Monumental Loop, Southern New Mexico

Contributed By

Matt Mason

Guest Contributor

Family man Matt Mason mountain bikes and bikepacks whenever he has a spare moment; this summer, he rode the Colorado Trail. By day, he looks after his two children, riding them around town in a Larry v Harry Bullitt cargo bike.

The Organ Mountains are a geological highlight of Southern New Mexico. Visible throughout the route, they form the backbone of the newly created Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. Weaving together a network of rarely ridden singletrack, backcountry dirt roads, and sandy washes into an expansive Figure 8, the Monumental Loop maximises time spent exploring the monument and the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert... yet still providing ample opportunities for those all important burrito resupplies!
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Aside from in its sheer size – a whole 500,000 acres in area – the Organ National Parks and Desert Peaks National Monuments is unusual in its format. Unlike other National Monuments, it encompasses four distinct areas – the Organ Mountains themselves, along with Doña Anas, Las Uvas, and the Potrillos, aka Cone Country.

The goal of the route is to explore and connect the entire area. As such, the Monumental Loop aims to share an appreciation of this diverse desert landscape and its compelling serenity, whilst also uncovering some of its intriguing historical textures. For instance, it passes by the death place of legendary frontier lawman Pat Garrett, as well as the site of numerous Apollo training missions, a rockscape where woolly mammoths once came to scratch their prehistoric itches, and a myriad of petroglyphs that remain steeped in mystery.

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In terms of singletrack, the Monumental Loop includes one of the longest sections of uninterrupted desert trails in the area – the 29 mile, flowy Sierra Vista Trail – as well as numerous stretches of Las Cruces’ local trail network, and a small section of the Franklin Mountains’ rocky singletrack, just across the border in Texas. This being the desert, there’s also several extended washes to tackle; the longest of these is best ridden as a descent, hence the suggested direction of the route. In terms of suitable setups, 3in tires work best given such a broad range of terrain – though 2.4in will certainly get you round the route, as long as you don’t mind a little pushing.

The Monumental Loop lies within the Chihuahuan Desert, a subtle and serene place. A basic understanding of its flora and fauna will help in your appreciation of its qualities. Look out for the many species of New Mexico’s state flower, yucca, towering alongside ocotillo, both well above the multitude of cacti and grasses that carpet the desert floor. Even including the stout barrel cactus, which is capable of piercing a sidewall, cacti don’t live up to their fearsome reputation. Velvety multi-colored flowers and sweet fruits define the family as much as spines. While most vegetation is armed with spikes, spines, or thorns there are a few species, such as sacred datura, broom snakeweed, and creosote bush that use a chemical means of protection. Some of these chemicals contribute to the deserts characteristic smell, especially after rains.

As for fauna, it will take a sharp eye, or maybe even some night riding, to have a chance of glimpsing the desert’s animal residents. Raptors are an exception, commonly seen surveying for jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, and an expansive menu of reptiles. Coyotes announce their presence with erratic calling throughout the night but manage to disappear by sunrise. Careful inspection of sandy arroyos often reveals tracks of mule deer, javelina, bobcat, and fat bikes…

Given that the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks National Monument has only just been created, the BLM are open to public input on how best to manage such a large swathe of federally protected land. If you ride the Monumental Loop, please contact the Southern NM Trail Alliance and let them know. Your feedback may well help advocate for a bikepacking-friendly future.

Development of the Monumental Loop has been spearheaded by Matt Mason, with collaboration from Jack Kirby, Dan Carter, and other Las Cruces bikepackers. Words and Images by Matt Mason, Cass Gilbert, and Eugene Smith.

See Trail Notes for how the ride can be broken up into four segments, with an accompanying description for each.

  • Distance

    306 Mi.

    (492 KM)
  • Days

    5-7

  • % Unpaved

    94%

  • % Singletrack

    23%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    98%

  • Total Ascent

    13,606'

    (4,147 M)
  • High Point

    5,150'

