The Chama Charmer, New Mexico

Set to a skyscape of Simpson-esque clouds, New Mexico abounds with high pastures, primitive two track, and remote backcountry trails. Beginning on the Colorado border, this long weekend, high elevation route showcases some of the most enjoyable bikepacking in north of the state, making use of the Continental Divide Trail to lace in mile upon mile of singletrack. If hot springs are your style, round off the ride by pampering yourself in the luxurious desert resort of Ojo Caliente, from where public transport will whisk you back to Española, Santa Fe or Albuquerque.
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The Chama Charmer forms part of the Chili Line, a work-in-progress bikepacking route that will eventually run from Durango, CO, to Santa Fe. In the meantime, it makes an excellent 2-3 day escape that showcases some of the best backcountry singletrack in the area.

The ride connects Cumbres Pass, on the Coloradan border, with Ojo Caliente, a hot spring deemed sacred by Native Americans of Northern New Mexico. Running from the edge of the San Juan National Forest into the Carson National Forest, it skirts around the Cruces Basin Wilderness, following the Continental Divide Trail much of the way. As such, please be especially considerate when encountering hikers.

Expect dirt roads, barely-ridden singletrack and primo camping real estate. Terrain is characterised by high ridgelines and rolling plateaux – hovering around 10,000ft/3050m – with eventual views out to the imposing shoulders of the Brazos Cliffs. Pastures are generally lush and green, and lakes punctuate the route, including Lagunitas and Hopewell. What’s more, the ride can be connected by public transport on either end. To do so, you’ll need to time your trip during the week and tie in your travels with the Blue Bus schedule – see ‘Extras’ for the relevant timetables and ‘Trail Notes’ for a suggested long weekend itinerary.

It’s a paved but enjoyable stretch between the two settlements of El Rito and Ojo Caliente , with a sweeping descent into the baking hot desert, as piñons and junipers replace high country ponderosas. If you need to trim down the ride, the same Blue Bus that runs from Ojo Caliente also stops in nearby El Rito. And if you want to extend the ride, you can hop onto the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which also passes through El Rito. Just be sure to fill your boots at the wonderful El Faralito Mexican restaurant – it’s a classic stop for Divide racers.

The Chama Charmer is almost completely rideable, bar one small section. After crossing the Vallecitos River, there’s a short bushwack to contend with. A new portion of singletrack on the CDT is currently being cut – it may well have been finished by the time you ride this.

  • Distance

    119 Mi.

    (192 KM)
  • Days

    2-3

  • % Unpaved

    90%

  • % Singletrack

    40%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7

  • % Rideable (time)

    97%

  • Total Ascent

    11,176'

    (3,406 M)
  • High Point

    11,050'

    (3,368 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Trail Notes
  • Mile upon mile of remote singletrack, mellow and flowy for the most part.
  • Equally enticing backcountry two track.
  • Lots of great camping potential.
  • New Mexico’s trademark starry nights.
  • Depending on winter snowfall/snowmelt, this route is best ridden from June 1st to 1st November. Watch out for monsoon season storms.
  • Bring a bell so you don’t startle hikers.
  • Much of the ride is at high elevation. Expect cool nights, even in summer.
  • Given the profile of the route, it’s best enjoyed from north to south.
  • If you can, hitch a ride from Chama to Cumbres Pass, to save yourself a paved road climb.
  • ‘Blue Buses’ take 2 bikes. Occasionally, drives will allow a third on board. But don’t count on it. Trays will fit up to 3in tires once partially deflated.
  • Camping opportunities abound in the area, given that most of the route is in National Forest.
  • Lodging is available in Chama and Ojo Caliente.
  • There are no resupply points en route, except at the very end in El Rito. Stock up in Chama or before.
  • Be sure to refuel on delicious Mexican fare at El Faralito, in El Rito(11am-2.30pm, 5pm-8pm, 575-581-9509).
  • There are plenty of eating options in Chama – including Red Mountain Pizza – as well as a small grocery store.
  • Being predominantly alpine in nature, the route is relatively well watered. Still, it’s worth having the capacity to carry 4L of H2O, given the amount of ridgeline riding.

There is one small section of CDT trail being built (as of July 2016) that should be completed soon. In the meantime, it requires a short connecting bushwack – approx 63 miles in.

The CDT runs through Canjilon Lakes (junction mile 69). However, the trail is unmaintained in this area – with numerous trees to climb over – so we’d suggest descending on FR 559 instead, as indicated by this gpx.

If you’re in a hurry, you can drop into El Rito on the large, wide and sometimes dusty FR110. But parallel primitive roads (as suggested in this gpx at mile 79) make for a more interesting ride.

From El Rito, you can catch the Blue back to Espanola and Santa Fe. Or ride onto Ojo Caliente for a soak in the hot springs, and do the same from there.

Suggested weekend itinerary: 

Friday: 5.30pm bus from Espanola to Chama (route 190), arriving 7.10pm in Chama

Saturday/Sunday: full riding days (hitch up to the start point at Cumbre Pass if possible)

Monday: Descend into El Rito for late breakfast/early lunch at El Farelito (11am-2.30pm, 5pm-8pm). Short ride to Ojo Caliente. Soak. Bus back to Espanola (route 190, 30 mins) departing 2.26pm or 5.56pm from the resort.

 

  • RTD website, detailing public transportation in New Mexico. Sometimes easier to ring, as the website is somewhat confusing unless you know the area.
  • Timetable for the Española to Chama Blue Bus.
  • Timetable for Ojo Caliente to Española (this connects with the bus to Santa Fe).
  • Ojo Caliente spa; pamper yourself!
  • Thanks are due to the excellent New Mexico Endurance series, and its Redneck Epic, for inspiration in planning this route.

Tags

  • http://www.roguepanda.com Nick Smolinske

    That route looks amazing! I need to spend a lot more time in the land of green chilies next year, for sure. Putting this one on the list.

  • Cass Gilbert

    It’s a good’un, for sure. I was really surprised by how much singletrack there was along with section of the CDT… and even more, by how rideable it was. It’s pretty mellow for the most part, too.

  • David Wyrick

    Mellow enough for a gravel grinder with 45mm wide tyres?

  • Cass Gilbert

    My hunch is that it’s much more enjoyable ride on a mountain bike.

  • Andrew Wade

    I remember that view from the Brazos Ridge at the Cruces Wilderness Basin sign. Excited to hear about the future Chili Line route. Northern NM was a highlight of my GDMBR ride and these smaller routes are an easy way for me to get back into that area again.