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August 2010 cover image Franklin Mountains

Big Bend Ranch From Every Angle

Adventure by foot, by horse, by bike and by boat.

By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent

Photographer Laurence Parent and I have shared some pleasantly intense adventures in our favorite part of Texas over the course of creating the books Texas Mountains and Big Bend National Park and several magazine articles. In “The Ultimate Big Bend Hike” (Texas Parks & Wildlife, August 2005), we hiked across Big Bend National Park for six days and nights from Rio Grande Village to Lajitas, and in “No Hike for Old Men” (Texas Parks & Wildlife, August 2009) we hiked across the spine of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso in a single day.

Big Bend Ranch State Park, the biggest and most interesting of all our state parks, presented a whole ’nother sort of challenge. Rather than attempt a long-distance crossing or set a high bar for a single day’s effort, we decided the state park needed a long weekend of different activities to get a full appreciation of its assets. Three days of post-Christmas cross-training adventures were planned. We rounded up Jeff Whittington, who had walked across Big Bend with us; Diane Golden, whose Golden Adventures in Dallas does travel packages for marathoners, cyclists and skiers; and Steve Kennedy, an avid cyclist who runs the Old School House Bed and Breakfast in Fort Davis.

Photo by Lawrence Parent

Figuring out the logistics of what we could and couldn’t do was the tough part. I got a reality check from David Riskind, state parks director of natural resources, who guided me through the ranch on Google Maps long enough to convince me our schedule would be dictated by limited winter daylight hours, drive time on rough roads and the understanding that distances can be deceiving in the Chihuahuan Desert.

A schedule was sketched out with the knowledge that improvisation would be part of the deal. The whole trip was subject to rescheduling if the weather gods weren’t cooperating. The lows the previous weekend at the ranch had dipped down to 5 degrees, cold enough to break several water pipes. By Wednesday, though, the forecast for the next weekend called for highs into the 60s with clear skies and light wind. We were good to go. Everyone traveled all day Friday from across Texas — the last hour over 27 miles of hard dirt road — so we could meet up by sunset at Sauceda, the three-bedroom, 10-person-capacity ranch house, which would serve as our Reata for three nights.

Saturday started with breakfast in the bunkhouse, a visit with park staff and a saunter over to the nearby stables to saddle up for a morning ride. Of all the activities planned, riding horseback inspired the most complaints. Laurence didn’t want to ride at all. He may scale 14,000-foot peaks carrying 60 pounds of camera equipment, but he didn’t cotton much to straddling a horse, he admitted a few days earlier. But even the reluctant equestrians saddled up.

Wranglers David Marquez and Javier Medina led us on a two-hour loop through the brush into the dry wash of Leyva Canyon north of the Big House at Sauceda. While all five of us had our respective fitness regimens, no one claimed to excel on horseback, although I did well enough at range riding school in Utah about 15 years ago to feel comfortable in the saddle.

Our morning ride went through some extremely rough country defined by creosote bush and spiny lechuguilla. Even in winter, the scenery took on a more verdant, pastoral look wherever there were signs of water, whose presence was marked by stately cottonwoods. A couple of times, my horse, Flaco, aka Palomito, broke into a gallop to jump across a gully, but I held on as I quickly refamiliarized myself with riding techniques. My trust was rewarded by Flaco’s nimble footwork, stepping over slick rocks with the grace of a ballet dancer.

The wranglers can lead riders on a longer, four-hour ride along some of the same route to Baños de Leyva, Marquez explained as we watched a family of mule deer, including two large bucks, wander along a ridgeline. Baños de Leyva is a series of pools deep enough to dive and swim in during warmer months, he said with a tantalizing smile. The wranglers also lead full-day, eight-hour rides from Botella near the main gate on the western end of the ranch to Sauceda, or from Tres Papalotes, a former line camp in El Solitario, back to headquarters.

Two hours on horseback was more than enough for us tinhorns. Diane was complaining about pain in her knee flaring up while she was riding. Jeff groused about a pinched nerve in his lower back. My thighs were sore, all right, and my butt felt plenty banged up, but the discomfort vanished once we started hiking.

We enjoyed a quick lunch back at the bunkhouse at Sauceda and were about to head out toward El Solitario for our afternoon hike when a college-age guy wearing a Buffalo T-shirt drove up and asked where he could find Cabin 17.

Cabin 17? There was no Cabin 17 at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

The kid explained that he had flown from New York to San Antonio the night before, then drove from San Antonio to meet friends of his, and this was where his GPS had sent him.

