Miles Payton shares an overnight route on the edge of the outback that loosely traces the Llano River in Central Texas. The route’s remote nature, oft-accompanied by high heat eight months out of the year, deserves appropriate respect and preparation but, as Miles’ describes, traces some of the more unique and compelling geology Texas has to offer. The route is a reminder that sometimes joy and exhaustion are only separated by ten degrees Fahrenheit, or the soft buffer of a cloud bank, and also that the trips that leave mixed emotions can leave you with more to ponder over after they’re finished. Thanks for sharing Miles!
Texas had been in drought conditions for months, and stretches had clearly not seen rain all spring. The famous Texas wildflowers should have been in full bloom, but not many were sparing the resources for reproduction, if they were even able to germinate this year in the thirsty sand. Buzzards spiraled above us more than a few times and I wondered if they knew something about the state we were in that I did not. It was already nearly 90 degrees. The southerly breeze had been replaced by a soft, hot, and irregular convective wind, and we had 20 miles to go.
This route begins in the small Central Texas town of Llano, west of Austin and north of what most consider the Hill Country. This is ranch land with rolling hills and the odd granite outcrop. The town sits on the Llano River, upstream from where it meets the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes with its lake houses, boats, and vacationers. It’s hard, beautiful country.
This is the threshold of what I call the Outback, where the land empties out. If you came from one of the big Texas cities to the east, you’ve passed through the posh suburbs, past retirement communities, swimming holes, and ranchettes where retired attorneys play cowboy. Llano is on the threshold of emptiness. Heading west, the towns are tiny, the trees stunted, the sky bigger. Uniquely, many of the roads are on the open range, traversing 5,000-acre ranches. Stay on the road though or you might be killed, we’re periodically reminded by signage. This is hard country. It is also criss-crossed by many remote, fenceless, smooth sandy roads, winding around outcrops and along rivers through this sublime place. We are out here to experience them.
We started this morning pre-dawn in downtown Llano, leaving my car at the parking lot at Grenwelge Park. A cop cruised by to see what we were doing. No honest person is up at 5 am. “How’re y’all doing?” They asked. “Fine”, I said. Just going for a little bike ride. I always make sure to compliment locals on the quality of their roads. Llano and Mason Counties have some of the best gravel in Texas and they ought to know it. Maybe next time they’ll be less surprised by a pair of cyclists in the early morning.
We finished assembling our bikes and left town, taking the ranch road to the county road, and then, with a brief drumroll of a cattleguard, hit gravel. Or sand, really. This portion of the ride, due south of Llano on County Road 114, is in the central Llano Uplift, the parent material of this road surface being billion-year-old granite.
The Llano Uplift is an anomalous geologic province in Texas if anything in geology can be called normal, by comparison. Most of Texas sits atop layers on layers of limestone, calmly deposited at the bottom of a shallow sea for millions of years. Some 20 million years ago, that brittle stone cracked under its own weight in a great arc, forming the Balcones Escarpment that defines the eastern edge of the Hill Country. At the same time, the roots of an ancient and massive mountain range were shoved to the surface. The cracked limestones washed away, and the ancient granites, schists, gneisses, and rhyolites were exposed. These varied rocks weathered in different ways, and today we find this landscape of rolling hills, sandy creeks, and granite outcrops that we call the Llano Uplift.
Igneous rock dissolves into sand, and that’s what we were riding on out here. With some exceptions, I don’t even think the surface is maintained beyond a yearly blading. It’s generally lovely and hard-packed, but with sand pockets just frequent enough to keep you alert. The sky had lost its stars a few miles out of Llano and turned gray when we turned onto the county road, and now it was glowing mauve and navy. Painted buntings, now awake, darted across the road in front of us. We ride steadily into a soft and slightly cooling humid wind. It’s a good start to the day.
