Fresno Peak lies in the remote and rarely visited Big Bend Ranch State Park. Remote should be taken VERY literally, as the nearest accessible road is over 15 miles of harsh Chiuahuahn Desert away. At 5,131 feet, Fresno Peak rises over 1,300 feet above Fresno Creek directly to the west, and over 500 feet above the rest of the Solitario to the east. Because no established trails exist near Fresno Peak, as many routes exist as a hiker has time explore. Though not a technical ascent, steep 2nd class scrambling keep even seasoned climbers on their toes, as a fall in a place this remote can be deadly. As a reward for your efforts, there are tremendous views across the caldera from the summit, as well as down Fresno Creek to the Terlingua mining district and the Bofecillos Highlands to the west.
Fresno Peak (left) rises above the abandoned buildinds of Smith Ranch. Image © Ryan Becker
Big Bend Ranch State Park
BBRSP, the state’s largest state park at 299,008 acres, is in the far southwestern corner of Texas collectively known as the Big Bend. Roughly 30 miles west of its larger and much better known cousin, Big Bend National Park, BBRSP is visited by nearly 1/10th as many people as the National Park, and the vast majority of these visitors don’t venture far from the Rio Grande. The land was purchased from private owners in 1988 by the state of Texas, and opened to the public in 1995.
Madrid Falls, Texas' second highest waterfall. Image © Ryan Becker
The park contains 2 mountain ranges, a massive 9 mile wide caldera, dozens of canyons, over 60 miles of the Rio Grande, over 90 perrenial springs, 4 of Texas’ highest waterfalls, and countless sites of historical and archeological significance, however, due to a lack of funding and staff, the vast majority of the park is off limits to visitors. Only FM 170 along the Rio Grande, the main road to the Sauceda Ranch house, 2 short loops, and the Rancherias Loop are open to visitors, though this is more than 100 miles of roads and trails. A note to those wishing to travel to the park; BBRSP is a working ranch, and like a working ranch, it has fences and a gate. The gate is kept locked at all times, and to open it the code is needed. To get the code you must stop by either visitor center along FM 170 before they close, which is at 4:30. This means no late night arrivals, or you will find you drove a long way down a dusty road for nothing.
The Rio Grande and "El Camino del Rio"
The Rio Grande winds its way to Colorado Canyon. Image © Ryan Becker
The Rio Grande courses along the southern border of BBRSP and offers not only some of the best rafting in Texas, but also some of the most spectacular views. FM 170, also known as El Camino del Rio, is listed as one of the top 10 scenic roads in America by National Geographic. With a 15% grade going up Big Hill, it is also the steepest highway in Texas. For 50 miles this road meanders through canyons, flats, along cliffs, and around massive lava flows as you are shown the true majesty of the Rio Grande.
There are two visitor centers, one in Lajitas in the east, and one outside Presidio in the west.
Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center
Fort Leaton State Historic Site
The Solitario is a large volcanic structure in the eastern part of BBRSP. It was formed when an intrusion of magma uplifted the Cretaceous limestone several thousand feet, forming a dome 9 miles wide. This dome later vented lava from a massive caldera and collapsed the roof, forming the massive crater that can be seen today. Several hundred thousand years later, more volcanic intrusions uplifted peaks in the rim and central area of the crater, forming the four prominent peaks seen today: Fresno Peak (5,131 feet), Solitario Peak (4786 feet), Needle Peak (4,608 feet), and Eagle Mountain (4,819 feet).
View of the Solitario from Fresno Creek. Image © Ryan Becker
Drainage from the caldera is via three main canyons, known as Lower Shutup, Lefthand Shutup, and Righthand Shutup. While other canyons carve paths through the immense limestone walls of the caldera, their steepness keeps most tour groups in the 3 main canyons. Within the caldera, miles of old ranch roads wind through the concentric rings of hills, making for a mountain biking haven. However, the only access allowed by the Parks and Wildlife Department is by special tour, whether through the TPWD or one of the many outfitters in Terlingua. Be warned that a guided tour into the Solitario runs upwards of $400.
There are many routes by which to get to Fresno Peak. The closest is just shy of 10 miles and the longest direct approach is nearly 20.
