Mountain Biking The Big Bend

Glenn Spring Loop and Old Ore Road
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Glenn Spring Loop

Here you have a 35-mile loop that is one of the more popular mountain bike rides in the park. You are going to start from a remote location (Glenn Spring) and make a counterclockwise loop around the west side of Tally Mountain following Black Gap Road. From where Black Gap runs into the River Road, you will cut back to the east, by the ruined Mariscal Mines and Mariscal Mountain, over to the river at Solis Landing. From there you will pass the remains of a couple of dwellings made of piled stones, near the river, and then head away from the Rio Grande and back up to Glenn Spring.

This ride rates high on the difficulty scale. As usual, this is not due to technical challenges but because of the loose surface of the double-track and from the isolated nature of all the places you will visit. Plus, there are some areas made tough by the nature of the terrain and the significant elevation changes. We are riding on loose sand, gravel, and rock, and we are in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. There is no place to stop and get a drink or make a call if you get in trouble. And there are no 7-11 stores along the way, so you had better start this ride well prepared to be on the trail for several hours, like at least half a day. Maybe all day if you stop and waste time taking pictures the way I do. Carry extra water and food and your stainless-steel underwear, because this ride is for tough-butts only.

The Glenn Spring Loop will take you past more interesting stuff than any other ride in the park, except maybe the Old Ore Road. The scenery ranges from a really neat old water crossing made of poured concrete and local stone to old mining and residential ruins to a foreign country. Mexico is a stone's throw away across the muddy Rio Grande. The area around Glenn Spring is interesting to explore all by itself. The ruins of the village and the surrounding terrain make for a ruggedly beautiful picnic area, if you like, and the ride along Black Gap Road is fascinating. Be sure to get the Glenn Spring brochure from the headquarters at Panther junction so you will be able to find all the historic stuff.

General location: East of the Chisos Mountains, south of the park road in Big Bend National Park.

Elevation change: The junction of Black Gap Road and Glenn Spring Road lies at just about 2,600'. From there you go up and down a little on Black Gap Road until you hit the open desert, then it is a big-ring cruise to the cutoff for the mine ruins. From there you gently descend to 1,900" and the Rio Grande mud at Solis as the road winds around the mud holes. The jaunt over to Rooney's Place is easy, and when you turn left onto Glenn Spring Road you will climb gently through more open desert until you are back in Glenn Spring. This last leg gives you a 600" climb spread like mayonnaise over roughly 9 miles of desert-floor wheat bread.

Season: Stay away from here if it is raining heavily or threatening to. The roads are all crisscrossed with runoffs, and these can make the road impassable if they fill with rushing agua. Again, as in the other rides here, the summer heat will keep all but the most insane cyclists hidden inside with their air conditioners on full.

Services: You're kidding, right? There is nothing out here, folks. If you need water or other supplies, you had better load up before you head to Glenn Spring to start the ride.

Hazards: As in every other ride in the park, the loose surface of the road is going to make for extremely dangerous cornering if you try to push the limits. Don't just stop your bike and plop yourself down by the road without examining the area for unwanted neighbors like snakes and scorpions. Any other humans you see that are not on bikes should not be approached; they could be the bad guys. If they are wearing uniforms, okay, but otherwise stay far away from them.

Carry a tool kit, pump, patch kit, and spare tubes. This area is not driven on anything like a daily basis, and if you break down you are stranded a long way from any form of help. It will be just you and the candelilla plants and the javelinas.

If you take the side trip down to Solis Landing, you will be very near the actual"big bend" in the river. Mariscal Canyon, at the river end of Mariscal Mountain, is the namesake for the Big Bend Country. A canoe trip through Mariscal Canyon is about the only way to see the canyon, and it is definitely something worth trying. Take a day off the bike and ride a raft. You won't be disappointed.

Rescue index: Not good. Bad, in fact. If you need help, your best bet is to hike back to the pavement by Nugent Mountain, or if you break down farther down by the river, head on over toward Rio Grande Village. Carry a map for just such an instance. Remember the advice the park brochures give you about building an "X" or large "HELP" from rocks if you are stranded. Maybe in a year or two a helicopter will fly by and see your message. Don't hold your breath.

Land status: Once again, this is all Big Bend National Park. Nobody will ever turn this into discount stores and strip shopping centers.

Maps: Great maps can be had at the headquarters, or sometimes at bookstores in cities. Remember cities? The folks around here do, vaguely. The quads for this ride are Glenn Spring, Mariscal Mountain, Solis, and San Vicente.

Finding the trail: Go east on the park road from Panther Junction about 6 miles, to the turn for Glenn Spring Road. Turnright and head south on this"unimproved dirt road" for about 8 miles, until you reach the place where Black Gap Road splits off to the right. This is just past the southern end of Chilicotal Mountain, very near Glenn Spring. You may park near the road junction in one of the cleared spots along the road. Head roughly southwest on Black Gap Road until you reach another road that cuts off to the left and heads around the northern end of Mariscal Mountain. This will be about 3 miles past the trailhead for the Elephant Tusk Pack Trail, marked by a sign. This trail heads off to the north from Black Gap Road and into the Chisos Mountains.

