This post shares my notes from two long-distance bike ride routes I have considered at various times. I start with a brief look at the concept of a 1,600-mile ride from Mexico to Canada, and then I turn to a more detailed review of the possibilities for a 200- to 400-mile warm-up ride to North Padre Island, near Corpus Christi, TX.
If you aren’t interested in planning your own trip, you might consider websites that post classified ads from people seeking companions for long-distance rides in the U.S. and elsewhere. These sites include Adventure Cycling Association, WarmShowers.org, CrazyGuyOnABike, CyclingBuddy, Bike Forums, HelpX, Cycling Touring Community, Outdoor Duo, and other sites recommended by Milestone Rides.
My first long-distance bike ride was in 1974, at the age of 18. I don’t remember the exact route, but I rode about 250 miles, from my parents’ place in northern Indiana to visit classmates in Detroit, and partway back. My preparations consisted of deciding to do it at about 5 PM on a summer afternoon; strapping my sleeping bag to my handlebars; and leaving. Not too surprisingly, I had to push the bike for eight miles, in the middle of the night, because I didn’t have a tube patch kit. I wound up sleeping on the floor of a 24-hour laundromat, and waking to see some woman reaching over me to put clothes in a washer. Exhausted, on the return in northern Ohio, I gave up and called Mom to come pick me up — which, I’ve always thought, I wouldn’t have done if I’d been more familiar with being worn out, and with keeping myself properly fed and hydrated.
I did some longish day rides in L.A. in the mid-1970s, and a few in NYC late in that decade, but I don’t believe I took any more multiday rides until a group of friends organized a ride on Missouri’s Katy Trail in 2001. That 200-mile ride unfolded over a period of, I think, four days. I made a number of other, shorter excursions on the crushed limestone surface of the Katy, including one 195-mile ride in two days.
Since then, along with numerous brief looks at various possible bike routes, I had explored in some detail the scenarios of a long ride in Michigan in 2010, and another along the lower Mississippi. Those rides had not materialized, partly because I was busy and partly because, having been hit deliberately, I was afraid (see other post). But now I thought I’d try again.
A Concept for a Mexico-to-Canada Ride
I was considering a south-to-north cross-country bike ride. The idea was that I would leave the southland in the springtime, before it got too hot, and would arrive in the northland when it stopped being too cold.
There were a million possible routes. I favored flatland, for personal aesthetic preference and for bicycling ease. A combined northerly and easterly direction would tend to keep the wind pushing more with me than against me. That, too, was for bicycling ease, and also for purposes of auditory comfort: the wind is at least a little less likely to rumble in your ears when it’s behind you. Both auditory comfort and wind aid might further benefit if I opted for a fairing that would function as a sail in a tailwind.
I also wanted some changes of scenery. It’s hard to get that with flatland, but I thought that at least I might get transitions from desert to mountain to prairie to farmland. Finally, I wanted free camping. I would be carrying my tent and everything on my bike, so I would need a route whose campsites wouldn’t take me too much out of my way.
Preliminary searches suggested that many people had biked from Mexico to Canada. But by the time I added the preferred criteria to my search, I found that I would pretty much have to make up my own route.
In sketching out that trip, certain resources had the potential to be especially helpful. These included Google Earth, FreeCampsites.net, a KansasCyclist.com list of free camping locations (and their list of bike camping sites in other states); and a Google search for information on stealth camping.
I sketched out the overall route in Google Maps (using both the bike option at the top and the Menu > Bicycling option at the top left, as shown in the image, above), and then began looking for free campsites that were not too far apart, connected by roads that were not so minor as to be primitive (e.g., mud and sand), but not so major as to be full of traffic. Or if they did have traffic, they also had to have bike-friendly shoulders, preferably separated from the main roadway by rumble strips. I was able to use Street View, within Google Maps, to get snapshots here and there of what the roads were like.
