S240: Brazos Cliffs, NM.

Another S240 (sub 24 hour overnighter) in the Carson National Forest, New Mexico. Except… since we started at 5pm on Saturday, and finished at 7pm on Sunday, technically it was a 26 hour jaunt. But what’s a couple of hours between friends, hey?

Over the last couple of months, the Carson National Forest has become my local stomping ground. Ranging from low elevation, wizened junipers to 10,000ft verdant pastures, it’s a predominantly mellow but incredibly varied tract of land, laced with a spider’s web of abandoned jeep roads and cross-country singletrack. Last Sunday it was Taos (home to the South Boundary Trail), and this weekend it was back to the west side of the Rio Grande.

As time was tight on this occasion, we shortcut the climb and stashed the car higher and deeper into the forest, instead of striking out from the Hispanic hamlet of El Rito. Our aim was to arc round to the Brazos Cliffs, across to Hopewell Lake, and then pick our way along the Continental Divide Trail (the CDT) – for a taster of the long distance hiking path that links Mexico to Canada. In the event, it made for a fantastic loop: high meadows, primitive dirt roads, a short sting on pavement, some quality singletrack… and to round it off, a loose, grafty, 2000ft climb back up past the headwaters of the El Rito again. Given the brevity of the trip, things couldn’t have gone much better.

Our starting point for the loop – up amongst verdant pastures.

Riding the ridgetop, nudging 10,000ft. Bliss.

Past the Skunk Cabbages.

Scoping out a camp spot.

Plenty of potential here…

That evening, a curious beaver circled around the small lake, drawing ever closer.

The beaver’s handywork.

Gear talk. Whittling down every last gram is Tim’s obsession. On this trip, he forewent the luxury of a sleeping bag, bedding down in a American Medical Kit SOL survival bag and his down layers.

The rig: my Surly Ogre, shod with Rohoff, Rabbit Hole rims and Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres. More on that combo soon.

10 300ft and not a breath of wind. A peaceful spot indeed.

This wouldn’t be New Mexico without at least one husk of a vintage car.

Yet more idyllic backroads beckoned the following day.

A first peek at the the Brazos Cliffs, part of a mountain range that runs from the Coloradan border.

A first peek at the Brazos Cliffs, part of a mountain range that runs from the Coloradan border.

And later, up close.

Beyond Hopewell Lake, we dropped down into a steep-sided gorge, past a series of abandoned mines.

Tim’s steed. It’s a 22lb Rock Lobster. Complete weight, including food and water, is a mere 37lbs. That’s about 5lb heavier than my naked bike…

Proud of my Dirt Tan.

A short bushwack, and we’re back on trail.

Another time-forgotten jeep road, cupped in the base of a broad river valley.

Unfortunately, a legion of tent caterpillars are decimating the area, advancing through the forest with slow but methodical zeal.

The tents they weave protect them from the elements, as they strip young leaves bare.

A reminder of the Himalaya… We stopped to check directions at the idyllic Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, a buddhist retreat.

The elusive Continental Divide Trail. The route, similar to the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route I rode in 2009, runs the length of the Rocky Mountains, from Mexico to Canada.

At this point, it was a challenging, rock-strewn – but immensely satisfying – bout of singletrack.

A few hike and bikes were involved, but the majority proved very rideable, in this direction at least. Braver souls may even have tackled this log bridge…

A short break to rehydrate, courtesy of Tim’s USB-powered Steripen Freedom.

The perfect pick-me-up: tahini, mixed with molasses and agave syrup.

The trail flattened out across a series of meadows.

Then, one last monster climb lay in wait. It was a 2000ft ordeal: a steep, loose affair, under a beating sun.

Tim, mid climb. After a long day in the saddle, we were both melting in the afternoon heat.

Finally, we crested the ridge. Time for the early evening dash back to the car.

This is my third trip to this westerly portion of the Carson National Forest. I feel very fortunate to have it in my backyard – thanks Tim for sharing these explorations!

