Take an outsize Texas hike in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Deserts of varying composition cover much of the American Southwest, but I have a special affinity for the desolate, hostile, and lonesome Chihuahuan Desert, the easternmost, southernmost, and largest North American desert. Nowhere is this arid region better displayed than at Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest and grandest park in the Texas state park system. And odds are you haven’t even heard of it.
Lying just west of Big Bend National Park, with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 5,136 feet, this former working ranch opened to the public in 1991. But the park service has kept development to a minimum in the park’s sprawling 300,000 acres. Instead of creature-comfort amenities, you’ll find dry rolling grassland, twisting side canyons, and impressive gorges carved by the rapid-laden Rio Grande that separates it from Mexico. Throw in echoes of human history, a sprinkling of oasis-like springs and pools, and a vast variety of critters—many of which are uncommon elsewhere in the United States—and you’ve got the perfect desert to explore.
Big Bend Ranch offers more than 66 miles of trails, with many more in development. If you don’t have much time, head out on the 1.4-mile round trip Closed Canyon Trail, an easy two-hour hike through a spectacular gorge, or take the 9.8-mile Rancherias Canyon Trail, a good day hike to an impressive slick-rock pour-off. But if you want to backpack, try tackling the 19-mile Rancherias Loop Trail for a true Wild West experience.
The Rancherias Loop provides ample opportunities for solitude as you weave through the creosote bushes, prickly pear cacti, and mesquite trees. Though the loop is only 19 miles long, give yourself two nights and three days to complete the trek. Only rock cairns mark the trail, so you’d better get fluent with a map and compass. A GPS unit will help, too.
Occasionally following a century-old horse and burro pack trail, the footpath meanders through rugged canyons and rocky arroyos, climbs over saddle passes, and descends rough ridges along some of West Texas’ most dramatic desert sierras: the Bofecillos Mountains. Every day on the trail offers challenges, vestiges of human history, splendid campsites, and spectacular vistas.
Numerous seep springs offer liquid nourishment to plants, (large cottonwoods and willows), wildlife (mule deer, mountain lions, tree frogs, foxes, bobcats, javelina, coyotes, and more than 300 species of birds), and thirsty hikers alike. The springs are marked on USGS topographic maps as well as on the park’s trail map, but nature isn’t always reliable. So carry plenty of water and, of course, treat any water found along the trail before drinking.
When to go: Visitors find March and April good times to visit Big Bend Ranch State Park because of comfortable temperatures and the blooming season in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Contact: Call 432-424-3327 or visittpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/big_bend_ranch
Larry Rice, a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak magazine, is the author of Gathering Paradise: Alaska Wilderness Journeys.