By Beth Nobles, Texas Mountain Trail Region
From the saddle, I whiz past mountains, yell “howdy” to ranch cattle, and glance up to see hawks circling a crisp perfectly blue sky. My saddle isn’t on a horse, but it doesn’t matter. I have the frontier to myself; the last car passed 30 minutes ago.
There’s something special about cycling the roads and trails of Far West Texas. Pick your speed; take things as slow or as fast as you want. Power yourself down mountain passes. Dawdle and you’ll spot the red blossoms of claret cup cactus. There’s time to look, think, sweat, imagine. You’re free, not confined to the metal box of a car or a truck. There’s great riding for everyone.
A couple of years ago, Big Bend Ranch State Park’s Fresno-Sauceda Loop earned EPIC status for their mountain biking trails by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). One of only 44 trails worldwide earning this designation, the Loop offers highly technical sections on single-track and old 4×4 and jeep roads, as well as easier sections alongside historic routes, old cinnabar mines, ancient rock art, and old homesteads. A 68-page guide, downloadable from the park’s website, helps visitors plan their adventures. A mountain biking guide can be hired through the park itself (call 432-358-4444 for information) or an outfitter can provide a complete experience.
Nearby Lajitas Golf Resort also offers mountain biking experiences and bike rental. And while Big Bend National Park doesn’t allow bikes on trails, mountain bikes are allowed on any road—paved or unpaved—within park boundaries.
El Paso’s Franklin Mountains used to be hard for visitors to navigate by bike, but with GeoBetty’s new mountain biking maps available online or at local shops, the trails are suddenly accessible to everyone. An L.A. Times reporter called the trails “downright punishing,” to the delight of experienced mountain bikers.
Typically held mid-January, El Paso’s Franklin Mountains host the El Paso Puzzler with long ride competitions of 35 and 50 miles, plus a 10-mile fun ride. The Chihuahuan Desert Dirt Fest is held at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park, and Lajitas Golf Resort in February. There’s an organized ride for every mountain biker, starting with a 10-mile kids ride to a two-day EPIC ride through Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Once they see our low “traffic” numbers, city cyclists can’t wait to get out on our roads. Flat, easy routes are as likely to take you past scenic vistas and interesting historic spots as those with challenging mountain climbs. And with little to no interaction with motorists, our Far West Texas communities are a dream location for cyclists. The Texas Mountain Trail has several Heritage Bike Routes online for you to discover, including:
- A family-friendly, 10 mile (5 miles out, 5 miles back in) route past formal gardens, a historic cemetery, near a Buffalo Soldier and Comanche encampment, to a desert oasis with waterfowl and wildlife, called “Ride to the Post.” Starts in Marathon.
- A 55-mile ride from the historic 1930s cattlemen hotel, Hotel El Capitan, to the base of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The “El Capitan to El Capitan Heritage Bike Route” travels along completely unspoiled mountain scenery described as “the most weirdly beautiful stretches of country to be found in Texas.” Nearby is the site of the last Indian battle in the state.
- Fort Davis’ Scenic Loop is a goal for many of Texas’ best cyclists. With a starting elevation of just over 5,000 feet to a peak of 6,260 feet, the 74-mile ride takes riders past the famed McDonald Observatory, and through the charming community of Fort Davis. Total elevation gain of 3,146 feet makes this one of the most challenging and scenic rides in the state.
Touring cyclists with loaded panniers are a common sight in the region, as our mountain communities sit on Adventure Cycling Association’s cross-country Southern Tier route. Tour groups as well as solo, self-supported riders travel this route through El Paso, Sierra Blanca, Fort Davis, Alpine, and Marathon, on the route which stretches from Florida to California. Some of the best bike tour companies offer organized, supported rides through our region. The folks at Adventure Cycling also promote shorter routes, including our own two-night adventure, “Texas Mountain Ride!,” which features a loop from Marathon to Fort Davis, to Marfa and Alpine before ending at Marathon.
Planning Your Cycling Adventure
The Texas Mountain Trail organization lists a variety of lodging properties offering special services to travelers with bicycles. From historic hotels to friendly B&Bs, from established chain motels to independent motor courts and casitas, the range of properties all allow bike parking in rooms and have pumps ready for flat tires. Some offer sag service or have basic bike tools on hand. To learn more, see the full listing here.
Regardless of where you ride–road or trail–take a few tips from local cyclists. First, bring lots of water with you. You’re in the desert and you’ll need to keep hydrated. Second, tire shredders are everywhere—cactus thorns, agave tips, sharp rocks. Plan ahead. Put slime in your tubes. Bring spares and plenty of CO2 cartridges or a good pump. Definitely bring a patch kit. Third, ride early or late in the day to avoid the strongest rays of the sun; wear protective clothing and sunscreen.
Whether you hop on your saddle for a brief spin around our charming small towns, or an EPIC ride on a rugged mountain trail, there’s great adventure waiting for you on bicycle in the Texas mountains. Check out the Texas Mountain Trail cycling page for updates on events, routes and cycle-friendly hotels.