By: Dan Oko
When bandleader Bob Wills laid down his immortal tune "Miles and Miles of Texas," the saddles that concerned the singer belonged on horses. But what mountain bikers need to know is that the song's title also applies to the miles of raucous singletrack deep in the heart of Texas. Not far from the state capital in Austin, trails crisscross an array of city and county parks, as well as the occasional ranch. These tracks offer an antidote to the private property that locks up much of the Lone Star landscape. The best trails surge and climb along the geologic fluctuations forming the rocky Balcones Escarpment, and range from fast and flowy to treacherous and technical. It all adds up to a near-perfect getaway for riders of all stripes.
Although sprawling development remains a major threat, local advocates and area bike shops have worked closely with city and state agencies to keep the trail network growing. That means whether you're looking for a cross-country marathon, an afternoon spin, or a chance to hone your skills along the area's many exposed limestone ledges and granite cliffs, you can find whatever you're looking for.
As one of America's truly rocking cities (it proclaims itself the "Live Music Capital of the World"), Austin offers a range of urban amenities that many bike destinations lack, including the unparalleled nightlife of the Sixth Street bar district. Sure, you won't find snow-capped peaks or alpine forests, but the thrills still arrive fast and furious as you wend your way along cedar-lined creek beds. And, with January temps holding steady around 60 degrees, who needs snow?
If there's a downside to hitting the Texas Hill Country trails, it's the challenge of staying hydrated in extreme summer heat, which can hit triple-digits. Still, it's worth noting that some of the sweetest singletrack starts right at Austin's central Zilker Park and the cool waters of Barton Springs, a 900-foot-long pool that stays a cool 68 degrees, no matter the ambient temp.
Barton Creek Greenbelt: It's barely two-and-a-half miles from the Texas State Capitol in Austin to the trailhead of some of the area's finest singletrack. The Barton Creek Greenbelt starts just south of the entrance to Barton Springs pool, and runs a twisty 7.5-mile cherry stem through 800 acres of woodsy wildness. In addition to rock gardens, drops, baby heads and creek crossings (best negotiated in dry weather) is the promise of the Hill of Life, a quarter-mile climb that separates hardcore racers from the rest of us.
Those with a hankering for additional hurt will want to hit semi-official backcountry paths breaking east of the greenbelt, including Toys 'R Us and Travis Country. Others looking for a group ride might want to stop by Mellow Johnny's (owned by none other than this year's Leadville 100 winner, Lance Armstrong) on Saturday mornings for a guided tour.
Emma Long: First things first: You will have to tolerate the occasional buzz of motorized trail companions at City Park, as the Emma Long Motorcycle trail is known among area riders. But considering that motor-heads originally built these trails—Austin's most demanding—we say live and let live. The trail, located on the northwestern edge of town, is a 6.5-mile-long, hellacious, up-and-down singletrack that will test your suspension, your cardio and your brakes. As you hop and drop the ledges, be sure to take in the airy panorama between adrenaline bursts. Last but not least, if you continue riding southwest along City Park Road, you will arrive on the shores of Lake Austin, where camping and swimming opportunities abound.
Rocky Hill Ranch: For riders wanting a rustic ranch experience, Rocky Hill outside Smithville (an hour's drive from Austin) offers a glorious chance to dodge longhorn cattle patties well outside of cell-phone range. Overlapping terrain, from pine forests to wide swaths of arid desert, come together at this private, pay-to-play 1,000-acre operation. Trail hazards and features on the 9-mile-long loop, including several drops, are generally marked.
Services at Rocky Hill are basic, with a self-serve sign-in sheet, but riding the ranch's 15 to 20 miles of singletrack costs a mere $8 per day. Rocky Hill's new manager, R.B. Phelps, promises to improve maintenance, add mileage and offer as many off-road events as the calendar allows. The annual 24-hours of Rocky Hill, hosted each fall, remains one of the state's oldest organized mountain bike races.
• Best time to go: October to June.
• Eats: Uncle Billy's Brew and Cue is an award-winning brewpub and there may be no better way to refuel than a brisket plate and the Ax Handle Pale Ale (512-476-0100; unclebillysaustin.com). Also check out Torchy's Tacos and sample the green chili pork, Baja shrimp and fried avocado varieties (512-366-0537, torchystacos.com).
• Shop support: If you need rentals, Bicycle Sport Shop on South Lamar has bikes that start at $20 for a half day (512-477-3472, bicyclesportshop.com). Austin Bikes on West Fifth offers knowledgeable advice (512-468-9557,austinbikes.com); Lance's shop, Mellow Johnny's, is located on Nueces Street (512-473-0222,mellowjohnnys.com).
• Lodging: For ritzy downtown digs, try the historic Driskell Hotel on Sixth Street (512-474-5911,driskillhotel.com). The Austin Motel is a good choice on the South Congress hip-strip (512-441-1157,austinmotel.com). Camping choices include Emma Long Park (ci.austin.tx.us/parks/emmalong.htm) or McKinney Falls State Park (512-389-8900, tpwd.state.tx.us).
• Trail info: The Globe Pequot guide to Mountain Biking Texas is a great place to start. Bike shops are a good source of current conditions, while the Austin Ridge Riders (austinridgeriders.com) and Bike Mojo's local forums have plenty of good information (bikemojo.com).