Wild, Wild West Texas

Big Bend Ranch State Park

   

Mountain bikers and geologists can bond over the Solitario, a rare limestone and sandstone laccolith in Big Bend Ranch State Park. An odd arrangement of concentric mountain ranges formed by an ancient subterranean dome of magma that blew its lid and then collapsed in on itself, the Solitario is a mineralogical maze. Geologists get downright giddy mapping 520 million years of history in the jagged, upended flatirons of rock, and bikers flock because they can fly around the Solitario's labyrinthine inner loops like happy-go-lucky rats. "We try to get them interested in the geology," says Jim Carrico, owner of mountain-biking outfitter Desert Sports. "But let's face it, most of 'em just want to ride."
A ranch road winds over the mountains and into the Solitario's isolated center, where Carrico and his charges set up camp near a ramshackle former cowboy outpost called Tres Papalotes. From there, bikers negotiate rolling doubletrack that weaves through a postapocalyptic landscape of shattered limestone. Unless you pack some pretty impressive geology credentials or hook up with Carrico, the only way to see the Solitario without risking a visit by the park's search and rescue crew is by arranging for a guided hike with one of several local outfitters or a park ranger—which shouldn't be a bother, since you're not likely to run into other people anyway.

The park's other unusual geological feature—this is a desert, after all—is an abundance of bubbling springs and, stranger still, some of the state's tallest waterfalls. To visit one of these oases, set out along the Rancherías Canyon Trail, taking care to sidestep the whiplike ocotillos, barbed chollas, and pointy Christmas cacti. After five calf-wrenching miles up a dry, pebbly riverbed, you arrive at the foot of Rancherías falls, spilling off an 80-foot half-dome. Take note of the wetlands at the base, complete with lily pads, maidenhair ferns, cattails, and a cluster of shady cottonwood trees.
Few things can rival that vision, except maybe the sunset drive from park headquarters to Lajitas along Presidio County 170. You'll have to dodge roadrunners, jackrabbits, and stray cattle, but the winding, dipping route parallels the Rio Grande and affords jaw-dropping views of the lonely river disappearing into Mexico's pink and purple Sierra Picachos.

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