Sunbleached: S240 in the Carson National Forest, NM.

S24O: Sub 24 hour overnight…

Speckled about the Carson National Forest like rough gems, are some of the earliest Spanish settlements in northern New Mexico – including that of El Rito, where our overnight bikepack began.

Like many other parts of the state, there’s a weather-faded feel to its hamlets; pockets of abandonment where time flows askew. Hispanic in character, they seem transplanted straight from the rugged and remote mountains of the Sierra Madre, south of the border in Mexico. The houses are, far the most part, downbeat and patched up. More often than not, collections of lifeless tyres and cars in open surgery clutter their yards. It’s a discordant aesthetic within this natural space and beauty, yet as integral a part of rural New Mexico as the forest and the sagebrush themselves.

With this feeling in mind, I’ve processed this collection of photos in a different style than usual; bleached, like an old, forgotten roll of film that’s been left out too long in the sun…

The full set of photos, in technicolour, can be seen on my Flickr page. Within the post, each picture will enlarge if you click on it.

El Rito, established in 1786. Ramshackle, even by New Mexican standards.

This building dates to 1912. The phone booth might have had similar foundations.

This building dates back to 1912. The forlorn phone booth looks in no better shape.


A dirt road heading north into the Carson National Forest.

Outwardly, these Internationals looked to be in working order. A closer inspection revealed that inwardly, the guts have been removed.

Outwardly, this pair of Internationals look to be in good working order.

A closer inspection reveals that inwardly, the guts have been removed.

A closer inspection reveals that inwardly, their guts have been removed.


Forest Road 44. An avenue of red-tinted ponderas.

Somewhere deep in the forest.

Somewhere deep in the forest.

One of the many primitive 4WD tracks.

One of the many primitive 4WD tracks that make this area a bikepacker’s delight.

Good enough to drink.

Good enough to drink. Unlike the parched dry lowlands, there’s no shortage of water in the high country.

A fine spot to pitch a tarp, between a cottonwood and the El Rito - the little river.

Pitched between an ageing cottonwood and the El Rito – the Little River. That night, we’re lulled to sleep by the ancient sounds of water and wind.

Reading matter.

Reading matter. Barefoot running and a forest service map.

Don't leave home without it.

Don’t leave home without it.

Warm bellies for a cold night.

Warm bellies for a cold night.

Too early in the season for 10 000ft.

Too early in the season for 10 000ft.

Truck Trail.

The Valle Grande Truck Trail. A short foray reveals it to be snowbound for now. Will return.



Plenty of that.

Wild and abandoned singletrack,  as cluttered as a New Mexican yard, slows our progress considerably.

The church at Plaza Canon.

Lower in elevation, clear roads and a perfect summer pasture.

The rural hamlet of Plaza Cañon. Home to little more than a collection of houses, husks of old cars, and yard debris.

In better shape than most, but just as timewarped.

In better shape than most, but just as timewarped.

Just hanging on.

Just hanging on.

Roadside scene.

Roadside scene.

Endless amounts of this.


Very New Mexico.

Very New Mexico.

Just as New Mexico.

Just as New Mexico.

Camera: Canon 5dMk2 with 24-105 f/4 lens. Photos imported into Lightroom and processed using the Nik Collection Color Efex Pro plugin.


We parked up at the church in El Rito, a hour’s drive from Santa Fe. Our route lead us north along FR44, diverting east onto Canada del Potroro. This faded into a faint doubletack, then became a more established dirt road, before finally whittling down to a wild and abandoned singletrack, strewn with blowdown and requiring a couple of hours to negotiate. Later, a far shorter bushwack led us steeply down the hilltop onto 106, where we descended and camped beside the diminutive El Rito. Our original intention had been to strike north west towards the Canjilon Lakes and the Brazos Cliffs. However, it transpired that this area remains for a large part smothered by snow, so we doubled back up 106, exploring a few side valleys for future reference, before plummeting down into Canon Plaza via a primitive 4WD track. A mix of sandy sagebrush riding and paved road led us to Vallecitos and Borracho – so name for a famous old steer, El Borracho  (the Drunken One), who died in the local wash. From there, it was simply a case of following FR44 back to El Rito, via the Valle Grande Peak. A very nice little loop. The first hike a bike might possibly be avoided by staying on the more established dirt road, instead of following the creek floor, which are may suggested was a 4WD trail.

