El Camino del Rio
One of Texas’s Best Scenic Routes
|Mileage||49 miles (79 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||1 hour, 28 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Spring, Fall, and Winter|
|Roadways||Farm Road 170|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, pharmacies, etc.||Lajitas, TX▼, Terlingua, TX▼, and Presidio, TX▼|
3.6 average from 38 votes
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El Camino del Rio, “The River Road”, is one of Texas’s best scenic routes, following the twists and turns of the Rio Grande and revealing a fiery volcanic history. The majority of this drive is within the boundaries of Big Bend Ranch State Park. On the other side of the Rio Grande is Mexico.
The scenic drive travels between Lajitas and Presidio. For an action packed road trip, El Camino del Rio makes a nice continuation to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which explores nearby Big Bend National Park. To reach Lajitas, follow Farm Road 170 west from Big Bend National Park or from the end of TX-118 from Alpine.
As you enter Big Bend Ranch State Park, the Barton Warnock Visitor Center (I1) is on your left. Educational and interpretive programs explore the history, geology and cultural heritage of the area. Don’t miss the self-guided tour of the 2.5 acre desert garden. Backpacking and camping permits can be obtained here as well.
The Park offers many activities including hiking, biking, horseback riding and boating. There are Class II and III rapids here and guided tours can be booked in the neighboring towns. And any of those activities should be used to explore the fascinating canyons, plateaus, rivers and waterfalls created by the real star here — the geology. It’s incredibly beautiful and you’ll be awestruck by the effects of volcanic activity and erosion. This unique landscape is home to over 300 species of birds including Bell’s Vireo, Vermillion Flycatcher and Zone-tailed hawk. Located in the Trans-Pecos Vegetation Area, there are four types of plant habitats, riparian, mixed desert, desert grassland and juniper woodland. Native Americans legends said that the Great Spirit placed all the rocks here after the world was created, and you will see why.
As you continue west on Farm Road 170, you arrive in the town of Lajitas, where General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing built the Lajitas military outpost to protect the settlers from the Mexican renegade, Pancho Villa. Though still wearing the sheen of the Old West, the town now features unique shops along the boardwalk, restaurants, a golf resort and more. Make sure you have a full tank of gas before continuing, there are no service stations in the Park.
The cliff-hugging road from here twists and turns with the Rio Grande. Enjoy spectacular views of the rugged mountains and layers of dark, lava flows capped with hardened ash — scars of the region’s fiery past.
The road takes a detour away from the Rio Grande and follows Fresno Creek, denoted by colorful limestone layered bluffs, before rejoining the Rio Grande. In a few more miles, you will see hoodoos (weather-carved volcanic ash) along the river. Stop at the parking area for pictures.
Looking for the best spot for a picnic? Stop at the cute, well-shaded Teepee Rio Grande Overlook (V1) with views of the Rio Grande.
From here, you will pass a number of dramatic canyons. After Medera Canyon, the road climbs a steep 15 percent grade to the top of Santana Mesa, where you are rewarded with a spectacular view at the Santana Mesa Overlook (V2).
Descending the Santana Mesa, you enter the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert whose stark topography is a vast contrast to the deep green ribbon of the Rio Grande. As the valley widens ahead, you see more weathered lava mounds. After crossing Panther Creek, you arrive at Closed Canyon. Get close — really close to Closed Canyon with a 1.4-mile round trip hike where at times you can touch both sides with outstretched arms.
Back on the road, panoramic views of the dry valley unfold. Several miles after passing Tapado Canyon (noticeable for its relative moistness), you arrive in the farming town of Redford. A few miles later, you exit Big Bend Ranch State Park where you should consider a stop at the Fort Leaton State Historic Site (A1) on your right. Built by Ben Leaton in the 1840s, the adobe-and-wood structure overlooks the Rio Grande and was used to protect settlers from Native Americans and Mexican attacks. It was also a major regional trading post. There is a small entrance fee, per-person over 13.
The scenic drive comes to an end when you arrive in the former Spanish mission town of Presidio. From here, head north on US-67 towards Marfa, and the Marfa Lights Viewing Station (A2). The lights, best seen at night are a mystery with a variety of explanations from UFO’s, magnetic energy, military experiments or headlights in the distance. Or continue the adventure on the Davis Mountains Loop.