Bikepacking the New Mexican Highlands

Bikepacking the New Mexican Highlands

Starting at the border of Colorado and following along the Continental Divide Trail, some friends helped hatch a plan to traverse the central highlands of New Mexico by bike over 3 days, covering 100 miles of unbelievably beautiful country.

Thanks to Cass Gilbert, a mostly local bikepacking aficionado and Editor on, and Tim Nelson who spearheaded this route they dubbed the ‘Chama Charmer’, we had a pretty well designed route in mind.

Our route deviates from the Chama Charmer and ends at Echo Amphitheater.

Our buddy Kevin Hinton of Adventure Bikepacking organized this group, securing a shuttle from Santa Fe to Chama. While we rode with Kevin and two other new friends we would make, Kim and I were joined mainly by our friend and employee over at the Broken Spoke, Thayne.

Day One: Cumbres Pass to Rio San Antonio

Cumbres Pass looking south into New Mexico.
Near the top of Cumbres Pass looking south into New Mexico.

Day one would begin at the Colorado border near the top of Cumbres pass and head south. Unfortunately due to COVID-19, the Forest Service had yet to clear the first segment of the CDT, so we would follow forest roads leading to the Brazos Ridge overlooking the Cruces Basin Wilderness. Connecting the CDT from here, past Lagunitas Campground and into the river valley of the Rio San Antonio for the first night.

This route did not disappoint despite the constant threat of lightning and monsoons. The climb was mostly gentle, meandering in and out of little valleys dotted with electric-green skunk cabbage. Dense stands of timber gave way to patches of aspens and wide-open expanses that define the central highlands. Brazos ridge also provides panoramic views into the Cruces Basin Wilderness with San Antonio mountain and the central Sangre de Cristo range in the far distance.

The surprising, yet beautiful New Mexican highlands.

Our first storm made us hunker down for cover, but shortly thereafter our reward awaited. The CDT descent to Lagunitas was spectacular. Narrow, fast, rolling singletrack with rich loam extended mile after mile. We were suddenly in heaven, hooting and hollering our way through the woods.

After a short break, we continued our run from the storms and eventually ran into the other three riders before another stunning descent along the CDT into the Rio San Antonio. This would have to make camp after only covering 26 miles. The monsoons had arrived. Making quick camp gave me ample time to fly-up and start pursuing trout alongside the trickling river.

Day Two – Rio San Antonio to Rio Vallecitos

Morning broke to clear blue skies and steam rising from the soaked valley floor. Today would be more challenging as we need to traverse steeper terrain and find clean water sources. Following the CDT up and out of the Rio San Antonio is a hike-a-bike affair with the only consolation the amazing views and fresh mountain air. Segments were downright jaw-dropping with sweeping vistas and ancient aspen forest. Today would be a good day.

New Mexico high country at its finest.

Miles and miles of singletrack would link to some bumpy, hoof trodden doubletrack up and over 10,000′. Around each corner was a new view and new challenge. By now, our decision to ride our singlespeeds was being questioned. No worries, we would reach Hopewell Lake soon enough and get some much needed water.

Hopewell Lake provided a good respite once we finally found the clean spigot of water (hint, at the campground not the day use area!). The skies turned dark and our ride would become soaking wet once again. Fortunately, we had one hell of a downhill ahead of us, zigzagging through timber and valley for what felt like an hour of downhill.

Descending along the CDT towards the Rio Vallecitos.

Finally we would reach the Rio Vallecitos and setup camp in anticipation of the big push on the final day. Again we found ourselves along a river that provided fishing entertainment. We donned our tenkara rods and bushwacked the shores, catching small cutthroats and browns here and there. After a quick and final monsoon storm, we settled in for an early night.

Day Three: Rio Vallecitos to Echo

On day three we needed to start early to ensure we would have enough time to get to our truck in time. We estimated 42 miles, which given our average of 26 miles a day thus far seemed ambitious. Alas, a big majority of the day is flat to downhill, making it more reasonable. Still, 3,400′ and 40-something miles never comes easy.

Up before dawn and packed by first light, we were greeted with a 1,500′ climb straight out of camp. Fortunately it followed some beautiful trail, thus making it pleasant in the cooler morning air. We topped out along some high ridgelines and began an up and down meander with views to Canjilon Lakes and the Jemez Mountains off in the distance.

But the views, oh my.

Our route deviates from the Chama Charmer: we elected to follow the CDT over Mogote Peak and traverse downhill to Martinez Canyon for our final descent. Well, at least we thought it was a final descent. For every downhill came another uphill and for every joyous view came another mile of rutted trail from endless cattle. The trail climbed again through dense aspen stands and ferns reminiscent of the Oregon Cascades. Were we still in New Mexico?

By the time we made it to Martinez Canyon we were spent. Down to less than a half liter each with 12 miles left to go, we were confident the final downhill would be quick and enjoyable.

Descending into Martinez Canyon.

We were wrong. Up and down, hot and windy, we found ourselves frustrated by the slow progress. Out of water and out of patience, our final push felt less like victory and more like survival. As with anything worth doing, the satisfaction in completing this route far exceeded the physical toll it took.

Kim and I elected to ride our custom 29 singlespeed bikes on this trip as they seem simple and strong. My Sklar seems eager to take on weight, still handling with grace, while the smaller frame of Kim’s Blacksheep makes for clever packing. Either way, while the gearing was easier and the gear was heavier, no regrets on taking the simpler approach to bikepacking. Take a look below.

Bike Check: Sklar SS

Bike Check: Blacksheep SS

It continues to be a challenging year: out of state travel is cancelled, new government orders are issued weekly, and you must scrutinize the people you surround yourself with. Fortunately we live in a wide-open state with seemingly endless opportunity for safe exploration. A lot was learned on this trip, being only the second bikepacking adventure Kim and I have pursued, but the bigger lesson is taking a step back and reevaluating whats right in front of you. It may be more amazing than you ever could have imagined.

2 Replies to “Bikepacking the New Mexican Highlands”

  1. Kyle you and Kim are the bomb. Super cool photos and commentary. Really enjoy all your posts, living though you two is so much fun. Thanks for sharing!