In a month’s time, options will abound in the forest, perhaps even at higher elevations…


El Farolito, in El Rito, is the place for traditional, cheap Mexican cuisine – if you’re lucky enough to pass by when it’s open. Otherwise, El Parasol in Española does a mean chicken and guacamole taco. If you’re linking the area with Abiquiu has a gas station with great tamales.

Don't skimp on the green chilli, a New Mexican favourite.

Don’t skimp on the green chilli, a New Mexican favourite.


14 thoughts on “Sunbleached: S240 in the Carson National Forest, NM.

  1. Tim Joe Comstock

    Fantastic! From the text and the photos one gets a sense that you are all alone out there. I’m curious about how much traffic (bicycle, dirt bike, 4WD, hiker, etc ) you encounter on these trips. The solitude looks great and the opportunities in recycling seem abundant. Around here that mobile home carcass is worth about $800 or more. It takes me a couple days to take one apart, sort out the metals and get it all to the recycling center. You knew when you included that photo it would get me excited.

    Trailer Park TJ

  2. Cass Gilbert Post author

    New Mexican yards could be a recycler’s paradise, though I’m not sure how much recycling actually goes on in these parts, I’m afraid. The nearby Earthships are, as their names suggest, something else…

    I will do better at cataloguing trailers-of-interest in future. I did pass by some good ‘uns.

    FR44, between Vallecito and El Rito, is open to traffic at this time of year, so we saw two or three cars, and some pickup trucks collecting firewood. Beyond that, and there wasn’t a soul, even at the weekend. Most people are drawn to the more dramatic mountains of Colorado, it seems. This part of New Mexico (actually, I think the state in general) is generally overlooked…

  3. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Thinking about it, the only people we spoke to was a Mexican in an old Ford pickup truck, who stopped to check we knew where we were going. And a friendly chap with a shaved head and a massive spider web tattoo on the back of his head, after we decamped outside his yard to study the map. Any ruins/cabins/houses we saw in the high country were abandoned or closed for the winter.

    Like this one:

  4. Jim Bangs

    Good post and trip. I always wonder about places like your picture of the trailer that is coming apart. History of a place like that. The hopes and dreams of the original person who had the trailer moved onto the lot. Also I’m never surprised by the huge padlock and chain that is usually wrapped around the gate to a place like that. Always makes me wonder if the bank owns the chain and padlock.
    Good word for much of the riding in NM…..juxtaposition

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Likewise, I wonder about the present and past history of these areas, how they came to be so… and what people do out there… A few of these communities feel so isolated that one does wonder what impact the rest of the world has on their lives. There’s the sense that even if the system around them collapsed, life around them wouldn’t necessarily change that much.

  5. Benedict

    we missed you on our carson S270. got totally lost. that forest service map was terrible, but getting lost is not always a bad thing i suppose. did have a rather thirsty night and following morning. but, its not a worthy adventure unless you have to drink your pee at least once.

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author


      I found the Carson Forest map useful for a sense of place and general direction, but relied on the clever Gaia app to fill in the (many) missing blanks. I guess GPSs do take the fun out of getting lost though…

      Not quite sure what drove you to drink your own pee – there seemed to be no shortage of snow melt! I heard reports of pee drinking in California too!

  6. Justin Goode

    Epic adventures Cass, as ever. You’re a modern day high plains drifter, ‘born to ride under wide open skies’! Lucky man to have all that to explore on your back doorstep. Love the photo of the ti pot cooking, great colours, blues, oranges!

    Some shelter queries: what’s the tent in that pic, the gossamer thin pale beige affair? Is that yours, or your riding partner’s? I had a feeling, judging from previous pics, that your current tarp of choice doesn’t have windows, is grey/brownish in colour, and has a central pole, a sort of wrap-around tipi affair, (close it in in bad weather, leave it more open for warmer nights, shrink the central pole in high wind, etc.)…? But please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m basically just wondering on any tarp/tent recommendations, sturdy, versatile and, of course, as light and compressible as poss?

