Day 1 – We thought we’d start things off with a leg burner from our camp at the Javelin Pens campground along the Javelin Road up to the Sauceda Ranger Station for some intel on the local springs along our bikepacking route and to pay our backcountry and camping permits. We’d arrived the previous day a little late and the office was closed so we needed to settle up.
Ranger Eileen gave us some great advice on the available water along our route and she recommended we start things off today by hitting the Horsetrap trail on the way back. We decided to hit the Horsetrap down to the fork with the spur trail to the Tascate campground, then we’d back on the Tascate road to Javelin Road for the return trip to the Javelin Pens. This turned out to be a great start to the week. Horsetrap was a great run of single track.
Day 2 – Started off on the main reason for coming here, an overnighter on the bikes; beginning at the Javelin Pens camp up Javelin Road to the Madrid Falls Road, then on to the Pila de los Muchachos. A small climb in elevation, but it sure felt like a lot. From the top, we’d move down the Primero trail for trail stop at the Madrid Spring the Madrid House.
Great run of single track once you get through the initial downhill. The Rangers stated later that they had been focusing on this section as a lure for the Desert Festival in February and they thought it had turned out quite nice. They were correct, but hauling this extra weight was a gut buster for me. Jeff fared much better on his ride. We rode past the Chorro Canyon and on to the Madrid House, which we agreed is a special place. One can see why folks wanted to build a ranch here. The Spring was refreshing in the heat really provided a cooler for us. We chose not to water up here; which could have proven to be a huge mistake, considering what we were going to learn tomorrow.
From Madrid House, we headed east along the Madrid Road to the Fresno Canyon and north along the Stagecoach Route, then back north to the Smith-Crawford Ranch for water. We each carried around 3 liters of water when we left Javelin and we were both down to a few ounces by the time we hit the Smith-Crawford Spring. We fueled up here and took a siesta, then marched on to our destination at the Fresno Canyon campground. It was obvious that we were at the other side of nowhere, and we didn’t see any sign of recent use or other folks along the trail. Both our cell phones were back with our truck since no signal existed from anywhere in the park…kind of nice. I’ll admit the heat was taking its toll, and the extra weight on the bike was daunting for me. I wasn’t in the shape that I needed to be in. Jeff was doing much better.
Day 3 – After an evening at the Fresno camp, we decided to alter our original plan of riding to up the Pila Montoya trail to the trailhead and we decided to stay on the Stagecoach Route (Fresno Canyon Road), and take it to the Main Park road back to Sauceda Ranger station. This cut roughly 5 miles off our original plan, but we needed to give something back to the desert heat, a conservative but good choice. From camp we rode along Stagecoach, past the Right Hand Shut-up to the La Posta trail, then back to the Main Park. The hill out of Fresno Canyon toward the La Posta trailhead is pure killer. We hike-a-biked it, but if any of you can do this climb out of the canyon without a dab, stop by the house and pick up your Billy BA medal. Only 500’of elevation change, but it ranges from grade 3 to grade 6 climbing. As we were contemplating our hike-a-bike plan, two Sauceda rangers drove in from the north and stopped to chat. They were on their way to open the Crawford-Smith Spring back up, it seems it was “plugged” and they need to work some magic to get the flow back. We informed them that we’d fueled up there the day prior and they seemed pleased that there was some flow there and that Madrid Spring was flowing, too. After some chat, they provided us the SOP public warning to be cautious in this heat and they were on their way. Two great guys that seemed to enjoy their job (I would too out here).
After the arduous hike/bike, we jetted to the station on the gravel to enjoy lunch in the shade of the station. The afternoon was spent cruising the remaining 7 miles of the now familiar Javelin road back to the Javelin Pens for a siesta, big talk, and a few Lites.
We were running low on fresh water and the ice had melted quickly in the heat, so we decided to drive back up to the Ranger Station to get ice and water. 4WD is a necessity to get around on these roads, and we quickly learned that we had mechanical issues on the truck which prevented it’s engagement into AWD. After a couple failed attempts to egress the area up steep, rocky hill; we turned tail and returned to camp for the evening to finish the Lites before they were too hot to consume. We saved the coldness of the brew and finished the pack….another great decision from the minds of babes.
Day 4 – We decided to move. We loaded up and spent an hour fabricating a well thought out bash ramp on that hill that we couldn’t climb the day before. We embraced speed in lieu of 4WD, and hit that hill with a Kansas farm truck mentality, which drove our gear forward and up out of the bed only to provide the perfect timing to allow it to lay gently back into its untied, original position. I applaud Jeff for his fortitude to build a bash ramp and for his thinking to bring an army shovel, pick ax, and the experience from his desert running while stationed in Juma for the USMC.
After a visit with the Rangers at Sauceda, they recommended a move to the Ojo Escondido Pens camp to allow quick access to the Powerline trail, around for a downhill return along the Papalote Encino trail. This was to be a 5 miler and proved to be a great recommendation.
After the quick loop, I decided to ride up the La Mota road to the La Mota 2 campground and back while Jeff stayed loose to nurse some soreness from a failed battle with an arroyo he had tried to bash at farm truck speed while on the Papalote. His costs were minor with a busted brake lever, and an ouchy on the left leg. I saw him eyeing the bluff surrounding the campsite, so I knew he would be OK.
After a great solo up the valley and back, I returned to check on Jeff, who had devised a night pack, and a brilliant plan to now hike up the Pila de Ojo Escondido and spend the night under the stars using ultra lite backpacking methods. Wha…? This required a 500’ el change of grade “off the chart” climbs. Wha..? I was reluctant to join, but Jeff’s attitude couldn’t be ignored…off we went.
The night was spent on a rocky shelf about 50’ wide on the leeward side of the bluff to escape the steady breeze. This probably officially required a backcountry permit, but I figured that since we could still officially see our truck from the top, we were still officially in the campground. Great evening, but a wind shift and temperature drop during the evening required a hasty departure the next morn. Fortunately, the experience was worth the trip.
Big Bend Ranch is a marvelous place. It’s definitely a destination, and not to be considered a “day trip” or pass through drive as the only way into the park involves a 27 mile gravel road drive along the worst roads. Our equipment was heavily abused on this trip, but it came with a great experience during our stay. The staff are wonderful, and don’t count on nightly ranger bed checks and free teddy bears. They understand, as you should too, that the vastness of this place requires a self support attitude along with a strong desire for remoteness…..both of which I found enjoyable.
Be prepared to see no one, soul sucking sand in the arroyos, and a great mix of loose rocky to flowing single track during your visit. Overall, we biked a total of 50 miles and drank about that much water. the staff are helpful and welcoming and I'm looking forward to a return trip.
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Thread: Big Bend Ranch State Park