Bikepacking Big Bend: The Other Side of Nowhere

  • Distance

    90 Mi.

    (145 KM)
  • Days

    3

  • % Unpaved

    100%

  • % Singletrack

    50%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    96%

  • Total Ascent

    6,388'

    (1,947 M)
  • High Point

    4,605'

    (1,404 M)

Contributed By

Logan Watts - Pedaling Nowhere

Logan

Pedaling Nowhere
A three day bikepacking loop in Big Bend Ranch State Park, based on the epic route that's aptly titled 'The Other Side of Nowhere'.
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It’s a long drive down to this remote border region of Far West Texas. After miles of not much of anything, you’ll round a corner to be greeted by the beautiful, jagged vista of the Chisos Mountains. Fittingly, the base camp town for the route is a tiny and quirky desert hamlet called Terlingua Ghost Town, nestled beside one of only two national parks the Lone Star State has to offer: Big Bend National Park.

While Big Bend NP’s dramatic landscape is certainly worth a visit, its neighboring hermanito, Big Bend Ranch State Park, is the place that draws mountain bikers, with it endless stretches of singletrack and epic jeep trails. The relatively new park is laced with 230+ miles of rideable off-road tracks, an IMBA Epic, and countless options for backcountry camping. The former working ranch is spread over a beautiful 300,000+ acre tract of Chihuahua desert canyonlands carved by the Rio Grand.

Most of the park lies in elevations between 2,500 and 5,500 ft. Although the trails are based on old jeep roads, the park has been nurturing mountain biking as a salient activity, and there are now great stretches of well-hewn singletrack, most notably the Contrabando Dome Loop. The riding surface ranges from smooth and fast lines to technically rough and rocky features. There are long and flowing sections, as well as tight thorny areas with periodic ledges and dips into sandy and loose rock washes. These amazing desert trail conditions can throw a bit of everything your way.

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Epic singletrack: Crystal Trail and the Contrabando Dome Loop.
  • Zone camping near Chorro Vista with unbelievable views. #leavenotrace
  • The interesting flora and fauna of the Chihuahua Desert.
  • The remote roads of El Solatario.
  • The utter silence and immense starry skies.
  • A post-ride beer on the porch the Terlingua Trading Post next to the Starlight Theater… try a Big Bend Frontera IPA.

When To Go

  • Temperatures in Big Bend can fluctuate over 40 degrees in a single day. We were there in January, and it was 80 degrees one day and under 40 the same night.
  • Weather can turn on a dime. If there is significant rain, the mud can become overwhelming… almost like concrete on a bike. Check the 5 day forecast before setting out.
  • This route is probably best ridden in spring or fall, although the winter months can be great if timing is right and you don’t mind sub-freezing nights.

Logistics

  • There are free printed maps available at the Barton Wornock state park welcome center. Also, you can buy a nice weatherproof foldable map for $6.
  • The Barton Wornock park station is where you’ll pay the State Park daily entrance fee (waved if you have the TX State Park Card) of $3 per day. The park allows extended parking here for bikepackers and the station is conveniently located beside the East Contrabando Trailhead.
  • The local bike shop in Terlingua is called Desert Sports. Stop in before your ride and talk to Mike.

Dangers and Annoyances

  • This route can be ridden with any mountain bike, however, a tubeless setup is highly recommended. There are spiny plants everywhere and flats are a regular occurrence in this part of the world. Be sure to pack a few spare tubes and a patch hit as well.
  • Water is scarce; before you set out, talk to a ranger about which tanks are active.
  • For staging, there are several camping options. The most affordable is the state park camping about 10 miles from the Barton Warnock Park Headquarters. Sites are $8 with a basic composting toilet; no running water.
  • The State Park requires a daily entrance fee (waved if you have the TX State Park Card) of $3 per day. Also, a backcountry camping fee of $5 per site per day os required.
  • Zone camping is now required, which means that sites need to be away from existing backcountry sites (of which there are only a few) by 1/4 mile.
  • There are free hot showers at the remote Sauceda station (about halfway through the route). Also, they have dorms available in a former hunting lodge.
  • All of your food must be packed, although the remote backcountry Suaceda Ranger Station sells Cokes and a few snacks.
  • Water is slightly tricky. There are several tank/wells along the route, but most were dry when we were there, except for the large tank at Tres Papalotes on the Solitario loop. There is running water at mile 49 (Papalote Encino) and Sauceda. Also the Madrid House spring was flowing very well, but requires filtration. Before you set out, check with the ranger station to find out which tanks are full.

