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Big Bend Ranch State Park: a Bit of the Old West

By Rosalie E. Leposky

The stark beauty of Texas’s Big Bend Ranch State Park in South Western Texas on the United States Mexican boarder is breath taking low and high desert uplands.

There are no city lights or haze to block the open sky and shapes of the volcanic, faulted and eroded about 300,000 acres of desert and mountain landscape with six physiographic settings: The Bofecillos Mountains; the Rio Grand Corridor; The Solitario (a geologic dome); Fresno canyon and Gontrabando Lowland; Cienego Mountains; and the Alamito and Terneros Creek lowlands.

Credit: Rosalie E. Leposky
            Part of The Solitario

Big Bend Ranch acquired in 1988 for $8.5 million by the State of Texas is one of three parks and wilderness areas on the U.S. side of the Mexican/U.S. border. Also on the U.S. side are the about 801,000 acre Big Bend National Park established in 1944 and over 107,805 acres Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. Big Bend Ranch was a working ranch when it was acquired by the state.

“The Folkes Brothers grazed hundreds of thousands of sheep and angora goats on Big Bend Ranch. For well over 100 years, cattle, angora goats and sheep have been all that has been raised on Big Bend Ranch and currently our longhorn herd has been the sole survivor of this desert land," says Rod Trevizo, program administrator and site manager at Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center at Lajitas. The Warnock Center is a unit of the Big Bend Ranch State Park Complex.

The State of Texas and the Mexican Vaqueros (park rangers) at Big Bend Ranch State Park work hard to maintain for visitors the opportunity to see a traditional Texas longhorn cattle ranch. Twice a year by reservation would be cow boys and girls on horse back experience a disappearing Texas tradition.

Across the boarder in 1994 Mexico added to the regions park system with the creation of the 50,000 acre Maderas del Carmen protected area in Sierra del Carmen range in the state of Coahuila and the 277.209 hectares or 684.996 acres Cañon de Santa Elena flora and fauna protected area in the state of Chihuahua.

Where is Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch State Park is hard to fine and there are no Orlando Florida style big billboard signs to direct travelers. There are no paved road once you enter the park property. The last paved road you will see for a while is the River Road (FM 170) from Fort Leaton four miles south east of Presidio.

Even if you don’t plan to make a lodging reservation it is important to call or write ahead for detailed instructions including distances and landmarks.

Typical low-hung city cars should not be brought into the park. If you flying in to El Paso or Midland rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle if you plan to visit this park – even just to drive into the visitor center at the old ranch headquarters. Be prepared to drive slowly, and to drive in and out in day light hours.

Times of day, season of the year, and, yes, there is rain that can quickly changes the landscape and sky. Rain and flash floods while not common can occur, and will change road bed quality. Warn family, friends and business associates that your cell phones may not work.

Come Prepared

The cactus and thorny plants are everywhere – making proper clothing a necessity. Shorts, sun tops, and tennis shoes are not recommended here for on foot exploration or horse back. Boots and sturdy blue jeans, long sleeve shirts and proper sun gear are a must. To take some photographs I left the road and climbed over some large boulders – later when I look at my boots and pants I was amazed at the number of thorns coving my body. One went through my boots and sock and in to my ankle. I careful removed my boot, and removed the thin about an- inch-long thorn.

Credit: Rosalie E. Leposky

Movie and Music video Makers

Still photographers and movie photographers try, but they capture only brief snatches of landscape. The landscape up close is more colorful and dynamic then what the camera sees.

Nothing Hollywood back lots offer can compare with the real thing. The color, texture and larger and smaller details scene and landscape can only be seen foot or horse back. Between 1985 and 2000 five movies and one music video were shot at Big Bend Park. Two of the movies are Streets of Laredo (1995) directed by Joseph Sargent staring Ned Beatty, George Carlin, James Garner and Randy Quaid and Dead Man’s Walk (1996)directed by Yves Simoneau staring David Arquette, Keith Carradine, Jennifer Garner and Edward James Olmos. Big Bend State Park also was the location use in the Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn 1996 nominated Academy of Country Music Video of the Year - My Maria.

Cattle Round-Up

If going on a real authentic cattle drive is on your life time list of things you like to do, then you should visit Big Bend Ranch’s Web site, and find out how to sign on.

Twice a year in the spring and summer, Big Bend Ranch staff organizes traditional Texas longhorn cattle drives. The parks Longhorn herd grazes over sections of the parks 40 thousand acres of pastures.

The clock is turned back, No trucks or helicopters are used here - just Mexican Vaqueros (park rangers) and wranglers (Lajitas Stables staff) and the visiting cow boys and girls. Children over ten may participate. We had a delightful 13 year old girl on our cattle drive.

Credit: Rosalie E. Leposky
            Mexican Vaqueros (park rangers), wranglers (Lajitas Stables staff) and a friend.

