New Mexico Off-Road Runner
505 Mi.(813 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
The New Mexico Off-Road Runner leaves the adobe-studded state capital of Santa Fe via the city’s car-free Rail Trail. Initially headed east, it begins its 500-mile journey along a lattice of primitive dirt roads that wend their way through peaceful piñon and juniper-speckled Rowe Mesa, a taste of classic high desert, rugged riding.
Hopscotching from the Santa Fe to the Cibola National Forest, the Off-Road Runner then scouts a path through ranchland to Moriarty, a chance for a bountiful resupply before the long desert stint ahead. From here, terrain flits between quiet paved roads and forest tracks through the foothills of the quiet, secluded Manzano Mountains, passing a collection of small, traditional, and quintessentially dishevelled New Mexican settlements. Sun-faded pickups, Hispanic churches, roadside shrines, and abandoned adobe buildings are part of the state’s backcountry charm.
Hurdling Abo Pass, a long and meditative paved stint across Central New Mexico’s open desert points riders towards the west side of the Rio Grande, setting them up for a circumnavigational, dirt road tour of Pico Ladrón, which at 9209 (2800m) feet stands tall above the surrounding cholla-covered desert.
Those interested in local history should note that this small range of rugged peaks, the Sierra Ladrones, was once home to both Anglo and Hispanic cattle rustlers and Apache raiding parties. Hence the translation of its name: the Mountain of Thieves. By way of further historical intrigue, the Off-Road Runner passes by the once mineral rich mining settlement of Riley; look out for one especially interesting gravestone, marking an individual’s untimely demise during a nearby mailcoach robbery in the late 19th Century.
Beyond the historic, once thriving railhead town of Magdalena – visit the well-kept library, housed in a restored railway depot – anyone with a curiosity for deep space should detour to the Very Large Array, a radio astronomy observatory. There, a number of twenty-five metre high radio dishes rotate in perfect symmetry, standing dramatically against typically brooding skies, tirelessly probing the furthest reaches of our universe…
Changes in vegetation are clues to a return to higher elevations, as cholla cacti give way to piñon and junipers once more. From the windswept, beautifully bleak plains of San Agustin, the Off-Road Runner leaves the desert floor to climb high amongst the mighty ponderosas that line Bear Trap Canyon, reaching the highest point of the route at 9,000ft; if conditions are clear, a detour to Withington Lookout is highly recommended for fine views across the San Mateo Mountains, the VLA, and surrounding desert (note that this can be an out and back, or riders can drop into rough and rocky Hudson Canyon and rejoin the route south of Dusty). After passing by natural springs and plentiful prime camping real estate, a forest road continues on towards the small settlement of Dusty. Further frontier history is in rich supply here too, if folklore is to be believed, for it’s in the neighbouring wilderness that the Apache Kid, the legendary renegade army scout, was said to have been hunted down and killed in 1894.
Dipping briefly into the Gila National Forest’s Black Range, the ponderosa motif continues en route to Chloride Canyon, home to series of spectacular, eroded rock formations, perfectly preserved petroglyphs, and toe-drenching stream crossings. As can be seen on the map, striking out to this most westerly point on the route makes for something of a detour. It’s one that adds the better part of a day to the ride and a stint on challenging, rocky terrain, as well as a small singletrack connector on the Continental Divide Trail – but it’s wholeheartedly recommended. If not, pop into Chloride to see well-preserved remnants of this former 19th-century mining settlement.
The improbably titled Truth or Consequences – renamed in a nationwide competition after a 1950s quiz show – forms a welcome resupply point and chance to soak in hot springs, as frequented by Geronimo, the infamous Apache leader who fought Mexican and American expansion into tribal lands. There’s even a museum dedicated to him nearby. An overnight in T or C is highly recommended, given the hot springs, brewery, and great food options. Then, the Off-Road Runner crosses the waters of the Rio Grande again. In doing so, it passes by Elephant Butte dam, opened in 1916 and named after its elephant-shaped island. Turning south, it’s time to follow a roughly chiselled powerline road, leading to the eastern fringes of the mellow Caballo Mountains range. Expect open desert terrain, chunky two-track, prickly ocotillo, and if you time your ride right, carpets of wildflowers come spring.
If you’ve yet to sample New Mexico’s classic condiment, then where better to do so than Hatch, the official Green Chile Capital of the World? Trust us, Sparky’s roadside dinner is unlikely to disappoint carnivorous bikepackers. Fill your belly in preparation for the last part of the ride.