I would have liked to travel up along the Rocky Mountains for a while, and then cut across the national grasslands of northeastern New Mexico, but that dream died at Alamogordo, NM. There were no bike-friendly routes northbound from there. The same was true elsewhere in New Mexico. Hence my route had to change from the original hope expressed in the map (above): I would have to exit NM sooner than desired, and travel across more of the Texas panhandle than I really needed.
There was another problem with this trip concept: I was not ready for it. I would need to do at least one shakedown cruise first, to make sure the bike, the equipment, and I were ready for prime time. So I switched to planning for a shorter ride in roughly comparable conditions. That led to the following alternate scenario.
Bike Route: San Antonio to Padre Island National Seashore
I was particularly interested in a ride that would end up on the Gulf Shore in the off season (i.e., not summer). This was the kind of trip that could work for someone who might fly in, bringing his/her panniers or trailer; buy a bike at Walmart; attach the gear; and take off.
I was inclined toward a route from San Antonio to Padre Island National Seashore (PINS), near Corpus Christi (CC). Port Aransas was another possible destination, but the city’s $12 camping permits allowed no more than three nights of beach camping in any three-week period. Mustang Island State Park was another possibility, but at $10/night for primitive sites plus a $5 daily entrance fee, the price was not as ideal. (Padre and Mustang islands were separated by Packery Channel, just north of the bus route. North and South Padre islands were separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, about 85 miles south of CC as the crow flies. Aside from the occasional reference to Port Aransas, further up on Mustang Island, virtually all beachfront and island references in this post are focused on North Padre.)
For the national seashore, I would have to buy a pass; but at the age of 62, an $80 pass would last for the rest of my life, or at least until it was lost or stolen and had to be replaced. (Otherwise, an annual pass for walking or biking into the national seashore was $20.) It seemed there might be other free campgrounds along Mustang Island, but for the moment I was interested especially in PINS, primarily because it seemed to offer a degree of safety, calm, and isolation that I had not observed at the more easily accessible Port A and Mustang Island State Park. They weren’t bad, in my experience; I was just looking for something different.
The route from San Antonio to North Padre would inevitably require transit through large portions of San Antonio and CC. There were bike trails covering some of that distance. The rest would be on city streets. There was the possibility of traversing those urban distances in the wee hours. In my experience, the hours of 2-4 AM were especially good to enjoy minimal traffic contact. Given the state laws on alcohol sales, I had found that late Sunday / early Monday were best of all, for purposes of avoiding drivers who appeared intoxicated (i.e., swerving, making weird turns, being aggressive toward bicyclists).
Another possibility was to take the bus in those cities. Buses in both San Antonio and CC had racks on front, to accommodate bicycles. This would work as long as my panniers and trailer (if any) could be easily removed and dragged onto the bus, and as long as my front or back racks or other hardware didn’t otherwise interfere with the bus rack.
In San Antonio, the No. 42 bus from downtown would be the most likely candidate. In CC, the No. 65 bus would take me across the JFK Causeway to Padre Island, and I could bike down to the national park from there. Alternately, I could bike across the Causeway. There was a shoulder for most of its four-mile length (measuring just the part that ran over water), but there was no shoulder on its 0.8-mile segment that consisted of an actual bridge. The Causeway was fast and busy. Biking it would preferably be a wee-hours endeavor.
Of course, I could also try using Greyhound or a ride-sharing service to carry my bike and gear all the way from San Antonio to CC or, perhaps, right out onto Padre Island. That approach would be more expensive and would defeat the purpose, if the purpose was to experience a long-distance bike trip. On the other hand, that approach (or simply flying into CC) would free up more time for camping on the beach, for those who didn’t care so much about the biking. There might be more hassle and/or expense connected with partially assembling and disassembling the bike and boxing it, if the bus company required that. Alternately, it might be possible to arrive in CC without a bike and — if not getting one at Walmart — to buy one used, or perhaps make contact with a resident who would rent his/her bike for a modest price. The expense of buying a bike would be less noticeable for an extended trip, or if there was an assured buyer for the slightly used bike at the end of the trip. (Returning the bike to Walmart would obviously be wrong. Selling might entail an eBay auction ad, with a minimal reserve price (e.g., $50), highlighted with companion ads on Craigslist and on websites like the ones listed above, and with notices to local bike shops. Those sources might also turn up an inexpensive multiday rental.)
