Big Bend Chat
Other Parks of the Big Bend Region => Big Bend Ranch State Park Q&A => Topic started by: tandl on December 02, 2015, 10:26:24 AM
Moderator Note: This report is also posted here:
We recently hiked the Fresno Divide trail in the Contrabando Area of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. It runs from the West Contrabando Trailhead off 170 near Lajitas (paved) north to a saddle on the rim of the Contrabando Dome, and then down into the crater to connect to the very north part of the Contrabando Dome Trail. It enters the Dome loop very close to the connector to the Buena Suerte Trail, and cuts over a mile off the one-way distance to the Wax Laccolith from the West Contrabando Trailhead compared to the older and less interesting West Main->Dome route. The Fresno Divide Trail is listed as 3.2 miles, or 6.4 out and back.
This is the newest trail in the State Park according to the Rangers at the Barton Warnock Visitor's center where we bought our day permits. It mainly crosses rolling desert floor, but it is a lot more interesting and varied in terms of terrain, geology and vistas than that sounds. It is not on any of the maps I could find on the internet, and is definitely not on the (very high quality) 1:48,000 Discovery map that is sold at the Park and available online. The non-topo "Contrabando Multi-Use Trail System" map that I was given a photocopy of at the desk at Warnock shows it, but the map is designed for bikes and lists the trail as Difficult. For hikers, this trail is definitely Easy if you are in average shape and bring sun protection and water.
3-4 liters water per person will give plenty of margin for an out-and-back of this trail. There isn't any water that I saw in the Contrabando (didn't check the Waterhole, might be some there), but there are apparently consistent water sources further north if you are using this trail to access the middle and upper Fresno Canyon parts of the park.
Desert floor hiking can sometimes mean faint trails: since there is a lot of open space between vegetation it can be difficult to pick out where you are supposed to go. Not so on the Fresno Divide trail (and in fact the entire Contrabando Dome System covering the lower Fresno Valley) which is VERY well marked, with intact and highly visible cairns the entire length. Even better, the trail is open to mountain bikes, so you can always look for bike tracks to keep you on course. We got off the trail twice, but only by about twenty feet or so and relocated the path within a minute. As soon as we looked around, we realized we had simply overlooked completely obvious cairns. The trail itself is largely clear of vegetation (especially important for bikers, since everything is thorny!) but I would still advise pants rather than shorts for hiking.
The cairns themselves deserve special mention: they are the coolest, most interesting ones I have seen in any park, anywhere. At some points it felt like we were walking through a sculpture garden, each rock carefully chosen to fit the landscape and highlighting the geology and natural beauty of the surroundings. They were easy to spot but not intrusive, and added a lot to the experience. Very impressive interpretive work!
The views of the surrounding mountains and mesas are incredible the whole way, but the big payoff is at the saddle looking down into the Contrabando Dome at the end of the trail: it is like a mini-Solitario. Kids will love standing on the rim of the extinct volcano, and imagining the mountain collapsing under its own weight to create the shattered landscape below. From there, you can also look north and just see the Flatirons in the distance (at least I think that's what they were). We were there on a "busy" holiday weekend, but did not see a single other person in the whole Contrabando area. If the South Rim is too crowded for your tastes, come here; it will feel like you have the whole park to yourself.
The Fresno divide is VERY convenient and easy to get to: direct paved access from 170 just a few miles from the Warnock Center in Lajitas means it can be a half-day hike from Terlingua/Study Butte, or part of a full day car trip along 170 and back that could even include the short Closed Canyon or Hoodoos hikes.
I cannot say enough good things about this trail, it is in my top five Texas hikes. TPWD has done a fantastic job on this one; if you can only spare a few hours for the State Park, this is the trail you want to take!