2016 update: I’ve now posted this route to bikepacking.com with a gpx file and several updates in the Trail Notes section.
It’s all too easy to become hooked on dirt road touring in New Mexico. Perhaps it’s those embracing skies of the American South West. That overwhelming notion of space. The shapes and colours and hues of junipers and piñon and cacti. The frontier history.
My last multi-day ride here was shared with Gary Blackley, who I first met in Del Norte, southern Colorado. He and his partner Patti have long invited Great Divide riders into their home, to relax and rest up before tackling the 11910 ft Indiana Pass, lying just beyond their doorstop. Which was exactly what I did, as one of the last riders to roll through in 2011.
Gary and I hit it off straight away, so I was pleased when we found time to put together a short tour. The warmer climes of southern New Mexico would be a welcome escape from the chilly north and it was bound to be a big ride, covering larger distances than I’m used to. Del Norte is all but snowbound til spring, yet despite excuses of under-exercised ‘winter legs’, I knew Gary would be all to eager to make the most of the short winter days. And, as he’s been honing his lightweight setup over the years, it was also a chance to glean some nuggets of lean touring wisdom.
Aside from traversing remote, beautiful terrain, our loop encompassed a blend of colonial, Native American, frontier and world history. It circled south-east around the Apache stomping-ground of Ladrón Peak. Then it passed the Very Large Array – the giant antennas that tirelessly probe the furthest reaches of deep space – before skirting around the San Mateo Mountains, home to ghost towns and mines of yesteryear.
From the improbably titled Truth of Consequences, we returned north on the east side of the Rio Grande, experiencing a different perspective of the mountains around which we’d travelled, and a taste of real desert riding.
The ride back paralleled a section of the ‘Jornada del Muerto’ – the Route of the Dead Man. This swathe of desert was so named by 17th century conquistadores in reference to its inhospitable, lava-encrusted terrain, and formed one of the most challenging parts of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. The ‘Royal Road’, 1600 mile in length, once ran from Espanola, north of Santa Fe, all the way to Mexico City, helping trade and spreading Christianity.
Just to add variety to our route, we rounded off our return by skirted along the very fringes of the White Sands Missile Range, notorious for the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945.
So, in many ways, a historical slice of New Mexico.
The loop involved public transport in and out of Albuquerque. Along with Gary’s partner Patti, we took the Railrunner down to Belen – at a cost of just $2 per person.
Patti joined us for the 20 mile ride to Bernardo, along quiet backcountry lanes, before she headed back to Albuquerque by road. This 19th mission lies in La Vega de las Nutrias – the meadow of beavers – a stopping point for caravans along the Camino Real in the 17th century.
From Bernado we hit dirt, enjoying views towards Pico Ladrón. The peak itself is is part of small range known as the Sierra Ladrones – the mountain of thieves. It’s named after the Apache raiding parties, and later Anglo and Hispanic cattle rustlers, who hid amongst its folds.
My steed, perfect for loping across cowboy country… A framepack keeps weight centred on the Surly Ogre, combined with a seat pack and bar bag to carry gear and a couple of days of food. There’s water on one side of the fork leg and my tarp on the other.
County Road 12. Like a whippet chasing a rabbit, there was no catching Gary once he got rolling… Conditions were better than we were expecting and we made quick progress round the mountain. Changes in vegetation were clues to our increase in elevation, as cholla cacti gave way to piñon and junipers.
We carried a GPS and relevant mapping for the area. In hindsight, setting up a gpx route would have been worthwhile, as there were more junctions than appeared on our paper map.
After 50 miles of dirt we reached Magdalena, arriving just before sundown. A table at the local supermarket provided the perfect spot for dinner, before we found ourselves a home behind the library for the night.
Crossing one of the railway lines of the Very Large Array, along which the antennas can be positioned. These railway lines form a Y shape, each segment reaching 13 miles into the desert. The data from the antennas is combined to give the resolution of an antenna 22 miles across, all the better for probing the nooks and crannies of deep space.
The Plains of San Angustin, lying within the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field. Beautifully bleak.
Having consulted the weather forecast, we were expecting some help from a northerly wind. But it was not to be. A storm was brewing and it took 3 hours to cover just 20 miles. This was the only windbreak… We stopped for a few minutes, before returning to the crawl and our inner thoughts.
Eventually, after seeking refuge under the awning of a farm building for lunch, our road swivelled round in direction. From here, we were merely buffeted from the side as we skirted around the Magdalena and San Mateo ranges. It was here that the Apache Kid, the legendary renegade army scout, is said to have been hunted down and killed in 1894.
On the road to Dusty, a blink-and-you-miss-it settlement marked only by an old cemetery and some scattered ranches.
A suguaro-themed postbox. I’m not sure how often the postman makes it out here…
Looking towards Montoya Butte and into Monticello Box Canyon. A possible through route with a hike and bike?
As if we weren’t tired enough, we turned to face the wind once more for a final uphill slog. With the day almost at an end, we settled on a clump of piñon and junipers for shelter. The wind howled all night, flapping my tarp like a restless sleeper.
Ever the minimalist, Gary had his tarp pitched lean and low; note the bungee he’s added to the guy line, to compensate for the stretch in the silnylon fabric.
We’d clocked up some 75 miles since Magdalena, much of it battling a fierce wind. Up at 7000ft, coldness crept in quickly with the setting sun, so we wasted little time to eat before retreating to the cocooning warmth of our sleeping bags.
By next morning the worst of the storm had passed, leaving clear views out to the Black Range.
What’s more, it seemed our toils the day before hadn’t been for nothing. We’d accrued both elevation and weather credit, as a tailwind propelled us towards Winston. A panorama of the stunning Leopold Wilderness – often overlooked for the more famous Gila Wilderness to the south – unfolded as we wound our way back down in the morning sun.
