Big Bend Part 4: El Camino del Rio
There’s no shame in admitting that Big Bend’s most incredible scenic ride is actually located outside the national park. This is the final story profiling the four most beautiful routes in the Big Bend area. The third video rode along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This essay picks up just west, as the road exits the national park and TX 118 enters the small town of Terlingua. Like Marfa, Alpine and Marathon to the north, Terlingua has an artistic feel but it’s definitely more isolated and sleepier. An old mining community, it’s worth stopping at the ghost town for a look at the remaining buildings and cemetery. Continuing west on FM 170, the road passes through the tiny town of Lajitas. Founded in 1915, this former U.S. Army post was built to protect settlers from Pancho Villa, a general and significant player in the Mexican Revolution. Leaving Lajitas, the road quickly narrows and gets spectacular as it approaches the Rio Grande and Mexican border. With rock on one side and river on the other, the route twists and turns, revealing canyons and mountain peaks. Dark-colored lava flows are evidence of the area’s volcanic past and look for hoodoos: rock pinnacles made of volcanic ash, eroded over time. While not in the nearby national park, El Camino del Rio runs through the southern part of the equally stunning Big Bend Ranch State Park. The road follows the river and international border for 50 miles. About 20 miles from Lajitas, Closed Canyon Trail is an easy 1.4-mile roundtrip hike through sandy ground into a slot canyon. Another four miles driving leads to Hoodoos and Balanced Rock Trail, an excellent place to walk around giant stone formations and put toes in the mighty Rio Grande. El Camino del Rio is also known as the River Road but officially, it’s Farm to Market 170. Texas’ Farm to Market highway system is remarkable unto itself: established by the Texas legislature in 1949, it’s the largest secondary highway network in the U.S. Plus, the name is cool and to the point. This Farm to Market road runs almost 115 miles from Terlingua along the Rio Grande past Candelaria. But the 50-mile section in the south, from Lajitas to Presidio, makes El Camino del Rio one of the most prized roads in the Lone Star State.
Route & Map
Starting at Big Bend National Park’s western exit, this drive heads west to Terlingua. It then continues on FM 170 to Lajitas, following the Rio Grande and international border with Mexico to Presidio.
Length & Time
It’s 70 miles from Big Bend’s western exit, Maverick Junction, to Presidio. Plan on a half day with overlook stops and a full day with a couple of short hikes.
Best Time to Visit
Big Bend summer heat is merciless. Fall and spring are best but even the mild winters are enjoyable.
Terlingua, Lajitas and Presidio lie along the route offering gas, food and shelter. But Marfa, Alpine and Marathon are larger with more services geared to visitors. It’s 60 miles, Presidio to Marfa and 83 miles, Terlingua to Alpine.