Want-to-be wranglers stay in a park bunkhouse or the old Ranch House, or weather permitting can sleep under the stars.

Everyone rise before the sun for breakfast, break for lunch and work till dark which comes earlier in the fall and breaks for dinner. There is no midmorning snack and coffee, or midnight snack here. Like the historic cow boys they can’t just get in a car and go to town for a drink. Nothing alcoholic allowed on the park grounds, and town is 44 miles away mostly over unpaved roads.

Riders search over rough terrine, with steep inclines for cattle which they drive to a holding pen. Later the herd driven to the pens near the old Ranch house where the mother cows, steers and bulls and older calves are separated from the younger calves. Older calves are driven into a pen to be sold at auction. Younger calf’s and older one’s not yet branded are branded, inoculated, and get ear tags.

Credit: Rosalie E. Leposky

It’s smart before you go to take some horse riding lessons. If your not able to, the Lajitas Stables staff will teach you very quickly. It had been years since I’d tried to ride a horse and I need a mounting block, but I managed to ride by following instructions. It was helpful that I came prepared with everything I was advised to bring.

I soon learned my horse was very strong willed, and knew how inexperienced I was, he would select the steepest incline he could find and then reach back to eat, making me feel I might fly off his front end. Finally I got better and learned to let him eat some, and not to be quite so scared. I remain a white knuckle rider.

Most particularly I let him take over when we were herding the cattle. He knew his job better then I did. He push the cattle forward when I wanted to pull back. The sensation he offered me was something I will always remember, when we had cattle on at least three sides of us with the sounds of the riders urging on their horses and the cattle caring across the valleys

Rain and Fresh Water

The instructions for visiting Big Bend Ranch including being rain gear - a poncho to cover you while riding. Rain in a desert amazed me. Still when my local Western store did not carry plastic ponchos I called L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine. While there are no ponchos in their catalogue they do carry them in their store, and one was sent to me. I took it with me never expecting to use it or the heavy sweatshirt I brought along. We were told to expect temperatures in at least the 80s. My fist day there was over cast and looked to my Florida eyes as rain. It was – a long steady rain that last most of the day. The only thing dry on me was my boots and the areas of my body not exposed while I held my reins. My gloves were so wet that I had to eventually dry them with a borrowed hair dry . Follow suggest gear instructions and bring everything – you may need something you never considered you would actually need.

With 300,000 acres most visitors see only a small portion of the park – items to try and see when possible are the parks two water falls and the Indian petrographs. “There are over 130 perennial springs in the park and all are active year round. The ones that stay active most of the time are Rancherias canyon trail spring, Rancherias loop trail spring, Ojito adentro spring, Mexicano Pour off spring and the second highest waterfall in the state, Madrid falls,” says Rod Trevizo, unit park manager, Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Plan Ahead

“Families may call Big Bend Ranch State Park office at (432-229-3416) and make a reservation because Big Bend Ranch is not on the Central Reservation system,” says Trevizo. “We accept reservations up to 90 days in advance and while you make the reservations is when you can request a guide and a horse rental fee. The other alternative is for customers may bring in their own horse and just pay an equestrian fee and ride in designated areas of the park. Currently we do not have an outfitter with a signed contract with Big Bend Ranch State Park to do horse ride guided tours of the ranch. We do have Texas River Expeditions, Rio Grande Adventures, Big Bend River Tours and Desert Sports, who all have a signed contract, to provide various outdoor commercial activity tours of Big Bend Ranch State park and all are recommend.”

Big Bend Stables and Fort Davis Lajitas Stables who provided a majority of the horse used by visiting cow boys and girls and extra wranglers for the Big Bend Ranch cattle drive offer a variety of horse back and canoe trips in Texas and Mexico from Fort Davis and near the entrance to Big Bend National Park.

“People may fly in to the Big Bend Ranch State Park with their private planes, but you must request permission first from the Complex Manager at Big Bend Ranch Complex Office and at the same time make your reservation for overnight lodging and meals and set a time to be picked up by park staff at the air port and request for a guided tour of the park if needed. All this must be done by calling our office because it cannot be found or done on our TPWD Web site,” says Trevizo.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

Fort Davis Lajitas Stables – http://www.lajitasstables.com
Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center - http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/barton/
Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas - http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/bigbend/
Visit Big Bend - Big Bend State Park, Brewster County Tourism Council - http://www.visitbigbend.com/whattosee_bbsp.html
Big Bend National Park Official NPS Web site - http://www.nps.gov/bibe/home.htm
Big Bend National Park (National Park Service)- http://www.nps.gov/bibe/
Research in Big Bend National Park - http://www.nps.gov/bibe/research.htm
Big Bend National Park – Bookstore - http://www.elpasoinfo.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=SFNT&Store_Code=4
Villages and Protected Areas in Mexico/Big Bend National Park - http://www.nps.gov/bibe/mexpkvil.htm
Black Gap WMA - http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=2

© Ampersand Communications


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