New Mexico Off-Road Runner

  • Distance

    495 Mi.

    (797 KM)
  • Days

    10

  • % Unpaved

    75%

  • % Singletrack

    1%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    99%

  • Total Ascent

    24,800'

    (7,559 M)
  • High Point

    9,035'

    (2,754 M)
Running parallel to the Rio Grande, the New Mexico Off-Road Runner connects Santa Fe to Las Cruces via 500 miles of dirt, gravel, desert and paved roads. En route, it strikes a satisfying blend of historical intrigue and raw, natural beauty, both of which abound in the Land of Enchantment. Expect ponderosa forests and high desert, alligator junipers and prickly ocotillo, sun-bleached trucks and forlorn ghost towns.... set beneath the state's drama-filled skies and perfect starry nights.

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The New Mexico Off-Road Runner leaves the adobe-studded state capital of Santa Fe via the city’s car-free Rail Trail. Initially headed east, it begins its 500-mile journey along a lattice of primitive dirt roads that wend their way through peaceful piñon and juniper-speckled Rowe Mesa, a taste of classic high desert riding.

Hopscotching from the Santa Fe to the Cibola National Forest, the Off-Road Runner then scouts a path through ranchland to Moriarty, a chance for a bountiful resupply before the long desert stint ahead. From here, terrain flits between quiet paved roads and forest tracks through the foothills of the quiet, secluded Manzano Mountains, passing a collection of small, traditional, and quintessentially dishevelled New Mexican settlements. Sun-faded pickups, Hispanic churches, roadside shrines, and abandoned adobe buildings are part of the state’s backcountry charm.

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Hurdling Abo Pass, a long and meditative paved stint across Central New Mexico’s open desert points riders towards the west side of the Rio Grande, setting them up for a circumnavigational, dirt road tour of Pico Ladrón, which at 9209 (2800m) feet stands tall above the surrounding cholla-covered desert.

Those interested in local history should note that this small range of rugged peaks, the Sierra Ladrones, was once home to both Anglo and Hispanic cattle rustlers and Apache raiding parties. Hence the translation of its name: the Mountain of Thieves. By way of further historical intrigue, the Off-Road Runner passes by the once mineral rich mining settlement of Riley; look out for one especially interesting gravestone, marking an individual’s untimely demise during a nearby mailcoach robbery in the late 19th Century.

Beyond the historic, once thriving railhead town of Magdalena – visit the well-kept library, housed in a restored railway depot – anyone with a curiosity for deep space should detour to the Very Large Array, a radio astronomy observatory. There, a number of twenty-five metre high radio dishes rotate in perfect symmetry, standing dramatically against typically brooding skies, tirelessly probing the furthest reaches of our universe…

Changes in vegetation are clues to a return to higher elevations, as cholla cacti give way to piñon and junipers once more. From the windswept, beautifully bleak plains of San Agustin, the Off-Road Runner leaves the desert floor to climb high amongst the mighty ponderosas that line Bear Trap Canyon, reaching the highest point of the route at 9,000ft; if conditions are clear, a detour to Withington Lookout is recommended for fine views across the San Mateo Mountains and surrounding desert. After passing by natural springs and plentiful prime camping real estate, a forest road continues on towards the small settlement of Dusty. Further frontier history is in rich supply here too, if folklore is to be believed, for it’s in the neighbouring wilderness that the Apache Kid, the legendary renegade army scout, was said to have been hunted down and killed in 1894.

Dipping briefly into the Gila National Forest’s Black Range, the ponderosa motif continues en route to Chloride Canyon, home to series of spectacular, eroded rock formations, perfectly preserved petroglyphs, and toe-drenching stream crossings. As can be seen on the map, striking out to this most westerly point on the route makes for something of a detour. It’s one that adds the better part of a day to the ride and a stint on challenging, rocky terrain, as well as a small singletrack connector on the Continental Divide Trail – but it’s wholeheartedly recommended. If not, pop into Chloride to see well-preserved remnants of this former 19th-century mining settlement.

