10 Feb How We Bike Toured Big Bend in 2019
The first tour of 2019 happened in April, and I was excited to be leading a group through Big Bend National Park as well as through Big Bend Ranch State Park. The last time I was around this area was \ on my way home from my 2017 cross country ride dubbed Tour de Forty.
The rush of familiarity took over me when this trip overlapped with the towns of Fort Davis, Alpine, and Marathon. Talk about being taken back in time. I remember making a promise to myself to return to Big Bend soon after that epic 2017 trip.
2 years later, here I am at the cusp of accomplishing what I declared. The universe works in mysterious ways!
Our trip began on April 13th and went until April 23rd, approximately 10 days to complete. This included a shuttle ride from El Paso, Texas and back.
Our tour was in jeopardy of being canceled, but my co-leader, Holly, insisted that she needed to be trained for her first monumental ride of the Great Divide, so this tour pushed on with 6 riders and 2 leaders.
That was a good thing as we got to see and do so much!
The Trip Before The Trip
Even before the start of the actual bike tour, I needed to pick up the van and trailer in St. George, Utah and drive it down to El Paso, Texas. My journey actually started with a road trip from Los Angeles with both my sister and brother-in-law (who you’ve seen in previous blog posts and videos) who graciously volunteered to accompany me on this leg of the journey.
The plan was to drive out past Las Vegas and visit the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. We planned on camping there for a night on April 9th and leave the next morning to head towards St. George, where the van and trailer were parked. Unfortunately, the wind prevented us from doing that. We ended up visiting the park and hiked at a few locations before resolving to continue our journey north into Utah.
Some highlights from the Valley of Fire were seeing the Beehives immediately when we entered the park and hiking the Rainbow Vista Trail, Fire Wave Trail, and White Domes Trail. The park is certainly a well-kept secret in Nevada (at least it was to this Southern California native). The scenery included plenty of red rocks for miles to admire. The formations were simply breathtaking! If you have never been there, I would highly recommend a visit. Be warned that it gets very hot during the summer and possibly windy as well.
Taking a Break in St. George
We were literally blown into St. George after we had left the Valley of Fire State Park. We crossed over to Arizona briefly and then finally into Utah along with a new timezone. We enjoyed a quick dinner in town before we retired to our hotel for the night.
As fate would have it, we were just across the street from where I had to pick up the van and trailer. We didn’t even plan that aspect, but it all seemed to work out ideally at the end. That just meant we didn’t have to wake up too early the next day to find the location.
Jumping Into the Drive
The next morning, we had breakfast at a diner and headed over to the RV resort to pick up the van and trailer. Getting the van and trailer was a straightforward process where I went in to and spoke to the person behind the counter and got directions to find out where the van and trailer were parked. After that, I unloaded by gear from Sang’s car and placed all my gear into the van. I ran through my routine DOT vehicle check before I was ready to hit the road on my own.
As luck (or unluck) would have it, I had the privilege to drive another van with an issue (insert sarcasm). It just seems that in the past 4 years, every time I had to drive a van,, there’s always something that required my attention to to fix and so this time around, it wasn’t going to be any different. The information light on the dashboard indicated that this was an issue with the transmission. Interestingly enough, this warning eventually turned off on its own.
The drive had me traversing back to Las Vegas and then Southeast towards Kingman, Arizona on highway 93. This also gave me a bit of nostalgia as I was back to an intersection of my Route 66 tour just one year before. The nostalgia was short-lived as I transitioned onto highway 40 and then back onto 93, which led me through to Phoenix.
I picked up Holly from her friend’s home in Tempe, Arizona. We quickly got acquainted during the drive out of the Phoenix area onto highway 10 before we decided to camp at Picacho State Park.
After being on the road for multiple hours, I was happy to get out of the car and pitch my tent for the night. We had a quick dinner and retired in our own tents pretty early. Throughout the night, I heard coyotes yelp and howl in the distance as they are hunting for their next meal. Luckily, none encroached upon our campsite.
Las Cruces x 4
The next day, we pressed onward to New Mexico. This was my fourth time going to the town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I really like Las Cruces, small town with a few exits off of highway 10. It is the gateway town out of New Mexico and into the giant state of Texas. The visit to Las Cruces served as a place where Holly and I planned our trip and took inventory of the van and trailer.