Via Sauceda Ranch House:
~10.5 miles by jeep road
For this approach, the gate code is needed to gain entry into the interior of the park. Once this is done, follow the road from the gate 18 miles until you reach the ranch headquarters at Sauceda Ranch. The road continues on for another 4 or 5 miles until it ends at the Solitario Overlook. Park here, though the rules are not clear on whether this is allowed, and continue down the road into the Solitario. From here, make your way on the roads to the southwest, in the general direction of the peak.
The Rio Grande cuts through the Big Hill along FM 170. Image © Ryan Becker
Via Fresno Creek:
~19 miles by jeep road/creek/canyon
This approach is best done as a multi day hike. 3 or 4 reliable springs exist along the route, though they should not be counted on as flowing. This hike begins where Fresno Creek crosses FM 170 roughly 10 miles west of Lajitas. There is no parking, so arrangements must be made for pick-up and drop-offs. This can be done through one of the outfitter services in Terlingua. Approximately 200 yards past the creek, an old paved road heads north. Follow this road until it intersects with Fresno Creek. Now follow the creek for ~17 miles. You will notice the massive wall of the Solitario to your right, the east. Look for a large cave in the wall. This marks the canyon that leads up near Fresno Peak.
As far as camping goes, anywhere you feel like is the general rule. Be aware of sensitive areas however, and don't camp within 100 yards of a spring.
There are many options for camping in the Big Bend region. With the opening of the park's interior to zone camping and backcountry camping at designated spots, there are many more options than once existed.
There are 2 options available:
* Front Country Zone is defined as those lands within approximately one-quarter mile either side of the designated 2WD roads. All street legal and licensed vehicles are permitted in this zone. Overnight use may occur only at designated locations.
* Primitive Road Zone is defined as lands within one-quarter mile either side of designated 4WD or 2WD high clearance roads. Motorized vehicle access to this zone is restricted to street legal and licensed vehicles and must have at least four functional wheels. Overnight use may occur only at designated campsites.
* Backcountry Zones are defined as lands that are more than one-quarter mile from publicly accessible roads. Twenty separate zones have been defined. Only non-motorized travel is permitted. Visitors are encouraged, though not required, to use designated trails and routes until they are knowledgeable and confident in their familiarity with the park to travel cross-country.
For locations and more information, check out the park's campsites page
Nearby Presidio, Lajitas, and Study Butte/Terlingua have many RV campgrounds that also offer tent camping.
When to climb
Late fall, winter, and early spring are just about the only reasonable times of the year to climb and hike in BBRSP. Because of the climate, very little vegetation exists, and very little of this vegetation is trees. This makes hikes VERY hot and exposed, and dehydration is a serious problem. Temperatures in the summer can climb well over 100 degrees in the shade. In the winter, freezing temperatures at night are not uncommon.
As with all desert climbing, there are a few very essential pieces of gear. Long pants are a must. Everything in the desert has thorns, and your legs will hate you if you are not prepared. Water, and plenty of it. Because non of the springs should be counted on as flowing, all water should be packed in with you. For the 2 day hike required to climb Fresno Peak, at LEAST 2 gallons per person is reccomended. Bad weather gear is never a bad idea, as BBRSP sits in an area that recieves weather from many parts of the world, and conditions can change quickly. A short (30m) section of rope may be brought for downclimbing through some of the canyons, but only as a precaution as things never get too bad.
Fresno Peak lies within Big Bend Ranch State Park and requires a $3/day entry fee. This fee is payable at either the Barton Warnock or Fort Leaton visitor centers.
Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center
HC 70, Box 375
Terlingua TX 79852
Fort Leaton State Historic Site
PO Box 2439
Presidio TX 79845
Whether you wish to raft the Rio Grande, bike through the park, or gain access to areas only open on special tours, these commercial outfitters are who to talk to.
Licensed Commercial Outfitters:
* Big Bend River Tours
PO Box 317 Terlingua, Texas 79852
Phone : 800/545-4240 or 432/371-3033 (Local)
* Desert Sports
PO Box 448 Terlingua, Texas 79852
Phone : 888/989-6900 or 432/371-2727 (Local)
* Rio Grande Adventures
PO Box 229 Terlingua, Texas 79852
Phone : 800/343-1640 (Reservations) or 432/371-2567 (Office/Information)
* Texas River Expeditions
PO Box 377 Terlingua, Texas 79852
Phone : 800/839-7238