Big Bend National Park

Bikes on the trailer? Check. Camping supplies? Check. Snacks and podcasts for the nine hour drive? Check.
Let’s roll!

James is ready to ride!
James is ready for some riding.

James starts the truck and the engine makes a weird grinding clicking sound. We look at each other. That’s probably nothing right? We continue down the road and it makes the sound everytime we accelerate so we pull into the neighborhood auto shop.

“Yup. Your transfer case is trash. Gears are slapping around in there and punched a hole through the side!” The mechanic says and our faces fall.

They knew we were planning this trip for weeks. I had been in a few times having bikes inspected and other stuff done for the truck.

“We’ll get you on your way!” They proclaimed and set about making phone calls.

True to their word, they found and installed a new transfer case that same day and we found ourselves rolling out in the late afternoon. We decided to drive as much as we could so we could hopefully arrive in time to get some riding in the next day as planned. Halfway there it began to pour so violently we could barely see the road in front of us. When we stopped into the next town they said we had just missed the tornado sirens and hurricane warnings.

As we pressed on, the storm let up. By the time we we were getting too tired to drive, we were just a couple hours from the park and the skies were crystal clear. We slept in the back of the truck staring up at the blanket of stars and were awakened by a brilliant
sunrise the next morning.

We made the final push to the park and picked a campsite in the nice grounds of Rio Grande Village. We hurredly paid and unloaded the bikes so we could get our ride on.

After suiting up, we left our camp and headed up Old Ore Road.

A great view from the Ole Ore

The road was easy for me on the smaller bike and manageable for James on his monster 990 Adventure. There is a good amount of sand and gravel and a number of wash crossings. We had to go up a few short climbs, some of which had embedded stair-like rock shelves which made good line choice a priority, but the obstacles were all broken up by long easy stretches where we could relax.

Old Ore got its name from being a burro trail used to haul minerals out and there are remains of old structures scattered through the park.

The mineral rich landscape makes for good variety in the terrain you encounter as well as spectacularly colorful vistas.

The signage in the park isn’t the best and misled us down an unnecessary rocky hill where we encounter this abandoned Titan Missle Silo.

We bounced back up the hill and got back home to find this little guy taking an ash bath under the barbecue grill.

There was also a very tame yet apparently wild horse who stalked around the camp scaring people as they made their midnight bathroom dash.

In the morning we hiked up the trail from the campground to look at the Rio Grande and a nearby Mexican village just across the way. Of course the view was spectacular and of course we forgot our cameras. D’oh!

After our morning stroll we took off for our River Road to Black Gap to Glenn Spring loop where we encountered some more of the wild horse herd.

They were very bold and paid us little mind as we idled past.

River road is considered a maintained road and in a sense it is, there are dump trucks and grading tractors to prove it, but their idea of road improvement is to fill any ruts and grooves with sand and gravel…so the resulting road surface isn’t exactly the most motorcycle friendly.

The gravel isn’t so deep to provide a major challenge, it’s just unrelenting. It goes on and on and on like that, occasionally broken up by wash crossings with some deeper sand and gravel for added challenge.

River Road does present a big reward however, when you reach the Mariscal Mine ruins. The ruins still contain traces of the toxic Mercury the site once processed from Cinnabar ore, but you can explore all around the mines, massive smelters and condensing chambers in relative safety. You cannot enter the mines as they are gated off (and it would be a stupid thing to attempt anyway).

I found the ruins fascinating and couldn’t help but think about how hard life must have been for the people that worked there. The owners were American, but the laborers were all Mexicans who came over to escape the Mexican Revolution. They built these massive structures with bricks from the local clay, dug ore with a pickaxe for dollars a day and most died from Mercury poisoning and respiratory infection from exposure to the furnaces.

The structures are massive as you can see by our tiny bikes in the background.

We hiked around for a long time, climbing to the crest of the mountain behind the ruins for a stunning vista.

Eventually we decided it was time to get back on the road, so we returned to the gravel road cut across by the sand washes.

We reached some firmer ground when we turned North on the Black Gap Road. I’ve heard River Road West is even sandier than the Eastern stretch. I had also heard that Black Gap was a road to be feared, but I couldn’t resist seeing for myself.

The road had some rocks and ruts, but it was a relief from the gravel sea we’d been wading through all morning. Despite the severe rains they experienced the day before our arrival, everything seemed pretty dry. However, it is easy to imagine how much the difficulty of these trails would increase with just a bit of water on it.

Just imagine this as clay-like muck making you slide all over. One thing the rain did ruin for us was the hot springs. There is a natural spring near the Rio Grande Village, but the abundant rainfall had caused the river to overflow into the hot spring and cool the waters. While we were sad we couldn’t soak our tired muscles after a day of riding, it was probably good for the desert to get some moisture.

We continued North up the Black Gap and I stopped when I realized we were at the obstacle of which the trail gets its namessake. James was already barreling down the steep runway without time to stop.

The Black Gap

His 990 jumped off the end, promptly bottoming out the suspension and stopping high centered on a rock. He rocked the bike back and got traction to bump over the other side and then rode his bike up the sand so I could make my go.

As we always say “It is steeper than it looks”. When you combine the last two photos you can get an idea. Or as James said “From over the handlebars, it’s like looking over the Grand Canyon”. While he had just barreled down it without a thought, I had gotten off the bike and looked at it way too long. I started over thinking it as I rolled down the runway and then finally decided to let off the brakes and go for it. I jumped down without issue, but my body was shaking from the adrenaline. I was just glad we didn’t have to go up the gap, because ramming yourself up that would be a challenge.

We took a little break to calm our nerves and then continued on where we found a little old cemetery with stone mounds and crosses.

The signs get confusing, but we eventually found our way to Glenn Spring Road. This road was the easiest we encountered in the park, it still had some gravel, but mostley it was graded smooth and flat.

Surprisingly we encountered another rider here and his wife who was following him in a truck. We stopped to talk a while about bikes and riding. October is low season in the park (presumably due to the unpredictability of the weather) and we had barely seen another soul in the campgrounds, on the roads and especially on the trails.

When we finished out the dirt and hit the main road, we opted to ride up to the restaurant in the center of a park for a meal. It was a wonderful decision! The road up is breathtaking and extremely twisty and the food was very good!

View from the top. I wish I could have gotten a picture of the twisties, but I was too busy riding. šŸ˜‰

The next morning we drove up to Marfa for some sophisticated vacationing full of modern art, fine dining and real beds before we would be going into the wilds of the lesser developed Big Bend Ranch State Park

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