Trip Report: El Paso Overnighter
"Slowing down" is the reason so many of us get outdoors. Slowing down was the last thing on my mind as I rolled west through Van Horn with the sun sinking lower in the sky, glancing in the rearview at my partially rigged up bike in the bed of my truck, making a mental checklist of what I didn't get done before leaving home, anxious about finding our campsite in the dark. My jaw was wound tight from a relentless week at work and an icy start to my drive (which turned out to be nothing relative to the return trip!). Winding through the hills to Franklin Mountains State Park, hitting the speed bumps in the park a little too fast, missing the turnoff for the group campground--I needed to slow down.
At the group campsite tucked up in a little valley in the mountains, I was greeted by Mick (Navy) and Odis (Army), a crackling fire, a cooler of beer, and the sounds of a desert night. In the distance the lights of El Paso and Juarez twinkled, still close enough to rob us of some starlight. This was my first time meeting Mick, and naturally the conversation went to bikes; we gathered around my Surly Ice Cream Truck with 4.8" tires that are like pedaling a nimble, two-wheeled tractor. Stories of mishaps on the trail and Bigfoot encounters followed, as they do around a campfire; after a couple of hours, a couple more beers, and a couple more sticks of firewood, Josh Junkin and Arthur Saldivar (both USMC) arrived, rounding out our camping group for the night.
The longer we stood around the fire, the more we slowed down from normal life. Mick had the perfect folk-alt country playlist going softly in the background. The stories got longer, the laughter rowdier, phones in pockets, beers running low. Time was measured by how many sticks of firewood remained, and when they were gone, everyone retreated toward their tents, with the Texan-born folks lamenting the cold; I gave them all a hard time about whining on a nice night and tossed my bivvy near the glowing bed of coals of our fire.
The next morning we broke camp and scattered for last-minute gear runs and coffee, to later reconvene at the outlet mall we'd ride out from. We finished rigging up our bikes, biked over to Starbucks to top off on water, and met our last two Trail Warriors as they arrived: David Wilson (Army), who teaches high school physics and runs Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks, and David Smith, currently in the Army at Fort Bliss. David Wilson put together the route and was our guide for the ride, and we rolled out behind him like a flock of mismatched ducklings: three fat bikes, three hardtails, and a drop-bar MTB.
The "don't be such a roadie" rule was quickly in effect, as we looped around the outlet mall, hopped the curb, and crossed a berm at the end of a retaining wall to hit a quiet street through the Canutillo neighborhood. Dogs barked, people waved, we rode at a relaxing pace jockeying back and forth and getting acquainted. We crossed a busy thoroughfare and then the Rio Grande and swung south onto the paved trail running along the river. About four miles in, Wilson cut off across the sandy river bottom and we followed him up to the ditch path, where we were greeted by our first challenge of the day, albeit a fun one: crossing the ditch! There was most of a foot bridge across, but it took some teamwork to pass the loaded bikes across and get us back on the road.
Continuing on the paved paths running along the highway into New Mexico, I was impressed by the bike-friendly infrastructure that makes El Paso a fantastic base for this kind of adventure. Wide, well-maintained paths with safe crossings, criss-crossed with the unpaved ditches that take you through off the beaten path local scenery make for endless options of routes across and out of town, and without an impending winter storm, there's a wide array of local watering holes and restaurants for a post-trip treat.
We rounded the corner onto Airport Road, where the big climb of the day greeted us: 330' or so over 3 miles along the shoulder of a fairly busy road. Not the most stout climb, but on a fully loaded bike with fat tires, you learn to disregard the speed on your Wahoo display. The group stretched out into a long line, and reconvened at the top of the hill. Arthur impressed me on this climb for the first of many times on the trip; previously his longest ride to date was a 20-something mile shakedown ride on his loaded bike in Coahoma, and he rolled up to the group with a smile on his face. The route continued through an industrial park and airport, and we finally hit gravel about 13 miles in as we passed the tremendous rail yard. Ahead dark clouds rolled back and forth, sending cool gusts of wind and an occasional sprinkling of rain toward us on an otherwise warm day.
Over a cattle guard at the end of the railyard the road took a right turn and we stopped and enjoyed the best part of bikepacking: hanging out by our bikes and eating snacks while taking in the scenery, talking about the sights we had seen so far and what the rest of the day could hold. David Wilson made a passing comment about the power lines ahead sometimes giving him a shock , which I filed off as "huh, interesting". We snapped a quick group photo and took off again, with the Davids and Josh leading the pack, I dropped back and pedaled along solo. Eyeing the weather and lost in my thoughts, I suddenly hopped out of my saddle, feeling like I had been swarmed by fire ants all down my legs. I looked up at the power lines above and down at my aluminum seatpost and steel bike and let out an amused "no shit" while pedaling up to the intersection out of the saddle. David's hypothesis: A-positive blood types (like myself) are most likely to feel the shock. Hit the route and let us know!
Rolling along gravel county roads, across the railroad tracks, civilization fell more and more out of sight. Cars were infrequent, the roads increasingly sandy. My preferred style of group riding in a bikepacking situation is riding solo and enjoying the snack breaks and camp together, which doesn't always make for the best ride report, but I enjoyed chatting with Mick about fat bikes and gear selection and trips we had taken as we rode along, and with David Wilson and Smith both about our shared roots in the Carolinas. The moisture in the air made the creosote bushes release just the slightest bit of their aroma, and with the clouds blocking the intensity of the afternoon sun, it was ideal dreamy desert conditions.
