Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Texas actually has some really neat places

I guess it's sort of becoming a tradition of mine to spend the New Years holiday in the desert. Last year, it was Arizbrona bikepacking with Will, and this year, I drove down to Big Bend Texas with my brother to explore some new terrain. 

I'll start off by saying that the Big Bend area of southwest Texas is awesome. When I was in Texas back in May, it wasn't exactly my favorite state. Eastern Texas is pretty flat and there really isn't much public land. Plus, driving around Dallas to pick Will up from the airport sort of left a sour taste in my mouth because of all the sprawling suburbs and traffic.

Looking through an old truck in the desert

But alas, Texas has been redeemed. At least a small corner of it nestled in the mountains along the Rio Grande. There's the Big Bend State Park and Big Bend National Park, both near the towns of Terlingua and Lajitas, Texas. For mountain biking, national parks are terrible because you can't ride off the main roads. For that reason, my brother and I planned to ride in the state park, which seemed to have plenty of backcountry trails to explore.

We left Pittsburgh a little before 5am on the Tuesday after Christmas. We (well I drove) drone until about 2am the following morning, where we slept in a Walmart parking lot somewhere in Texas. Got up, started driving again, and made it to our destination just before noon.

When we got there, we stopped at the local biking/whitewater store to chat with the guys there. My uncle's brother used work there, so I had a little connection. We chatted briefly, then Zach and I went to book a campsite at the ranger station.

It all worked out very well with the campsite, so we drove there, got set up, and then headed out for a ride.

The first ride we did ended up being a little more extreme than I expected. The trail was gone in some places, overgrown in others, and a sandy creek bed elsewhere. Exactly my kind of ride. But it also meant it took longer than expected, so we didn't get back to the car until a little bit after sunset, with no lights.

The next day, we did a longer ride and checked out some more of the front-country (i.e. not backcountry) trails. Leaving from the town of Lajitas, we rode the Dome Trail loop, which is really neat, and also the airport trails on the other side of the highway. They're extremely flowy with a little bit of tech, but mostly flowy. And fast. We got almost 50 miles of trails in 4 hours, even on my singlespeed.

The third day of riding was the big day, we planned a backcountry loop on some remote trails way into the state park. The bike shop had warned us some of the trails were overgrown, but to me, that just added to the excitement.

About two hours into the ride, we had a long hike a bike up a steep jeep trail. It's weird, but I sort of love hike a bikes. We then got to a ranger station, filled up some water, and headed out deeper into the backcountry.

Most of the "trails" were rough jeep trails, filled with rocks and prickly bushes creeping into the road. I guess you could maybe drive your vehicle on them, but only if your vehicle is a lifted Jeep that you don't care about getting dinged up. It's pretty rough.

Eventually, we got to the highlight of the day: Arroyo Primera. There was a warning on MTB Project (a trail mapping website) that there were dangerous sections, which gave me much excite. The top of the trail was crazy, and I had to get off and a walk a little bit. The "trail", which was really an overgrown access trail, was steep, filled with loose rocks the size of basketballs, and completely washed out. I loved it.

A little bit further down, and there was another gnarly section. Not to be deterred by my brothers pleading for me not to ride it, I blasted straight down on my hardtail. I survived, but barely. It probably wasn't the smartest idea, especially being in such a remote area with no cell service. But like I said, I survived.

The final part of the downhill was awesome, with a switchback turn carved into the side of a cliff, that led down to the dry river bed.

The next day, we headed out again into the backcountry, although not as far, to ride some of our favorite trails again. My personal favorite was Old Government Trail, which to most people, is just an overgrown and washed away footpath. But like I've said before, I'm a strange cat, and I don't really like perfect manicured trails.

By this point, we'd gotten a lot of solid riding in, and it was our last night at the campsite. There was a general store in town that sold great burgers, so those made for some better-than-expected dinners.

On Sunday morning, we packed up to leave and did one more ride mainly on the airport trails in Lajitas. We actually did a couple new-to-us trails, which was nice.

Neat cactus flowers

From Lajitas, we drove to Bentonville, Arkansas, where we slept in another Walmart parking lot. A few hours of sleep later, and we got some breakfast at an IHOP.

We headed out for a ride in Bentonville in the morning, and less than a mile into the ride, my brother's bike broke. The suspension pivot bearings completely broke, and the bike was unridable. So, I guess we weren't gonna be riding in Bentonville after all.


We left Bentonville and drove to St. Louis, where we got our first hotel room, just in time for the Rose Bowl Game. Penn State ended up beating Utah to win their first Rose Bowl in a long time. Great way to cap off my senior year (of undergrad) at Penn State.

Funny road sign on I-44 in Missouri

The following morning, we drove the rest of the way to Pittsburgh. It was a pretty easy drive, and we even went out for an hour cruise on the gravel bikes when we got home.

Despite some bike troubles in Arkansas, it was a great trip. The trails in Texas really were fantastic. It's a pretty out-of-the-way place to go, so I don't see myself going there very often, but I'll definitely be back at some point.

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