Researching before a trip can become overwhelming, especially when you’re looking at exploring the biggest state park in Texas. Big Bend Ranch State Park is dubbed, “The Other Side of Nowhere”, and while its solitude and vastness aren’t something you can plan for, there are some things you should know before heading to the park.
This won’t be a full discussion of everything there is to offer at Big Bend Ranch State Park, but a personal recollection of my experience at the state park. It’s big. It’s vast, and it’s rugged. And it’s not for the timid. So buckle up, this post will be as big as the park itself.
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Getting to Big Bend Ranch State Park
The biggest hurdle about the state park was how to get there, how to check in, and getting around.
The park is broken into two segments. The River Road District and the Interior District.
But there are three different places that you should get to know. Two of them are on the exterior of the park, Fort Leaton State Historic Site (west), Barton Warnock Visitor’s Center (east), and the Sauceda Ranch in the interior of the park.
When you look up reservations on the TPWD website you’ll be taken to two different facilities. The main BBRSP link will take you to campsites for the park’s interior, and the Barton Warnock link will take you to campsites along the River Road District. (Not entirely sure why they break it up, but maybe because the park is in two different counties?)
It’s important to know that when you arrive at the state park you can make reservations, check in, and get additional information at either Fort Leaton or Barton Warnock.
I don’t suggest waiting to get to the Sauceda Ranch to check in because it’s a long drive to get there, and as in my case, it may be closed.
Driving Around Big Bend Ranch SP
River Road curves along the southern border of the state park and is, hands down, one of the most scenic drives in Texas, and definitely a lot of other states.
There were times along the winding road when I felt like I was driving on Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you plan on going on hikes along River Road, you need to get a park pass. Even if just for day use. There are a multitude of trails that will be covered a little later.
At the time of this posting, there were multiple construction projects happening on two different bridges that were single-lane. Either side of the traffic has to wait until all of the cars pass through. This was a lengthy, but not unbearable, wait.
Take caution on winding roads. The views are aplenty, so pull over and enjoy those deep valleys.
There is a rest area featuring teepees that offer stunning views of the park, and a few different pull-offs where you can take a picture away from oncoming traffic.
This section of the park is where you’ll find multiple sections for dropping in with your watercraft. And a handful of these areas offer camping as well.
I don’t say this lightly, but the park’s interior is not for every vehicle. It’s just not.
It’s rugged terrain on rocky ranch roads and it’s unforgiving.
The main entrance to the Sauceda Center is approximately 27 miles from Highway 170 (River Road). When you’re going around 15 miles an hour on bumpy roads it’s important to really consider the capabilities of your vehicle.
The main road to the park has multiple washboard sections that will vibrate your teeth and shake your body while driving, but don’t be afraid to go the posted speed limit in those sections. A little bit of speed is your friend getting through the bumpier sections.
So I’ll say it again. There are ZERO paved roads in the interior of the park. Not at any campsite, not at the visitor’s center. It’s ALL dirt. And some sections are unmaintained roads that are even more rugged.
And while the main road is suitable for 2-wheel drive, you’ll need a bit of height in your vehicle, so that lowered sports car will not cut it here. Leave the Corvette at home.
For an all-encompassing look at the different types of backcountry roads, check out Roads to Nowhere. This is a 4X4 guide to Big Bend Ranch SP.
It’s really difficult to explain the size of this park. There are intersection roads and pathways all throughout this park. If you’re fully prepared with a spare tire and recovery gear you should try and explore as much as you feel comfortable with. You’ll discover hidden gems left behind by previous generations from the recent ranchers to the native people that inhabited the land.
And because it’s still an active ranch site, you’ll come across some cows grazing and cruising through the park.
Camping at BBRSP
You can camp in the River Road District or in the Interior of the park. You can also choose to do a bunkhouse or you can do a primitive campsite. There are no RV loops as you would see normally.
What you think of when you picture camping at a state park is a little different, and the biggest thing I wasn’t expecting was how much everything is spread out, and how much solitude I would have.
But first some of the guidelines.
If you stay in the bunkhouse you’ll have access to a communal kitchen and restrooms, but other than the Sauceda restroom, the rest are vault toilets that are near the horse pen campsites.
You are supposed to bring your own toilet as digging your poop in the ground is not allowed, and they will confirm at check-in whether you have a toilet or not. I grabbed this toilet from REI with these disposable bags to go inside.
The majority of the campsites have a pull-in area for your vehicle, and you’ll need to walk a few steps to your covered picnic table.
I stayed in two different campsites, Mota 1 and Ojo Escondido, and each of them was completely different visually.
After the first day, I was driving around exploring the park and came across the second area I preferred more and felt I wouldn’t scrape up my cargo carrier too badly on the dip I had to traverse to get to the first campsite.
