Winter had long since arrived in the Canadian Rockies and ski resorts were beginning to open. I simply wasn’t ready, so I plotted a last minute escape south. A quick search on Bikepacking.com and I found my destination: the New Mexico Off-Road Runner.
I’d previously ridden across New Mexico, when Coburn Brown and I completed the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, but we hadn’t slowed down to enjoy the southern end of the ride. The desert has caught my attention, so I decided to take on the New Mexico Off-Road Runner.
Originally, I’d hoped to also tackle the Monumental Loop, too, but ultimately called it off after a week crossing New Mexico from north to south. Read on to learn more about the ride.
Throughout autumn, I partnered with Eddie Bauer to prove its possible to squeeze adventure into our lives, no matter how much free time we squeeze out of our busy schedules. The New Mexico Off-Road Runner provided the perfect week long adventure. For e examples of shorter adventures, check out my latest Steller Stories Post, where I detail a half day, one day, and overnight adventure along with this ride. To learn more, follow Eddie Bauer’s #LiveYourAdventure project.
Packing for the New Mexico Off-Road Runner
Zero-degree sleeping bag
Insulated sleeping pad
Gore-tex bivy sack
2 L water bladder
1 L Gatorade
Food for 24-48 hours
Arm and leg warmers
Spare bike clothing
Socks and underwear
Sony a6500 & kit lens
Garmin GPS with Route
My Experience on the New Mexico Off-Road Runner
Cass Gilbert, and a whole crew that helped, designed the New Mexico Off-Road Runner to connect Santa Fe and Las Cruces via 800-km of fast gravel roads, desert tracks, and the occasional section of pavement. It loosely follows the Rio Grande south and, as you cross it multiple times, it’s incredible to watch it’s transformation. Make sure to read the entire route description and see Cass’s excellent photo on Bikepacking.com/routes/new-mexico-off-road-runner.
I’ll begin by saying I truly loved this ride. It lived up to it’s billing as a fast, yet challenging ride across a remarkably rugged landscape. New Mexico has it’s share of wildlife, from bears and cougars to rattle snakes and scorpions, but it’s complete lack of water scared me most. I’m used to riding in the Canadian Rockies and we’re never more than a few hundred metres from the nearest water source. Throughout this ride, I carried 4-5 L of water and, during the longer desert crossings between towns, feared running out. In reality, I never came close and 4L saw me through the longest stretches.
Although originally recommended as a 10 day ride, I think it’d be ideally ridden in 7. I spent 6 on the route, but two unfortunate issues led to two shortcuts that I’ll explain below.
My Day-to-Day Ride Experience
Day 1: Santa Fe to Santa Fe National Forest
I had quite the late start as I attempted to leave Santa Fe, but it allowed me to explore the city slightly. Before heading out, I visited Broken Spoke, a local shop Cass recommended, to add some much needed Stan’s to my tires. I’d had a couple flats on a short ride across Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but didn’t suffer another for the duration of the ride after adding 5 oz of stans to each tire.
After the bike repair, I met Cass at Ikonic Coffee for lunch and a quick review of the route. It was nearly 1PM before I hooked onto the bikepath and headed south.
The ride started out beautifully, following a multi-use trail out of the city toward El Dorado at Santa Fe and the Old Las Vegas Highway. After a short stint on pavement, the Ojo de La Vaca Rd turned to gravel. Shortly after, I rode past the “End of Maintained Public Road” sign and entered the Santa Fe National Forest. Less than a kilometre later, I was surprised to see the route on my GPS direct me down a truly technical jeep trail. In just 5 kilometres, I went from pavement to one of the toughest sections of the entire route.
I spent the afternoon riding through stunning desert terrain, mixed between rough jeep track and hardpack trails. My first rookie mistake came after I passed the first recommended campsite and continued riding. It was getting late and I watched an incredible sunset as I rode further and further into the desert. I soon found myself riding through the dark, searching for a campsite.