Assuming the goal was to bike from San Antonio to North Padre, and to use free or at least low-cost campsites along the way, I sketched out a primary two- to four-day route of about 190 miles. (Google Maps wouldn’t contemplate bicycling across the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Memorial Causeway in CC, so the distance from there to North Padre is not shown in that link, nor in this image of it.)
This route began on the south side of San Antonio, at the last No. 42 bus stop operational on weekends, and ran to the start of the JFK Causeway in CC. Note that, for a few extra miles on the San Antonio bus, the map link and this image also include the last No. 42 bus stop operational on weekdays, at the 1604 Loop. An alternate route would begin at the last No. 36 bus stop, and would add a first camping stop at Braunig Lake Park on the south side of San Antonio, in case the trip’s starting time was late in the day and the rider didn’t feel like using the wee hours to get out of the city.
(Be warned: I have had no tents stolen elsewhere in the U.S., in many camping trips over the past 20 years, but have had two tents stolen during the few times when I have left them unattended in heavily Hispanic locations in Kansas and Texas. (See sources discussing crime rates.) The Texas theft occurred at Braunig Lake Park. My limited experience at the coast itself, and my somewhat more extensive experience elsewhere in the region, suggests that tents may be safer at Port Aransas, in national parks, and/or in other coastal parks requiring an admission fee. I hate to have to mention this, but it seems best to warn people of any ethnicity who might otherwise experience similar disruption of their travel plans. If a biker did need to replace camping gear, CC had Dick’s and Academy, along with other sporting goods stores, but no REI. From the beach, the nearest Walmart was in Flour Bluff, the part of CC at the inland end of the JFK Causeway.)
The primary and alternative map links (above) could be zoomed in, to provide a detailed map (and, optionally, street-level view) of the camping locations at Braunig Lake Park and also at County Road 437 (i.e., I-37 Live Oak County Rest Area), optionally at Lake Corpus Christi State Park (LCCSP), and at Labonte Park, before arriving at CC. As those last three links indicate, LCCSP charged $10 per night for tents, and the other two were free, except that Labonte Park required permits, and charged for them on some holidays. The Live Oak County Rest Area was only a possibility, not a sure thing: Google Street View seemed to indicate that there was no fence between the county road and the Interstate 37 rest area at that location, suggesting that a bike camper might be able to find a place to pitch, along the county road, that would be safe and would allow foot access to the rest area facilities, without violating any laws banning bikes from the Interstate. (I emailed the Texas Department of Transportation to ask about this; they didn’t reply.)
The first leg of this route, from south San Antonio to the I-37 rest area at County Road 437, measured 48 miles from the 1604 loop (or 54 miles, starting from 1327 Mission Grande; or 63+ miles, using the Braunig Lake option); the next leg, down to LCCSP, was 54 miles; the stretch from there to Labonte Park was 33 miles; the piece from Labonte to the start of JFK Causeway was another 31 miles; and then there was that final 20-mile lurch across the bridge and down to the end of the road in PINS.
As shown by the best available map of PINS, it would be necessary to go nearly to the end of the road to get a campsite. The National Park Service (NPS) listed five possible camping areas in PINS, all first-come, first served, half-price for seniors: Malaquite ($8/night), Bird Island Basin ($5/night), North Beach (free), South Beach (free), and Yarborough Pass (free). (Note that storm damage or other factors might close or limit access to some campsites — Yarborough, especially — at some times.) NPS explained that, starting at the park’s northern (ocean-side) boundary, North Beach extended southwards for 1.1 miles; then there was the 4.5-mile length of Closed Beach; then South Beach continued for about seven miles; then there were other beaches further south. Closed Beach was not entirely closed; Malaquite was located in that segment. It was “closed” in the sense that, as NPS said, Malaquite Swimming Beach was the only area in PINS did not allow either beachgoing vehicle traffic or pets.
