Driving The River Road: FM 170 Along the Rio Grande


Everybody knows all about America’s greatest drives, like the Pacific Coast Highway or the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Who doesn’t want to drive the Beartooth Highway and cross Tioga Pass someday?  But there’s one spectacular road that needs to be added to that list, one that’s almost unknown (or at least, almost entirely ignored because it’s so far from civilization).  It’s the River Road, along the Rio Grande, skirting the southern border of West Texas near the Big Bend. And it’s pretty awesome.

The River Road is known as Farm to Market 170, and it starts in the middle of nowhere, in the community of Candelaria, about 48 miles north of Presidio.  You really have to make a commitment to drive that portion of FM 170 — since there’s no outlet (aside from a 4wd-only road) north of Presidio, you’d have to drive out and back.  I didn’t experience that part of the road.  Instead, at Presidio, I decided to head southeast on FM 170, on my way through Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Just outside Presidio, Fort Leaton State Historic Site serves as a welcome center for Big Bend Ranch State Park.

It takes a few minutes, after leaving Presidio, for the road to meet up with the river.  Throughout the entire drive, there will be times when the muddy waters of the Rio Grande are just a stone’s throw away from the pavement…

… and other times when the highway moves away from the river bank.  The road passes through desert, as well as farmland that depends on the Rio Grande’s water to stay green.

All the while, you have a great view of dry, desert mountain peaks looming ahead.  The road crosses some of those hills before arriving in Terlingua.

A few miles from Presidio, a turnoff provides access to the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park.  I toyed with the idea of driving this road, which runs across some very remote backcountry.  I even drove for a few hundred yards down the road, before realizing that my car was small, the gravel was rough, and I didn’t have any desire to break down or change a tire out there.  If you don’t have a high clearance vehicle with good tires, I wouldn’t recommend trying it.

There are some minor attractions along FM-170, and some major ones.  I’ll tell you about the quick roadside stops on this page, and the more time-consuming ones, like Closed Canyon and the Contrabando Movie Set, on the following pages.  This picture is from the first roadside diversion that I tackled — which turned into a network of several dirt roads, leading to different river viewpoints at the edge of a plateau.  There wasn’t any one big attraction here, unless you count this pile of rocks, which at one point may have been the walls of a buliding.

Still, it provided a nice spot for a panorama.

A little further (at about 5:15 if you’re watching the Drivelapse video below), a parking area provided access to a trail that led down to the river.  It’s not on the official park map, but I think it was called the Balanced Rocks Trail.  This was the first place where I was required to pay the park entrance fee ($3), using a self-service envelope drop.

I followed the “trail”, since I figured I had already seen several overlooks of the river.

The trail dropped down to the banks of the Rio Grande, but seemed to lead away from the trail’s obvious namesakes…

… these balanced rocks.  So, I backtracked, then wandered off the trail…

… to get a closer look at the formations.

This trail, and everything else I did in Big Bend Ranch State Park, was terribly exhausting, due to the intense heat.  And I was visiting in March, when the temperatures were still tolerable!  I can’t imagine enjoying a visit here in July.

Once I climbed back up the hill to my car, I gulped some water and blasted the A/C…

… then continued the drive over the road’s numerous humps…

… eventually approaching, then skirting the edge of these hills.

As the road crested one hill, I found a good spot to look at the river and the road, running side-by-side.

In this area, the River Road passes a trailhead for Closed Canyon — a dry slot canyon that leads through some hills to the Rio Grande.  I’ll cover it more on the next page, but you can jump there now if you’d like.

The River Road reaches its high point as it climbs to the top of a pass…

… right next to the Rio Grande’s deep cut through the hills.  This is the part of the road that’s cause for concern for RV drivers, due to its steep, curvy grade.

There are several turnouts that allow you to get a good view in both directions.

A few minutes beyond the pass, the road reaches the Contrabando Movie Set (around 9:20 on the Drivelapse video).  I’ll cover my visit to the movie set on a later page — or you can jump there now.

The River Road passes only one area of civilization before Terlingua — the resort community of Lajitas.  The town — yes, the entire town — was purchased in 2003, and it appears that most, if not all of the town, is operated by the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa.  It’s a nice resort, I assume, but it feels uncomfortably phony — even the Wild West “Main Street” in the photo above isn’t real — those are motel rooms.

There is a general store in Lajitas, as well as the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, operated by Big Bend Ranch State Park.  I pulled into the visitor center before 5 p.m., only to discover it had already closed for the day.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is still a relatively young park, and it’s still working to define itself and develop its attractions.  I’ve covered most of the stops along the River Road on this page and the next two pages.  If you venture into the interior of the park, your best bets are hiking (on very remote, hot and dry wilderness trails) and horseback riding.  Mountain Biking is also gaining in popularity in the backcountry.  Check out the Texas State Parks website for ideas on how to spend a day or two in BBRSP.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive along the River Road, from Presidio to Terlingua, Texas:

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