Back in the Chihuahuan Desert: Bikepacking in Big Bend

There’s a whole load of material I need to catch up with on the blog front… so I’ll start with a recent bikepacking trip to Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.

Texas?

Yes, in an apparent act of teleportation, I’ve disappeared in a puff of smoke from the lush, rainforested Pacific North West, only to pop up again in a vast, brittle-dry desert on the other side of the country. In reality, getting there took many an hour and a meldley of transportation: a 12 hour rideshare from Portland to San Francisco, a 6 hour bus to LA, a 17 hour train ride to Albuquerque, rounded off with 11 long hours by car to the Mexican border…

I first heard about Big Bend on my original ride south; so named for the enormous arc carved by the mighty Rio Grande on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Although the National Park is well known for its grand vistas and dramatic canyons, its the neighbouring State Park that holds most interest for mountain bikers. Previously a working ranch, it was acquired as recently as 1988, and is laced with mile upon mile of roughly hewn dirt roads, as well as enough rock-strewn singletrack for several days of epic exploration.

Similarly, I’m afraid this is destined to be an epically long post. It took such a long time to get there, I figured it was worth a few extra pictures…

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Welcome to big sky, Western Texas. This passing freight train, tugging an endless tail of cargo across the high desert, reminded me of the role played by the railroad in 19th century frontier history. Border skirmishes continue to wage on today, albeit in a different form. What little traffic there is seems primarily made up of Border Patrol trucks, scouring the area for illegal Mexican immigrants, with regular manned inspection points checking for drugs.

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A mural in Alpine depicting the Rio Grande, which flows from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1948 – following the US invasion of Mexico – a stretch of this 1900 mile river has formed the border between Texas and Chihuahua. In the sprawl of El Paso a massive, foreboding fence divides the two nations. Down in remote Big Bend, it looks like it would be as easy as wading across the river to cross into Mexico.

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To break up the journey we paused in Marfa, once a railroad water stop, and now a popular hangout with New York hipsters. Cavernous gallery spaces occupy almost every streetcorner in this Texan backwater. The most notable is the famous Chinati Foundation, the catylist for the emergence of this now thriving oasis of art and culture. Nearby Alpine and Marathon are other small settlements with an increasingly liberal, artistic feel.

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Texas heat is best tempered by ice tea. Ordering from this trendy little cafe involved walking through the old fashioned Tumbleweed Laundromat, where NPR was playing on the radio. 

Marfa. Home to characterful residents. 

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Big Bend takes some determination to reach. Pushing on through the night, we past the border town of Presidio and camped beside the Rio Grande, literally a stone’s throw from Mexico. By morning we’d reached Lajitas, marked by this unexpectedly swanky, Wild West-themed resort and golf course. Even if you’re not packing your irons, be sure to indulge in a cinnamon roll at the adjoining bakery.

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At last. Time to stretch out stiffened limbs and prep the bikes in the Texas sun for our 4 day, lightweight loop of Big Bend Ranch. 

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Desert sustenance. 

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Supplemented with trail munchies. With the window on my new framebag, it’s easy to keep a tab on how many there are left…

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Our steeds, ready to roll. The nerdy might have noted that one of the two is sporting unusually large wheels. For now, I’ve swapped out my faithful Troll for its 29er brethren, an Ogre, on loan from the kind folks at Surly. More on this big wheeled monster in a future post…

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Big Bend Ranch State Park is crammed with tracks of all shapes and sizes. Surfaces range from fast, well-graded doubletrack…

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… to rough, rolling, baby-head strewn jeep trails…

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There’s plenty of well-groomed singletrack too…

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… with fun, twisting trails to negotiate.

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The overlying theme? Rugged solitude. We didn’t see another soul the whole time we were in the park, except at Sauceda Ranger Station. 

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More often than not, these fellows were our companions, the characterful and rather phallic-looking rainbow cacti.

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Or these little chaps, miniature barrel cacti.

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Another Big Bend resident. Spindly, spikey occatillo, traditionally used to make fences.

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Colourful opuntia – paddle cacti – that can turn a shade of burgundy in winter.

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Whoah there. We come in peace. 

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With so many thorny creations mining the trail, it’s a good idea to run sealant in your tyres, either in the inner tubes or by going tubeless.

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Carrying plenty of spare tubes and a stash of patches is recommended…

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Big Bend Ranch is a land of ancient, extinct volcanos and steep sides canyons. Crazy rock formations abound.

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Taking a break near the Rincon Trailhead.

… and back on the road once more. 

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The view down the valley from Pilla Montoya, into the Mexican mountains beyond…

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The trail past Papalote Encino, a back route to Sauceda Ranger Station.

