Why Bike Tour? – A One Way Tour Through Northern New Mexico to Four Corners Folk Festival

Starting the first big climb into the Sandia Mountains with Geoff Rawling.
Starting the first big climb into the Sandia Mountains with Geoff Rawling.

By Patrick Walsh

Just before leaving for our journey, someone asks why we are doing this ride. I begin to describe New Mexico’s brightly colored rocks, cultural mix, and geology but quickly realize that they are asking more broadly. Why bike tour and perhaps then, why this route? I do not have an easy answer. I think about it again days later, after flying to Albuquerque, reconstructing my Surly at Geoff’s, and getting a couple days into the ride.

We start in Edgewood, about 30 miles east of the city, riding first over the Sandia Mountains. The Sandia Crest Scenic Byway is the steepest uphill grinds we have, winding up drainages between limestone and granite cliffs. Just past the Sandia Peak Ski Area entrance, we half-jokingly talk about adding an out and back to the top. We turn off toward Placitas, leaving pavement and ride over the mountain’s north shoulder. The road is pretty rough, and I stop for a rest below a bluff where two guys apparently don’t see me. They yell to Geoff “Your friend was looking back for you, I think he was worried!” He quips “I was looking forward for him!” They laugh, appreciating the banter, and we continue, screaming down the pocked and rocky road. We pull off into a stealth camp that Geoff scouted in advance because roadside camping is prohibited. These mountains can be over-loved with their close proximity to the city. Bear scat is plentiful throughout the meadow and on all paths around it, but we are never disturbed. Staying in the forest, we do not get the full effect of the vibrant pink sunsets for which the mountains are named; Sandia is watermelon in Spanish.

Geoff approaching the Gilman Tunnels.
Geoff approaching the Gilman Tunnels.

A fast, mostly paved drop into Bernalillo leads to a major fuel up at the Range Café with huge New Mexican breakfasts of biscuits topped with eggs, sausage and bacon and sides of potatoes, cheese, and beans, all topped with green chile. There is no comfort food like New Mexican, and we slowly pedal away, stopping for water at a gas station where a friendly boy asks some questions about where we started and where we are going. As we make our way up the wide shoulders of US 550, the kid’s questions bring me back to thinking about why we ride. A big component is not knowing exactly what we will see and having the time to look. We anticipate challenging climbs, snaking down mountains, and relaxing with no phones or laptops. We are unexpectedly treated to thunderstorms building in the distance, plentiful water, and chance wildlife sightings, all which add to my rekindling love for New Mexico’s red sandstone and deep blue sky. Even with these tangibles, I still can’t exactly describe why pedaling for a week is fun.

We pass through the Jemez Pueblo, stopping for lunch at their roadside stands and filling up on Indian fry bread and Green Chile Stew. Turning off toward Gilman, where the number of cars drops to barely a trickle, we pedal up the silent road, noting the classic northern New Mexico juxtaposition of trophy houses and shacks that share the same spectacular view. I stop to contemplate some roadside faults that predate the volcanic rocks from the most recent Valles Caldera eruption. Geoff yells “Qu’est-ce que c’est; Patrick, what do you see,” quoting a geology professor whom we learned from more than a decade ago. We discuss the outcrop like two geeky undergrads. Shortly, the road leads to two old logging railroad tunnels before turning back to nicely graded dirt. We find a great camp next to the Rio Guadalupe, cooling off in the bubbling stream.

NM bicycle tour mapAs we continue my explanations multiply without converging. Today seems to be about lessons, especially the importance of patience—in photography, in waiting out a lightning and rainstorm, and more abstractly in interactions with people in daily life. The relaxed pace of touring and the waiting allow me to appreciate things for which I don’t usually have time. The other perhaps more practical lesson is that my cleats have loosened, and one falls off. Luckily, I notice it and find the bolts, but in the future I will tighten them and carry a spare. We spin up the wet but not-too-muddy road through a decade-old burn where young aspens have taken over what used to be pine forest, then past old split rail fences and giant boulders. The sky clears, offering views of Redondo Peak near the center of the caldera. We finish the day near San Antonio Hot Springs, soaking at dusk as the shadows engulf the narrow canyon. We wade through the stream for more stealth camping about a half mile upstream from the parking area. We are not the first here; a big fire ring marks where others have stayed, but we elect to have a typical fire-less night. We share the valley only with cows, and it could easily be mistaken for Yellowstone but for lack of hordes of people. We talk over dinner about why we bicycle tour. Geoff says that you obviously have to really like riding a bike. That is part of it too.

