Head to Big Bend Ranch State Park for the best mountain biking in Texas

Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest highlights desert riding

You haven’t really bicycled Texas until you’ve ridden the West Texas desert, weaving past flat-topped mesas and cactuses that snag your legs just for spite, one eye constantly peeled for a hairy-legged tarantula.

Road riding’s fine, and commuting gets you where you’re going, but biking through Big Bend Ranch State Park feels like visiting the moon. Beyond crunching gravel and clattering stones, you spin through a world that’s eerily quiet, except for the wind. It’s beautiful — thorny plants, jagged rocks and all.

Last month I made my third multi-day mountain biking trek through the park. The adventure coincided with the fourth annual Chihuahuan Desert Bike Festival, a gathering of mountain biking geeks that features guided and unguided rides for cyclists of all skill levels on trails at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park and Lajitas Resort.

But the message here isn’t about the three-day party that drew almost 500 riders this year — it’s about the Big Bend region as the state’s most unique mountain biking destination.

“The mountain biking is great out here, and it’s open all year,” says Mike Long, owner of Desert Sports in Terlingua, a co-sponsor of the laid-back festival. It’s best seen between October and April; otherwise high temperatures might melt your bike tires or wilt your motivation.

Make the eight-hour trip from Austin and you’ll find yourself meandering past an old mining operation, checking out the ruins of a wax factory, zipping around a sparkling mound of white rock crystals that glisten like giant grains of salt or stopping to admire handprints painted on a rock overhang hundreds of years ago.

“A big chunk of it is just where you are,” Long says. “The Hill Country is beautiful, but this is a different kind of scenery — it’s that whole big sky, open country thing. Most people don’t live in an area where they can ride two hours and not see a house. The isolation appeals to folks.”

My husband, Chris, and I, along with three Austin friends, set out on what’s called the two-day Epic Loop, rolling from the Barton Warnock Visitor Center near Lajitas north about 30 challenging miles to the headquarters of Big Bend Ranch State Park at Sauceda. The next morning we got up and added another 27 or so to the tally, looping back down to Barton Warnock on a different road.

Some (superhuman) folks do the entire loop in one day, but I prefer to maintain consciousness — and feeling in my muscles.

That first day was a doozy, with plenty of uphill. Highlights? Scampering up rocky ledges and down screaming hillsides straight out of an old Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon. Single-track sections of trail unfurled like silk ribbons in the breeze, and by the time we rolled into Sauceda my quads felt like they’d been wrung out like dishrags. A lasagna feast whipped up by a cook named Victor fixed that, though, and afterward I collapsed into a giant fluffy bed in the Big House.

Day two was bliss. We rolled out of bed, fueled up with eggs, biscuits, bacon and gravy, climbed onto our two-wheeled steeds and headed toward Madrid Hill, one of the most scenic points in the journey. We panted like spent nordic skiers at the top, glancing back at the desert, which swept away for miles in a prickly, crumpled sheet of greenish-gray.

We plugged up another gorgeous pass called Pila de los Muchachos, careened down the other side, then paused for lunch near the crumbling, abandoned Madrid House, where I flopped onto the ground like a fish flipped out of a lake on a hook.

Something about squeezing every available ounce of energy out of my body makes me deliriously happy, and when I can do that under a bird-egg blue sky, with ocotillo and crazy looking desert grasshoppers parading through the background, I’m in heaven.

I’m not alone, either. Along the way we bumped into other folks exploring the desert on rugged, “29-er” mountain bikes.

“I love the expanse,” Brent Armstrong, 53, told us. He’d driven 12 hours from Lindale to ride the Epic Loop with his wife, Susan, 57. “I love the geography and I love the stars at night.”

“We just like adventure,” Susan Armstrong said. “I love the outdoors, and I like to be able to do whatever Brent does.”

We even bumped into some cyclists from Austin, including Mark Barnett, 48, a member of the exhibits team at the Thinkery.

“It’s just amazing,” he said. “This is the hardest 60 miles on a mountain bike.”

Hard, yes, but rewarding and unforgettable, too.

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