Photography in the Big Bend Ranch State Park

Basin Photo

Flat Terrain of the Chihuahuan Desert

Each season of the year holds its own set of wonders and draws visitors from all walks of life: tourists, hikers, campers, naturalists, and sports enthusiasts. Photographers love it, too. Fall and winter are perhaps the most popular seasons, when cool, sunny days abound and the palette is composed mostly of earth tones. Springtime is marked by the brilliance of cacti, ocotillo and yucca erupting into flower, a precursor of the summer rainy season when the desert really comes to life. No matter the time of your visit, you will experience stunning landscapes and expansive skies. Here are some ideas to help you get the best pictures possible during your visit.

No matter what your skill level or quality of equipment, there’s nothing you can do that will net you better pictures than getting out of the car and walking. You needn’t go on long hikes— beautiful pictures are often only a few car lengths away. The smallest, driest creek beds frequently turn into amazing canyons “just around the bend.” Dramatic cliff and hilltop vistas are easily reachable from every road in the park.

photographer at Tapado Canyon

This spot is less than 500 yards from the parking lot.

Scout Locations
Movie makers and professional photographers often spend a lot of time “scouting locations.” They are thinking about the pictures they would like to take, and at what times of the day the pictures would look the best. You can do the same thing. Pay attention to the sun and how the shadows lie. Try to imagine how the sun will traverse the sky and what will happen to the scene during the course of the day. Carry a compass and note the direction in which features lie. Make notes and come back later to verify your guesses. If you were right, take the picture and congratulate yourself on having “scouted” a great location.

Flatirons during the day

Thiis Formation Faces West. It will be a perfect sunset shot!

Do Your Homework
If you find you’re getting hooked on taking great pictures, it’s time to take the next step— finding potential locations in advance. For this you will need maps. The park’s Discovery Map is the best, but topographic maps from the Internet or from mapping programs will also work. If you’re interested in wildlife, look for springs and green areas you think you can walk to. These isolated watering spots are great places to find plants and animals of all kinds.

Encino Springs

Damp Areas are Wildlife Magnets!

If you’re mostly interested in landscapes, look for spots where the elevation lines (contours) are closely spaced. Closely spaced contour lines indicate steep mountainsides, high cliffs, and the walls of scenic canyons. When the lines bend into points along water courses, you’re likely to find dramatic pour-offs and creek beds filled with colorful boulders.

Increase the Odds

contour lines on a map

Lots of Contour Lines Indicate Great Views

If your stay will be short and your main goal is to capture great images, you’ll want to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. Start by learning when the sun and moon rise and set. Get the positions on the horizon for these events, too. Then plot these angles against the locations you’ve scouted on your map to get an idea of how the light will play out during  the day.

Get a GPS
Repeat visitors can profit from carrying a GPS that tracks your walks. Set annotated “waypoints” at places you see pictures you’d like to take when conditions are better. Take a few snapshots of the area and let your mapping software link them to the map to help you remember what you were looking at when you were there.

Carry Filters

graduated nd filter

Graduated Filters help tame Bright Skies

West Texas skies tend to be very bright, and the land tends to be dark—the range of light is too wide for any camera. Graduated neutral density filters tame the contrast and help you take great shots  with colorful skies and properly exposed foregrounds as well. EnjoyAbove all, get out and enjoy the outdoors, away from the car and off the road. You’ll get better pictures and create tangible memories to take home from your trip, and carry with you for a lifetime.


About aneyefortexas

Retired writer/teacher/photographer, now photographing the Chihuahuan Desert at the Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.
This entry was posted in Big Bend Ranch State Park, Photography. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Photography in the Big Bend Ranch State Park

  1. Bob Williams says:

    Good morning Mr Nored.

    I was at BBRSP in August 2012, and we spoke briefly. (I was the guy with the old blue and white Bronco 2, but I will not be hurt if you don’t remember me.)

    I’ve been determined to get back out there, and I think I finally can, in the second week of May.

    I was wondering if you can give me some guidance. My brother owns a small pop-up camper with very high clearance and a very heavy-duty suspension. Would you advise bringing it, and if so, can you recommend campsites where it would be suitable? We would be towing with a 4wd Toyota Tacoma.

    I apologize for abusing your fine blog with this selfish request.


    Bob Williams,

    • I’d recommend Papalote Llano Nuevo for it’s central location and ease of access with a trailer. You could probably also reach Pila Montoya 3. That would be more difficult to do, but the view from the campsite is better. On the other hand it takes a bit more effort to get out for visiting other areas.

      If you choose Papalote Llano Nuevo, be sure to hike the road that continues past the campsite and around the hill behind the site. You don’t have to go far to reach some very interesting country, and there are some nice views of the Flatirons to be had out there.

      No need for apologies. This works and I’ll be glad to see you again, even if you aren’t bringing that fine Bronco along with you 🙂

      • Bob Williams says:

        Thanks so much for the reply!

        I see your point about the central location of Papalote. That would certainly be a good starting point for any day trip. I was at Tascate 1 last time, but with Bronco and tent.

        I’ve been talking up BBRSP to my brother. I can’t wait to get him out there to see that I wasn’t exaggerating.

        Again, thanks. See you, I hope, May 11 or12.

  2. TJ Avery says:

    Excellent advice, Gary. Thanks!

    Do you have any favorite spots in the park to photograph? Outside of the popular spots along 170, I’ve only been into the interior of the park once, and the trip was plagued by issues (two flat tires among other things). I’m looking forward to going back!

    Here’s a link to a sunrise/set & moonrise/set calendar generator that I’ve found very helpful in the past:

    • Funny you should say that. My first trip to BBRSP over 20 years ago was also plagued with issues of another sort (lost on a 25 mile hike, ran out of water, etc, but I kept coming back, and now I live here!

      Let me know if you intend to visit the interior, and I’ll make suggestions for here. Otherwise, you might consider staying at the Madera campground. Stay at the upper campground, and stop at the first shade shelter. Walk a bit west for a pretty stunning view of the Big Hill and the Teepees. Best photographed at sunrise. Three Dike Hill is also pretty nice at sunset. In fact, that whole area is worth exploring — there’s an old movie set back off the road to the east of the parking lot, though you might have to get directions at Ft. Leaton as I can’t figure out how to explain getting there. And hiking up Tapado Canyon is both easy and rewarding for the rich colors in the rocks. You can park at the bridge on the south side of the road. Hike up for a mile or so to see the most colorful part of the canyon.

      Hope this helps.

      • TJ Avery says:

        Yes, most helpful! Thank you!

      • Gary – the Contrabando movie set is “on the side of the road” of Hwy 170 a little east of the teepees and the Big Hill! Easy to get into, no fees, limited parking and a wonderful place for photos…..on the banks of the Rio Grande! Other than going back to 170 from the interior of the Ranch, not sure how else to get to it for you!

        Jackie Ranney

      • I hear they’ve torn part of it down. “The Mission” was threatening to bury somebody alive!

  3. Thanks for all the pointers, all worth reminding myself of or just learning! Waiting for the ocotillos here to start their blooms like yours’, though torrey yuccas are already starting.

  4. Such an amazing landscape

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s