OUR ROUTE

Day 1: The four day route featured in the park Ride Guide suggests an initial 22 mile pedal that ascends into the park through the stunning Fresno Canyon, around the Rincon Trail, and breaks for camp in the viscinity of the Pila Montoya backcountry campsites. We chose to ride all of the singletrack spurs up canyon and it was well worth the extra effort. We found a nice spot to camp on a ridge that would catch the first rays of sun after a 30 degree night. The park has recently instantiated a bucket toilet rule for backcountry camping, so bikepackers are encouraged to use a zone camping rule (away from designated backcountry sites).

Day 2: We started up the Pila Montoya section of trail and quickly tackled the loop around The Solitario, an amazing and remote network of rugged jeep trails that climb over rocky desert and descend through washes. Both the inner loop and outer loop trails in the southwestern corner of The Solitario are pretty rugged, but right now the Inner Loop is in better shape, save a long hike-a-bike over the pass. Leaving The Solitario we found a camp spot near Papalote Encino and awoke to a bluebird day.

Day 3: Day 3 was a short day of only 16 miles as we found an amazing zone campsite near Chorro Vista. The site had near 360 degree views of the Rincon mountains, Fresno Canyon, and the Chisos mountains of Big Bend National Park… a great spot to relax and marinate in the view.

Day 4: We left camp and rode down rugged tracks that quickly devolved to fast singletrack and led to the Madrid house and spring. The desert came to life around the spring and we welcomed the shade of the first trees we’d seen in days. Our route was capped off with a counter-clockwise blazing fast ride around the Contrabando Dome Trail and on the way back to the Barton Warnock Center, we revisited the Crystal Trail and Dog Cholla with grins on our faces.

Difficulty

This route is not terribly difficult. The elevation profile is fairly standard and the terrain is mixed. There are a couple of technical sections that may require hiking for intermediate riders.

Rideability

Most of this route is pedalable, save a couple of tech places; if you are riding skinnier tires (less than 3 inches), the there are a few stretches of soft sand washes that will more than likey have to be walked.

Resources

  • fleetwood

    Amazing scenery. Sounds like a fun route. Great pictures as usual. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks! I highly recommend making the trip down there; especially in the winter… a couple of 75 degree sunny days in mid January is pretty great.

  • AndrewO

    We have 2 national parks, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is about 4 hours north of Big Bend in the Texas Panhandle. I’m not trying to nitpick, it’s just a beautiful place that oftentimes gets overlooked in favor of Big Bend. You don’t really hear about mountain biking there, I’m pretty sure it’s not allowed, but it’s an awesome place for backpacking and other outdoor adventures.

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Ah, good correction… thanks. I will make that update once I get around wifi.

  • mellowvelo

    Thank you for sharing this! I just scheduled a mountain biking trip to Big Bend State Park in February for the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest, an annual celebration of these trails. When you grow up in Texas as an outdoorsperson, Big Bend–both the state and national parks–are sacred places, and even after moving to Colorado, my husband and I try to make the pilgrimage back to “our” parks whenever we can. To note on a previous comment, however, mountain biking is almost universally not allowed on national park trails. Guadalupe Mountains NP is a special place, for sure, but not a place for fat, knobby tires. Cheers. Katherine

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks for the insight. We are tempted to go back down for Desert Fest. The folks at Desert Sports are awesome and I am sure it will be a great time!

