Those seeking a wilderness experience far from the crowds often head to Big Bend National Park. But even this remote National Park seems crowded compared to its neighbor, Big Bend Ranch State Park – a vast (500 square miles or so), rugged place with desert hiking, mounting biking, river running, and only 6,000 visitors a year.
You'll need four-wheel-drive or at least high-clearance to reach the Sauceda Ranger Station, down 27 miles of unpaved road from RM 170 near Presidio, a couple of hours west of the national park. Another 70 miles of unpaved road lead to the park's backcountry campgrounds and trailheads accessing some 200 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. It would take weeks to do the place justice, but you can see the highlights in a few days on a couple of signature hikes, Fresno Canyon Overlook and Cinco Tinajas.
The Fresno Canyon route starts at the Puerta Chilicote trailhead, about 6 miles from the Sauceda ranger station. The first 0.7 miles is on old jeep road to Chilicote Springs, which are worth a detour either now or on your way back. The springs lie at the base of a small cliff surrounded by cottonwood and willow trees. Small rock shelters above the dry creek bed were used by early ranchers drawn by the water. Back at the trail, walk several miles across ancient lava flows covered in creosote, ocotillo, cacti and lechuguilla to the canyon. The trail is faint but marked by rock cairns easy to see in this open landscape.
From the rim of Fresno Canyon, a 700-foot drop, you face an enormous uplifted ridge, the flatirons of the Solitario, a 10-mile-wide collapsed volcanic dome containing some of the wildest real estate on earth. Those with time can circumnavigate it on foot, or reach several access points via rough road.
Cinco Tinajas departs from the road about a mile from Sauceda. The route descends a rocky slope to a wash emerging from a narrow canyon that contains the tinajas, deep impressions in rock that hold water most of the year. Around these parts, these pools were often the only thing that kept man and beast alive. The trail ends at a rock lip across the canyon; instead of crossing the slippery rock you'll want to return to two routes branching from the main trail above. One leads to great views from the top of the cliff over the mouth of the canyon; the other circles around the back of the ridge and down to the beginning of the gash. There, you can get right up to the first tinaja, but tread carefully – the rock has been polished glassy smooth by centuries of flowing water and steep drop-offs separate the pools.
At night, the Ranch is one of the darkest spots on the planet, making for mind-blowing star gazing and an impressive Milky Way sweeping from one horizon to another like so much cosmic dust. Several times a year, the Big Bend Astronomers club leads star parties on the apron of the park's airstrip. But it's also perfectly glorious to lie flat on your back after dark and just soak up the night sky.
[More Info: Park entrance fee $5 per adult November through April, $3 May through October. The Sauceda Bunkhouse has women's and men's bunkrooms, two single beds to a compartment, with restroom and showers, and kitchen access, $35 per person per night. Allow 1.5 hours driving from Presidio, 2.5 to 3 from Lajitas to the Sauceda complex.]