At over 1.6 million acres, New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest is big… and diverse. That massive acreage is divided into multiple parcels scattered far and wide across a huge state, and encompasses elevations ranging from just 2,700 feet above sea level all the way up to 11,000 feet. Most of the mountain biking is located in either the Sandia Ranger District, covering the Sandia Mountains and the Manzanita Mountains east and southeast of Albuquerque, or the Mt. Taylor Ranger District, covering Mt. Taylor and the Zuni Mountains east and southeast of Gallup near the Arizona border. More remote, undeveloped, and rarely-visited are the Mountainair Ranger District in the middle of the state, and the Magdalena Ranger District lying further south between Interstate 25 and Arizona.
Such far-flung parcels provide a fantastic variety for visitors in terms of geography, geology, and level of adventure. Whether you’re looking for a busy, well-established trail system adjacent to a major metropolitan area, or an epic, unmapped excursion into the truly wild, the Cibola will accommodate. Here’s a quick guide to a forest you’ve probably not considered for a bike vacation… but should:
The Top 10 Mountain Bike Trails in the Cibola National Forest
The named Otero Canyon Trail is a fairly short one, but it is the anchor point for a massive trail system covering the Manazanita Mountains just minutes from Albuquerque. The system has absolutely everything you could possibly want in a ride: massive climbs, furious descents, smooth and buff singletrack as well as ledgy, techy, trials-like spots. There’s enough mileage and ways to mix it up, you could come here every weekend for a year and never really repeat yourself.
“Otero Canyon trails are pretty awesome. There’s plenty of climbing, with some climbs being easy and others being fairly technical. The good news is that once the climbing is over with, there’s some amazing downhill.
The Zuni Mountains southeast of Gallup are home to another massive network. With multiple trailheads and plenty of ways to customize the distance and challenge, this is another place you can ride repeatedly without ever tiring of it. Individual segments like Quasimodo, Milk Ranch, Quaking Aspen, and the Plush Trail are local favorites and deserve renown well beyond the local area.
“This trail system has 26 miles of stacked loops, as well as quite a few other trails in the vicinity that are in the process of being marked and improved. As a system it offers narrow singletrack loops of up to 50 miles, going through a variety of terrain, from flowing Ponderosa meadows to rocky canyon bottoms, and high ridges with huge panoramic views. More info at http://www.galluptrails.com/gallup-area-trail-info.” -bsieb22
The Faulty Trail is not so named because there’s anything wrong with it. Quite the contrary: this is top-quality, often technical singletrack. The name derives from the ledgy fault rock that makes up much of its surface. Faulty links up to many other trails on the backside of Sandia Peak, making for almost unlimited challenge and fun. When I first rode Faulty, I had an absolute blast and posted the following review on Singletracks:
“What an outstanding trail network! If you’re an advanced and adventurous rider, you will likely love this place. It’s a little harder to get to than many Albuquerque-area rides, but well-worth it, especially of you’ve exhausted the Otero Canyon Area. The Faulty Trail provides miles of technical bench cut trail with lots of options to lengthen your ride on neighboring trails.”
Albuquerque is one of those major metropolitan areas blessed to be sitting next to a major mountain range. Sandwiched between the city and the Sandia Mountain Wilderness is a perfectly-accessible yet wonderfully-entertaining trail network in the Sandia foothills. There’s also a separate south foothills area with additional miles for even more amusement. Just be ready to dodge the cacti, especially the cholla.
“Fast, fun, wide, local singletrack. Old school locals ride this counter clockwise from the south trailhead toward the tram in the north. Great place for seasoned beginners.” -Fatbike1
At an elevation of 11,306ft, Mt. Taylor is the high point in our survey of the Cibola National Forest. The mountain just happens to harbor some quality singletrack for the adventurous rider. If climbing to the summit isn’t challenging enough, you can link to the Continental Divide Trail for more miles than your legs can handle.
“Awesome Trail! Everything one could want in scenery, from high alpine environments to desert environments. In addition, trail surfaces vary hugely, from buff to tight and loose to pumice-filled technical sections! Make sure to bring plenty of water and food because it can get pretty hot in the summer. If you can bear the heat in late June, get down there to watch a variety of different cacti bloom on the trail! Enjoy!” -Matthew Bonner
Also sitting on the backside of the Sandia Range is the Sandia Peak Ski Area. Some riders head up on the weekends to take advantage of the lifts and ride the relatively-easy downhill run it serves, while aerobic hammerheads get their Strava goin’ on the King of the Hill climb from the base to the summit.
