Thursday, June 28, 2018

Caprocks Trailway: Stompin' The Pedals - Dodgin' The Cows


A quick glance at this photo and you might think this is a pretty iffy day to be riding the Caprock Trailway, but it’s just an illusion created by shooting southwestward while the sun has not yet quite risen there behind my left shoulder. (you can just see the glow of dawn reflected in The Van's side window)

Given the projected high temp for the day and increasing afternoon winds, I made sure I was up and moving early enough to drive the 15 miles between campsite and Monk’s Crossing trailhead before sunrise.

My plan was to be in the Quad-B’s saddle as soon as there was enough light to see by because I had 17 miles of uphill slog to cover before I could turn around and start back towards The Van – if everything went to plan that is.

As a refresher, Caprock Canyons Trailway is a 64 mile stretch of the former Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway that has been turned into a trail that you can hike, bike, that's me, or ride (horses).

From the east end at Estillane to the west end at South Plains the Trailway climbs about 1360 feet. Almost half of this elevation gain, 623 feet, comes in the final 17 miles from Monk’s Crossing to South Plains as the railroad followed Quitaque Creek up through the escarpment separating the Rolling Plains to the east and the High Plains to the west.

This view gives an idea of how abrupt the demarcation is between the High Plains on the left and the Rolling Plains to the east. The Rolling Plains, as you might expect, roll, with a network of hills and creeks. The High Plains, besides being - well, higher, are flat. That’s all, just flat. And the boundary between the two is the escarpment.

This aerial view shows how Quitaque Creek reaches out beyond the escarpment, pushing far into the High Plains, which explains why the railroad engineers picked this route. Railroads don’t like to go up or downhill and when they have to the physics and economics of steel wheels on steel track dictate that the gentlest rather than the shortest route be taken.  With a gain of about 45 feet per mile this track has a 0.85% grade. In the railroading world anything more than 1 to 1.5% is pretty significant but 0.85% is still noticeable, on a train or a bike.

But this altitude gain also makes this, in my opinion, the most interesting section of the Trailway as it climbs up through the canyon.

The real climb starts about two miles from the Monk’s Crossing trailhead and this creates an optical illusion no matter which direction you are looking at it from.  The trail is straight along here as it hasn’t quite reached Quitaque Creek yet where it needs to start following the twists of the canyon. This means you can see a long ways down it.  

On my return trip I took the photo above about three miles from Monk’s Crossing, which is at the horizon out there. It looks like the long downhill I’ve been on since the headwaters of Quitaque Creek is about to end abruptly at a final, disheartening uphill, but in fact that part of the track out there is actually flat, as proven by the gear I’m able to ride it in.

From Monk’s Crossing the same illusion applies, with that first 2 miles looking like a good downhill run before coming up against that uphill section.  If you aren’t aware of the illusion it can be very disturbing just how difficult it is to pedal that initial “downhill” that’s not. I know. Been there done that!

But today I survived, up or downhill, and by the time I got to the first turn in the track, at a bridge over an un-named creek between Hackberry and Turkey Creeks about three miles from Monk’s Crossing the sun was about to break through the spotty overnight clouds and burn them off.

From here the climb up the canyon starts in earnest

Turkey Creek Bridge
Still Turkey Creek Bridge

I previously described the trailway, and its points of interest, from Monk’s Crossing to the John Ferris Station in this post so won’t repeat myself here.

Who? Me?!

On that previous ride I noted that there were bovine hoof tracks in the trail at several points. This time I not only saw the tracks, but the makers of those tracks too.

The trail is a narrow band bounded on either side by ranchland delineated by your standard barbed wire fence.

Oh Shit! We got caught. Let’s get out of here!

But as happens around our place too, sometimes cows end up on the wrong side of the fence.

Yah, that’s right. I’m on the wrong side of the fence. What a ya gona do about it?

Not all of them have a guilty conscience about it.

Of course leaving gates wide open just might have something to do with wandering cows.

About 4.5 miles from the trailhead I came to Clarity Tunnel. Now that there aren’t any trains running through it (Not since 1989) bats have taken up seasonal residence. Last time I was here was November and the bats had migrated far to the south by then. I thought that in May there might be some in residence, but if there were I couldn’t hear them. (Shining lights in bat habitats is not nice!)

When crossing through you are warned to wear long sleeves, a hat and to walk you bike. You are also told to try to keep the dust to a minimum.

Yah, right!

