A night on the Caja del Rio, New Mexico

  • Distance

    61 Mi.

    (98 KM)
  • Days

    1.5

  • % Unpaved

    65%

  • % Singletrack

    5%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    97%

  • Total Ascent

    4,273'

    (1,302 M)
  • High Point

    7,000'

    (2,134 M)
Situated 15 miles to the west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Caja del Rio is a high desert volcanic plateau, ringed by cliffs and escarpments, bordered by the Rio Grande, and flanked by the distant protrusions of the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Given that the area is predominantly National Forest and laced with a tangle of dirt roads and cow trails, it makes a compact playground for mini-adventures; one that's just a short ride out of Santa Fe, or a convenient train ride from Albuquerque.
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Indeed, despite its relatively small size, opportunities for bikepacking abound on the Caja. Most of the riding takes place on classic New Mexican dirt roads (note to self: avoid the area at all costs during snowmelt or the monsoon season due to demonic mud). The ride listed makes for a relatively mellow, easy going loop, bar the beautiful but very rambunctious, rock strewn Soda Springs descent – remnants of an old pack that spirals down off the Sagebrush Flats, all the way to the banks of the Rio Grande. Wonderfully remote, it’s still used by wild horses to gain access to the river. Depending on your biking skills, it may require some dismounting. See Trail Notes for a more newbie/family friendly reroute, as this segment will certainly be out of some bikepackers’ comfort zone, especially on laden bikes.

Adding further interest to the Caja’s baked dirt roads, there’s an intriguing series of petroglyphs at La Cieneguilla, thought to have been whittled into the rocks by the Keresan-speaking puebloan people, between the 13th and 17th centuries. The singletrack climb to see them doubles up as the stairwell up to the mesa, with a more direct hike-a-bike option too. If you want learn more about New Mexican history and culture, consider allowing a couple of hours to check out the fascinating ‘living museum’ at Rancho de Las Golondrinas.

The ride later passes by the imposing Diablo Canyon – where you can crane your neck up at a towering set of volcanic flutes, popular with local climbers. If you’re aboard a fat bike, riding along the sandy arroyo that cuts through it is a memorable experience.

The Caja is a peaceful plateau, where you can pitch a tent almost anywhere you desire, enjoy star filled skies at night, and be lulled to sleep by the sound of coyotes. The distant mountain scenery is complimented by the soft hues of sagebrush, juniper trees and cholla cacti. Altitudes hover at around 6,000 – 7,000ft, so if you’re coming from out of state, bear this in mind. Bear in mind too that New Mexican dirt roads can chop and change in character, so don’t be surprised to encounter short stretches of sand and babyheads.

To avoid the ride out of town, we took the train out from Santa Fe’s Railyard to Santa Fe Country/NM 599. If you want to cycle out to the petroglyphs and connect with the route there, I’ve posted a gpx file that uses the Rail Trail and Arroyo Chamisa bike paths, along with various dirt road shortcuts here. This would add around 10 miles to the journey but miss the Rancho de Las Golondrinas – see Trail Notes for more info.

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • Resources

    link

  • Classic New Mexican scenery, geology and flora.
  • The whirlygig Soda Springs Trail; a remote, technical slice of loose and rocky singletrack set to a stunning backdrop.
  • The imposing Diablo Canyon, which rises tall and sheer from the sandy arroyo floor.
  • Endless camping opportunities and almost guaranteed starry nights.
  • Timing wise, this route works well as an overnighter. To avoid the ride out of town, we hopped on the weekday 7:13AM train ($3) from Santa Fe, disembarking at Santa Fe County/NM 599 (on Saturday, there’s a 10.44am train too, and if you’re coming from the south, you can ride the train from Albuquerque). We were back in Santa Fe by about 11am the next day. With more time to spare, you could stop to take a hike through Diablo Canyon, or pause to visit the fascinating Rancho de Las Golondrinas, a living history museum based around New Mexican history and culture.
  • The descent to the Rio Grande takes on a distinctly gnarly flavour, and will most likely require some dismounting and careful navigating, as the trail is faint in places. The rest of the ride is mostly mellow, with brief moments of ‘Gnarlito’ (homebrew Spanish for “Little Gnarly”) roads, which may require the odd push and shove.
  • Expect a short hike a bike back up to the mesa at Dead Dog Well, along a trail maintained by the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society.
  • New Mexican dirt roads are buffed and fast when the sun is shining. In complete contrast, they should be avoided at all costs after rain and during snow melt, or you’ll quickly find yourself completely immobilised within moments… As such, this area is probably best avoided during the monsoon season, which runs from mid July to mid September.
  • New Mexico is mined with spiky cacti and overrun with goat heads. Be sure to run sealant in your inner tubes, or better still, set your tires up tubeless.
  • Most of the Caja is National Forest, so opportunities abound.
  • Diablo Canyon has primitive camping sites, available for free.
  • Bring all the water and food you’ll need. There ain’t nothing on the Caja…
  • Santa Fe has a Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, Whole Foods and all the usual suspects.
  • A couple of good restaurants in Santa Fe include Counter Culture (cash only) and Tune Up Cafe. Be sure to try out some green chile!