    (1,570 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Trail Notes
  • 70 miles of beautiful, open desert singletrack!
  • Varied geology including 6 distinct mountain ranges, lava flows, cinder cones, and slot canyons.
  • Petroglyphs at Lucero Wash, Tonuco Mountains, Broad Canyon, Providence Cone.
  • Space…  the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks covers a massive 500,000 acres.
  • Solitude… and star-filled desert skies.
  • Green chile!
  • October-April; expect to wear T-shirt and shorts in the daytime, but pack a 30-degree sleeping bag to stay cosy at night.
  • The route uses sections of public roads and trails that cross private land and working ranches. Please be sure to close gates whenever you open them.
  • Scorpion, snakes and other critters aren’t a major issue in the winter, though they do exist. A fully enclosed tent isn’t required but may be good for peace of mind.
  • Do not attempt this route in summer! Temps hit well over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Water is scarce; the longest section of the route goes 110 miles without reliable access to water. A capacity of 6 liters is recommended.
  • Tubeless tires and repair kits are critical.  Sharp rocks and vegetation are common. Take care when riding through Cone Country!
  • Outdoor Adventures has all the desert-specific spares you’ll need.
  • Given the stretches of deep sand found in each of the four sections, 3.0in tires are ideal. Anything less will increase the time spent pushing through washes. The longest arroyo is 2 miles; most others are considerably shorter.
  • Logistics: check the Trail Notes section for logistics between El Paso/ABQ and Las Cruces.
  • Primitive camping is available throughout the route; sandy, dry, flat campsites are abundant. #leavenotrace.
  • Although critters are rarely an issue over winter, pitch your tent or tarp away from vegetation where possible.
  • Keep campsites out of washes for warmth and to avoid the risk of flash floods.
  • Camping at or near cattle tanks, corrals, etc… is discouraged. Despite being on public land, it is best practice to regard any ranching structure as private property.
  • Full-service food stops are found in Las Cruces, Hatch, and Vinton.
  • Hatch is the green chile capital of the world! Be sure to check out Sparky’s diner. A line forms Thursday-Sunday for its famous green chile cheeseburgers, outside of which Sparky’s is closed.
  • Filterable water is found in cattle tanks. Each tank is unique; careful inspection and creative thinking may be required to access water.
  • Cattle tanks noted on map frequently have water but can’t be guaranteed.
  • Carry 4-6L of H20. If riding 50 miles per day, water can be replenished every 24 hours. The only exception is in the Potrillos/Cone Country section. Once leaving Vinton, the next guaranteed water source is 110 miles away.
  • Never pass up a water source.
  • Round off your Monumental experience with a visit to Habeneros Fresh Mex in Las Cruces.  Try the delicious taco combination plate or chile relleno!

Segment 1 A Mountain-Hatch 69.5 miles

  • Connecting flowing singletrack with washes, rutted roads, and smooth river banks, this segment offers a diversity of riding.  Tonuco Mountains offers wide views of the Rio Grande valley and fine camping.

Segment 2 Hatch-LC 66.5 miles

  • Rolling through the Las Uvas and Robledo Mountains on rocky two-track, this segment provides some of the most enjoyable and relaxing riding. Following a 7 mile descent of the poorly maintained SST trail, the Monumental Loop crosses Prehistoric Trackways National Monument.  Paleozoic Era fossils of a variety of plants and animals have been found in the area.

Segment 3 LC-Vinton  50 miles

  • 30 miles of mostly downhill singletrack wind past the Organ Mountains, before joining the rockier trails in the Franklin Mountains.

Segment 4 Vinton-LC 120 miles

  • Without doubt, this segment traverses the most remote and driest lands on the route.  With the knowledge gained on the 3 previous legs, one should still find the open expanse of Cone Country to be an enjoyable place to ride.

Note that if you have less time to play with, riding segments 1 and 2 also makes for a very satisfying, 136 mile loop, with a great blend of singletrack, backcountry gravel, desert dirt, arroyos… and a tasty resupply!

Arriving from El Paso?

The Park and Ride Gold Route service operated by NM DoT runs a commuter bus every weekday between downtown El Paso and Las Cruces. It’s $3 and you can throw bikes underneath. It will drop you off at the University, which is right on the route. Make sure you have the exact change and check the small print for holiday schedules.

The El Paso-La Limousine Express is a charter bus from El Paso to LA that stops in Las Cruces. You can take your bike on this bus as well. It is $13 one way and runs every day.

Public transit is available from the airport to downtown El Paso on the Sun Metro service. These buses provide bike racks. Plus bikes fit, just, with tires deflated.

There are also shuttle services from the El Paso airport to downtown and all the way to Las Cruces. More info on the El Paso airport website.

Coming from Albuquerque? 

