Some of you may remember awhile back when we turned the reins of the Surly Blog over to our pal Elena so she could tell us about her bikepacking trip up to the Superior National Forest. Maybe you remember. Maybe you don't. Maybe you're not even sure how you ended up here or what day of the week it is. Seeing as it's Monday and we usually post things on Mondays and Elena's last blog was so good and she just recently did another really cool bikepacking trip, we thought we'd hand things over to her again.
So, without further adieu, here's Elena.
Words by Elena Alsides-Haynes. Photos by Will Olsen.
Hey Surly fans,
I feel confident stating that this past winter here in the great frozen lands of Minnesota has been a real tough one. As Minnesotans, we try to put up a big front of faux hardiness in regards to our winters but this year was a tough one and I started to plan a winter escape as soon as the temperatures dipped below 30.
It's always been hard for me to even envision a relaxing vacation drinking fruity beverages on a beach for some reason. The idea of leaving a bike behind feels strange, and like I'd be a leaving a good friend out of the fun. So without even really ever discussing other options, my partner Will and I immediately began to look up bikepacking routes on one of our favorite resources, bikepacking.com. After exploring the magical and miserable Baja Divide route last year, and spending some time up north in October, we've grown to trust the routes on this website. Knowing that we A) definitely wanted to go somewhere warm, B) missed the desert, and C) wanted to go to a place that always has hot sauce in the condiment area of a restaurant table, New Mexico was a natural choice. We chose the New Mexico Off-Road Runner after reading the description, crossing our fingers that this route would have the smooth dusty dirt roads that we'd hoped for with the Baja Divide.
As is so often the case, the departure date for this trip approached both far too slowly and way too quickly all at once and before we knew it we were leaving the following week. On cue, I dissolved into a panic realizing I had barely done anything to prepare, and Will picked up the slack, shipped our bikes and reminded me that yes, I do know how to ride a bike and that it was all gonna be a-okay. Before we knew it, we were on a plane to El Paso, Texas where we were going to catch a commuter bus to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Public transportation rules.
Thanks to Justin, our friend and coworker from the Hub, who did this route about a month before us, we were set up to stay with a rad person named Kevin in Las Cruces, and later in the trip, a great couple named Mark and Amy just outside of Magdalena. Kevin had worked with Will to arrange for our bikes to be shipped to their house and picked us up from the bus station in a truck that looked like it was straight out of Fury Road. Due to this, combined with the fact that they were ridiculously nice, we took an instant liking to them.
We set to building our bikes as soon as we got out of the truck. Upon unpacking my fork I was hit with a reminder that I'd completely forgotten to investigate a creaking in my headset before the bikes got packed. I'd heard it when Chad and I did the trip up north, then promptly forgotten about it when I got back. The cause was obvious now: my bearings had exploded during transport, leaving behind a very worn looking cage. I was at least as crushed as my bearing, but Kevin and Will cheered me up. Kevin worked at a bike shop that was basically in his backyard, and we could go there right when it opened the next day. Resigning to the knowledge we'd be sticking around in Las Cruces one extra day, I cracked a beer and tried to relax.
That extra day in Las Cruces ended up being awesome. We grabbed a delicious breakfast at a place called Mesilla Valley Kitchen, checked out (and were very well taken care of at) Outdoor Adventures, the bike shop where Kevin worked and had some delicious brews and a lotta laughs at High Desert Brewing. Las Cruces treated us very well, and we were a little bit sad as we passed out that evening knowing we'd be leaving the next morning.
During our time at the brewery, we'd met another person who works at Outdoor Adventures and they told us about alternate route out of Las Cruces they called “No More Tortillas” that connected with the Off-Road Runner further along. This route was supposed to be super chill and primarily smooth dirt roads - really, all that Will and I were looking for. We downloaded it on to Ride With GPS that night and as we rolled out of town the next morning we were stoked to realize that it was exactly as promised. The No More Tortillas route delivered the ultimate chill and made our first day riding very enjoyable. At one point we decided to ride some pavement and by accident cut 20 miles from our day. We arrived in Hatch, worth noting as the "Green Chili Capital of the World", after 40-ish easy miles at 2 pm and promptly descended on Sparkys Burger & BBQ for its famed green chili cheeseburger.
