Big Bend Ranch State Park Texas
Big Bend Ranch State Park is hugged by the Big Bend of the Rio Grande elbowing a narrow green ribbon through the harsh grandeur of the Great Chihuahuan Desert. The area covers some 400 square miles of spectacular rock formations, unique plants and animals and a record of over 10,000 years of human occupation.
Spread before you for pleasurable browsing is a living library whose volumes are profusely illustrated with magnificent vistas and intriguing close-ups. The geology section is prominent by virtue of folded and upturned rock layers, volcanic domes and desert basins that tell of long-gone mountains and ancient sea beds, upwelling molten rocks and a rifting crust, dissected into the steep-walled canyons of today by the Rio Grande and its side channels.
If you take pleasure in examples of nature's expertise at fitting living organisms to their surroundings, you will find the park's shelves well-stocked. The desert is a harsh taskmaster and the plants and animals here have all learned their lessons on how to conserve water and survive extremes in climate.
People have been living among the canyons, mountains and valleys of this corner of the Chihuahuan Desert for over 10,000 years. At first notice, the inhospitable terrain may seem uninhabitable, but all the resources - water, game animals and edible plants - necessary for maintaining a relatively stable existence, have always been present.
Evidence of prehistoric Native Americans is scattered all across the Big Bend. Little is known of the earliest inhabitants, who lived here 10,000 to 5,000 years ago - only a few projectile points and other stone tools remain as proof of their presence. Later groups occupying this harsh landscape left many remains of their existence. Their campsites, villages, rock-art sites, cooking stations and burial sites dot the Big Bend.
For thousands of years these groups lived off the land, hunting deer, bear and a menagerie of small animals, and foraging for berries, seeds, fruits and roots of a broad variety of plants. Then about A.D. 1400, agriculture was introduced, and corn, beans and squash were grown on fertile river terraces along the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos.
Influenced by pueblo groups farther up the river toward New Mexico, the agriculturalists lived in organized villages with an established sociopolitical hierarchy. These were the people encountered by the Spanish soldiers and priests when they first entered the Big Bend a little over 400 years ago, at which time the recorded history of the region began.
Exploration & Settlement
When the United States won possession of the Big Bend region from Mexico in 1848, the area was the domain of hostile Indians. Spanish colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries had progressed as far as the Rio Grande, but no farther. Missions had been established among the agricultural Indians living along the rivers, and the Mexican military garrison at Presidio del Norte (present Ojinaga) defended the area against Apache and Comanche raiders.
The first Anglo-Americans to settle in the Big Bend were a group of ex-scalphunters from Mexico. One of them, Benjamin Leaton, built a fortress on the Rio Grande near present Presidio in 1848. A new trade route from San Antonio to Chihuahua brought a few hardy souls to the region, but not until the 1870s, with the removal of the Indian threat, did the area open up to settlement.
The scarcity of water prohibited widespread settlement, but small stock-raisers did begin struggling against the harsh land, running modest herds of goats, sheep and cattle on rich grasslands near scattered springs in the interior, away from the river. Best known among the early ranchers was Milton Faver, who established three ranches in well-watered areas north of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. Within the park, the earliest known stockman was Andres Madrid, who began running sheep north of present-day Lajitas in the 1870s. The Carrasco family also started to ranch in the area around this time.
Mining, too, played a role in the early settlement of the Big Bend. Silver mining began just north of the park in 1882, and in the 1890s, large mercury mining operations developed around Terlingua, near the southern end of the park. Both operations remained profitable until the 1940s.
As important as mining was, ranching emerged as the dominant economic force in the region. The Bogel brothers, Woodworth, Gus and Gallie, began buying and consolidating small stock outfits in the present state park in the 1910s. Severe drought in the 1930s caused their operation to go bankrupt, and their holdings were purchased by the Fowlkes brothers, Mannie and Edwin, who continued consolidation. The property changed owners three more times after the 1950s, until the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department purchased the Big Bend Ranch from Robert 0. Anderson and Walter Mischer in 1988.
For the most part, the state park is desert grassland or, where sotol is prominent, succulent desert grassland. Depending on soil type, steepness of slope or exposure, the desert plant community is best described as a mosaic, or patchwork of subtle variation of Chihuahuan Desert species.
The Chihuahuan Desert is distinguished from other North American deserts by the predominance, under natural conditions, of grasses. Grama grasses, including blue, black and sideoats, as well as chino, predominate together with silver bluestem, tanglehead and tobosa.
While much of this lush grassland has been profoundly modified by a century and a half of extensive goat, sheep, and cattle use, considerable grassland still remains today. Deep soil sites throughout the park, whether derived of igneous rock or limestone, have lost much of their natural plant cover. Creosote and tarbush, mariola, mesquite, acacia and other thorny shrubs have replaced grasses.