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The improbably titled Truth or Consequences – renamed in a nationwide competition after a 1950s quiz show – forms a welcome resupply point and chance to soak in hot springs, as frequented by Geronimo, the infamous Apache leader who fought Mexican and American expansion into tribal lands. There’s even a museum dedicated to him nearby. Then, the Off-Road Runner crosses the waters of the Rio Grande again. In doing so, it passes by Elephant Butte dam, opened in 1916 and named after its elephant-shaped island. Turning south, it’s time to follow a roughly chiselled powerline road, leading to the eastern fringes of the mellow Caballo Mountains range. Expect open desert terrain, chunky two-track, prickly ocotillo, and if you time your ride right, carpets of wildflowers come spring.

If you’ve yet to sample New Mexico’s classic condiment, then where better to do so than Hatch, the official Green Chile Capital of the World? Trust us, Sparky’s roadside dinner is unlikely to disappoint carnivorous bikepackers! Fill your belly in preparation for the last part of the ride.

Hatch also marks the meeting point of the Off-Road Runner and the Monumental Loop, a 305-mile route that connects all four sectors of the newly-designated Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Tracing its 60-mile northwestern segment, a series of gravel roads, sandy arroyos, and desert two track guides riders through the folds of the Robledos Mountains to their final destination, Las Cruces.

In keeping with Off-Road Runner’s historical theme, the journey comes to an end in Mesilla, Las Cruces’ photogenic old quarter. Grab some tacos/burrito/ice cream/all-of-the-above and kick back in the plaza that once boasted such illustrious figures as Pancho Villa, Billy the Kid, and Kit Carson amongst its eclectic visitors. Those who enjoy Wild West curios can finish the ride off with a visit to legendary lawman Pat Garrett’s gravestone, in the nearby Masonic Cemetary. Others can hop on the Mexican bus that runs north from whence they came. And anyone ensnared by the beauty and intrigue of the American South West can keep going… see Trail Notes for ideas on continuing on singletrack south to El Paso, Texas, on the border with Mexico.

Route Development

Putting together the New Mexico Off-Road Runner has been a collaborative project. Enormous thanks to Georges Mally at Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, whose local knowledge and love of Northern New Mexico is unparalled, to Gary Blakley for his ongoing company and initial route planning on the Conquistadores ride (without which this whole route may not have happened), to Brian Mulder for his enthusiastic beta testing, and Matt Mason for providing the last piece of the jigsaw where the route traces that of the Monumental Loop. As with all new long distance routes, details are subject to change and refinement. If you have ideas on how to improve it, please get in touch. And check the RWGPS file for the latest updates.

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Difficulty

The route has been awarded a 6. For the most part, it’s a straightforward ride. However, seasonal springtime winds can add significantly to its challenges, as can hot temperatures in the south of the state – depending on the month ridden. The riding itself is relatively fast going and non-technical. Dirt roads are generally in reasonable shape, save for some sandy or corrugated stretches around Pico Ladron. But always remember this is New Mexico, so expect a mixed bag and keep an eye out for rainfall, which turns dirt roads into quagmires. Sections through Chloride Canyon and a portion south of Truth or Consequences require a certain degree of mountain biking confidence. In places, front suspension and/or plus tires will certainly help. For the most part, the questionable pleasures of the hike-a-bike are saved for a couple of extended pushes through sandy arroyos south of Hatch. With early starts and breaks for photos/food, 50+ miles is a reasonable distance to cover per day for riders in good shape. Adjust accordingly if arriving with winter legs!