The El Paso-LA Limousine Express runs a service between ABQ and Las Cruces; $56 round trip, inc bikes. Check the schedule here.

 

Additional Resources

  • http://milesarbour.com Miles Arbour

    That vegetation is out of this world. X-files kind of stuff going on there!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Take me to your leader!

  • Dan Carter

    Shorter loops can be made by cutting over to the Rio Grande. There are gravel/dirt levy roads that parallel the river. These will take you back to Las Cruces, Hatch, El Paso, etc. Some of these are also part of the proposed Rio Grande Trail.

  • Mark Troup

    There’s a great little pistachio place on Dripping Springs Road, not far off your route. I stopped there a couple years ago when backpacking cross-country. The people there were soooo nice and hospitable and the chile pistachio brittle was out of this world. It would be a great little rest stop. Can’t recall the name, Eagle Ranch maybe? Some of your photos really take me back (I saw a gorgeous lyre snake at that ruined house in your shots!), thanks for the reminder!

  • Cass Gilbert

    xx

  • Cass Gilbert

    I wonder what the future holds for Rio Grande Trail? I keep hearing bits and bobs about it, but nothing definite.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for that insight, Mark. Chile Pistachio Brittle sounds incredible!
    Heart of the Desert, Eagle Ranch, 4100 Dripping Springs Road seems to be the place you’re referring to.

  • Mark Troup

    I really liked that part of NM quite a lot. Kinda jealous that you get to enjoy it on a regular basis.

  • http://www.brianmcgloin.com/ Brian McGloin

    Another awesome adventure (and, oddly enough, it’s not the Baja Divide).
    And, it seems doable from Austin.

  • Rich M

    nice job on the route guys!

  • Ryan Sigsbey

    Where is most of the singletrack located on the route? Just wondering if the southern loop or the northern loop would be better if time was a factor. Thanks!

  • Matt M.

    The longest stretch of unbroken singletrack is the Sierra Vista trail on the southern loop. Northern loop has numerous shorter segments of singletrack mixed throughout. If limited for time I’d do the northern loop.

  • Ryan Sigsbey

    Thanks a bunch! Do you think 2.4’s would be ok for that section? Don’t mind a little walking….

  • Matt M.

    You’ll be fine with 2.4 in. tires.

  • Ryan Sigsbey

    I see the trail notes now! Good details there. Thanks!

  • http://www.thcbiketours.com THCBikeTours.com

    This is a great article. Excellent photos too!

  • Jamie Shaffer

    A friend and I rode a section of this trail a couple weeks ago. We left and ended from the doorstep of my house. The ride proved to be a great way to get a taste of the loop in one weekend. Be Sure to bring some warm socks, it gets cold out there at night.

  • Matt M.

    Be sure to bring the right phone number if you forgot your socks! This is a full service route, Wild Turkey and warm socks at the touch of a button.

    Maybe another section soon?

  • Jamie Shaffer

    Haha yes the trail side service is great, fresh socks and party supplies.

    Another section for sure but it may have to be in March due to school.

  • Douglas C. Hoffman

    Is it possible to get a gpx file of the route – a friend and I are planning to ride this in April

  • Douglas C. Hoffman

    Never mind – found it. Dumb newb. :-)

  • Matt M.

    We’ve been getting a decent amount of rain this winter so there should be lots of flowers this spring! Are you all planning to ride the entire route?

  • Douglas C. Hoffman

    Hi Matt – Thanks for the post. Yes, we would like to ride the whole thing sometime in mid to late April. Driving out from San Diego. My partner in crime has done some big bikepacking routes – this will be my first time out. Any additional advice you can give us would be welcome. We will be in bikes with 3 inch tires and be self supporting and camping. :-)

    PS: Thanks for mapping this out!

  • Matt M.

    I think we covered most of the needed info above but if you have specific questions I’d be happy to answer them. 3.0 tires are a great start. The obvious challenge is water but with some attention and planning you shouldn’t have any trouble. I may be riding the route in March and could give a better idea of exactly which cattle tanks contain water.

    Feel free to email me personally with questions at: mason101us@yahoo.com I’ve spent a lot of time on the route and love chatting about it.

  • joshhh

    hi everyone!

    I’m planning on doing this whole route with a friend who lives in Albuquerque (I’ll be flying in there from Ohio), and we need to get ourselves, bikes, and gear to the route and back to Albuquerque. I have a license and insurance, but we don’t have access to a car for the trip.

