Valles Caldera Supervolcano Explorer, New Mexico

  • Distance

    121 Mi.

    (195 KM)
  • Days

    3

  • % Unpaved

    90%

  • % Singletrack

    3%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    100%

  • Total Ascent

    12,624'

    (3,848 M)
  • High Point

    10,325'

    (3,147 M)
Lying within the beautiful, unassuming folds of the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico's very own supervolcano has recently been opened to year-round bicycle access. The Valles Caldera Explorer serves as a meandering introduction to the area - by way of dirt roads, hot springs and trout fishing - using public transport from Santa Fe and Los Alamos as its bookends.
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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.

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • 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.
  • Note that this route is 100% legal. There’s some uncertainty as to where exactly the park can be accessed by cyclists other than the points used. In the future, it may well be that there are more opportunities available – eg at mile marker 70/93.
  • 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. It’s likely the parts of the ride that reach higher elevations are likely not clear until late April/mid May; lower sections may well be clear earlier than that, depending on the year.
  • Although a mountain bike is recommended given some of the rougher stretches and the Los Alamos trails, this ride can be tackled comfortably on a bike with 40-45mm tires. 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.

 

Additional Resources

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.

  • Sascha

    Great pictures as always Cass!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Sascha!

  • Hugh

    Thank you for this route, I’ve been looking into the Caldera area and this really gets the ideas going. I normally pack on my fatbike, and was wondering if the Park and Ride bus from Los Alamos can take bikes with larger tires? All of our local buses (Albuquerque) can only take up to a 2.2 or so tire width.

  • Kevin Warner

    Hi Cass. Looking forward to riding this in the next couple weeks. I have an Specialized AWOL. Would this bike be fine for this route? I was going to swap out the Trigger Sport tires for something a little beefier. Thanks!

  • Phanzy Phan

    Great write-up Cass. A few questions. What gps device did you use to navigate? Did you have to hang your food? Also, what kind of rod/fly type did you pack with you? Thanks!

  • Kevin Warner

    Hi Phanzy, I am planning a trip soon – can’t answer your GPS question, but I am brining my 4 weight 3 piece rod. It breaks down nice enough to strap on my front harness, or can even attach to the frame. Make sure you get barbless flies, or just use pliers to crimp the barbs down. I think nymphs of various kinds would work. I would expect the trout to be pretty small. I am hoping the water is fishable this time of year. Not sure about hanging food. Probably black bear country, but not sure what kind of population there is, so it might not be an issue. Of course, critters might also get into food bag.

  • Phanzy Phan

    Thanks Kevin! Reply back with your trip experience.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I’ve found I can fit my Plus bike, with the tires deflated a bit, 3in tire, on the NM buses that have racks. But luckily the bus from Los Alamos to Santa Fe is the big kind – so there’s loads of room in the bays underneath the seats for any bike you choose to ride!

  • Cass Gilbert

    As always, backcountry NM riding can be a mixed bag. I’d say an AWOL would be just fine, especially with beefier tires. There’s a few rocky sections where I enjoyed having straight bars and Plus tires, but much of the route may well be quicker with narrower tires.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I use my iPhone to navigate, with the Gaia App. It’s my go-to setup, especially for non-technical/singletrack rides. In New Mexico, I tend to stash my food in my framebag rather than hanging it… but in theory, it’s always a good idea to bring some paracord and a bag to keep critters at bay. I used a mini Teton rod from the Tenkara Rod Company. But I’m very new to this, so I’m not expert in any way!

  • Kevin Warner

    Thanks Cass. I am going to have my Epic with me as well for some single track riding in the Santa Fe / Taos area, so I could ride that. I just was thinking unless there was a lot of sand or really tech areas, the AWOL might be a good choice. Problem with my Epic is that I cannot carry as much on the bike (no frame bag and small seat pack). I am not worried about speed per se. If there are some fun trails where my MTB would be better, I might lean toward that.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I’m inclined to think the AWOL is the better option. Apart from the odd stretch of trail and bouldery forest roads, most of the ride is dirt/gravel/primitive doubletrack. The only argument for the Epic would be to drop some gear in Los Alamos and spend more time exploring the local trails. They really are top notch – some of my favourite mountain biking in the area.

  • Kevin Warner

    Thanks for the suggestion. Best of both worlds. I will do the route on the AWOL and come back a few days later with the Epic to Los Alamos and ride the local trails (I will be in SF area for a couple weeks). Thanks again for the advice and great write ups on these routes!