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Experiencing New Mexico’s magical light and its starry nights.
  • Discovering the subtle textures of the state via its Native American, Colonial, South West frontier and modern day history. The route is peppered with historical markers.
  • The variety of terrain and temperatures; from the cool and crisp high desert, to ponderosa forests, to the baking hot Chihuahuan desert.
  • Exploring Santa Fe, renowned for its adobe architecture, its fine cuisine,  the density of its art galleries… and its superb local trails.
  • Visiting the once thriving railhead town of Magdalena,  complete with 19th Century historic buildings and restored railyard depot, details of which can be found here.
  • Soaking in the springs at characterful Truth or Consequences… just as the Apache leader Geronimo once did.
  • New Mexico’s weathered charm… sun patina abounds!
  • Depending on the particular year – namely, when winter storms role in and their severity – this route can be ridden from late fall (early/mid October) to spring (mid/late April). Typically, mid-winter isn’t recommended unless it’s a mild, clear one. Even on the shoulder seasons, be prepared for sub-freezing temps during cold snaps in the high desert and check for snowfall between Santa Fe and Magdalena. The Chloride loop is another area to be wary of after recent snowfall – ride directly from Dusty to Winston if need to be. Late fall (great colours) and early spring (flowering cacti) promise the best window for the route, as long as you don’t mind some blustery winds. By the end of April, the Chichuhuan desert risks becoming sizzling hot.

  • Generally speaking, prevailing winds come out of the South West, making a northerly direction preferable. These can be considerably more intense during the spring, where gusts of 50mph are not uncommon. This said, we rode south in late March and had favourable winds for the majority of the time… so you never can tell…

  • The route can be ridden north to south or south to north. The former includes a net loss of altitude. Theoretically, the latter has more favourable prevailing winds (see above) but the long climb through Chloride Canyon will be more challenging.
  • After rainfall, many desert roads become completely unrideable. For the most part, they dry quickly after a few hours baking in the sun.

  • Scorpion, snakes and other critters aren’t a major issue on the more southerly stretches of the route, but they do exist. A fully enclosed tent isn’t required but may be good for peace of mind.

  • Although much of this route is made up of good quality dirt, gravel, and paved roads, there is enough rough/sandy/corrugated terrain to make a gravel/adventure bike unsuitable for the ride. A standard 29er will be sufficient; expect to push through the arroyos south of Hatch. 2.6-3in tires, though only a necessity occasionally, make a great tire choice for backcountry New Mexico and will certainly be welcome at times.  Suspension is not a necessity but will no doubt be beneficial to some.
  • Tubeless tires and repair kits are recommended, due to the profusion of goatheads that speckle the roadside. Take care when pulling to the side of a road or trail as this is where they lurk.
  • 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.
  • Santa Fe can be easily reached by public transport from Albuquerque via the Rail Runner, the bike-friendly commuter train.
  • To return home, the El Paso Limousine Express has a morning service that runs from El Paso/Las Cruces to Albuquerque ($30) and takes unboxed bikes subject to space. It continues to Santa Fe and Denver for $65. To save cash, get off at ABQ and ride to the Railrunner station, connecting with one of the afternoon trains ($9). If doing so, the Mexican restaurant El Modelo, a local institution, makes a great spot for lunch en route (see map).
  • Need to rest sore muscles? The Charles Motel and Spa in Truth or Consequences charges $5 to soak in a hot mineral water tub. 113 degrees of ‘aaahhhhhhhhh’.
  • Be sure to stop to read all the excellent info panels along the way to help gain a real sense of history that imbues the Land of Enchantment.
  • There are several good bike shops in Santa Fe, including the bikepacking-friendly Broken Spoke (stockists of Oveja Negra and Revelate) and Mellow Velo, both of whom offer rental bikes. Santa Fe also has an REI. In Las Cruces, Outdoor Adventures is well versed in the ways of bikepackers too.
  • If possible, allow a day or two extra to ride some of Santa Fe’s truly excellent trail network, much of which is rideable from the plaza – Chamisa, Sidewinder, Galisteo Basin Preserve, La Tierra, and Dale Ball are local favourites that are often clear by spring.
  • The route connects several swatches of National Forest, making camping relatively straightforward if riding 50-60 mile days. Otherwise, stealth camping can be carried out on areas of unfenced land.
  • Most of the larger resupply points are also offer usual motel offerings.
  • Water is relatively easily available (see map) but carry 3-6 litres at all times, depending on the season, in case any springs or cattle tanks are dry.
  • Expect well-stocked grocery stores in all towns except for Magdalena, which only has a Dollar Store and a gas station. Cooked food is available at all resupply points. Santa Fe has a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s close to the route.
  • Recommended, bike-friendly places to eat in Santa Fe include the Tune Up Cafe and Counter Culture, both of which are just off route. El Chile Toreado, en route, has great street tacos. Ikonik is a good hangout for coffee addicts.
  • Recommended places to eat in Las Cruces include Habaneros Fresh Mex and Milagro Coffee and Expresso. Bosque Brewing Co is another popular local haunt.

