The Ranch

The first word that comes to mind when I think of my experiences in the Big Bend Ranch State Park is wild, as in wilderness.

Just to get to the Park Headquarters, you have to drive 27 miles down an improved dirt road.  And that’s after you’ve already driven to what seems like the end of the world; Big Bend is close to nowhere.

Compared to it’s next door cousin, Big Bend National Park, the Ranch is but a baby, and has been open to the public only since the 1990s.  And it’s rough.   There are a handful of marked trails in the park that are wonderful, but buddy, by and large you are going to be on your own.   I cannot say it enough – if you’re going to the Ranch, you had better know how to read a map (USGS topos are available – but don’t count on the park having them – order ahead of time), use GPS, and have a compass or two around in case the GPS goes belly up.  And frankly, my friends, I love it like that.  It’s about the only place in the world that I’ve been to that you can truly feel like you’re the first person in the world to lay eyes on a place.  It is wild and rough and I love it.   Once off the main dirt road, there are very few remnants of man to be seen – although you can indeed find them here and there – everything from old windmills and fences that can go back a 100 years or more to pictographs and cave drawings that go back thousands of years.

From a photographer’s standpoint, you can get some wonderful images of Big Bend National Park, and I have done so.  But so have hundreds, if not thousands of other photographers.  Images you capture at the Ranch are going to be one of a kind, at least for a while; and that appeals to me as well.

What I would recommend you do if you were planning to have an expedition at the Ranch is to set up a base camp that has easy access to the main road and then take day hikes or drives out of your base camp.

The one I am inclined to use is Papalotito Colorado, or little red windmill.  Like everywhere in the Big Bend region, Spanish places and names dot the landscape and do nothing but remind you of the long history of the area.

Papalotito Colorado has several benefits:  for one you don’t need a high clearance vehicle to get to it, it is more or less centrally located, and it gives you some fantastic views.

La Mota in the morning

You can wake up every day and watch the sun’s rays light up the nearby mountain La Mota – one of the tallest peaks in the park at 5,046 ft.

You can also take short hikes straight out of the campsite – and nearby you can see the windmill that the place gets its name from.  Can you find the little windmill?

Papalotito Colorado

The small peak just behind the windmill we named “Bruce’s peak” after my buddy who decided it would be a neat climb to the top the last time we were there.  And yes, after a little bit of hand over foot action, the view from the short summit was fantastic and well worth the effort.

The last time I was at the park, in November of 2009, there was water everywhere.  And that included a large stock tank, or holding tank across the main road from the campsite.  I was able to spend a couple nights out at the tank shooting images of birds (mostly ducks) coming into the water and catching the sun setting down across the ridges to the west.


With all of the water, you are going to see a lot of wildlife.  From the top of Bruce’s peak we caught glimpse of a very large group of javelina heading down one of the nearby box canyons.  Across the campsite to the east I’ve seen deer several times crossing over the eastern ridge as the moon was rising.  And nearly every morning we’ve heard coyotes howling around the campsite.   Being that it’s the Big Bend region and you’re out of the flight path of most of the air carriers, you will not have your revelry disturbed by hordes of jets passing overhead traveling to and fro wherever it is they are going.  The quiet and the solitude are fantastic.  You literally will only hear the sound of the wind rolling across the landscape and the wood of your fire crackling at night.

Now that we’ve set up camp, next time, I’ll talk about some of the hikes and other places I’ve seen at the Ranch.


~ by Derrick Birdsall on March 24, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Ranch”

  1. I love how that water in “mirror” is perfectly still allowing for that perfect reflection – It almost takes on a shape of it’s own and doesn’t appear as a mountain and lake at all!!! WOW!

  2. Thanks! I shot several images in/near this spot – most in color, but as the sun set on this one, there were really no clouds to bounce the light off of and everything took a surreal-ish color that I thought would look good in b/w or monotone.

    More to come soon!

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