  • Andrew Wade

    Thanks for the write up and beautiful photographs! I’m planning on doing this route in March. Any reason it can’t be done on a CrossCheck with non-tubless Fire Cross 45c tires? I was planning on using sealant and maybe Tuffy liners.

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks Andrew! It should be doable, but you may be walking a few sections. There are countless washes to ride through on the route and they are typically very deep gravel and sand. Also there is a lot of very rocky technical riding with ledges, baby-heads and loose shale.

  • http://nomadicjustin.com/ Nomadic Justin

    Awesome pics, Logan! We are headed out to ride this very route in a few weeks. Pretty much the height of summer but we all live down here so cycling in the 90’s isn’t unheard of.

    Thanks for a great write up!

  • Deannasaurusrex

    Planning on heading down to ride with my packing fat set up. Think it’s ill advised to get fat out here with all of the pokey plants?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    I think fat will be fine, and fun for the wash rides that are on route! A tubeless set up is highly advised.

  • tylernol

    i have been going out here almost every year for the past 10 with a group of friends to mtb and stay in Terilingua, there used to be a the xc series opener out here in Feb but it got canned after land issues. now we just ride the trails. It is awesome riding.

  • Amber Styers

    Anyone have any advice on how to prepare for the epic ride for beginners. I lived in Lajitas at one point and always wanted to take this adventure, now I want to prepare and actually do it. Any advice is awesome.

  • Mason Hakes

    Could I ride this with a Fuji Touring with 700cc/38mm tires?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Just saw this; sorry for the delay!! You could start by using our Bikepacking 101 guide. Pay close attention to the water sources and make sure to ask the rangers which tanks have water….

  • mikeetheviking

    Heading out here this weekend:)

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    You could. I probably wouldn’t choose to ride it with anything smaller than a 2.2″ tire.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Nice!!

  • mikeetheviking

    It is finished!

  • http://www.bigboxpro.com/ Derrick Perrin

    Yea, it is not allowed in Guadalupe Mountains State Park. You can ride the Williams Ranch 4X4 road and that is it.

  • Patrick Farnsworth

    Great write up! As a native Texan and mtn biker its disgraceful that I haven’t been out there to ride. A friend of mine is a park ranger there and he’s agreed to do this trip with me. I’m curious about your thoughts on the Solatario Loop? MTB Project doesn’t even list this as a trail option and I understand there is a good bit of hike-a-bike. What are your thoughts on this loop for bikepacking?

  • IamThatRanger

    The entire west side of the Solitario loop (the “lower shutup” trail as it is called) is very difficult. A LOT of hike-a-bike. Almost the entire remaining portion of the loop is old jeep road and is ride able. Difficult, but doable.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Yeah, unless you camp out there, you can also unload and stash your gear and ride it unloaded, if you wish. Makes it a little easier.

  • adbirds

    Great review! I’ve been wanting to ride Big Bend SP and Guadalupe Mountains Natl. Park soon as possible. Shared to my page at http://www.facebook.com/THCBikeTours

  • Clayton

    What type of filter would you recommend for this trail? I’m planning on heading there in February.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Nothing special. The Sawyer Mini is my go-to filter…

  • Clayton

    Appreciate the feedback! Any sediment to worry about?

  • Jake Kruse

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/934a4078c2bba31653f59f5038172b21e4a795e016ada9eb7280d59e9dfff8b0.jpg

    got out and rode a slightly modified version of this route over the thanksgiving holiday. the jeep roads and trails on the east side of the park up to the pilo montoya sites and over to sauceda ranger station have been recently maintained and were in in excellent shape. the western side of the epic loop including the primero trails is in considerably rougher condition. lots of overgrown grabby vegetation and wash outs. amazing trip, already thinking about planning another visit. thanks for this guide!