Big Bend Ranch is a special place. Easily the most unique Texas state park, it’s serious business.
The difference between this state park and all the others was evident when we checked-in. Check-in isn’t even inside the park, it’s well outside the park boundaries, and before we were allowed to venture inside park rangers made us go through an orientation/mini-desert survival training and sign a waiver.
Yup. A waiver.
They gave us a run down on all the local wildlife and urged us to keep our toddler at arms reach at all times, as the mountain lions aren’t exactly friendly. Then they took the name and age of each person in our party and make an note of where we would be staying and how long we’d be there.
Dubbed the “Other Side of Nowhere,” Big Bend Ranch is remote to say the least. It’s the largest park in the Texas State Park system at about 300,000 acres and you begin to understand the size and scope of its vastness during the 27-mile, hour and a half drive from the the turnoff in Presidio where you check in, to the park’s headquarters. Yes, it took an hour and a half.
27 miles of dirt road that, though it is maintained and passable by a standard car, is quite an adventure in itself. Its hairpin turns, steep grades, and lack of guard rails snake you through the Chihuahuan Desert to the park headquarters in a “town” called Sauceda.
I use the term town lightly. There’s some bunkhouses, the park “headquarters” (a.k.a. one lone park ranger and a handful of magnets), a mostly abandoned commercial kitchen, and the only indoor plumbing in the park. Though, the 5-gallon buckets of water under the sink in the restrooms labeled “emergency water for flushing toliets” tells me that water isn’t always available and most likely disappears quickly.
Several campgrounds (multiple camping spots grouped together) are available for camping off the main road. The remainder of the camp sites are remote, accessible only by a 4×4 capable vehicle on un-maintained roads. Each camp site has a picnic table (with cover) and fire ring regardless of its location.
Even in the “campgrounds,” campsites are not guaranteed to be level and tent pads are non-existent. No running water or electricity services are available to campers which means to go to the bathroom you must dig a hole or walk 200-yards through the wilderness to the composting toilet – which is extra fun in the dark.
You must bring in all your water and take out all your trash. There’s an ice machine at the park headquarters which the park rangers might stock with ice if they know people are coming – I wouldn’t count on it though.
Because we had our toddler with us, we chose to camp at the South Leyva campground, the closest camping area to the park headquarters. Our first night, two other groups were in the camp area with us but the last two nights we were all alone.
It’s creepy to be out there by yourself. We found ourselves constantly on guard after dark, using our spotlight anytime we heard an unidentifiable noise, which was often. We were stalked by the local cayotes on multiple occasions and though it was easy enough to scare them off by waving our arms and throwing rocks, it made us wonder what else was out there hiding in the darkness.
This park is a giant outdoor playground full of 4×4 capable off-roading trails, equestrian camping and mountain biking. Our first and only off-roading adventure took place on a trail called the Oso Loop. An intermediate, un-maintained, trail which begins and ends off the main park road. It’s a narrow and steep 6.1 miles, which took us a little over two hours to complete.
It’s highly advised that when attempting to off-road in the park that you carry enough food and water to last your party three days (the amount of time it will take park rangers to find you…if you’re lucky), two full-size spare tires and a 48″ high-lift jack (all information we knew before our trip but were reminded of during our park orientation). This knowledge made traversing the 4×4 trails intimating, especially with a 18-month old daughter to consider.
To be safe, we took 15 gallons of water, five gallons of gasoline and all our food, including our cooler. We only had one spare tire and didn’t have a 48″ jack but we figured if we stayed on the intermediate-level trails then we could probably get away without. Our primary goal quickly became not having a flat tire.
Thankfully, we didn’t need any of our provisions and we came out of the Oso Loop unscathed. Unfortunately, the eggs weren’t so lucky.
Thanks to several close encounters with cacti our truck is now decorated with something called “desert pinstriping.” Yes, our paint job is destroyed but if you want to enjoy the off-road trails they’re an unavoidable reality.
The pinstriping is our truck’s badge of honor. It says, “I went to Big Bend Ranch and I had fun!”
By the time we left Big Bend Ranch all our camping equipment was covered in a fine layer of dirt (think powdered sugar) from the drive in and out of the park. This little souvenir remained with us for the rest of the trip. Each time we touched our tent, cooler, camp stove, chairs or bags we were reminded of our Big Bend adventure with a palmful of west Texas dirt. Next time, I think covering our gear in a tarp would be helpful. Future campers take note.
Will we go back to Big Bend Ranch? Absolutely! No question about it. It’s a must for anyone who considers themselves a real outdoor enthuaist and was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.
I think next time we’ll wait until all our kiddos are out of the toddler/small child stage though.
The uneven terrain is not exactly friendly for little ones who loose their balance easily, coupled with the threat of Evelyn finding a rattlesnake hiding under a rock and the whole mountain lion thing means it’ll be awhile before we go back.
All that being said, I’m glad we went. We had a great time and made some wonderful memories! I can’t wait to do it again!