Every corner of Dead Horse Ranch is on a mission to wow its visitors. Just getting there is an adventure. The 10,000 acre, privately owned ranch is nestled alongside the eastern slopes of one of Big Bend National Park’s most imposing and mysterious mountain ranges, the Sierra Del Caballo Muerto or Dead Horse Mountains, and the ranch’s namesake.
If you’ve been to Big Bend National Park, you may have noticed the Dead Horse Mountains, visible to the east from Persimmon Gap Entrance Station and trending slightly southeast all the way to the border. They’re part of a bigger chain, the Sierra Del Carmen, extending into Mexico beyond Boquillas.
From the park, one can easily imagine how the Dead Horse Mountains earned their menacing moniker. The western slopes appear unscalable, parched and devoid of vegetation. One of the more accessible hikes into its southern reach takes visitors to a breathtaking water feature: Ernst Tinaja. A tinajais a depression worn into bedrock that fills with seasonal rains, leaving a water source in dry times. Ernst Tinaja is one of the park’s widest and deepest such features, an underground cup whose smooth lip kisses the surface, tempting passersby with a drink. It’s never gone dry; a Godsend, one would think. But there’s a steep drop to the water’s surface, made steeper with drought conditions. Any animal thirsty enough to scale the rim is in grave danger of slipping in, never to escape. The slippery edges of Ernst Tinaja show scars of struggles past, and the bottom is littered with bones, so the rumor goes. It’s a warning that, in Dead Horse Mountains, simply quenching one’s thirst can be a deadly act.
But the Big Bend is a land of contrasts, and a ranch that shares the Dead Horse name does not necessarily share its fate. In fact, Dead Horse Ranch looks like a whole new world compared to what most visitors have seen of the Big Bend, and a pair of healthy ranch horses pastured full time there lend irony to its name.
Located on the eastern side of the mountain range, the ranch has a recorded average of 16-17 inches of rainfall per year. That’s on the high side for the Chihuahuan desert, a wealth reserved for sky islands like Fort Davis and the Chisos Basin on a good year. The ranch is helped out by its proximity to the Sierra del Carmen. With elevations of almost 9,000 feet, the Del Carmen creates a rain shadow effect, siphoning off the larger ration of incoming moisture for itself, with leftovers going to the Big Bend region. It seems that the parts of the Dead Horse Mountains’ eastern slopes where the ranch is located benefit from this phenomenon, while the western slopes do not.
Tara Shackelford, a 29-year-old outdoors professional raised in the Austin area, grew up visiting Dead Horse Ranch. In 1986, her grandfather, fifth generation Marathon resident Mack Shackelford, bought his first piece of property in the Dead Horse range. Then he, along with other family members, continued to add parcels over the years, until it reached its current size of 10,000 acres. Holiday visits were a lot of fun, with explorations from the arroyos to the peaks, finding caves in between. The family knows how to enjoy themselves, staging fishing trips on the Rio Grande and hosting feasts and cookouts.
Tara gravitated to a career in the outdoors, taking an entry level position with The Outdoor School in Marble Falls. There she fell in love with outdoors education and outreach. She invited some colleagues to visit Dead Horse Ranch and tag along on the family’s adventures. By the end, one of her colleagues gushed, “This is probably the best trip I’ve ever gone on in my life.” That’s when it clicked. Tara had an amazing outdoor resource at her fingertips.
She decided to take her outdoor education to the next level and enrolled in Outward Bound in the Sierra Nevada of California. Billed as a lifechanging series of wilderness classes, students learn backpacking, climbing, survival and first-aid skills. After finishing the coursework, Tara was hired by Outward Bound, and stayed in the California mountains for four years, honing her skills and toning her physique with backcountry climbing and camping trips. After cutting her teeth as a professional outdoors guide, it was time to return to the dream of doing something closer to home. She moved to Terlingua and began working with river outfitters there, to learn the ins and outs of boating on the Rio Grande. After a season of making connections in the local industry, she was offered a contract with Road Scholar, an educational travel program that takes people on an 8-day guided tour of the Big Bend. It seemed like striking out on her own could work. She formed her LLC and launched her business, Hidden Dagger Adventures, named after the surprising jungle of Giant White Daggers (Yucca faxoniana) one encounters in the recesses of the Dead Horse Mountains. With the blessing of family, Tara moved full time to Dead Horse Ranch in 2020 to make guiding from home her main enterprise.
