High Desert Trails … Best Ride in New Mexico?
Well I found out about the High Desert Trails when I knew for sure we would be going through New Mexico. I went to the Mountain Bike Project (MTB Project) site and loaded up the data for New Mexico. After the download was completed I looked at the MTB Project page and found they have two different ratings:
The Best Trail: South Boundary (Angel Fire, NM)
The Best Ride: High Desert Trails (Gallup, NM)
Now I had to dig a little deeper to see what the difference was between a Ride and a Trail. Here are their definitions:
Trail: A single trail as you would find on a traditional map.
Ride: A complete, recommended route that might include parts or all of several trails and maybe even portions of roads to connect them.
This made a lot of sense to me.
The South Boundary Trail (which I rode in 2013) was a delightful 27+ mile snake through thick forests connecting the towns of Angel Fire and Taos.
The (MTB Project) description and map for the High Desert Trails showed a figure eight type of layout, with recommendations as to how to go about riding the two connected loops.
We arrived in Gallup on a Friday night. Cindy and I were towing our 1983 Terry trailer and my older brother (George) was traveling in his motorhome. We had not planned on traveling through Gallup when we first started planning our trip months in advance. We were supposed to leave San Diego for Duluth, Minnesota (where we were born) on September the 8th but had to postpone when George developed a severe infection in his urinary tract, one that kept him in the hospital for nearly two weeks.
Two more weeks of IV antibiotics meant we were not going to visit one of the coldest spots in the nation, even though we had not been there in fifty years.
So now we are on a more southerly path. One that has taken us to Gallup, New Mexico.
I wanted to get a decent start since rain was predicted in the early afternoon. When I awoke I quickly looked at my watch … 7:30. If I ate a quick breakfast and got all my gear ready I could be on the road by 8:00, not the greatest of starts but not bad considering the lack of sleep I had managed due to the proximity of the USA RV Park to the railroad tracks and Interstate 40.
Time Zone Tricked
However, when I picked up my phone I realized I had been duped once again, for its display showed 8:30. When will I ever learn to reset my watch when crossing into new time zones?
I hurried out of the USA RV Park, pedaled hard down Old Route 66, turned right onto Mentmore Road, and quickly reached the High Desert Trails parking area and trailhead. Two cars were sitting in the lot but neither seemed to be set up to carry a mountain bike. My body was a ball of sweat as I had worn my windbreaker to keep warm upon exiting the trailer. I quickly shed the jacket figuring I could always put it back on when I cooled down (which it never did).
The trail started down a loose sandy wash and I started to think maybe I was riding this trail a day too early. Soon I came upon a basketball size area of the soil which looked to be scorched. I picked up a handful of the jet black substance and recognized the same texture and sheen I had seen before in Utah. I was looking at a blanket of coal. (Later on this ride I gained sight of a plant which looked to be processing coal.)
Bring on the Hoodoos
After leaving the coal field I wound around some bluffs on a sandy trail and soon began to climb. Not more than a hundred feet farther I came across my first Hoodoo of the day. The first of many.
I also came across one of the largest trail cairns I have seen since biking the Broken Arrow Trail in Sedona, maybe even larger. (As the day progressed I would come across dozens of these huge structures.)
Another hundred yards brought me to the first junction of the day. I had reached the bottom of the eight for the figure eight trail pattern. Caution tape blocked off a rogue trail heading sharply off to my left. Two choices remained … a trail slightly off to my left or one approaching at a sharp angle to the right.
My MTB Project app recommended I take the left side of the eight, cross over to the right at the intersection, do the entire top of the eight, and finish on the bottom right of the eight. (I later learned the bottom of the eight was called “Third Mesa,” while the top was, “Second Mesa.” So I was going to ride halfway around Third Mesa clockwise. I would then do an entire counterclockwise circle around Second Mesa, and finish the ride clockwise around Third Mesa.)
Out of Shape
The climb around the north and up onto Third Mesa (temporarily) took a little out of me. I had been on my bike only two times since George went down. I had spent a lot of time visiting to help keep his spirits up and to give his wife (also named Cindy) a chance to go home, get cleaned up, and get some rest.
However, the hospital was just an excuse for me. I had plenty of time to work in some local rides, but I just didn’t feel like it.
I had been so pumped … so looking forward to exploring new rides in Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and more. I just didn’t feel like riding my same old San Diego trails.
Anyway, my lack of conditioning gave me multiple opportunities to take photos of hoodoos, sheets of slickrock, the coal producing plant to the north, and patches of soil with strange textures and coloration.
During this stretch I came across several signs and arrows facing the opposite way. I wondered who had laid out the course exactly opposite to the way MTB Project had suggested the ride.
After a mere 2 miles from the trailhead I reached the middle of the figure eight, where I found a metal pole supporting a metal box with the words “Trail Register,” welded onto the top in cursive. During my years of riding I have come across many trail registers. But never have I come across one so elaborate!
