Thursday, March 10, 2011

Big Bend Ranch State Park

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
Equipment and Preparation

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

The beginning of the trail through the riverbed

A house in the middle of nowhere

Running water would switch from being on the surface to going under the sand and gravel. Just below the Fresno Cascades.

The Fresno Cascades

The campsite for the night was on the other side of those hills. Some walking was involved.

Day 2: Biking Nirvana
Friday February 25, 2011, 11 miles (18 km) - Total so far: 26 miles (42 km)

I woke up to a 38 degree morning and a beautiful starlit sky right before the sun started to rise. During the night, I heard visitors pass through the campsite twice. Nothing was disturbed! The stove, cooking pot, and trash had been left out on a rock ledge while the food had been put up in panniers that had been reattached to the bike, so I was amazed when everything was found intact. The "wild" animals at the designated campgrounds would not have been so considerate.

The night sky had been amazing, the stars shone crisp and bright at the beginning of the night while the hillsides became bathed in a slight glow later on as the moon made it's way across the heavens. A breakfast of hot oatmeal, hot chocolate, and a muffin started the morning off as the sun made it's presence known. Nothing like watching the mountain shadows crawl along the landscape while kicked back and eating a good breakfast. After cleaning up and securing all trash, camp was broken. The tent and tent pad did not have any condensation on it, so packing everything up was quick. By the time I was through, no one could tell anybody had slept there during the night. Three trips were made to get the bike and all equipment back down to the trail. By 8:30am, the bike was loaded again and I was pedaling down the trail.

Did I mention "down"? Ah, yes, it was mostly downhill back to the trailhead. It is amazing what a good nights sleep, knowing the terrain your covering, and a consistent downhill will do to one's attitude. Yesterday's ride had me spitting nails, today's ride had me smiling ear to ear. Mind you, I still had to walk up and down two steep hills, and push the bike through the river bottoms again. But those were the only areas I had to walk as opposed to yesterday it was much more. The temperatures had warmed up into the 50's and tights and long sleeves had not been needed.

At the intersection of the East Contrabando Trail and the Dome Trail, I met two park volunteers who had driven up in a pickup truck and were looking for a table left over from the previous weekend's mountain bike race. When asked if I had seen a table along the trail, I advised there was no table along the my route. The volunteers were nice and offered several trails to ride and ruins to check out in the area. I advised them it would be impossible for me to do those trails with a loaded bike and maybe do a ride later on after unpacking the bike. I thanked them for their info and let them know of my plans to currently go back to the Visitor's Center. They advised to be careful of a group of equestrians coming up the trail and that they were going to turn around and head back also.

The route back seemed so much easier and the miles just flew by. just beyond the turn off where the East Contrabando Trail becomes non-motorized traffic only, I met the group of equestrians and pulled off to the side of the road. The group consisted of around 8 riders and they thanked me for pulling over. After noticing the camping gear on the bike, one of them asked if I camped out last night to which I told them yes. They thought that was "hard-core" which brought a smile to my face. After the equestrians went by, I continued back to the trailhead arriving just ahead of the two park volunteers in their pickup. Upon seeing me back to the trailhead ahead of them, they commented the trails they suggested would not have been a problem for me. I know better (now) and wouldn't even think of trying those trails on a loaded down bike - before yesterday I may have tried.

After checking back in with the park ranger to let them know I was back, I packed up my bike for the next adventure, sightseeing on the famous River Road (Highway 170) to Presidio. Total miles for the day was 11.4 in just under 2 hours for and average of 6mph. Number of people seen on the trail - 10

Can you find the campsite?

This was home for the night. The bike is leaning up against a rock shelf that was turned into a kitchen area.

Conclusions and Observations
Saturday February 26, 2011

This was my first try at off-road bike packing and a few lessons were learned. Off-road uphills are much more technical than road riding hills and need special consideration. Handling skills on a loaded bike are greatly diminished - I could not hold a line for the life of me and the bike was slow to respond to my input. In the future, I will try riding a loaded bike several times on familiar trails to work out the handling kinks.

No front panniers were used on this trip, only rear panniers which created some handling problems. On medium uphills, the front tire would regularly unweight creating some steering problems. Also, pushing the bike up and over ledges in the trail/riverbed areas created additional hardships by having the weight up high making the bike want to lean over. With all the weight on the back, pushing the bike up ledges became difficult.

At the beginning of the ride, I treated my bike like it was made of glass and tried avoiding as many bumps and drop offs as possible. By the time I finished the second day, I was bombing the trails and running over most everything. The racks and panniers held up fine, but they sure did get dirty. Speaking of dirty, my drive train started to chatter halfway through the 1st day due to the dusty conditions. No chain lube was brought on the trip and I doubt if any would have helped. I had used paraffin and knew no other chain lube would have done a better job. A front fender would have helped keep the chain clean, but do not know how well it would hold up in the rough conditions.

Basically, I was in the back country for a 24 hour period and packed accordingly. 6 liters of water were packed in and 1 came out. Not bad . . . If I had stayed in the park that morning sightseeing or hiking, that one liter would have been gone. One thing I noticed was the dry desert air sucked the moisture out of me. Luckily, Chapstick was brought on this trip or else my lips would have been in a bad way. Food brought on the trip consisted of ramon noodles (cup, not pouches), muffins, oatmeal, trail mix, hot chocolate mix, flat bread and a couple pieces of beef jerky. Only the flat bread and jerky made it back out. The tent and sleeping bag was perfect as I did not get cold during the night and the tent held up well to some gusting winds. I had brought a change of clothes for off the bike hiking, but didn't use them. A pair of tennis shoes were brought, but were almost useless. While hiking the area around the campsite, I had to constantly check my footing as I kept slipping due to the relatively flat tread design. Next time I'll just use my Specialized biking shoes as they have an aggressive tread. The bike, though unsuspended, held up well and felt solid throughout the trip.

Would I do it again - In a heartbeat. Some things I would change - Start off earlier in the day. Pay more attention to the map instead of the trail furniture and markers. At one point, I followed trail markings instead of looking at the map and got off course. This cost some time and extra miles which could have been crucial under different circumstances. Next off-road adventure will have the weight distribution more evenly distributed on the bike with the use of front panniers. Though some of the road/trail conditions were rough, low rider positioned panniers would have worked just fine. Next up for off-road touring will be a multi-night ride.

Hanging out at Fresno Cascades

Our thanks to Rick for sharing his story.

1 comment:

  1. While these parks aren't the same, you might need to carefully analyze the price of them. I also learned that fresh air does not cause any sort of adverse reaction in my children. There was no swimming at Buttermilk Falls during the week but the staff suggested we drive two miles to Treman State Park - and WOW what a swimming hole they have.

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