Want more singletrack?

The route plugs into the Monumental Loop for the last segment from Hatch. We’ve routed it via the west side of the Rio Grand/I25, which is more in keeping with the nature of the ride. But if you prefer more desert singletrack, consider taking the eastern side of the Monumental Loop instead (via the Donas Anas). If you do this, you’ll definitely see the benefits of a Plus or front-suspension mountain bike.

Want more riding?

The Off-Road Runner can be extended all the way to downtown El Paso, via the Sierra Vista Trail (as used by the Monumental Loop) and the rocky, technical trail network that courses through the Franklin Mountains. Check back for details soon.

Variations on a theme

If beginning in Albuquerque (or short on time), catch the train to Belen, then ride county roads to Bernardo to connect with the route at the Kiva RV Park. Or take the RTD bus to Moriarty.

Additional Resources

  • Read Brian’s most excellent account of the Off Road Runner here.

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.

  • Dan Carter

    Well done Cass! I look forward to riding it soon.

  • Only one taco photo? Taco photos are why us folk up north dream of down south… ;)

  • Cass Gilbert

    I do have an nice one of some huevos rancheros I could add in…

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Dan. Feedback and improvements are always welcome!

  • Chris Leydig

    Nice route, and great photos as always. How you liking that new Swift front bag? Looks sweet!

  • Cass Gilbert

    It’s been great, perfect for stowing a camera safely and easy to remove from the bike. I use a Surly Loop Junk Strap to keep it extra secure over the roughstuff, as some of the riding I do with it is probably beyond its design mandate!

  • Zach

    Nice route and write up as always, Cass. I really enjoy your work on this site, especially your photos. It seems like you’re a great advocate for bikepacking and are putting in a ton of work to developing routes. This is much appreciated by all of us.

    Now if there was a way to link the AZT, CT and this route into a loop…

  • Jake Kruse

    Very cool to see all the details on this. Putting this on the list for the fall. Thanks for another great looking route.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for the kind words Zach.

    I have some friends who rode from Las Cruces to the AZT…

    And I have another route in mind to connect the Durango to Santa Fe… so watch this space!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hope you enjoy it! So you don’t cook to a crisp south of T or C, late fall/early winter could work well.

  • Scooterbug Likes Bikes

    How do you do it? I recently planned what I thought would be a great 3 day route around Kiowa National Grasslands with a friend, and other than Mills Canyon we hit more no trespasssing signs and fences than i care to mention. For some reason RWGPS let me route on private land. We still had a great time but ended up riding a lot more pavement than expected.
    And for anyone questioning those spring winds, let me tell you, they are no joke. We spent 4&1/2 hours going 20 miles in what seemed like steady 50 mph headwinds. Absolutely unrelenting.

  • Mark Troup

    I love the abandoned highway pic with nature slowly reclaiming the road. I call those “Mad Max” roads. Here in PA we have an abandoned stretch of turnpike that is now used by bikers and hikers. It can be seen in the movie The Road”. It’s just a quick 12 miles or so, but well positioned to link up with the flowy trails around Raystown.

    Looking to relocate in a couple years, and NM just looks better and better to me every time I see it.

