Heidi Armstrong and Dan Opdyke ride their bikes at Big Bend Ranch State Park during Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest in February 2018. Photo by Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman
I first stepped boot in Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest and most rugged chunk of land in the Texas state park system, more than a decade ago.
Since then, I’ve shredded my calves and bloodied my shins during multi-day bike camping trips there, worn out my legs on endurance trail runs through its canyons, and camped in its scrappy arms under some of the biggest skies I’ve ever seen. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.
This November, park officials and fans will celebrate 10 years since its unveiling with a Fiesta, and the public is invited.
But first, some history.
Chris LeBlanc takes a break during a hike at Big Bend Ranch State Park in January 2018. Pam LeBlanc photo
The park, with more than 300,000 acres of hard-scrabble land in the form of mesas, canyons and a collapsed and eroded volcanic dome that stretches 10 miles across, operated as a working ranch starting in 1905. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bought the land in 1988, and a park opened on a limited basis in 1991. It was hard to access and largely undeveloped, though, and the gate was kept mostly padlocked. Starting in 2005, the parks department began developing a public use plan, and in 2009 a Fiesta was held to introduce the park to the public. (The bash was delayed twice – once due to flooding, a second time because of the swine flu outbreak.)
Dan Sholly, then the deputy director of state parks, invited me out for a look see, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Pam LeBlanc pauses to freak out during a solo ride at Big Bend Ranch State Park in January 2018. Pam LeBlanc photo
In the ensuing years, I joined Sholly to bomb down rocky inclines on a knobby-tired bikes, launch myself face first into a cactus plant and stagger out of a tent a few inches from a huge – and I mean huge – tarantula. I’ve crossed the finish line of the Big Bend Ultra there several times, and just last January spent a chilly night as a cold front whipped through.
It’s a special place. Cyclists appreciate its rolling single track and old Jeep roads. The International Mountain Bicycling Association’s named the park’s Fresno-Sauceda Loop Trail one of its “epic” mountain bike rides.
The rough-and-tumble trails draw adventurous runners and hikers, too, and it’s a history buff’s paradise. You can explore remnants of the park’s ranching and mining history, see crumbling ranch structures, ogle rock art created by Native Americans or cool off by dunking your head in a back country stock tank.
The lunar landscape bristles with prickly plants and tarantulas, bowling ball-sized rocks and abandoned mines. To me, it feels like the last vestiges of the Old West, with more than 50 campsites so remote you can’t see – or hear – another soul when you’re there.
Chris LeBlanc hikes up at creek at Big Bend Ranch State Park in January 2018. Pam LeBlanc photo
You should make plans to attend the party, thrown by the Compadres del Rancho Grande & Big Bend Ranch State Park and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The Fiesta is set for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 3 at the park’s Sauceda headquarters.
Stay tuned for more information.
And if you haven’t visited the place, consider this a good excuse to go. Experts will be on hand to lead hikes and tell you more about its secrets. I’ll be there too, getting another dose of the wide open space that makes me breathe deep and smile.
It’s unforgiving and harsh, but soft and gentle, too. It’s Texas, through and through.