As someone who tends to spend seven months out of the year on the road, away from home, 2020 has been a welcomed change, albeit with some major adjustments. Stay at home orders in New Mexico are some of the strictest in the United States and this forced me to look to my new home state for rides and trips. Suddenly, I found myself living at the threshold of beautiful high-country riding with endless possibilities for bicycle touring and mountain biking. To put it mildly, my relocation to Santa Fe has opened up a whole world of opportunity.
It took me a while to adjust to living at 7,000′ and a big part of that adjustment has been facilitated by riding with my fast and fit friend, Bailey Newbrey. Bailey’s accolades need no introduction here and it should be no surprise to any of you that he is an incredible rider. He’s so fast that I jokingly refer to him as the “mountain trout on two wheels.”
I wish fitness and finesse transferred through osmosis or proximity but unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It took a long time to be able to hang with Bailey on rides, yet after six months of riding with him, I finally felt confident enough to follow along on a legit bikepacking trip.
With the autumnal equinox behind us and already one major snow dumping having hit the high country, we felt like our window of opportunity to do a proper bicycle tour was closing. On a Monday afternoon, Bailey texted me, asking if I’d want to do the Northern New Mexico Continental Divide Trail the coming weekend. He proposed to ride from Cumbres Pass in Colorado, down to the quaint little town of El Rito. We’d be riding almost all singletrack and with a majority of the route hovering above 10,000′ elevation, it’d be anything but easy for this recently-converted flatlander.
Apprehension, anxiety, and self-doubt hit as soon as I replied “I’m in” to Bailey’s invitational text. It’d been almost a full year since I’d ridden consecutive days on a loaded bike and I still have days where I feel like I’m breathing through a straw, especially when I’m chasing down that mountain trout on two wheels.
Hell, I needed this, I wanted it, and I know that my best self is my post-tour self, so I began scrambling to pack…
“The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them, we must have trails as well as highways.” -President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965
A Brief History
You won’t find many trails like the CDT. Officially called the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, or CDNST, or CDT for short, this network of trails and double track roads was established by Congress in 1978 and with that designation, maintenance of the trail was bestowed to the US Forest Service. 3,100 miles span from Canada to Mexico along this route and it’s taken years to form a continuous trail network. In the early days, the CDT felt like more of a patchwork of trail systems and roads, rather than a contiguous trail. Even today, the CDT is considered to be only 70% complete.
While foot and equestrian traffic is allowed throughout the entirety of the trail, only specific sections are open to bicycle travel. The Northern New Mexico section of CDT is entirely singletrack from Cumbres Pass in Colorado all the way to Forest Road 280, just north of El Rito and contrary to conflicting information out there, it does not traipse into Wilderness-designated areas. Bicycles are free to traverse the entirety of this wonderful terrain on singletrack.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition works on maintaining the CDT alongside the Forest Service and is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more or help out.
Don’t get it twisted, the Continental Divide Trail is a mountain bike route. Sure, you can “ride anything” on a gravel bike, but I’d beg to ask the question, would you enjoy it? In my vast experience of underbiking, I wouldn’t ride a gravel bike on this section of CDT.
That out of the way, I was left with a few internal questions: rigid, hardtail, or full suspension?
Friends who had ridden the trail this year noted that the only technical section of trail is on the descent into the Vallecitos River Valley, after Hopewell Lake. My inclination was to ride the Sklar due to its comfort and if I had to walk a few sections, so be it. A titanium frame with a steel fork, ti seat post, and steel bars will flex quite forgivingly, especially under load. I decided that even without suspension, the Sklar was inherently more comfortable, would climb easier, and was just as capable as a suspension bike with its big, 3″ tires. Plus, outfitting it with bags would be a cinch since it’s what the bike was designed to do.
The only note I’d make about this bike selection is that the 850mm wide bars were a bit too wide for some areas but hey, it kept me “engaged.”
I opted for a tent, rather than a bivy, and a film camera in a Porcelain Rocket hip bag, rather than the digital kit I usually carry which easily weighs 5x as much as a 35mm rangefinder. My general approach is to pack for potential conditions and whatever it takes to be comfortable for three days on the bike, without overpacking.
All in all, my bike felt stout but I felt like it would be an ally, not a hindrance. Bailey’s setup was crazy light. He carried everything he needed and nothing more. It’s inspirational to watch him pedal his 32:22 geared bike up and over escarpments and rooty climbs on that bike. Read about his setup in yesterday’s Reportage.
Three Days, Two Nights
We had Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to ride the +/- 90 miles and climb the approximately 8,000′ elevation. With an elevation loss of 11,000′, this route is mostly trending downhill and is void of any substantial climbs. The ups are far outweighed by the downs and if you stick to the singletrack, you’ll be greatly rewarded with some of the best trails in the Southwest high country.
