Big Bend Ranch State Park is Texas’ largest state park, at over 300,000 acres. It extends along the Rio Grande from southeast of Presidio to near Lajitas, in both Brewster and Presidio counties. Just a stone’s throw from Mexico to the south, the park is in an area so remote and rugged that it has been called El Despoblado, or “The Uninhabited.” In spite of that name, this awe-inspiring region boasts a rich human history.
George A. Howard bought a few tracts of land in the Bofecillos highlands in 1905 to add to his nearby uplands property. This became the Chillicothe-Saucita Ranch. The Bogel brothers—Gus, Gallie, Graves and Edward—began buying small ranches, including Howard’s ranch, in the 1910s. The buildings and corrals of their headquarters, Saucita, endure today at the heart of Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Hit hard by a drought and the Great Depression, the Bogels sold their 38,000-acre ranch to Manny and Edwin Fowlkes in 1934. The Fowlkes increased their holdings to near 300,000 acres, adding fences, stone dams and water pipelines. But the 1950s drought and a global wool market crash forced them to sell.
In 1958, Len G. “Tuffy” McCormick bought the ranch, listed as one of the 15 largest ranches in the United States and described as half the size of Rhode Island. Among other improvements, McCormick gave an easement for the river access road to the Texas Highway Department. That road is now the scenic Camino del Rio.
Subsequent owner Robert O. Anderson bought the ranch in 1969. He became, as owner of the Diamond A Cattle Company, the largest private landholder in the United States. In the 1980s, he partnered with Walter Mischer to market the ranch as a private hunting preserve.
Thanks to the efforts of individuals and groups involved in land conservation, TPWD purchased the ranch in 1988. The park opened on a limited basis in 1991. It opened fully to the public in 2007.
Water sustains life in the desert, making a place livable or even welcoming. For over 10,000 years, people have settled in the canyons, mountains and valleys of Big Bend Ranch State Park, typically near water sources. The materials and structures they left behind tell stories of triumph and hardship in the sometimes hospitable but often relentless land.
More than 500 prehistoric campsites and shelters, cooking areas and rock art sites dot the park. Many of these are near drainages, springs or tinajas, but some sites are on upland areas away from obvious water sources.
Prehistoric hunter-gathers used the rocks in this area to make the tools they needed to survive in this desert environment. Grinding stones, bedrock mortars, chipped stone tools and burned rock middens have been found here.
Prehistoric peoples left pictographs (rock paintings) here. They painted humans, animals, insects, star patterns and other motifs about 3,000 to 500 years ago. Later residents left pictographs of horses, longhorn cattle, Spanish saddles and crosses.
Pedro de Rabago y Teran traveled through this area in 1747, searching for suitable sites for presidios. Beginning in the 1840s, explorers, surveyors, missionaries, traders and freighters began passing through. They took the Texas Chihuahua Trail, which followed Alamito Creek through what is now the northwestern corner of the park.
During this time, trouble brewed on the border. Americans continued moving westward and the United States annexed Texas in 1845. President James K. Polk tried to negotiate with Mexico to set a firm border between the countries, but Mexico did not want to part with any of its territory. The Mexican War (1846-1848) followed. By September 1847, the Americans had seized Mexico City. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848. It ended the war and ceded territory from California to Texas to the United States. The boundary between the two countries in Texas would be the Rio Grande.
In 1860, 2nd Lieutenant William H. Echols led a camel caravan through the Terneros Creek valley, in the western and northern areas of the park. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis authorized the trip. Its mission was to determine if camels could be used for military operations on the arid western frontier.
By the 1880s, several hardy families had established ranches in the area. Ranchers kept herds of cattle, goats and sheep.
Deep in Fresno Canyon, the remnants of the Crawford-Smith Ranch illustrate the challenges of ranching in the high desert. A spring and Fresno Creek made this an ideal location. Ranch owners grew fruits and vegetables, raised goats and operated a wax-rendering plant. Brothers James and Guy Crawford ran the ranch from 1914 to 1930; the Smith family took over in the 1930s until 1946.
Wax-rendering plants extracted wax from native candelilla plants to waterproof World War I military supplies. Visitors can see the ruins of wax-rendering operations in the eastern portion of the park. Most date to the first half of the 20th century.
Terlingua and Shafter sprang up around the turn of the 20th century, after silver and cinnabar were discovered in the area.
Although silver was not mined within the boundaries of the present-day park, cinnabar was. Miners produced flasks of mercury from cinnabar ore. Mercury was a precious commodity during World War II, when the military used it for instruments. Abandoned cinnabar mines and prospects can be found in the park.
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