We finally cracked open the back trailer and pulled everything out. We got out our pens and lists of inventory and began crossing things off to see what we had. I’ll let you in on a secret.. Inventorying and cleaning are one of the things I don’t like doing on van tours, but absolutely necessary. You’ll see me complain and take long frustrated exhales as I do them. They do eventually get done, but with a lot of anguish.
But I digress.
The kitchen utensils, pots and pans were covered with a layer dirt from previous tours through Death Valley. We had to pull everything out and clean it once again. Can you see why I don’t like it? A small price to pay for having sanitary cooking utensils.
When we finally finished, we decided to drive into town and have dinner. During this drive we noticed that the left blinker of the van and trailer went haywire and flash really fast in one moment and then return to normal the next. We couldn’t consistently reproduce the phenomenon, so that got very annoying.
After dinner, we drove back to our KOA home right at the outskirts of town. We turned in early knowing that tomorrow was going to be a hectic day.
Day 0 – Las Cruces, New Mexico to El Paso, Texas
Before leaving Las Cruces, we stopped to shop at Walmart and to see if we could fix the blinker issue with the van and trailer. The first mechanic I visited was closed. The next one said they didn’t have an opening in their schedule to look at our trailer. The last one just wiggled the connector between the van and trailer and by coincidence, the blinker went back to normal. I say “coincidence” because the issue remained throughout the time of our tour.
We left for El Paso and got there within an hour of driving. This was another overlapping town on my Southern Tier ride in 2017. All I remembered was that this was a busy town and took a while for us to ride out of 2 years ago.
We reached our hotel and unloaded the van. Then we brought all of our gear and my bike inside the room and unhitched the trailer in an empty parking space at the back of the hotel. We met a few of our riders at the hotel lobby and went to the bike shop to pick up Holly’s bike.We then went shopping again at Walmart for dry ice as this was necessary because we had to store 5 days worth of meals.
Big Bend does not have any grocery service once we enter the park. On a side note, this was the same Walmart where a mass shooting happened later that year. It’s eerie to think about that now since I was there earlier that year. Sometimes when I’m on these trips, I feel that I stepped away from real life, but I realized that I can’t get away from it as it intertwines with life no matter where I go as anything can happen.
Day 1 – El Paso to Fort Davis
The next morning, we got up early to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at the hotel. One of the riders who was on my Colorado Classic High Country in 2017 was already awake and was working in the lobby area. There were actually 2 riders from that 2017 ride who were joining us for Big Bend.
We did a bit of catching up before she went back up to her hotel room to get her stuff ready for the start of the tour. Holly and I continued our breakfast. The plan was to park the van closer to the rear door so people didn’t need to walk too far to load up their gear and bike.
We had to hitch the van up again, which I had Holly do since this was her first time driving our van + trailer, and she needed the chance to practice for the Great Divide trip. She did great with my guidance of course. ;P
Everybody came down as scheduled, and we had plenty of time to put the bikes atop of the van. I was on top taking up everybody’s bike and carefully positioning them so that they didn’t block my way from getting up and down from the van. I also had it optimized for later retrieval at our destination.
The drive was about 3 hours long. We drove past familiar towns along the Southern Tier route, like Fort Hancock, Sierra Blanca, and Van Horn. Once we exited off of Van Horn, we stopped by a Wendy’s at a truck stop to have a much needed lunch break.
Throughout the drive, many topics were discussed, but we deferred to any questions about the trip to our orientation meeting at 4 PM. We continued our drive out of Van Horn and headed towards Marfa.We passed the mini Prada store art display. Nobody wanted to get out to take a closer look,so we just kept going. We eventually got to Fort Davis to the same motel I stayed in during my cross country tour. The owner didn’t remember me, but that didn’t stop me from complimenting his hospitality when we came around 2 years before.
In Fort Davis
Another rider had driven down from North Dakota and met us at the hotel. Orientation meeting started at 4 PM promptly; I discussed the logistics for the next 10 days and mentioned that we had to finish shopping for the next 5 days as we didn’t have grocery options inside the park. I told them where we won’t have shower services and went over general housekeeping matters that I normally go over on these tours. We took a break at 5 PM to start cooking dinner.
Little did we know the effectiveness of dry ice until we pulled out the packets of chicken breasts we had bought the day before. They were still frozen! This meant we didn’t have protein ready for our meal. We had to scramble and went to the general store next door to buy some hot dogs and cans of beans to fill in for protein deficiency.