Sparkys is worth a trip all on its own - the decorations are nearly overwhelming but once you take them all in they make the restaurant feel like a museum of historic diner and fast food history. All of the walls are covered in memorabilia from long gone restaurants, making it feel kitschy but in a charming way. We discussed the possibility of continuing on that day since we still had a good four hours of daylight left while we waited for our food but all talk ended as soon as our food arrived.
We each got a green chili cheeseburger, a shake (Will, a classic chocolate, me, a mango green chili), a lemonade (also with green chili) and fries. After our food, all thoughts of riding on dissolved. In my excitement over food and fierce stubborn optimism, I had ordered the shake in direct opposition to my lactose intolerance. Long story short it turned out that we were staying in Hatch that night. We got a hotel and Will tried not to laugh at me for the rest of our time there.
The next day's riding was a stark contrast to the previous. While it was indisputably hecking gorgeous — think vast blue skies and white sandy roads — there were multiple sections that had an eerie resemblance to Baja. At one point, after pulling my bike and then me up an incline that was reminiscent of a wall but full of rocks, Will remarked loudly "Wow what does this remind you of, HMMM?" This, plus the beating sun that had my shirt covered in sweat, left me with shaky legs at the halfway point. I was moving slow, much slower than we needed to be to make it to Truth or Consequences by the days end. I was cursing my soft winter legs, my smoker’s lungs, my continued insistence on bikepacking rather than going to a damn tropical hotel for vacation, and anything else that I could think of when my train of thought was derailed by a truck rambling down the road.
We pulled over for the truck to pass since we were on a narrow ranch road. The truck driver waved at us as he passed, and we nodded back. The passenger in the truck then got out and opened the gate to the ranch property we had just passed through and they drove through. Since we were paused and pulled off the road, I looked over at Will and asked if we could take a break. He nodded, we put our bikes on the ground and stretched. After a little bit, we were back on our bikes and double checking the route for any possible shortcut to town. The route has you detour from what is a relatively direct dirt path following power lines between the towns in order to refuel on water. This adds miles, but also ensures that you don't run out of water. We were looking to see if we could cut some miles by trying to rejoin the main dirt path when the truck returned on the dirt road. This time, it stopped.
"Hey you folks okay?" asked the driver.
"We're fine" Will replied.
"Where ya headed?"
"Truth or Consequences"
"Oh," the driver said, then looked at his companion and back at us, "so are we after turn off one more water pump. Want a ride?"
So fast that Will didn't have a chance to reply I replied "YES THANK YOU" and despite the incredibly large amount of time I spend listening to true crime podcasts I all but leaped into the bed of the truck. Will scrambled in after me with our bikes and then we were off, watching the dust from the road rise as the truck rambled on at a much faster pace then we had been moving.
Our road savior Miguel dropped us off in the hot springs district of Truth or Consequences. For those that don't know, one of the most incredible aspects of New Mexico is the availability of hot springs. In Truth or Consequences, it's pretty easy to book a room at a hotel that at least has a hot spring on the property. Since we hadn't reserved a room anywhere we missed out on getting a hot spring in our room but definitely managed to find a motel with one on the property. Our tired muscles appreciated it and we passed out rejuvenated.
The next day we rode to Winston, and I was thankful for the relatively paved roads as there were was a considerable amount of climbing. We knew when we chose to ride the route from south to north that we'd be doing a net elevation gain, however, in the scheme of things it was really only noticeable on a few of the days of the trip. This was one of them.
Winston is a fairly small town but has an awesome, incredibly stocked general store. We loaded up on chili dogs and chips and camped that night across the street in an RV park.
The next section has two options: you can do an epic sounding section in Chloride Canyon, or head straight towards Magdalena. We'd chosen to head towards Magdalena, and started early in the morning on some paved roads that quickly turned in gravel. The miles went fast, and we were feeling good when stopped for lunch about 30 miles into the day. After refueling on peanut butter, clementines, and hot Cheetos, we entered what was hands down the most beautiful and interesting section of the whole trip: the Cibola National Forest.
The riding was gorgeous. For the first time on the trip we were surrounded by Ponderosa pine trees, and we had an incredible long descent into Bear Trap Canyon where we encountered damp, pink sand and dirt and, much to our surprise, snow.