The Dead Horse Mountains mark the exact location where Texas’s seemingly endless landscape of limestone, that long monotonous stretch from Central Texas westward, comes to a screeching halt, before dropping off into the geologic soup of the national park. Intense faulting gifted the ranch with dramatic elevation gains. Tara offers guests a roller coaster ride on the company utility vehicle, down a nearly thousand foot descent from the headquarters into Margaret Basin, a drainage between huge canyon walls that makes its way eventually to the national park boundary.
Vegetation is different there from anywhere to the east or west, sharing elements from either side, but hosting some plants found nowhere else at all.
The ranch holds the distinction of being the only private land in the U.S. where the queen of all yuccas, Yucca rostrata, is found, and it’s found there in spades.
To get to ranch headquarters, one must take FM 2627 past Stillwell Ranch Store and RV Park, enter a private gate and follow the unpaved road for 15 miles south. The landscape begins to change dramatically, as a jungle of Giant White Daggers appears. The Giant White Dagger is the most massive of yuccas found in the Chihuahuan desert. They can reach heights of over 20 feet, plus a several-foot-tall plume in blooming season, and their trunks are four to eight feet around. Their sharp, stiff leaves resemble daggers. The impressive plants are found in landscaping throughout the Big Bend, with specimens popping up here and there in the wild, but nowhere are they found in such large numbers and heights as in the Dead Horse Mountains, and especially on Dead Horse Ranch. The jungle of Giant Daggers along with the dizzying beauty of Rostratas truly sets this place apart. There are stands of relict piñon pine trees on mountainside drainages and a variety of grasses endemic to the Dead Horse range. Bright red Big Bend Penstemons and stout Little Walnut trees brighten the limestone landscape.
Tara hasn’t even begun to explore the entire property; there may be places that remain unseen by her or anyone else. A few accessible areas are available as campsites, and of those, she has her favorites. Radio Hill campsite has a faucet, perfect for camping cookouts. A trail to a canyon makes another great spot for group camping. She’s a big fan of incorporating local elements into the experience, from storytelling to using foraged and local food items. Her family is investing in a small still, and sotol tastings will be on the menu.
Like a sponge, Tara has absorbed the natural history of the region, from constellations in the night sky to geology. As for most Big Bend aficionados, the more she learns, the more she wants to know. She’s eager to host biologists, geologists and other experts, to hear what they have to say about the magnificent land she and her family are stewarding.
With generational ties to the area, including her mother’s side from Chihuahua, Mexico, and many relatives still in the region, Tara has great contacts, which translates to great outdoor access and regional expertise.
For now, group size is limited to six to eight guests at any given time, as Tara prefers to host an intimate experience and tread lightly on the land. Activities range in difficulty from rappelling and rock scrambling to multiday backpacking trips, to sightseeing from the utility vehicle. One could get lost in the infinite mountain views without ever leaving the headquarters.
But Tara likes to stay active. As a permitted commercial user of both the national park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, which borders the east side of the ranch, she can incorporate trips into the parks from ranch headquarters. Her focus is on the eastern side of the national park, an underserved area in terms of outfitter proximity. With a dozen or more guiding outfits based in the Terlingua area, close to Big Bend Ranch State Park and the west side of the national park, Tara is positioning herself as the premier outfitter based in Marathon with a focus on the east side of the national park, its adjacent areas, and river trips on the Wild and Scenic Rio Grande.
Taking advantage of her commercial park status, Tara and her partner, wildland firefighter Joe Lorenz, offer guests a multiday hike from the eastern slope of Dead Horse Mountain to the west, landing on the grassy saddle of Sue Peaks in the national park, before looping back to ranch HQ. It offers unique views of familiar park landmarks and rare access to the sky island of the Dead Horse range.
For outdoors lovers who have adventurous canine friends, Dead Horse Ranch is dog friendly, solving the crisis many face of what to do with their dog when visiting the Big Bend.
Tara envisions a happy trail of eclectic lodging options, some of which have already been added, including a one-room lean-to with a front wall that completely opens up to fantastic views. The traditional hunting cabin and main lodge are already available. With books by Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, and topics covering wilderness ethics, local art, natural history, maps, and more, you get a sense that you’re in good hands, and so is this special tract of land called Dead Horse Ranch. Detailed overviews about Hidden Dagger Adventures’ curated community and private trips and other outdoors services are at HiddenDaggerAdventures.com.
By Shawna Graves