Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas: Not Just the Other Big Bend

big bend ranch state park texas not just the other big bend

Featuring some of the most stunning scenery in West Texas, Big Bend Ranch State Park is a Texas sized item for any bucket list.  Winding along the Rio Grande, Big Bend Ranch State Park is the largest state park in Texas by far.  With the motto of ‘The other Side of Nowhere,’ any explorer can easily escape into this wild west landscape. 

scenery big bend ranch state park texas
One of the many amazing views along FM 170 in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is an overlooked gem in West Texas.  Often passed up for its more well-known neighbor, Big Bend National Park, this state park offers a list of itinerary options that could put any park in its place.  Being overshadowed by the neighboring national park means that the hundreds of miles of trails are left for you to explore in solitude.  So, bring your hiking boots, your camera or palette, and enjoy the wide-open spaces of The Other Side of Nowhere. 


Need to Know




Big Bend Ranch State Park is located in Far West Texas, northwest of Big Bend National Park.  It sits along the Rio Grande and straddles FM 170 between Lajitas and Presidio, Texas. 




Open 24 hours/7 days a week




$5/person entrance fee (13 years and older)


Because the state park straddles a highway, there is no gate or booth like you would find at most state and national parks to pay your entrance fees.  Instead, the park relies on a “good faith” policy.  The park has offices (and boxes) at both at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center (east side of the park) and Fort Leaton State Historic Site (west side of the park), and boxes at each trailhead for people to pay their fees.  If using the boxes, you will simply need to put the money in the envelopes provided at the box, fill in your information, and deposit the envelope in the box.  (Note: You will need cash and a pen/pencil)


When to Visit


Fall and Spring are the best times to visit Big Bend Ranch State Park due to the favorable weather.  Temperatures during this time are mild during the day and cool at night.  March is by far the busiest time for the park due to Spring Breaker travel.  The Winter and Summer are the off seasons for the park.  The winter can also be a good time to visit to avoid the crowds.  The weather is cool during the day, but can drop to near freezing during the night.  During the summer temperatures typically exceed 100 degrees by late morning and can reach as high as 130 degrees during the day.



What to Do


Drive El Camino del Rio

scenery fm 170 big bend ranch state park texas
Amazing scenery driving east on FM 170.

The scenic drive down the El Camino del Rio (River Road) is one of the most unforgettable activities in Big Bend Ranch State Park.  The drive is so spectacular that it is frequently ranked amongst the most scenic drives in the USA! 


This 50-mile stretch of FM 170, between Presidio and Lajitas, meanders its way through the park and runs parallel to the Rio Grande.  The drive down this iconic road provides countless stunning views that set the Big Bend area apart from anywhere else in the country.  Along this drive you will find a number of overlooks (each worth a stop), picnic areas for a scenic lunch, and the trailheads of some of the parks most popular hikes. 


Hike or Bike the Trails

contrabando trail big bend ranch state park texas
Contrabando Trail

Looking for a desert hiking or biking experience that is ‘The Other Side of Nowhere?’  Big Bend Ranch State Park has 238 miles of multi-use trails that snake and loop all throughout the 486 mi² of park.  The trails showcase the extraordinary scenery and history of the park and there are trails rated for all ages and abilities.  Though most of the trails are multi-use (hiking, biking, and horseback), there are a few ‘routes’ that are exclusively for hiking.


Some of the most popular trails in the park are the historic Contrabando Multi-use Trail System, Closed Canyon Trail, and the Hoodoos Trail.  The Fresno-Sauceda Loop has also been designated an ‘Epic’ ride by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (only one in Texas and only one of two in the Southwest). 


Note: Most hiking trails are primitive, with rock cairns and few signs.  Always carry a map when hiking/biking in the park.  Carry plenty of water and wear appropriate protective clothing; the desert heat can get extremely hot.   


Enjoy Primitive Camping

grassy banks campground big bend ranch state park texas
Grassy Banks Campground on FM 170.