Along the way we stopped and checked the water levels of the stock tanks, with David Wilson pointing out the well that supplied and piped the water to all of the tanks, the tanks in turn making the logistics of desert bikepacking far easier with the right planning and Sawyer Squeeze filter. Around mile 25, a few miles from camp at Kilbourne Hole, we stopped at an intersection and David asked if we wanted to swing by Hunt's Hole, which would add a few miles to the ride. We agreed unanimously, and while stopped, marveled at the many years out of date Hammer Enduralytes tabs that Odis produced from his snack stash, which had taken on the form of the tube they're stored in.
The ride to Hunt's Hole gave us some nice downhill cruising along increasingly sandy roads, peppered with some steady, relatively short climbs. Both Hunt's and Kilbourne Hole are maar volcanic craters; when magma rises through the earth and encounters beds of groundwater-saturated sediments, the vapor pressure generated overwhelms the pressure of the overlying sediment resulting in a catastrophic explosion. Hunt's and Kilbourne Hole both erupted through sediments and overlying basalt flows, part of a fascinating story of multiple volcanic events that created the local landscape.
Leaving Hunt's Hole, I had the realization that it was later in the day than I thought, I had drank less water than I needed, and I had eaten fewer snacks than planned. Everyone has encountered that kind of bonk before and knows the effect it can have on morale on a ride, but I was soon distracted by the real fun: the moon dust. Immediately upon leaving Hunt's Hole Dave pointed out that the road ahead was a little steeper and a little more sandy. Rounding the corner, I saw what looked like sandy ruts in a well-traveled desert road, but turned out to be an impossibly fine, clingy, chain-caking moon dust. At every stretch we encountered the entire group was hooting and hollering, and the fat bikes finally had their time to shine; to the credit of the Davids, they both did an impressive low-gear, high cadence spin through some stretches. Arthur cruised along grinning ear to ear and Josh cruised along at a fast clip, both clearly digging their first time bikepacking.
We rolled into camp at Kilbourne Hole with the sun dropping toward the horizon, and began setting up camp, neatly packed bikes exploding into piles of food and stoves and warm layers of clothing. Canister stoves hissed boiling water; we seemed to have a pretty good split between Mountain House-type meals and variations of instant mashed potato dishes (my personal favorite), and as the sun set and dinner was finished, it was time for a fire.
Even exhausted, nothing motivates a bunch of men in the wild like the promise of a roaring fire, so by the time I finished eating, wood was gathered and burning. Cigars and flasks were produced, and we quickly got down to the important subjects, like who had the best "that's what she said" joke of the day?
As quickly as the fire had been built the rain arrived, with a cold blast of wind and a sudden smattering of raindrops across my forehead. With every inch of sky hidden behind clouds and the wind whipping, we all retreated to our shelters. I pulled my bivvy a little closer to the creosote shrub above my head, getting a little bit of a wind break, and settled in for what could be a nasty night as I heard tent poles and rain flies thrashing around in the wind. Around midnight I woke up to a still night and starry sky, the only sounds now being the dueling snorers nearby.
A cool morning greeted us with the promise of fair weather and fun riding. I boiled water for coffee sitting in bed, enjoying the pace of a morning in camp. Breakfasts were eaten, a second round of coffee, visits to the shrubs were made, all the time everyone telling stories of camping trips or rides past, lamenting what ached from yesterday, and just enjoyed hanging out in the desert with nothing to do but what we were doing right then.
We stopped at a nearby tank to fill up on water for the day's ride, where we realized Josh was missing. Everyone saw him leaving with us, and he definitely went the right way, right? Our speedster showed up a few minutes later, laughing that he realized he made a wrong turn when nobody caught up. Taking turns with the filters, we filled up with some of the best tasting water I've had in a while (if you're on Midland city water, you know), and watched birds flitting around in the shrubs around the tank. A short bit down the road, we stopped for pictures with the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument sign to commemorate the ride, and then took off in earnest toward town. The roads were smoother and we were all moving faster than the day before after the initial brain and body wake-up of the first few miles.
The group reconvened at intersections, taking longer breaks than yesterday with fewer miles to ride ahead, eventually backtracking over the previous day's route. After crossing the railroad tracks I ended up riding with David Smith for what we though was a couple of miles, chatting about the state of the world and, keeping with a theme here, bikes, all at a pace that was far faster than I thought a fat bike could be capable of. It turned out to be seven miles, and we rolled up to meet Dave Wilson and Josh at the top of the drop-off pack to town pretty pleased with our riding. Arthur, Odis, and Mick soon arrived, and we all exuberantly took off in pursuit of the reward for yesterday's climb: the fast, winding descent on gravel. From here the route returned to pavement on quiet roads with courteous drivers, through the agricultural town of La Union, past an ostrich, and back onto the Rio Grande trail system, where we were greeted by a brisk headwind, bringing in the cold front and winter storm.
Though the wind tried its best to beat us back to where we began the day, we eventually arrived at Canutilla La Union Avenue, our turn back to the outlet mall. Back across the busy road, up the hill through the neighborhood, and hop the curb back into a shocking amount of civilization (even after just 24 hours) that is a Saturday morning at an outlet mall. We meandered through the traffic of shoppers, and more quickly than I realized loaded up our bikes into trucks and vans and were ready to take off for a drive into the first wave of the winter storm that could probably warrant its own trip report.
The scenery of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and the surrounding area is unmatched; like much of west Texas and New Mexico, it is its own landscape shaped by unique geological and human history that can't be replicated. The Trail Warrior route is included below; get out and enjoy it on your own, or join us for our next expedition!