Hatch also marks the meeting point of the Off-Road Runner and the Monumental Loop, a 305-mile route that connects all four sectors of the newly-designated Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Tracing a modified version of its 60-mile northwestern segment, a series of levy roads, gravel roads and desert two track guides riders through the folds of the Robledos Mountains to their final destination, Las Cruces. But be sure to download the Monumental Loop before you leave, in case you want to add some more challenging singletrack to your ride; following the eastern portion of the loop takes in a testing hike a bike and some sweet trails (see RWGPS map and Trail Notes for details).
In keeping with Off-Road Runner’s historical theme, the journey comes to an end in Mesilla, Las Cruces’ photogenic old quarter. Grab some tacos/burrito/ice cream/all-of-the-above and kick back in the plaza that once boasted such illustrious figures as Pancho Villa, Billy the Kid, and Kit Carson amongst its eclectic visitors. Those who enjoy Wild West curios can finish the ride off with a visit to legendary lawman Pat Garrett’s gravestone, in the nearby Masonic Cemetary. Others can hop on the Mexican bus that runs north from whence they came.
And anyone ensnared by the beauty and intrigue of the American South West can keep going… see Trail Notes for ideas on continuing on singletrack south to El Paso, Texas, on the border with Mexico, or tackle the complete Monumental Loop while you’re here!
Putting together the New Mexico Off-Road Runner has been a collaborative project. Enormous thanks to Georges Mally at Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, whose local knowledge and love of Northern New Mexico is unparalled, to Gary Blakley for his ongoing company and initial route planning on the Conquistadores ride (without which this whole route may not have happened), to Brian Mulder for his enthusiastic beta testing, and Matt Mason for providing the last piece of the jigsaw where the route traces that of the Monumental Loop. As with all new long distance routes, details are subject to change and refinement. If you have ideas on how to improve it, please get in touch. And check the RWGPS file for the latest updates.
The route has been awarded a 6. For the most part, it’s a very straightforward ride in terms of the terrain. However, seasonal springtime winds can add significantly to its challenges, as can hot temperatures in the south of the state – depending on the month ridden. The riding itself is relatively fast going and non-technical. Dirt roads are generally in good shape, save for some sandy and corrugated stretches around Pico Ladron. But always remember this is New Mexico, so expect a mixed bag and keep an eye out for rainfall, which turns dirt roads into quagmires. Sections through Chloride Canyon and a short portion south of Truth or Consequences require a certain degree of mountain biking confidence. In places, front suspension and/or wide volume tires will certainly help but on the whole, a simple rigid bike is ideal. With early starts and breaks for photos/food/exploring historical intruigue, 55+ miles is a reasonable distance to cover per day for riders in good shape. Adjust accordingly if arriving with winter legs and remember, the days can be short depending on the time of year ridden.
- Experiencing New Mexico’s magical light and its starry nights.
- Discovering the subtle textures of the state via its Native American, Colonial, South West frontier and modern-day history. The route is peppered with historical markers.
- The variety of terrain; from the high desert, to ponderosa forests, to the Chihuahuan desert.
- Exploring Santa Fe, renowned for its adobe architecture, its fine cuisine, the density of its art galleries… and its excellent local trails. Don’t miss a visit to the incredible Meow Wolf, an interactive and immersive art installation/multi-dimensional house that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen!
- Visiting the once-thriving railhead town of Magdalena, complete with 19th Century historic buildings and restored railyard depot, details of which can be found here.
- Soaking in the springs at characterful Truth or Consequences (see RWGPS map for details)… just as the Apache leader Geronimo once did.
- Dallying in one of the breweries along the route; Santa Fe, Moriarty, Truth or Consequences, and Las Cruces.
- New Mexico’s weathered charm… sun patina abounds!
- Points of Interests: Be sure your gpx file has all the POIs for the route; if it doesn’t, these can be easily viewed via the Ride With GPS app. You can download the route without the maps, which serves as a useful backup. See this link for more details.