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On the whole, the park is easy to navigate. A few abandonned signposts had our brows furrowed for a few moments.

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A GPS would be useful, but we were fine relying on the park’s detailed topographical map, a highlighter and a compass.

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Riding the dreaded wash. Although the trails regularly dip down and climb out of sandy arroyos – dry river beds – with careful routeplanning and lightweight packing, there’s little pushing involved. Trails like the Rincon Loop stay high and skirt round the worst of the Fresno Canyon, the main offender for energy-sapping sand. 

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Somewhat surprisingly for this swathe of the Chihuahuan Desert, sourcing water isn’t a major issue. There are a couple of reliable springs in the park, as well as several water towers positioned in strategic locations. It’s always worth checking with the ranger station for the latest on what’s dry and what’s not.

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We carried iodine tabs, boiling water for dinner.

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Old Madrid House, where a clump of cottonwoods marked a welcome spring.

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Weather-wise, winter is generally a great time to visit Big Bend. Time your trip a little later, March to April, and you might even experience the flowering of desert cacti.

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Still, the temperatures fluctuated enough to require a full compliment of layers – we read it can change by as much as 40 degrees. As usual, Nancy styles it up out on the trail. 

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In fact, a couple of days were particularly cold and blustery. A 50mph wind whipped through the valley, so we secured the tarp to anything and everything we could find. 

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There are secluded campsites dotted throughout the park. The charge is a very reasonable $5 a site – which gets you a fire pit and a bench – or you can wild camp in designated zones for $3.

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Although a traditional rack and pannier setup is fine for the many miles of jeep trails, a bikepacking style rig is the best option for singletrack attacks. Pack light, as some of the trails can be rocky and awkward in places, and require the odd carry. Here’s Nancy’s Troll, with Porcelain Rocket bags, plus extra water bottles mounted to her front shock. Suspension was welcome on some of the rougher trails.

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Tacking advantage of the Ogre’s rock-munching, 29er wheelset, I stuck with a rigid fork, allowing me to mount two Salsa Anything cages to its eyelets. These lightweight cages are perfect for a Thermarest or groundsheet, though you need to be extra careful when laying the bike down.

Travel light. No panniers required. 

Makes those awkward little pushes a touch easier…

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More big, open spaces as we head out on the Oso Loop. The park isn’t as flat as it looks here, with elevations ranging from 2300 to 4500 ft. 

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And more quirky little rainbow cacti watching us go by. 

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Sublime camping at Mexicano 2.

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Another round of instant porridge for breakfast. Yum.

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And another bikepacking staple. Almond butter, lacquered on to bagels and smothered with honey. The cyclist’s alternative to jet fuel.

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The ride back out onto the Madrid Falls Road after a star-clustered night. 

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Heading back towards Fresno Canyon.

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A couple of cold, overcast and windy days had us wrapped up in all our layers. But as soon as the winter sun popped out, it was shorts and T shirt weather. This was the Texas we’d come for.

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And so was this. Sweet serpentine singletrack on Government Trail.

One last loop around the rollercoasting Contrabando Dome Trail, in an area once mined for precious quicksilver – later known as mercury.

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And then… time to bid ‘gracias y adios’ to the Chihuahuan Desert.

The Lowdown

Getting there:

It’s a long drive down to Big Bend. If you’re heading from New Mexico, the trail network around El Paso – out of Chuck Heinrich Park – is a good way to break up the journey. We travelled down via Marfa and Presidio, and back through Alpine. Gas gets increasingly expensive as you head further off the beaten track. We also signed up with Craiglist, and found ourselves an unusual passenger for half the journey to the border. Kevin was deaf and had no knowledge of Spanish, yet had set himself the task of reaching Peru in four days….

Getting to Big Bend on public transport isn’t possible. The nearest Amtrack station is at Alpine, but as it’s not manned, bike boxes can’t be unloaded there. A notch up on the luxury scale, we met one couple who had flown into Sauceda Ranger Station’s tiny dirt airstrip in a kit plane, and rented Cannondale mtbs to explore once there…

Our loop:

We rode the 3-4 day loop described on page 60 of the free Big Bend Ranch Biking Guide. The weather took a turn for the worse, so sadly we had to forgo the Solitario Loop and content ourselves with riding singletrack around Sauceda.

The trails have been developed since the guide’s publication. We used the Rincon Loop to avoid the worst of the wash that characterises the Fresno Canyon. We linked in the excellent Government Road singletrack when heading south, picking it up past Madrid House – it’s a real highlight. Allow yourself time to ride some of the many other fun singletrack spurs, like Controband Dome loop, as you ride in and out of East Controbando Trailhead. They’re all great fun.

