Apaches, conquistadores, and a bomb: a historical bikepack in New Mexico.

  • Distance

    319 Mi.

    (513 KM)
  • Days

    4-5

  • % Unpaved

    70%

  • % Singletrack

    0%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7

  • % Rideable (time)

    100%

  • Total Ascent

    12,846'

    (3,915 M)
  • High Point

    7,400'

    (2,256 M)
Is it that time of the year when the weather takes a turn for the worse? When the endless dirt roads, winter sun and big blue skies of the South West make an enticing escape from the snowbound north? If so, this dirt, gravel and paved road bikepacking trip in New Mexico could be for you. A four-day ride, it offers a fascinating historical tour of Central New Mexico, using public transport from Albuquerque to propel you into the heart of the desert action.
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It’s easy to become hooked on dirt road touring in New Mexico. Perhaps it’s the all-embracing skies in the Land of Enchantment. The overwhelming sense of space. The shapes, colours and hues of its junipers, piñon and cacti, and the way they speckle its plateaux and mesas.

But aside from experiencing a slice of beautiful, rugged, desert terrain typical to New Mexico, this four day bikepacking loop is also underpinned by a unique blend of colonial, Native American, South West frontier and world history.

As such, it starts by circling south-east around the Apache stomping-ground of Pico Ladrón. The peak itself is part of small range known as the Sierra Ladrones – the Mountain of Thieves – named after the Apache raiding parties, and later Anglo and Hispanic cattle rustlers, who hid amongst its folds.

Changes in vegetation are clues to an increase in elevation, as cholla cacti give way to piñon and junipers. Passing the Very Large Array – the giant antennas that tirelessly probe the furthest reaches of deep space – the route skirts around the San Mateo Mountains, home to ghost towns and mines of yesteryear, with quirky names like Chloride and Dusty… And more frontier history, if folklore is to be believed, for this is where the Apache Kid, the legendary renegade army scout, was said to have been hunted down and killed in 1894.

From the improbably titled Truth of Consequences – whose hot springs were frequented by Geronimo, the Apache leader who fought Mexican and American expansion into tribal lands – the ride loops back north. This time it follows the east side of the Rio Grande, thus experiencing a completely different perspective of the mountains. And in doing so, a taste of real desert riding.

In fact, this homebound stretch of the tour parallels a section of the ‘Jornada del Muerto’ – literally, the Route of the Dead Man – so named by 17th century conquistadores, in reference to its inhospitable, lava-encrusted terrain; one of the most challenging desert stretches of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. The ‘Royal Road’, 1600 mile in length, once ran from Española, north of Santa Fe, all the way to Mexico City, helping trade and spreading Christianity across the continent.

Past the remains of an old bullet riddled Cadillac, fine desert views can then be enjoyed towards the Sierra Blanca, a range in the east. Its peak, just shy of 12000ft, is part of the Mascalero Apache Indian Reservation.

Finally, just to add further depth to the area’s notoriety, the route flanks the fenceline of the White Sands Missile Range, infamously known as the Trinity Site, the codename used for the detonation of the first atomic bomb, on July 16th 1945.

So, in many ways, both a beautiful winter desert tour, and an insight into the many historical layers of New Mexico…

(see Trail Notes for variations on this loop, via Bear Trap Canyon and Monticello Box, depending on the weather)

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • Riding the traffic-free, baked dry dirt roads around Pico Ladrón.
  • Visiting the Very Large Array (where Jodie Foster’s Contact was filmed), and going on a free, self-guided tour.
  • Experiencing backcountry New Mexico, with its old pioneer towns and characterful trading posts.
  • The windy, but beautifully bleak Plains of San Angustin, lying within the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field.
  • Silent, star filled desert camping.
  • Need to rest sore muscles? The Charles Motel and Spa in T or C charges $5 to soak in a hot mineral water tub. 113 degrees of ‘aaahhhhhhhhh’
  • Mixing bikepacking with the state’s extremely affordable public transit system, including the bike-friendly Railrunner.
  • We packed light and averaged around 80 miles a day over this 4 day ride, with 2700-3700ft elevation gain a day. We started early so even given the short winter days, this allowed plenty of time for lunch breaks and quick photo stops. The second day was particularly windy, out on the unprotected San Agustin Plain.
  • We used the Railrunner and Socorro’s public bus to cut down on pavement miles in and out of Albuquerque. Being geared towards commuters, the Railrunner’s timetable can also be limiting – but with forward planning, it’s an excellent, affordable train service with ample space for bikes. As for the bus, it only take 3 bikes, so it’s worth ringing ahead – though we didn’t have any problem finding two spots on the afternoon service. Note too that the bus uses a rear rack, so you may need to remove, or loosen up, your framebag. Price-wise, the Railrunner costs $3, and the bus is $2.25. Best to have exact change.
  • Navigation-wise, we preloaded a Garmin with topos of the Four Corners, supplemented by photocopied pages from the Delorme New Mexico Atlas and Gazetteer.
  • On our last day, we followed a dirt road along the Rio Grande up to Socorro, to connect with the afternoon bus to Belen. But if you have a bit more time, you could take the Quebradas Backcountry Byway, as marked on the gpx file.
  • This ride is best undertaken in the spring, fall or early winter, to avoid high summer temps and the monsoon season. Spring can be hellishly windy though. Post fall, expect cold night time temps, especially before T or C. We rode it in February – see Trail Notes for options at different times of the year, dependent on recent snowfall.
  • Whatever time of year it is, avoid the area straight after heavy rain… after all, there’s a reason New Mexican houses are made from adobe! This said, the dirt roads dry out very quickly.
  • Wilderness camping options abound throughout this route – but carry water.
  • In Magdalena, we stealth camped behind the library, which didn’t seem to upset anyone.
  • There are resupply points en route for food/water – in Magdalena, Winston and Truth or Consequences. Water-wise, we didn’t find anywhere between the ranch office in Engle and Socorro, unless you detour via San Antonio. We each carried 5 litres of water at a time, though you may want more to tide you through from Engle to Socorro.
  • The Winston General Store is adorned with racks of antlers and well stocked with food. Most relevant to scruffy cyclists, it boasts an unexpectedly luxurious WC (-;
  • Truth or Consequences is a small detour off route, but a great supply point – and home to the Geronimo Springs Museum.
  • The Brazen Fox in T or C has excellent, well-priced mexican tapas/street fare. Highly recommended.
  • If low on food and water, consider detouring to the crepuscular Owl Bar and Cafe, said to rustle up one of the best green chili cheeseburgers in the state.
  • Manzanares Street Coffeehouse in Socorro is a good spot to while away some time, if waiting for the public bus back to Belen.
  • If you’re starting or ending in Albuquerque, visit Frontier Restaurant (2400 Central Av SE), a local institution famed for its cheap, tasty New Mexican food. The Frontier Burrito is a favourite. Be extra vigilant with your steed, as bike crime is rife in the area.

