Valles Caldera Supervolcano Explorer, New Mexico
While Out Riding
Situated to the north-west of Santa Fe and a train ride away from Albuquerque, the Jemez mountains is a bikepacking idyll crammed with backcountry dirt road possibilities – and fishing potential too, for anyone who packs a rod in their framebag.
This exploratory route uses the Railrunner train service to Kewa Pueblo, accessing the Valles Caldera via St Peter’s Dome Road near Cochiti Lake, home to one of the largest earthen fill dams in the US. A long, unpaved climb, St Peter’s Dome Road promises increasingly impressive views of the Jemez rising up from the surrounding desert, set to the blackened, skeletal remains of a fire that swept across its south-eastern flank.
Once within the Valles Caldera – a volcanic depression that extends some 14 miles in width – a series of rolling, primitive roads await. Largely closed to motorized traffic, they wend their way through forests of ponderosa and across lush and verdant meadows. Exiting the preserve via Sulphur Springs Road for a quick resupply in La Cueva, the route then climbs back up to the terraced pools of blissful San Antonio Hot Springs, via a beguiling slice of backcountry singletrack. There, excellent trout fishing and prime camping real estate beckon – appropriately set to tent rock sculptures – just a mile or two further up the creek.
Muscles relaxed and bellies (hopefully) full, the faintest of creekside singletrack tempts riders onwards. The end of an abandoned double track preludes a stiff climb that feeds into the more established Forest Road 44, briefly overlapping with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. As tempting as it is to continue to Abiquiu and ever northwards, the highest part of this ride, at over 10,300ft, also marks the re-entry point back into the preserve. This north-western corner of the Valles Caldera is particularly remote and appealing; a tangle of overgrown jeep tracks and singletrack meander through corridors of aspens, with views far across the grassy meadows of the plateau below.
Back at San Antonio Creek, it’s time to cross the gently undulating depression from west to east, now on the main gravel thoroughfare. Leaving the preserve – keep a lookout for chunks of jet black obsidian as you ride – a rough dirt road curls steeply up towards La Pajerito Mountain Ski Area. From there, the route plugs into Los Alamos’ local trail network for a thrilling singletrack descent back into town.
Given how recently the area has become a National Preserve, there is some confusion as to where the Valles Caldera can be officially accessed, and by whom. This route uses points marked on the map provided by the main office. It’s possible other points can be used in the near future, which will add more options to the route. See Trail Notes for details and other route ideas.
121 Mi.(195 KM)
% Rideable (time)
- Must Know
- Trail Notes
- Experiencing the beautiful expanse of the volcanic depression, dotted with islands of forest between grassy meadows.
- Bathing in the San Antonio hot springs – clothing optional.
- New Mexican starry nights – they never disappoint.
- Catching a trout for dinner, if fishing is your thing.
- Sublime camping everywhere!
- Leaving the car at home and making use of New Mexico’s excellent public transport system – though you’ll need to figure out timings.
- Unless you have a National Parks pass, you’ll need to stop by the main office for a ticket ($10), which means you’ll have to do the ride in the suggested direction. Although it is valid for 7 days, note that no overnighting is allowed. The Preserve can only be accessed between 8am and 8pm.
- Public transportation options only run from Los Alamos to Santa Fe during the week. Give the regional transportation office a ring, as the timetable is confusing. Buses tend to leave Los Alamos very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so you’ll need to factor this into your route planning. There’s plenty of room for several bikes.
- The Railrunner timetable can be found here. Note that Saturdays and Sundays are different. No problem for bikes.
- The public trail access to San Antonio Hot Springs passes through private land. Please stay on the trail and respect private property.
- Fall is one of the best times to ride in New Mexico. The monsoon season has passed and the aspens are turning. On the whole, the dirt roads in the Jemez Mountains drain relatively well, unlike the lower elevation desert, which should be avoided at all costs after rainfall. The area is snowbound in winter.
- Although a mountain bike is recommended, this ride can be tackled comfortably on a bike with 40-45mm tires – bar a few rocky stretches. There is a substantial amount of climbing, so ensure you have a broad range of gears. If you want to avoid the Los Alamos trail network, simply continue towards La Pajarito ski station when exiting the Caldera, and connecting with pavement there.
Outside of the Preserve, camping is never an issue. Most of this route passes through National Forest.
- Water abounds in the Jemez. The only stretch that tends to be dry is from mile marker 70 to 95.
- La Cueva offers a good resupply point.
- The gas station at Cochiti, near the start of the ride, has cooked food.
Given that the park must be exited by 8pm, you can either catch an early train to Kewa, climb St Peter’s Dome road, cross the park and camp near San Antonio hot spring in one day, or split it into two more leisurely days, depending on weather/pace/fishing interests.
The relatively inaccurate map provided by the Valles Caldera main office shows a limited amount of remote access points. Even at the office, definitive information was vague at best. This route uses ‘legal’ access points and requires no fence hopping. However, there is a convenient gate at the far west of the Caldera (marked on the map below), which would save dropping down to La Cueva. Check at the office for an update as to the official state of this entry and exit point. This said, the climb back up to San Antonio is a very enjoyable one, and La Cueva provides a good opportunity for a resupply.
Similarly, there are other points where FR44 connects with the northern reaches of the Caldera. This route uses the access point marked on the map.
If using public transport, a possible itinerary could be as follows: Catch a late afternoon train to Kewa on Friday evening, cycle to Cochiti Reservoir and camp further up St Peter’s Dome road for the night. With an early start, climb up and over to the Caldera, and onwards to St Antonio Hot Springs for a soak. Spend the morning fishing/soaking, then continue onwards, camping further along FR44 (bring water). The following morning, cross the Caldera once more and follow trails into Los Alamos for the afternoon bus. Otherwise, ride from St Antonio Creek all the way to Los Alamos’ trails, pitching your tent just outside the city limits, breaking camp early for the morning bus into Santa Fe.