinking at least one gallon of water per day in the desert and more if you’re hiking all day. Despite what your map may indicate, springs are unreliable in the park, so you’ll want to pack in and carry all the water you need.
- Prepare to go off-grid. 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.
- Engage in safe hiker behavior. 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. Planning a backpacking trip? The National Parks Website has a Backcountry Preparation and Safety page that you should check out (it’s written about the national park, but everything applies to the state park, too).
- Know how to interact with wildlife. The Big Bend region is home to incredibly wide-ranging ecosystems; there are more than 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, 75 species of mammals, and 11 species of amphibians here. As such, it’s important to know how to interact with the local wildlife—even very low-impact outdoor recreation can disturb wildlife, if you’re not careful. This should go without saying, but you should never, under any circumstances, feed wild animals of any kind; not only does this pose a threat to your health and safety, but it poses a threat to 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. And if you’re visiting during the summertime, just know that this is when venomous snakes, spiders, and other insects are most active; be sure to check your bedding, shoes, and sleeping bags before using, and always carry a flashlight at night to avoid stepping on any critters (who’d much rather not interact with you, either).