Driving FM 170
From Lajitas to Presidio, this storied highway offers one of the best scenic tours of Texas.
By Charles Lohrmann
Steering through a sweeping downhill curve in the winding, two-lane highway that runs within sight of the Rio Grande, I’m surprised to encounter football-sized rocks littering the pavement and quickly swerve to avoid them. Within seconds, I’m startled by a boulder with the dimensions of a big ice chest lurking menacingly in the oncoming lane. It’s late afternoon, and I’ve watched the dark clouds towering over the Chisos Mountains for a couple of hours, but now I’m witnessing the storm’s handiwork. I slow to a stop, wondering how to post a warning for oncoming drivers: A collision with this rock could be disastrous. Just then, I am relieved to spot a service truck edging slowly in my direction blocking the lane where the boulder sits waiting. The immediate danger is past.
Even though this is not a typical day on FM 170 between Lajitas and Presidio in Big Bend’s Chihuahuan Desert Country, events like this damaging storm are part of the regular weather vocabulary for the region. Despite the occasional obstacles, this highway, which essentially defines the southern boundary of Big Bend Ranch State Park, offers an engaging driving tour.
And this area of the Big Bend Country deserves to be a destination in itself, particularly now that Big Bend Ranch State Park boasts the addition of the 7,000-acre Fresno Ranch, along with improved trails, interpretive markers, and facilities. Because of the driving distances, it’s something of a stretch to cover this entire territory from lodging in Fort Davis, Marfa, or Marathon, but it is possible to make a well-planned day-trip from one of those towns.
Here’s another chance to enjoy the scenery at the turnouts, and part of why thoroughly exploring this 50-mile stretch of highway takes me most of two days
I start the FM 170 drive from Lajitas, the morning after enjoying a one-day float through Colorado Canyon with the folks from Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua, which got me ready for the feel of the terrain. Today I’ll drive back through Colorado Canyon on my way to Presidio.
The first stop for any driving tour of this area is the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, which defines the eastern entry to Big Bend Ranch State Park. I always stop at the bookstore because of the well-chosen selection of titles that interpret the region’s history and natural features, but on this visit, I get a chance to visit with Park Interpreter David Long and Park Superintendent Rod Trevizo before I reacquaint myself with the Chihuahuan Desert flora by strolling through the two-acre desert garden.
Back inside, the Warnock Center’s interpretive displays explain the geology of the region, and that information goes a long way to helping you enjoy the drive along FM 170. This also is a good place to purchase permits or update your maps of the area. And don’t hesitate to ask the staff for suggestions about the best hiking options, current trail conditions, or the latest on river status—these folks are in touch not only with the official information sources, but also the local rumor mill (an information source that should never be ignored).
FM 170 first sidles up to the Rio Grande just west of Lajitas, and the relationship remains close, at least for a while. About four miles along, you’ll encounter the cluster of adobeesque huts and the nearby faux chapel that constitute the film set known as Contrabando. As you’d expect, the buildings are more photogenic than functional, but offer an opportunity to speculate on life in the days gone by.
About 13 miles west of Lajitas, you’ll find three kitschy, tipi-style shelters at the roadside picnic stop. I’m stopping by on an October day, but the sun is fierce, so—even without a picnic—I take a few minutes to enjoy the spot of shade and survey the surrounding landscape, which is surprisingly green because of recent rains.
A few miles farther on, you’ll find the really big views as you encounter the Big Hill—the steepest paved grade (at 15 percent) in Texas. Here’s another chance to enjoy the scenery at the turnouts, and part of why thoroughly exploring this 50-mile stretch of highway takes me most of two days.
From the February 2010 issue.