The seeds of this West Texas motorcycle ride were planted in December 2019 when my buddy Reed and I joined the EagleRider Club. Members pay monthly subscription fees for credits toward motorcycle rentals, which roll over month to month and offer significant discounts versus standalone rentals.
In addition to the discounts, being club members allows us to fly into a new area and rent motorcycles that are different from what we ride back home. We live in Connecticut, so flying into Dallas saved us a 3,200-mile roundtrip that would have taken several days on each end. Instead of grinding out miles just to get to Texas and back home, we spent that time leisurely exploring roads and sights.
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To beat the heat of the Texas summer, we planned our trip for mid-April. Reed and I are BMW riders, but for this trip we rented two late-model Harley-Davidsons: a Street Glide for me and a Heritage Softail Classic for him. There’s something special about riding the open road on a big American V-Twin. We’re older guys who were decked out in textile riding gear and modular helmets, so we’re hardly Easy Rider rebels. When we saw a BMW GS in a hotel parking lot with “Adventure Before Dementure” on one of its panniers, we could relate.
See all of Rider‘s Harley-Davidson coverage here.
We did a clockwise loop of roughly 2,300 miles over nine days. From Dallas, we headed south to Texas’ funky state capital, Austin. The Harleys were stable and comfortable, the torque was intoxicating, and the horns were good and loud, but the transmissions were a bit clunky. After visiting the Texas Capitol, we rode east to Round Top, a small tourist town known for antiques. We were disappointed to find the antique markets closed when we got there, but I managed to get a photo with a roadrunner as tall as I am – things really are bigger in Texas!
The riding improved west of Austin when we entered the legendary Texas Hill Country, an area well-known among motorcyclists. Endless hills turn the many rural FM (Farm-to-Market) and RM (Ranch-to-Market) roads into paved rollercoasters. We enjoyed nice twisties, light traffic, and pretty views along the shore of Lake Travis and through Inks Lake State Park. After riding through Llano, we dropped the sidestands and stretched our legs at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. In Fredericksburg, a charming historic town surrounded by vineyards, we ate sausages and enjoyed live music during a courtyard dinner at a German restaurant.
Less than an hour from Fredericksburg and west of Medina, we rode the renowned Twisted Sisters. The three RM roads (335, 336, and 337) are full of fun curves and whoop-de-doos and are worthy of their reputation. The Twisted Sisters are so popular among motorcyclists that there are two-wheeled tourist stops in the area, like the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum in Vanderpool and the Frio Canyon Motorcycle Stop and The Hog Pen in Leakey. We passed many ranches; two of my favorite names were Big Bucks Ranch and Middle Age Spread.
After a night in Del Rio, we followed U.S. Route 90 west along the southwestern border of the Texas Pecos Trail region and within a stone’s throw of the Rio Grande. Although our bikes had the same 107 engines, the Softail’s tank holds 5 gallons while the Street Glide’s holds 6 gallons. That 1-gallon difference became evident when we hit an 86-mile stretch with no services thinking we had enough gas. We were wrong.
Reducing speed and tucking in behind the windshield for the last 20 miles did the trick, but headwinds meant the Softail was running on fumes when we pulled into Sanderson. At the gas station, a lady with a ’50s-style bouffant told us that pickle juice is good for combating dehydration. We were intrigued, but we wondered if she was having fun at the expense of us Yankees.
See all of Rider‘s touring stories here.
At Marathon, we turned south toward our next destination: Big Bend National Park. Situated in a pocket of West Texas where the Rio Grande’s southeasterly course makes a sharp bend to the north, Big Bend is enormous, covering more than 801,163 acres (1,252 square miles), making it the seventh largest national park outside of Alaska. In 1976, Big Bend was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It contains the largest intact portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the most biologically rich and diverse desert ecosystems in the world.
