Mountain Biking The Big Bend

"The Land of Razors and Easy Death"
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Whoa Nellie, this is it. The Big Bend Country is the most interesting and historic part of the state, and the most haunting.

Mountain biking here is the ultimate test of a rider's survival skills, endurance, and courage. The area I am leading you into is all within the confines of the Big Bend National Park, therefore all mountain biking is restricted to"anywhere you can drive your car," according to the park rangers. All single-track is strictly off limits to bikes. This might seem like a killer for fun riding, to the uninitiated, but not really. All of the "primitive" or four-wheel-drive gravel/dirt roads in the park are open to you and can provide some of the most picturesque and enjoyable riding you will find anywhere. While generally light on technical challenges, they are heavy on aerobic intensity. These roads still give you access to back-country areas never witnessed by most park visitors. And they stretch for miles.

It would be a mistake to visit Texas for mountain biking and not see the Big Bend Country, even though driving there is a day-long affair. The Spaniards called this region of the state el despoblado, "the uninhabitable region," and it takes its present-day name from the northward curve the Rio Grande takes on its route to the Gulf of Mexico. The Rio Grande del Norte or Rio Bravo, famed river of myth, legend, and movies, forms the 900-plus river-mile border between Texas and Mexico. The river is a popular destination for canoe and raft enthusiasts, and since you drove all the way here I would strongly suggest that you hire a guide and float part of it if at all possible. Especially if you might never come back to this area. That is the only way to see the fabulous canyons in the park.

The Big Bend Country is the land of razors and easy death. There are probably a hundred different ways to die within a mile of where you are standing. The dangerous-plant warnings issued for other parts of the state were just a warm-up. The plants here are vicious, and every one has thorns or needles. If you lean into a bush while negotiating a curve in the road, you will come away bleeding. And if you have been leaving the patch/toot kit and pump in the car until now, dig it out. This is no place to get stranded far from your car because of a flat or mechanical failure. Maybe cram an extra tube into your pocket too. Or water bottle or energy bar. Es no caca.

Carry more water than you think you will need, because the arid "high desert" air will surprise you. Sweat evaporates so quickly here that you will not even realize you are dehydrating, so force yourself into a habit of drinking constantly. Using a CamelBak is a real good idea, and keeping some bottles in your cages, too, will keep you out of trouble. I have a pal who has backpacked the Big Bend twice a year for 20 years. He and a friend decided to do the Glenn Spring Loop after reading an article in a popular cycling publication (data provided by yours truly) and thought a CamelBak would hold plenty of liquid for the 35 or so miles to the river and back. They ran out of water with over 15 miles of climbing ahead of them. In 100-plus degree heat. They were moving a tenth of a mile at a time and then resting. Not a drop of shade within 10 miles. Death in the Big Bend is quick, easy, and always at hand. Don't jack around. Be a Boy Scout (be prepared) and be on your best behavior.

The terrain here is high desert, with mountain ranges thrown in to provide interesting scenery and varied climate zones. The area in the Chisos Mountains known as The Basin is very interesting. It is a hidden, protected, nearly circular valley in the center of the mountain range. The Chisos Mountains are where most of the wildlife lives, and also the site of one of the campgrounds you can go to if you want less-than-primitive camping facilities.

There are no mountain bike trails in The Basin. Driving in, you will pass a sign that indicates the point along the road that is exactly one mile above sea level. And that is not anywhere near the highest point in the park. Pretty cool, huh?

The weather can be your enemy here like nowhere else. The rainy season is roughly from June to October, which is summer in the rest of the state. A storm you never saw coming can cause flash flooding that will strand you in the outback as it washes across (or away) the road in a mad torrent. DO NOT attempt to cross flooded water crossings. Several people have tried, and some of them died. The fall, winter, and spring are excellent times to ride here, because the summer heat is brutal. It is not uncommon for the desert floor to reach 115 degrees by noon, and shade is not a feature of the Chihuahuan Desert. Plan your trips accordingly, and take plenty of sunscreen and water. And inner tubes. Survival here is seldom by accident.

Make note of the fact that in the "Rescue index" section of each ride I mention that you will often be very isolated, hardly ever seeing automobile traffic on the dirt roads. Let me also point out that the nearest hospital is over 100 miles away and that the next ambulance up the road is probably 40 miles away. Let that frighten you if nothing else does. Wear a helmet when you ride, and ride like you mean to stay alive. Don't get to cooking along at top speed and pushing the envelope like an 18-year-old; it would not be a good idea to get hurt out here, even a little. Let your conscience be your guide, and use your best judgment. I have a dead friend who never came back from this part of the country. He was blasting down a hill with no helmet and something happened. No one knows for sure what.