There is nothing like the no-frills, nature indulging experience of primitive camping.  Which is good, since that is basically your only option if you want to stay in Big Bend Ranch State Park.  There are a number of camping areas around the park (some easier to get to than others), so you can choose you favorite area and settle in.  Most sites have a covered picnic area and fire ring, and the sites along FM 170 (River District) have drop toilets. 


Note:  You will need to bring in all of your food, water, and firewood.  Remember to practice “Leave No Trace” principles and pack out anything you bring in.   


Soak in the Rio Grande

rio grande big bend ranch state park texas
Rio Grande in the Colorado Canyon area.

Tubing, rafting, kayaking, and fishing are all available activities to do in the Rio Grande.  The rapids may not be very large (Class II and III), there is not many places you can go float down an international border.  If you wish to fish, you can purchase a fishing license from either Barton Warnock or Fort Leaton.  There are a number of river entry points along FM 170, so if you bring your own gear, you can jump right in.  If you don’t have your own gear, don’t worry, you can set reach out to one of the many companies in the area that can take you on a guided trip or rent out equipment.


Learn Something at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center

barton warnock visitor center big bend ranch state park texas
Barton Warnock Visitor Center

Located on the east end of Big Bend Ranch State Park, near Lajitas, is the Barton Warnock Visitor Center.  This is a must stop for all those inquisitive.  The visitor center houses an interpretive exhibit covering the geology, archeology, and natural history of the area.  Learn about the history and culture of the people that once lived here, or all about the flora and fauna that you will encounter on your hikes.  The center also has a 2-acre botanical garden for you to explore.  After you have gotten all the learning you can handle you can stop by the gift shop for a book or souvenir or grab a paper map of the park and trails. 


Here you can also check-in to your site or buy any permits you may need. 


Visit to Fort Leaton State Historic Site.


fort leaton big bend ranch state park texas
Fort Leaton Historical Site

Sitting on what was once a major trade route, Fort Leaton State Historical Site has stood strong for nearly 200 years.  Located on the western side of Big Bend Ranch State Park, on the outskirts of Presidio, Fort Leaton is one of the best-preserved adobe historic buildings in Texas.  Stepping into this historic fort/trading post, you can walk through history and see rooms set up the way they would have been during the fort’s heyday; including living spaces, courtyard, jail, and blacksmith.  The site also has a botanical garden to explore as well. 


Cost: $5 to explore the fort.


Here you can also check-in to your site or buy any permits you may need. 



Gaze at the Stars


The starry sky can be mesmerizing and there is no place better for stargazing in Texas than Big Bend Ranch State Park.  The state park sits in the darkest area of the state, but what else would you expect from somewhere on The Other Side of Nowhere?  The conditions for viewing the heavens are so excellent here that the park was designated as a gold tier International Dark Sky Park in 2018.  Places with the best view (and that are easily accessible) are at the West Contrabando Trailhead, Big Hill and the Hoodoos.


Explore History

silver mine ruins contrabando trail big bend ranch state park texas
One of the many silver mining ruins along the Contrabando trail.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is steeped in history dating back thousands of years.  The first peoples to inhabit the area left artifacts and pictographs that can still be seen in the park.  In more recent years (if starting in 1905 is recent), ranchers started piecing together smaller ranches until it was bought by the State of Texas in 1988 and turned it into a park.  During that time the area was used as ranch lands, wax production, and silver mining, all still showing its mark on the land.  A few notable historical sites in the park are Fort Leaton, Sauceda Historic District, and the Contrabando trail. 


See Movie Sets


Big Bend Ranch State Park has been the site of a number of movies; the most notable being Streets of Laredo and Fandango.  Near the eastern entrance, on the left side of FM 170, you can find the Contrabando Movie Set.  This site was used for nine movies including Streets of Laredo and Lone Star.  Further into the park, also on the left of FM 170 is the site of DOM Rock featured in the movie Fandango. 


Horseback Ride

contrabando trail scenery big bend ranch state park texas
Stepping into the Wild West.

