Mountain Biking Texas
Correspondent Jeff Coyle showed his speed at the 2018 STORM Hill Country Challenge at Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort, Texas, about an hour northwest of San Antonio. Some of the best riding in Texas is on private ranches where the owners charge a daily fee (10 dollars in this case) for riders to enjoy the trails on their property. Photo by Lester E. Rosebrock
We had really never thought a whole lot about mountain biking in Texas until national marathon champ Payson McElveen told us that Texas was where he began his mountain biking career. Although he now lives in Durango, Colorado, which has long been known to be one of the best towns for mountain biking in America, Payson got us interested in the mountain biking in Texas, so we decided to look into the matter a little further.
It appears that we underestimated the mountain bike scene in the Lone Star State. It turns out that Texas has hundreds of well-known trails, several mountain bike organizations, and a large number of enthusiastic riders and racers.
MBA: How big is the mountain biking scene in Texas?
Jeff: Like everything in Texas, it is big—and getting bigger all the time. There is an excellent statewide cross-country race series with seasons in the spring, fall and winter; a rapidly growing NICA middle/high school league; and new trails popping up in public parks and on private ranches all the time. I recently went to a public meeting about a park expansion in San Antonio, and the auditorium was packed with mountain bikers advocating for a skills park to be built.
While mountain bikers have always been a fixture of the outdoor scene in Texas, I think we are just now finding our voices as influencers. Texas has been a bit slower than other states in realizing the tourism opportunities of our sport, but we’re getting there.
A young rider pauses at the end of a banked, wooden turn at the Barber Hills Trail system in northeastern Texas. Photo by Dawnie Lyles
MBA: How long have people been mountain biking in the state?
Jeff: I can’t say how long people have been riding in Texas, but the beloved Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest—an annual mountain bike festival in the Big Bend area—has been going on every year since the 1980s. Sadly, the event was permanently canceled for 2019 after having final- ly outgrown itself.
MBA: What are the trails like?
Jeff: Depends where you go. That’s the beauty of Texas; there’s tremendous ecological diversity. From the rugged mountainous desert of west Texas (think No Country for Old Men) to the verdant, rolling Texas Hill Country in the center of the state to the piney woods of East Texas, the land- scape and trails can vary greatly.
In Texas, 95 percent of the land is privately owned, but a number of ranch owners have built trail networks and generously opened their lands up to mountain bikers. Flat Rock Ranch, Reveille Peak Ranch, Ranch are a few of the best. My first race 10 years ago was on Lance Armstrong’s former Juan Pelota Ranch.
Riders gathered for the Cody Brown Memorial Ride on a Wednesday evening at Flat Rock Ranch. The ranch has over 28 miles of trails and is open to mountain biking every day of the year, with the exception of November/December, which is hunting season. Ranch owner Jimmy Dreiss, 65, is retired and still rides regularly. Photo by Jeff Coyle
MBA: Does Texas have any mountains?
Jeff: Yes, most people would be shocked to learn that we have 91 mountain peaks more than one mile high! In west Texas, there are more than 25 mountain peaks of 7500 feet or greater. That said, most of Texas is not mountainous, but it’s a lot more hilly than the flat, dry plains that people see when they drive across Texas.
MBA: What are the best parts of Texas for mountain biking?
Jeff: Big Bend in west Texas and Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle are extraordinary, worth-the-trip destinations, but both are far off the beaten path. For me, the sweet spot is the Texas Hill Country, in and around Austin and San Antonio. There are deep canyons, spring-fed rivers and dozens of trail systems. Geologically, the entire area is a fault zone made up of sharp cliffs with exposed limestone features. Between the ledges, rock gardens, rattlesnakes and cacti, this is challenging riding.
MBA: What parts of Texas have forests or extensive tree coverage?
Jeff: East Texas is the most wooded part of Texas and, in many places, looks very similar to neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana. The Texas Hill Country is covered with old-growth live oaks and juniper trees, which provide shade for the trails.
MBA: What’s the terrain like in Texas?
Jeff: You won’t find many long, sustained climbs—it’s more climb/descend, climb/ descend—but you can still log a few thousand feet of elevation gain over the course of a ride. In general, the trails here are technical and more XC- and enduro-oriented than downhill.
You’ll also see a lot of wildlife: white-tailed deer, armadillos, bobcats, coyotes and owls.
GROWING UP IN TEXAS
A top pro looks back
Cross-country and marathon pro Payson McElveen reflects on his mountain biking days in Texas.
Says Payson, “Growing up in Texas taught me how to ride flatter rock gardens and big step-up and step- down ledges. The limestone rock in the central Texas area where I grew up takes a unique skill set that I enjoy riding to this day. Another unique aspect of Texas riding is how little public land there is. That means many of the trails down there are on private ranches where a daily usage fee is required. The flip side is the ranchers and property owners who own those trails lovingly maintain them, too, and they’re always in excellent shape. Out towards Big Bend (west Texas), there’s a lot more public land that is home to some of the best riding in the state, especially Big Bend Ranch State Park. Definitely one of my favorite parts of mountain biking in Texas is that you can do it year round!”