Photo by Lawrence Parent

We laughed. Maybe Cabin 17 was in the Chisos Basin in the national park, a four-hour drive away? The kid underscored the isolation of the ranch. He couldn’t get a cell phone signal here to call his friends, and neither could we; his GPS was just about as untrustworthy.

Rather than wait around to solve the mystery, we hopped into Laurence’s four-wheel-drive XTerra and headed east beyond the end of the maintained but rough dirt road and into El Solitario, a circular collapsed caldera nine miles in diameter that is the geological signature of the park. Our destination was Tres Papalotes, a small corral with one windmill and a one-room shack inside El Solitario. The 10-mile drive took about an hour and a half, the last part on single-track roads that were semi-cleared paths in the scrub. We passed the windmill at Tres Papalotes, drove another quarter-mile, parked and began hiking into the Lower Shutup, the southernmost of three drainages out of El Solitario.

The Lower Shutup follows a rock-strewn dry wash surrounded by tight walls. It is not a place to be when it rains in the watershed because the wash quickly floods. There was enough moisture in the creek bed from the previous morning’s drizzle to easily identify paw prints. Raccoons and skunks had been hanging around the wash, but the prints that made the strongest impression belonged to a mountain lion. They were fresh prints in the wet sand. I was inspecting a second lion paw print a few yards from the first print, thinking how fresh it looked, when a pleading cry like a wounded animal pierced the air, startling us enough to freeze in our tracks.

Scrrreeeeoowww

Jeff, who was about 25 yards ahead, whirled around and put his index finger to his lips. Stop. Look. Listen.

“A juvenile mountain lion,” someone whispered.

The sound was coming from somewhere up the western wall, as close as 30 feet away or as far as 100 feet. No one could tell for sure.

I immediately scanned the opposite wall. You never want to be between a young lion in distress and its mama.

Scrrreeeeoowww

The cry broke the silence again, only sharper this time. I was getting nervous.

Scrrreeeowwwww

Nothing.

Slowly but surely, we started walking down the drainage again, ears pricked, eyes sharp. Around a couple of bends was some kind of scat in the wash with hair in it, apparently belonging to some kind of cat. We continued descending down the Lower Shutup, hopping the jumble of slickrock and boulders in the middle of the drainage until we reached some pools. The pools turned into a trickling rivulet that would eventually join Fresno Creek. The flushes of rain over the eons had sculpted swirls and tubs into the rock, with the boulders growing larger and more numerous the longer we hiked. Diane and Jeff were particularly nimble as we scrambled whenever necessary, until we reached one pour-off that looked so steep and narrow we would need ropes and climbing gear.

So we turned around. We needed to reach Laurence’s vehicle with enough daylight to at least get to the main road toward Sauceda. We tiptoed past the point where the juvenile mountain lion was calling for mama and made it back with plenty of time to pause along the road and take in the long-distance view of the Chisos in Big Bend National Park lighting up at sunset, accompanied by the sounds of a pack of coyotes in full yip and howl.

If our goal had been to hike the ranch, we would have started earlier and kept going. Hiking out of the Lower Shutup to the Buena Suerte Mine near Lajitas is a 12-mile, all-day sucker that traces some of the historic road that may have been constructed in 1916 for Gen. Pershing’s troops as he chased Pancho Villa. Another hike beyond our turnaround point would take you into Fresno Canyon. The 19-mile Rancherias Loop, accessed from two trailheads along River Road into the rugged and rocky Rancherias mountain range, is the ranch’s premier overnight hiking trail.

Dinner back at headquarters was followed by an eyeful of some of the starriest sky on earth before hitting the sack.

Day Two began with breakfast in the bunkhouse accompanied by reports of seeing foxes and shooting stars. Then we loaded mountain bikes from the park livery (Steve brought his own ride) into a truck driven by a park ranger, who drove us beyond Agua Adentro, stopping four miles from the park gate.

From here we would cycle 13 miles back to Sauceda, stopping for short hikes. Our first pause was near Agua Adentro, where we walked a few hundred yards up a rubble-filled dry wash from the road, then up a slope to some boulders where Steve showed us a shaman figure that had been drawn on the rock in red pigment. Steve had been on archaeological digs on the ranch and knew several good places to look around, including Agua Adentro, the small springs below the road that were fed by the same dry creekbed we had hiked through. “Don’t tell anybody about this place,” he told us when we got to Agua Adentro. I already had, since it was not the first time I had visited the small falls in a shady cienega, or wetlands.