You can’t visit the wild west of Texas without hopping on a horse and riding off into the sunset.  Fortunately, most of the trails in Big Bend Ranch State Park are multi-use and allow for horseback riding.  Although the park doesn’t have horses, you can set up a horseback excursion with a number of outfitters in the area.  Many of them offer a few hours to a few days’ trips.  If you have your own horse, you can bring it to the park also (there is a $2/day fee per horse). 


Watch the Wildlife

roadrunner big bend ranch state park texas

Big Bend Ranch State Park offers a unique landscape and climate to observe wildlife.  If you are a Birder there are over 300 species of birds that have been spotted in the park.  The park also harbors a number of other species as well; including 48 mammals species, 30 types of snakes, and 40 species of fish. 



Where to Eat


If you are camping within the park you will need to bring all of the food and water that you plan to use in with you.  Except for the Sauceda Ranger Station, there is no potable water in the park.  I would also recommend buying your food products before getting to the area.  In both Presidio and Terlingua you will be able to buy some food stuffs at gas stations or ‘dollar stores,’ but your selection will be limited.  Both of these towns also have a number of restaurants that you can eat at.  El Changarrito in Presidio is a great walk-up Mexican food spot that has delicious burritos and is fairly cheap as well. 



Where to Stay


Inside the Park

lower madera canyon campground big bend ranch state park texas
The Lower Madera Canyon Campground on FM 170.

The camping within the park is only primitive tent camping, but most of the camping areas have a picnic table, fire ring, and nearby outhouses (no running water).  These campsites are divided into two regions, the River and Interior Districts.  The River District campsites are the easiest to get to; located along the river, just off of FM 170.  Although FM 170 is paved, the roads to the campsites are sandy (but you should not have a problem with a two-wheel drive vehicle).  These campsites cost $12/night and can be reserved at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center.  The Interior District is located further north and accessed by a gravel road.  There are a number of sites located all throughout the interior area; both drive-in or hike-in accessible.  These sites are $12 or $16 per night for drive-in and $10 for hike-in and can be reserved online here.   


For those wanting lodging within the park.  The Sauceda Bunkhouse, located at the Sauceda Ranger Station in the Interior District, offers beds for $35/night.  This old hunting lodge turned park bunkhouse has running water, showers, electricity, and a full kitchen.  Call (512) 389-8900 to see when it is available. 


Outside the Park


If primitive camping isn’t your thing or you’re traveling with an RV there are still many options for accommodations nearby.  Presidio (to the west) and both Lajitas and Terlingua (to the east) all have hotels and RV parks for you to stay.  All three of these towns are just a short drive into the park.  If you happen to be staying at the Big Bend National Park, it is only about an hour drive to Big Bend Ranch State Park.



How to Get There



drive big bend ranch state park texas
Driving south on SH 18 from Alpine.

Depending on where you are driving from and what entrance you are wanting to enter will determine your driving directions.  For the Fort Leaton (west) entrance you will want to travel south on US 67 from Marfa to Presidio and then east on FM 170.  The last gas will be in Presidio.  For the Barton Warnock (east) entrance you will want to travel south on SH 18 from Alpine to Terlingua and then west on FM 170.  The last gas is in Terlingua. 




The closest airports, with rental cars, are located in El Paso and Midland, Texas.  The El Paso International Airport (ELP), northwest of the park, is about 252 miles to the Fort Leaton (west) entrance.  The Midland International Air & Space Port (MAF), northeast of the park, is about 249 miles to the Barton Warnock (east) entrance.


If you have your own wings, Big Bend Ranch State Park has its own 5,500 ft paved airstrip located in the interior of the park.  Be sure to call ahead to let park staff know when you will arrive.  They can take you to the Sauceda Bunkhouse located nearby for check-in.  This bunkhouse has beds, restrooms, showers, and kitchen for $35 per person/night.  There are many trails nearby to enjoy.


What was your favorite thing about Big Bend Ranch State Park?

big bend ranch state park texas not just the other big bend

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