Valles Caldera Supervolcano Explorer, New Mexico
121 Mi.(195 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
Note that St Peter’s Dome Road – which passes through land historically owned by the Pueblo – was closed for a short period of time in 2018. It’s since been opened and closed on occasions but as of June 2020, it’s closed once more. Check in with the Santa Fe National Forest for the latest updates. If the lower reaches of St Peter’s Dome Road remain closed, riding the upper portion of the Valles Caldera Explorer still makes a great trip in itself, as a 106 mile, 2-3 day loop from Los Alamos, using a pavement stint to access the Preserve (see this RWGPS file). Head down to Trail Notes for more details and ideas.
Situated to the north-west of Santa Fe and a train ride away from Albuquerque, the Jemez mountains is a bikepacking idyll crammed with backcountry dirt road possibilities – and fishing potential too, for anyone who packs a rod in their framebag.
This exploratory route uses the Railrunner train service to Kewa Pueblo, connecting with a paved road that cuts through the pueblo to Cochiti Lake, home to one of the largest earthen fill dams in the US. From there, a long dirt climb, know as St Peter’s Dome Road, promises increasingly impressive views of the Jemez rising up from the surrounding desert, set to the blackened, skeletal remains of a fire that swept across its south-eastern flank.
Once within the Valles Caldera – a volcanic depression that extends some 14 miles in width – a series of rolling, primitive roads await. Largely closed to motorized traffic, they wend their way through forests of ponderosa and across lush and verdant meadows. Exiting the preserve via Sulphur Springs Road for a quick resupply in La Cueva, the route then climbs back up to the terraced pools of blissful San Antonio Hot Springs, via a short slice of backcountry singletrack. There, excellent trout fishing and prime camping real estate beckon – appropriately set to tent rock sculptures – just a mile or two further up the creek.
Muscles relaxed and bellies (hopefully) full, the faintest of creekside singletrack tempts riders onwards. The end of an abandoned double track preludes a stiff climb that feeds into the more established Forest Road 44, briefly overlapping with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. As tempting as it is to continue to Abiquiu and ever northwards, the highest part of this ride, at over 10,300ft, also marks the re-entry point back into the preserve. This north-western corner of the Valles Caldera is particularly remote and appealing; a tangle of overgrown jeep tracks and singletrack meander through corridors of aspens, with views far across the grassy meadows of the plateau below.
Back at San Antonio Creek, it’s time to cross the gently undulating depression from west to east, now on the main gravel thoroughfare. Leaving the preserve – keep a lookout for chunks of jet black obsidian as you ride – a rough dirt road curls steeply up towards La Pajerito Mountain Ski Area. From there, the route plugs into Los Alamos’ local trail network for a thrilling singletrack descent back into town, for those with an appropriate bike!
- Experiencing the beautiful expanse of the volcanic depression, dotted with islands of forest between grassy meadows.
- Bathing in the San Antonio hot springs – clothing optional.
- New Mexican starry nights – they never disappoint.
- Catching a trout for dinner, if fishing is your thing.
- Sublime camping everywhere!
- Leaving the car at home and making use of New Mexico’s excellent public transport system – though you’ll need to figure out timings.
- Unless you have a National Parks pass, you’ll need to stop by the main office for a ticket ($10), which means you’ll have to do the ride in the suggested direction. Although it is valid for 7 days, note that no overnighting is allowed. The Preserve can only be accessed between 8am and 8pm. Update 2020: this isn’t currently required
- Note that this route is 100% legal. There’s been some uncertainty in the past as to where exactly the park can be accessed by cyclists other than the points used. In the future, it may well be that there are more opportunities available.
- Public transportation options only run from Los Alamos to Santa Fe during the week. Give the regional transportation office a ring, as the timetable is confusing. Buses tend to leave Los Alamos very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so you’ll need to factor this into your route planning. There’s plenty of room for several bikes on the bus between Los Alamos and Santa Fe.
- The Railrunner timetable can be found here. Note that Saturdays and Sundays are different than during the week. There’s no problem taking bikes with you.
- The public trail access to San Antonio Hot Springs passes through private land. Please stay on the trail and respect private property. If you don’t have a mountain bike, consider following FR 376 instead.
- When to go: Fall is one of the best times to ride in New Mexico. The monsoon season has passed and the aspens are turning. On the whole, the dirt roads in the Jemez Mountains drain relatively well, unlike the lower elevation desert, which should be avoided at all costs after rainfall. The area is snowbound in winter. It’s likely the parts of the ride that reach higher elevations are likely not clear until late April/mid May; lower sections may well be clear earlier than that, depending on the year. The route can be ridden until the first snows of winter – but expect temperatures to drop below freezing.
