Road Trip Big Bend: El Camino Del Rio

This following post represents the collective experiences and thoughts of three women who set out on a 1,500 mile trek across West Texas in December 2003. This is their “Road Trip: Big Bend.”

SUNDAY

EI Camino del Rio extends more than 50 miles from Lajitas to Presidio on Farm-to-Market 170. Considered one of the most spectacular routes in the whole of Texas, El Camino del Rio—the River Road—plunges over mountains and into steep canyons as it follows the sinuous Rio Grande through the desolate but wildly beautiful Chihuahuan Deserted [and] the Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area, a 420-square-mile preserve encompassing the River Road.

The town of Lajitas (la-HEE-tahs) [was] established in 1915 as an Army post to protect settlers from Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican renegade. Route 170 begins its roller-coaster course before you even leave the town, following the Rio Grande west.

The road swings away from the river [and back]….After 2 to 3 miles you’ll see a cluster of weathered volcanic ash formations called hoodoos along the river….The drive then starts a steady, 5-mile climb up the “big hill” of Santana Mesa. A major engineering feat, this portion of the road ascends at a 15% grade. At the summit, an overlook affords superlative views of the canyon below and the rugged, forbidding volcanic landscape that sweeps to the horizon.

As you make your serpentine descent off the mesa, the Rio Grande winds below, a green path through the wild Chihuahuan Desert. The Rio Grande Valley continues to widen, filled with a sculptural array of eroded lava hills and mesas. You cross Panther Creek then pass a narrow fissure known as Closed Canyon, the first in a series of canyons along this undulating stretch. Continuing on, you have expansive scenes of the arid valley below.

About 10 miles farther on, the drive enters windblown Redford, an old farming community. Pressing on through open range, the road finds the river again and passes through a couple of refreshingly green oases before entering Presidio.

National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways

El Camino Del Rio presented the most varying scenery of this trip—vast expanses of now-familiar desert, huge terra-cotta stone mesas towering above, white volcanic ash mountains and sculptures called “hoodoos.”

In the Valley—sometimes below, sometimes alongside—lush tall grasses and trees grow. You can almost imagine them deciding to congregate here along side the winding Rio Grand—low grumbling voices in agreement, like the Ents in “Lord of the Rings.”

The curvaceous road takes us up from the river. Winding! Twisting! Throwing us up! the sides of mountains and down! beneath huge walls of rock and then up! again. Then flat road for miles…surprised by smaller hills, like bunny-hops on a roller coaster.

This road was at once exciting and frightening, showing us unimagined sights and then disappearing below the hill in front of us—will it curve right? left? We hold our breaths and wait for the road to materialize before us.

“Loose Livestock” signs make us laugh at the image of risque cattle along the side of the road, catcalling to us as we fly by at 50, now 70, now 15 miles an hour. Ahead, the towns of Lajitas, Redford and Presidio, and then Ojinaga, Mexico.

We had talked about staying at Lajitas—a $200 a night resort dropped down here by some “forward thinking” developer who obviously felt this fabulous, natural wilderness needed an exclusive, high priced spa/resort complete with lighted tennis course, golf course and western-themed shopping plaza.

We drove past without stopping, grateful for our cooler full of snacks and beef jerky. Westward.

This part of the region is called Big Bend Ranch State Park and encompasses 287,000 acres of wilderness. They call it “some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the southwest.”

If you look at a map of electrical light across the U.S., this is the place where it stops. The northeast is cluttered with light, but the farther west you drive, the more dark it becomes. Here, there are no street lights, no glaring disturbances of light or hum of electricity. It is so dark here that the McDonald Observatory, north near Alpine, claims one of the best skies for star observation in the country.

El Camino Del Rio, looking toward Presidio, from the “big hill”
Along El Camino Del Rio
Hoodoos
Hoodoos
The Ents
Roller Coaster
Towards Mexico

Desert colors along El Camino Del Rio
By the hand of God
Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.

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