Big Bend 3: The State Park

I am guilty. I’ve been to Big Bend and had no idea there was also an amazing State Park just next door.

Like most tourists, I was blinded by the big signs, seven-day-passes, and majestic promises of BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK.

big bend ranch state park

Huh? It sounds so private. Ranches are for cattle, rattlesnakes, and barbed-wire fences. “My land is my land and you had better be on your way before me and my shotgun reach the edge of the porch”.

But not here. At least not quite. Despite the fact that it is a regulated State Park of Texas, the park abides by the principles of “open range” where cattle roam freely regardless of land ownership. “Open range” could also apply to the visitors, but they’ll have to pay the daily fee at the Barton Warnock Visitors Center. (Do this first unless you want to feel like a criminal every time you pull into a designated park area.) The Visitors Center is on the far east side of the park, so you may actually have to drive all the way through before actually stopping to look around. But, that’s okay, you’ll get a chance to see just what spots interest you and make a more deliberate plan of attack.

Once you have you permit make your way back to Closed Canyon. Yes, I know you’ve now driven all the way through the park twice, but this is the most must-see spot in the park. Despite the fact that I was previously unaware that the state park even existed, I knew there was a slot canyon somewhere in Big Bend. But where? In the movie Boyhood, the characters hit up tons of great Texas landmarks, and near the end there is a scene where they got to Big Bend and walk through a deep, narrow, canyon. I’d Googled the location a few times, but only came up with vague, or incorrect locations. (No, it isn’t the Santa Elena Canyon in the National Park.) I had given up long ago, and assumed that it might just be a bit of creative editing on the part of the director. Bummer.

Except here it is. Several locals strongly suggested checking out the canyon. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and since I’d driven this stretch of highway several times I really wasn’t anticipating¬†much of a surprise.

Oops. Wrong again.

The entrance to the canyon is only a short trek past the parking lot. You’ll have seen plenty of signs warning you to bring ample water, and plan your hike accordingly. I understand that the park needs to encourage safe practices, but this really isn’t that monumental of a hike. I didn’t bring anything besides a camera, and you’d probably be happier if you brought a bottle of water in the Summer months.

The canyon itself is gorgeous. Yet another case of nature that is hard to put into words. Rather than getting too poetic, I’ll take the journalistic cop out of, “You’ll have to see it to believe it.” Closed Canyon is certainly unlike any canyon I’ve experienced¬†before. Something about the accessibility makes it even more enjoyable than the Grand Canyon. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I mean it. The Grand Canyon IS impressive, amazing, massive, colossal, and on a scale that is almost unimaginable. But that’s the problem. We have spent hours in the Grand Canyon walking down one trail, but only to realize that there was absolutely no way we were going to get to the bottom without a multi-day excursion. Sometimes the Grand Canyon is just a little too grand. Closed Canyon is somewhere I can digest in an afternoon and still feel like the world is capable of amazing things.

Something to consider when hiking through Closed Canyon. Know when to stop. The trail itself has no markers other than the sign posted at the trailhead. On that sign there is mention of absolutely no rappelling, ropes, or climbing gear. You’ll come to realize why after you’ve walked a while. The path seems to deliberately present greater and greater challenges as you progress. Going into the hike I knew there was a point of no return, but I had assumed it would be clearly marked. Instead, you are forced to look at each boulder, drop off, and stretch of stagnant water as maybe the end. I’m pretty sure I went as far as you’re supposed to. The descent that finally forced me to cash in my chips was a very smooth rock face that dropped at least five feet. Getting down would have been pretty easy, but getting back up, alone, was iffy at best. This was also the first point on the trail where I noticed a piece of metal sticking out of the canyon wall. Presumably where more deliberate rock climbing was done in the past.

Most of Big Bend Ranch looks a lot like this.
Most of Big Bend Ranch looks a lot like this.

There are plenty of other trails throughout the park, and some of them are quite long. I only had the better part of a day to go exploring, but most of the major hiking paths seemed to look very much the same. Beautiful and majestic, but a lot of repeated vistas. From what my hosts said, some of the longer hikes culminate with some impressive overlooks, but I didn’t have time to go further than a mile or two down each.

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