Forging a big washout near San Antonio Hot Springs.
Forging a big washout near San Antonio Hot Springs.

While the dew dries from our tents, we wander with morning coffee to where the sun is shining through a break in the ridge. Our canyon resists letting the sunlight reach the floor, and we patiently wait it out before starting back up to the NM-126. Smooth pavement down to Fenton Lake is refreshing and where we observe my tires’ lower rolling resistance. We watch people fishing while we fill up on water. The road soon turns back to dirt that is graded except for a recently flooded section where crews are repairing. This section is another gem with few cars in a couple hours of riding past forests and fields. Back on pavement, we skip our planned campground in favor of another half hour of high speed coasting down to Cuba where we can replenish whiskey and other supplies and eat at Bruno’s. Carne Adovado Burritos, chips and salsa, and 2 margaritas result in the pedaling equivalent of waddling to USFS land about 2 miles uphill off of US 550. Eating inhuman quantities of food with no repercussions is another element to be appreciated. But today, I realize that at this point in my life the closest I will come to a conclusion of the why ride question is the transformations I enjoy after only a few days of bicycle camping. My cell phone turns from leash to unnecessary weight, my tent turns into a home, my bike turns into a path for me to leave my driven fast-paced life in favor of contemplative observation. Other sports and outings provide aspects of these, but only bicycle touring is complete. We spend dusk talking about future tour ideas over dinner. We have more ideas than time, and our list includes some lower-suffering options to consider with our wives.

Riding NM-126 red dirt in the Jemez Mountains before the descent into Cuba, NM.
Riding NM-126 red dirt in the Jemez Mountains before the descent into Cuba, NM.

We get an earlier start to try to beat some of the lower elevation heat and we enjoy new scenery of rolling hills, almost reminiscent of Texas Hill Country but with fewer cars, different vegetation, and looming cliffs. We stop in the middle of the paved road to chat with 2 friendly southerners riding the Great Divide Route. We had not realized Geoff’s well-planned route shared almost a full day with this famous Adventure Cycling tour route. There is no danger in our mid-road meeting because no cars have passed in hours. These guys seem happy after 4 weeks of riding, and we both think, “We could do that.” After all, our new acquaintances are easily 20 years our senior. If only we had more vacation. By the time we leave the pavement and enter the seemingly deserted Jicarilla Apache reservation, the sun is beating down, and the misery index rises from lunchtime until we get to El Vado Reservoir. The reservoir is really low due to some ongoing repair work on the dam, and we elect to camp below the dam at the Cooper Ranch, which sells cold drinks and ice cream. These luxuries, the cold beer offered by some locals, and dipping our heads in the river are a welcome respite after a long hot day. The Great Divide riders had missed this place because it is downhill from their route and has an expired-looking sign. The old motel by the dam is closed, so the riders had been disappointed in not finding cold drinks in this area. We relax and sip whiskey until nightfall, starting to feel the trip coming to a close.

Desolation near the boundary of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.
Desolation near the boundary of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.

The next morning begins even earlier, remembering the heat from the previous day and riding back into Jicarilla land on our way to Dulce. Mountains and morning sky are reflected on the calm water as we bike around the reservoir. Only one short, improbably steep climb reminds us of previous-tour sufferings, and the rest of the day’s riding feels easy with a combination of hard-packed dirt and pavement. Our ride through the reservation is a highlight on a trip loaded with great scenery and minimal road traffic. Red rock buttes and a few small lakes line the road. We see few cars by lunchtime, three of which are near a festival ground with permanent tent support structures sprawling along the roadside areas. Crossing the Continental Divide, we get our first views of peaks in the Colorado Rockies. A huge paved descent into Dulce puts us at the Wild Horse Casino surprisingly early, and we discuss route and camping options over decent burgers served on Indian fry bread. We elect to follow the Navajo River down to its intersection with the San Juan, planning to camp just north of the reservation before finishing in Pagosa Springs the next day.