Rocky slopes usually support, in addition to grasses, abundant typical desert species like lechuguilla, cacti, ocotillo, numerous acacias, other thorny shrubs and the beautiful Wislizenus' senna.
The limestones of the Solitario support similar vegetation types but the composition is decidedly different. Many species, like candelilla grows almost exclusively on limestone, as does the curious sandpaper bush. The endangered Hinckley's oak also occurs on limestone. Cactus species diversity, at least in the park, increases dramatically on limestone soil. In sheltered locations, deep within the Solitario, scrub oak and evergreen sumac woodlands are common.
The only forests in the park occur along some of the perennial streams or around localized seeps and springs in the canyons. Here cottonwood, ash and willow form true closed canopy forests. Here and there on deep high silt terraces along the Rio Grande are remnant mesquite woodlands or bosques. Most of these are gone and have been replaced by tamarisk or saltcedar, an introduced pest species.
The myriad seep springs scattered throughout the Bofecillos and canyons support their own special vegetation usually termed ciénagas. Some are hanging gardens of poison ivy, columbine and grape. All are extremely important ecologically and require special care and protection.
Dry years result in a bleak, desert landscape. Lacking late summer, fall and winter rains, as was the case in 1987-1989, there may be no bloom in the desert. Wet years, like 1990, result in remarkable displays of diversity as if the countryside awakens from a coma. Formerly bare soil now supports a carpet of yellow, fragrant limoncillo and desert slopes are awash in the deep blue 3 foot-tall Big Bend/Havard bluebonnet. In almost every month, you can see cacti in full bloom, with colors ranging from red to lavender to yellow. The slopes are verdant with flowering grasses and the air is spiked with the pungent aroma of creosote bush, senna, several acacia and mimosa species, and mesquite.
Big Bend Ranch State Park contains a great diversity of vertebrate animal life, ranging from waterdependent beavers and herons along the Rio Grande to a host of creatures adapted to the surrounding desert.
You are likely to see javelina, the most abundant large mammal in the area. Mule deer are common in upland side canyons and brushy draws. There are several resident adult mountain lions whose primary prey is javelina. These American pigs favor drainages where they like to bed down in sandy soil with heavy brush for protection. The western mastiff bat, with a wingspan of over two feet, is perhaps the most remarkable denizen in the air over the lower desert canyons.
Birdlife is especially diverse, with a potential of some 390 species. The Rio Grande race of the white-winged dove is common as are turkey vultures in the summer. You may be lucky enough to observe zone-tailed hawks, golden eagles and peregrine falcons along the canyons of the Rio Grande. Desert scrublands are inhabited by black-throated sparrows, cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxia and Bewick's wren. The birdlife, like other animals and the plants, responds to rainfall. Drought years support less activity, while wet years herald bursts of nest building and reproduction. Spring and fall migrations are always exciting, with numerous species passing along the river corridor.
Reptiles are well represented. Lizards are especially visible and you are bound to encounter one or another of the several local species of whiptails and spiny lizards sunning on a rock or scurrying underfoot. Trans-Pecos copperheads hide in dense canyon vegetation and leaf litter. The crevice spiny lizard is aptly named for its habit of jamming itself into rock crevices when threatened.
The desert also supports its share of amphibians. Near springs or seeps, canyon treefrogs can startle you as they explode from rock crevices or slopes. After a heavy rain, listen for the bleating choruses of breeding Couch's spadefoot toads resounding from temporary pools.
Frequently monarch butterflies on their way to or from Mexico visit as part of their migratory cycle. During wet years, insect diversity and abundance explodes most obviously with hosts of desert millipedes and large yellowstriped, black Chihuahuan horse-lubber grasshoppers. Tarantulas will also be common on the desert surface, either foraging or looking for mates.
Geologic evolution of the park extends over approximately 600 million years. Intrusions of molten rock, called laccoliths and later exposed through erosion are a common feature. The remains of the ancient Ouachita Mountains, formed 300 million years ago when South America collided with North America, can be seen inside the Solitario Uplift.
Major geologic events include, from oldest to youngest:
- Deposition of marine sandstones and shales during much of the Paleozoic Era (Cambrian through Mississippian) and their folding and thrust faulting at the end of this era (Pennsylvanian through Permian)
- Deposition of marine limestones and sandstones during the Cretaceous and their folding and faulting during the subsequent early Tertiary
- Intense igneous activity in several volcanic centers during the middle Tertiary
- Major faulting from the late Tertiary to present. The last two events coupled with erosion are the major determinants of the presentday landscape.
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