The Winston General Store was adorned with racks of antlers and well stocked with food. Most relevant to scruffy cyclists, it boasted an unexpectedly luxurious WC. Close to the silver deposits in Chloride, the area was settled my miners in 1880 and was once home over three thousand people. Now only a few families remain.
This old photo is apparently an original. B.Ware and I.Steele. Wonderful sense of humour!
The all-but-forgotten settlement of Cuchillo, near Cuchillo Negro (Black Knife Creek), named after an Apache Chief. The settlement reached its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, as a supply point from the nearby mine at Chloride and the railway in Engle – where we were headed. As the mines closed, buildings were abandoned, though the miniature church is still used to celebrate Mass.
In Truth or Consequences, none other than Geronimo – the Apache leader who fought Mexican and American expansion into tribal lands – kept a stern eye on my bike outside the museum. He’s known to have used the hot springs here as a meeting point for his followers.
A climb led us up and over Elephant Butte reservoir to Jornada Del Muerto. Gary had originally hoped we could follow a stretch of this ‘Journey of the Dead’, part of the Camino Real trading route. So named for the number of people who died here, it spanned a hundred miles of inhospitable terrain, and was later used by the American Army, the Confederates and the railway. The original route now crosses through private land – a bison ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner, creator of CNN.
Instead, we rode on on past Engle into the desert once more, tracing the edges of the ranch before settling on a peaceful camping spot. Desert bliss.
Gary’s superlight cookset: an Evernew 900ml titanium pot, lexan spoon and homemade beer can alcohol stove.
Soon, rough corrugation and sand gave way to a well graded road, which encouraged us to make quick progress across the gently rolling landscape.
The view towards the Sierra Blanca, a range in the east. Its peak, just shy of 12000ft, is part of the Mascalero Apache Indian Reservation.
Riding round the malpais – darkened pools of lava that characterise this volcanic region.
The shell of a bullet-riddled Cadillac, the perfect prop for a bike photo.
By now, we were hemmed in by ranchland to one side and the White Sand Missile Range to the other. A bolt straight road guided us through.
We nicknamed this stretch Yucca Alley. A handful of miles to the east lies Trinity, the codename used for the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, on July 16th 1945.
Setting the scene. A road marker in the White Sands Missile Range.
Finally we emerged in San Antonio, where we paused to devour a green chile cheeseburger – touted as the state’s finest – in the crepuscular Owl Bar and Cafe. A last few miles amongst the wizened cottonwoods of the Rio Grande directed us into Socorro.
There, we toasted the end of our ride with celebratory cinnamon rolls at the Manzanares Street coffee house – parking up bikes against its hot springs and biking themed mural. Our 29ers had proved the perfect steeds for loping across the desert, smoothing out corrugated roads and mile-munching on pavement. Gary’s rig is made by Andy Pierce in Southern Colorado, fitted with a Salsa Fargo V2 rigid fork.
From Socorro, a public bus shuttled us back to Belen for a mere dollar. This in turn connected us with the Railrunner train to Albuquerque: just two dollars per person. Whoever said you can’t live car-free in the US?
We packed light and averaged around 80 miles a day over this 4 day ride, with 2700-3700ft elevation gain a day. We started early but even given the short winter days, this allowed plenty of time for lunch breaks and quick photo stops (not that I could ever catch Gary up again!). The second day was particularly windy, out on the unprotected San Agustin Plain.
We used the Railrunner and Socorro’s public bus to cut down on pavement miles in and out of Albuquerque. Buses can get booked up, so it’s worth ringing ahead. We didn’t have any problem finding a place on the afternoon service. Likewise, the Railrunner’s timetable can be limiting as it’s geared towards commuters – but with forward planning, it’s a great, affordable service.
We caught the early morning train from ABQ to Belen. Then, it was backroads parallel to the interstate down to Bernardo. From here, we picked up the CR12 round Pico Ladrón, via the ghost town of Riley to Magdelena. (We actually missed a turn and ended up doing a larger loop, emerging northwest of Magdalena on 169). From Magdalena, we hoped to find an alternative to the 60 – the map shows an old highway but that’s no longer accessible. From the VLA, 52 took us all the way down to 181, by Interstate 25, via Winston and Cuchillo. Had we been later in the year, we’d have turned off 60 (just out of Magdalena) onto Old State Highway 52, linking up with Forest Road 549 in the Cibola National Forest – this would be more protected from the hellishly windy San Agustin Plains, and more remote. Unfortunately for us, the elevations were too high for late February.
We detoured down to Truth or Consequences for food, then head eout on 51 to Engle. From here, there’s a dirt road that flanks the White Sands Missile Range, emerging some 50 miles later on the 380 into San Antonio. With a little more time, we’d have backtracked after feasting at the Owl Bar and Cafe, and looped back to Socorro on the Quebradas Backcountry Byway. Instead, we followed a dirt road along the Rio Grande up to Socorro, to connect with the afternoon bus to Belen.
We used a Garmin preloaded with topos of the Four Corners. We also had the photocopied pages of the Delorme New Mexico Altas and Gazetteer.
Water and Supplies
There are plenty of resupply points en route for food – such as Magdalena, Winston and Truth or Consequences. We each carried almost 5 lires of water – two on the bike, and the rest in our packs. We stopped in a couple of houses along the way to fill up.
I carried my lightweight setup: a Panasonic GH2, 14-45m lens, 45-200mm, 20mm 1.7. (This is a 2 times crop sensor camera, so these become 28-90mm, 90-400mm and 40mm).
I’d planned to include Minimal Master Gary’s full kitlist. But as this post is so long already, I’ll save that for next time… In the meantime, you can check out his pictures here!