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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
Cenizo Summer 2021
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 .
Tara points out where Dead Horse Ranch is located between Big Bend National Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area .
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