“Good place to challenge your climbing skills in the thin oxygen, reaching up to over 10,000 feet. Worth checking out.” -Fatbike1
Another Manzanita Mountain collection, these trails, and the adjacent connectors, offer many miles of moderately-rocky singletrack, open meadows, and tight ducking through the pinion trees. It’s perfect for a growing intermediate rider or an expert looking to set some personal records. Being a little lower than the Otero network, these trails also benefit by offering a slightly longer riding season.
“The trail is all rock garden. . . .Very technical and fun.” -trek is amazing
Utah and Arizona are not the only place with massive slabs of rideable red slickrock. What makes the New Mexico version unique is that it sits among a pine forest at 8,000 feet in elevation.
“I started with the as-published “Red Rocks” trail and found it to [be a] very peaceful and enjoyable ride. The ride through the aspen forest is amazing! I suspect this feeling of riding through a canopy of trees and foliage may be what you eastern riders experience all the time. It is a bit different for a guy that is used to riding through pine forests. The site of the “Red Rocks” is pretty amazing.” –jdfinley.com
The high desert at the northwestern base of the Sandias is home to miles of smooth, flowy singletrack. There’s little in the way of inherent challenge, making this a great place for those new to the sport… but you will find occasional air opportunities! For those wanting to go fast, there’s always the “Bobsled” trail, which is tilted just enough to keep your speed up, but not so much to require brakes.
“Nice ride with quick access to the trail. Watch for rattlesnakes in the evening.” -jonespi77
Our last listing is another trip into the Manzanitas, this time to an area known as Oak Flat, populated mostly by the so-called Mahogany Trails. This area is less rocky than other Manzanita rides, making for great, high speed cross country riding. Since these trails can be connected to the Otero network and the Coyote/Chamisoso network, the mileage potential is practically unlimited.
“I rode this area for the second time today, and there’s some really interesting stuff. There’s a few nice technical climbs/chunky downhills if you take the right trails.
It’s weird though, because the first time I rode this area, it seemed mostly flowy and flat. I guess you just need to get to know which trails you like.” -skelldify
5 Best Off-the-Bike Activities in the Cibola National Forest
As you might guess, all these mountains and their surrounding environs offer more to do than just riding bikes. Here are a few activities to keep you entertained when you’re saddle sore.
Riding your bike up the backside of the Sandias isn’t the only way to summit Sandia Peak. You can also ride the tram up the front side right from the city of Albuquerque. Once up top, you can hike or grab a bite to eat on the balcony of a restaurant with one of the biggest lunch views you will ever see.
Albuquerque is home to the world’s largest hot air balloon event, the annual Balloon Fiesta held each October. But you don’t have to come in October to catch a ride, as outfitters stand ready to offer rides anytime.
In addition to excellent mountain biking, the Strawberry Trailhead in the Zuni Mountains serves as the base for a nice hike up to the old McGaffey Lookout tower.
A pleasant lake at 7,500 feet offers hiking, birding, fishing, and horseback riding.
If the geology buff in you wants to explore the area’s red rock at a more leisurely pace, hit Gallup’s Red Rock Park. The Pyramid Rock Trail makes for an especially nice hike and the Red Rock Museum is well-worth a stop.
5 Best Campgrounds in the Cibola National Forest
The McGaffey Campground has water, toilets, and is adjacent to the Strawberry Trailhead for your riding and hiking pleasure.
Just down the road from the McGaffey Campground, Quaking Aspen sits at the Hilso Trailhead and makes a good base for your riding adventures in the Zuni Mountains. Just remember to bring your own water.
The Coal Mine Campground makes a good base for your Mt. Taylor excursion.
Just driving through Red Rock Park not enough? Stop and camp for the full experience.
It’s a good thing there’s plenty of lodging options in nearby Albuquerque, because the Sandia Ranger District has little in the way of camping. If you must stay in the woods for your Manzanita rides, Cedro Peak is your best bet.
3 Most Notable Events in the Cibola National Forest
Remember 24-hour racing? It’s still alive and well in the Zuni Mountains. Ride solo or join a team, but be sure to get a night shift to get the full effect of the “enchanted forest.”
Remember all those miles and miles of trail networks crossing the entire Manzanita range? Well, what better place for an endurance event? If 24 hours in the Zunis is too much, do 12 in the Manzanitas.
Lastly, we have yet another endurance event in the Manzanitas, but this one is based on distance rather than time. This is a fully unsupported ride, so whether you choose to race the short (46-mile) or long (67-mile) course, you’ll need to be self-sufficient.
3 Bike Shops Near the Cibola National Forest
Fat Tire Cycles is Albuquerque’s source for high end bikes and also carries a full line of accessories.
With two locations, High Desert should make a convenient stop whichever side of Albuquerque you’re on. They also have a good rental fleet if you’re in town without your rig.
Cycle Cave is a friendly, full-service shop in the middle of Albuquerque