    (I have a Go-Lite Shangri-La 2 – purchased as a hiking tent, needs two trekking poles or a guy for support, optional separate mesh inner – old-school shape like a scout tent – great, but with two poles, not ideal for bike-packing – also a faff to put up. Also have a separate Goretex bivvy bag and a sil-nylon poncho set up).

    Suggestion: after you’re done with ‘Born to Run’, (a fantastic read, classic, enjoy! I loved the evolutionary history section, the fact that we’re essentially long-distance covering, high-stamina, social hunting organisms), the next natural progression is to read ‘Eat and Run’ by Scott Jurek, one of the ultra runners mentioned. The cover even references BTR! A mix of Scott’s personal running history/philosophy spliced with territory covered in McDougall’s book from another perspective, peppered with recipes, (latter very parallel with those to be found in the infamous 70’s classic: The Moosewood Cookbook).

    One day you’ll have to write a bike-packing book with a similarly classic vibe – Born To Roll? You Gotta Roll With It?

    Lastly, after correspondence with Eric, I’ve just received some Revelate Gear here in the UK today. Up to this point I’ve been an Ortlieb and Tubus pannier and rack man. Looking forward to trying out some new kit. Still on my LHT. Tempted by an Ogre tho’!

    I see the Arkels have returned. I’m of similar persuasion, front panniers on the back end are a much better size!

    If you’re ever in the SW of the UK give me a yell….

    Ride on.


    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks for your comments Justin. This is indeed a fantastic part of the world, and I certainly don’t take these sweeping panoramas for granted…

      The tarp in question is a 6 Moon Designs Gatewood Cape (, another item of gear borrowed from Tim. I love it – it’s perfect for keep out of the wind and rain if necessary. Light enough not to begrudge carrying if it’s not needed. Just the right size for me and my gear.Takes some practise in setting it up, and I haven’t had the chance to test its efficacy in cape mode – more suited for hiking, I expect. If I had a bivy bag, that would be pretty idea for these parts too. I also own a Tarptent Moment (freestanding, singleskin, light) and a roomy Black Diamond Megalite (all have their pros and cons).

      Books… This is my second time round on Born to Run. Love it! As it happens, I saw Eat and Run in paperback just the other day. It’s next on my list.

      I’m sure the Revelate gear will do you really well; solidly made, and very nicely designed. And as much I like the trusty LHTs, I can highly recommend the Ogre too. If I could only have one bike, that would be it. MTB/gravel grinding/touring/commuting…

  7. Justin Goode

    Curious, and have some more questions:

    Ever had any grief from snakes/spiders/bears out in the back of beyond in N Mex/elsewhere?

    What kind of food do you take on such a trip? Presumably some porridge/muesli for b’fast, water/snow melt, looks like you ate a plate of green chilli along the way, just wondering what kind of thing goes in your bags, what sort of fuel you run your engine on? Avocados, oatcakes, fruit, tortillas, nuts, veg, refried beans, dates, dehydrated army rations?

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      I believe there are venomous some spiders (black widows) to be way around, they hang out in the adobe. Saw one small black bear last autumn in the local woods – further north, it’s a different matter though. Apparently the occasional bobcat too.

      As for food – pretty much all of the above. Sadly, oakcakes (a favourite) are hard to find in these parts, and I tend to try and steer clear of the old army rations…

      When in doubt, bananas, avocados, nacho chips, bagels and peanut butter!

      1. Justin Goode

        Aha, thanks for all of the above Cass!

        You pretty much answered my food question in the recent post of your sub 24hr trip with the wild-tattoed Jeremy. (Maybe you posted that info prompted by my enquiry?) We share similar trail food tastes.

        And I managed to track down the tarp/tent on Google after a finding a photo on your Flickr stream of a small Six Moon Designs logo. Looks ideal. Single carbon pole, seriously small and lightweight tarp/poncho. Perfect for stowing on the bike. I’ve been doing the rounds recently checking out MLD Duomids/Trailstars, Henry Shires tarps, Eureka Wikiups, etc. All along a similar theme, small design differences, one pole, single skin, swamped by too much choice!

