Last year I presented a little bit of information about this
Rails-to-Trails conversion which is part of Caprock Canyons State Park.
Its land is included in the 15,313 acres comprising the state park but
it's a separate, nearby unit.
We didn't have time then to run, hike, or ride our bikes on the
trailway. I've been looking forward to exploring some of it this trip.
There are eight trailheads for six continuous segments of the trailway.
The closest access is in the town of Quitaque (pronounced "Kitty K") a
few miles from the entrance to the state park. Visitors pass the
inconspicuous trailhead on their way to the park on FM 1065.
While studying the trailway
map and visitor's guide we picked up in
the park last year I assumed I could just hop on my all-terrain bike in the campground and ride three miles to town, then
get on the trailway and go as far as I wanted in either direction.
We got a surprise when I mentioned that plan to one of the rangers in
the visitor center. I'm real glad I mentioned it or I would have been
Turns out, most of the trailway is covered with jagged cinders that
are rough on feet, mountain bike tires, and hooves. Only four miles are
nice, smooth crushed rock that is user-friendly. And those four miles
don't start in either direction at Quitaque -- to access those we'd need to drive
several miles south to the Monk's Crossing trailhead and ride from
Morphing from canyon to caprock escarpment; the
trail is very nice here.
The ranger also cautioned us against thorns and stickers that blow
onto the trail and cause a lot of grief to cyclists who end up with flat
tires while riding.
Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it??
I was starting
to get second thoughts.
Even before hearing this information Jim wasn't real enthusiastic
about riding the trailway. Now he was even less interested in joining me for an
eight-mile ride jaunt on the trailway (four miles out, four miles back,
maybe more depending on the trail and the accuracy of the distances).
The smooth, light-colored crushed
rock surface ends right before the Clarity Tunnel going westbound.
I was determined to check it out, however, especially since at the end of the
good treadway at four-plus miles was the Clarity Tunnel, renowned for
its thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats. I've been to at least two
other locations where bats attract tourists in the warmer months
(Carlsbad Caverns in NM and one of the bridges in Austin, TX) and I
wanted to add another locale.
Besides, it'd be an interesting experience to walk my bike through
the tunnel. Visitors must dismount and walk quietly so they don't
disturb the bats.
Deer in the headlights??
Nope -- Jim walking his bike
through the Clarity Tunnel; no tracks or
trains now. Note the dust.
In the end, Jim decided to go with me. He figured he could always
turn around early if he didn't like the trail and he'd just wait for me
to come back to the trailhead.
Jim rode his Trek mountain bike and I was on our
Specialized TriCross, a cyclo-cross bike that can pretty much go
anywhere but isn't (yet) equipped with knobby tires -- and does not
do well with thorns.
The trailway is divided into six different trail segments that vary
in length from five to seventeen miles. Maps are available
online or at
the Caprock Canyons SP visitor center.
There is a fee to use the trailway but I don't know how much it
costs. Day users put their fees in a collection box at any of the trailheads. Since we have a Texas state parks pass we didn't have to
pay for a permit at the trailhead or park headquarters.
Monk's Crossing trailhead
Before it was abandoned in 1989 this rail line was a branch of the
Burlington Northern railway system. It provided a route for people
living on the South Plains of Texas to send their farm products and
other goods to markets back East.
In 1992 the railway land, structures, and trestles were donated to
the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD). The Rails-to-Trails
Conservancy assisted in converting the abandoned railroad corridor into
a multi-purpose recreational trail.
Jim approaches one of the
trestles on the smooth crushed rock surface.
It looks like there's still a lot of work to be done with
resurfacing, however, if 60 miles of the trailway still have the type of
sharp rocks/cinders I encountered on the other side of the Clarity
Tunnel. Just look at the cinders on any rail line still being used --
would you want to run, walk, or ride on those very long?
Apparently that's what the surface is like for 94% of the trailway:
Rough black cinders west of the
The problem is money. Considering the lack of funds that even Texas has for parks
(unfortunately, Texas is in financial straits now, too), I'm grateful
for what they are able to provide here.