Our biggest logistical challenge would be shuttling from Santa Fe to Cumbres Pass. Cari, my partner, offered to drop Bailey and me off first thing Friday morning if we camped close to the trailhead on Thursday. After Bailey closed up shop at Sincere Cycles on Thursday, we scooped him up in the truck and drove to the state border. Cari dropped us first thing in the morning and headed back home. We were on our own for the following three days until Bailey’s partner Kate would pick us up in El Rito at noon on Sunday.
My anxieties about riding with Bailey for the weekend began to set in. I am by no means a fast climber and my bike easily weighed twice the weight of his. Fearing I’d be spending a lot of time alone on this trip, I sat into the first climb and cleared my mind. I focused on my bike fit, my stance, my pedal stroke, and my breathing. At this point, I still felt like my camera – a Leica M7 with a 35mm Summicron – would just be there to catch the best moments on the trail. I wasn’t planning on having a full gallery, much less a story from this ride seeing as how Kyle and Kim’s Reportage was so stellar. I wanted to relish the experience, not feel pressured to “work.”
I told myself that I’d invest the energy normally used to document such feats into keeping up with Bailey. Much to my surprise, we were actually very equally paced, and after the first few miles, I began to feel comfortable in knowing he’d be along for the entirety of this ride. We weren’t racing, after all.
Just ten miles in, we took a break along the East Fork of the Rio Brazos, which was teeming with Brook Trout. In twenty or so minutes I caught eight fish, keeping a pan-sized one for dinner. I was unsure about how fishable this trip would be but I knew we’d be camping by water, so we packed up and continued on our way, hoping to get a line wet later that day.
In my frame bag, I brought a small Tenkara rod, the Beartooth. It’s only 12″ long when collapsed but extends to 9′. The cut bank streams and rivers along this route would hopefully provide a few trout to supplement my food. As it turns out, the first river we fished was the most fruitful, and it was at the 10-mile marker.
After endless beauty, ripping descents, punchy climbs, snowfall, fell trees, and encounters with wildlife, we made camp alongside Lagunitas Lake, my mind still racing and my heart still pounding. All that self-doubt dissipated and I looked forward to the next two days. After dinner, some herbal therapy, and conversations about life, I enclosed myself in my tent and went to sleep, anxieties subsided. Suddenly, I felt very capable and prepared. I guess the takeaway here is to not limit aspiration to doubt. Also, having a supportive riding partner definitely helps.
What I hadn’t prepared for was the endless beauty the Northern New Mexico tier of the CDT would provide. On a previous trip, Bailey had ridden a route that pulls you off the CDT and onto various forest roads, which cuts out some of the best singletrack of the ride! For this trip, we stuck to the trail and neither of us regretted it. While touring on dirt roads is perfectly fine, I’ll always opt for high country singletrack!
The intention of these stories is to supply you, the readers of this site, with visual and literary inspiration. As such, I won’t spell out the entirety of this trip, rather I’ll let the photos do the talking, so continue reading in the gallery captions…
Like all outdoor spaces, bicycles are often the first to be pushed out from the list of designated users. It’s really important that we show our support for trails like the CDT and by that I mean, get out there on your bikes, even if that means just riding short segments in the form of day loops. When talking about this route, just call it the CDT. The more we talk about it, the more we let the USFS know we, cyclists, care about using it.
The more cyclists out there, the better, and remember, we’re all representatives of the sport. Be respectful, yield to hikers and equestrians, pack out your trash, and shred lightly.
This is the route we took:
A Few Notes:
-Weather can change dramatically in the high country. Be prepared for monsoons, early or late snowfall, and temperature fluctuations.
-It’s best to ride this in late summer or early fall as most of the fallen trees will have been cleared by then, and you’ll miss monsoon season. In the summer months it can be very hot, even at higher elevations, so be prepared to consume more water.
-Water exists in various forms on this route from rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes, and cattle tanks. Use a filter that works well with silt though as many of the streams and rivers are historically low right now.
-The water at Hopewell Lake is currently turned off. We filtered the lake water.
-Be very cautious riding during hunting season, especially rifle. We rode this during archery week and saw plenty of hunters out and about. Bright colors are strongly encouraged.
-PLEASE close all gates. This keeps cattle where they’re supposed to be and out of areas where they do irreparable damage.
-The trail is well marked and new sections are being cut every year, as such GPS files and even paper maps are not all that helpful when wayfinding. Bring at least one map for a backup. This map showcases the current, official route as of 10.05.2020.
-El Rito has a single small store and a hole-in-the-wall establishment, El Farolito. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu but the sopapillas are delicious! Abiquiu is a 10-mile pedal west with Bodes, a gas station/grill (due to Covid, Bodes is not serving hot food from their grill, only pre-prepared cold items), and Ojo Caliente is a 10-mile pedal east. Ojo is currently closed due to arson.
-Check with the Carson National Forest’s burn bans before making a fire on this route.
… and last but not least, thank you, Kate and Cari, for the shuttle service!