There are many ways to tweak this ride. Riding out from Santa Fe – rather than taking the train to Santa Fe County/NM 599 – would add a further 10 miles. This addition would be largely traffic free, if you follow the Rail Trail and the Arroyo Chamisa bike paths, before hopping on various dirt road shortcuts to the airport, followed by a pavement along the Paseo Real. This road meets the car park that leads to the petroglyphs, from where you could pick up the route. You can find a GPX file from the Santa Fe Railyard to the La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs here. Note that the file includes two ways up to the mesa; directly through the petroglyphs (a short hike a bike) or via a longer, gentler path.

To shorten the route, keeping to dirt rather than the extremely loose and technical singletrack of the Soda Springs trail, cut through the Twin Hills – as shown by the marker on the GPX file – to connect back with CR 24, without dropping down to the Rio Grande. Doing so would actually turn this into a great ride for newbie bikepackers, or even a family loop – especially if you work in a visit to the living museum at Rancho de Las Golondrinas. Total distance would then be around 42 miles.

If you’re coming from Albuquerque, you could always get off the train at Kewa, and ride up La Bajada (big rocks!), connecting with the route further to the north. It would then just be a short backtrack to explore the La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs.

Fat bike riders can hop into the arroyo that runs parallel to Buckman Road, as marked on the GPX file. It will lead you straight through Diablo Canyon.

 

Additional Resources

  • The Broken Spoke is an excellent bike shop for repairs, spares and local trail knowledge. It also rents fat bikes, set up tubeless.
  • Just off the plaza, Mellow Velo is another great shop well worth checking out, with a range of mountain bikes to rent to suit all pockets.
  • If you’re planning on using the Railrunner train, be sure to check the timetable, as the schedule can be patchy.

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.

  • mikeetheviking

    Love the petroglyphs! New Mexico is beautiful! What tent are you rockin’ out there Cass?

  • Cass Gilbert

    It’s a Bear Paw WIlderness Designs Pyratent 2 (http://www.bearpawwd.com/tents/pyratent.php) that I’m borrowing from a friend. Review coming soon!

  • mat long

    in your opinion where is the best spot to sleep, ie. views, away from any potential traffic, etc?

  • Cass Gilbert

    I marked a spot on the map where we stopped – great views from the top of Dead Dog Well. But honestly… (almost) anywhere on the Caja is great. We only saw vehicles on Buckman Road.

  • Rob Grey

    no shortage of great rides down there are there? the place is magic; i’ve only visited for a couple weeks (sans bicycle), but had an immediate connection with it. i really need to get back, and soon.

  • Laird Thornton

    Well this looks perfect for my first Bike Packing ride! I am close, love the Santa Fe area, and like that its a quick night over. That way I can test my pack setups and what i’m running before I head out on larger trips. Thanks!

  • Cass Gilbert

    I hope you enjoy it! The Soda Springs descent is definitely on the hair raising side. Most of the rest, bar the odd stretch, is pretty mellow.

  • Joshua Willard

    Not specific to this route, but for routes that are 1-2 days without water sources. How many liters to you expect to consume in the desert over 1-2 days? I currently carry 3 liters in the framebag, 1 on the downtube, and 2 on the fork for 6 liters total. I know this is not enough for a trip like this and I have no idea how you can carry much more.

  • Cass Gilbert

    On an overnighter like this, I tend to be fine with 4-6l. But it very much depends on the time of year, and whether I’m carrying dehydrated food or not.

    If it’s a longer desert ride, I’ll aim to carry 6L+, but will always look to top up whenever I get the chance. There’s plenty of wells in New Mexico, if you keep an eye out for them. There’s always the option of carrying an extra couple of litres in a backpack if it’s really needed. Only on the AZT did I once need to carry 10L – and that was just one section.

    Whenever I find a good water source, I’ll always stop and drink. I like to be well hydrated before I set out.

  • Joshua Willard

    Thanks. I am headed out in a week for this segment. Will try to do more riding outside of 12:00 – 17:00 to save myself from over exertion.

  • Nick Levin

    Hey Cass, a few friends and I did this loop out of abq last weekend and it was good fun, particularly using the railrunner. Thanks for the awesome pioneering and for posting! One of the guys on this trip and I also bikepacked in chile this spring and did the huilo huilo section on this site. Out of curiosity, how are you guys grading these rides? This is a 6 and that was a 5? We think at the very least those numbers should be switched..

    There’s a few of us down here in ABQ sewing up a storm and getting out there and biking when we can, it’d be sweet to meet up when you return from the south. Suerte Che!

  • cameron

    Great write up Cass I live in Northern New Mexico so i really appreciate all the routes in our area you’ve rode and written about. When is the earliest this route is doable? Hoping to ride it mid April with some friends any info would be great.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Cameron,

    If a late storm hasn’t rolled in, I’d say April should be good!

  • cameron

    Do you recommend a map to carry for this route?