After you turn toward Mariscal Mountain, you will be on the River Road and soon will be among the ruins of the Mariscal Mine. Mariscal is the Spanish word for "marshal" or "blacksmith," and it is believed that these areas got their name from a local resident, someone long ago in the forgotten past. You will stay on the River Road after exiting the mine area and soon will find yourself needing to turn left at the split for Solis Landing, about 5 miles past the mine. If you ignore the turn, you will find yourself at the river after about 1.5 miles. If so, you may want to take advantage of the shade around one of the more popular camping spots along the river.

In the opinion of many Big Bend mountain bikers this is the best piece of riding. This is a shot along Black Gap Road, the first leg of the Glenn Spring Loop. After this you gradually head over to the ruins of the Mariscal Mine and from there to the Rio Grande River.

After the turn at Solis, you will be heading roughly northeast, and in about 4 miles you will find the turn for Glenn Spring Road. If you stay on the River Road about half a mile past the Glenn Spring turn, you may take another road to the right and visit the ruins of some dwellings. Rooney's Place is what is left of an old homesite about a quarter of a mile from the River Road. Turning off the River Road onto the Glenn Spring Road will find you climbing steadily for 7 miles or so until you are once again at your parking spot near the ruins of Glenn Spring.

Notes on the trail: I expect that you are smart enough to look at maps and see that it would be possible to ride the River Road from the east side of the park near Rio Grande Village to the west side of the park near the Cerro Castellan and the village of Castolon. The River Road would probably be a good ride for an overnight camping trip or a day ride for a couple of hammerheads, but there are reasons why I have not suggested doing the whole thing here. Most of the people you will meet along the river are not your friends. In fact, if you were riding there and saw a group of people crossing the river carrying garbage bags or brown paper packages, you had better be thinking about hiding and not being seen by them. I have heard too many horror stories of people disappearing along the river. Some speculate that they were killed by drug dealers coming across the river with a load of heroin.

I am not kidding around about this. Friends of mine who have spent years on the river say they have never seen anything they thought was suspicious, but people do disappear from the park occasionally, and no one knows where they go. There is illegal alien traffic across the river and through the park from time to time, and you may see Border Patrol vehicles or airplanes while you are riding. The illegals probably would not be a threat, since they are trying to get through here as fast as possible, but the druggies could be big trouble if they spotted you spotting them.

Be careful along the river-the dangers are not all of the snake /insect /crash-related variety. There have been cases of people (kids, I think) on the Mexico side of the river taking rifle shots at rafters running the rapids on the Rio Grande. As a result, I pretty much stay away from the river and will not advise you to ride along there any more than just to make this loop. There are no other reasons one could not make a nice leisurely camping trip out of the River Road ride. just keep your eyes peeled, and stay out of sight if you see anything suspicious.

Old Ore Road

This is the hardest ride in the park, partly because of the distances and tough riding involved and partly because it must be done as an out-and-back. If possible, make arrangements to have you and your equipment shuttled to the Dagger Flats end and recovered at the Rio Grande Village end. Or vice-versa, depending on the direction of the wind. If you attempt this ride, you will be tackling 28 miles of, surprise, loose gravel and rock called a "primitive four-wheel-drive road." The Old Ore Road is exactly what the name says: the route used by wagon trains hauling quicksilver from Boquillas to Marathon, nearly 100 miles to the northwest.

The area known as the Big Bend Country was really booming around the turn of the century and until about the time World War II started. At one time there was ample grass for grazing cattle, until overgrazing wiped out this natural resource. The hot springs brought people from near and far, and the mining and candelilla wax factories had a relatively high number of workers living in the area. All this is gone now.

Around the turn of the century, Pancho Villa and his banditos raided local villages and generally made nuisances of themselves with the residents of the area, until finally the cavalry came to the rescue in the form of the U.S. Army's Buffalo Soldiers. This brought an end to the raiders and outlaws that had replaced the Indians as the enemies of settlers in the Big Bend Country.

Speaking of Indians, they used many of the tinajas and really good camping spots since the beginning of man's reign in the park area. Until they were decimated and replaced by people of European descent, they ruled this land; they were the true masters of the mountains and desert. Their horsemanship was unparalleled, and their expertise in survival skills will likely never be seen again. They could live here, really live here and love it. Think about that as you ride the Old Ore Road. You are just some of the many travelers who have passed through the Tornillo Creek/Ernst Basin/Dagger Flats area.

Like I said, this is probably the hardest ride in the park, but it's also one of the prettiest. You will be offered views of beautiful high cliffs and fields strewn with their boulders, and you will pass through areas of high desert that are bordered on one hand by strikingly colored badlands and on the other by far-away mountains that seem to float above the horizon in the distance.

