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The South Texas grasslands once stretched from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande. Called the Wild Horse Desert by Texians, the region was named for the mustangs that roamed the robust wildlands and was legendary for desperadoes’ lawlessness. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848 and established the Rio Grande as the U.S. border with Mexico, the horses and criminals remained, but their demise came inexorably through the work of hunters, sheriffs and ranchers until settlers, the rule of law and fences took over.
Today, the region provides modern conveniences alongside a hefty dose of history, all accessible by following U.S. Highway 77, a huisache-scented byway, from Kingsville to Raymondville. Start in Kingsville, named for King Ranch founder Richard King. Head first to the King Ranch Museum for an introduction. Housed in the Henrietta Memorial Center, constructed in 1907 to house Kingsville’s ice factory and power plant, the museum displays saddles, guns, vintage cars and photographs.
Now a National Historic Landmark, the massive King Ranch has evolved and diversified. The habitat may be the ranch’s greatest asset, encompassing a wildlife-rich environment that covers more than 825,000 acres of coastal plains, bay shores, thorn scrub, savannahs and grassland. Native species thrive. For a firsthand look, head to the visitors center on the ranch’s Santa Gertrudis Division, just west of town.
Daily bus tours feature views of the ranch’s wildlife and its Santa Gertrudis cattle. See the camp house and pens that are landmarks in the annual roundups. View Henrietta King’s home, built in 1912 after the first ranch residence burned. Or get a closer look at the wildlife and Wild Horse Desert habitat by scheduling a King Ranch birding tour. The tours offer opportunities to explore native habitat. More than 350 species of birds have been confirmed on the ranch, and Tom Langschied, the head birding guide, shows birders white-faced ibis, green jays and brush-loving songbirds.
Back in town, you can visit small-town attractions such as Roy’s Hobbies and Electronics, King Barber Shop and a food truck named Brink’s that serves fresh Gulf seafood. Stop by the King Ranch Saddle Shop to see more of the King Ranch legacy.
South of Kingsville, off U.S. 77 and 8 miles north of Riviera, FM 628 provides scenic access to Baffin Bay. You’ll pass through the community of Vattman where, in 1907, a Minnesota land developer purchased land from the King Ranch, then partnered with Fr. Edward Vattmann and the Catholic Colonization Society of America to recruit families and form communities. Vattman’s church, rebuilt after a 1916 hurricane destroyed the original, remains in use today. The handsome brick building features stained-glass windows imported from Germany. The church hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner fundraiser (as it has for more than 90 years). If you enjoy a home-cooked holiday meal, purchase your tickets early.
Drive another 3 miles east on FM 628, and you’ll arrive at the shores of Cayo del Grullo, where you’ll find King’s Inn, a Coastal Bend landmark. Established in 1935, the inn serves meals family-style. Order shrimp, oysters, frog legs or catch of the day. Fried or grilled, the platters of seafood include hush puppies, an avocado-curry salad and a view of the bay.
Back south along U.S. 77, you’ll find yourself in the town of Sarita, where exhibits at the Kenedy Ranch Museum of South Texas recount the legacy of the Kenedy family. Sarita Kenedy devoted much of her significant inheritance to establishing the Kenedy Memorial Foundation.
Finish up your Wild Horse Desert tour in Raymondville, eastern gateway to the Rio Grande Valley. Raymondville is a farming community with an eye on the future. Its vast array of giant wind turbines suggests that wind power, not ranching, could ascend in the modern age.
E. Dan Klepper is a photographer, author and artist who lives in Marathon.