We made the best of things and people were fed. I think we could’ve done better in terms of the amount of food, but lived and learned to tell about it. I was glad Holly was comfortable cooking, so we were able to come up with something quick. At that time, it seemed like an emergency but looking back now, it wasn’t so bad.
Day 2 – Fort Davis to Marathon
The next morning we woke up to freezing conditions. A thin layer of ice formed on the windshield of the van. People were shivering and many had multiple layers on to stay warm. I could tell people were reluctant to leave, so they lingered a bit longer until the sun came out. We put out breakfast and offered thehot water for coffee and oatmeal.
When it finally felt comfortable enough, people trickled out one by one. Some visited the local stores before they strolled out of town. I finally left with the van about an hour after Holly left, giving people adequate time to ride the route and me some time to think and plan out logistics of the tour.
Shopping in Alpine
I had some time left when I pulled into the supermarket parking lot in Alpine – a good 15 minutes remained before the first set of riders came in.
Most people were very happy with the ride from Fort Davis to Alpine. The market was a good place to take a break and go shopping. I gave people their allowance amount and they did their own shopping independently. They would double check with me if there were any questions. Once they were done with shopping, I paid for each grocery load.
Afterward the grocery was paid for, we carefully organized and labeled all the food so that it was easily accessible when we were ready to consume it in the following days.
During this time, I saw a loaded up bicycle tourist ride by and we began chatting. As it turns out, Patrick, knew who I was from my YouTube series of the Southern Tier. It’s always odd running into people who knew of you, but this meeting was fortuitous as we reconnected later in the year in Anacortes, Washington…but that’s another story for another time/post.
A majority of the group finished their ride and made it into Marathon. I also was able to make it into the campground to check us all in before the first set of riders arrived. Many enjoyed the busy road between Alpine and Marathon. The highlight landmark, the tiniest Target store in the world, was brought up multiple times that day and night.
Patrick also showed up and camped near us that night. We had more time to chat with him and shared some of our leftover dinner.
We were all treated to a viewing of the constellation through a mini observatory at the campground. There was a powerful telescope set up to allow us (and mainly kids) the opportunity to view the stars in the evening and in the early morning before sunrise. Many of our participants took advantage of the dark skies that West Texas had to offer.
Day 3 – Marathon to Stillwell Ranch
It was finally my day of riding on this trip. I was eager to try out my new handlebar setup, a Velo Orange Crazy Bar. As usual, while riding sweep, I was last to leave the campground after every rider got on the road.
I bid Patrick farewell as he continued east past Marathon on the road towards the next town of the Southern Tier as I went south into Big Bend National Park. We were supposed to ride over 40+ miles including a hilly 6 mile into our campground that day.
The day was hot, and I ran out of water towards the end of the ride. I started to cramp up. It was a struggle, but to compound the difficulty, I suffered a flat tire. It took about 15 minutes to change this flat while I was being bugged by bugs! Desert bugs are relentless, so it was a challenge just to focus on the task at hand.
Stillwell Ranch Store & RV Resort
The last 6 miles didn’t end soon enough. I slowly slogged up one hill before climbing another. Exhausted and thoroughly dehydrated when I got into camp, I was greeted with a much deserved cold Coca Cola and 32 ounces of water.
I was warned by Holly that there were a lot of goat heads and that I should walk my bike across. I humbly obliged.
That night,we were treated to a delicious dinner made by the cooks for the night, a hearty portion of pasta and salad. The campground had about 2 light poles and 1 directly above our campground. Needless to say, it was a bit difficult to go to bed, but exhaustion quickly took over and that didn’t matter at the end.
Day 4 – Stillwell Ranch to Rio Grande Village Campground
Day 4 of our trip was an exciting one as we finally entered Big Bend National Park. I helped a few riders take their picture at the sign and was allowed to enter the National Park ahead of the riders without paying further fees.
The van and I made it down to the Rio Grande Village Campground which was in the Southeast part of the park. I quickly located the group camping area and dropped the trailer before I headed back out to conduct a moving water stop.
Before making my way back to Panther Junction Visitor Center, I drove into Boquillas Canyon to check things out. The crossing was closed that day, but the road led me right through to some of the most beautiful views of the Rio Grande River and the Mexico side of the Canyon.
I finally drove back and met with a few riders at the visitor center for about an hour before I decided to circle back down the road to find the last 2 riders and Holly. One of the riders was walking her bike and the other one was feeling dehydrated. Holly was doing great. I turned the van back around and scooped up our walking rider and drove us to the visitor center.
