Wonderful West Texas

Big bikes enjoying the winding River Road in Big Bend. (Photo: Brewster County Tourism)
Big bikes enjoying the winding River Road in Big Bend. (Photo: Brewster County Tourism)

The Lone Star State is huge, and this land of cattle, oil fields and tall pickups seems even bigger from the saddle of a motorcycle. Near the end of a recent and long tour of Texas, I found a hidden treasure. Nestled between the Rio Grande and New Mexico rests an area that features some of the best riding Texas has to offer.

In my map study of far West Texas it became clear that the attractive loops of highway in the Big Bend area would require more than a day’s ride. Those loops also seemed to have a clear central axis—the town of Fort Davis. I booked a room at the Harvard Hotel, an incongruously named but truly outstanding hotel in the center of the small, historic town and settled into the heart of this motorcycling wonderland. Fort Davis sits at nearly a mile in elevation and is the home of the historic site of the 19th-century frontier fort of the same name. The fort was of particular interest to me because of my fascination with the Buffalo Soldiers. In the late 1800s, Fort Davis was the regional headquarters for all four regiments of these iconic soldiers.

Big Bend Loop – Splendid Isolation

Map of the ride route, by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.
Map of the ride route, by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

I studied my map over a tasty patty melt at the Fort Davis Drugstore, a quaint diner which dates back to 1913 and sits adjacent to the Harvard Hotel. My goal in route planning, as always, was to put together intriguing rides with minimal road repetition. I decided that I’d do the long ride first—the Big Bend National Park loop. I packed my camera and plenty of water, gassed up and headed south on Texas Route 118. The descent out of Fort Davis was beautiful as it wound through sculpted rock formations and small stands of oak and juniper trees.

About 25 miles southeast of my starting point was Alpine, Texas. This bustling college town is considered the gateway to Big Bend. Continuing south, Route 118 was a mix of straights and sweeping high desert curves. It was an arid departure from the more mountainous nature of the Fort Davis area. The road was fun and fast, and the traffic was light. At the southern extremity of this road, Big Bend National Park sits massively to the southeast and there is a junction that leads into the park.

However, my route dictated a west bend onto Texas FM 170. Also known as the River Road due to its symbiotic relationship with the Rio Grande, this road was a true delight. After the ghost town of Terlingua, the terrain becomes more rugged and rocky and the tarmac tightens into nice curves. In spots, there are rollercoaster-like elevation changes and the Rio Grande is often visible from the roadside. Much of this stretch is through the heart of Big Bend Ranch State Park. Route 170 follows the Mexican-American border closely for about 60 miles before reaching the town of Presidio, Texas.

The northern turn onto U.S. Route 67 spells a return to straighter, more open riding similar to the southern ride on Route 118. I rolled through another interesting ghost town, Shafter, on the trek back toward Fort Davis. After Shafter, my straight, high desert ride continued to the town of Marfa. This is another town that reflects the historic, artistic, eclectic nature of many of the towns in this area.

The author looking in vain for the mysterious Marfa Lights.
The author looking in vain for the mysterious Marfa Lights. (Photo: Tim Kessel)

The last leg of this loop ride before returning to Fort Davis was a portion of U.S. Route 90. This ride brings back hilly, sweeping twisties and elevation changes. The Marfa Lights Viewing Center is an interesting stop in the middle of this jaunt. The Marfa Lights are glowing orbs that appear over the desert on a dozen or so nights a year. There are many theories as to what they may be, from the supernatural to the scientific, but they remain an intriguing phenomenon. I took a quick look through the center’s viewing scopes, but the time of day during my stop made spotting them a fun but futile endeavor. My return to Fort Davis ended a wonderful 280-mile day through the rugged, muted browns of the Big Bend area.

The Davis Loops – Mountain Magic

I woke with anticipation as the day’s route promised exactly the kind of riding I love most. The jagged figure eight that I had highlighted on my map traced through curvy mountainous topography that held incredible promise.

On my way out of Fort Davis to the northeast, the sunrise illuminated the buildings of the historic fort with a warm yellow glow. I carved my way up Texas Route 17 through the rugged rocky terrain. It was a very different ride than most of the open, desert landscape of the prior day. Bridges, guardrails and Falling Rock warning signs emphasize that change. Aside from the beauty, three things struck me on this stretch. First, Texas does a great job with signs that alert drivers to share the road with motorcycles. Also, rest stops in the area are frequent and beautiful. Finally, interesting historic markers are common along West Texas roadways.