- When: Depending on the particular year – namely, when winter storms role in and their severity – this route can be ridden after the monsoon season from late fall (early/mid October) to spring (mid/late April), though remember the days will sometimes be short, so you’ll need to get riding early. Typically, mid-winter isn’t recommended unless it’s a mild, clear one. The first snows hit soon after Thanksgiving but don’t tend to stick. Even on the shoulder seasons, be prepared for sub-freezing temps during cold snaps in the high desert and check for snowfall between Santa Fe and Bear Trap Canyon – ask around in Magdalena if in doubt and see Trail Notes for a possible reroute if required. The Chloride loop is another area to be wary of after recent snowfall – ride directly from Dusty to Winston if need to be. Note that many dirt roads will be impassable immediately after snow or rain, due to the nature of the soil and the ensuing mud. Assuming there is sunshine, conditions normally improve very quickly; within a day or two. Late fall (great colours) and early spring (flowering cacti) promise the best window for the route, as long as you don’t mind some springtime blustery winds. By the end of April, the Chichuhuan desert risks becoming sizzling hot.
- Winter hours: Note that even if the winter in New Mexico is less harsh than you’re used to… the daylight hours can be just as short. In November, December and January, sunrise is close to 6 AM and sunset close to 5 PM. Bring a book for those long nights in the tent!
- Winds: Generally speaking, prevailing winds come out of the South West, making a northerly direction preferable. These winds can be considerably more intense during the spring, where gusts of 50mph are not uncommon. This said, we rode south in late March and had favourable winds for the majority of the time… so you never can tell…
- Direction: The route can be ridden north to south or south to north. The former includes a net loss of altitude. Theoretically, the latter has more favourable prevailing winds (see above) but the long climb through Chloride Canyon will be more challenging as will Hudson Canyon, if you choose the detour that takes you directly to Withington Lookout.
- Rain alert: After rainfall, many desert roads become completely unrideable. For the most part, they dry quickly after a few hours baking in the sun.
- Critters: Scorpion, snakes and other critters aren’t a major issue on the more southerly stretches of the route, but they do exist. A fully enclosed tent isn’t required but may be good for peace of mind.
- Best bike: All in all, a standard rigid 29er (29×2.2 or so) is likely your best weapon of choice, though a bike with 2.6 or wider tires also makes a great choice for backcountry New Mexico, given the variety of ever-changing conditions. A suspension fork is not a necessity in any way,k but will no doubt be beneficial to some. Although much of this route is made up of good quality dirt, gravel, and paved roads, there is enough rough/sandy/corrugated terrain to make it challenging in several places for a gravel bike, unless ‘underbiking’ is your style of touring. If that’s the bike you’re on, you can certainly make it work: fit the largest volume tires you can, be prepared for a few lumpy sections through Rowe Mesa and some sand/corrugation around Pico Ladron, and consider skipping the Chloride loop (riding directly to Winston). There’s a rocky stretch immediately after Truth or Consequences too.
- Tires: Tubeless tires and repair kits are recommended, due to the profusion of goatheads that speckle the area. Take care when pulling to the side of a road or trail, as this is where they lurk.
- Private land: The route uses sections of public roads and trails that cross private land and working ranches. Please be sure to close gates whenever you open them and stay on track.
- Public Transportation: Santa Fe can be easily reached by public transport from Albuquerque via the Rail Runner, the bike-friendly commuter train. Amtrak runs between LA and Chicago. Stop off at Lamy and ride the rail trail into town (Dec 09 update: the luggage carriage can no longer be accessed in Lamy, so you’ll have to take the Railrunner from ABQ). Bikes cost $20 for the roll on/roll off service, or $10 boxed/bagged. As for Las Cruces, the Park and Ride Gold Route service operated by NM DoT runs a commuter bus every weekday between downtown El Paso and Las Cruces. It’s $3 and you can stow bikes underneath – it will drop you off at the University. Make sure you have the exact change and check the small print for holiday schedules. The El Paso-La Limousine Express also runs a bus from El Paso to LA and ABQ that stops in Las Cruces. You can take your bike on this bus as well. It is $13 one way from El Paso to Las Cruces and runs every day. There’s no charge for a bike, but space is sometimes limited. Public transit is available from the airport to downtown El Paso on the Sun Metro service. These buses provide bike racks. Plus bikes fit, just, with tires deflated. There are also shuttle services from the El Paso airport to downtown and all the way to Las Cruces. More info on the El Paso airport website. El Paso can also be accessed by Amtrak.
- Getting back: The El Paso Limousine Express has a morning service that runs from El Paso/Las Cruces to Albuquerque ($30) and takes unboxed bikes subject to space. It continues to Santa Fe and Denver for $65. To save cash, get off at ABQ and ride to the Railrunner station, connecting with one of the afternoon trains ($9). If doing so, the Mexican restaurant El Modelo, a local institution, makes a great spot for lunch en route (see map). Alternatively, if riding in a group, it’s probably cost and time effective to hire a vehicle in Las Cruces and drop it off in Santa Fe (approx $170 for a truck that will fit 4 bikes comfortably). Enterprise will even bring it to wherever you are in the city.