We turned west, cruising on some fast, alligator-skin asphalt for a moment before returning to the sand. We hit a few low-water crossings, each a dry and sandy wash leading down to the Llano River to the north. The crossings are always fun, hopscotching between polished marble boulders on rough backcountry concrete slabs. There’s a sudden presence of bugs in the air, a faint algal funk, and then you’re up the other side and back into the ranch lands. The sun was rising. The bright treetops had warned us, and all of a sudden we lost the shadow of Packsaddle Mountain and the sun was upon us, covering the pink granite roads and dead grass with a rich golden light.
We follow this route to Castell, the one tiny town in the center of all this. The general store is closed still, so we topped up our waters (I confidently leave a bottle empty and later regret it) and continue on. The sun is well up now, and we steadily climb south on Keyserville Road. We passed through Loyal Valley, a zero-stop-sign town with a fire department and a winery, and then dog-leg down to Threadgill Creek Road. This stretch winds west through tiny valleys, each with its own colonial homestead surrounded by towering oaks and fields of hay. It’s an incredible road.
We started noticing mountain cedar trees, also known as Ashe juniper, widespread in the Hill Country and absent in the Llano Uplift’s sand. But here the dry, sandy creeks were replaced by spring-fed creeks warming themselves on limestone slabs. All of a sudden we’re back on the Edwards Plateau! Next time a water filter would be a good idea, as there are multiple creeks with water in them on this stretch. Beaver, Squaw (any name would be preferable to that one), and James are all flowing.
We wind our way out of the lovely valleys and end up on a wide, bleak pipeline road. We stopped for a snack and some water in the modest shade of a mountain cedar, making ourselves comfortable on limestone crust, trying not to sit on the prickly pears. It was at this point that I noted the time (noon), the temperature (90, with a predicted high that day of 103), and the buzzards. I think to myself how dumb it was to not top off my water when I had the chance.
I run out of water with ten miles to go as we cruise the James River Road with increasing urgency. This stretch is exposed. The Edwards Plateau doesn’t support large trees, given that there’s next to no soil on top of the limestone bedrock. Limestone isn’t really rock even, its exoskeletons compressed into something hard like a rock, but it’s chemically equivalent to chalk. Any nutrients the plants get have to be blown in. An undercooked limestone called caliche is the preferred roadbed material now, cementing the gravel in place. It’s also bright white, so while the shade has disappeared, the road has also begun to reflect light back up at us.
The James River is shallow, hot, and full of algae grown fat from the runoff of a nearby exotic animal hunting ranch. It is the opposite of refreshing on my parched feet as we step carefully at each crossing. We keep pedaling. A few dozen small African ungulates in an acre pen wait their turn to be hunted, surrounded by dirt and shit, and huddled under a little steel shade structure. They watch us pass. Our situation could be worse, I think to myself.
My thoughts turn south. The shrooms aren’t helping anymore. This place is brutal. We came too far west, we both agree. Any further and we might as well be in the Permian Basin. Everything soft has been grazed out by cattle, so the only plants left are sharp, twisted, and cast a thin shade. Overgrazing has taken its toll, and much of the soil is stripped away leaving bare stone. Defiant despite their wholesale ruining of this land, ranchers erect various signs: “No Water Here,” “Trump 2024,” “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” yuk yuk.
Violence permeates this landscape. The smell of death is frequent in the heat. Roadkill deer, boar, and varmints form grotesque, mummified shapes. Coyotes are strung, five at a time, on the barbed wire fences to rot in the sun. I’m told it serves as a deterrent to others. The songs we hear the little prairie wolves sing at night out here tell a different story.
We finally make it to our destination, the Dos Rios RV park, on the Llano River. A glassy-eyed woman with a bearded dragon on her shoulder waves her hand in the direction of the tent sites. We claim a spot, then get down to the river and sit in a patch of shade. The Llano isn’t quite cold enough here, but it’s enough to end my concern about heat exhaustion. As it turns out, this point on the river is a destination. It’s technically a riverbed, and the Llano is legally a public river, so this is a rare piece of ungoverned public land in Texas. Dozens of trucks are parked on a great gravel bar at the confluence of the James and the Llano Rivers, canopies set half in the slow-moving water, country and cumbia music playing, and everyone enjoying this small luxury out here. We enjoy our time and then head uphill to set up camp. We’re dry before we get to the campsite.
