Location: Big Bend Ranch State Park
Distance: 21.2 Miles
Difficulty: Very Strenuous
The Rancherias Loop leads deep into the wild Chihuahuan desert in southwest Texas, and explores some of the most rugged terrain in North America. The trail is faint and sandy when it is beaten at all, and otherwise it follows loose, rocky canyon bottoms where only the occasional cairn marks the way. The flora along the way also adds to the trail’s ruggedness. Stringy, spiny ocotillo reach ten or more feet up with gnarled branches, cholla and tasajillo cactus trive underneath the ocotillo, and rough desert grasses sporadically populate the sand in between. The only green can be found in a few lush oases next to the springs along the route. While wildlife like bighorn sheep, wild horses and burros, and the introduced aoudad inhabit the region and frequent the springs, the only signs we saw were horse and burro tracks near the springs and a dead bighorn and javelina along the trail. Most publications recommend making this trip into a three day hike, but we did it in two, and here is an overview the hike.
Day 1 – 9 miles
We commenced the hike at the east trailhead, and the first 2.5 miles followed an easy incline through many different arroyos. In between walking in dry riverbeds, the trail was well-worn and easily followed, but the ground in the beds was gravel and smooth river stones. It is extremely easy to get lost in this part of the trail, so keep an eye out for cairns built at the low and high banks, backtrack if you feel you may be lost, and do not climb out of the arroyos unless you are sure the trail leads out. After this section, the trail quickly descends into the Acebushes Canyon, and the sweeping vistas of Texas and Mexico give was to impressive canyon walls.
There is no discernible trail in this canyon, and the cairns are few and far between. Early in this canyon is a small and unreliable spring, called Seep Spring on the map. Note the lush vegetation and the giant desert cottonwoods growing around these small puddles that we found to be only a few inches deep. This is the smallest spring on the hike, and all the springs later in the hike have much larger green areas surrounding them, but this one serves a good purpose in showing what to look for when searching for the later springs. Had we been less prepared and thirstier, we would have filled up water here, but as it was, we passed it by. The exit out the northside after 2.5 miles is fairly well marked though, and the canyon becomes almost impossible to navigate past it. After this incline, the trail traverses over hills and washes until it comes upon the brink of the Panther Canyon, with the old ranch adobe Casa Reza easily in site. This adobe offers some of the only shade on the entire hike, and is next to the Ojo de Leon, a flowing, lush, delicious spring. We stopped here for a couple hours, ate, and waited out the hottest couple hours of sun in the shade of the adobe and cottonwoods. In the late afternoon, we continued north for 1.5 miles in the panther canyon until we stopped for the day a little ways from Panther Spring. The trail veers further up the eastern wall at this point than it appears on the map, and is hard to follow. And, although the Panther spring is more of a stinking, festering puddle than Ojo de Leon, wildlife still use it for water, so the park requires that you camp at least 300 feet away from it.
Day 2 – 12 miles
Panther canyon ends just a little ways north of the spring, and after following the wash for less than a mile, the trail intersects a very seldom used jeep trail, which really serves as just a wider hiking trail. After a very easy 2.5 mile decline westward on this road, a looming mountain jutting north from the mountains on the southside of the road seems to block the trail. The jeep trail starts tracking north around this mountain, but then turns right to start going northeast. The loop splits off from the jeep trail at this point and continues west, slowly veering southward. After crossing over two washes, the Rancherias Springs can be viewed to the left only a hundred yards or so off trail. The trees here were stunning. They were giants. Two of us couldn’t meet our hands wrapped around the big ones, and they looked hundreds of years old – a monument to the longevity of these springs, and relics of a distant past. This is the last water for the trail, and the ranger informed us the sometimes the first few springs are dry, and water can only be found bushwacking for miles down the Rancherias wash, but you will need to fill up with water here. The next part of the hike traverses the Lower Guale Mesa, and provides sweeping views of surrounding canyons and tall, black mountains in Mexico. The trail is straight and well marked with cairns as it passes endless ocotillo on the plain. The final three miles descends downhill over rocky terrain and eventually reaches the Rancherias Canyon. From here, the west trailhead is slightly less than a mile away. The west trailhead is about 2 miles up F.M. 170 from the east trailhead, and the fastest way to gt back is to walk or jog, and ride your thumb.
The Rancherias Loop is the most difficult trail I have hiked in Texas, and it offers solitude not easily found on any other public land in the state. We truly felt alone out there, and found much solace in the silence of the desert.