Day 2: Santa Fe National Forest to Moriarty
The next morning, I woke and packed up from my terrible campsite just after sunrise. The age-old warning that the desert is hot during the day and freezing during the night proved accurate, as I awoke to a frost-covered bivy sack and bicycle. I began the day with nearly all my layers, but was down to my shorts and t-shirt before noon.
After a short distance, I turned south onto a a main gravel road and followed them all the way to Moriarty. The riding was fast whenever I rode south, but painfully slow when I pedaled west into the constant headwinds. The scenery was rugged but monotonous. The roads fast and void of traffic. The mountains broke up the horizon, and kept me pedaling hard. I’d hoped to cover the 85 km before lunch time, but rode into Moriarty at 2PM. After a late lunch, I jumped on my bike hoping to ride another 40-50 km before dark. Before I reached the edge of town, my rear wheel buckled.
The damage was repairable, but well beyond my mechanic skills. I pushed my bike back to the nearest gas station, asked around for a lift to Albuquerque (only 50 km west) and scored a ride to the Trek Superstore for a quick repair. The detour cost me some time and I didn’t have an easy way back to Moriarty. My options were to either wait for a mid-afternoon Park’N’Ride shuttle the next day, pedal 50 kilometres on a major interstate, or skip the section between Moriarty and Belen. Ultimately, I decided on the latter, so I spent the night in Albuquerque and jumped the first New Mexico Rail Runner train south in the morning.
Day 3: Belen to Magdalena
The third day proved to be magical and I finally settled into the bikepacking routine. After a quick breakfast in Belen, I followed the Conquistadors route south until I rejoined the New Mexico Off-Road Runner route about 30 km south of Belen. I was comfortable on the bike and gaining confidence riding in the desert environment. The route turned west and begun a stunning route around the Sierra Ladrones, a massive rugged peak that would guide me throughout the morning. The road varied wildly, with short stretches of loose sand and long sections of fast rolling dirt.
I eventually rode into Riley, a ghost town situated on the edge of the Rio Salado. I spent nearly an hour exploring the few remaining buildings and reading the tombstones in the graveyard. It was like revisiting the wild west, as grave markings revealed deputies that’d been killed during stage coach and bank robberies more than a century ago.
After crossing the Rio Salado – I was shocked to find it flowing – I continued south towards Magdalena, arriving just as another spectacular sunset erupted across the southwest sky. I camped behind the public library, lucking into the wifi password when a local stopped by to poach its connection.
Day 4: Magdalena to Truth or Consequences
Hands down my favourite day of the ride, the roads between Magdalena and Truth or Consequences provided the biggest climbs and most varied scenery of the entire New Mexico Off-Road Runner. As is often the case when camping or staying in a town, I got off to a slow start with a sit-down breakfast and multiple stops to stock up on food. When I finally hit the road, I was a little disappointed to find myself on pavement for the first 30 km, but once the road turned onto the Old Highway 60, the day dramatically improved. After riding through a stunning section of old-growth Ponderosa pine trees, the road headed directly south towards Mount Withington. I could see the Very Large Array off in the distance, but the official route doesn’t go too close.
The climb up Mount Withington was incredible. It featured multiple switchbacks and had me constantly shifting into my 42-tooth cog. The views north across the desert improved as I climbed. At the saddle, the bike route heads down towards State Road 52, but it is possible to bike to the summit, too, and reconnect further down the highway. The descent proved equally scenic. Stunning rock formations lined the road and I descended so fast I almost blew straight past Eagle Spring. I didn’t need water; however, I can report that Eagle Spring appears to be a guaranteed source of questionable water. Don’t forget to purify it!
Once onto State Road 52, the riding was straight and fast towards Winston. The official route turns west just 10-miles before Winston for an epic-sounding 40-km detour on a mix of pavement, gravel and trail. Unfortunately, I ran into my second rookie error of the trip. I hadn’t loaded the entire GPX file onto my GPS, so the route I’d been following ended and I had no way to follow the route west. I opted to bike straight to Winston and, after sunset, I pushed on to Truth or Consequences on a paved portion of the route. When I arrived into town, I headed straight to the Pelican hot springs for a soak. For the second night in a row, I camped behind a public library.
