The profound scale of geologic formations is a driving force in what brings people to the Western United States. It’s why Utah’s landscapes played a crucial role in the visual catalog of mountain biking in the 90s. Moab, Sedona, and other desert cities have become destinations for two-wheeled adrenaline junkies due to their proximity of technical riding and vast landscapes. Iconic Navajo Sandstone ripples through these towns and within it lie a myriad of mountain bike trails.
Typically, I’ll spend my winter riding in these landscapes but due to the pandemic, we’ve put our desert ramblings on hold until it’s safe to travel. Periodically, I pause and wonder had Covid-19 not gripped the world as it did, I might not have spent so much time looking local in 2020 and from the way things are projected, well into 2021.
I think I speak for my riding buddies – who are die-hard Canyon Country visitors – that we’ve got it pretty good in New Mexico. While the backdrops aren’t filled with arches and endless sandstone formations, there’s plenty to keep your senses sated. If you know where to look.
One such zone that I’ve come to love is the White Ridge Mountain Bike Trails, just southwest of San Ysidro and 70 miles from Santa Fe…
White Ridge is also called White Mesa, due to the White Mesa gypsum mine nearby. This mine is visible to the northeast while standing at the overlook of the anticline, a structural geologic term for the folding of the earth’s crust into an arch where the oldest rock is within the fold’s core. The gypsum extracted from the earth in this location is used to make drywall for houses in the Albuquerque area. Neat.
Knowing that recreation is also a resource, in many ways more valuable* to local economies when compared to mineral extraction, the Bureau of Land Management, with mountain bikers in mind, built nearly 15 miles of trails in the area. Surrounding the trails is an abundance of 4×4 roads, stretching all the way to the mighty Cabezon peak, one of the many volcanic plugs in the region. More on that to come…
This trail network takes full advantage of the topography found within the Tierra Amarilla anticline in all its natural splendor. On either side of this majestic red-hued depression in the otherwise muted high desert landscape run ridgeline trails with names like “Dragon’s Back” and “To the Moon”.
With 200+ foot drops on either side of Dragon’s Back, the trail is not for those who suffer from vertigo or a fear of heights. Yet, for those looking for a complete submersion into a colorful and dynamic landscape, Dragon’s Back is not to be missed.
Once traversing along the ‘Back, you descend into a valley and immediately climb up through what is known as “the Springs”, a series of terraced mineral deposits from the geothermal springs running throughout the hollow crust. These terraces shift in color from white to deep orange and in the winter months, are frequently frozen over, making this landscape even more surreal.
If you’re a closet geology nut, this is the place where you could spend hours examining the exposed upheaval of the plunging anticline. Found within these escarpments are Jurassic-Period fossils, dating back some 150 million years.
This area is hardly a secret to outdoor users in Northern New Mexico. With hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers, and trail runners ascending to this unique zone year-round. While the summer temperatures keep visitors at bay until the fabled full moon rides, in the winter months, don’t be surprised to find a full trailhead parking lot. In 2019, the White Ridge Mountain Bike Trails saw nearly 20,000 visitors. Wow.
Our favorite ride consists of a clockwise pedal around the perimeter before looping back along the center ridgeline and back out to the trailhead.
Due to the delicate nature of this area, remember to leave no trace, stay on the trails, avoid cryptobiotic soil (don’t bust the crust!), and do not collect fossil or mineral specimens from the area. Be nice, say hello to your fellow users and be mindful of social distancing.
*The total revenue raised by the outdoor recreation industry usually outweighs the revenue raised by the extraction of oil and gas. In 2016, the outdoor recreation industry in the US brought in $370 BILLION dollars, more than twice the value of the oil and gas industry. Source.