    It seems like the cheapest option is to rent a sedan (and hopefully fit our bikes and gear in) to drive to Las Cruces, and then rent a car to get back, at about $200 round trip including fees. Greyhound is an option but their fees for bringing a bike seem to be $30 per person, each way.

    Does anyone have any tips on a more affordable recommendation to get ourselves to and fro?

    Thanks! and thanks to Matt for the route info!

  • Cass Gilbert

    I’ve used the El Paso Limousine Express bus line a bunch of times between El Paso/ABQ/Santa Fe and Denver. Great service and free bikes. $56 round trip per person.

  • joshhh

    @cassgilbert:disqus holy cows! that is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping to get here. I cannot thank you enough! :)

    Do bikes need to be boxed?

  • Cass Gilbert

    And I forgot to tell you the best bit… they don’t need to be boxed!

    You might need to pop the wheels off. But in my experience of using this service a bunch of times, we’ve always made it work. Never harms to ring ahead and check, of course.

  • joshhh

    I’ll double check with them, but this bit of news is the cherry on top for sure.

    Thanks so much, Cass!

  • Dan Carter

    Information to get from El Paso to Las Cruces: the “Park and Ride” service operated by NM DoT runs a commuter bus every weekday from downtown El Paso to Las Cruces. It’s $3 and you can throw bikes underneath. It will drop you off at the University which is right on the route.

    The El Paso Limousine is a charter bus from El Paso to LA that stops in Las Cruces. You can take your bike on this bus as well. It is $13 one way and runs every day.

    One can catch public transit from the airport to downtown El Paso on the Sun Metro service. These buses provide bike racks.

    There are also these shuttle services from the El Paso airport to downtown and all the way to Las Cruces. Check out the shuttles page on the El Paso airport website.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Dan, this is great info. I’ll add it into the post.

    On a personal note, I’ve had great experience with both these bus services. No issues with the bikes at all. Note the small print for the Park and Ride Service in terms of holiday schedules. I got caught out last time!

  • Doug Nielsen

    Ok, I’ve passed many a cattle tank in my days… never drank from one though. I take it I’m the odd man out?

  • Seth Shepherd

    When are you planning on going? My buddy and I are heading down to do a section from ABQ next week as a test run for the Baja Divide. We’re only hitting it up for an overnighter but I’d be totally down to give you guys a lift one way at least.

  • Matt M.

    Which section do you plan on riding? Weather is supposed to be great next week.

  • Sergio

    I think I saw you two weeks ago in the Dona Ana mountains!

  • joshhh

    sorry I missed this! We’ll be there next week!

  • Nathan Lane

    Thanks for the great info on this route. I plan to do the loop in the start of March and think it’ll be easiest to just leave a bike box in El Paso, ride bike paths until reaching the Loop intersecting in Vinton and head clockwise from there. No need to take a bus/shuttle, and I can be riding within just a few hours whenever I fly into El Paso! That might not work for everyone, but it’s seems to me like the simplest logistics if flying in to do this ride.

  • Christopher Candia

    i have a simple road bike with somewhat beefy tires on them would that be alright for any part of this route? i took my bike on the Katy Trail in Missouri and it was hard dirt nothing too soft and my bike did fine. I know it isn’t the same terrain so that is why I ask. Thank you all for any and all info.

  • Matt M.

    Very little of the route would be rideable, or enjoyable, on even the beefiest road bike. The Southwest section (Segment 4) would be the most suitable. There are many miles of county roads in that area that would make shorter loops easy to plan.

    It is also possible to ride from El Paso, TX to Hatch, NM following a gravel levee along the Rio Grande River. This would be similar to riding the Katy Trail, think flat and scenic. You’d still have views of all the mountains on the Monumental Loop and short side trips would allow for undisturbed desert camping. Sounds good!

  • Matt M.

    That sounds like a great idea to me. You’ll get a nice downhill singletrack finish that way too!

    If riding from El Paso airport it might be possible to connect to singletrack at Chuck Heinrick park and from there go over Mundy’s Gap and north along the Franklin Mountains to Vinton. Check out the El Paso Puzzler Loop, you could include the east side of that on the way back to the airport. Just a thought, a steep and rocky thought.

    Enjoy!