According to the route, we knew we were supposed to refill our water bottles here and we openly laughed when we realized that the place where we were supposed to refill our water bottles was in fact, a pond. A frozen pond. Remember the snow? We both took our own approaches to breaking the ice (Will found a rock, I stomped until the ice broke and my foot, potentially predictably, plunged into the cold water and I cursed everything I had ever known loudly until Will calmed me down). We pushed forward for a few miles after the pond until we found a national forest campground where we were promptly adopted by a family that was grilling brats over a fire and hanging out. One of the most amazing aspects of bike touring is unquestionably the profound kindness that strangers show. This family fed us, gave us multiple plastic water bottles and beers from their cooler, and helped us start a large fire that kept us warm long after they left.
The next morning was fucking cold.
Despite seeing the snow the day before, we were unprepared for how cold it got that night. The next morning had us shivering in our sleeping bags for warmth long after the sun broke through the sky. After accepting that it wasn't likely to get much warmer anytime soon, we packed up and rode out of Bear Trap Canyon and into the most magical descent of my life. The five-mile descent from Mt. Withington is full of switchbacks, has incredible views that stun you into silence, drops you off right in the middle of the Very Large Array, and then propels you forward on a chill doubletrack to Magdalena. The ride from Bear Trap to Magdalena is a relatively short section and we got there much quicker than expected. Here we were meeting with another group of folks our friend Justin had connected us with and they came and picked us up from town (they live about five miles out). Mark and Amy live on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I've ever had the privilege of staying on (the Cibola National Forest is their backyard) and due to their incredible kindness, Amy's amazing cooking, and the fact that despite how gorgeous the riding the day before had been, my legs were exhausted, we stayed an extra day with them and their adorable pups.
While we stayed with them we plotted our next move. The route from Magdalena north has a couple of options. There's an RV park about 60 miles from there that is fairly close to Belen, and from Belen, you can either catch the commuter train to Santa Fe or Albuquerque, or you can continue on into the Santa Fe National Forest and then Santa Fe. The forecast for the next few days was questionable and included rain. Rain on clay mud — a lot of what we were riding — spells disaster. There was no escape out of the national forest if the weather went to shit, and we were on a tight schedule to catch our flight. After deliberating, and a lot of grimacing as we remembered the wet clay mud from Baja, we chose to ride to Belen and catch the commuter train to spend a day in Santa Fe and then head to Albuquerque to pack our bikes and catch our flight.
The riding after Magdalena was beautiful and despite having to walk a few inclines since I was having trouble with the elevation gain, we made good time to Riley, a ghost town bordering the Rio Salado, where we stopped for lunch. The town was fascinating and as Will unpacked our lunch, I spent time reading the tombstones in the graveyard from a century ago. There are multiple obituaries that told of murder in stagecoach robberies. It was like being exposed to true tales of the Wild West, and I reveled in it as we ate our cold burritos.
From Riley, we hit fast moving dirt roads that after climbing, allowed us some of the most breathtaking and fun riding of the whole trip. We rode service roads that take you around the Sierra Ladrones — a mountain range that caps in a rugged looking peak and that you follow for miles and miles until you're on the other side and heading straight north. We did some of our fastest riding here and easily made our goal of reaching the RV park and setting up camp before sundown.
The next day we headed to Belen and to the end of our time riding the Off-Road Runner. As always, I was immediately wistful for the trip before we even clocked our last mile. As we rode our few remaining miles, Will and I were already planning our next tour.
Review of the Route:
This route is great. Riding South to North worked pretty well for us, though there are multiple reviews of riding the route from North to South too so check out those as well! We chose this direction due to it being more affordable to fly into El Paso from Minneapolis at the time of our trip and hearing rumors that the wind would be in our favor. The wind, predictably, did not care which way we were riding.
The elevation isn't a joke, if you're coming from a very low elevation place like the midwest, be aware that it might mess with you a bit.
We loved using our Trolls on this trip. You could probably get away with a narrower tire bike if you want. I love my 26" steel mountain bike though and think it worked out perfectly.
TUBELESS IS A REQUIREMENT. There are so many goat heads and little thorns, you will be thanking and hugging your tubeless tire after.
Do this route, ride it, have fun. Be in the desert. The desert rules. Escape the desolate winter whenever possible.