  • Charles Bumgardner

    overnighting not allowed? camping or riding or all of the above for the trip? A bit confused.. Thanks

  • Charles Bumgardner

    Also, any recommendations on parking a car if we are coming from out of town? Talked to LBS and they said they didnt have anywhere to recommend. Thanks

  • Sorry, my knowledge of free/safe car parking spots in Santa Fe is lacking, as I don’t have a car myself. Did you try asking the guys at the Broken Spoke? I’d have thought they’d have some ideas.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Sorry, my knowledge of free/safe car parking spots in Santa Fe is lacking, as I don’t have a car myself. Did you try asking the guys at the Broken Spoke? I’d have thought they’d have some ideas.

  • Cass Gilbert

    There’s no overnight camping in the Caldera. But you can camp anywhere in the national forest.

  • Cass Gilbert

    PS see camping symbols on the map for ideas. Or check out the possible itinerary in Trail Notes.

  • Patrick

    I rode that region last summer from Cuba to Los Alamos using NM public transportation. I was excited to visit the back country of the caldera. Pristine country. Thanks for the NM spotlight.

  • Ryan Klucker

    Hey Cass,
    I am trying to make sense of turning this route into an overnighter, but camping outside of the park. That “unofficial” remote access gate listed around mile 92. Would there be a legal spot to camp right around the gate? I am trying to bounce your map off of the official map of Calles Caldera, and it is a bit confusing trying to verify if I could legally camp around this miler marker?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Ryan,

    There’s a bunch of great spots close to the gate. In fact, it wouldn’t be a long detour to pop down to my suggested camp spot, which gets early light and has a nice backdrop. But really, you’re spoilt for choice along the San Antonio Creek.

    When I asked the attendants at the office where the legal entry and exit points were for cyclists, their answer was vague at best. With the park being so new, it seems no one really knows the exact details. So in an effort to keep this route 100% legal, I didn’t include it as an entry point. It could well be that it’s fine – certainly, it’s a low gate to get your bike across, mainly to stop vehicular access. My guess is that as long as you’ve paid your entry fee (or have a parks permit), it’s completely fine.

    Let me know how you get on,

    Cass.

  • Daniel Jackson

    Hi Cass,

    Is this area snowbound in mid March?

    Thanks,
    Daniel

  • Cass Gilbert

    Depending on the winter, I’d say the area might not be clear until mid May. The elevation is pretty high in places.

  • Conner

    This route looks amazing. You think it would be doable on a cross check with 41mm tires?

  • Hi Cass-
    Do you think the first part of this route, from Kewa up to Hwy 4, would be dry by now? Thinking about using that part and returning to SF on the Caja del Rio route for a 3 day/2 night ride.

    Thanks,
    Todd

  • Cass Gilbert

    Kewa to Highway 4 should be clear, I think. Just bear in mind the La Bajada descent/climb has been closed by the Cochiti Pueblo. I don’t know any more details than this… whether it’s a permanent closure or temporary. Best to drop them a line.

    Enjoy!

  • Thanks, we’re planning on taking the train to Kewa to start. Didn’t know about the La Bajada trail, looks like a good loop option if open!

  • Cass Gilbert

    How are you connecting the Caldera to the Caja?

  • There are a couple of roads that connect 502 to the upper part of Buckman Rd. The most promising one goes thru a wash just after crossing the river. It looks like BLM and Reservation land, not sure if its open/accessible. If not then probably just pavement back to SF.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Unfortunately, I believe all these routes cut across reservation land; La Bajada is (or rather was) the only permitted road. Please let me know otherwise!

  • Alex Pj Morgan

    No issues riding the indian service road 85 at the beginning? i am coming from Bernallilo and want to hit as much dirt as possible. Are all Indian service roads ok to your knowledge?

  • Cass Gilbert

    As far as I know, this one is fine to ride. But note that it’s paved rather than dirt.

  • mat long

    At this time 6/17 they are not selling passes, so the route can be ridden either way.

  • Jamie Shaffer

    Hey, some friends and I are thinking about doing this ride the second week of August. Will it be too hot to ride that time of year or is it cooler around this area?

  • Cass Gilbert

    It will be piping hot for the first section of the ride from Kewa and cool off as you climb up St Peters Dome (bring lots of water and start early in the morning). Everywhere else will be about right, I’d say – luckily, there’s plenty of places for water in the Caldera.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Good to know, thanks! I guess it’s always worth giving the office a ring to confirm that’s still the case.

  • Nic_Turiciano

    Were you filtering and drinking water from the streams within and surrounding the preserve? I just talked to someone in the visitor’s center, and they informed me the water isn’t potable even with filtration + boiling due to the amount of animal activity. Kind of throws a wrench in this route for me…