If you prefer to ride your bike rather than spend too much time carrying/pushing it, it’s well worth contacting the park for the latest info on the state of the trails – what’s rideable and what isn’t. Mountain biking is being actively encouraged, so the area is developing quickly. Thanks Dan and Barrett for your enthusiasm and help!

Gear:

We tackled this loop aboard Surly steeds, a Troll and Ogre, filling the inner tubes with sealant. Our kitlist included the usual lightweight packlist, highlights of which were a Black Diamond Mega Light tarp (customised by Blackpaw Wilderness Designs with extra guy points) and a Clickstand denatured alcohol cookset. We carried our kit with Porcelain Rocket framebags – mine is actually from my Troll, but it just squeezes into the Ogre’s frame. I used a pair of Salsa Anything Cages for a little extra capacity.

Maps:

A topo map can be purchased at the ranger stations in Sauceda and Lajitas for $6.

Handy links:

The main Texas Parks and Wildlife site for Big Bend Ranch State Park can be found here.

We found this trip report at Bikepacking.net a particularly useful and inspiring font of information. Check out the video too. The main site is an excellent resource for lightweight, dirt road biking.

An excellent, free pdf of many of the trails can be found here.

Fees:

It’s $3 dollars per day to be in the park. Camping is $3-5 dollars, depending on the type of site. There are free hot showers in Sauceda Ranger Station, plus free wifi. You might be lucky and get cell coverage there too. If you want more pampering, there are rooms and dorm beds ($35) in a beautiful, former hunting lodge.

Supplies:

The border town of Presidio is the last spot with a large grocery store. Lajitas has the basics. Sauceda Ranger Station has a drinks machine and a few candies. With advance notice, the hostel can cook up food.

Next time…

With a few more days, I’d love to have ridden out and back from Presidio to Lajitas, via a 27 mile gravel road to Sauceda. Better still, it would be a real adventure to link up Big Bend State Ranch with Big Bend National Park. Although there’s currently no access to singletrack in the National Park, there are plenty of jeep tracks to explore. A possible resupply point would be Terlingua, where there’s also a bikeshop, Desert Sports, most likely a good source of information on the area.

33 thoughts on “Back in the Chihuahuan Desert: Bikepacking in Big Bend

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      The Ogre is a demo bike, so I rode it with the build kit it came with. I have to say, I really missed the Rohloff on my Troll, even though this particular bike came with thumb shifters, which worked really nicely. Aside from that, I really appreciated the directness of a fully rigid bike, and big wheels really help tame the trail. Shame 29er spares can’t be found for love nor money in South America…

      Reply
  1. rjcarlson49

    My Ogre/Rohloff should be ready next week. Woohoo! I can hardly wait to try it out. I went with a 100mm travel fork though. Comfort all the way.

    Reply
  2. rjcarlson49

    Already got the Ergon grips. I’ve been using them for years on my mtn bike. The rims are Velocity Cliffhangers. That was the recommendation of the guy whose putting together the bike for me.

    I was OK with the orange of the Troll, but when I switched to the Ogre I didn’t like the green. I had him paint it “sulphur yellow”. It’s intended to be the same color as the greenish yellow “safety” color. At least I’ll be able to spot it easily.

    -Bob

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      I’d be interested to know how well they build up with the Rohloff. Because of how large the flange is, in the past, I’ve found only rims with rohloff-specific drilling (like Rigida’s Andra 30) haven’t suffered from broken spokes. Maybe it’s less of an issue with a 700c rim then a 26in one, as presumably the angle that the spoke exits the hub isn’t quite as as acute.

      Reply
      1. rjcarlson49

        Hmmm, I’ll keep an eye out for that. I don’t expect to be very hard on the bike though. The plans I have are the GAP and C&O trails next June, a cross country ride on pavement, and the San Juan Huts at some point. That’s a lot less stress than you put on your bikes.

        -Bob

        Reply
        1. While Out Riding Post author

          It’s more to do with the stress of the spoke as it exits the flange, but I guess that’s exasperated by how hard you ride/how many miles you put in. It’s happened to a lot of people with Rohloffs, at some point or other. I noticed manufacturers like Thorn and Santos only build up their wheels with these kinds of rims.

          http://www.sjscycles.co.uk/mobile/rigida-andra-30-26-(559)-mtb-rim-black-32-hole-rohloff-drilling-prod13565/

          Reply
      2. Mark_BC

        I’ve got a Rohloff on a Velocity Cliffhanger too, 26″. Yes, the spoke seems to bend a bit coming out of the rim but I haven’t had any problems yet, but then I haven’t been pushing the bike too hard either.

        Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Ha! Green in your diet is good! Funnily enough, we always get broccoli. It’s good for you (lots of vitamin C, anti-carcinogenic, and plenty of fibre) and it seems to keep pretty well. It’s also said to be good for the lungs, which is good for me at the moment. Oh, and in Chinese medicine, things that look like things in the body are meant to be good for that organ. Like, walnuts are good for the brain, brocoli for the lungs and olives for the testicules!!!

      My mate James recommends cale, which is super robust in panniers.

      Reply
  3. Simon G

    Couldn’t be a bigger contrast to the Cotswolds! The mud here is taking rolling resistance to a new level…a bit like your pictures from the desert rains last year. Should be out in Guadalajara and Mexico City at the end of the month for work if you happen to be heading South! Caught up with Robin at the weekend…his bikes for the show are coming on nicely! Take care…Sarah and Noah send their love…S

    Reply
  4. Andrew

    Nice update Cass, bagels with almond butter & honey, yum, broccoli less so ! Still turning into a zombie in Liverpool, but I’ve got a 4 week block of leave booked for Oct/Nov and a return ticket to Las Vegas. I’ll be bringing the Nomad over for a circular tour. Dennis Koomen put a great video up here

    , hopefully I’ll be doing a similar route.

    Reply
  5. joelle

    Cass it looks beautiful and that ya’ll are having tons of fun. I am bummed I did not see you again but I have a few questions about off road trails..

    – How do you find them? Is there a website to find awesome trails for long distance trips?
    – Can I swap different tires on my Surly long haul trucker? to go off the road? I like the sound of this better than being on a highway. Or is it even smart to do that..?
    – What would be a good first tour/bike trip to go on? My friends and I have about 2 and a half months this summer for a bike trip in the US. (I remember you said the Great Divide right?)

    If I have more questions, i’ll surely (pun) ask!

    Joelle
    (girl from the co-op in Olympia, WA)

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Joelle! I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet up on my way back through Olympia. I found a great rideshare direct to Portland, so made the most of it.

      Ok. You NEED to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. The whole journey, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, is 90 per cent off pavement. Two and a half months in summer is perfect timing, and you will love it. It’s remote, with wonderful wild camping, but rarely too far from civilisation if you really need – for some reason?! It will be quite an undertaking for your first tour. Definitely a challenge, but very do-able at the same time. You don’t have to ride the whole lot, though I definitely recommend the New Mexican leg if you make it that far south. I’m excited for you!

      All the info you need can be found in the maps that the Adventure Cycling Organisation publishes. Get those rather than the guidebook, which is really out of date. It’s worth joining up with the organisation, as that gets you a discount. The maps have everything you need: profiles, places to get food, camp, water, bike shops etc…

      Your LHT will work nicely, with some knobbly tyres. Anything by Schwalbe will last the distance. Go as wide as you can as there is some washboard to contend with. I’m not sure what you can fit in there, maybe 1.9s.

      I’ll let you know if I make it back to the beautiful Pacific North West. You never do know…

      Reply
  6. northernwalker

    Hi, I am now the proud owner of Troll which is currently in the work stand being built. Forgive the slightly dull question, but did you find the need to reduce the the chain length on the derailleur bike to achieve adequate tension? I am running a Deore set up within capacity but am finding the relatively short chainstays are resulting in plenty of slack in some ratios. Going to do the ‘big ring-big ring’ test tonight but wondered if you’d come across this issue. Best,

    Reply
      1. northernwalker

        As you say, the Park Tools site was, as ever, useful. Chain is too long when the rear hub is seated ‘fully’ in the drop out. I’ve taken a couple if links out and now all is well. Safari njema!Looking forward to reading more.

        Reply
  7. Keith

    I have checked the map of the State park and cannot seem to find the Government trail single track you refer to. Can you tell me what part of the park this trail is in or what main road it intersects so that I can ride it during my trip? Thank you

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Keith, I don’t believe it’s marked on there yet, as it’s a new trail. I’ll see if I can dig out my map, otherwise give the park a ring – Barrett Durst knows all the mtb trails really well, and recommended it to us.

      Reply
  8. Derrick Perrin

    Great post. Thanks for writing. After hearing you can hike for a week and never go without water in the state park I got the bug to go and bikepack in the state park. You either love it or hate it and I’m one of the lovers.
    Thanks again and I cant wait to get a hold of some almond butter coated bagels soon.
    -Derrick Perrin

    Reply

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