Basic lowdown:

We drove up FR559 out of El Rito, turning left towards Canjilon Lakes (continuing on FR559). Abandoning the car, we then climbed north via primitive dirt road, just past 406A, connecting a series of dirt roads towards Highway 64 – meeting it at the point where the paved road does a tight loop (this route stays high on the ridge for the most part, but involves crossing a short section of private land). From there, we turned right on Highway 64 to Hopewell Lake – lots of views of the Brazos Cliffs en route. Behind the lake, we followed an old mining road, FR36A, linking it after a short bushwack with a jeep trail (parallel to the Vallecitos River), that connected in turn with the CDT. Singletrack starts just outside of the Vallecitos Ranch – there’s a small signpost on the fallen pine tree for the trail. Keep an eye out for CDT markers. The trail is steep and rocky at times. The CDT then connects with FR274 back to the headwaters of the El Rito (a 2000ft climb), dropping us off at the junction from whence we came, for the descent back to the car. If you have the time, you could easily link in the singletrack around the Canjilon Lakes (also part of the CDT) to round the loop off – that was our plan.

Unfortunately, the GPS ran out of batteries – I expect it was a good 65 miles in distance. A gpx file of this part of the the CDT might have been useful.

There’s plenty of opportunities for water. The highest elevation of the loop is around 10 500ft, so post spring/pre winter is the best time of year for the area.

Although there’s some tough climbing, and an element of navigation to contend with, the mellow grades and easy-going terrain of the Carson National Forest are ideal for anyone venturing into bikepacking.

Previous trips to the area:

Return to the Carson.

Sunbleached in the Carson National Forest. 

8 thoughts on “S240: Brazos Cliffs, NM.

  1. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Thanks Andrew. It’s amazing what you can cram into a day and a night.
    I love riding the Krampus, but the Ogre’s a great bike too – different riding position, and rack eyelets, which is nice for the saddlebag support. I was curious as to how the Ogre would ride with Rabbit Holes, and what the clearances would be like. Trying out Schwalbe’s budget priced Smart Sams was interesting too – they roll nicely, and save some heft, at around four hundred grams lighter a piece. Like the Knards, I set them up ‘ghetto’ tubeless.

  2. Wandering by Bicycle

    As usual, great writing with amazing photos. Is that a small under seat pack strapped to the top of the seat stays on Tim’s Rock Lobster? If so, a great idea for a little more storage capacity.

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks! Yes indeed, that’s a little seat pack that’s found a home in some dead space.

      Aside from sharing adventures, I’m grateful to Tim for lending me a bunch of gear, including a Goal Zero solar panel, a Revelate fuel cell, and the 6 Moon Designs Gatewood Cape… He’s such a gearhead he has two of almost everything!

  3. Leaf Slayer

    I consider trips of this length as sub 36hr overnights (S36O). Great trip report and pictures. And very inspiring. It won’t happen this summer but I’m hoping by next summer to have a mountain bike again and start exploring true off-road bike camping.

    I recently got out for an S36O in the Mt Hood National Forest putting in 120 miles the first day and around 80 the next. Most of it was paved, more than I would have liked on a highway shoulder but worth it to get access to quiet paved and gravel FS roads.

    Here’s some pictures in case you’re interested:


    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks for the link. It reaffirms my desire to get out and explore Oregonian dirt roads… I’ve done woefully little riding in the state.

      Even on paved roads, 120 miles sounds like a big day to me.

  4. Valentine

    I´ve been squeezing in a few P48s ( perfect 48 hour) in this year. Usually starting at noon on a Friday and ending on Sunday by lunchtime. Lotsa dirt roads leading in and out of my small town here in Brasil. Rolling between 120 and 200k and two nights in the tent can make a long weekend feel like a big adventure with time left on Sunday for hanging out with the family.

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      P48s – I like it. Two night out, and things really start to feel like a journey.


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