CHUMBA USA Big Bend (1 of 25)After living in Austin, TX for five years I can’t believe it has taken me this long to get to Big Bend, TX.  As soon as we hit the dirt, Kody and I looked at each other and said, “When can we come back?” Kody and I had formulated a plan to do the 60+ mi IMBA Epic Loop trail as an overnighter, adding in as much extra credit as we could fit. Then we planned to use our third day to shred some singletrack without our bikepacking gear. We drove into the brand new West Contrabando Campground on the Southwest side of the park. Views from this very private and primitive campsite were stellar. We woke to find an unlikely visitor in the desert….rain! CHUMBA USA Big Bend (2 of 25)Heading over to the Barton Warnock Center we spoke to the rangers who said the trails were best left to dry out for the day. We took the opportunity to go explore in the adjacent Big Bend National Park just a short drive away.
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Cresting the brutal summer heat and sparatic October 90 degree days, November welcomes in some great temps for Big Bend bikepacking.
Big Bend National Park: We heard there was 50 miles of great sandy road to ride that was likely dry. We parked just north of the Castolon Visitor Center off of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail is called West River Road and is a sloping mix of loose gravel, dirt and sand. Great views just north of the river canyon surround the trail in all directions. We rode a big chunk of the trail. If your looking for wide-open rolling dirt roads with big views and plenty of opportunity for mileage, you could easily make this an overnight and connect this to the Hot Springs 50 miles to the East and then camp at the Gravel Pit or La Clocha. Just be sure to reserve your campsite within 24 hours of the trip and in person at a ranger station. When we spoke with the rangers there, this was the only way to get a primitive campsite reservation.
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Winding down river road.
If you plan on backcountry camping in the National Park (which is totally a different park than the State Park) there are some pretty strict rules to follow. The hardest rule here for bikers is that you have to backcountry camp far from the trail, but the bike must be left at the trailside. No two-wheeled rigs are allowed off the trail. We felt the rules would make anything but the site specific camping challenging. Rules change and evolve, call ahead and get familiar with them. Back in Big Bend State Park: Another night at the West Contrabando brought us a gorgeous sunrise and dry trails. It’s the desert so they dry fast! After some hardy breakfast tacos we set out to the Barton Warnock Center to get our overnight backcountry permit and hit the trails that we came to ride in Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP). The backcountry camping here is very biker friendly. The require that you camp anywhere off trail, practice leave no trace, and learn how to properly #2 in the desert. Again check in with the rangers to double check as the rules change and we need to be stewards of our access to these great areas. CHUMBA USA Big Bend (5 of 25)Nearly, every story we’ve heard of BBRSP riding evolves into a story of getting lost or running out to water, or both. So we picked up a topo map at the Barton Warnock Center with the trail and mileage well marked on it for a few dollars. The “Exploration Map BBRSP” is a great resource. The rangers here are some of the friendliest and most supportive I’ve ever met, be sure to ask them where the water is accessible in the park. There are a number of springs some that are nearly always reliable and some that come and go. When we asked the rangers had lots of advice to offer on what was running and reliable. Don’t neglect to do this and mark the locations on your map. We found the trails to be well marked, but also full of forks and options. Stop in and get some up to date trail info from Mike and his staff over at Desert Sports. These guys ride the area trails often and also provide guided day trips, so they are a wealth of knowledge.”
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Danger: Fun up ahead! A sketch ledge section, I’d recommend walking.
If you have bought the “Exploration Map” then just follow along as you go and be aware of where you are. This is more important here in the West Texas desert then in the high mountains of Colorado where bubbling springs of refreshing cool mountain water are nearly always ready to be stumbled on. Big Bend is very remote, there is little shade and the sun can take a lot out of you even on a cool day. I carried 2 24oz bottles, but also stowed a 2 liter Platypus bladder in my frame bag for back up. The weather was mostly in the 60’s-80’s and we felt really confident having talked to the rangers about where we could refill so we were well prepared. Be your own advocate and bring what you need plus some back up. For the trip Kody brought his CHUMBA USA STELLA Steel 29er and I rode my URSA 29plus BC. We both rode full Wanderlust Gear bag-sets, which are developed in partnership with CHUMBA USA, so we could carry our extra water and be prepared with layers for the warm days and cold nights.
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Kody on his CHUMBA USA: STELLA 29er steel with Wanderlust Gear bagset
The IMBA Epic ride at BBRSP has a good bit of jeep road on it…..but almost always there is a singletrack option lingering nearby and they are all worth adding in. The singletrack is nearly all bikepacker friendly with very little hike-a-bike. A quick study of the topo map from the ranger station shows singletrack options at nearly every jeep road crossing. Doing so easily turns the 60 miles into more of an 80 mile total. Beyond just taking in the amazing scenery, if you are looking to experience the “Epic” of this loop don’t leave out these singletrack sections. CHUMBA USA Big Bend (8 of 25)Our plan was to ride as much of the singletrack as we could, take loads of pictures, and only resort to the jeep road to connect to other trails. Our goal on day one was to make it to a spring midway through the park and then the Sauceda Ranger Station for an easy water refill and camping nearby. Day 1 Starting from the Barton Warnock Center we land on flowy trails right away, warming up on a gradual ascent lined with brushy plants and views of mountain ranges in all directions. We roll down a few times into washes and back up the steep short inclines trying to keep traction. This section of singletrack is called Dog Challa and its obvious to see we are riding it in the lesser of the two directions, but ascending on singletrack trumps jeep road any day. Dog Challa kicks us out eventually on to Crystal trail and then onto jeep road. From here you have a direct option or you can hop on the East Dome Trail
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Testing our traction on the steep and loose singletrack climbs of the Dome Loop.
