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Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center

Stop here for a crash course on the sprawling Big Bend region.

When most folks mention travel to the Big Bend, they’re typically talking about a trek to Big Bend National Park. Highway signs in Alpine, one of the major portals to the Big Bend region of West Texas, too, point motorists toward the national park, but make no mention of nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park or Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, the eastern entry to more than 300,000 state park acres that hug the Texas-Mexico border.

The Barton Warnock Center sits on the edge of the town of Lajitas, an early 20th century cavalry post being developed as a high-end resort. The focal point of the 99-acre facility is an interpretive center that tells the story of 600 million years of geological history, and the biological and cultural diversity of the Chihuahuan Desert through compelling color photographs, a topographic map of the region and various exhibits.

The Chihuahuan Desert, North America’s largest, is known as American’s “grassy desert” because it encompasses several grassland communities, which for centuries has attracted sheep and goat herders and cattle ranchers. Most of the state park’s acreage, in fact, exists within the boundaries of the former Big Bend Ranch just northeast of Presidio, a three-hour drive from Lajitas.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is confusing because it’s not one large park area like the national park, but a number of pocket parks stretching 25 miles along the river on scenic Highway 170, also known as The River Road. Here, park visitors can enjoy primitive and group camping, as well as access to the river for canoeing and rafting.

In addition to river running and hiking some 40 miles of trails, including the multiuse Contrabando Trail across from the Barton Warnock Center, park visitors can ride mountain bikes, hike and ride horses which can be rented from stables in Lajitas, according to Trevizo.

The center serves its educational role in many ways. Visitors and locals alike can do research in an archival library that contains a rare geology book collection, peruse a collections room containing the late Barton Warnock’s amazing botanical collection of more than 1,100 Big Bend plant species, see prehistoric and historic artifacts, and birdwatch in the yucca-filled courtyard.

Behind the center, a botanical garden identifies the various cacti, succulents and other Chihuahuan Desert flora. Visitors can learn about the desert’s indicator plant, the lechuguilla, whose thorny spines can inflict a nasty wound to those who venture too close. Visit Cactus Hill at the western end of the compound to find out how cacti have adapted to a region that receives an average of only 8 to 10 inches of rain annually. The staff also offers interpretive programs on such topics as edible plants of the Big Bend, the Comanche War Trail (which ran through the area) and birds and bats of the Big Bend.

— Rob McCorkle

The park is located on State Highway 170, one mile east of Lajitas in Brewster County. For more information, call the park at (432) 424-3327 or visit Barton Warnock on the web.

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