The singletrack in Big Bend National Park is not open to bikes, but all of the backcountry roads are fair game. This ride covers some of the highlights featuring views of the Chisos Mountains to the west and the Sierra Maderas del Carmen Mountains in the east (in Mexico). You'll also pass through the Mariscal Mountains.
The highlight of the ride is the chance to visit the abandoned Mariscal Mine, and you'll also pass near the abandoned town of Glenn Springs. Take a soak in the historic hot springs at the end of the ride.
Keep in mind this is a desert and it can be very hot most months of the year. There is no dependable or potable water available along the route, so you'll want to carry more than you think you might need and there is no shade available, except perhaps at the mine.
Winter is a great time for this ride, but the desert can get surprisingly cold in the winter, and the sun can still be intense. Past the ruins of Mariscal Mine, there is nothing to stop the wind so you might add that to the list of potential calamities. If you're unsure of conditions, check with a ranger.
This ride is all about the chance to experience the desert scenery in a more personal manner than from the window of your car. With the exception of the short, unmaintained segment of Black Gap Road
it is not at all technically demanding. If you have a sympathetic spouse or can otherwise arrange a suitable shuttle, it's generally downhill from start to end with a few short climbs in between.
Starting from the intersection with the paved main park road, travel south on Glenn Springs Road
. You'll have excellent views of the Chisos Mountains to your right and behind you along with a chance to get personal with some of the desert flora and fauna. The cacti probably won't jump out at you - but you're likely to see roadrunners, you may flush out the odd jackrabbit, and you may even see bobcats, coyotes, and other wildlife. No sign of any Acme delivery vehicles though.
Just before you reach Black Gap Road
, a large canyon will be to your left. When you do reach Black Gap Road
, continue straight on Glenn Springs Road
for a short distance (about 0.2 mi) if you want to visit the ruins of the town of Glenn Springs. You'll have to return to the intersection to continue the ride.
From Glenn Springs Road
, turn right onto Black Gap Road
. You'll immediately cross a creek, possibly dry or maybe torrential if it's just rained (in which case think twice about crossing it). The next mile climbs 100 ft on a rocky, rutted road to an overlook of Talley Mountain and the beginning of a steep descent. Enjoy the descent and then you'll ride about two miles through badlands with little vegetation.
Then you begin a climb up the shoulder of Talley Mountain. After you reach the Elephant Tusk campground near the top of this climb, you'll enjoy an easy, seven-mile continuous descent down to the junction with Talley Road
. The part of Black Gap Road
from Talley Road
to the Elephant Tusk campground gets maintenance by NPS.
When Black Gap Road
intersects with Talley Road
, turn left to ride up and over the Mariscal Mountains. This section was a little sandy, but once you cross the small rise over the Mariscal Mountains, the trail becomes more manageable. On the east side of the Mariscal Mountains, you'll reach several abandoned buildings at the foot of the Mariscal Mine. The mine is definitely worth exploring, but keep in mind this was a cinnabar mine. Cinnabar is a toxic ore of HgS (mercury sulfide), and mercury is also extremely toxic, so take appropriate care. The mine does make a good stopping place for lunch as it is about the halfway point in the ride, and there might be some shade in the shadows of one of the ruins.
After visiting the mine, continue east on River Road East
towards the Rio Grande. The landscape changes from desert scrubland to grassland near the river. Once River Road East
turns north (after the intersection with Solis Road), the surface becomes covered in white crystals that really reflect the sunlight. Then as you continue north towards the paved main park road, it switches back to the desert scrubland more typical of the park.
Once you reach the paved main park road, turn right, crossing a large bridge. Shortly after the bridge, turn right onto Hot Springs Road
which will take you to a well-earned soak in the hot springs on the Rio Grande. Don't cross into Mexico here though - there is a $5000 fine to come back if you're caught.
Alternatively, you can continue straight on the main park road down to the Rio Grande Village where there are services: water, camping, store, ranger station, etc.
You can now feel good that you've had a more profound experience of the park than many of the visitors that only drive through on the paved road. If you want a bigger challenge, ride the whole River Road from Castolon to Hot Springs. And if you want some real technical riding, check out Big Bend State Park.