The 8 to 12 inches of guano covering the tunnel floor is very dry and powdery.  Even the most careful of footsteps raises a medicine-ball sized cloud of dust, and somehow it doesn’t matter which way you are going through the tunnel, the breeze will be at your back, drifting that ever-growing cloud right along with you. Unfortunately the tunnel is far too long to hold your breath the whole way, especially when trying to horse the Quad-B through the deep, powdery crap as well. I had forgotten about this and it wasn’t until I was passing through on the return trip that I remembered to tie the scrap of towel I carry across my nose and mouth before entering.

Beyond the tunnel the views of the canyon start to get impressive

Unfortunately the nice, smooth pea-gravel surface of the trail that I've been riding on since Monk’s crossing ends at the tunnel, leaving you riding on this coarse, cinder-like surface instead.

It might not look too bad in the photo but the pedaling is noticeably more difficult and the ride goes from a nice, smooth roll to a constant, rattling vibration that is hell on the hands, front suspension or not. It was two days before I could feel my little fingers again.

At the 11 mile point I reached the John Ferris Station with its landmark concrete phone-booth. (There is no actual station here anymore, just a pit toilet and a dry water-buck.)

This was as far as I made it in 2016 and the temptation to turn around here again was great, but I really wanted to make it all the way to the trail terminus at South Plains this time, so I bribed myself into covering that last 6 miles with the promise of a South Plains ice-cream, or if not that at least an iced drink of some sort. Oooh, I can already feel that liquid chill of the first sip slidding down my throat!

Onward I bravely soldiered; only to be apruptly stopped again.

It turns out that wayward cows are not limited to the other side of Clarity Tunnel.

This bunch eventually meandered on up the trail and out of sight, but as I was malingering there, straddling the Quad-B in the middle of the trail stealing a little extra rest, this straggler popped out of the brush and was in no particular hurry to catch up to the others.

You can tell you are nearing the top of the escarpment when the wind-turbines, a common feature of the pretty much featureless South Plains, start coming into view.

But if I’da known then what I do now, I would have turned around right there where the tracks leave Quitaque Creek and start the straight, flat, feature-scarce run across that last 2 miles to South Plains.

I finally made it to the trail’s end, but that last 2 miles was definitely more grueling than the other 15, even though it's flat, as in flat. As you can see in this photo looking back down the trail from the South Plains trailhead, this section is not so much a trail as a mowed bit of rough ground.

In fact it’s much rougher than it looks. When the rails were torn up along the rest of the trail, at least the sections I’ve been on, the ties were also removed and stacked off to the side.

From here to Quitaque Creek the rails were removed, but for some reason the ties were left in place to start the slow process of melting back into the ground. That means under that thin covering of vegetation is a bone-rattling corduroy of ties and ballast. In some places I was able to ride off to the side where all I had to deal with was a few inches of thick, brittle vegetation, but because the rails were laid up on a raised berm that wasn't always possible.

I had it in my mind that South Plains was about the same size as Turkey, Quitaque, and Silver City, all surrounding towns and all big enough for basic services. But to add insult to the injury of riding that last 2 miles of "trail", South Plains consists of nothing but a couple old grain terminals alongside the tracks, now serviced by truck, a few houses that have seen better days,

and across the highway from the trailhead, these two mismatched, self-service fuel pumps that make up the only retail business in sight. And believe me, up here in South Plains up on the  High Plains (confused yet?) you can see a long ways!

Needless to say, no ice-cream, no iced drink, not even a tap with tepid water. . .

So I didn't linger in South Plains very long.

By the time I made it back to the bliss of nerve-rattling cinders and a downhill track of Quitaque Canyon I was in no mode for games when bovine #440 appeared in front of me.

The bitch didn’t seem inclined to move, but I didn’t give a shit and called her bluff.

It wasn’t until after I left her in my dust that I had visions of the headlines “Damn fool bike-rider gets stomped by enraged cow”

My advice for others wanting to ride this trail is to not bother with that last bit into South Plains but instead turn around there at the head end of the Quiteque Creek Canyon. You will save yourself 4 rough, round-trip miles of riding with nothing much at the end of it, and a pretty much unchanging view the whole way.

It’s easy to spot this point as the track goes around a sweeping curve, changing direction from northwest to southwest, just before crossing the last bridge on the line. The fact that you can suddenly look around and see forever in all directions is a clear indicator that you are now up on the High Plains and it doesn’t get any better from here on. All the good stuff is back the other way.


  1. Fantastic ride I never got to do. Thanks for the great report.

    1. Maybe next time I'll have a bike that fits me better and it will go from a great ride to a fantastic one. Cooler weather would be nice too. . .