Looking out over the partially drained El Vado Reservoir from the dam.
Looking out over the partially drained El Vado Reservoir from the dam.

The Jicarilla people we meet in Dulce are friendly and curious. It seems that bicycle tourists do not pass through often, and we have several fun conversations. One man greets us by asking if we made a wrong turn in Albuquerque. After hearing our planned route, he warns us of bears along the river. We talk to another man who offers to hook us up with anything we need, also warning us of bears. He invites us to return in the fall for a big running race between two clans. We thank him for the offers and he gives us each a handshake-hug before heading back to his car. In the grocery store, another person warns us of bears. The road soon turns to dirt, and we never see a bear. We do not see a car for another couple of hours, but no suitable camping exists along the San Juan since the entire river is populated by fenced ranchettes, including some pretty aggressive No Trespassing signs. We talk about asking for lawn camping space, but we decide to hoof it all the way to Pagosa Springs, realizing that we should have requested a permit to camp along the Navajo River on the reservation. It is not an easy decision to continue, and it turns our talk from where to camp to how soon we will eat. Over the last 10 miles, as dusk descends, we see several sets of doe and fawns and a herd of 50+ elk near the crest above Pagosa Springs. We roll into town at dark after a 76-mile day. The festival camping is easy to find, and we are really happy to be settled in the grass across the street from a hot springs resort. The city park where we camp even has a hot spring right on the river. We find some Mexican food and cold beers at Tequilas on the main square, toasting the success of one of the best tours we have done. We finish the day soaking in hot spring pools with temperatures labeled from 98 F to the 112 F Lobster Pot. I cannot stay in this one long, but it is still my favorite.

Geoff’s wife Katie and our friends show up the next day, and we have 3 more days of relaxing, listening to great live music, eating, drinking, and hot spring soaking. Gazing at the stars in a hot pool next to the river, I decide that I don’t need to answer the question of why we tour. I begin to plan our next adventure while spending time with friends and enjoying all that the town and festival have to offer.

Nuts and bolts

Start – Edgewood , NM. Albuquerque would work fine too.

Finish – Pagosa Springs, CO

Time of year – Late spring through early fall. We rode in Augus t with perfect days except for a little baking on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation

Route statistics – 263 miles, 14,450 feet climbing, 4 Indian Reservations, 2 states, and few cars for most of the ride

Grocery stores – Edgewood, Cuba, Bernalillo, Dulce, and Pagosa Springs have full size grocery stores

Restaurants – Range Café in Bernalillo, Jemez Pueblo roadside stands, Wild Horse Casino in Dulce, Pagosa Baking Company and Tequilas in Pagosa Springs

Water – Surprisingly plentiful considering we often think of the Four Corners Region as desert. Developed campgrounds including Fenton Lake and Clear Creek have pumped water. We also filtered water from Rio Guadalupe, San Antonio Creek, and Rio Chama.

Bikes – I rode my relatively new Surly LHT Deluxe, which has S&S Couplers on the frame, allowing the bike to be broken down into standard size (check free) luggage for flying. I got some help building this bike from Matthew Larsen Wheelbuilding and Peloton Bicycles in Reno. Geoff rode his Novara touring bike. Both bikes are rigid, and some may prefer front-suspension mountain bikes for the roughest roads

Tires – Mountain or cyclocross will work. I used Continental Travel Contact tires and Geoff used Specialized Crossroads Armadillo tires. Both sets were great for the combination of paved and dirt riding, but the Continentals had much lower rolling resistance. The Travel Contacts are the best 26” tires I have found for touring and commuting.


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