We continued eastbound a few hundred yards to a limestone overhang hugging the road. The well-ventilated overhang had mortar holes worn into the floor with a few handprints on the ceiling, clear signs that this was a fine spot for the prehistoric hunters and gatherers to hang out.

We’d ridden three and a half miles from the starting point to the trailhead of Ojito Adentro when we ditched the bikes and hit a trail seven-tenths of a mile long leading to a canyon and up a dry creek bed. The trail ended at a trickling waterfall thick with maidenhair fern and a pristine pool of water. It was a delicious, remarkable place to pause, eat lunch and relax, before hiking back to our bikes.

The next eight and a half miles were tough. I thought I was in shape from road cycling. But my limits were tested by the rocky surface of the road with stretches of washboard, the heavier bike with tires that couldn’t be deflated and the lack of shock absorbers. Twice I spun my tire in low gear and opted to walk the bike up a steep incline.

I was sweating and my legs ached. It was not an easy ride since we were gaining more than 500 feet of altitude from our starting point. Steve, who cycles the 60-mile Davis Mountains Loop, made it look easy. I was the last one in, more than ready for food, a cold drink and a brief nap in the warm sun.

Temperatures that had climbed into the mid-70s made it all possible. I don’t know if I would’ve attempted the bike ride any other time of the year unless we started close to sunrise and were done by noon.

It was four hours from start to finish, hikes included.

If cycling had been our weekend priority, we would have likely driven out of the interior to River Road toward Lajitas to explore the 25-mile network of trails of the recently opened Contrabando Loop.

Day Two wrapped up with a mile hike into Cinco Tinajas, five ascending pools in a tight slot canyon of slickrock that we had ridden past on our horseback ride. Halfway down the mile-long trail to the pool, two hikers with backpacks emerged from the brush, bushwhacking their way through thorny catsclaw and creosote. They were the first people we had seen in the park since the lost Cabin 17 guy.

A thin layer of ice covered the bottom pool of Cinco Tinajas. Very little sunlight reached this part of the canyon. Jeff, who had already distinguished himself as the group’s rock climber, climbed and scurried up to the third tinaja before quitting. He could’ve climbed to one more and possibly both pools on the polished rock, he said, if he was willing to get wet, which he wasn’t.

For sunset, we drove back toward Agua Adentro to watch a cluster of mountains bathed in flaming sunlight.

Good food, good friends, good stories and good feelings following a good workout concluded our second evening. Diane had to head back to Dallas in the morning. So did Jeff, who was going to hike into Closed Canyon, a slot canyon off River Road, on his way out.

But Laurence, Steve and I, joined by Steve’s wife, Carla Kennedy, weren’t done yet. On the third morning at the park, we drove to River Road, turned east toward the Big Hill and stopped at a parking area where Mike Long of Desert Sports was waiting with a small raft and an inflatable kayak. We parked and were shuttled eight miles upstream, beyond Closed Canyon, to the Colorado Canyon put-in.

Photo by Lawrence Parent

The Rio Grande was running low and slow, but with enough flow for a pleasant four-and-a half-hour paddle. Jagged mountains and ridges hugging the river provided plenty of visual stimulation. The wildlife was the eye candy. Twice, hawks rose from their perches to alight on a distant overhang as we paddled past. Hundreds of red-eared sliders sunned on rocks oblivious to passers-by. Flocks of geese and ducks took off from the water at the sight of an oncoming boat, flying overhead in squadron formation. A family of javelinas supped at water’s edge until they quietly disappeared into the brush.

“I’m whipped,” Steve announced when we reached the takeout. It was good to hear, in light of how he left us eating dust when we were cycling the day before. I knew what he meant. With more flow, the paddle would have been more fun. And a longer paddle, all the way to the Grassy Banks near Lajitas, or a multiday paddle into Santa Elena Canyon and the national park, would have been even better.

But still …

Thirteen miles cycled. Six miles hiked. Five miles ridden on horseback. Eight miles paddled.

The January blahs cured in a long weekend with perfect weather and zero crowds.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is like having your own private wilderness — big enough and wild enough to spend a lifetime exploring.

About the only recreational activity we didn’t engage in was driving some of the more than 70 miles of unmaintained 4x4 high-clearance roads around the ranch, including 25 miles of tracks in the Cienega section in the far northern part of the park, which is also a hiking and cycling destination. We’d already had enough “bobblehead” action just driving into and around the main roads of the ranch.

Between the Cienega, Fresno Canyon, the Encino Trail … there is so much land that it would take a lifetime to fully explore. Call it a ranch, call it a park. Six of us simply think of Big Bend Ranch State Park as a great place to have an adventure.

 

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