With nearly every public park in Bexar County closed by authorities in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus and locals celebrating Independence Day likely crowding parks that remain open, we might be living through the most difficult weekend in our lifetimes to get outdoors.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought Americans outside as never before, as evidenced by the nationwide shortages of bicycles and other gear. Parks managers tell me that use of San Antonio’s Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails system has gone up significantly during the pandemic.

Those trails remain open this weekend, but I wanted to find a place to ride my bike where I could be even more distant. I asked Jeff Coyle, City of San Antonio public affairs director and an avid cyclist, to show me a gravel route outside of Bandera that he had told me about before.

Early Saturday morning, we pedaled on rolling hills through cool breezes lightly scented with dust. Golden sunbeams broke over the green knobs of the Hill Country horizon and the air was more filled with birdsong than vehicle noise. We saw a few drivers but mostly had the roads to ourselves.

Coyle is first and foremost a mountain biker. He told me about this gravel route on a group ride at the popular Comfort-area bike property Flat Rock Ranch two weeks ago. Coyle said he considers gravel riding his version of road cycling, offering more of a slow burn than the mixture of explosive climbs and gripping descents that make up mountain biking.

I got my first introduction to the world of gravel through races organized by Capital City Bike Racing. A friend and I entered two of their races in McDade, east of Austin. The Trailist recommends their events as an accessible way to get into the sport with a welcoming group.

Rural county roads offer routes alongside private ranches in the Hill Country, like this one near Pipe Creek.
Rural county roads offer routes alongside private ranches in the Hill Country, like this one near Pipe Creek. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Gravel riding offers a mix of the road biking and mountain biking experiences. If you have a cheap mountain bike or hybrid, you can easily take it on gravel roads. They offer an easier entry into non-paved surfaces than rough, rocky single-track trails that you might find frustrating.

A road bike can also function as a gravel bike if you install wide enough tires. Opinions differ, but many riders use 32 millimeters as the minimum width of a gravel tire (yes, many bike measurements are metric). My gravel tires are 35 millimeters wide.

I think the true beauty of the gravel route, especially in Texas, is the public access it unlocks to so much of the state. Leave the highway only a few miles and you’re instantly transported from suburbia to ranch country, seemingly far away from billboards, gas stations, and other tendrils of commerce.

Our gravel grind on Saturday began at a park-and-ride along Highway 16 in Pipe Creek, just southeast of Bandera. We followed Highway 16 northwest a short distance to Privilege Creek road, which followed its namesake stream into a quiet, beautiful valley lined with private ranches.

About two-and-a-half miles in, we turned left onto Old School Road, named for the 1892 one-room schoolhouse built not far away by J.P. “Polly” Rodriguez, a Mexican-born U.S. Army scout who became a prominent rancher in the area. Signs near the schoolhouse and near the historic Polly Cemetery on Old School Road tell his story, along with those of other settlers in the area. We passed the schoolhouse on the way back at the intersection of Bear Creek and Privilege Creek roads.

Along the 28-mile route, we only encountered a handful of cars and trucks, though we saw plenty of wildlife. Whitetail and axis deer dove out of the roadside brush and hopped over fences. Scissor-tailed flycatchers swooped from their perches on powerlines, and we even saw a coral snake wriggling its way across the road.

When riding these rural routes during the summer, make sure you go early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the heat. Riding during midday can be dangerous, even for the experienced. We met at about 7 a.m. and finished our ride by a little after 9 a.m. Bring plenty of water in hydration packs or bottles, as well.

To fully enjoy your gravel ride, it’s best to plan your route beforehand. The San Antonio Gravel Grinders Facebook page community offers helpful tips and organizes group rides. You can also map your own path starting from a familiar area. Street view might sometimes be necessary to verify that a road is public, not private.

If you do put together a fun route, feel free to send it my way. I’m always looking for new places to ride, and I have a feeling many of them will be on the rambling rural routes that surround San Antonio.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.