Park Pick: Secret Waterfall
Madrid Falls is Big Bend Ranch’s loveliest surprise.
By Cynthia Brandimarte
Deep within the boundaries of the 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park, elevated high above the distant banks of the Rio Grande and nestled in a valley, you’ll find Madrid Falls. Determined hikers can grab a trail map and binoculars and head straight for one of three designated spots overlooking Madrid Falls to enjoy the view. It’s a destination unlike any other.
Of course, I’m not the first to encourage explorers to view the falls. Forty years ago, before Big Bend Ranch was a state park, writer and photographer Griffin Smith Jr. wrote about “The Forgotten Places in Texas,” including Madrid Falls as one of a chosen handful.
Smith opined that the falls “may be the closest thing to Eden West Texas will ever know.” His descriptions included a catalog of species of trees filling the narrow canyon. He rhapsodized about the luscious vegetation fed by the water and the abundant animal life cooled by it.
You’d think that crowds would flock to it, but that’s not the case. Madrid Falls, the second-tallest waterfall in the state, has historically been a highly coveted but secret place. Despite being one of the rare watered parcels of land in the area, the falls have been known to only a few. In the 1870s, one person who did know this magical place was Father Joseph Hoban, Presidio County’s first deputy land surveyor. With close knowledge of the area, he drew the boundaries of the land and corralled its most desirable features for his own holdings. There is oral testimony that Hoban, in his clerical role, established a boys’ school near the location of the falls.
The Madrid family, for whom the falls were named, had long resided in nearby Polvo, and they may have used the site on a seasonal basis. Oral tradition relates family stories of Rancho de Madrid operated by its members from the mid-1890s to 1916, yet no official records place them there. (If you are puzzled that ownership records are hazy, such were the land practices at the time. Without fences, people could simply settle on one of the watered sections of land and graze animals there. You did not have to own a place to occupy it. Folks just kept mum about who owned what.)
Madrid Falls — this hard-to-reach site of abundant springs and waterfalls, lush vegetation and varied animal life — has always been someone’s secret. Let it be yours, too.
Please help us protect the fragile ecosystem of Madrid Falls by viewing the falls and the canyon from one or more of three overlooks. With a Fresno West Rim Trail Map in hand, you can find these viewing spots, each with a unique view.
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