Woodward Ranch is an oasis on the desert and a wonderland of red plume agate and beautiful gemstones
Woodward Ranch, south of Alpine, is an oasis on the desert spreading north from the Big Bend in the Rio Grande. At the base of an ancient volcano on the ranch, worlds collide in a rugged harmony.
"Between the cattle, the deer hunters, and the rock hunters, we manage," Trey Woodward says in a slow but steady Texas drawl. He's the fourth-generation steward of a 2,400-acre ranch his ancestors began in 1884 and the third-generation Frank Woodward. "I named my son something else so that he wouldn't have to be called 'Cuatro,'" he says with a big smile and a laugh.
Built like a fireplug and with the friendliness of a minister, Woodward welcomes visitors to his world. This would be a great place to visit even if it weren't the only place in the world to find red plume agates. As blood-red on the outside as the cliffs that rise above the ranch headquarters, inside the biscuit-shaped rocks are quartz and gemstones that can be polished into beautiful colors and shapes.
There are more than 60 different kinds of agate found on the ranch, as well as labradorite, quartz, amethyst, fluorescent calcite, and Texas' only precious opal. More than 40 million years ago, a volcano began forming the gemstones by burying the area in lava more than 750 feet deep. Over the centuries, water seeped into pockets formed by gases leaving behind minerals and forming quartz crystals.
Woodward is happy to show visitors around his rock shop next to his home. The store was the original Big Bend National Park visitor center. A siding of red rocks found on the property hides the old wood walls. In the facade are white rocks in the shape of the ranch's brand – an inverted turkey track.
Besides being a rancher, Woodward and his wife, Jan, are lapidaries. They can cut the red plume agate wafer-thin and then polish it to a smooth finish. When the Texas sun shines through the rock, it releases a West Texas sunset of colors.
Featured in the shop are jewelry and polished rocks by Texas craftsmen, but the highlight is the rock collection begun by his father. The specimens come from around the world and show a diversity of minerals. His father and mother were featured in National Geographic magazine for their geology work.
In a small room off his living room, Woodward shares heirlooms from the ranch's more than 100 years of operation. He even has the blanket that his mother was born on.
The rock fireplace in the living room is a showcase of rare geological finds. Woodward points out the whimsical shapes of the rocks with a running commentary. "A fireplace will warm you three times," he says with a sly grin. "When you cut the firewood, when you haul the wood to the fireplace, and when you clean the ashes out." A furnace does the actual warming of the ranch headquarters.
Along with rock hunting, the ranch offers visitors full recreational vehicle hookups to enjoy the cool summers and mild winters in the high country of West Texas. For those whose homes are not on wheels, the ranch rents a rustic but comfortable cabin that has air conditioning, heat, a full kitchen, and will sleep up to 10 people. Downstream is a primitive campground for tent campers. "It's in a really beautiful grove of oak trees on the creek," Woodward says. "It's a great place to get outdoors or to just do nothing."
Woodward Ranch is 16 miles south of Alpine off TX 118. Visitors are welcome to hunt for gemstones for $2 per person and $2 per pound for the good rocks. Or you can rummage through the piles of rocks around the yard at the rock shop for $5 per pound.
Besides rock hunting, visitors can bring their mountain bikes, horses, or all-terrain vehicles to ride the dirt "roads" around the pastures. The ranch is also on a migratory route for birds and butterflies, and the views seem to stretch almost to the national park 60 miles away. For information about the ranch, call 432/364-2271 or go to www.woodwardranch.net.
868th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.