The section of trail we rode from Monk's Crossing to the Clarity
Tunnel is in great shape. There are handsome
interpretive kiosks at the trailheads, toilets and benches here and
signs along the route, and mile posts.
I don't know if all the
segments have these amenities, however; we saw only a short
Interpretive signs at Monk's
TPWD has produced a fine
illustrated booklet that's free for the taking. It describes in great
detail what is significant at many of the mile markers along the trail
-- all kinds of interesting historical, cultural, geological, and
That's how I first learned about the bats that inhabit the Clarity
Tunnel each summer. Other things I read in the booklet made me curious,
Here's a section of the trailway map that shows its proximity to
Caprock Canyons State Park. I highlighted in yellow the five-mile
section we rode today from Monk's Crossing to a little past the Clarity
It's easy to find Monk's Crossing, the trailhead where we began our
bike ride. We took FM 1065 south from the park through the little town
of Quitaque and down to FM 689 (about seven miles). The trailhead is
another three miles west.
After scanning the information in the kiosk at Monk's Crossing, we set out on a
new little adventure.
MONK'S CROSSING TO THE CLARITY TUNNEL
The short section of trail we rode (I ended up going five miles out
and five back, Jim a little less) is part of the Quitaque Canyon Trail, which runs for 17
miles from MM 300 to MM 284.
This is one of the six trail segments that
comprise the entire 64-mile trailway. (I don't know why they divided it
into six segments since the segments are all connected.) We rode from about MM 284 at Monk's Crossing west to
a little past MM 289 and back.
The mile markers along the trailway were originally used by the
railroad to measure the distance in track miles from a point in Fort
Worth; they increase the farther west you go.
The first interpretive sign we saw (below) was at MM 285, location of
once-busy Edgin Siding. Steam trains used to stop here to fill their
tanks with water before making the long haul up the caprock escarpment.
Passengers could board the train here, and cattle and other goods were
Another sign points to four tall concrete towers in the distance.
When the railroad was under construction in the 1920s 10,000 rail car
loads of sand and gravel were extracted from a large deposit at that
location and washed
in the towers before being used for construction along the line.
Jim mostly rode on ahead of me. I'd stop to read a sign or take a
picture, then ride fast to try to catch him = a good speed workout!
Once he went backwards while I was reading a sign and came back
Despite all my stops we rode the first 4½
miles to the Clarity Tunnel relatively fast.
In the southwest direction we had a net elevation loss and a
tailwind. We knew it'd be harder on the return in the headwind, going
Short bridge over a little dry
There are lots of wooden trestles over dry creeks in this section and
one concrete span over a larger dry wash. It's so dry now that we didn't
see any water in any streams.
Ranchland surrounded us the
first couple of miles, then we entered hillier canyon lands as we
approached the caprock escarpment.
A hundred yards from the eastern entrance to the tunnel there are
interpretive signs, a covered picnic table, and a toilet.
We stopped to read the signs quickly. We'd already read about "bat etiquette" and knew the drill here
-- walk our bikes (or horses, for equestrians) through the tunnel,
be quiet, avoid stirring up dust, don't shine
any lights on the walls or ceilings, don't use flash photography, don't throw any objects at the
bats, and DO NOT TOUCH any live or dead
bats we might encounter.
We rode up to the tunnel opening, dismounted from our bikes, and began
walking them through the tunnel slowly:
Back in the 1920s railroad construction engineers built two tunnels
along this line through the Caprock Escarpment -- the 790-foot
long Clarity Tunnel and the 400-foot-long Gowdy Tunnel a mile to the
The Clarity Tunnel was shortened to its present 582-foot length in 1973
after a train derailment caused part of the tunnel to collapse.
Engineers organized a massive dirt-moving operation to find the
entrance and free the trapped rail cars.
One advantage of the shorter distance is that current trailway users
don't need a flashlight or headlamp when walking through the tunnel. Although the middle
of the curve is pretty dark before you can see the light at the end of
the tunnel (literally!), there's enough ambient light from each entrance
to make your way safely through.
I was still close to the entrance when I took this photo of Jim inside
Our eyes adjusted to the decreasing light as we approached the darkest
part of the tunnel.