After a disappointing nap in the shade of some little oaks, we decide to make the trek to Mason, eight miles north along rolling paved ranch roads to enjoy a restaurant meal. The sun is going down, and while it’s still 90 degrees, it feels refreshingly cool. Santos Taqueria is the first thing we see. I get a pair of wine-a-ritas from Sandstone Cellars next door, and we inhale our food. They even have sopapillas! Finally feeling whole again, we finish our wine-a-ritas and sweet teas, then get back on the bikes.
After a terrible night of sleep thanks to the heat and bugs, we rise at 5 am again and mount up. We say goodbye to the Llano and start north before turning south on Simonsville Road, crossing the river again on a well-built causeway. We leave the limestone and are back on red sand. The return trip is quieter. The heat of yesterday was brutal and neither of us slept well. We’re quietly thinking about beer and ice water. I think also this landscape and the early summer this year has taken it out of us a bit. It’s not a joyous trip really. Should it be? It’s the Outback. It’s an adventure. There’s no adventure without a little peril and reminders of your own mortality.
The sun rises and we cruise east on House Mountain Road. This road is a long, mostly flat traverse of the broad uplands, and it lifts our spirits a bit. I see a bobcat, bounding across the road well ahead of us. We stop at its tracks and squint through Agarita scrub, but if it’s looking back at us, we can’t see it. Again, we arrive to the Castell General Store well before opening time. The owner, there to do something else, encourages us to join him at the one-and-only DWJ Church. At the Drinking With Jesus Church, a tallboy is your communion. It’s tempting, but we have to get back home.
We decide to make today 20 miles shorter than planned. The 100 miles yesterday humbled us a bit, and we see potential in another line on the map, paralleling the river all the way to Grenwelge Park and my car. Instead of making the planned loop north, we point our bikes into the sun and head home. The road is a great one, rolling along the lowlands, often with the low pools of the river visible below the road. Trees are getting bigger, we see pecans and bald cypress. We cross the river for the last time, here a broad riverbed of mostly polished limestone bedrock, on a narrow strip of concrete. We pass a golf club and then we see church spires, a water tower, and the courthouse dome rise above the woodlands. We turn a corner, and my car is waiting for us. Below, invisible in the darkness the last time we were here, is the Llano River, much larger now and bright blue. We made it back alive.
Difficulty: The terrain is mellow, and this entire route can be done on a gravel bike. The difficulty lies in the distance you have to cover, the exposure and potential for heat, and the lack of services. I recommend only bikepackers experienced in these distances take on this two-day route, as there’s less margin for error when it comes to food and water out here. I plan on mapping a route that covers similar ground over three days and limits each day to 60 or so miles, a distance much more accessible to those who choose a party pace.
Time of year: If you know Central Texas, you know the heat. A lot of places get hot, but something about the gravel (either caliche or crushed granite) reflecting the sun back at you and the exposure on several stretches makes it especially extreme. The first time I rode out here, it was 80 degrees and dry in March. The second time it hit 96 in a May heatwave during a drought and I was a few miles from full heat exhaustion. Bring a good 4 liters for the long stretches without resupply, but above all, respect the heat and think hard about doing this route between May and October.
Water: Outside of Llano, Castell, and Mason, the Llano River is the most reliable water if you need to filter. On the southwestern end of the route, there are multiple creeks and the James River as well. Dos Rios RV park has a sink at the tent sites. Any land beyond the edge of the road is private, so no, you shouldn’t count on the water in the cattle tanks.
Resupply: The best resupply is Mason, a small town with full services. Castell General Store is well-stocked. If you make a detour, you can reach Doss on the southern side, which has a general store as well. With all locations, know their operating hours
Other: You might want to bring a swimsuit on this route. Depending on the time of year, birders may want to bring binoculars to catch some of the many songbirds native to this area.
Above all, have fun and shred lightly out there.