NPS said that both Bird Island Basin and Yarborough Pass campgrounds were located on Laguna Madre. Various maps indicated that Laguna Madre was the long, hypersaline body of water separating the barrier islands (including both North and South Padre islands) from the mainland. In the map shown immediately above, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway ran through Laguna Madre. In other words, these two campgrounds did not face the Gulf of Mexico. Yarborough Pass campground was 15.5 miles south of the Malaquite Visitor Center, while Bird Island Basin was three miles north and 1.7 miles west.
Let us re-express that information in terms of the Google route map shown above. From that map’s ending point — that is, starting from the CC end of the JFK Causeway across Laguna Madre — it was 14.5 miles to the north edge of PINS, another 1.4 miles to the park’s entrance booth (or, with a left turn off the main road, 1.5 miles to North Beach), another 3.4 miles to Malaquite Campground (or, with a right turn off the main road, 2.4 miles to Bird Island Basin Campground, along the road shown as a black line in the immediately preceding image), and then another mile past Malaquite to the point where the road ended, emptying out into the start of South Beach, for a total of 20.2 miles from the start of JFK Causeway. Thus, free camping on North or South Beach was either 16 or 20 miles beyond the end of the 170-mile trip shown on the Google route map.
As noted above, those distances could be substantially reduced by using CC’s CCRTA buses. Biking into CC from San Antonio, a bus stop on the west side of town, at the Calallen Walmart (open 24 hours), was just three miles from Labonte Park — or, alternately, about 26 miles from LCCSP. From there, the No. 27 bus ran to the Staples Street station, where one could transfer to the No. 29 bus to Southside station, from which the No. 65 would go out onto Padre Island. The No. 65 bus would deposit rider and bicycle about 8.5 miles from the north end of PINS. The No. 81 bus, going a little further down the island, would be an alternative to the No. 65 only in summer. Of these buses, only the No. 65 had Sunday service. So a biker coming from San Antonio to CC, intending to use the bus to cross CC, would not want to arrive or leave on a Sunday.
As a typical example of how the bus connections worked, if a bicyclist arrived at the Calallen Walmart at noon on a weekday, and was able to get his/her grocery and water and bathroom needs taken care of and get on the bus within 45 minutes, s/he would be getting off the bus on North Padre Island at 3:40 PM, not quite three hours after boarding, having thus traversed 34 miles of city. That example would work because, by the time the rider reached the No. 65 bus, it would be starting its afternoon schedule. The No. 27 and 29 buses ran more frequently, but the No. 65 ran between CC and North Padre only six times a day: three times in the morning; three times in the afternoon, seven days a week.
A bicyclist might want — if arriving in CC at the wrong time, s/he might have — to break up the trip across CC by taking in some city sights and/or using some city facilities. On the inland side of the JFK Causeway, CC offered library branches and other urban attractions and amenities. On the island side of the Causeway, within the CC city limits, there was a limited selection of fast-food joints, lounges, and hotels.
The No. 65 bus would leave the rider, on North Padre, at a point about six miles past the CC end of the JFK Causeway. So the rider would subtract six miles from the park distances stated above. For instance, the bike ride from the bus stop down to North Beach would be about 10 miles; to South Beach, it would be about 14.2 miles. The rider would want to consider that distance, and time to find and set up a campsite, and sunset for the selected time of year, in choosing which No. 65 bus to take from CC out to Padre.