- Deadfall: Bear in mind that parts of this route – especially those that use primitive roads – can be subject to deadfall. Expect to lug your bike over fallen trees on occasion, depending on the particular year…
- Best bike: Forest road conditions and trails in New Mexico can be a real mixed bag. A mountain bike with 2.2 to 2.6in tires is definitely recommended for this route, given some of the rougher stretches of primitive roads and the Los Alamos trail network at the end (suspension is likely to welcome too!) However, more experienced riders will find an edited version of this route can also be tackled on a gravel bike with 40-45mm tires – but expect to push here and there. For instance, if you want to avoid the Los Alamos trail network, continue towards La Pajarito ski station when exiting the Caldera, and connecting with pavement there. There is a substantial amount of climbing along this route, so whatever your bike, ensure you have a broad range of gears.
Outside of the Preserve, camping is rarely an issue. Most of this route passes through National Forest, so there are plenty of options, even if most are dry.
- Water abounds in the Jemez, for the most part. Bring your filter. The only stretch that tends to be dry is from mile marker 70 to 95. The climb up St Peter’s Dome Road can be very hot and exposed in the summer, so load up with water at the gas station in Cochiti Lake before setting off.
- La Cueva offers a good resupply point.
- The gas station at Cochiti Lake, near the start of the ride, has cooked food.
In 2016, daily access to the Valles Caldera National Preserve was opened to cyclists – prior to this, it was limited to occasional dates throughout the year.
At the time of putting together the route – shortly after this change – a relatively inaccurate map was made available to visitors at the main office of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. This map indicated a number of remote access points to the Caldera but even at the main office, definitive information as to whether these could be legally used by cyclists to enter the preserve was vague at best.
This ultimately dedicated the nature of the route, as the one that took shape used only access points that were 100% legal at the time, rather than others that also existed on the ground but were gated or fenced off. By way of example, it incorporates a ‘mini loop’ on FR144 to renter the caldera from the west, as it was the only official way of doing so. All this said, these ‘limitations’ ultimately ended up making for a very satisfying, exploratory feel to the route… hence its name!
If using public transport, here’s a possible itinerary: Catch a late afternoon train to Kewa on Friday, cycle to Cochiti Reservoir and camp along St Peter’s Dome road for the night, making sure you have enough water for the following day. With an early start, climb up and over to the Caldera, and onwards to St Antonio Hot Springs for an afternoon soak. Spend the morning fishing/soaking, then continue onwards, camping further along FR44 (bring water). The following morning, cross the Caldera once more and follow trails into Los Alamos for the afternoon bus. If you’re skipping the morning soak/fishing, ride from St Antonio Creek all the way to Los Alamos’ trails, pitching your tent just outside the city limits, breaking camp early for the Monday morning bus into Santa Fe (no busses at the weekend).
Note that St Peter’s Dome Road – which passes through land historically owned by the Pueblo – was closed for a short period of time in 2018. It’s since been opened and closed on occasions but as of June 2020, it’s closed once more. Check-in with the Santa Fe National Forest (505-438-5300) for the latest updates. If the lower reaches of St Peter’s Dome Road remain closed, the upper portion of the Valles Caldera Explorer still makes a great trip in itself, as a 104 mile, 3-day loop from Los Alamos, using a 16-mile pavement stint to access the Valles Caldera National Preserve (see this alternative RWGPS file).
For those who want to start in Los Alamos and avoid pavement, consider riding in and out on trails, heading south on VC-02 at mile 81 (on the Alternative RWGPS route), to connect with the route at mile 27. There are other more primitive connectors, too.
Los Alamos has bike-friendly public transportation during the week from Santa Fe.
There are also many other alternates to this route, if you need to trim it down to suit your timeframe. This includes cutting out the additional ‘mini loop’ on FR144 and re-accessing the Preserve at the gate shown on the map (near mile marker 92 on the original route) – which is now a legal way in and out of the Caldera. Doing this cut 12 miles off the route, though it also means missing a great view and some lovely primitive roads.
It’s also possible to turn off at mile 54 on the original route (VC-08) and head north to rejoin the route (approx mile 94), without dropping down to La Cueva. If you do this, you can now exit the Preserve to visit the San Antonio hot springs and camp by San Antonio Creek, and re-enter the park the same way the following day. The descent to La Cueva and the climb to San Antonio are both very enjoyable and recommended sections to include, but you’ll save yourself half a day’s riding.