Bikepacking Big Bend’s Fresno Canyon

Time to hit the trail…and what better trail than the Contrabando Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park. This is a hike/bike trail, so I opted to “Bikepack” so I could cover the miles more quickly. You pick up this trail from the park headquarters at the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, Texas, and follow it northward until it intersects with Fresno Creek and follows the creek northward through Fresno Canyon.

For this trip I’ll be camping overnight in the area of Fresno Cascades, a dependable water source in the heart of Fresno Canyon, and doing a day hike up a side canyon to the Madrid House, and possibly up to Madrid Falls, a seasonal waterfall in a remote area of the park.

Round trip is about 26 miles, which can easily be done as a day ride/hike, but I want to not be rushed and explore, since I’ve not been on parts of this route before.

Map of the route, with numbers for reference to points of interest I describe along the way:

My bike, ready to roll. It’s a Motobecane full-suspension 27.5+ with 2.8 tires, outfitted with RockBros handlebar bag and seat bag to hold a sleeping bag, tent, air mattress, clothing and other miscellaneous gear. Location #1: A plant called candelilla grows in the area. It was used to make candles and other paraffin substitutes in the early part of the last century. The remnants of a candelilla processing operation are still found along the banks of a dry arroyo:

Location #2: At about 7 miles the trail passes an abandoned mercury mining operation, the Fresno Mine, which operated off-and-on from 1935 – 1956. From here the trail turns westward toward Fresno Creek:

Location #3: The trail crosses Fresno Creek and climbs gradually through Fresno Canyon. Along the way you can find remnants of the Old Government Road, a roadway constructed in the 1910’s by the Army to move troops to protect the border during the Mexican Revolution. An old line cabin used by early ranchers near Fresno Creek, and cottonwoods line the banks of Fresno Creek, near Fresno Cascades, where the water is forced to the surface by limestone deposits:

Location #4: Fresno Cascades…a dependable water source in the Chihuahuan Desert, historically used by paleo-indians and cowboys. Water is forced to the surface and flows into tinajas (water holes in the rocks), then goes underground to resurface downstream. The remains of what might have been a grain storage cache, or perhaps a temporary sheep corral…park authorities are not sure. From there the trail climbs up an old ranch road over a low pass and continues on to the old Madrid Ranch:

After dropping my bike, I set out on foot, up and over the saddle separating the Fresno Creek and Ojo Blanco Creek drainages. Along the way I am scolded disapprovingly by a red tail hawk. Below, the Ojo Blanco drainage is an oasis in the desert, the telltale cottonwood trees appearing everywhere a spring reaches the surface. An old beverage can, circa 1950’s-60’s vintage, carries an ignored message, “Dispose of Properly…Please don’t Litter.”

Location #5: Madrid Ranch – following the old ranch road trail for about 1.5 miles beyond Fresno Cascades you approach a very large grove of very tall cottonwood trees. This marks the location of Trough Spring, and the Madrid House, where the Madrid family homesteaded in the early part of the 20th. century. Nearby, a tall waterfall (Madrid Falls) derives its name from this family. A date palm grows around the spring. A friend familiar with this area speculates that the date palm, not indigenous to the Chihuahuan Desert, grew from discarded dates carried by cowboys as trail snacks. These occur in several places around springs in BBRSP. The Madrid House was actually a very well built, large adobe house, where you see remains of beautifully plastered interior walls, plus an obvious addition…a bedroom added as the family grew, showing occupation for a number of years. Madrid Falls lies out of view up a side canyon:

Location #4: Fresno Cascades Camp…the day was getting late, so I passed on trying to hike back to Madrid Falls. I’ll save that for another trip. My campsite was just above the cascades, near enough to water that I was serenaded all night by the water dropping over the cascade into a pool that never filled, but went underground as fast as the water flowed into it. Sunset was wonderful, and the nearly full moon shone all night:

Location #2: Fresno Creek to the Fresno Mine, and home…a lot of the creek crossings have been washed out by summer rains. Dropping down off the bank into the creek bed and back up the other side can be hazardous, and sometimes require dismounting. The trail, normally a dry creek bed, requires a little extra peddling effort due to the soft, water-soaked surface. I stopped at the Fresno Mine and hitched my trusty steed to an old hitching post for a rest. I’d like to know the story about the dual outhouses:

I rode/hiked for two days and saw no one. The trail is both beautiful and historic, with grand vistas. Take PLENTY OF WATER. Yes, there is usually water along this route (be sure to filter), but it cannot be guaranteed year round. Be sure to put this one on your “Bucket List.”

Published by texasflashdude

Photography and Travel, specifically adventure travel and backpacking in remote North America, give me an excuse to stay outside. If kayaks, bikes, backpacks, Jeeps, archeology, geology and wildlife can be included, all the better. Having spent my life working in the fashion and photography industries, I love the unusual, the spectacular, and the beautiful. God has given us a wonderful world in which to live, and I try to open others’ eyes to its wonders. I have shared nearly 50 years of this indescribable wonder with my wife, Jodie, and we go everywhere together. I hope you will share some of our journey with us.

4 thoughts on “Bikepacking Big Bend’s Fresno Canyon

  1. I recognized the candelilla, and remember reading about the candle-making; I think I must have read about it here. The outhouses amused me. On Hwy 35 just this side of Bay City, there’s an industrial construction site with both blue and pink port-a-potties. I’d stop and ask, but I really don’t want to find my assumption is wrong.

    I enjoyed the cottonwoods. Crossing western Kansas, I soon learned that they followed the water. And the Madrid house certainly is evocative. How is the name pronounced? I grew up near a town in Iowa that was MA-drid, rather than Ma-DRID.

    Thanks to the necessities of moving, it’s been a full three weeks since I’ve been out and about. It’s time to end that particular drought, and this marvelous post certainly is an encouragement!

    1. I would love to know about the blue and pink outhouses. I’m like you…I hope it’s the obvious “boys blue, girls pink.” Down here the pronunciation is Ma-DRID. However, I spent 5 years in Missouri, and there’s a major geological fault, which was the cause of a major earthquake that was so strong, it caused the Mississippi river to run BACKWARDS TO THE NORTH for a few minutes…it’s pronounced MA-drid. I really have a tough time when I’m talking to locals about the Madrid house or the Madrid falls to not pronounce it that way.
      Glad your moving is over and you still seem sane (or as close to sane as you can get after a move). Yes, it’s time to get outside. That heals so much stress. It’s actually a fact that being outside in the sunshine releases endorphins that reduce stress in humans. Time to hike.
      Thanks for the comments, Linda.

      1. The first earthquake I experienced, the Illinois quake of 1968 was on the Madrid fault. I was living outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa at the time, and the effects there were strong enough that I watched some glassware “walk” off a shelf.

        I’ve always said that one of the primary fringe benefits of my work as a boat varnisher is getting to spend my time outdoors. January and August present their challenges, but I’ve come to believe that all that sunshine does help to maintain my relatively sunny disposition.

  2. The New Madrid Fault has been barely moving for awhile, and I’ve read that the next really destructive quake could very well be along this fault, rather than the west coast. It could devastate Memphis, TN, with huge property damage and loss of life, due to the lack of quake-resistant construction.
    Didn’t know you were a boat varnisher. We used to own a Chris Craft 1956 runabout, and could have used your services. Great boat. No question that an outdoor job kept you bright and sunny! It really shows both in your writing and your photography. Thanks for the input.

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