Biking back to CC, for activities and/or for groceries, might call for packing up camp, if tent theft was a worry and if there were no other trustworthy campers nearby to keep an eye on things. There would then be that ride of 10 miles from North Beach (more, from the other permitted camping areas) up to a No. 65 bus stop. Depending on bus timing and CC destination, total travel time each way would probably be at least an hour and a half. Since the bus ran only six times a day, there would be a question of whether to make a quick trip in — perhaps catching the first bus in morning or afternoon, and then returning a few hours later — or instead make a day of it, catching an earlier bus in and a later bus back. A sensible grocery destination would be an H-E-B store, located about a mile before the start of the JFK Causeway. (H-E-B was a major grocery chain in this region. PINS was open 24/7; that store was not.)
Activities at Padre Island National Seashore
Then there was the question of what I would do on Padre Island, once I got there. To some extent, that was a question of what I would do on any long-distance bike trip. On Padre Island, there was mostly just the sun, the sand, and the water, and the answer would therefore be to sit, walk, bike, look, read, listen, sleep, deal with what NPS described as “incredible numbers of [potentially Zika-bearing] mosquitoes at times” (mitigated by the wind at beachside; perhaps less so at laguna-side), watch the birds (see also Aransas National Wildlife Refuge) and other wildlife, and perhaps socialize with fellow visitors. NPS offered volunteer opportunities, though I wasn’t sure those would be available to a brief visitor. I wasn’t going to be able to carry a substantial, wind-resistant sun shade on the bike (NPS said, “The average wind is fairly strong”), so — unless I made friends with some beer-drinking, card-playing holdouts inside their RV — sunblock would be essential at most times of year, and especially if I didn’t at least include some kind of small and/or primitive sun shelter (e.g., tarp, collapsible poles, sand stakes) in my camping gear. There were some rather half-assed pergola-type shelters at Bird Island and Malaquite campgrounds, casting (at best) a mix of sun and shade on the picnic table for at least part of the day, and there were larger shaded shelters at the Malaquite Visitor Center, which might be somewhat busy during peak tourist times.
Trail walking opportunities in PINS were apparently limited to the 3/4-mile paved Grasslands Nature Trail loop (see map, above). A so-called birding trail actually seemed to consist of a series of drive-to locations where various kinds of birds have been reported. Another site warned of two species of rattlesnakes in PINS. Although many (e.g., 1 2 3 4 5) sites spoke of cultural and political history, evidently only a few fragments of the unremarkable Novillo Line Camp remained visible. A regularly updated rulebook known as the Superintendent’s Compendium (see also a related Laws & Policies webpage) seemed to indicate that most park service roads were closed to public use, and that camping in dunes and grasslands was prohibited, but did not specifically prohibit offroad walking. NPS did convey concerns about hiking at random, and especially about environmental damage in some locations, such as the mudflats along the Laguna Madre shoreline: “Tire tracks and footprints left over twenty years ago can still be seen in some parts.” I supported those concerns about the environmental damage caused by footprints, but it was still odd to encounter them in light of Wikipedia‘s words:
Oil and natural gas drilling is allowed within the park. Congress has not approved the purchase of the mineral rights within the park even though the boundaries were surveyed as early as 1957. This has caused some controversy because the land is a protected seascape under IUCAN. Heavy equipment is used within the park and is transported across beaches that are nesting areas for not only sea turtles but many birds, including the piping plover, least tern, and other animals that may nest within the park.
Wes Tunnell submitted an article on the environmental sensitivity of PINS in response to the even crazier proposal to reopen Padre as a naval bombing range. (The island had evidently been considered as a possible nuclear bomb test site in the 1960s.)