There are a ton of different styles of camping here, and I won’t say anything specific because it’s important to enjoy your own journey. What I’ll say is this: you’re in wide open space wherever you are in the interior portion of the park. Some campsites are closer to some of the rocky terrain and may feature some sentiment of a barrier, but you’ll probably not see, or interact with, very many people while you’re there.
This was not something I was prepared for. I can handle an empty state park, but the vast openness and solitude caught me off guard on my first night. I looked around and saw nothing but space. The air was calm and didn’t make a sound, and there were no bugs chirping or birds singing.
The air was quiet. And my mind was loud. The first night was a long one.
Without the sound of my camping fan, I may have never fallen asleep.
To summarize, there are a lot of campsites available. This guide is a great starting point, but the rangers at the stations, and asking them on social media are also helpful resources. This place is enormous and this website only speaks to experienced places and things.
Hiking at Big Bend Ranch SP
As opposed to the national park down the road, Big Bend Ranch SP has an endless amount of trails that loop, intersect, and take you through some of the most amazing parts of this park.
It would be foolish to try and summarize what it’s like hiking in the vastness of desert, ranch, and mountain terrains.
There are a variety of maps that will help you figure out the best course of action, and there are a ton of hiking options near almost every camping area. This is where I recommend getting your gear and start walking.
If you just want someone to say, “Go here”, then there are two bullet point hikes that you can do off of River Road that will give you a feel for the land. Especially if you’re just passing through.
Hoodoos Trail and Closed Canyon Trail are the main two trails that people will mention if they’re coming to this state park for the day, or even camping.
They’re both scenic and not too complicated.
From the parking lot, you’ll make your way down the trail with immaculate views of the mountains and Rio Grande.
Hoodoos have been called “goblins”, “fairy towers”, and are towering structures shaped by water and wind. They are different heights and shapes but are really fascinating to look at up close. They may look like they’re completely solid, but the lower portion of the towers are much softer and fragile, so climbing is off-limits.
While it may seem like it’s an open-wide area for exploration when you arrive there is a trail here that takes you to the scenic overlook and back down and around to where you started.
The scenic overlook trail takes you close to the river but doesn’t actually take you to the riverbank.
The overlook trail uses portions of a historic ranch trail that was used before River Road was completed in the 1960s and gives a great vantage point for the scenery you’ll find at this state park.
If you do want to explore a bit, there are rock cairns that will guide you so you can take a closer look at the river flowing by. It’s a great place to break up the drive and have a picnic, or just take an outdoor blanket and relax by the river.
Closed Canyon Trail
Closed Canyon Trail is like Big Bend National Park‘s Window Trail Lite.
It’s an immaculate canyon formed over millions of years and is a nice respite from the sun.
From the parking lot, you’ll hike your way down to the rock wall and veer to the right. On the visit for this post, there were cairns that indicated where you pop out, but you see the parking lot from the lower portion, and it’s not extremely far.
Take some time to enjoy the crushed rocks as you hike towards the opening of the canyon. There are plenty of trees and cacti that offer places for birds to hang out.
The hike through the canyon is magnificent with the towering rock walls of orange and brown all around. Plants creep through the cracks, and the sun shines on the tips.
Walking through here is mostly flat with the exception of multiple drops that take you towards the end. The deepest drop was a mere few feet, but if you are mindful of your terrain you’ll notice that you can usually walk on the sides at an angle and not step straight down. This is also really helpful when you make your way back up.
There have been multiple ends to this trail, and there are reports of deaths of people that went through the barricade and couldn’t get back up. Don’t die. Stop at the sign that says The End.
The brochure for the trail states this as 1.7 miles, but that may need to be updated. Or account for the way back. But you can read that here for more information about the trail.
Big Bend Ranch State Park Reflection
With the anxiousness of not knowing what to expect this state park is one of the top gems of Texas Parks & Wildlife. It gives you the rugged terrain and really feels like it has been untouched. It’s not manicured like the national park, and it gives visitors a feel of the raw outdoors.
In three days I barely explored the park, but I did stop in places off of the main road that I think are worth checking out like the bird blind, the Cinco Tinajas trail, and some historic hand paintings. Once my preoccupation with the solitude wore off I was free to enjoy the quiet and imagine the terrain in different eras.
I stopped for a moment on top of the rocks staring out at the oasis of green in the middle of the desert and rocky terrain.
I was standing on top of a native habitat of curved rocks and caverns that featured circular bowls carved out of the ground. I took a moment to give thanks to the land for giving me an opportunity to explore and was thankful for the moment. This place is overwhelming in its size and what it represents, and I think everyone should go at least once.