I entered my name and website and closed the box.
Here, at this point in time, I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I just went brain dead. The trail upon which I had arrived continued straight, while the other trail crossed perpendicularly (to the left and right). For some reason, for which I am still not sure, I took the trail to the right!
For that right side trail immediately dropped fifty feet down a chute, and leveled off as it skirted the cap rock along the top of a hundred foot cliff. Then came some huge sheets of slickrock, a short climb under some unusual hoodoos, and finally the descent down the face of another cliff!
A Mountain Lion!
At one point I came across the silhouette of mountain lion sitting on the top of a bluff in the distance. I immediately stopped and watched for a minute or two. During this time the lion never moved. I was pleased to see the trail took me right to the base of the cat … a cat cut out of half inch steel plating.
Finally, I skirted a small hill and found myself, once again, approaching the caution tape junction! Where I had been less than an hour before! The right hand trail had taken me around the south side of Third Mesa. I had completed a full circle around Third Mesa!
Decisions … Decisions
I just sat at the sign and wondered how I would continue. Should I turn around and go back to the Trail Register the way I had just come down? Or, should I just ride up the north side of Third Mesa the way I had done earlier. I even considered going back to the trailhead and starting the whole ride over again. Maybe even quitting and doing the ride the next day!
I finally decided to repeat my trip around the north side of Third Mesa, and try to forget I had screwed up. Act as if I had never been on the figure eight trail before!
Now, don’t get me wrong … I will never regret riding that south side of Third Mesa. My screw up allowed me to ride the best piece of trail twice!
The second time I approached the Trail Register I continued on straight, which took me around the south side of Second Mesa. The highlight of this part had to be the view toward the town of Gallup, the USA RV Park, and the beautifully designed sundial mounted on the edge of a cliff.
I have seen many sundials at museums and most of them did not seem real accurate. So, I was real excited when I looked at the sundial and then my watch … both said 10:30!
However, my excitement was quickly extinguished when I suddenly remembered my watch was still an hour off. I had not yet reset it! The time was actually 11:30.
I was especially impressed by the base … what looked to be vines or the stems of plants bundled together. I can’t imagine how these artists think of things like that.
The trails around Second Mesa were much more flat and less technical which allowed for higher speeds and not as many photos. When I reached the top of the figure eight I came to a sign for a trail to continue on to the eastern trailhead (Called Gamerco), four miles ahead. My MTB Project app did not have me going out to Gamerco, but continuing on around Second Mesa.
I called Cindy to see if they we doing anything or just waiting at the USA RV Park for me. She said they were, in fact, just sitting in camp, waiting for me. So I decided not to continue on to Gamerco, but to finish the figure eight.
North Side of Second Mesa
Riding the north side of Second Mesa proved to be a blast. Several times I was able to drop off ledges and lean into some turns, all the time maneuvering around some astounding shapes created by Mother Nature.
I passed an area where the hoodoos stood as towers of yellow mustard. I wondered if they were actually made of uranium, as they looked just like the Yellowcake Uranium I had observed in the New Mexico Mining Museum in the town of Grants later in the day.
As I mixed some Skratch powder in my bottle as I was joined by a pair of High Desert Trails jack rabbits. Actually, I was visiting them, for they were also made out of steel plating and continued to sit on the rock slab before me.
When I came to the Trail Registry again I didn’t even slow down. I was eager to ride the southern edge of Third Mesa. I rode the section more aggressively already knowing what to expect and having already taken photos of the noteworthy elements of the ride … including that mountain lion!
I didn’t stop when I approached the caution tape junction for the third time. Just made a left turn and continued back to the Mentone Trailhead.
As I cruised down Mentmore Road and back up Route 66 I thought about my ride on the High Desert Trails.
What made people rate this the best ride in New Mexico?
Could the high ranking be due to …
Maybe. I found the hoodoos very appealing and the views to the north and east very pleasing. The coal field and the varying texture and colors of the rock were remarkable. The iron sculpted mountain lion, rabbits, trail registry box, and sundial provided an interesting artistic touch.
The trails themselves?
Possibly. The trails were well designed, maintained, and marked. Trail markers were the largest and most abundant. The figure eight route was well thought out (even though I was not sharp enough to follow it)!
The thrill and challenge?
Yes. Although the High Desert Trails offered few places to hit top speeds, the sheer rockiness of the tread provided many challenging obstacles. The trail designer made sure our route passed along the edge of the cliffs, much like those at Gooseberry Mesa in Utah. The drastic descent on the face of Third Mesa was a kick.
So, overall I too would have to give the High Desert Trails great marks. The best ride in New Mexico? I am not sure. I guess I had better try some of the others. I can’t wait!
During most visits I take many more photos than I can place on a page. To view every image I captured … 58 photos in all, please visit my Photo Gallery Site.
The following link can give you all the stats for this ride … just click on the box below.
Would you like to try this ride? You can copy my GPX file from the Strava Link below.