Lost and Found: bikepacking around Hermit’s Peak, NM.

Not all trips go quite to plan. In fact, not all trips even have a plan…

Last weekend, I delved into Santa Fe National Forest, home to the crumpled folds of the Sangre de Cristo mountains – Spanish for ‘Blood of Christ’, so named for their red hue come sunrise and sunset. In fact, the Sangre de Cristos form the southernmost subrange of the Rockies, stretching some 250 miles from Santa Fe to Salida, up in Colorado – which is where I’d first encountered them.

My companions were two long term Santa Fean residents: bikepacking eccentric Tim – I say this in the most endearing way – and aspiring Tour Divide racer Joanne. Having driven out to Las Vegas (New Mexico that is, not Nevada) over on the eastern side of the forest, our plan was to ride back west to Santa Fe. Or maybe we’d make a loop north round Mora. Or perhaps even strike out towards Taos…

In any event, there’s nothing like getting completely, hopelessly lost for a refreshing sense of unabated exploration. It’s a good reminder too that at times it’s ok to forget the destination, and simply enjoy the moment. Even if it’s not the moment you had in mind…

Despite several valiant attempts at formulating a plan, by the time we’d unloaded our bikes, we were more focused on getting riding than worrying about details like direction. When the roads are as scenic and quiet as they are in northern New Mexico, sometimes it’s hard to stop moving…


Pavement gave way to dirt, as we followed a gently undulating road beside the Sapello River westwards. Things were looking good… until it dead ended in a private ranch. That night we pitched tent beside a grove of wintery aspens. 

Part of the enjoyment of camping with new friends is the chance to nerd out on gear choice. This is Santa Fean Tim with his titanium Vargo Hexagon wood stove, after a frosty night under the stars. This stove tips the scales at a paltry 4.1oz (116g). Abundant twigs and leaves provide the fuel. 


We tried to follow a singletrack from our campsite, in the hope it would link us with trails on the western side of ridge. But it proved more hike than bike, so we opted to retrace our tyre tracks and look for a more rideable exit strategy. Did I mentioned we had a GPS? Unfortunately we left it in the car… 

Luckily Tim had printed out detailed 1:20 000 topo maps. Unlikely, they didn’t quite cover where we were heading…

Furthermore, our attempts to head north were foiled by a boundary of impregnable private land, despite public access indications on our map. So we settled on skirting round to the south towards Las Dispensias and Mineral Hull, via a well-packed gravel track that climbed once more into the forest.


Soon, we were picking our way along a rutted dirt as we closed in on Hermit Peak, a jagged granite monolith that marks the extreme southern end of the Rockies. 


The cemetery here claimed to be established in 1985… but it looked more like it dated back to 1885. 


The trail between Las Dispensas and El Porvenir was unkept, overgrown.. and suited our tastes quite perfectly. South West USA – and New Mexico in particular – is blessed with an enviable network of forest service roads that all but guarantee traffic-free riding.


Trailside tweaking. Joanne is prepping her rig for racing, so was using the trip as a chance to hone gear choices. 

Here she is stretching out her muscled legs, shaped by many miles of riding and racing around the world – including with the US national team in the Pan American Championships in Cuba. More racehead than rambler, she was riding a custom carbon Crumpton cyclocross bike and left us in the dust on pavement. But her skinny tyres struggled more than our plump 29ers when the going got rough.


A nosy llama in the meadows below Hermit Peak.


Scoping out a suitable spot for our second night’s camping. 


We stopped early to enjoy the afternoon sun from our vantage point above Mineral Hill. 

What’s on the menu? For me, it was Trader Joe’s brown rice and ready-made chana masala. Quick ‘n easy. Good ‘n wholesome. Camping food for just a few dollars. 

I’m rarely without my tub of peanut butter and a ‘honey bear’ to sustain me during the day. But in a ploy to shed weight, I’d transferred a few helpings into smaller Nalgene containers, more appropriate for miniature adventures. They were joined by Tim’s secret energy boost formula: pure coconut oil. Coconut oil contains tryglycerides, which unlike other saturated fats, are burned immediately rather than being stored in the body. It also has healthy, fatty acids and all kinds of nutritional benefits – it’s good for skin, hair and the heart. 

Similarly, to shave valuable grams from my packlist, I’d taken advantage of a clear forecast and borrowed this 11oz (311g) 6 Moon Designs Gatewood Cape Tarp. It also transforms into a rather unfashionable (but eminently practical) poncho. More on this nifty little tarp later…


The next morning, Joanne peeled off east to put in some road miles and return to her car, while we pressed on with our freeform adventure, Santa Fe in our distant sights. Hermit Peak – originally known by early Spanish settlers as El Cerro Del Tecalote, or the hill of the owl – loomed impressively behind us. In the 1860s, an Italian missionary made his home in a cave below there, trading carved crucifixes for food.

The village of San Geronimo reminded me of an aldea in backcountry Northern Mexico.


