With apologies to Bill Bryson.
I come from San Antonio. Somebody had to.
There are generally two types of people born in San Antonio: those who can’t imagine leaving, and those who can’t wait to. Raised by two Midwesterners who often seem bewildered as to how they ended up as residents of the Lone Star State in the first place, I naturally grew up with a disposition that put me in the latter camp. Despite 20 years there, I didn’t get interested in true mountain biking during that time and never explored the existing singletrack. This holiday season, I figured it was about damn time to change that.
My zeal for decamping to Colorado not withstanding, I’m always happy to return to the hot, humid bosom of my youth, fuel up on Tex-Mex food and explore the Texas Hill County. Its rolling, scrubby, rocky terrain—defined by juniper bushes, limestone ledges and live oak and mesquite trees—is firmly imprinted on the psyche of every outdoor-loving central Texan as a spiritual landscape.
Mountain biking in San Antonio, our nation’s seventh largest city, was akin to stepping a decade or two back in time, before strong mountain bike advocacy groups, bike-specific trail design and online resources for planning glorious singletrack expeditions. It was a bit of a free-for-all, as the parks are criss-crossed with tangles of informal, unmapped and unsigned singletrack that beckon you to just hop on your bike and disappear into the woods without a plan.
Indeed, it felt more like the way we rode bikes as kids: find dirt and put your tires on it just to see where it goes. A chosen route might deliver you to a series of steep, root- and rock-cluttered chutes for bombing descents, or to a stinking, trash-strewn flood plain near an abandoned neighborhood. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one of the trails that traverses across town, linking up with other parks as it snakes through creek beds and under overpasses. You never know. It was straight-up fun.
Many writers have opined on whether or not we can, in our minds and through our emotions, “go home again.” I’m not likely to offer anything thought-provoking on the subject and to say that I’m unsentimental is an understatement. I don’t get to go home to an intact family or the house I was raised in, but the parks and landscapes I so loved as a kid are still there. Exploring them by mountain bike connected my past and present in a comforting way, taking something familiar and making it new and exciting, again.
The best I can leave you with is a reminder that the notion of mountain biking needing to be a reliably epic experience shouldn’t deter you from throwing your bike in the car for that next road trip back to wherever your roots are. It’s likely that no one will ever send a video crew and a pack of tattooed hipsters with mountain bikes to do something “rad” in San Antonio, but I’m never going to drive there again without a set of knobby tires. Besides, the city is near to several state parks and natural areas with truly excellent riding on formal trails, but that’s a Texan’s little secret.
Photos courtesy of MTB Project unless otherwise indicated.
As fall and winter continue to march south, so too will our featured rides. This week we’re highlighting Big Bend Ranch State Park, which sits just north and west of Big Bend National Park in the southwest corner of Texas. It’s extremely remote, extremely beautiful and highly likely to provide you with a big does of solitude. The closest towns of Lajitas and Terlingua feel like wild west outposts and Mexico is merely a stone’s throw away, should you be feeling adventurous.
Given its southern location, this IMBA Epic ride is best enjoyed in the cooler months from October to mid-April. And it is epic, indeed, clocking in at 59 miles and nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain, despite being just 40 percent singletrack. You’re guaranteed to feel small riding through purple, yellow and orange hills and past ruins of old mining camps full of rusty trucks.
Mileage aside, this is not a ride to take lightly. Due to the prickly nature of the Chihuahuan desert, tubeless tires are recommended, along with spares tubes with sealant. Plan to manage all mechanical issues because this is lightly trafficked, remote terrain with no cell phone coverage. If you’re feel adventurous, pack your bivy and make an overnight trip out of this loop.
This IMBA Epic ride combines much of the best riding in Big Bend Ranch State Park into one Epic Loop. The loop consists of a variety of riding conditions with a mix of singletrack, creek beds, and 4×4 roads. The singletrack is a nicely flowing combination of hard pack and rocky trails with lots of short steep climbs and dry creek crossings. Many of the 4×4 roads have not seen motorized traffic for many years and are essentially two track trails. There are significant numbers of long, steep, technical and rocky climbs and descents. Creek riding conditions vary from hard-packed and easily rideable to sandy and soft with some rocky and technical sections.
Be sure to check out all the details on MTB Project before you visit. And, consider supporting the Big Bend Trails Alliance for all their hard work maintaining these trails. If you would like to spend a long weekend exploring this Epic and other nearby trails with likeminded mountain bikers, check out the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest, Feb. 11-13. Our web editor is a native Texan who attended the event last year. The landscape so moved her that she intends to keep going back, despite the 13-hour drive from central Colorado.
True, Big Bend State Park is in the middle of nowhere, but that’s a big part of what makes it such an adventure. Don’t miss Big Bend Brewing Company in nearby Alpine (a college town) and the quirky Starlight Theatre in Terlingua. If you have time, travel about two hours north to explore the fine art, fine food and NPR station in Marfa (population 1,800), attend a star party at the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis, and take a hike in Big Bend National Park.
Photos courtesy of MTB Project unless otherwise indicated.