Got to ride the IMBA Epic in Big Bend Ranch State Park a few days ago, and it ended up being more epic than I planned. This is part ride report and part suggestions for anyone interested in tackling this ride. Our plan was to complete the ride in one day. Didn’t happen. We parked at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center (short ride to the trail head) and checked in at 8am when they opened. Got some tips from them and confirmation on info I had researched (such as water sources, route, etc.) then hit the trail at 8:20.
First part of the route consisted of a combo of smooth dirt road and some nice flowing singletrack spurs. This went on for about 8 miles, at which point we dropped into Fresno Canyon. Most of the next 10 miles was spent in the creek bed, much of which was very sandy/gravelly. Some of this was pretty difficult to ride (i.e.- wheels spinning as we powered through loose sections), and many sections we ended up walking. This is where my weight (135#) and bike (29er) proved beneficial. Both of my buddies struggled more here despite being more fit than me, and I attribute it to their weights (160#, 190#) and bikes (26er). We learned to pursue the bigger rocks and bumpier sections which afforded more traction. Next time I do it, I may switch out my 2.1 tires for 2.4. Despite having to trudge through much of the Fresno Canyon creek bed, I liked it as it was very scenic. We got a little off track once by following a trail marked by a rock cairn but quickly got back to the creek. For those sections of the Epic route that left the creek there were metal signs guiding the way.
Once we got out of Fresno Canyon the trail turned to mostly double-track (pretty rough in some places) and gave us a good amount of climbing (700’ per one ranger we spoke with), including a big, loose climb up Fresno Hill. Of the 2 route options presented at this part of the Epic, we had opted for the southernmost one (thru La Posta). After a few more rolling hills, we hit improved dirt road that took us into Sauceda (halfway point, ranger station). It had taken us 6hrs to cover the 26miles to get here. As a frame of reference for fitness levels, a couple months ago I completed 16 laps (~150 miles) at the Rocky Hill 24hr race. I think I could do this Lajitas-Saucedo section in 5hrs but probably not much less.
In Sauceda we replenished our water, ate, then started heading down the other side. We anticipated the return trip taking considerably less time as it was less creek bed plus a 2,000ft drop in elevation. After about 5 miles we came to a junction that gave 2 more options for the Epic route, one thru Madrid Falls Road and one thru Monilla Canyon. Monilla Canyon was the one suggested to us by a ranger and the one that we took. It was very scenic and sometimes pretty rough double-track thru rolling hills. It was also the area where our trouble began. We had, unfortunately, come to rely upon the up-until-that-point reliable signage, and when we got to the area where we should have turned left (somewhere past Javalin Pens), we missed the turn-off and continued along the more travelled road. Of course, we thought we were on the right road all along. Then we got to an intersection that we didn’t recognize and that was not on our map. This was not good, especially given that it was now past 5pm.
Knowing that we were going to be caught out after dark, I had a strong inclination to try to “fix” our situation and capitalize on the ground we had covered. One road left this intersection in approximately the right direction, so we decided to at least try it for 15min to see if it could get us back on the map. It didn’t, taking us southwest instead of southeast. Getting a bit desperate, we briefly considered trying to use the topo map to help us cut across country back to Lajitas. Thankfully, we decided that this would be too risky in the dark and would make it much more difficult for us to be evacuated if needed, so we decided to retrace our path all the way back to Sauceda (3hrs away) and called my family with the satellite phone to give our coordinates and info on our revised plans. There were multiple mistakes made in the preparation for this trip (which I have detailed below), one of which was that we only took flashlights (for emergency use) instead of proper bike lights (which we didn’t anticipate needing). So we doubled back on our tracks, rode as long as we safely could then pushed our bikes when it got too dark. Periodically we’d check in with our family and provide updated coordinates. At the same time, they were working on getting a ranger to drive down from Sauceda to pick us up, which did happen around 8pm. It’s a good thing, too, as a cold front blew in around 9pm, taking the temps down into the 30’s. It all ended up working out, but it could have gone really wrong. If we would have been forced to sleep out there we would have been at serious risk for hypothermia. No doubt we made a few significant mistakes, and hopefully this report will prompt you to take better measures than we did if you attempt this route. Below is a summary of steps we took as well as those that I think we should have taken.
Measures we took that we thought were sufficient:
- 2 maps: IMBA Epic map and GPS iPhone app w/US Geological topo maps
- 3 iPhones (main plus backups)
- Borrowed satellite phone (can also be rented in Austin)
- Overstocked on water (w/purification tablets) and had enough food
- Info on current water sources
- Tubeless tires w/plenty of sealant
- Spare tubes, patches, tires, links, tools, pumps, zip ties, duct tape, flashlights
- Relayed our plans and route to park ranger and our families
In hindsight, measures that we should have taken:
- Allot more time (Because we were fit, we thought we could complete the route in one long day. Even if we didn’t get off-track, we would have been really pushing it to finish in daylight. We certainly didn’t give ourselves enough time to have a comfortable margin of error for mechanicals, getting off track, etc.)
- Better maps (the IMBA Epic map didn’t cover enough area; the US Geological topo map didn’t show trails or road names and was too cumbersome to use on the small iPhone screen). After the ride I saw the 3’x3’ park map that I should have got.
- Proper bike lights (would have helped us cover more ground after dark, even with only getting 3-6hrs extra ride time)
- Emergency blanket
I’m certainly not trying to scare anyone away from this ride. I just urge better planning than we did. Except for getting off-track after dark, I loved it. It was awesome and I will do it again. In fact, the trails that we did that were beyond the IMBA Epic route were equally cool, and now I want to explore all of the roads and trails in the state park. If the above story does scare you from attempting this on your own, just hook up with an expert guide such as Mike Long at Desert Sports or one of the park rangers. Better yet, head out there for the Chihuahuan Desert Dirt Fest coming up in February, where they’ll be hitting a lot of these trails on organized rides.
Here are a few pics from our trip:
A couple miles in
Dropping into Fresno Canyon
Cave on western flank of the Solitario
Some of the deeper sand/gravel we encountered
Some steep, rocky climbs
Some long, rocky climbs
View from the top, Fresno Hill
Some sweet twisty double-track
More sweet double-track (this section off the IMBA Epic route, on Guale Rd)
I bought this t-shirt at the Sauceda gift shop halfway thru the ride. How ironic that it says “I survived the ride”, not “I finished the ride”. Sheesh.
Hope you enjoyed.