  • JDuc

    Thanks for posting this route! I took my husband out on it for his first bikepacking adventure two nights ago. He enjoyed it!

    Just a few notes from our ride:

    * Where the route goes around a cattle pen and, what looks like, a large catch basin, there is a new fence. Located here: 35.662700, -106.180051
    You can get through the fence, you just have to find the clump of trees right around those coordinates. When we passed through they had put a bunch of the brush that they had cut down in the opening of those trees. It’s barely large enough to hand a bike through and is MUCH easier with more than one person.

    *The route, as it is presented, takes you up an unrideable section of old two track just next to Ortiz mountain. From the satellite view, after the fact, it looks like you can go just a bit further and take an alternative route up that looks to be a better alternative, unless you relish in hike-a-bike! The section I’m referring to starts around here: 35.745190, -106.152016
    The view during the hike-a-bike is worth taking a few moments to turn around and soak it all in though!

    * The trail leading down to the river is difficult to find and wasn’t rideable. Very, very loose sandy surface with a chunky rocks and not much room for error. It’s also not very well marked. The GPS track provided here is likely from before the trail was adjusted as we had a heck of a time finding it. There was a cairn (man-made stacks of rocks) marking the start of the singletrack/hiking trail that heads down to the river. We bushwhacked to get to the line on my GPS since we couldn’t tell where the trail that was marked with the cairn went. In hindsight, it was the best option, so follow it. Somewhere around here: 35.805663, -106.169870

    * Once down towards the river, the trail gets hard to follow again. There are multiple cairns that mark the route, follow them instead of the GPS track. They are apparently the new trail.

    Plus bikes highly suggested! The rocks on the descents and the sandy roads make that a no-brainer.

    Thanks for sharing the route! It really is nice when you’re visiting from out of town and don’t want to necessarily have to spend hours researching to create a route. We really enjoyed the ride and I was super happy to get to share the thing I love so much with my husband for the first time!

  • Steph

    Did a part of this route on a Surly ECR today, here are my comments on it (this was my first bikepacking trip so this might be helpful for people thinking that this might be a good first trip)

    Rode from downtown Santa Fe to the start of the petroglyphs. Beautiful 10mi downhill ride through the city, just be sure to map your own route b/c the gpx file posted has only vectors to the start.

    The petroglyphs were awesome, a must see. However, where Cass says that “the singletrack to see them doubles up as a stairwell to the Mesa” is incredibly misleading. There is no trail or singletrack here that I could find, it is a boulder-filled mess with no markers or places to roll a bike. Your bike must be carried as a true hike a bike, which wasn’t very fun to do with a pack-loaded ECR. I wish someone would have warned me about this.

    On top of the Mesa, the dirt roads made a smooth continually uphill ride. the desert and distant mountain scenery was awesome, there are many places that I found unrideable on my ECR, especially once you enter the national forest. I wouldn’t go as far as call this a “mellow easy going loop”, but maybe that my fault for not riding w/ suspension.

    thank you Cass for putting together and posting this route! maybe give more warning for first time bikepackers about some of the more difficult portions of the trail.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Glad you enjoyed yourself, for the most part!

    There’s a dirt/singletrack climb to the ridge, but it requires a little backtracking from the petroglyphs, which are more direct and ‘hike a bike style’.

    I definitely don’t consider this loop mellow in all places… see the description “bar the beautiful but rambunctious, rock strewn Soda Springs descent” and Highlights: The whirlygig Soda Springs Trail; a remote, technical slice of loose and rocky singletrack set to a stunning backdrop. Note that I also have an alternative for newbies in the Trail Notes, as referred to in the copy, as I’d consider it out of some people’s comfort zone (as fun as it is). The detour to avoid Soda Springs is also marked on the GPX file, so hopefully that covers things! My top tip is to air down your plus tires for a smoother ride, its surprising how low you can go, in lieu of suspension.

    How do you mean, vectors? The route as I posted starts at the Railrunner station (599) rather than in Santa Fe proper, to save time and to offer a chance to visit Las Golondrinas. But as mentioned within the copy, I included a nice way of getting to the petroglyphs from Santa Fe on a separate RWGPS file, via a route that follows bike paths and dirt roads. I just checked it, and it seems to be loading up fine.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I just checked the area that caused you concern, and it looks like I included both the direct hike a bike option to the mesa from the petroglyths, and the gentler option that skirts around them. I’ve added POIs on the RWGPS file to explain the two options, as I’d only mentioned it in Trail Notes, and not on the file itself. Sorry for the confusion!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Sorry for the delay, Jan. Just saw this. Thanks for the notes on the new fence.

    Soda Springs (the descent) is notoriously hard to follow at the best of times… I see that it’s now been added to MTB Projects, which would be worth loading into your device as a backup, too.

    https://www.mtbproject.com/trail/7012017/dead-dog-well-loop

    Glad your husband enjoyed it! I love the Caja, such a peaceful place, even if the descent to the Rio Grande is a little crazy! I know some consider it completely rideable, while others definitely don’t…