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Cycling in Big Bend National Park

Writing and Photos by Jobie Williams

Things started out a little suspect. The lady in the park headquarters told us we couldn’t leave our cars overnight in the parking lot, which we planned to do for at least one night, maybe two. She said that there “probably aren’t any campsites available”. She told us cyclists can’t zone camp because nothing with wheels can go on the trails. She also scolded us on getting bit by a rattlesnake. “No one has been bitten by a rattlesnake in the park in over ten years” – she said. For some reason, we must have looked like a couple of guys jonesing for a snake bite. Eventually we made it through the inquisition and were set free to explore Big Bend National Park. And wow. This place was impressive.

“Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.” – Cormac McCarthy

Billy Simpson and I met on the trail. We’ve both met lots of people on the trail, but for some reason, our first conversation about 5 miles into the Upchuck 50K has now been going on for over five years. We’ve met up periodically and shared some good times running all over the south at state and national parks. Billy resides in Memphis and I was in Nashville for years. But last year I moved to Austin TX and immediately began recruiting efforts to get friends to Texas to visit Big Bend. When in late 2018 Billy agreed to a cycling trip in Big Bend, I knew the waiting was over.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson

Big Bend National Park has three distinct areas: mountains with 7,000 ft peaks, desert that makes the park insufferable during the summer months, and the river – a definitive border between the United States and Mexico. We were intent to spend time in all three.

We started with two full days and close to 100 miles of cycling that took us from Panther Junction, the park’s headquarters to the Cottonwood/Castolon campground area along the Rio Grande or as its called in Mexico, the Rio Bravo. This ride on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is incredible. Peaks surrounded us for over 20 miles as we made our way up and over two taxing climbs and then as we bombed down towards the river for miles and miles. Along the way we saw Mule Ears Peaks, a formation of two peaks that resemble – wait for it, a mule’s ears. Legend has it that fighter pilots training in the area used to fly between the two ears. 

From the store at Castolon where we ate lunch and then bought a sandwich and ramen noodles to pack away for dinner later that night, we continued our loop on Old Maverick Road, one of the many improved dirt roads that run through the park. Gravel grinding on a random Thursday is a good thing.

We camped along Old Maverick Road at a primitive campsite called Terlingua Abajo. One of the highlights of the trip for me was the night sky. We scheduled our trip as close as we could to the full moon, and were doubly rewarded with clear skies. Big Bend is a certified International Dark-Sky Association park, meaning its void of the light pollution we experience in our cities. The sky in Big Bend is filled with stars that appear to have depth beyond imagination. Late into the night, the stars are joined by the moon, which provides enough natural light to illuminate the land.

Beginning day two we finished off Old Maverick Road and headed out of the park to Terlingua, Texas. There are 58 people who live in Terlingua, 40 of which are women. Those are good odds, but we checked out the town including the ghost town section, had a huge hamburger and then Billy left, still single.

We completed our cycling loop late on day two but in time to watch the sunset from the Chisos Basin – the mountainous area of the park. This area stands in stark contrast to the desert we had traveled through. Green and filled with trees, the Chisos were beautiful, and the cooler air was a welcome change from the desert temperatures.

Barriga llena, corazón contento. – Mexican Saying

With the cycling part of our trip behind us, we made time to do a short hike to Balanced Rock and then visit the Rio Grande on the southeastern side of the park. The Mexican town of Boquillas sits just a half mile south of the border and there is a border crossing station on the US side so with passports in hand, we passed through the station and made the short walk down to the river. For US $5 we took a rowboat ride across the river and were planted on the Mexican shore. A walk to Boquillas, where little children run through the streets selling bracelets and other items, must be broken up by a stop at one of the two restaurants in town. We chose the creatively named, Boquillas Restaurant. After hearing the three options for lunch we chose the tamales and rolled the dice and had the cabrito tacos and rice. Cabrito means young goat – although goat is only used when the animal is old so that is really like saying a teenager is a young old person. FYI – the tacos were delicious, and the whole meal was about the same price as a McDonald’s value meal even though the proprietor told us that once a week he drives 160 miles to the nearest town to buy food supplies.

“Alpine sucks.” – Guy at the bar who has lived in Marfa his whole life

The icing on the cake for us was a visit to Marfa. There really isn’t any easy way to get to Big Bend, which is why its one of the least visited National Parks, but since Marfa is “only” two or so hours away from Big Bend, we decided that we should visit. 

If Austin is “Austin – Keep It Weird”, then Marfa is “Marfa. Weird.” Its quirky, easy-going attitude is very refreshing and very cool. There are no pretensions here. When in Marfa, you do you. Filled with artists and galleries, Marfa is unequivocally Texas Chic. Arriving in town around sunset, we spent the night, car camping in ridiculously cold temperatures and headed out to the famous Prada art installation the next day before heading in different directions. Billy kept heading west to Silverton, CO and I returned to civilization and work in Austin.

“Regret is mostly caused by not having done anything.” ― Charles Bukowski

Every trip into the wild is an opportunity to learn something. Billy and I made sure we listened to the people along the border – a hot topic these days. The differences between the riches of the vacationers north of the border and the poverty south of it was not lost on us. We had expensive bikes, cameras, cars, etc, and the dichotomy of the two lands is clearly magnified in this gorgeous region. There may never be a wall here since the border is surrounded by miles of desolate park land on both the US and Mexican sides of the border, but there is clearly a difference in opportunity – and a sameness in desire to preserve the land.

Partial Gear List

  • The North Face Thermoball Jacket
  • The North Face Mountain Sweatshirt
  • Patagonia Houdini
  • Marmot Phase 20 Sleeping Bag
  • Therm-a-Rest Prolite Sleeping Pad
  • Alchohol Stove
  • Patagonia Upchuck 50K Hat
  • All-City Space Horse

Check out more photos from our Big Bend trip here.

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