NPS said there were no bike trails. The Superintendent’s Compendium allowed biking only on park roads, gulf beaches, and parking areas. NPS reminded us that “in Texas [most Gulf Coast] beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply.” One forum presented comments on police ticketing motorcyclists who exceeded the low speed limits on the beach. Another site pointed out washboarding and “the massive amount of trash and natural debris that washes ashore,” including tire hazards (e.g., “boards with nails”). In this regard, it was only somewhat different from my wilderness camping experience at Perdido Key in Florida. A video from South (not North) Padre depicted smooth biking on packed beach sand, using cruiser-type bikes with fenders. I was not sure how my hybrid (700c x 32) tires would fare. A person acquiring his/her bike locally might be tempted to opt for a mountain or cruiser bike (as low as $80 at Walmart). A bike capable of beach travel might extend the frontier of wilderness camping farther down South Beach. Bryan and Debi appeared to do fine on the beach road with road-friendly bikes (hybrids, it seemed). They provided informative remarks about their ride down the coast from Port Aransas (note that this was in early January 2010):
The next morning we rode about 5 miles on the beach and then 10 miles on the road to bring us to Padre Island National Seashore. It’s the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world with over 60 miles of beaches, dunes, and a whole lot of plastic debris. We had a couple of nice days there but the conditions were getting a bit unbearable with sand blowing every which way. We learned late one night that there’s a way to pitch the tent for rain, and there’s way to pitch it for blowing sand. We had to completely empty our tent and restake it the first night because a sand dune was building on top of us in the tent. It was all we could do to not eat the sand.
With colder weather and high winds on the way we decided to pack up after only 3 days and 2 nights on the beach. We really wanted to stay longer as it was completely affordable-$5 a person for a week of primitive camping on the beach-awesome! The weather just wasn’t going to cooperate.
The wind problem may have been seasonal. Hurricane season could be worse — but I, myself, had enjoyed great camping at Port A (as they call Aransas) in autumn. (Spring break — comprising especially the first two to three weeks of March in this region — can be crazy in Port A but apparently much less so at PINS.) A New York Times writer (Breal, 2017) said that, on his visit to PINS, the sand was firm enough to drive a two-wheel-drive rental sedan all the way down to Little Shell Beach, at the 15-mile marker:
The shells were little, as advertised, but the beachcombing was like nothing I’d ever seen. Four currents converge here, which means loads of trash from around the world washes onto Padre’s midsection; only quarterly volunteer cleanups keep the place from resembling a landfill.
The park offered some facilities that might prove useful and/or rewarding. At Malaquite, those facilities consisted predominantly of the Visitor Center, a shaded pavilion, cold-water rinse showers, a potable water filling station, and flush toilets. Bird Island Basin campground offered chemical toilets and no showers but (apparently) potable water.
A bike camper might be challenged to take advantage of the boating, hunting, and fishing possibilities available through Bird Island Basin, but that location also happened to offer what one website described as warm-water swimming for nine months of the year — along with a private concession, Worldwinds, offering windsurfing lessons and rentals of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards ($25 for the first hour) and windsurfing rigs ($45 for 2 hours, $65 for a day), for what was reportedly one of the best windsurfing locations in the U.S. Finally, bikers interested in more of a wilderness experience might appreciate one writer’s words:
During winter the seashore has very few visitors. Most are snowbirds from up north camping on first five miles of beach.
63 miles of uninhabited beach, there will be long stretches with no one in site for miles…so pick a spot that suites your needs. Remember you may want to choose a spot with some room to nest against dunes in case of high tides. DO NOT DISTURB DUNES you can get a hefty fine for doing so.
You are also the outsider, snakes, racoons, coyotes, mule deer, kangaroo rats, stingrays, and sharks run the neighborhood. A serious injury due to wildlife or human interaction (drug trafficking, poachers) can really be life or death situation. No phones, no electricity, no water….go prepared even if you can scream like a little girl chances are no one would hear.
When it finally came time to leave PINS, there would be the choice of whether to return to San Antonio, if applicable, via approximately the same route, or instead pedaling up the beach to Port Aransas and coming back across the ferry and along a different route, possibly using other free campsites. From South Beach to Port A was about 34 miles and, as shown above, there were several camping options along the way.