Fifteen minutes later, Holly arrived with the dehydrated rider, and they recharged their batteries by having lunch and rehydrating before continuing down to our home for the night.
Beautiful, but Hot
The rest of the route into Rio Grande Village was predominantly downhill until you were about 5 miles to the campground. You were then greeted with a long climb before the last descent into the campground. Many of the riders made it past this climb and were on their way into camp, where I caught up with them.
That night, it was my turn to cook again and I attempted to make breakfast for dinner. My lack of experience in cooking pancakes had the group rally around to help me cook my meal. Talk about making an example of yourself! Did I mention that cooking isn’t my best trait?
Anyhow, people seemed to be satisfied and many went out to enjoy one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve ever had on this trip. I stayed in camp to clean up and setup my tent.
It was warm enough to sleep without the rainfly that night. With the many signs warning of “bears in the area,” many people were definitely sleeping with one eye open. In case you’re wondering, we didn’t see any bears or any animals that night and for the remainder of the trip for that matter.
Day 5 – Rio Grande Village to Chisos Basin
This was the hardest day of the tour. It included the most elevation gained in one day as we climbed our way out of the Rio Grande Village area and then gradually rode up back to Panther Junction Visitor Center before we climbed the last hill towards Chisos Basin.
I rode that day and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a tough ride out of Rio Grande Village, but the rewarding downhill was magnificent. Even tougher was the ride up Chisos Basin. I rode a few hundred yards, stop, rest and ride another hundred yards, stop, and rest, repeating this routine all the way up to the summit of the climb.
I was about a mile from the crest of the climb when Holly showed up with the van to refill my water bottles with cold water. Pretty much out of water at this point so it was a welcoming sight when she showed up..
She reported that everyone, except 2 riders, took the van into camp. Make that 3 riders, present company included!
I finally got over the top of the climb to be rewarded with one of the most fun descents on the trip as I snaked into the Chisos Basin group camping area.
Everybody was snacking at the campground when I rolled in and we all rejoiced with some stories about the ride that day.After dinner, we all decided to take a quick hike up to view The Window, a beautiful vista point that outlooks onto the western side of the park. We didn’t hike the entire trail, but admired it from the top of Chisos Basin before we came back down to our campground to rest for the night.
Day 6 – Day Off
On our day off, five of us decided to go back to Boquilla Canyon to cross into Mexico. The remaining three stayed in camp and hiked around the trails of Chisos Basin. I was part of the group of five who wanted to visit our neighbor to the south.
We drove over to Boquillas Crossing with the van and checked in with the border guard there. After a quick walk down a dirt path to the river bank, there was a guy rowing his boat across the Rio Grande River between the US and Mexico border.
We each paid $5 for the quick ride across. After getting off the boat in Mexico, we all decided that a burro ride into Boquilla, which was a 3/4-mile hike, would be fun. That was another $5. I mean, we could have walked there, but we thought the novelty of riding a burro into and out of town seemed fitting for the occasion.
We spent a few hours and explored the town by foot. We were taken into town by a “guide.” He led us in by burro and accompanied us around town. He spoke little English but was patiently waiting for us to peek around every nook and cranny of the village.
After a quick bite at one of the two restaurants in town, we decided to head back home.
Our burros backtracked to the river bank and then we jumped on to a rowboat and floated back to the US side. Did I mention that this was the first time I’ve ever entered Mexico? Checked it off my bucket list.
Day 7 – Chisos Basin to Terlingua
After a much deserved day off, people started early the next morning for the day’s ride. It started with a steep climb back up the hill we came down 2 days ago. All but one of our riders made the trip up. The solo rider had me drop her off at the top to take the downhill.
By the time I made it into our campground outside of Terlingua, I had a few hours to kill.
Our campground had newly built showers next to the campground I selected. I had time to take a shower and get cleaned up before the first rider showed up.
The first few riders who made it were the cooks for the night. We all went back into Terlingua to shop for the night. During this time, they decided it would be a treat to buy barbecue from a local truck that served really good brisket. It was a fantastic idea as we all enjoyed meat that just melted in your mouth.
The campground was bustling with groups of people. I believe the area was a hot spot for mountain bikers and off road vehicle enthusiasts. This being the start of the weekend, we had many families coming out to enjoy the desert.
