Eco-tourists finding their way to Big Bend Ranch State Park

ALPINE – More and more tourists and travelers are finding out about the rugged wonders of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the little sister to Big Bend National Park, the ranch park’s superintendent said Monday in Alpine at one of three area public meetings this week on the state of the state park.

“Interest in the area is increasing,” park Superintendent Nathanael Gold said. “In 2013, we recorded 18,590 visitors and by 2018, that had risen to 40,836. That’s an increase from less than 19,000 to more than 40,000 in just five years. That’s pretty substantial.”

Gold actually oversees the Big Bend Ranch State Park Complex, four sites over 354,308 acres, including the 311,000-acre ranch park, the Barton Warnock Visitor Center in Lajitas, historic Fort Leaton in Presidio, and the Chinati Mountains State Natural Area.

Public meetings were also held this week in Presidio and Terlingua.

Gold said the Sauceda Ranch Headquarters and Bunkhouse deep in the heart of the park and built in 1904, is now closed because of maintenance issues.

“We have learned over the years that iron pipe is not the right answer,” he said. Iron plumbing has deteriorated and needs to be replaced, among other repairs.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has plans to renovate the ranch house but funding and a timeline depend on the Texas Legislature, which is now in session.

“I’m confident we will get funding but there are no hard numbers,” he said. “There will be nothing major in the next 12 months.”

Gold listed several advantages of the Big Bend Ranch State Park.

For one thing, it has plenty of available water on site. Hikers can carry just one day’s supply of water and find more on their hike in the springs.

The area also complies with Dark Skies requirements like most areas within the seven counties surrounding the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis. More than half of the people in the country have never seen the Milky Way because of light pollution in big cities, Gold said.

The park has a student docent program that uses youngsters who can earn scholarships from their work, benefiting both the student and the park.

“Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness,” Gold said. “It is very rough and rugged territory, great for visitors but we have problems with staff recruitment and retention. It’s kind of tough country for people to live in.

“Some employees come with stars in their eyes but life is hard and many of them leave for various reasons,” he said.

Meanwhile, no plans have been finalized on the state natural area, he said.

Public hearings on the human imprint in the Chinati Mountains northwest of Presidio ended last year, but whatever plan is chosen, it will remain a natural area, not a state park with many amenities.

He said a public use plan is being drafted but it will remain a wilderness area with the emphasis on preservation rather than recreation.

Gold said it is a very rugged area and some want to visit but are not ready for the full experience.

“Some will want to dip their toes in it and that’s why we use outfitters like Big Bend River Tours and Far Flung Adventures,” he said. Angell Expeditions of Presidio is a expert guide service for the area, vehicle tours, and river rafting.

The outfitters can help make a visit more meaningful to the casual visitor, Gold said.