A few of the places you will pass bear significant history. Dagger Flats Is this huge wasteland of flat, open high desert country. It gets it's name from the numerous giant yucca plants, otherwise known as Spanish daggers. Another notable place is McKinney Spring, whose name came from a couple who settled this area and eventually discovered one of the richest quicksilver veins in the area. You will drop from the open desert of Dagger Flats into McKinney Spring and through a sheltered valley that forms the portal to the rolling hills you pass on your way to Roys Peak, named for Roy Stilwell, another early resident. South of Roys is the turn for Telephone Canyon, a hiking trail, and a primitive campsite. When the army was here defending the settlers from raiders, they built a telephone line from here back to headquarters, hence the name. At La Noria (Spanish for "the well") there was once a village, now in ruins. The village's name refers to the tinaja in Ernst Canyon, and the canyon and tinaja were named for M. A. Ernst. He lived there as postmaster, peace officer, and owner of The Big Tinaja Store until he was killed in an ambush a few miles north.

You should try to get an early enough start to allow time to explore some of the side roads. An even better idea is to camp at one of these primitive sites, if you have the ground clearance and do not mind getting a few scratches on your automobile. Without a winch and four-wheel -drive you should not attempt to go farther into the desert than maybe five or six miles from either end. There are places where the road barely exists, because, true to its word, the National Park Service does not maintain this to be driven by normal automobiles.

Of course, the ideal way to see this stretch of the park would be to camp it by bike. If you have the cojones, this would make an ideal two-day trip, starting at Dagger Flats and riding to Candelilla or Ernst tinaja to spend the night. Carry enough water to outlast the time you intend to spend on the trail. Figure at least a gallon a day, because it is so dry here that you will become dehydrated in a few hours if you do not make a serious effort to drink constantly. Even in the winter. Dehydration leads to, at best, cramps and unhappy campers.

General location: The Old Ore Road runs from the park road near Rio Grande Village straight north, roughly paralleling the eastern border of Big Bend National Park.

Elevation change: Where the Old Ore Road meets the pavement of the park road, the elevation is almost exactly 2,050". From there you will gradually work your way up to about 3,000' at a point about halfway between Roys Peak and McKinney Spring. Then you drop to about 2,850" going through McKinney Spring and wind back up to 3,150" just before you hit Dagger Flats Road and turn around.

Season: Watch for conditions that might contribute to flash flooding; if the water gets over the road, you are stranded. The summer heat here can fry your brains, as well as burning your skin to a nice tomato-like color.

Services: The store at Rio Grande Village is only a few miles to the east of the southern trailhead, and it is open year-round, including Sunday. The 7-11 store at La Noria is closed, hahaha. Get it? There are no facilities of any kind at either trailhead or along the route.

Hazards: Take everything you have read in other chapters about this area and multiply it by ten. You will probably not see another soul through here, so traffic is certainly no concern. Desert plants, snakes, and insects are always a danger, SO PAY ATTENTION. The surface of the trail is loose almost everywhere and could take you down if you lose concentration for a second. Rescue index: You might want to get your affairs in order before coming here-as in, get your "Last Will" current. If you crash and burn, it will be days before you are discovered. The only way out is to go to one end of the road or the other. Under your own power. Period.

Land status: One more fine part of Big Bend National Park.

Maps: You would be smart to pick up a topographical map of this area. The headquarters has some excellent ones for less than $10. There are many spots you might miss without good information-information that is well worth "less than $10." The quads for this ride are Boquillas, Roys Peak, and McKinney Springs.

Finding the trail: This gets a little complicated, because we have choices, so choose based on prevailing winds.

South (Rio Grande Village) trailhead: Drive east on the park road from Panther Junction about 15 miles, to the sign indicating the left turn for Old Ore Road. Go north, to the top of the hill, and park in the small clearing on your left.

North (Dagger Flats) trailhead: Drive north from Panther Junction on the park road that becomes US 385 to the turn for Dagger Flats Road (about 13 miles) and go right (east). Go 2 miles and take the first road going south. This is the Old Ore Road.

Notes on the trail: Take plenty of film, because there are numerous good photo-ops during this ride. Carry plenty of spare tubes and your tool kit, and do not start this ride if anything is out of order. It is too remote and too severe to be taken lightly. When you have ridden the Old Ore Road, you may consider yourself an expert on surviving rides in the Big Bend Country.

Between Ernst Tinaja and Candelilla there is a grave on the east side of the road. Stop and pay your respects. This guy's relatives still come over from Mexico to put flowers on his grave.

I don't know why, but I found this to be a real spooky ride. Perhaps I am just superstitious, but Dagger Flats gave me the creeps like nowhere else I have ridden. The Alto Relex area of cliffs is stunning visually, and the badlands between McKinney Springs and Dagger Flats can be absolutely beautiful in the light of the setting sun.

Take a pal, take the day, and take a deep breath. They quit making places like this when they broke the mold making this one.

© 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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