On the East Dome Trail stay to the right and loop back to connect into the Rincon loop, then up through Fresno Canyon. Rangers recommended nearby springs as a reliable water refill with a filter or tabs. Ask at the Warnock Center if its running or not. From there your next refill is likely Sauceda. Shortly after we enjoyed lunch under the cover of a shady canyon wall.
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Sardines for lunch!
Next up was a slow and steady climb rewarding us with incredible views of canyon walls, giant caves and open vistas.
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Kody, climbing up Fresno Canyon.
Continue on to the Pila Montoya Trailhead and then hang a left towards Sauceda. Enjoy the ridge and the massive view back down into the canyon as your reward for the exposed climb up from Fresno Canyon. At this point you’ve climbed about 2800′ for the day over 30 miles
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My CHUMBA USA: URSA 29+ with full Wanderlust Bagset
The ranger station also has a great supply of your convenience store favorites, Milky Ways, Doritos, and a cold Coca Cola. There are even rooms here you can stay at if self-supported isn’t your thing. We refilled water while receiving some friendly, but confused looks from tired bikers sipping cold beers and wondering why anyone would want to carry more than a water bottle and some gu’s on a ride. Here there a two options: jeep road on the left and singletrack on the right. We rolled over a bit down the 0.6 mile singletrack on the map just south west of the station and set up camp near some large trees that are growing from an underground spring. (meaning this is not a water resupply, the water is underground!) The trees stand in stark contrast to the brushy and cactus laden desert floor in all other directions. This was a great spot to catch some shade while we cooked dinner and then take in the sunset. If you stay here follow leave no trace rules and cathole far from the spring. The site was spotless when we arrived and when we left. Bikepacking Big Bend Bikepacking Big Bend Day 2 This trip Kody and I came prepared. Our last outing together had us rationing one packet of oatmeal and a handful of dried apricots on a day that took too long to get to our restock. So this trip we both packed extra. We feasted on Idaho Mash Potatoes with a can of Rotel (Texan for pickled jalapeños and carrots) mixed in, chased by some oatmeal and coffee. We had planned ahead and filled a couple 2L bladders with camp water and the mornings bottle refills. Extra water is always welcome in these conditions. My friend Eric busted my chops for offering him some of my extra water on a trip to the deserted beach of Matagorda island. We were packrafting back and I had saved up a nice stash of tasty refreshing water while my ride companions were running low. Being the nice guy I am and with the port in sight of maybe a half hours paddle I offered Eric a swig of my extra water and Eric replied “its not extra until we are back sitting in the truck.”  When you’re in the desert, like packrafting back in salt water from a water barren island there really isn’t such a thing as extra water…. If you’ve camped near the spring you’re far enough from the Ranger station to be alone but, close enough to ride back a .5mi and restock water in the morning. Alternatively bring an extra bladder and fill it up the night before to restock your bottles and backup bladder before starting off again. Bikepacking Big BendWe were off to a slow start with our full stomachs so I rolled off to do some field sketches while Kody finished breaking camp.
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I always bikepack with a sketchbook handy to stop and enjoy the trip.
Next we took a wrong turn at an unmarked intersection and rode the Horse Trail. This was surprisingly easy to miss. On the map, we could have easily gone back to the jeep road but, had of course opted for the singletrack. We passed a discretely marked three way intersection, more of a wash and stick pile and turned right. There was a bumpy, rocky bit that we soon realized was the “Horsetrap Trail” and it was looping us away from our days destination, Madrid Falls and then the Warnock Center. Doubling back we took the second option thinking it was the trail designated in the fork of the topo map… that was no good either ending in a wash. The third and final choice, far left, was a bit more rugged and less traveled, but made little difference to my URSA 29+ rig. For Kody’s narrower 29er tires it would be a bumpy ride. The “exploration map” depicts 2 of the three trails, neglecting to include the center trail. The adjacent jeep road is a good alternative. If you do add this bit of singletrack just keep left from the spring and you’ll end up right near Tascate Campsite 2. This is a great example of how trails can change from what is on even the best maps. In an environment like this, even in the cooler temps water is still a precious resource which after our route bungle we were now running through much faster.
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One of the steeper climbs heading South from Sauceda
From here we accessed the Javelin jeep road for a fast descent into a series of short, but steep climbs. At this point your at one of the highest sections of the ride so enjoy the views. One last climb up as you bear right up into the Javelin trailhead. Now you start your roller coaster jeep road descent down to Ojo Blanco.
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Ojo Blanco
Save some camera battery for this descent as the canyon features on your right offer a staggering contrast of a white rock wall shaped like an eye. We went a bit further and then stopped for lunch, taking it easy and cooking up a big meal of mac’n tuna for Kody with curry lentils and sardines for me. Next we hit a digestion aiding descent dropping us into a new canyon of red and green walls. Bikepacking Big Bend Bikepacking Big BendBack on the descent we ripped down some really fun sections of trail and landed in Madrid Falls, where we refilled our water with a Sawyer Squeeze filter. The falls are usually always running and there are ruins nearby of the Madrid house to visit if you have time. The falls are more of a trickle, but the water is clean and tasty. A surprising alley of trees runs down the creek off to your right as you continue down the trail. Its interesting to see the dramatic impact that water has on the landscape here in the Texas desert.
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Madrid Falls
Here we looped back into the East Dome Trail heading now southward and back onto Crystal and Dog Challa Trails. If the whole experience wasn’t rewarding enough these two singletrack rolling downhills left us with huge smiles and wishing we had another day to ride. Bikepacking Big Bend Bikepacking Big Bend Bikepacking Big Bend Bikepacking Big Bend Bikepacking Big Bend

