If you’ve never experienced the bliss of launching yourself into a thorn-bedecked cactus, hopped over a tarantula on a bicycle or clattered over a hill of white glistening crystal, we have a suggestion: Do it. Now.
It may sound punishing — and yes, in fact, it’ll cost you some wear and tear on your hide — but the scratches and stab wounds will quickly fade, leaving behind the happy glow of desert-induced bliss.
Pedaling down a snaking gravel path toward an abandoned mine shaft seriously blows away an ordinary scuttle down the nearest Austin bike path. (Not that I’m opposed to city riding. I bike to work almost every day and find myself tooling around the neighborhood on the weekends.)
I just returned from a trip to the Big Bend region, where I spent a few days backpacking a remote corner of Big Bend National Park, then headed farther west to Big Bend Ranch State Park, where I unloaded my mountain bike for a day of desert rambling. It’s something I try to do at least once a year, and this year’s trip coincided with the excellent Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest, where mountain biking geeks can camp out, join in all kinds of guided or unguided rides (including one that focuses on geology), then drink beer and play games (including bike tossing!) at the end of a long, quad-scorching day.
Biking through sprawling and scratchy Big Bend Ranch feels like meandering across the pocked surface of the moon. Pick up the required park permit at the Barton Warnock Center about 15 minutes west of Terlingua first, then head across the street to the trailhead. From there, you can hop onto a fairly smooth gravel road that’ll take you all the way to the Whit-Roy Mine.
Don’t do that. The best part about biking at the park comes when you scoot off that main road onto the twisting, rolling single track of the Dog Cholla Loop, the Fresno Divide Trail, the Crystal Trail and the Dome Loop. It’s like riding a roller coaster on your bicycle, with enough dips and dives to make you a little woozy. For a much bigger challenge, head to the challenging Fresno-Sauceda Loop Trail, which the International Mountain Bicycling Association has named one of only two “epic” mountain bike routes in the Southwest.
This year I just had time to ride one day, so I stuck to the down and dirty single track.
But I’ve made a trio of three- and four-day bike expeditions through the desert in the past few years. Be forewarned: It’s tough, in a push-your-bike-through-patches-of-sand sort of way. But those sandy patches are few and far between now, thanks to some slight trail rerouting, and the experience is more fun than a basket of tarantulas. Besides, those big West Texas night skies will make your heart well up with happiness, as will setting up a portable toilet underneath them. (Pack it in, pack it out.)
If you’ve got two days to ride, also consider what’s called the Epic Loop, rolling from the Barton Warnock Visitor Center near Lajitas north about 30 challenging miles to the headquarters at Sauceda. You can spend the night at the bunkhouse there, freshen up with a hot shower, cook your own food and get on the trail again the next day, looping back down to the Barton Warnock Center on a different road. Along the way, you’ll spin through a world that’s at times eerily quiet and punctuated with thorny plants, jagged rocks and a couple of monster hills.
Tough riders turn the Epic into a one-day ride, but I prefer to stretch things out and enjoy the desert a little longer. Regardless, it’s a trip best done between October and April; otherwise high temperatures might melt your bike tires or wilt your motivation. If you’ve got a friend who doesn’t like to cycle, talk him or her into providing support and meeting you at some of the backcountry sites so you don’t have to haul food, water and tents on your bike.
And prepare for a little misadventure along with your adventure. I once flopped into a cactus, embedding thorns so deep in my side that the last few finally popped out a year later. Another time I was tossed from my bike and bashed my shin on some pesky boulders. That’ll happen. In between those moments, you’ll find yourself scampering up rocky ledges and down screaming hillsides straight out of an old Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon, and it’s so much fun you’ll yip like a coyote.
A few of my favorite spots out there? The top of Madrid Hill, where you’ll pant like a spent Nordic skier as you take in a gorgeous, 360-degree view of the never-ending desert, and Pila de los Muchachos, where you’ll want to stop to drink in the scenery before careening down the other side on your way to the crumbling, abandoned Madrid house.
You could spend days exploring Big Bend Ranch State Park, which sprawls over more than 300,000 acres. Just remember to fill your hydration pack, carry a map and bring plenty of snacks. Pack spare bike tires and tubes, too, and basic tools in case of mechanical problems. Self-healing Slime tubes are a must.
Remember that most of the miles in the park don’t come easy, and the terrain is harsh. But the effort brings a sense of accomplishment that sticks around a lot longer than the scratches on your skin.
IF YOU GO
All visitors to Big Bend Ranch State Park must obtain a park entry permit, which can be picked up at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center 1 mile east of Lajitas on FM 170. Specific campsites at the park can be reserved by calling 432-358-4444. Beds are available for rent in the bunkhouse at the Sauceda Ranger Station inside the park. For more information, call 432-424-3327 or go to tpwd.state.tx.us, click on State Parks & Destinations and follow the links to Big Bend Ranch State Park. To learn more about biking at the park, look under the publications list on the Big Bend Ranch State Park page for the link to “Big Bend Ranch Biking Guide - The Other Side of Nowhere.”