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Rough and Ready

New campsites and trails at Big Bend Ranch are designed for those who see pristine wilderness as the ultimate amenity.

By E. Dan Klepper

Dawn casts a special illumination across the mesas and arroyos of the West Texas landscape. In late winter its sunrise skies, lying heavy and close, are cloaked in a leaden hue – a somber, half-drained violet that backdrops against the Chihuahuan Desert's still-dormant summer grasses.

The sun's first rays breach just long enough to singe the sideoats with a faint feldspar light before retreating behind the cloud cover. But by late afternoon the atmospherics have vanished. The desert warmth has simmered away all but a scrim of haze as translucent as shed skin. The sun pokes a hole through this membrane and dawn's diaphanous light pours back in, tinting the landscape with a flaxen glow. Here, in the season's waning moments, just before spring, threads of verdure can be seen spreading through the winter's luster, signaling the early rising leaves of the desert's monarchs – the cottonwood trees.

Cottonwoods, or los alamos to the nomads and settlers who roamed the far southwest countryside now known as Big Bend Ranch State Park, suggest both the arrival of spring and the presence of water. These mammoth trees, sometimes growing more than 100 feet tall, can be seen for miles across the Chihuahuan scrubland. The tree's signature performance is to sprout and thrive alongside seeps, springs and creeks. They act as beacons to the wild and human lives that wander across the hardpan, providing shelter and sustenance.

Cottonwoods also draw down the ire of the sky. Often the highest object along a horizon, giant cottonwoods suffer frequent lightning strikes. A single bolt will split the fissured bark like an axe, sparking the tree's catkins and deadwood snags, transforming a mighty cottonwood into a conflagration. The ensuing flames will engulf an enormous 80-year-old specimen, the fate of one particular cottonwood that burned along the northern reaches of Big Bend Ranch State Park, and reduce it to a monstrous shell, black as pitch, in just one night.

A few miles away from this charcoal remnant and along one of the state park's major arroyos, another king cottonwood rises up from the desert floor almost 10 stories high and about 30 feet in diameter. Somehow, it has escaped the fate of its incinerated brethren nearby. This cottonwood, like the baobab of east Africa, has reached a size so great with a canopy so far-reaching that it has developed an ecosystem all its own. A complete arboreal world has evolved among its branches and within its trunk and bark, giving refuge to a remarkable array of desert wildlife including songbirds, raptors, mammals, beetles, butterflies, and lizards. Listening to this leviathan's melodious shudder against a soft breeze reveals the wisdom behind a long-held and sacred belief – that the cottonwood's quaking leaves are the voices of the gods.

This tale of the two cottonwoods, one ablaze with nature's fury and the other fecund with her progeny, is the kind of story that unravels every day throughout the largest and most primitive park in the state's portfolio of public lands. Now, after almost 20 years of stasis, thanks to a flush of legislature-approved funding, a publicly vetted public use plan, and a regiment of new and strong leadership, Big Bend Ranch State Park and its myriad natural dramas are ready to reveal themselves before Texans and the rest of the world in a brand new light.

"Making the stunning country of Big Bend Ranch State Park far more accessible to Texans than it has ever been while maintaining its wild and wonderful character has been a challenge," says Rodrigo N. Trevizo, 25-year veteran of West Texas' state park system and the new general manager of the Big Bend Ranch State Park Complex. "But together we've done it. And Texans are gonna love it."

With more than a quarter of a million acres for a stage, the natural theatrics of Big Bend Ranch State Park have plenty of room to perform. But helping Texans get to the best seats has always been a daunting endeavor for the park's public use planning team. Progress required funding, enough staff and leadership committed to change. But the biggest task has been to overcome the park's sheer size and remoteness.

"The park is a big place in so many ways," says Trevizo, who also manages the nearby 40,000-acre Chinati Mountains State Natural Area. "It encompasses mountains, deep canyons, waterfalls, mesas, hidden springs, wide arroyos, an incredible variety of desert wildlife, historic and prehistoric sites, endangered and threatened species, and 25 miles of Rio Grande River wilderness – all spreading out across one of the most diverse and isolated regions in the Chihuahuan Desert. We've got to protect it, just as our mission states, but we've also got to give our fellow Texans the opportunity to enjoy the recreational opportunities it offers."

The list of those opportunities is as extensive as it is impressive: hiking, backpacking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, fishing, birding, star gazing and picnicking.

"We also offer outfitter-guided services for almost all of these activities," Trevizo says. "We've worked hard to develop productive relationships with all the local outfitters in the area. This has helped to integrate the community into our efforts while broadening the ways that our visitors can approach their outdoors experience. It's created a nice synergy."

Add lodging and meals at both The Bunkhouse and The Big House at the Sauceda Ranch Ranger Station in the park's interior, horse and mountain bike rentals, three visitor centers, interpretive exhibitions, desert gardens, gift stores, a world-class environmental education center, a historic fort, a herd of longhorn cattle, a paved airstrip and a classic ranching compound to this list for a complete picture of the state park's features. The responsibility for making all of this work may seem overwhelming; in fact, the mandate to conserve and manage such a diversity of outdoors resources and opportunities might easily intimidate even the strongest leader. But not Trevizo.

"I enjoy and embrace the challenge," he says. "I have a terrific Public Use Plan the development folks have given me to follow and I am surrounded by an excellent group of hard-working staff dedicated to helping me move this park forward. I love this place. I'm a Presidio homeboy and grew up in the Chihuahuan Desert. It's a part of me. I know, in my heart, that this is what I was meant to be doing. Asi es mi vida."