We caught the early morning train from Albuquerque to Belen. Then, it was backroads parallel to the interstate down to Bernardo. From here, we picked up the CR12 round Pico Ladrón, via the ghost town of Riley to Magdelena. From Magdalena, our original plan was to find an alternative to the 60 – the map shows an old highway but that’s no longer accessible. Detouring to the fascinating Very Large Array, 52 took us all the way down to 181, by Interstate 25, via Winston and Cuchillo – the longest stretch of pavement on the ride.

Had we been outside of mid winter, we’d have perhaps turned off onto 476 (past the VLA) and ridden through Bear Trap Canyon and Big Pigeon Canyon, as a more interesting way of connecting once more with 52 (and thus avoiding the hellishly windy San Angustin Plains). You can find more information about this detour by checking out the New Mexico Off Road Runner Route.

If the weather is on your side, another option is to then to take the forest road through Monticello Box and Monticello Canyon, as a means of avoiding the long stretch of pavement via Winston. This connects again with 52, via Monticello and 142.

Nov 2015 Update: Locals say that the ranchers and folks in Monticello petitioned the county to close the connecting forest road through Monticello Canyon recently, due to increased 4-wheeler traffic/noise. The petition was evidently successful, as enormous gates have been erected at either end. Thanks Austin for this info. 

We detoured down to Truth or Consequences for food, then headed out on 51 to Engle. From here, there’s a dirt road that flanks the White Sands Missile Range, emerging some 50 miles later east of San Antonio. If you don’t want to take the Quebradas Backcountry Byway – as shown on the gpx file – consider detouring to San Antonio (home to the Owl Bar and Cafe) and looping back to Socorro via dirt roads along the Rio Grande, amongst wizened cottonwoods. From Socorro, we caught the afternoon bus to Belen, and the connecting Railrunner back to Albuquerque.

Additional Resources

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Rob Grey

    the last time i was in abq i regrettably didn’t have a bike, so i wasn’t able to ride. i was able to have a breakfast burrito at golden pride, however, and i would also recommend eating there. they’re part of the frontier family of restaurants, so they have the same tortillas, green chilie stew, and rolls. worth going back for another visit. probably with a bike next time.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Rob – always good to know the best Mexican restaurants in town! Can’t beat a good green chili stew.. Lots of great riding out of ABQ, including Otero Canyon, a personal favourite.

  • Rob Grey

    you’re quite welcome. thank you for sharing your words and photos!

    it was tough being there without a bike, but the food and beer was a good distraction. golden pride is also a chicken and bbq joint; little bit of everything for everyone, but those breakfast burritos and the green chile are clearly their specialty.

  • Mark Atwell

    Wow! Some great pictures!

  • Gary Blakley

    Good job, Cass. You conveyed the trip really well. The photos bring back some great memories. We should do it again and try to expand it a bit!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Gary. I’m ready for another one when you are!

  • Mason Hakes

    Could I do this on a Fuji Touring with 700cc/40mm?

  • Cass Gilbert

    New Mexico’s back roads tend to be a mixed bag. I prefer a wider tire myself, but I’d say this route would be fine with 40mms, if you don’t mind bumping around a bit. There might be some sandy sections as you ride along the Missile Range that require some pushing.

  • Ryan

    Here’s a better link for info on Socorro’s bus system. http://www.socorronm.gov/city-services/transportation/

    Planning on combining these two NM trips (this one and the Billy the Kid trip) into one and any advice would be appreciated. Good info about the closure of the Marble Canyon road – is it completely closed, or only to 4-wheelers? How do ranchers use it?

  • Sean Parchem

    Cass, I realize it’s quite warm in NM this time of year. However, I’m contemplating doing one of your NM trips starting Aug 1st. Thoughts on that? Or should I just go directly to CO for cooler weather? Also, do you know if there is a forum where people try to find others to do bikepacking trips? I realize that in itself could be problematic but…..

  • BriceL

    Hi, Im looking at doing a trail this summer but have a few questions. What is the narrowest tire width suggested to ride on? I have 33mm and could go up but will have to buy them. (trying to go for as cheap as possible) Are there spots at the designated camp grounds or other places to hammock camp? (again as cheap as possible since I don’t have a tent yet) Thank you for any help, and I will be posting this exact thing on a few other routes to find which one works best.