Day 8 – Terlingua to Presidio
The ride leaving Terlingua was a beautiful one with rolling hills through to the entrance of the Big Bend Ranch State Park – another one of those parks I have never heard of, but was glad that I had the chance to ride through.
We were treated with rolling hills and vista views of the Rio Grande along the way as we paralleled the river and our border with Mexico. The day had one water stop at the Closed Canyon Trailhead. This was before the one significant climb over “The Hill. I quickly closed the gap and caught up to our last rider and eventually passed her even with a 30 minute break at a rest stop prior to The Hill.
I stayed with her throughout the entire day as a good sweep would do until we got into Redford. She finally tapped out and needed a ride into camp. We called Holly and she drove back to get the last rider as I continued my ride towards Presidio.
The day turned scorching hot, like 100 degrees hot. Luckily, I had enough water and refilled at Fort Leaton State Historic Site outside of Presidio.
I came into our home for the night at a little motel on the outskirts of town. We decided to have our dinner at a little Mexican restaurant instead of cooking. That was something everybody agreed was a good idea.
Day 9 – Presidio to Marfa
Once again, we visited the Mexican restaurant from the night before for an early breakfast. It was going to be another long day so everybody was incentivized to leave before the sun came up.
I had to provide 2 water stops for the day. It was a tough day for some riders as 3 people had to be SAGed in. The issue today was the constant traffic and headwinds. We had a constant blast coming from the Northwest.
El Cosmico & Marfa
Holly ended up riding by herself into camp at the end. We checked into a really funky campground called El Cosmico. This eclectic compound featured housing options for all types of options including canvas tents, yurts, tiny homes, mobile home, and tent spots for those who carry their shelter. There’s a pretentiousness that surrounds you when you enter Marfa and it sort of bleeds out into many of the businesses. El Cosmico was not immune to it. It didn’t make any excuses and just owned up to this hippy, granola vibe.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to write this as a negative thing as I really don’t mind places like this, but when it’s in your face and calls out to you in such an obvious way, it doesn’t feel genuine. These areas exist in smaller subsets of cities, which we can identify as “hippie areas” or “hipstery area” In Los Angeles, there’s Silver Lake or East Hollywood. In Portland & Austin, there’s the east side of town. In Marfa, it’s the entire town! I’m probably not doing it justice by describing it, so I’ll stop right here.
We had our final dinner together at the Hotel Paisano where we enjoyed a full 3-4 course meal that our budget easily provided for. This was the same hotel that James Dean had stayed in during the filming of Giant. Everybody’s mood was cheerful with a sliver of sadness as we knew the end of the trip was upon us. We had one more day of riding before the conclusion, so we all enjoyed each other’s company that night.
Day 10 – Marfa to Fort Davis / El Paso
The last day had us riding a quick 22 miles from Marfa to Fort Davis. I brought up the rear of the group and ended up getting into Fort Davis before noon. I made it back in time to see our North Dakota rider jump in his car to drive off towards Louisiana to meet up with friends to ride Cycle Zydeco. After we bid farewell, I jumped in the shower and loaded my bike up on the roof before we piled everyone into the van. This time, Holly drove us back to El Paso.
We unloaded everyone’s bike and luggage when we got back to the hotel and said our goodbyes.
Wrapping It All Up
The next morning, Holly and I woke up early in the morning to clean the van and equipment. We did our best with assistance from some of the riders who were hanging out for another day. Once everything was done before noon, we began our drive towards Phoenix.
The drive was uneventful with a few storms that followed us as we headed back west. I dropped off Holly in Phoenix to catch a flight back home and continued on towards Las Vegas.
Pushing My Luck
I may have pushed my luck to the maximum on my drive up from Phoenix as gas stations became scarce on highway 93. By the time I found one, I was probably a few miles left from empty. The gas price was astronomical! I think it was close to $7/gallon. I only filled up about $10 before I found a cheaper option down the road in Kingman.
By the time I made it into Las Vegas, it was about 3 AM. I was thoroughly tired from the events of the day and crashed on the hotel bed immediately.
The next morning, I retrieved the van from the parking lot and drove it back up to St. George. We returned to the same location where I picked the van up. My sister and brother-in-law, followed me from Las Vegas and graciously drove me back home. The drive back was solemn as I stared blankly into the desert and relived the trip in my head. This was a good one. This won’t be the last time. See you later West Texas.