- Hot springs: Need to soothe sore muscles? There are several places to soak in Truth or Consequences; the going rate is around $8 for half an hour. Most motels (eg Charles Motel and Pelican) have their own springs which you can use to your heart’s content if you stay the night.
- Historical information: stop to read all the excellent info panels along the way to help gain a real sense of the Land of Enchantment’s history. They add a whole different level to the trip.
- Breweries: Thirsty? These can be found in Santa Fe, Moriarty, Truth or Consequences, and Las Cruces. See the map for details.
- If you can, put aside a few hours to visit Meow Wolf, an immersive art installation and multi dimensional house, that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen! Tickets are valid all day.
- Bike shops: There are several good bike shops in Santa Fe, including the bikepacking-friendly Broken Spoke (stockists of Oveja Negra and Revelate) and Mellow Velo, both of whom offer rental bikes, as well as the bikepacking-specific Sincere Cycles (411 W Water St). Santa Fe also has an REI. In Las Cruces, Outdoor Adventures is well versed in the ways of bikepackers too.
- Trail networks: If possible, allow a day or two extra to ride some of Santa Fe’s excellent trail network, much of which is rideable from the plaza – Chamisa, Sidewinder, Galisteo Basin Preserve, La Tierra, and Dale Ball are local favourites that are often clear by spring. Las Cruces also has a number of excellent trails too, some of which are included in the Monumental Loop alternates.
- The route connects several swatches of National Forest, making camping relatively straightforward if riding 50-60 mile days: a few suggested areas are marked on the map. Otherwise, stealth camping can be carried out on areas of unfenced land. As always, be respectful of the land and #leavenotrace.
- Most of the larger resupply points are also offer usual motel options.
- Overnighting in Truth or Consequences is recommended to make the most of its hot springs.
- Water is relatively easily available (see map) but carry 4-6 litres at all times, depending on the season, in case any springs or cattle tanks are dry. Bring a means to purify suspect water.
- Expect well-stocked grocery stores in all towns except for Magdalena (see POIs on map), which only has a Dollar Store and a gas station. Cooked food is available at all resupply points. Santa Fe has a Natural Grocers, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods close to the start of the route.
- Recommended, bike-friendly places to eat in Santa Fe include the Tune Up Cafe and Counter Culture, both of which are just off route. Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen is great for those of a gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan persuasion. El Chile Toreado, en route, has excellent street tacos. Ikonik is a good hangout for coffee addicts. And the 2nd Street Brewery (both in the Railyard and along the bike path) is the spot to go to sample Santa Fe’s craft beer selection.
- Recommended places to eat in Las Cruces include Habaneros Fresh Mex and Milagro Coffee and Expresso. Bosque Brewing Co is another popular local haunt.
If there’s been recent snowfall, consider detouring around Bear Trap Canyon, the highest point of the ride, as per the Apaches and Conquistadores route.
Want more singletrack?
The route plugs into a variation of the Monumental Loop for the last segment from Hatch. We’ve routed it via the west side of the Rio Grand/I25, which is more in keeping with the nature of the ride – fast dirt roads. But if you prefer more desert singletrack, consider taking the eastern side of the Monumental Loop instead (via the Donas Anas). If you do this, you’ll definitely see the benefits of a Plus or front-suspension mountain bike. If riding south, follow the route and trails to Pat Garrett’s murder spot – from there, find your own way into town as the singletrack is only recommended in a northerly direction.
Want more riding?
The Off-Road Runner can be extended all the way to downtown El Paso, via the Sierra Vista Trail (as used by the Monumental Loop) and the rocky, technical trail network that courses through the Franklin Mountains. See the Danger Bird 350 for more ideas and this untested extension.
Short on time?
Catch a train from Albuquerque to Belen, then ride county and levy dirt roads to Bernardo (approx 18 miles) to connect with the route at the Kiva RV Park (see the Apaches and Conquistadores route). This also avoids a couple of longer pavement stints… but misses out on Santa Fe and Rowe Mesa. Alternatively, there is an RTD bus from Santa Fe to Moriarty if you want to start from there; these buses take two bikes and operate during the week.