Drive El Camino del Rio, a scenic highway through Big Bend Ranch State Park that parallels the Rio Grande and the borderlands of the United States and Mexico.
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Table of Contents
- 1 The Big Bend Region of Texas
- 2 El Camino del Rio
- 3 Big Bend Ranch State Park
- 3.1 Big Bend Ranch State Park Map
- 3.2 El Camino del Rio Pullovers
- 3.3 Colorado Canyon
- 3.4 Contrabando Day-Use Area
- 3.5 Roadside Rock Formations
- 3.6 Tipis Picnic Area
- 3.7 Big Hill and DOM Rock
- 3.8 La Cuesta Campground and River Access
- 3.9 Closed Canyon Trail
- 3.10 Hoodoos and Balanced Rocks Trail
- 3.11 Roadside Ranch Ruins
- 4 Fort Leaton State Historic Site
- 5 More Texas Road Trip Destinations & Itineraries
- 6 I Would Love to Hear From You
- 7 Pin this Post!
The Big Bend Region of Texas
I was on a month-long camper van road trip from my home in Central Florida, primarily touring National Park Service sites in Texas and New Mexico.
My travels to this point had carried me through the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area to Austin’s McKinney Falls State Park, then west to visit LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country, south to tour the Alamo and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and on an epic drive from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park.
The Big Bend region of Southwest Texas—formed by and named for a broad curve in the Rio Grande—is not on the way to anywhere. But the time and effort it takes to get there is totally worth it.
More than a million acres of public lands inhabit the remote wilderness of Big Bend, making it the perfect destination for outdoor recreation.
During the past three days, I had explored Big Bend National Park, the ghost town of Terlingua, and the borderlands of Lajitas. But it was time to move on.
So the next morning I broke camp, gassed up the van, and headed out in search of my next adventure.
El Camino del Rio
My plan was to drive as far as Fort Davis National Historic Site, located 132 miles to the north. But first I was going to enjoy what was rumored to be one of the most beautiful drives in North America.
The first leg of the route would be along Highway 170. FM (Farm to Market) 170 parallels the Rio Grande and the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.
A 50-mile stretch of FM 170 between Lajitas and Presidio passes through Big Bend Ranch State Park.
The most picturesque part of the route, however, is a 27-mile scenic drive named El Camino del Rio (The Way of the River) or the River Road.
El Camino del Rio is also a segment of the 1,416-mile Texas Mountain Trail, one of ten scenic driving trails in the state.
I would follow additional sections of the trail as I headed north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park during the next two days.
(Click on the map above for a closer look or to download the PDF.)
Big Bend Ranch State Park
I had read that the beauty of the state park rivaled that of the national park, so I was full of anticipation as I moved along the highway.
Before long, the sign marking the eastern entrance to the park came into view.
Encompassing more than 300,000 acres, Big Bend Ranch State Park is the largest state park in Texas. Unlike the national park, the state park has open range cattle ranches, including Texas longhorns, and a herd of feral burros believed to have originated in Mexico.
Like most state parks, outdoor recreation is its greatest draw, with hiking, camping, off-roading, and mountain biking in the backcountry and whitewater rafting and paddling opportunities on the river.
Chihuahuan Desert landscapes and abundant wildlife make the park an ideal location for nature sightings and studies. Guests who enjoy stargazing will appreciate the absence of light pollution in this designated International Dark Sky Park.
Big Bend Ranch State Park Map
There is no admission fee to drive FM 170 through Big Bend Ranch State Park, but a day use permit is required to hike trails along the route. If you intend to hike, you can acquire permits at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center located at the east entrance near Lajitas, or at Fort Leaton State Historic Site, located at the west entrance, near Presidio.
Should you not intend to hike, but then change your mind once you enter the park, you will find convenient permit stations at the hiking trailheads.
(Click on the map above for a closer look or to download the PDF brochure.)
El Camino del Rio Pullovers
The first few miles of the drive from the eastern entrance follows the course of the Rio Grande, meaning that the river is literally right there through the driver side window.
I cannot resist pullovers on scenic drives, and I had not gone far before I had to get out for a closer look.
Roadside stops are far more complicated when driving a 21-foot camper van, and I was grateful any time I encountered broad shoulders.
The open borderlands were lovely, without a fence or wall in sight. I could have easily waded across the river to Mexico, but that would have been illegal, and besides, I would have gotten my feet wet.
The next pullover gave evidence of a slight gain in elevation and the beginnings of the Colorado Canyon, with a view of the lush floodplain below.
Contrabando Day-Use Area
I was so caught up in the drive that somehow I missed stopping at the Contrabando day-use area, the site of a ghost town and location for nine motion pictures, including the crime-comedy Uphill All the Way, the murder-mystery Lone Star, as well as Dead Man’s Walk and Streets of Laredo from the Lonesome Dove miniseries franchise.
I later read that all of the movie sets had either been destroyed by flooding or removed for safety, and that only one original adobe structure called “La Casita” remained.
Roadside Rock Formations
The effects of erosion are evident on roadside sedimentary rock formations, creating “intriguing” natural sculptures.
