A Great Desert / Mountain Hike
Big Bend Ranch SP - Rancherias Loop
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Distance: 22.00 Miles
This is a wonderful hike with plenty of solitude and scenery. Somewhat similar to Big Bend National Park (the 'Outer Mountain Loop' hike), but without the "crowds" that one will find there (at least during Christmas and Spring Break) and this loop is shorter with less elevation gains and losses! Being in a state park, however, it is a different experience. The trail conditions are worse (or more primitive or natural) than the well maintained NP trails. But you have more freedom and solitude than at BBNP.
The entire loop is ~22-23 miles (including the stretch on Hwy 170 between the trailheads). Almost everyone goes counterclockwise and the trail markings seem to be setup for people hiking in that direction. The hike is usually done in 3 days, 2 nights, which makes for some short daily distances, but the trail conditions make it seem longer!! Don't underestimate the difficulty of this trail unless you are in great shape and have excellent weather. You could do it in 2 days, 1 night, but then you would have to really keep moving and would miss the fun of being alone in this wonderful desert park. A good topo map is a must and the park now sells a laminated park topo map for $6. They also hand out a 3 page paper printout of a topo map of just the loop. Both are great for showing the actual route and where the trail leaves the canyons for the 'bypasses'.
The trail marking are very much improved now days, but one can still get lost easily if not paying attention. (Note, the abundance of wild burro trails near Rancherias Spring makes following the official trail there very difficult. We just bushwacked our way for the last 1/2 mile to the springs!) There are several 'bypasses' (where the trail climbs up the sides of the canyon) when going up the eastern trail that are optional. You could go directly up the canyons and "boulder climb or hop" over some huge boulders and pour-offs, but going with the by-passes is usually easier and you don't have to fight some vegetation in some narrow canyon spots.
With the 2 springs, one doesn't have to haul alot of water and they make great camping sites for each night. You will have to filter the water, as the burros and other animals use the springs for EVERYTHING. At the Rancherias Spring, it is a series of pools over about 1/2 miles. The best pools for filtering water, when the levels are low, are further down the canyon.
The biggest thing about this trail is that the trail conditions are tough. It takes longer than you expect due to the trail conditions, but the scenery is wonderful and makes up for it. There are some stretches with very loose, rocky, steep, narrow pathways on some the climbs and descents; especially going up and down the 1st and 3rd days. Hiking poles are a must!! Also, you must be careful for the thorns and cactus spines that prevail everywhere. I would wear long pants regardless of the weather; except possibly on the northern stretch on the Jeep trail and the western side from the Guale Mesa down to the road. I would not recommend this trail for dogs due to the massive amounts of rocks, thorns and cactus.
We actually camp the 2nd night on the Guale Mesa so I can experience the wonderful sensation of the big skies of Texas and the stars. That means hauling some water, but the sights are well worth it. Plus you won't be disturbed by the wild burros packs that visit Rancherias Spring every morning and evening.
There is alot of wildlife in the park, but you must be careful and look for it. Javalinas are very common. So are the burros. Lots of birds. If you really want to watch the wildlife, then spend you time near the two springs.
The rangers at the Warnock visitor center were excellent. Lots of information and help. Unfortunately, the web site for the state park doesn't show any good maps, trail description or guides, list all the new hiking trails that are being added, or even the zones for the backpacking zone camping requirements. So, call ahead or make sure you talk with them about the trail and the latest conditions before attempting it.
I haven't talked about the weather. I have done this hike in December and March. I would never dream of doing it in the summer heat (unless you hike it in a full moon at night!). The night time lows were in the 30's (Dec) and 40's (Mar) and the daily highs were 60's (Dec) and 80's (March). Like all deserts, plan on lots of sunshine, very dry air, and temperature that drop quickly when the sun goes down.
Final thoughts, this a a great hike in the high Texas deserts and mountains, but one must be prepared for it. I love the hike (and have done it twice) but it should only be done if you are experienced in this terrain and decent shape.