Because Big Bend is far from major cities and the 118 miles of the Rio Grande along its southern boundary serves as the border between the U.S. and Mexico, it receives relatively few visitors compared to other national parks. That makes it the perfect destination for those who love wide-open spaces and don’t care for crowds.
That afternoon we enjoyed Big Bend in all its glory. Mountain peaks topping 7,000 feet competed with colorful desert blooms for beautiful scenery. In Rio Grande Village, we learned of a tramway system that transported lead and silver from Mexico across the Rio Grande to eventually connect with the railroad in Marathon. For migrants, crossing the Rio Grande would have been a matter of simply wading the low waters, but passing the Border Patrol checkpoint some miles inland (in open desert) is another story.
Highlights of Big Bend National Park include the winding road up to Chisos Basin, the Rio Grande Overlook, and Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which passes through Tuff Canyon on its way to Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. Of the 304 miles of roads in the park, 123 miles are paved, 45 miles are unpaved but improved, and 136 miles are unpaved and primitive, so there are plenty of miles to explore regardless of your preferred surface – or bike. That said, at our hotel in Alpine, located about 80 miles north of the park via State Route 118, another guest recounted how two Honda Africa Twins struggled in Big Bend’s sandy unpaved tracks, going down so often they gave up and had their bikes towed out.
After spending the morning at Fort Davis, a national historic site north of Alpine with a well-preserved complex of buildings and visitor center, we embarked on our most challenging ride of the trip. We headed south on State Route 17 to Marfa and then took U.S. Route 67 to Presidio. From there, we rode east on FM 170, known as River Road. The 64 miles to Study Butte-Terlingua wind along the Rio Grande through Big Bend Ranch State Park. Except for the low water crossings, the road surface is generally good – and the views are fantastic – but riders need to stay frosty because there are sudden elevation changes, decreasing radius and off-camber blind curves, and sometimes wildlife on the road.
After getting our fill of mountains, canyons, rivers, and memorable Rio Grande scenery, we headed north through empty high desert to Fort Stockton, Odessa, Midland, and Lubbock, an area of Texas notable for the Permian Basin, an 86,000-square-mile area that’s home to some of the nation’s largest oil reserves. We rode for hours with oil wells scattered across the landscape in every direction. To our surprise, we also saw dozens of large wind turbines towering above some of the oil rigs, so some Texans are clearly hedging their bets.
Just south of Amarillo, we visited Palo Duro Canyon State Park, where we took in expansive views of America’s second largest canyon, which is 120 miles long, an average of 6 miles wide, and up to 1,000 feet deep. The sprawling canyon was the subject of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, who lived nearby, and the site of a battle between Texas Rangers and Chief Kicking Wolf in Larry McMurtry’s novel Comanche Moon.
Having completed much of our loop, we headed southeast toward Dallas. We took secondary roads through towns such as Turkey and Matador, the latter being the home of Bob’s Oil Well, a vestige of the days when bold roadside architecture attracted customers – in this case a wooden oil derrick towering above a gas station.
The skies darkened as we rode east, and in Crowell, a lady pulled over to tell us there were tornados touching down near our next waypoint in Vernon. When an EMT reiterated the warning, we stayed put until the coast was clear. When we finally hit the road again that evening, it was a wet ride, but there was so much lightning arcing across the clouds in the distance that we had plenty of light to guide us. When we checked into our hotel in Wichita Falls, we learned they’d had heavy rain, wind, and golf ball-sized hail – one guest had a broken windshield to prove it.
On our last day, we blasted along state highways to Dallas, and for long stretches, we enjoyed explosions of color from roadside wildflowers. Bluebonnet and Indian paintbrush were abundant, and mid-April was the perfect time to see them. We know better than to mess with Texas, but we sure do appreciate all the wonderful roads, sights, and beauty we experienced in the Lone Star State. And thanks, EagleRider, for renting us the Harleys – they were the perfect steeds for our journey.
The post A West Texas Motorcycle Ride Through Hill Country, Big Bend, and Oil Wells first appeared on Rider Magazine.