        Yes, deep sigh, the big skies and expansive vistas of New Mexico, (that famous Orb song, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, springs to mind – even tho’ it’s about Az –, they’ve captured my heart ever since I was there for a few weeks once back in ’89. Currently figuring out how to extricate myself from western Cornwall and have some more global wandering in my life again, two-wheeled of course. Have been a house owner for last twelve years, and adventures have been from my nest here, mostly under the equally big skies of the Cornish peninsula/Wales/Brittany. If I do manage to shake off the ties which bind and get footloose again, N Mex will definitely be a port of call on the list. Your photos, adventures and life orientation has ignited a fire in my soul! Bravo for not getting as burdened by the complexities of life as many of the rest of us! (There again, maybe you are but your two-wheeled travels act as therapy, a way of dealing with it all, a stripping down to essentials, a reconnection with source?)

        Eat and Run. Excellent! Go for it. Logical progression from BTR. I prefer cycling generally, less jarring, more distance covered, and I can go all day on a bike with no probs, but I’m happy running anything up to about 20 miles and love the change of mode. McDougall’s book sparked a re-interest in the ‘simple’ act of running, made me run differently. I bought myself some flat Inov8 shoes, changed technique, changed headspace. Running uses different muscle groups, particularly (for me) lower abs than cycling does, brings a different tightness, and sheds some extra bodily baggage. I love that molten lightness that comes, that fluid empty state of just being like the wind, rolling molecules of movement across landscapes. Unfortunately there are also period of heavy clunkiness, joint problems, fatigue, etc! Can’t have the sweet w/o the bitter!

        On a different tack, I recently read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a beautiful read, based on an old Russian fairy-tale. Set in Alaska in the early 20th C, written by a native Alaskan. I loved it. So has everyone else I’ve passed it on to. You would too. And probably Sage’s mum/your partner/wife. You’ll probably see it in a bookshop around and about.

        Ogre. If there were better off-road possibilities around here I would already have subscribed. For the moment my 700c LHT will suffice. But changes are afoot!

        Thanks again for the reply Cass. I’m totally inspired by your travels, your photos. And that inspiration has been lifting me out of the sludge of my life of late, helping me to see a little clearer, hone in towards deep-seated truths and future directions of movement for my own life. Bravo! Keep on keeping on.

        Until the nxt time,


  8. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Justin, thanks again for your thoughts-packed comment!
    Similar in concept to the Gatewood, but a touch larger and heavier, is the Wild Oasis ( The mosquito skirt isn’t needed here, but could be handy. Like the Gatewood, the carbon fibre pole is ideal because it breaks down small, folding down into a far shorter length than most conventional tent poles. Like all tarps, it benefits from some practise to get the most from it, and a recognition of its limitations. But the more I use it, the more I appreciate its barebones simplicity yet surprising practicality. I’ve been meaning to do write-up on it. Will do so!
    I do love the big skies of Cornwall too. Happy memories of beach combing and cooking up mussels on the beach with white wine, onion and garlic. Yum! Cornish hills are as ferocious as the best of them. Both the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project are favourites.
    After reading Born to Run, I embraced the idea of fleet footed running and invested first in a pair of FiveFingers (which I really liked, but not quite robust enough for the rocky trails around here, and the socks are fiddly). Right now, I’m using Merryl Trail Gloves – almost as much as the barefoot feel, but more practical. As for Born to Run, it’s such a mind expanding book that transcends its genre. I recommend it to everyone – cyclists/runners/travellers/ramblers alike. Too much to take on for me on a single read… Likewise, it changed my mindset on running, although I prefer short distances on singletrack trails than the odysseys it details.
    Thank you for the Snow Child recommendation. There’s a good little book shop locally, so I’ll see if I can track it down.

  9. dan

    Mr. Gilbert, I highly appreciate your blog. Ran across it as we head up to Canjilon/El Rito area for an overnight on our bikes. Glad to see someone’s broken trail for us. Peace.


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