Big Bend National Park

Wheel Through Endless Texas Badlands

Big River: The Rio Grande carves through Big Bend National Park     Photo: PhotoDisc

Kick Back in Alpine

West Texas is wide-open country, so don't be shocked that Big Bend's "gateway" town is 102 miles from the park's front door. In Alpine—population 5,786—longhairs and cowboys mix in funky downtown cafés and bars. The hippest inn is the Holland Hotel, built in 1912 and refurbished with 16 rooms, including an $80 "penthouse" with 360-degree views of the 5,000-foot Davis Mountains ($50–$80; 800-535-8040, www.hollandhotel.net). Alpine is home to Railroad Blues (432-837-3103, www.railroadblues.com), one of the best small-town music joints in the country, offering 124 brews and performances by famous Texas bands like the Derailers and Asleep at the Wheel. Satisfy your hankering for seared beef at upscale Reata (915-837-9232, www.reata.net).
One Fine Day: Stay in Alpine and cycle part of the 75-mile Scenic Loop, an isolated ride through the Davis Mountains. (Watch out for the wild-boar-like javelinas. Seriously.) Or head to Big Bend and hike the South Rim trail in the Chisos Mountains, a 13-mile out-and-back trek with panoramas of the Chihuahuan Desert stretching all the way to Mexico. —J. D.

Acres: 801,000 Contact: 432-477-2251

NATIONAL PARKS AND MOUNTAIN BIKES usually don’t mix—bikes are illegal on most park trails, and designated bike paths are often a bore. But there’s one major exception: Big Bend. This West Texas park’s desert terrain is laced with 160 miles of dirt roads, where mountain bikes are not only allowed but welcomed. Since Big Bend receives just 300,000 visitors a year, many of whom arrive in lumbering RVs, riding the ghost roads that once served turn-of-the-century mining and river towns is a cool and private way to experience this sprawling Chihuahuan Desert landscape.

To cover the most territory, hire Desert Sports (contact below) to shuttle your vehicle from site to site. (On some parts of this trip, you’ll want four-wheel drive to carry your bikes from place to place.) Begin your ramble with a one-way, 35-mile downhill bike ride on the Old Ore Road from Dagger Flat to the Rio Grande. You’ll start atop an alluvial plain, with jagged Mexican mountains rippling on the southern horizon. Flanked by ocotillo and prickly pear, you’ll make an easy half-day ride to the Telephone Canyon backcountry campsite. If you have enough oomph and water, take a sunset hike on the first few miles of the 17-mile Telephone Canyon Trail up into the Deadhorse Mountains.

The next day, head down steep grades through Ernst Basin to the Rio Grande and the U.S.-Mexico border, soaking at Langford Hot Springs. Now it’s time for your next big roll: a two-day, 29-mile ride combining the Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads. To get started, drive north on the paved park highway from Rio Grande Village to the Glenn Spring turnoff, just beyond Dugout Wells; keep going approximately 13 bumpy miles to Glenn Spring, where you’ll pitch your tent next to a village that was raided by Pancho Villa’s men in 1916. From the ruins, pedal south on Black Gap Road, and then east at the fork, past the Mariscal Mine site on River Road down to the river. Get your feet wet and head northeast on River Road, then take a left on Glenn Spring Road to complete the loop.

GETTING THERE: Desert Sports, in Terlingua, rents mountain bikes, provides shuttles, and offers guided rides (888-989-6900, www.desertsportstx.com). Free backcountry camping permits are available at the park’s Panther Junction visitor center. There’s no reliable water along these routes, so carry plenty or cache it in advance.

WHEN TO GO: October through mid-April.

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