West Texas rest stops are abundant and often beautiful.
West Texas rest stops are abundant and often beautiful.

After Wild Rose Pass in the Davis Mountains, the road settles into a descent of sweeping view-filled curves on the way to Toyahvale. The ride northwest out of the town was a straight, arid respite over FM 3078 and a short stretch of Interstate 10. It was the calm before the wonderful storm of curves that the northern portion of Route 118 would bring.

The McDonald Observatory is another interesting highlight in the Davis Mountains.
The McDonald Observatory is another interesting highlight in the Davis Mountains.

The southern ride on Route 118 starts as a treeless roll through high desert grasslands. In the distance, mountains began to become visible and I knew that I was headed toward the heart of the Davis range. I came to a fork in the road with Route 166 to the right and the continuation of Route 118 to the left. I made my premeditated left turn without remorse, as I knew I would sample enticing Route 166 later in the ride.

Instantly after the fork, the road becomes a serpentine ribbon into a kind of terrain I had not witnessed in Texas. Trees grow taller, views grow longer and the road grows tighter. It was all that I had imagined earlier with highlighter in hand. After several miles of fantastic riding, the white domes of the McDonald Observatory glowed in the mountain sun. After a stop at the observatory, I began the winding descent back toward Fort Davis. Again, the views opened up. The grin-inspiring joyride continued all the way back to the fort.

Despite being back at my starting point of the day, my ride was not over. Remember this route is a figure eight and it was only half traced. I saved this last loop like you save that last great slice of steak at dinner. Heading south out of Fort Davis and linking up with Highway 166, I embarked on what the locals call the Davis Mountain Scenic Loop. The early part of the loop undulates through farm and ranchland. Off in the northeastern distance is a different view of the Davis Mountains that had made for such great riding earlier in the day. At various points in this beautiful stretch, Mount Livermore is clearly visible. Livermore is the tallest peak in the range at over 8,000 feet in elevation.

Views on the loop around and through the Davis Mountains are breathtaking.
Views on the loop around and through the Davis Mountains are breathtaking.

As the loop makes its gradual arc to the north, the road becomes twistier and more mountainous. To say the traffic was light would be an acute understatement. I may have passed two cars total before returning to that wonderful Y in the road that I mentioned earlier. You may recall that I stated that one of my tenets in route mapping is minimal road repetition. There are exceptions—sometimes wonderful exceptions. On this day, I was going to get to re-ride what may be the best motorcycling stretch of road in Texas. I was back on Route 118 to connect the dots back to Fort Davis on this figure-eight ride. It was just as good the second time! For the last 200 miles I traced my way around and through the stunning Davis Mountains in wonderful West Texas.

I have ridden thousands of miles over the very best roads that the American Southwest has to offer, so I can be a bit hard to impress. Let’s just say, I left my days in West Texas thoroughly impressed with the Big Bend and Davis Mountains region. It is an area of great roads, historic towns and stunning scenery. It is worthy of a spot on any motorcyclist’s bucket road list.

A tunnel on a side trip toward Rio Grande Village.
A tunnel on a side trip toward Rio Grande Village.
The town of Marfa is an unlikely oasis north of Big Bend.
The town of Marfa is an unlikely oasis north of Big Bend.
A view of historic Fort Davis at sunrise.
A view of historic Fort Davis at sunrise.
Cacti, rocks and stark beauty welcome visitors to Big Bend National Park.
Cacti, rocks and stark beauty welcome visitors to Big Bend National Park.
The comfortable Harvard Hotel is a perfect home base for a tour of Big Bend and the Davis Mountains.
The comfortable Harvard Hotel is a perfect home base for a tour of Big Bend and the Davis Mountains.
The well-preserved historic site of Fort Davis is a must-visit in West Texas.
The well-preserved historic site of Fort Davis is a must-visit in West Texas.

 

 

 

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Living in Canada, I made it my business to ride Western Texas. Loved it so much – I did it a second time! Because it’s just too darn expensive to ride my own bike down there a third time, I’m going to do the next best thing, I’ll rent a bike. My last time there (2015) I met a fellow from Tennessee who rents all kinds of bikes from Terlingua, great fellow. If you have any interest riding this wonderful place, I’d give him a try:
    http://gsmmotorent.com/portfolio-item/traveling-terlingua/

  2. Marfa Texas is my home town I was fortunate to have a motorcycle growing up a license at 16 got me started on what really is a fantastic area to ride. In fact funny to read this article I’m on my way there this month and I can’t wait.

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