In spite of this bevy of warnings, let yourself be enchanted. This place is intoxicating. I waited too many years to find myself looking out across the desert toward the Chisos Mountains. There are so many beautiful and interesting places here that you just have to keep coming back until you have found them all and decided which ones are special for you. It seems most folks who have fallen in love with the park will not tell you where their favorite camping spots are; they prefer to keep them secret to preserve the solitude of that special location. And they go every year, just like clockwork.

The best way to enjoy riding in the park is to bring what you need to survive unsupported in the desert for several days, camping at one or another of the primitive campsites. You will typically be able to reach miles of unpaved double-track from many good campsites. I cannot devote enough space here to describe all the campsites, because there are just too many. Don't be bashful—ask the rangers to give you pointers on the locations that are available. Make your selections based on their descriptions and on whether or not they advise you to try and drive to these locations.

The main park roads form an upside-down T, one crossing the park from east to west and the other forming the vertical portion of the T where it ends at Panther junction. The east/west road will be called the main park road from here on, as it is the only one with any real bearing on our rides. It exits the park on the western side to become TX 118 and run through Study Butte, Texas, and it ends in Boquillas Canyon to the east. Driving five miles on these "unimproved dirt roads" can take an hour. Successfully negotiating these roads is basically a matter of a) how much ground clearance your ride has; b) how much you value the paint job; and c) whether you have a good spare tire. Carrying two spares is a good idea. Sometimes four-wheel-drive and a winch will be required to get past washouts in the road, but this is just on the roads with "primitive four-wheel- drive" designations. Ask the rangers; they gave me excellent advice on whether I could reach certain spots in a full-size two-wheel-drive pickup truck. The rest of the roads in the park are of the unpaved variety.

There are so many cool places here that I will not attempt to take you to them all. The best way to find out where neat stuff is would be to ask. The rangers are extremely helpful and informative, and people you meet along the way can usually give you dependable information. Plus you might want to buy some of the guidebooks at the headquarters. That is how I found the derivations for place-names and where the interesting points along the roads are.

There are many fascinating stories in this area, especially those that explain the names of places in the Big Bend. In the early 1900s the army visited the region to map and catalog the area. The story has it that in 1903 a meeting was called by M. A. Ernst (of Ernst Tinaja and The Big Tinaja Store fame) to record the names of all the places in the Big Bend and the reasons they were so named. The inhabitants were concerned that the army guys would call everything Boquillas this or Boquillas that, since Boquillas was about the only name people outside the region knew.

Digging into the history of this area is going to turn up some fascinating stories. The famed Buffalo Soldiers spent some time in this area taming the Indians and banditos and helping the norteamericanos to settle the land. The banditos are responsible for a lot of the history here. They used to come across the river and raid villages in the area that now forms the park. They killed a lot of locals and raised a bunch of hell back in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Judge Roy Bean, the famous "Law West of the Pecos," held his nineteenth-century kangaroo courts over in a place called Langtry, near the park. Many people passing through this area found themselves at the business end of the hangman's rope as a. result of the judge's special form of justice. Not a nice man, but he loved his Lily Langtry painting.

Hiking is probably the ultimate way to see the best parts of the park. Take your hiking boots and try to take a day away from the bike to hit one of the many awesome trails. The South Rim Trail and Pine Canyon Trail both come highly recommended as "must-sees."

It should be noted that historically the hikers have been the off-road group most involved and interested in the Big Bend. That will change if I have anything to say about it. I think this place should be a mecca for mountain bikers seeking memorable off-road experiences. If you go and you like it, join the Big Bend Natural History Association and get involved with what is going on in the park. In spite of ourselves, we might someday have access to more than we do presently, and there are some places in these 800,000 acres that would make awesome destinations for mountain bike trips. Mexico keeps talking about a 1. 5 -million- acre biosphere preserve that might be a reality someday, just across el Rio Bravo.

When setting out to camp in the park's primitive areas, remember that special permits are required. You must complete an application at the headquarters before you pitch your tent. Consider how many potential "primitive campers" there are wanting to use this place, and balance that against how far into the future people will be coming here. You will see it is best to follow the code of these hills: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints. Many people will follow you to share your campsite after you are gone. Please leave it the way you found it, or cleaner. Sanitation and litter are critical issues in the park. You are expected to carry a shovel to dig a hole to go to the bathroom in, and to pack used toilet paper out with you. The stuff takes forever to break down in the desert.

I think the thing I love the most about the park is that it is so isolated. The solitude is profound. The park is primitive, and the only conveniences are small gas station /convenience stores every 30 miles or so on the pavement. Bring what you will need to live, and bring your camera and lots of film. This place is unforgettably exciting and breathtakingly beautiful.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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