The implementation of the Public Use Plan began in earnest at the start of 2008. Mapping the park into Front Country Zones, Primitive Road Zones and Backcountry Zones has helped park planning staff, as well as park visitors, to understand just exactly what kind of recreational opportunities can be offered and enjoyed. It has also defined what areas and resources need protection and, perhaps most importantly, it has pinpointed locations for campsites, trails and destinations within an extremely rugged and variable landscape.

The park's Front Country Zones are defined by the areas within one-quarter mile along both sides of the park's designated two-wheel-drive roads. This includes FM 170, also called River Road, which travels a 50-mile route from Lajitas to Presidio (and is also the only paved road within the park boundaries); Casa Piedra Road, the caliche roadbed that leaves the pavement at Fort Leaton east of Presidio and intersects with Sauceda Ranch Road; and the dirt Sauceda Ranch Road that carries visitors through the interior of the park from its western environs to its northeastern border. Along these routes, visitors will find river campsites with restrooms, picnic tables, shade ramadas, river put-ins and take-outs, Fort Leaton, Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, access to primitive and group campsites, trailheads, historic sites and Sauceda Ranch Ranger Station.

Primitive Road Zones are defined by areas within one-quarter mile along both sides of the park's extremely rough four-wheel-drive roads and two-wheel-drive high-clearance roads. High-clearance is an absolute necessity for traveling these roads, and four-wheel-drive (including knowing how to drive in four-wheel mode) is needed to overcome particularly rough sections. All vehicles, however, must be street legal and licensed. No ATVs or off-road motorized vehicles are allowed.

These Primitive Road Zones are key to providing visitors access to the frontier primitive campsites within the interior of the park. These campsites are tent-only and their locations were chosen due to their isolation, views and proximity to trailheads and points of interest. Each campsite includes a defined parking pad, cleared tent pad, picnic table and fire ring. Currently, 44 primitive campsites are available to visitors with a planned total of 55 to be completed. Shade ramadas are also planned for each campsite.

Campers will be required to supply their water and their own portable toilet. Many veteran primitive campers may already own a reusable, portable "privy." The toilets, simple contraptions that include a seat, a bucket, a small amount of chemical compound, and a plastic liner, must be purchased along with a camping permit at any one of the three visitor centers. The toilets are relatively cheap at around $10 apiece, and will service an entire family. Once the liner is full, the waste is removed simply by sealing the liner – like a plastic garbage bag – and then discarding it in a dumpster. A new liner with a small amount of chemical is reinstalled, making the privy ready for reuse. Digging and using catholes around primitive campsites as an alternative to using the portable privy is not allowed. It is inconsiderate of campers who may be the next to use the campsite and surrounds a campsite with extremely unsanitary conditions. Campers should understand that packing out their human waste is mandatory.

The Primitive Road Zones also grant visitors access to the far-flung trailheads scattered throughout the park without sacrificing the exceptional wilderness character of the place for convenience. As stated in the planning document, "The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not intend to develop this park as a modern-day resort destination as such destinations are readily available elsewhere in the Big Bend region. It is the intention of [the department] to manage BBRSP as a unique Texas experience, one that conveys the expansiveness and remoteness of the landscape to the visitor."

And there is no better way to capture this unparalleled experience than by tackling one of the park's trails or a hiker-defined route within any of the designated Backcountry Zones. Backcountry Zones are defined by areas that are more than one-quarter mile from a designated road. These zones use old fence lines, escarpments, arroyos and existing roads as boundaries and each zone has been named for its primary geographic feature or historic legacy. "Alamito" for the "little cottonwood" and "Botella" meaning "bottle" are just a few Backcountry Zone names of the 20 designated zones. Within these zones, visitors will find a complex network of old jeep roads, arroyos and wildlife routes that have functioned as trailways for more than a century.

Thus, the Public Use Plan trail system, eventually calling for approximately 238 miles of trails and routes, in essence already exists today. But adding the necessary markers to assist hikers along the entire trail system will take time. Therefore, trail development remains an ongoing process. But hikers don't necessarily have to wait. The real charm of hiking Big Bend Ranch State Park lies in the fact that hikers may choose their own hiker-defined routes. To do so, however, hikers will need to carry topographic maps and a compass and/or a GPS unit and know how to use them. They will also need to carry plenty of water. All hikers who plan to utilize backcountry trails or hiker-defined routes will need to obtain a backcountry permit from any one of the three visitor centers before hitting the trail.

Hikers who choose to trek across the volcanic upthrusts and through the shadowed canyons of the Big Bend Ranch State Park wilderness will find that its nights are often chilly and, in spring, its mornings break in a wet, white heat. Ribbons of moisture cling to the ground in rolling smoketrails or tendril around the crevices of the park's taller peaks, dangling leeward until the mounting desert temperature pries them away like slipping fingers. Days tend to warm quickly and funnel the afternoon heat into rousing monsoons, transforming the desert expanse into flashing arroyos and blankets of green. But even when a winter's drought has left the creosote bush tightly wound and the ocotillo branches bare and gray as bones, the desert greets spring with scarlet claret cups and blooming yucca stalks.

By evening the air has cooled again, filling the skies with sphynx moths and feeding bats. The moon appears, its light glancing off the bluffs and hoodoos, its monochrome cocoon of silence performing a lullaby for unsettled desert campers. The sleeper dreams, unraveling the senses, and morning brings the prospect of adventure at the onset of a fresh and brighter dawn.

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