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Big Bend Ranch State Park - Epic Experience

Updated: Apr 24, 2019

A day after Christmas 2017, I left home for my first major solo bikepacking trip. I had been planning for weeks and was eager to try this IMBA designated Epic Route. I had done some local rides and felt like it was time for the next step. Driving South out of Alpine, TX the landscape starts to change dramatically and nerves start to twist as mountains appear in the distance. To anyone who lives in Texas, that is something different. Not long after Alpine, cell service cuts out and you pass by a Border Patrol checkpoint. "Getting close now..." I think. As I passed Terlingua things start to take on a different look. Homes, vehicles and pretty much anything you see has acquired a sun-bleached patina.

While in Terlingua, it's worth stopping in at Desert Sports for some up to date info on route conditions, water locations and a top off the tire sealant. I was greeted by a friendly dog and a smiling gentleman clad in cutoff jeans and flip flops with an eye catching white beard. Mike pulled the Epic Route race map out and proceeded to update me on all things including route options and spring/tank status.

I arrived at the Barton Warnock visitors center just before dropping down the hill into Lajitas which is only yards away from the US/Mexico border. The park staff were very helpful and safety minded considering how remote this area is. I had to complete the expected check-in procedures but was also asked if I was carrying a GPS device. After listing my emergency contacts and expected date of return, I headed back to the truck. They will allow you to park down the road a bit near the staff housing area if you are going to be up for several days. I was a tad late on the arrival and it was already approaching 3 or 4 pm so I made last minute adjustments to gear and rolled off.

Considering the late hour, I set a goal to reach the old mining area before finding somewhere to camp. This far South the temperatures were excellent (even in December) at mid 70's during the day and 40's at night. After eating a small dinner I setup camp off the trail and in sight of the mining area. What was interesting during the day leaned towards eerie at night. Laying under the stars I thought about what it must have been like to live there in those old stone housing structures and working at that mine day after day. That must have been a rough time for those people. I assumed I would hear ghostly sounds of mining operations, steel wheels on tracks, or picks hitting rocks but as hard as I listened I heard only coyotes in the distance as I drifted off.

The 2nd day led me further North and around the East side of the loop. I was on the Salsa Beargrease and had 4" tires so I probably held out a little longer than most in the sandy washouts. I still had to get off a few times to push through the ankle deep gravel and sand despite how hard I tried to ride it out. The Fresno Canyon camp area offered a few minutes of map checking to make sure I was still heading the right way. There were several mud brick and stone ruins that are very interesting to stop and explore throughout the day. As I was riding up a good chunk of 2-track I encountered the first person I had seen since I left the day before. He was heading down the same road in his lifted Toyota truck with friends in the back. We chatted for a minute and worked around each other on the narrow trail. Just after this section I took a break to explore the petroglyphs marked by a park sign on the trail.

Around the Northeastern corner of the route there was a cutoff to head toward Pila Montoya but I stayed to the left despite Mike's advance warning.

This decision resulted in the trail turning into a jeep road that quickly became too steep to ride. I dismounted and began a pretty long hike to push to the top. There were a few false summits that revealed even more steep grade after you thought you were almost there. A short while later everything leveled out and the riding continued. From here the surface is as good as it gets. There is a section prior to reaching the Saucedo Ranger Station that is maintained park road, caliche, fast rolling and smooth. I blew into the ranger station looking forward to a hot shower. My original plan was to camp somewhere near this area but I decided to see how the day went since it was still fairly early.

I was feeling pretty beat already but was amazed at how far a good meal and a shower go towards boosting ones spirits. The ranger station had public wifi so I was able to at least email home and check in. I charged some devices and regathered my gear to head out again. I figured I would see how far I got and just keep heading down the road until closer to dark. I didn't know at the time I would still travel another 15 or so miles and wrap up close to a 30 mile day.

There is water available if you are willing to work a little for it. In the bottom of the sandy washouts, where the tall trees are visible, there are springs. They are a little hard to find but I saw water up the stretch from where I crossed. The spring surfaced near some rocks then disappeared again maybe 2 feet away but the water was visibly moving. I dug a small hole and watched it fill up and start to clear the sediment naturally. This was a good spot to take a rest, eat and get my fill of water. After filtering enough to refill all of my containers I started riding again looking for somewhere to camp for the night. I didn't go far - another mile or two ahead I found a level area overlooking the washouts and trees. Clearly others had camped here before so it looked like home to me. I set up the tent by headlight as the sun was setting.

There was a mountain behind me and a sharp drop off in front of me. As I sat there in the darkness looking into the void I had the distinct feeling I was being watched. Primitive instinct maybe - I felt the hair on my neck stand on end and I couldn't help looking behind me up into that dark mountain as it sank in how alone I was.

I never saw anything or heard a sound on the mountain, just a feeling. Awhile later it passed and as I drifted off to sleep I could hear the spring trickling 100 yards below me.

The next morning I rode out early. The rest of the route was fairly fast downhill until I reached the visitors center in early afternoon. As I was checking out with the staff and packing up the bike, I couldn't help but feel almost sad that it had come to an end so quickly. After all the planning and build-up, the last few days had gone so fast. I vowed to myself I would return again as soon as I could.


Trip Highlights:

  • Mind clearing desolation and solitude

  • Breath taking starry skies

  • Historic ruins and finds along the route and the area in general

  • Stop on the way (and after) at Blue Water Natural Foods in Alpine for great grocery and deli options

  • Visit Lajitas after the ride and dip your feet in the Rio Grand while looking over at Mexico

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