Day 5: Truth or Consequences to Hatch
As it’s a larger town, I expected to find an early breakfast. I was up and packed by 6AM, but couldn’t get coffee or breakfast until 7AM. Because the overnight temperature was noticeably warmer than previous nights, I expected the daytime temperature to soar now that I was descending out of the high desert; I’d descended nearly 700 m yesterday evening.
The day started with a fast section of pavement. The exit onto a jeep track was so abrupt, I pedaled straight past it. I doubled back and discovered the route climbed straight up a rock wall and into the desert. The riding was stunning. For the next several hours, I crossed multiple fences and pedaled through a wildly up-and-down landscape. It was slow riding, but I was smiling the entire way. Eventually, I returned to a high grade road that helped me increase my average speed. The landscape was broad here, with mountains looming on the horizon in all directions. After a few hours, the route turned south along the Burlington North and Santa Fe railway, which essentially led me straight to Hatch.
Hatch is known for it’s chilies and I smelled them long before I saw the crops. When I arrived in town, I went straight to Sparky’s but it was closed. I settled for a restaurant next door and had what I consider the best burritos of my life. After dinner, I setup camp at a free RV park near a 24-hour truck stop.
Day 6: Hatch to Las Cruces
I ate an early breakfast at the truck stop and left town before sunrise. I’d suffered in the heat yesterday, so I wanted to reach Las Cruces before the temperatures climbed too high. After a short stint on pavement, I rode into the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks National Monument. The route was tough, rolling across a series of small summits and past a few water tanks. After riding in solitude all week, I was surprised to find so many people out exploring. I eventually flagged down an ATV and chatted with a local who explained that it was the final day of hunting season.
I rode fast and enjoyed the last stretches of desert. When I returned to the pavement, I thought it’d be a short ride to the city. Moments later, the trail veered off the pavement onto an epic stretch of desert singletrack that lead all the way to the Las Cruces outskirts. The New Mexico Off-Road Runner was complete.
My Thoughts on the New Mexico Off-Road Runner
The route is stunning and I would suggest it to anyone looking for a 7-10 day adventure in the shoulder season when riding can be difficult throughout because of cold or wet weather across most of the continent. Beautiful and rugged desert scenery was the rule, while the roads were fast and fun. The route blends plenty of epic riding with New Mexico’s interesting history, too, passing through ghost towns and historical sites along the way. Overall, it was the perfect ending to an incredibly adventurous summer.
Cass and those who helped him absolutely nailed the route design. I truly appreciated how some of the most challenging riding came early on the first day and late on the last day. Whether riding this north to south or in reverse, riders will quickly discover if they’re up for the challenging conditions.
My only complaint grew from a lack of research. I’d looked into daily temperatures and average weather, but it never crossed my mind to consider daylight hours. In November, December and January, sunrise is close to 6 AM and sunset close to 5 PM. Eleven hours is plenty of riding time; however, I found it hard to average even 8 daylight riding hours when factoring in restaurant hours and meal times. Most days, I had to decide between riding in the dark or spending long nights in my bivy sack. This led me to plan my ride differently, so that I typically arrived in a town shortly after sunset rather than wild camping in the desert.
Anybody who’s spent time in a bivy sack will agree, they grow cramped after 7-8 hours. i didn’t even have a book to read! If I had carried a tent (and a kindle), I would have been more comfortable camping. As it stands, I only recommend this route when there is more daylight, if you’re traveling with a riding partner, or, at least, when carrying a tent.
If you’re an avid bikepacker, add the New Mexico Off-Road Runner to your to-do list. I bet it’s stunning in late March or April, but it enjoys a long riding season if you don’t mind long desert nights!