Big Bend Ranch State Park
Brave the bats and scorpions for a moonlight hike through the hoodoos.
By E. Dan Klepper
The moon is fond of playing tricks on folks who choose to venture outdoors and explore the Big Bend country under the illumination of its fulsome shine. The light makes the frothing rapids of the Rio Grande appear to slow their currents just enough to soften the harsh sparkle of reflection and transform the ragged waves into ripples that dazzle like scoured titanium. Cactus pads, with their shadow spines akimbo, mesquite beans in droopy clusters, and the fat limbs of cane cholla all hang in the preternatural light, not quite unfamiliar but uncomfortably more human than botanical. And if a picture is taken, not a snapshot but a long, slow exposure, the photograph will at first glance appear as if it had been produced in the broad light of day. But it is only an illusion, because beneath a full moon, the colors of a west Texas desert are at curious odds with nature’s spectrum and its night shadows unnaturally darker than pitch.
No place in Texas offers a more fitting chance to witness this spectral light than among the hoodoos of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The term “hoodoo,” like moonlight, is a tricky thing. Its foremost definition is much like it sounds — a form of magic, conjuring or curse — in fact, trickery. But geology defines it as a uniquely shaped rock that has been formed over time by weathering — a magic trick, so to speak, of nature. The hoodoos of Big Bend Ranch lie just to the south of FM 170 between Lajitas and Redford. Park visitors can actually view a few of the major pinnacles without ever leaving their vehicles. But to really appreciate them, visitors are required to take a short hike towards the Rio Grande. Along the way, the true lay of the land is revealed as an undulating field of bulbous rock crowned by odd and precarious stone sentinels, several of them over a story high. To see them in daylight is a treat, but moonlight, more so than a harsh bright sun, brings out their most alarming features. Better still, it highlights all their attendant wildlife.
Park interpreter David Long is hardly squeamish about desert nightlife such as bats, owls or scorpions, particularly those that like to venture out among the hoodoos by the light of the moon. In fact, if you join him for one of his moonlit hoodoo hikes, he will probably capture a scorpion between his thumb and forefinger in order to give you a better look. Long offers his hoodoo night hikes periodically as part of the visitation program at Big Bend Ranch State Park. Long is based out of the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, just outside of Lajitas and along the eastern edge of the 300,000-acre park, and performs his own special magic for fellow hikers during the three- to four-hour program. The hike begins at sundown and includes a variety of nighttime nature tools, including night vision goggles, a bat detector and hand-held black lights, ideal for spotting the dozens of scorpions, spiders and other interesting insects that inhabit the rocks of Big Bend country. Often on hand is a high-powered spotlight that helps to reveal any misadventures taking place skyward, along the river shallows, or atop the bluffs and slopes of the nearby Bofecillos range and the in-your-face Sierra Mataderos, just across the water. Once among the hoodoos proper, hikers can take a seat along the rocks and listen to some fun facts about the desert’s natural history and a few of Long’s ghost yarns. Several of them are genuinely scary — perhaps yet another trick of the moonlight?
Long prefers to plan hikes during the full moons of summer but nature gives him an opportunity to plan one any month, schedules permitting. Call the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center at 432-424-3327 to express your interest and to determine the program schedule and price per hiker for the coming year. And don’t forget your headlamp and hiking boots.