Rick Ogan, who is frequently featured in organized tours and local ride write-ups, recently went on an overnight mountain bike ride in the Big Bend Ranch State Park. He was kind enough to allow his story to be told and his pictures to be published. The following is his account of the Big Bend adventure.
I had this crazy notion of wanting to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route sometime and wanted a taste of what off-road touring would be like. The plan was to meet a group from the Permian Basin Bicycling Association in Terlingua for a weekend of riding bliss in Big Bend National Park. So while in the area, why not arrive a day early to try some off-road bike camping. The national park does not allow for off-road biking, so the state park (Big Bend Ranch State Park)was the next best area - bikes are allowed on the trails and in fact are allowed off-trail if one has the know-how and strength for it.
For the planning stage, a few keystrokes to the BBRSP website revealed a 66 page biking guide for the state park. The guide lists the distances, ride time, elevations, ride rating, route surface, terrain, and access areas. On top of the ride descriptions, there was also a map for each route. For a map fanatic, it was like a kid in a candy shop. After looking over the guide, the decision was made to try Ride #24, a 13.3 miles to Fresno Canyon from the trail head at Barton Warnock Visitors Center just outside Lajitas. The ride is listed as moderate, but as I would find out later, it was definitely a difficult ride with a loaded bike.
On the day of the trip, the park ranger advised I may want to camp in the area of the Fresno Cascades/Madrid House area if I wanted to primitive camp in the desert instead of using a park campsite. I had free camped in the desert before and liked it, so camping in the area suggested appealed to me, plus it would cut off 1.8 miles to the night's destination.
|Barton Warnock Visitors Center|
|Looking out towards the "Ranch" from the picnic area at Barton Warnock Visitors Center|
Not a whole lot of training for this ride as it was a spur of the moment camping trip. I had mountain biked at the local state park every weekend for two months, several times riding from my house for a round trip mileage of 36 miles. I guess some would consider that training. One detail I overlooked for the trip was riding a loaded bike off-road. The bike used for this trip had been used for other loaded biking trips, but those previous trips had been on-pavement only. Nothing can frustrate a person more than not being able to hold their line.
The bike - A 1992 Gary Fisher Aquila mountain bike sporting an Old Man Mountain front rack and a Jandd Expedition rear rack. Panniers were two rear Jandd Mountain panniers. Including water bottles, 6 liters of water and a days worth of food was packed for the overnighter. A sleeping pad and tent were packed on top of the rear rack and the sleeping bag packed on top of the front rack.
The weather was to be clear with highs in the low 60's during the day and dropping to the 30's at night, so cool weather clothing was packed including a fleece top and bottom, glove liners, and a knit hat. The glove liners and knit hat weren't needed, but were there just in case. The fleece was used in the morning while eating breakfast and breaking camp.
For navigation, a park topo map was used and a compass packed if I really got lost. I had to use the compass on this trip :-(
Day 1: What was I thinking?
Thursday February 24, 2011, 14 miles (23 km) - Total so far: 14 miles (23 km)
The bikes and camping gear were loaded on the truck and 5 1/2 hours later arrived at the Barton Warnock Visitors Center. After getting a back country camping permit for the paltry fee of $5, I ate lunch at the visitor's center picnic to fuel up for the ride in. The park rangers had been extremely helpful giving me a well detailed topo map (for a small donation)and even allowed me to park my truck at their maintenance building for safe keeping while gone. By the time the bike was loaded and ready to roll, it was 12:15pm. With 6 hours of daylight left, there would be no problem traveling 11 1/2 miles and finding a camping spot for the night. Faulty thinking on my part.
After crossing Highway 170 that passed in front of the visitors center, the bike packing trip officially began. Starting elevation was 2364ft. After the obligatory photo op at the trailhead, I started pedaling north on the East Contrabando Trail. The trail was actually a dirt and gravel road which initially followed a small canyon up into the hills. Camping elevation that evening was just under 3400ft for a net difference of over 1000ft of climbing. The dirt road started off nice enough, with the occasional piles of gravel in the low lying areas. As one went further into the park, more and more gravel was found on the road. After passing the Fresno Mine complex, the road drops down into a creek bed and disappears. The gravely creek bed was impossible to pedal through, so I had to do some pushing... and more pushing. Pushing the bike through deep gravel was quite the chore, the wheels were wanting to slide out and the footing was challenging. At first, the pushing seemed to be part of an adventure, but after taking a turn up a wrong canyon, backtracking and getting back on course, the pushing became a death march of sorts. When I could ride the bike, staying on the smooth part of the track was challenging. Unloaded, the gravel would not have been a problem as I could snake my way through the gravel. With the extra weight of camping gear, the bike refused to go where I wanted it to go and actually zeroed in on the areas I was trying to avoid.
At the Fresno Cascades, the "road" pops back up out of the river bottom and back on to a firmer surface. After resting and enjoying "Cascades", I remounted the bike to enjoy some bike riding - that's what I was supposed to be doing, right? Wrong! Once out of the creek bed, it was either up or down and the roads were covered in gravel. There were two hills I didn't feel comfortable riding down, so off I hopped and walked the bike down. On the same two steep hills, I had to rest numerous times due pushing the bike uphill. Once when I thought of pedaling up the hill, I got caught clipped in the pedals when stalled and over I went. Nothing like being caught under a loaded bike. Luckily no damage to the bike or me. It was times like this that I wondered why I thought off-road bike packing would be fun.
By the time I arrived in the area of Madrid House/Madrid Falls, the sun was starting to get low in the horizon and it was time to find a suitable area to pitch a tent. Easier said than done, The only flat areas were either by the road, stream bed, or by a historical structure. I finally found a flat spot at the top of a small hill that was far enough away from a trail, structure or water source to comply with State Park regulations. I do have to admit the spot was a darn good one, the viewing of the countryside was fantastic and for later on, the view of the night sky was unhampered. Getting the bike and camping gear to the campsite was a bit tricky. After unloading the bike, three trips had to be made to get everything to the campsite. The flat area was barely big enough for the tent, but was quite comfortable during the night. At dusk, several javelina appeared in the streambed down below. After a meal consisting of a muffin, ramon noodles, trail mix and hot chocolate, I retired to the tent as my body was totally exhausted from the tough haul. Total mileage for the day was 14.4 miles including the wrong turn, Time of travel was 4 1/2 hours for an average speed of 3.2mph. Number of people seen on the trail - 0
|The East Contrabando Trailhead|
|Passing by the Fresno Mine|
|The road heading toward Fresno Canyon|
|Leaving the Fresno Mine area and the good dirt roads|