New Mexico Off-Road Runner
505 Mi.(813 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
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.
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.
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 levy roads, gravel roads 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.
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.
The route has been awarded a 6. For the most part, it’s a very straightforward ride in terms of the terrain. 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. 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 and remember, the days are short!
- 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), though remember the days will sometimes be short, so you’ll need to get riding early. Typically, mid-winter isn’t recommended unless it’s a mild, clear one (the first snows tend to hit soon after Thanksgiving but don’t tend to stick). 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 Bear Trap Canyon – ask around in Magdalena if in doubt and see Trail Notes for a possible reroute if required. 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.
- Note that even if the winter in New Mexico is less harsh than you’re used to… the daylight hours can be just as short. In November, December and January, sunrise is close to 6 AM and sunset close to 5 PM. Bring a book for those long nights in the tent!
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.
- Best bike: All in all, a standard 29er is likely your best weapon of choice, though a bike with 2.6-3in tires also makes a great choice for backcountry New Mexico, given the variety of conditions. Suspension is not a necessity but will no doubt be beneficial to some. 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 it challenging in several places for a gravel or ‘adventure’ bike. But if that’s the bike you’re on, fit the largest volume tires you can, consider skipping the lovely Chloride loop (riding directly to Winston), and be prepared for a few lumpy sections through Rowe Mesa, some sand/corrugation around Pico Ladron, and a rough dirt stretch immediately south of Truth or Consequences too.
- 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 4-6 litres at all times, depending on the season, in case any springs or cattle tanks are dry. Bring a means to purify suspect water.
- Expect well-stocked grocery stores in all towns except for Magdalena (see POIs on map), 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. And the 2nd Street Brewery (both in the Railyard and along the bike path) is the spot to go to sample Santa Fe’s craft beer selection.
- Recommended places to eat in Las Cruces include Habaneros Fresh Mex and Milagro Coffee and Expresso. Bosque Brewing Co is another popular local haunt.
If there’s been recent snowfall, consider detouring around Bear Trap Canyon, the highest point of the ride, as per the the Apaches and Conquistadores route.
Want more singletrack?
The route plugs into a variation of 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 – fast dirt roads. 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. See the Danger Bird 350 for more ideas.
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 (see the Apaches and Conquistadores route). Otherwise, take the RTD bus to Moriarty and start from there.
- Read Brian’s most excellent account of the New Mexico Off Road Runner here.
- Jeff Bartlett rode the route in late November 2017 and wrote up another great account, which includes detailed, day by day impressions of the ride and his packlist. Read it here.