It's probably just as well that you can't see exactly what you're
walking through! The "dust" (i.e., mostly bat guano) is very fine and
easily kicked up. I didn't see or feel anything of substance, like a
dead bat or a rock, in that section.
My main sensory reaction both times I was in the tunnel (out and back)
was the SMELL -- musty and dusty and just odd.
The trail surface is mostly bat poop, after all.
This probably isn't the best stuff to be inhaling. We should have worn
lightweight dust masks. I think I'd avoid the tunnel entirely
if I was asthmatic.
Nearing the far end of the tunnel
We didn't see or hear any bats while we were in or near the tunnel. They
were all fast asleep (or pretending to be). They don't come out to feed
A camera shot finally came out well-focused as I got close to the
That was cool! we agreed when we emerged at the other end of the
tunnel. And it was, literally and figuratively.
There were benches at the far (western) entrance to the tunnel, which
leads us to believe that's where the bats fly out each evening from
April to October (no benches at the other entrance). The bats hunt during the night, catching tons of harmful
insects on nearby agricultural land, and return to the tunnel before
There are additional interpretive signs on this side of the tunnel, and another bathroom.
Jim reads the signs about canyon flora and fauna.
This tunnel isn't just popular for its evening bat show for half of the
According to one of the signs along the trailway, it "has always held
a certain mystique and allure for residents of the Quitaque Valley.
Since it was completed in 1927, the tunnel has been a popular
destination for picnics and family outings, and generations of children
have played in its shadows."
Are you kidding me? This was an operational railroad tunnel until 1989!!
Maybe the trains didn't run on the weekends, or the locals were very,
very sure of their schedules. I can't imagine enjoying a picnic or
letting your kids play inside when there was the possibility of a big
'ole train blasting through.
Or, as Jim says, maybe there isn't much else to do in the Quitaque
THAT WAS FUN -- LET'S DO IT AGAIN!
There wasn't much choice, actually. Jim and I were on the far side of the
tunnel now and we had to go back through it again to return to our
Clarity Tunnel, west opening
Jim decided to turn around there. He didn't want to overdo it before the
Jemez Mountain 50K in another eight days. That still gave him about 9+
miles on this ride.
I was curious about what was around the next bend (again, literally and
figuratively) so I continued on despite the sharp black cinders that
comprise the trailway on the other side of the tunnel. I rode only about
half a mile, however, before turning back because I feared puncturing
one of my tires/tubes.
Still going outbound a little
farther past this mile marker
Rough cinder path back to the tunnel
The ride back wasn't nearly as much fun, although I enjoyed walking
through the dark tunnel a second time. I was alone and in total silence.
Once past the caprock escarpment, where the trailway was less protected
by hills, rocks, and trees, the headwind, gusts, and slight elevation
gain were more challenging for both of us. The ride back felt twice as long as
It was just our perception, however. We both got back to the truck faster than
we rode outbound. I rode faster,
trying to catch Jim on the way back (but didn't), and more steadily. I stopped only a couple of times to
One of the longer trestles is in
I rode a total of just over 10 miles, fairly short but a good workout.
Fortunately, I didn't get a flat tire from riding on the cinders. If
I had, the walk back to the truck would have been interminable. We don't
have a spare tube for the TriCross bike yet!
I was really hoping to ride a lot more miles on the trailway but that
isn't going to happen until/unless TPWD ever replaces more of the sharp
cinders with a better surface. It's a shame that so much time, effort,
and money has been expended to convert this abandoned railway into a
fairly scenic recreational path . . . that isn't being used to
anywhere near its capacity because it is so rough underfoot/tire/hoof.
[Addendum: two days later Jim noticed that the back tire
of the TriCross was flat! We found a thorn in the tire that also
punctured the tube. Neither of us had ridden the bike
since our trailway ride so I had to have picked up the thorn then --
just like the ranger warned us happens frequently to cyclists. And I was
worried about the sharp cinders! I'm lucky
the tire didn't go flat while I was still out there on the trailway.]
Next entries: ten days in Los Alamos, NM + the Jemez Mountains
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil