Turn HD off if it is slowBig Bend Ranch
There aren’t too many places in Texas to do long rides away from civilization. Fortunately we have a couple of options in Big Bend that are worth the trip. One such place is Big Bend Ranch State Park. This park is relatively young and is still being developed. In fact, it is being developed with mountain biking in mind and recently received an IMBA Epic designation for one of its trails. The park is massive, covering over 300,000 acres. Elevations range from 2300 ft to 5000 ft. Most of the trails are old jeep roads. Some have been graded and are relatively smooth, some are occasionally graded and are pretty rough, and others are never graded and are lucky to see some effort to remove some of the more sinister thorn bearing plants. There is some very nice single track in the park as well, primarily the Contrabando Dome trail…but there are other places and more that is being developed.
This trip covered much of the currently rideable trail in the park. There are lots of other places to ride, but they are more overgrown or too much unrideable deep gravelly creek bed. This should change in the coming years and I could easily see a 150+ mile route within the park as a possibility. I think it could be done today even, but there would be a fair amount of unpleasant riding to do and water would be a big factor in the western parts of the park.Day 1: Barton Warnock Center to Jackson Pens campsite
This was billed by two people who know the trails pretty well as a very difficult day. We intended to stay in the Solitario at Tres Papolotes, but were talked into a shorter ride. The concern was that the Fresno creek would be very slow to ride in spots due to the gravel in the creek bed. True, it was very slow in spots, but you don’t spend a whole lot of time in the creek bed and are usually on trails that are above the creek.
We left about 9:30 in the morning and arrived at camp about 2:30 pm. The elevation change is around 2000 feet for the day and there is not too much up and down in between. We did not hammer to make it there at 2:30, but we didn’t screw around too much on the way either. We did check out the Smith Crawford House ruins, one of the abandoned mining sights and enjoyed the view from the Pilla Montoya 3 campsite, but otherwise we were riding. There was plenty of water from the spring at the Smith Crawford House as well as the pilla (water tank) at Pilla Montoya 3 on the main road. Check with the rangers to verify all water sources beforehand. Jackson Pens has a nice pilla at the top of a hill that has plenty of water as well. You don’t have to refill from the livestock troughs which are close to the tanks and don’t look very appetizing.
About half way north on the trail, the route gets a little ambiguous. The trail will seem to lead into Arroyo Mexicano (as named on the park topo map), but you want to keep north and to the right a bit and stay on the Fresno trail. This is right before the Fresno Canyon Campsite. There is a sign post with no sign and the creek is very wide at this point. The trail will go up and out of the creek in this area.
The Jackson Pens campsite is close to water, but otherwise is not the most interesting place to stay. You do have plenty of opportunity to see wildlife (and cows) since the water is so close. This is also a bad thing at night with all the critters clamoring around. We opted to pitch our tents inside the livestock pen since it was so flat, clean and kept the javelina and coyotes out.Day 2: Jackson Pens, the Solitario Loop, to Los Ojitos campsite
Since we camped at the head of the Solitario and we would be coming back out the way we went in, we decided to leave our tents and sleeping bags off the bike for the trip. This ended up working out nicely since there were some steep up and down climbs, especially on the Burnt Camp Trailhead which does not allow vehicle traffic. There is some loose rocky steep climbing and descending, but it is beautiful to ride in. There is no water in the Solitario, but we had the option to refill at Jackson Pens or Pilla Montoya once we got out. The east portion of the Solitario is relatively easily compared to the west side. Make sure you take a good look at an overhead view of the Solitario before you start the trip. It is a very unique and amazing geological formation. Knowing what it looks like from above will lend a better appreciation of the rocks viewed from within.
Once out of the Solitario the main park road is well graded and just has some washboard on it. The trail head at the Papolote Encino campsite is a very nice detour to the north from the main road. It’s pretty much downhill and almost single track trail. Some of the ground looks like it would be loose rock, but it stays tight and traction was never a problem.
We stopped at the Sauceda ranger station on the way to our campsite to get a couple of candy bars (sold in the station) and cokes (vending machine outside) as well as take a hot shower. The showers are available 24 hours. You have the option of staying in a pretty nice bunkhouse at Sauceda if you book in advance, but we decided to move on to our campsite about 1.5 miles away at Los Ojitos. This is a beautiful campsite with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and mountains. Spectacular sunset and sunrise. To our surprise the campsite had plenty of wood for a fire just as Jacksen Pens had. Day 3: Los Ojitos to Barton Warnock Center
This was the longest and hardest day of the trip. Lots of climbing up and down on the Oso Loop trail and a significant amount of hike a bike in the Chorro Canyon creek bed (I think that’s the name of it). We hear that conditions change a lot so it may be more rideable in the future, but its about a mile or 2 of pretty loose and deep gravel. There is a nice spring after the Madrid House. It’s hard to miss since everywhere there is a spring in the park Cotton Wood trees grow. Just head left at the cotton woods and you will see the spring trickling down the rocks (assuming its running).
We decided to hit the Contrabando and Dome Loop single track on the way back in. This is some great single track and not to be missed. Some good sights on the way as well. We took the west contrabando trail out of the park and onto the pavement of River Road. Its one of the more beautiful highways in the country with the canyon walls on the Mexican side towering above for a good portion. Views of the Rio Grande are nice as well. 7 miles of pavement and we returned to our starting point just before sunset.
Mike Long at Desert Sports is working closely with Dan Sholly and the Texas Parks and Wildlife staff to help make better trails in the park. I think we are near the beginning in a long evolution of a more bike friendly park. There are a lot of trails and jeep roads out there today that would not be very nice to ride due to overgrowth of devil bushes and excessive time in washes. More of that will become rideable as trail is developed to be more MTB friendly. In the meantime, there is plenty to keep you occupied for two or three days at least. You are also very close to the Lajitas Trails which are a blast to ride. Very flowy and fast.
This park is great if you want big country, long vistas and solitude. If you want long rides in an amazing setting you will be happy.
Water is the primary issue out here. However, there are quite a few options to get more of it if you have a filter. There are working pumps and livestock tanks as well as active springs. Check with park personnel before going out there to verify water sources as the Biking Guide was not completely accurate.
For our trip we had opportunity to get water at the Smith Crawford house, Fresno Cascades, Pilla Montoya 1, Jackson Pens, The Sauceda Ranger Station and the Madrid House spring.
Main Park Web Page: http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/big_bend_ranch/
Desert Sports (they KNOW Big Bend!): http://www.desertsportstx.com/
This trip is largely based on the last ride described in the Big Bend Ranch Biking Guide, “The Other Side of Nowhere”. http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_p4501_0152l.pdf
The only difference is that we added the Contrabondo/Dome Loop trail on the way back to Lajitas.
Closed Canyon Hike
Starlight Theater in Terlingua
More pics: http://s769.photobucket.com/albums/xx331/GFisher_photos/BBRSP%20-%20Dec%202011/?albumview=slideshow&direction=reverse