MBA: What’s the weather like?
Jeff: Well, the best part is that with 200+ days of sunshine, we can ride year round. While most people know the summer is blazing hot in Texas, the fall, winter and spring months are amazing! Mild temperatures, sunny skies and only a brief cold snap or two per year.
Frederic Wilson, Dale Love, Marcus Gillaspia and their fellow racers wait for the start of the Jurassic Trails MTB race in Dinosaur Valley State Park, located about an hour southwest of Fort Worth. Photo by Jeff Coyle
MBA: How hot does it get there in the summer?
Jeff: It can easily reach 100 on a summer day, but the temps are usually in the 70s and 80s in the morning. Rides during the summer are usually early or late.
MBA: How cold does it get there in the winter?
Jeff: We might get a few days of freezing temperatures (I won my first race last February in 28-degree weather!), but winters are very mild. We race continuously from September through May.
MBA: What would you tell someone thinking about taking a mountain biking trip to Texas?
Jeff: Wait until it is too cold and wet to ride where you live and then come to Texas. Pick a spot in the Texas Hill Country (Fredericksburg is a charming German town surrounded by an emerging wine region) and hit a half dozen or more trail systems that are less than an hour’s drive. Then hit a local brewery, cool off in a river tube and watch a Texas sunset.
MBA: Any other local pro tips?
Jeff: Catch the Wednesday night ride at Flat Rock Ranch. The ranch is owned by Jimmy Dreiss, a long-time mountain biker who still leads the weekly rides. You’ll climb some ledges, rail some berms, and end up around a campfire for beers and barbecue. There’s no hump day like it!
Off the radar
We reached out to one of our contacts in Texas to find out more about the trails in the northeastern part of the state. He put us in touch with Bryan Hargis, the trail steward of the riding area known as Barber Hills. Hargis filled us in on some of the facts about his area. (His opinion might be biased, of course.)
MBA: What can you tell us about Barber Hills?
Hargis: Barber Hills is by far the best trail in the northeast Texas area. The lake side of Barber Hills has more climbing, and the inside trails are more flowing and faster. The ground is sand and clay with roots scattered about. All of the trails are entirely singletrack trails in the woods. There are no rocks or tree gates to contend with. It is a really fun trail. The trails have a lot of shortish climbs and descents out of creeks. Ninety percent of the creeks have good bridges over them, so getting plenty of momentum isn’t a problem. The trails are ridden in either direction and well- marked. White arrows are forward and red arrows show the reverse direction. The yellow arrows show where a cut through to another trail or a trailhead is. We even have a kid/beginner trail called Easy Rider that is close to the Sanders Cove trailhead. There are a couple of great views of the lake from the trail.
MBA: Is there camping in the area?
Hargis: Camping has all utilities, restrooms and showers (showers not available in the winter months). Sanders C loop is the closest camping area to the trails. In the winter months C loop is closed, but Sanders Cove A loop is open and free with electricity and water. Sewer dump isn’t available in the free winter period. [ The website for the area says this: “Sanders Cove Campground is on the banks of Pat Mayse Lake in the Red River Basin in Lamar County, Texas. Easy access to developed park areas has made the lake a haven for families who enjoy camping, picnicking, swim- ming, boating, fishing and other outdoor recreation.”]
The ladies love Barber Hills, too. Photo by Dawnie Lyles
MBA: Are there any good bike shops in the area?
Hargis: Gear Down Bikes [in Paris, Texas; www.geardownbikes.com) is the best and only bike shop in the area.
MBA: What are the best bikes for the trails?
Hargis: Any bike from a hardtail to a full enduro rig will work well at Barber Hills. My bike is somewhere in the middle with 150mm [travel] on the front and 127mm on the rear.
MBA: Can you recommend a map of the area?
MBA: Can you tell us a little about the history of the area?
Hargis: Clint Barber and a few of his buddies wanted a place to ride, and after talking the Corp of Engineers into it in 2005, they started developing the trails. They spent several years developing the first 10 miles of trails. Beginning in 2013, another 3.5 miles of trails were added.
MBA: Do you have any mountain bike races in the area?
Hargis: We had our first XC race last winter and plan on having a marathon event this fall, with riders going four laps at 13.5 miles per lap.
MBA: How is the weather?
Hargis: The trails are open all year, with spring, fall and winter being the best times to ride. In July and August, the temps get over 100, and it gets really hot in the woods. In the winter months, we do a lot of night riding on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The trail conditions are updated on MTB Project regularly.
MBA: When are the best times to ride?
Hargis: It is a great place to ride when it’s really cold, because the trees block all of the cold wind. We regularly ride when it is in the low 30s, but spring and fall are great times to ride, too.
MBA: What kind of wildlife do you find in the area?
Hargis: We see a lot of deer, squirrels and armadillos in the woods.
MBA: Who takes care of the trail?
Hargis: The Lamar County Cyclist Association. We are well-known for keeping the trail clear of obstructions and for having a great group of volunteers who are glad to pitch in to help get projects done.
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