Some weekend rentals come with a cupboard full of Snoopy puzzles you can stare at while your group is waiting for the gummies to hit. Then there’s the real-life, actually mind-blowing visual treats of Chalk Draw, a rental property in far West Texas where you can spend the afternoon hunting down 46 prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs scattered across the ranch’s 20,000 acres before hiking to a mesa where you can take in Santiago Peak, the Rio Grande and the seemingly infinite, whiskey-colored vista stretching deep into Mexico. It’s … kind of a different vibe from your standard Airbnb.
That’s exactly the goal of Explore Ranches, a two-year old Texas outfit connecting the landowners of some of the most epic properties in the state (and a few beyond it) with people craving big views and an interesting place to hang their hat. These rentals aren’t for everybody. For one, they’re pricey: costs range from about $600 to $5,000 or more a night. They’re also remote: Chalk Draw is 60 miles from the nearest town, so Uber Eats will not come to bail you out if you get the munchies (though you can add on a private chef and guide for an additional $500 a night). As with other ranches on the Explore Ranches list of offerings, there are no neighbors at Chalk Draw, but there are bobcats and mountain lions and snakes, and plenty of silence.
And that is just what some folks are looking for: the idealized version of Texas we have in our head but rarely see. It’s a point that Explore Ranches co-founder Jay Kleberg — who grew up on the legendary King Ranch — brought up in his initial meetings. “I had spent eight years with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation doing land acquisition, and you become really familiar with the fact that Texas is 97% privately owned,” says Kleberg. “It’s hard to keep up with the demand for public access to the outdoors.”
Kleberg teamed up with Allison Ryan, who at the time was trying to figure out how she and her siblings were going to manage the care and maintenance of Withers Ranch in the Davis Mountains in far West Texas, and Jesse Womack, a fifth-generation rancher from Victoria County. For owners, putting their property for rent on Explore Ranches opens a revenue stream that might help provide a lifeline to keep a ranch in the family in the face of rising property taxes.
“Stewardship is really important for most of these people — they want their children and their grandchildren to be able to have access to the same experiences and the same landscape that they did,” says Kleberg. “There’s a lot of romanticism around that in Texas.”
Each of the properties is so unique — and some so extremely remote — that the Explore Ranches website provides more information than you might be used to from other vacation sites. You’ll see cinematic drone-shot videos of the property, sample itineraries and details on whether the property is hosted (someone’s staying on site) or semi-hosted (someone will meet you at the gate). Customized experiences are the norm, so Explore Ranches can set you up with fishing and wildlife guides or grocery deliveries in advance.
There are more than 20 ranches on offer now, and Kleberg expects the list to grow to around 30 by year’s end. Bookings, he says, are triple last year’s. When I ask him about the quintessential Explore Ranches property, he hems and haws. Rancho Buena Vida ($5,000/night; sleeps 19) is a sprawling family retreat in Hill Country that’s just an hour from Austin, on a bluff overlooking a spring-fed creek filled with trout and bordered by cypress trees. “It’s surprisingly modern — not what some people might think of as a ranch,” says Kleberg. Then there’s the Hudspeth River Ranch ($650/adult per night) at the source of the Devil’s River — the Caribbean-blue waterway that’s on every in-the-know Texas outdoorsman’s bucket list. “It lives up to its reputation. You feel like you’re seeing something that’s existed as it is for 10,000 years.”
But Kleberg says he holds a special reverence for Withers Ranch ($650/adult per night). The 1,600-acre property is located in one of the deepest canyons in Texas, within the Davis Mountains, “where there are mountain lions and elk and bear roaming around, and the sky is just littered with stars,” says Kleberg. “It’s just wild to be in a place that’s still so remote. I was out there a few months ago with my phone turned off for three days. It reminded me of that book The Nature Fix. I felt myself becoming more hopeful, more creative, more philosophical. I can’t wait to go back.”
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