Photos by Kody GibsonVince Colvin, bikes and bag-sets by Wanderlust Gear.

5 Comments

  1. Thorough post about a trip I’ve planned to take for a couple of years (and that I plan to do this month). Anything you would have done differently? I want to do the 60 mile Epic in one day, sans bikepacking. It seems doable, but what do you think?

    • @Robert – Another spot to check out is the Lajitas trail system, which is basically across the highway from BBRSP, and circles around the Lajitas airstrip. The locals rave about this network of singletrack that adds up to around 50 miles total. You can do any number of loops depending on how many miles you want. Lots of cutoff points. I haven’t ridden these trails yet, but I’ve heard they are fast, flowy, and a blast to ride. Not as technical as some stuff in BBRSP.

      Vince and I have been talking about exploring the Solitario next trip. From what I’ve heard, those trails are not as well maintained. Lots of technical riding, and lots of opportunity for hike-a-bike. It’ll be a great test of our skills!

      Check with the Warnock Center about conditions on the Epic Loop. Recent floods have ripped that area up pretty well, and it might be tough to navigate some spots.

      This area has really become a mountain bike destination. I couldn’t be more excited about it.

  2. Hi Robert,
    totally doable in a day, though I would highly recommend not skipping Dog Challah or the Dome trails if your headed there to ride singletrack. Lots of the locals do the IMBA in a day, they even used to host a grass roots race on it. You might want to make sure the water to refill at Sauceda is working, there is so little cover from the sun, even in the Winter you’ll need a water resupply, unless you are a human camel….

    The only thing I’d have done differently is add another day so we could go and explore the Solitario section. You could probably fit that into 2 days, but we went at a more relaxed, exploring and see the sites pace then a knock it out pace. I’m planning to go back soon and do that also.

  3. I also live in Austin, and I also have my eye on a Chumba Ursa 29 BC … and yes, Big Bend Ranch. I first heard of the state park from reading Cass Gilbert’s writing a few years ago.

    I hope to get there (and some other routes, including the Great Divide) some time soon.

  4. Sean Parchem

    Just finished a bike packing trip through BBR and BBNP last week. Another alternative to the Bike Packing adventure is to ride River Road in the NP from the West to East. Vince mentioned it in his story. The place is so different that it will amaze you. Hit the hot springs on the East side, camp at Rio Grande village and get a hot shower. Check out Mariscal Mines historic area at the halfway point if you can. I also think it would be awesome to float through Santa Elayna Canyon with bikes and then do the River Road. If you’ve never been through the the 3 major Canyons in Big Bend they are amazing. You might want to stargaze a bit while you’re out there…. Great read Vince. Mike at Desert Sports is awesome.

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