It seemed to be comprised of little more than a collection of dishelled houses, a weather-cracked church and a few rusty pickup truck fading in the sun.

From San Pablo, we unearthed a trail that worked its way up slabs and steps of bedrock, back into the Santa Fe National Forest.

It’s not always easy to discern what is a public right of way, and what might drive a gun-slinging rancher to arms… Unfortunately, it seems that many of the roads that historically provided public access to the National Forest now fall in private land. 


Finally we emerged onto a ridge, home to fingers of rutted trails that pointed in every which  direction. Unfortunately, any efforts made to strike west towards Barillas Peak were met with improbably steep grades, disappearing trails and intense hike n’ bikes. 


Another (scenic) dead end…


The mighty ponderosa.


And a miniature barrel cacti, a little out of place amongst the pine needles.

Finally, after an inspired, freeform bushwack (via dry creek beds and chicanes of pine trees) we emerged into the open sunlight of a beautiful meadow, marked with crumbling, red stone ruins. Bikepacking: takes you to places other tours cannot reach…

And the steeds that got us here. My Surly, dressed in Porcelain Rocket gear, and Tim’s dropped-barred Raleigh, adorned with Revelate garb. 

Tim was running both Anything Cages on his Reba suspension forks and water bottles. Another novel invention included running an upside-down aero bar, hoseclamped round the headtube to support a roll bag, rather than hanging weight of the handlebars.

From here on – given that we were well and truly off the pages of our map – we kept to the main thoroughfare and resisted the urge to explore further. Even it meant undoing the work we’d done all day, as we swung round back to whence we came… 


Classic New Mexico triptych. One…



And three…


Finally we emerged onto the fringes of the I-25, just a handful of miles from Las Vegas, and many more from Santa Fe. Not quite as planned… Still, even dining by the stained forecourt of the gas station couldn’t take away from a superb weekend of camping, riding… and the unexpected discoveries of getting lost. 

Thanks to Joanne for driving us out to Las Vegas and joining in the adventure, and Tim for his sheer enthusiasm for bikepacking in New Mexico… and his inimitable style of journey planning (-:

13 thoughts on “Lost and Found: bikepacking around Hermit’s Peak, NM.

  1. Gary Blakley

    Cass, let’s hope you find your way a bit better on your next adventure! 🙂 I won’t let you forget your GPS.

    Tim and Joanne may be people I knew back in the late 1980’s and early 90’s in NM. My memory isn’t great these days but it seems Joanne taught yoga and they may have been at a few trail runs I did as well as mountain bike races. Is this the same couple?

  2. While Out Riding Post author

    Hey Gary, it may well be. Joanne teaches yoga and has been practising shiatsu for maybe 20 years.

    And, although I point no fingers, it wasn’t my GPS that was left in the car (mine was safely tucked away at home, as equally useful as that is…).

  3. Susie Moberly

    Great to be on line and see your latest post… as well as reviving my own memories of camping around Santa Fe. Great photos as usual and always inspired by them all! (I’ve just returned from a month on an unspoilt (yes, true) part of Samui where I escaped the Chiang Mai pollution (yes, the rice burning was hell this year) I took my dog, Lily, who swam with me every day… X

  4. Connie Fisher

    Delightful to read as I’ve been at home in Santa Fe sans adventure…, but, not missing the hardships of the open road and being lost! Fond memories of hiking, driving, whatever in the wrong direction, lost.

  5. adventurepdx

    Great photos. And I also like the TJ’s brown rice/Indian food combo. Sure, the cooked rice is (relatively) pricey, but cooking rice while camping takes too much time and fuel.
    Sidenote: I was at TJ’s the other day and they have a new product: Cookie Butter. It’s basically like a peanut butter sans peanuts and with finely ground ginger cookies instead. So good…and full o’ fat. Think I might bring some on my next expedition!

  6. russ

    Cass, what brand is the buttpack Tim is using?
    Any comments on them?
    I am considering buttbapck for bikepacking to keep my back dry, but kind of a ‘shy’ about them. Is it OK with a saddle bag below and hops on-off the bike?
    Please advise…

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Hi Russ,

      I know the brand is Mountainsmith, but that’s about it I’m afraid. Haven’t used one myself, but Tim likes it and doesn’t have an issue running it with his seatpack. It also had shoulder straps, so the weight wasn’t just round his waist.


  7. Wing Pepper

    Thanks for this article. My name is Wing and I’m from San Francisco. I am planning a 150 mile two-three day trip and thinking I’d north from Santa Fe towards Taos…maybe cut over towards Mora and circle back to Las Vegas where I my family has a place about 30 min south. Hard to see from maps what’s public and private access – and I see you had the same challenge on your trip. I’ve had that happen a lot in California. Any route advice super appreciated. Flex on route and length but will have to do this in early July so heat/water an issue…Loved your article

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hi Wing,

      I’m afraid I don’t know the area well enough to offer any concrete advice! Try CalTop – it has a land use layer that can help with figuring out what’s private or not. All the best!



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