Maar Volcanoes Overnighter, Texas and New Mexico
66 Mi.(106 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
El Paso may not strike the visitor, or anyone new to cycling, as an especially bike-friendly locale. But it turns out the border city is home to a swathe of bike paths and trails, as well as some easily reached campspots out in the empty expanse of the Chihuahuan desert.
Options include heading into the Franklin Mountains, laced with technical singletrack, or riding east towards the West Potrillo Mountains for more subdued exploration. This overnight loop is suited to all levels of riders and almost any bike, bar the odd corrugated and sandy stretch, depending on when the roads were last graded.
As a loop, it follows the Rio Grande (which despite the name, is worryingly dry and sandy), then skirts alongside pecan plantations, before linking three impressive maar volcanic craters, the largest and most significant being Kilbourne Hole, as seen on the Monumental Loop. To get there, it uses a quiet blend of bike paths, ditch roads, rural lanes, and gravel county roads, far removed from the fast traffic that ploughs the busy highways across the city. On the way back to El Paso, it makes use of dirt roads that run adjacent to the South West’s iconic railways, before finally connecting with a bike path, avoiding the need to share the road with vehicles for much of the return leg of the route.
The centrepiece of the ride is Kilbourne Hole (as used in training by members of the Apollo 12 crew), a maar volcanic crater that’s a mile and a half across, in the Potrillo volcanic field of Doña Ana County, over the state border in New Mexico. Dated at 24,000 to 80,000 years old, it’s a rare example of volcanic action without a mountainous rim. The hole is so vast and wide that it’s worth exploring on foot and scrambling around to get a sense of its scale. There’s lots of camping potential nearby (note that much of the land inside is private property), as well as abundant opportunities to rockhound for geodes, commune with spindly ocotillos, and listen to coyotes yipping under a starry night.
Difficulty: Although this is a very straightforward ride with minimal elevation gain, conditions can always be variable, as can the weather, in the Chihuahuan Desert. High winds (particularly in Spring) and the potential for seasonal corrugation on the roads will add considerably to the challenges. Expect occasional patches of sand, too. Speaking of patches, be sure to run your tyres with fresh sealant. The thorns out here are as long as your pinkie!
Anything we can add to the ride? Geological or historical curiosities? Great places to eat nearby? Breweries in which to celebrate? Good coffee to drink? Let us know!
- Experiencing the quietly imposing beauty of three neighbouring maar volcanic craters.
- Taking the time to hike into the craters themselves.
- Enjoying a mellow ride on ditch roads and gravel roads.
- Exploring El Paso’s arroyo-side bike paths, a world away from its freeways!
- Depending on when the roads have last been graded, almost any mountain bike or gravel bike is well suited to this route. That said, 2.6″ tyres are always recommended, should sandy patches or corrugation accrue.
- Late fall through early spring is likely the best time to ride this route, but bear in mind spring can bring especially punishing winds and mid-winter can be unexpectedly cold. Bring a good book for the long night!
- There are some sizable thorns out there, so sealant is recommended. #nocountryforoldsealant
- It’s easy enough to extend this loop by poking deeper into the West Potrillo Mountains.
- Curious fact: In April 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan L. Bean trained at Kilbourne Hole ahead of their successful lunar landing in November 1969.
- Camping is permitted around the rim. Note that there’s private land in the bowels of Kilbourne Hole itself.
- Bring all your food and water needs for the ride. There’s a small store in La Union with limited opening hours.
- Depending on the food you’re carrying (ready-made burritos work best!), 4-5 litres of water should be ample.
- Chopes in La Mesa is the hot spot (pun intended) for chile relleno. It’s a little off route.