  • Dan Carter

    Yes, there is a way! We’ve ridden from Las Cruces to the AZT, mostly on dirt and gravel. Bikepacking Roots has a new route to connect the AZT to the CT, via southern Utah.

  • Gary Blakley

    Great job, again, Cass. I would add, after having ridden much of the route on a 29er and almost all the route on 27.5+, I’d definitely go for the plus bike, given the choice. I’d venture to say it’s not as mellow of a ride as the photos might suggest. Don’t even consider a gravel bike.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I don’t know that New Mexican nook. I need to check it out!

    I’m not sure about RWGPS, but Google has a tendency to route cyclists through private land. Have you tried the desktop route planner CalTopo? That has a useful land use layer. So does the phone app Gaia.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Funnily enough I had that same… the year is 2020 and the earth has been scorched to cinder by mankind, only posses of fat bikers roam the badlands… kind of thought!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Gary!

    I agree. Riding in New Mexico can be such a mixed bag… arroyos, corrugation, abandoned roads…. which makes the terrain so well suited to Plus bikes. Or at least wide rims and generous tires. Personally, I find a 27.5 x3in tire rolls just fine on pavement too.

  • Scooterbug Likes Bikes

    CalTopo I’ll check it out for sure. Love your sugestions on public and alternative transport as well.
    As for Kiowa it is very much a nook, certainly a beautiful one, nonetheless, I’d be interested to see if you could crack that puzzle into something grander than I was able to.
    https://www.instagram.com/p/BSWuMx-gtv2/

  • I’ve used CalTopo for years and never noticed that overlays section. Awesome!

  • Ian

    Can this route be done from both directions?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Yes, it can. I’ve included a couple of sentences with the pros and cons, as well as prevailing wind directions, in the Need To Know Section.

  • Nathan Fenchak

    Assuming one felt fine dealing with the cold, how doable would this be in late November or December?

    Looking at historical temperature and snowfall data in Santa Fe, it seems that December might be too snowy on the northern parts of the route.

    Would starting from Albuquerque headed south be more reasonable, or would it not make much of a difference?

  • Cass Gilbert

    I’ve written up some pretty detailed comments on weather in the Know How section – that may help.The short answer is that it depends on the year and when/how much snow hits.

    Starting in ABQ won’t make a great deal of difference as the highest point of the route is on Bear Trap Canyon Road – though it’s further south, so theoretically might be a little clearer. As I mention above, you could always detour and run the VLA road instead which tyas lower in altitude. I’ve ridden that road in February and it was clear but cold – starting in Belen, having taken the Roadrunner south from ABQ.

  • Nick Winowich

    Great job Cass! I’ve ridden little bits of it, looking forward to riding more. Its really cool how you can identify the general location from the photo, the geography really is as diverse as you describe. I’ve never been on the Jornada del Muerto, only read about it; doesn’t this route follow it some?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Nick.

    I don’t believe this route follows the Jornada del Muerto – I expect it’s on the western side of the Caballos. I’ve followed the remnants of that route north though, now squeezed between White Sands Missile Range and one of Ted Turner’s buffalo ranches…

  • Ben

    Hey Cass, this is great – what camera did you shoot it on?

  • Cass Gilbert

    My trusty Canon 5D. Not the lightest setup in the world but great image quality.

  • Matthias Kace

    Hi Cass, I have never bikepacked before and I wanted to try this trail. How is it for a first timer?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Without knowing more about how much you ride, it’s hard to say! It’s not a technically difficult ride by any means. But there’s some big, open stretches that can be tough if the wind isn’t in your favour. Have a look at the ‘Difficulty’ box out to see what the challenges are.

  • Abe

    My bike is a Soma Wolverine with 2.1 inch tires, I’m thinking about starting near Albuquerque since my time is limited and heading south. Does this bike fall into your “Unsuitable gravel/adventure bike” category? If it would be an alright steed, which section would be toughest on it? Thanks in advance, I live in Northern Canada and am excited to see the desert for the first time!