Ambient oxidation produces coatings of “rust” on fields of igneous boulders that blanket the hillsides.
Tipis Picnic Area
There is no shortage of roadside picnic areas in Texas. The Tipis Picnic Area on El Camino del Rio is a throwback to the roadside kitsch I remember from family road trips in the 1960s.
The novelty of the picnic area is easily eclipsed by the panoramic views at this location along the Rio Grande valley.
Big Hill and DOM Rock
Just beyond the picnic area, the road climbs several hundred feet up Big Hill, perhaps the highest elevation along El Camino del Rio.
At the crest of the hill, there is a small pullover, but it is not to be missed. In my opinion this overlook offers the most stellar views of Colorado Canyon.
Zooming in the photo above reveals a solo kayaker on the river below. Moments later, a flotilla of kayaks would launch.
This spot at the top of Big Hill is also the site of DOM Rock, a location from the 1985 cult classic Fandango, the first movie to be released featuring Kevin Costner in a starring role. In the scene, Costner’s character digs up a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne.
I scouted the area, and could not find the rock, but a bit later the lady who took the picture of me found it and pointed it out. Later, I read there were actually two DOM Rocks, one situated just above the other.
To assist readers searching for DOM Rock, I grabbed the coordinates of the GPS metadata from the photo above:
Latitude: 29° 17’ 44.97” N
Longitude: 103° 56’ 29.04” W
I could have lingered for hours at this location, but it was time to move on.
La Cuesta Campground and River Access
Just around the bend I arrived at another pullover, this one overlooking the area surrounding La Cuesta campground and river access.
Closed Canyon Trail
I pulled into the parking area for the Closed Canyon trailhead, a 0.7-mile out-and-back trail that leads to a narrow slot canyon with walls that rise to the height of a 15-story building. Sadly, my schedule would not allow me time to hike it this time.
Hoodoos and Balanced Rocks Trail
Four miles up the road, I pulled into the Hoodoos and Balanced Rocks trailhead. This 1.1-mile loop trail leads past several unique rock formations of the kind its name suggests.
These mushroom-shaped formations occur when harder deposits create a protective cap and softer layers below are eroded away.
A spur trail leads to a scenic overlook of the Rio Grande corridor.
Roadside Ranch Ruins
Near the end of my drive along El Camino del Rio, I came upon the ruins of a ranch similar to those I had encountered in Big Bend National Park.
I pulled over to take a look around, but I knew a more impressive restored historic site lay just ahead.
Fort Leaton State Historic Site
Fort Leaton State Historic Site, situated at the western entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park, is also a park visitor center.
There is a nominal admission fee for adults in addition to the park day-use permit you may or may not have already purchased. A self-guided tour brochure and interpretive guide are available when paying admission at the park office inside the fort.
The historical fort was not a military installation, as I presumed, but rather a fortified trading post and home for the Pedrasa/Leaton and Burgess families between 1848 and 1927.
A rich and sordid history swirls around the site, arising from encounters between characters of diverse persuasions and nationalities including explorers, traders, soldiers, outlaws, slaves, Mexicans, Americans, Apaches, and Comanches.
The adobe walls of the servant quarters were intentionally left unfinished during restoration to illustrate their construction as compared with the plastered and whitewashed walls of the family rooms.
Fort Leaton is situated in a district called “La Junta de Los Ríos,” near the confluence of Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande.
The former Mexican territory had only recently been acquired by the United States when the Pedrasa/Leaton family moved there in 1848.
A corral and holding pens accommodated livestock trading within the safety of the fort walls.
Wooden “carretas” pulled by teams of 10 to 12 oxen transported freight between Chihuahua, Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas, along the nearby Chihuahua Trail.
The Burgess Family Cemetery and Mausoleum occupies a plot of land outside the walls of the fort. Guests are free to use the adjacent picnic area and hike the trails on the grounds of the historic site.
As for me, it was time to get back on the road. I would grab some lunch and gas up in Presidio, then head north to tour Fort Davis National Historic Site before the day was done.
Through the years I have driven many lovely scenic byways and loved them all. But I have to say that when it comes to breathtaking beauty around every bend, El Camino del Rio ranks right up at the top. It is not on the way to anywhere, but totally worth the drive.
When planning your visit to Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and communities throughout the region, you will find a wealth of information at the Visit Big Bend website.
More Texas Road Trip Destinations & Itineraries
- A San Antonio to Big Bend National Park Road Trip
- Tour the Alamo & San Antonio Missions NHP
- Explore LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country
- Plan an Unforgettable McKinney Falls State Park Camping Trip
- Revisit Retro Road Travel in Amarillo, Texas
- 8 First-Rate Cultural Sites in Lubbock, Texas
- Why Am I Wild about Waco, Texas?
- An Afternoon to Explore Granary, Texas
- Walk through History in Grapevine, Texas
- Celebrate a Grapevine Christmas in the Christmas Capital of Texas
- A North Texas Road Trip
I Would Love to Hear From You
I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever driven El Camino del Rio through Big Bend Ranch State Park? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!
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