State park picks up the slack

Impressive cliffs greet visitors to Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Big Bend Ranch State Park experienced some big changes in 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak. Scott Whitener, the Barton Warnock Center superintendent, has been in his position for almost a year now, and was able to sit down and talk about the park’s whirlwind year.

Said Whitener, “It’s been the busiest June, July, and August that Big Bend Ranch State Park has ever seen.”

With Big Bend National Park for a good part of the spring and summer, traffic was directed straight down the only other roads in south Brewster County, FM 170 and River Road through the state park. 

In July the park saw a 1,600% increase in visitation, and come August, the river outfitters were able to start up again. From then on, the park continued to be very busy into the fall. 

With five people on staff overseeing the entire river corridor district, as well as the Barton Warnock Center, this increase in visitation took a toll on an already lightly staffed park. According to Whitener, their district is over 56,000 acres, and that’s a lot of land to cover.

More and more people are venturing out to the “middle of nowhere,” and the park has consequently experienced a high number of search and rescues. Many visitors are venturing to the Big Bend in the hope of escaping COVID-19 in their crowded cities, but they sometimes overlook the danger to themselves that exists here if they are not prepared.

The longest rescue this year, timed at 17 hours, occurred in July when a lone hiker got in trouble in Closed Canyon after he was informed he could hike all the way to the Rio Grande and out via the Rancherias river access point. 

“Big Bend Ranch State Park is no longer the what’s over there park,” said Whitener.

Even the remote Sauceda district is seeing more and more visitation. According to Whitener, about 25% visit Sauceda, while the remaining 75% spend their time along River Road.

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