Big Bend, Texas: Into the Great Wide Open

Text: Brian Shaney • Photography: Brian Shaney, Kris Shaney

We wake to sunny skies, a forecast in the mid-70s, and our bikes are ready to go. As I pull on my boots, my pulse quickens. I sense that this is going to be a great day for riding. Stepping outside, I find it hard to believe that it’s February. Fewer than 24 hours ago, I was waking up to snow and temperatures well below freezing. There are not many places you can travel to in North America at this time of year where perfect riding weather is practically guaranteed, but this is just such a place.

Big Bend National Park, an otherworldly place in southwestern Texas, is an area of unique contrast and beauty that was once occupied by the Chisos Indians during the time of the Aztecs. Set aside in 1933 by the state of Texas to preserve it for future generations, the park was formally adopted in 1944 by the federal government. If there is a “middle of nowhere” in the lower 48 states, this is most certainly it. That (along with the weather) is what drew us here.

On our arrival the previous evening, my wife, Kris, and I met up with Dan from GSMmotoRent to pick up our motorcycles as well as lay out our plan for three days of exploring both Big Bend National and the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. All our planned routes (paved and unpaved, from well-kept to primitive) are doable on larger adventure bikes, but we are more than happy taking the smaller, lighter dual sports. For the first two days, Kris selects the Kawasaki KLX 250S as her weapon of choice while I go with the Suzuki DR650. Due to limited fuel ranges on both of these rentals, route planning involves critical refueling stops to avoid long walks. On our final day’s route, we both plan to switch to the longer range Kawasaki KLR 650.

I Think We’re Alone Now

As we set out for the national park just a few miles from our hotel, we leave behind the very small towns of Study Butte (pronounced “Stoodie Beaut”) and Terlingua. The mountains, cattle, cacti, and desert flora lend themselves to the sense of being in the Real West. We arrive at the entrance just after 9 a.m., pay the nominal entrance fee (which is good for seven days), and pick up Old Maverick Road where we get our first taste of dirt. The wide, well-groomed road takes us south toward the Rio Grande. Big Bend controls about 244 miles of the river’s 1,255-mile international boundary with Mexico and was named after a large bend in the Texas-Mexico border.

At Old Maverick’s conclusion, the Santa Elena Canyon is a 1,500-foot-deep gash in the mountains through which the Rio Grande flows. At the overlook, we take a short hike down into the gorge. After a 17-month drought, the river is low and muddy, but recent rains help to keep it flowing to the Gulf of Mexico.

(End of preview text.)

For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2014 back issue.