There was a time when riding was all I did. I worked for a bike magazine when I moved to Santa Fe 20+ years ago and all day rides were the norm. These days, not so much. I’m 45 now, with a family, a stressful job, a house, little time and waning fitness.
But the craving for adventure (and my formerly-svelte body) is still there, so when my friend Kevin Hinton mentioned he was doing a big bikepacking trip up north I figured it was now or never. I’d been meaning to go on one of Kevin’s bikepacking trips for awhile now. Most trips are overnighters close to town in the Santa Fe National Forest — up the mountain in warmer months, or out to the Caja when the temps drop — but I had never been able to make them for one reason or another. Family commitments, work stress, lack of gear. Pick the excuse.
Despite his help, I was still nervous. The trip was 120 miles over 3 days in northern New Mexico, following the Continental Divide Trail and dirt roads from Chama to Abiquiu, with more than 11,000 feet of climbing. Each day would be about 6 hours on the bike, with 30 pounds of gear. The most I’ve ridden this year is 3 hours. I was worried about how my body would hold up, how my gear would hold up, how my bike would hold up. Oh, and this whole COVID-19 thing…
Day 1: Amazing singletrack on the Continental Divide Trail
We started out the day with a little cheating. The Chama Charmer, a route published on Bikepacking.com, officially starts in Chama and climbs the pass to the train depot on the top of Cumbres Pass. We got a ride to the top of the pass, cutting about 12 miles and 2k feet of climbing off the route. I don’t feel guilty at all.
We started off the dirt road, bypassing the first section of trail because downed trees made it unrideable. It was a good way to warm up before we hit the Continental Divide Trail at Brazos Ridge overlooking the Cruces Basin Wilderness. The views were stunning, but we didn’t get to enjoy them too long because a storm was rolling in and we were over 10,000 feet — not the place to be stuck in a storm.
Fortunately the singletrack was amazing. It wound mostly downhill through the pine trees with soft, loamy dirt under us. Lower down the ridge we encountered beautiful aspens and more stunning views. Eventually the twisty trail dropped us to Lagunitas, a lovely series of high lakes. It was a nice place to rest before we completed the singletrack for the day.
This was proper mountain biking, too. The trail was loose and rocky in places as we descended toward the Rio San Antonio, and the exposure in places was a little unnerving. One of the riders in our group fell and slid toward the cliff, almost losing his bike to a 40 foot drop. Luckily, he and his gear were ok.
Our ride ended at the Rio San Antonio, in a beautiful meadow with the stream running through the middle. And just in time. Just as we got our tents set up, it began to rain again. An hour or so later, though, the sun came out and we were able to enjoy our surroundings. A couple of the guys brought tenkara rods to fish the streams. Despite its diminutive size, the San Antonio was loaded with little brook trout that took some skill for my companions to catch (and release, of course).
Some chili-mac and trail mix for dinner, then it was off to bed
Day 2: BS Mountain and the brazos cliffs
I woke up on day 2 thinking about how amazing the first day was. I could totally get into this bikepacking thing. Maybe I’d even invest in my own rod to bring with me next time. (ok, and learn how to fish…)
Then we started climbing what I affectionately called Bulls!&t Mountain (actual name = Jawbone Mountain), a steep hike-a-bike that was unrelenting in its punishment. Half way through my calves were burning at the steepness and the 60 lbs of combined bike and gear weight. I was questioning why anyone in their right mind would take this route, why the hell I brought so much trailmix, swearing under my breath and getting angry.
But the view at the top was simply amazing. We were overlooking the Brazos Cliffs a few miles away from the other side of the valley. It has to be one of the most beautiful spots in New Mexico.
After having a snack, I realized my previously sour mood was from a lack of calories. I had some trail mix, because I brought way too much of it and it weighed a ton. I offered some to my companions, but no one would take me up on it so I left some for the marmots. (I kept offering throughout the trip, and it became a bit of a running joke.)
We meandered through a sheep herders camp, with an eye out for the humongous and aggressive Great Pyrenees dogs that protect the sheep from predators in these mountains. Luckily, they were absent. Unluckily, their poo, and the poo of thousands of cows, was not.
After a quick jaunt on the highway, we had lunch at Hopewell Lake. There were tons of people at the lake and campground which, after more than a day of seeing no one, was a good reason not to stick around. We hustled on to the Rio Vallecitos, down a gnarly singletrack trail that would be challenging even without all of the gear. We walked down the steep, rocky trail and ended up at a nice-sized river and a beautiful camp spot with plenty of cover.
The fishing was great, we stayed pretty dry in the late afternoon rain, my freeze-dried spaghetti and meatballs was pretty tasty and someone busted out a flask of mezcal – poured into separate containers in a socially responsible manner, I must add.
Day 3: big miles, hail and ice cream
I slept like crap, so waking up early to hit the trail was easy. We had a very long day ahead of us. Whereas we had done 25 miles +/- the previous two days to make sure we had ample water for riding and cooking, this day we were going to have to do more than 50 to our final destination with unknown water sources.
By this point my load was noticeably lighter and smaller. I had less food, obviously, but I was also much better at packing my gear so it was more compact. Which was good, because this day started out up a big hike-a-bike. Which led into another giant hike-a-bike. We climbed from 8,600 feet to something like 10,500.
At the top we passed several sections of singletrack that we bypassed because we didn’t know how long it would take to ride them and we were afraid of running out of water. But the rest of the way was downhill, allegedly. That’s what Kevin told us, but it seemed like every downhill was way too short and every uphill was way too long in my tired state.
Eventually we came to a huge downhill on a well-maintained dirt road and we ripped through mile after mile at high speed. It was such a welcome relief after the morning’s climb. At the bottom we hit a crossroad. Straight was the route. Right was a county road back to toward our destination. I wanted the easy way out. Kevin talked us into doing more climbing, more slow-paced grind out to El Rito campground. I wanted to stab him with the titanium spork I bought for the trip.
To add to my tired grumpiness, rain clouds were moving in. If we got a good rain where we were, we were going to get stuck in some seriously nasty mud. We fueled up with energy gels and other sugary foods so we could motor out of there.
Luckily we got to El Rito just as a hailstorm hit. We ducked for cover under the one awning we could find to wait out the dime-sized hail. When the hail let up we found the general store and got Cokes.
We needed the fuel because we couldn’t get ahold of anyone to come pick us up. We were going to have to ride the 16 miles to Abiquiu to our rendezvous point at Bode’s. In the rain. It ended up being a blessing because we avoided the searing afternoon temps until the last couple miles of the ride.
We were so happy that the ice cream stand was open.
Interested in bikepacking in Santa Fe? Kevin Hinton, a local tattoo artist and avid cyclist leads bike trips every month in non-COVID times. Check out his Adventure Bikepacking facebook page to stay up to date on when he is leading rides.