The River Road: Following the Rio Grande on one of America’s great drives


After our stay in a Roosevelt Stone Cottage in Big Bend National Park, the next stop on our week-long roadtrip was Marfa, Texas. We’d originally planned to take US385 north to Marathon. US385 parallels state highway 118 that we’d taken south from Alpine to the park. US385 had the advantage of taking us a longer and different route through Big Bend National Park to exit. The time to drive to Marfa on either highway would be about the same. That original route plan changed when I spotted a longer route that ran along the border and the Rio Grande. When I asked some of the staff at Chisos Mountains Lodge about that road, I was told it was called The River Road and not to miss it if we had the time. It would take us an extra 20 miles and an extra 45-50 minutes. We had the time, and we had a new route to Marfa.

We chose the longer, southern, route to Marfa so we could drive The River Road along the Texas/Mexico border.

The only minor downside of this route, from our point of view, was that we retraced our path back out the same way we’d come into Big Bend National Park and back through Terlingua. Oh well, after that, we’d be in new-to-us territory.

From Lajitas to Presidio (just across the border from Ojinaga, Mexico, in the map above), The River Road runs along the Rio Grande for over 50 miles. The bluffs of the Mexican Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena loomed beyond the river valley to our left while the desert hills of Big Bend Ranch State Park spread out to our right. It’s ruggedly beautiful, mostly empty, country in between the few small towns. (I love the heading on the Big Bend Ranch State Park web site: “Welcome to the Other side of Nowhere!”) The River Road is in excellent shape and snakes through the landscape, rolling, dipping and rising like a roller coaster path. David loved driving it, and it was fun being a passenger, too.

A brisk wind, the aftermath of a cool front that had blown in the night before, buffeted us when we stopped to admire the scenery and take photos.

We scanned a posted map at the (west) terminus to the Rancherias Loop Trail trailhead in Big Bend Ranch State Park, smiling at the helpful note a hiker had left giving the date and location of a nearby running spring. (This point is strictly a hiking terminus and hikers must enter at the east end of the trail, pay and entrance fee and get oriented. The hike has dangers ranging from dehydration to mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bears and should be taken seriously.)

As the topography leveled out near Presidio, we saw small homes and farms on both sides of the border. We headed north towards Marfa at Presidio, not seeing much to slow us down in the flat border town. Not far north of Presidio, I spotted a herd of pronghorn, native “antelope,” just across a roadside fence. We turned around to watch them until they trotted over a rise. All in all, we were very happy with our choice to take the road less traveled.

Pronghorn on the side of the road north of Presidio, Texas

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Practical info:

There’s nowhere to get gasoline (or anything else) between Lajitas and Presidio, so bear that in mind. There is also no cell phone or internet service for most of the drive. We did pick up service from a tower on the Mexico side of the border as we neared Presidio. There’s a pull-out along the way with a few picnic tables under separate faux teepees to provide shade and a little shelter from wind.

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