The River Road: The Most Scenic Drive in Texas

The stretch of highway that cuts through Big Bend State Ranch Park is known by locals as the most beautiful drive in Texas.

The River Road hugs the Rio Grande, featuring rugged desert landscape vistas punctuated by the green oasis of the river.

After our experience on this winding highway, I have to say, I agree with the locals on this one.

I hope this post leaves you wanting to plan your next trip down the West Texas Camino del Rio down the Rio Grande.

A brown river flows between bright green grass with a dessert behind it

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Driving the River Road: Big Bend to Marfa

I had anticipated the 2-hour drive from Big Bend National Park to Marfa to be rather boring.

I expected a monotonous desert view as our only entertainment for miles.

But stopping at a tourist information center I asked if there was anything we should know about. Anything in particular to see near Big Bend?

Wouldn’t you know it the first thing the officer gushed about was the stretch of highway I was dreading.



This is the River Road and it wound up being one of the most beautiful scenic drives we’d ever done.

FM 170: The River Road

Highway 170 connects the city of Presidio to the ghost town of Terlingua, making it ideal for any West Texas road trip along the border.

We were on our very own road trip, driving from Big Bend National Park to the quirky town of Marfa.

Our route took us through Lajitas and Big Bend Ranch State Park, all the while hugging the Rio Grande along the Mexican border.

Lajitas: A Beer Drinking Goat and a Fancy Resort

We started our drive in Terlingua, where we’d stayed as a base for our time in Big Bend, and in just 15 minutes we were in Lajitas. Obviously, we stopped for a quick look around.

First, we paid our respects the mayor: a goat named Clay Henry III.

The original Clay Henry, the grandfather to the current mayor, was famous for guzzling beer. The current mayor is said to prefer Gatorade.

Next, we checked out the resort, which looks like a Hollywood set of an old western film. This resort is one of the most luxurious places to stay near Big Bend.

If you prefer the real deal, Terlingua (a legit ghost town) is only 15 minutes away and closer to Big Bend.

However, the restaurant patio does have a spectacular view and it’s much more luxurious than any accommodation options in Terlingua.

If you want to golf (on a shockingly green course for a desert) or be pampered, I recommend staying in the Lajitas Golf Resort.

Check rates & availability here.

A woman does the peace sign by a river in the desert

Big Bend Ranch State Park & El Camino del Rio

The following sixty miles or so from Lajitas to Presidio is the highway that is referred to as El Camino del Rio, or “the River Road.”

The river road  (Farm to Market road 170) slinks alongside the Rio Grande, cutting through the Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Read Next | The Best Hikes in Big Bend National Park

Come Prepared

The rolling hills provide great viewpoints and there are picnic areas along the road to stop and enjoy a nice lunch.

There are hiking trails but we had started our drive too late in the day to take advantage of them (that and the insufferable summer heat).

We only saw one other car the entire time we were on the road and there are no shops.

Make sure your gas tank is full and you have sufficient water and snacks with you.

I LOVED this drive. The topography was gorgeous and constantly changing.

The areas around the river were lush and green, alive with the river water.

Just on the other side of the road we could see rolling, desert hills.

This is a drive that should be on every road trip junkie’s bucket list.

If you’re looking for more great road trips check out these amazing National Park road trip ideas.

Presidio & Beyond

We arrived in Presidio and turned north towards Marfa.

There’s also a border crossing here for those going south to Mexico, or you can continue westwards to New Mexico.

On the road to Marfa, 18 miles north of Presidio, is the ghost town, Shafter, Texas

It’s worth a stop but we were nearly out of daylight and had to continue on.

Drives like this make road trips worth it. If you find yourself in the vast Chihuahuan desert of West Texas, then I hope you take FM 170 and enjoy the Rio Grande views.

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15 thoughts on “The River Road: The Most Scenic Drive in Texas”

  1. Hi there! Great article! However, Big Bend Ranch State Park is not free. It’s $5 a person over the age of 13 or you need a Texas state park pass. I think it’s confusing for most people since the ranger station is deep in the park.

  2. Oh thanks for letting me know!! Everyone we talked with in Terglinua, including my Airbnb host, said to just drive on through and it was free. Now I feel awful for spreading wrong information. I’ll change it now, thanks for the heads up!

  3. Driving through on Hwy 170 IS free; staying at the ranch isn’t. I agree 100% that this is an awesome drive. A few miles West of Lajitas on the South/river side of the road is a pull-over with a sign next to an old adobe one room house. This is where Brooks & Dunn filled their music video for My Maria.

  4. Thank you for the clarification on the entrance prices. And I canNOT believe I didn’t know that this is where My Maria was filmed, that is one of my all time favorite songs and videos, I LOVE Brooks & Dunn. As a Texan I know I will return to Big Bend and now I know I’ll have to plot out all the recording spots to visit! Thanks!!

  5. Thirteen miles West of Lajitas is the Search, “Fandango Dom Rock”, on Google maps. It’s the precipice where where Kevin Costner and crew dig up, “DOM”, in the cult film, “Fandango”. The view of the Rio Grande valley from here is amazing. It’s not marked in any way physically, but you can find it using Google maps. It’s well worth finding, but please be careful, this a steep rocky point with a sheer 300 foot drop in places.

  6. Believe it or not, I am from this area. I was born in Alpine, Texas (Brewster county) and was raised in Marfa. Remote is an understatement. My dad worked for the NPS and we lived in Castolon when I was a 3-5 years old. I woke up every morning to the grand vistas of the desert canyon of Santa Elena. We lived a primitive lifestyle in Ranger housing. At night, we could see the lights from the small Mexican village. This place is a geologists dream. I remember the smell of the river mud and mesquite. The people of this area are very superstitious and believe in devils and witches. They will break any mirror they see, so beware of your car mirrors! Before you go on this trip, be prepared because it is remote.

  7. We are staying at the resort you mention and plan to ride our road bikes on I 70. We do not plan to do 60 miles out and back so if we wanted to do, say, 40 miles RT can you recommend the best part? Would be 20 miles out and 20 miles back.

  8. I was just at big bend yesterday and the entrance fee was $30/week, even if you’re just making a day trip.

    I highly recommend checking out the lighting at Basecamp Terlingua. I slept in a plastic bubble looking up at the stars! It was magical!

  9. @Sturjrn that’s for Big Bend National Park. Not for Big Bend Ranch State Park. Two different parks.

  10. My son lives in Terlingua and has 2 homes he rents on air bnb. They are both stops on The Road Scholars tours. Jamie’s rammed earth house and Jamie’s earth bag house.
    I have been a couple times and indeed have fallen in love with the desert.
    Love your article and wish everyone could see this Incredible place!

  11. I love this area it’s so incredible! Just a heads up to the veterans out there you should know that veterans and disabled veterans get free National Park admission, and Texas State Parks give free admission to disabled veterans. Check there respective websites for details.

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