I love it when a plan comes together! A combination of my wife wanting to visit family in Tucson, my son’s 10 day spring break schedule, and my surplus of accumulated vacation time prompted me to create a magnificent bike vacation. While my wife didn’t want to drive from Colorado Springs to Tucson, Miniskibum and I did; our plan was to hit trails along the way and on the way back!
So I mapped out 10 continuous days of riding, 2 top-tier trails per day, covering 5 destinations along the way. Of course, I often generate these grandiose plans and, for a whole host of reasons, never fully execute them. If past performance is any indicator, of 20 trails scheduled, I figured a combination of weather, mechanical failure, family commitments, injury, or just plain fatigue would limit us to a mere 8 to 12 rides–still a pretty good mountain bike vacation. So I put the plan in motion.
On day one, we would travel as far as Gallup, New Mexico, hitting two trails in Northwest New Mexico along the way–one I was familiar with and one that would be new to me. The new trail, Alien Run, about 6 hours from home near Aztec, NM, would be the first stop. Finding Alien Run in the first place was a bit of a challenge. The roads heading out of Aztec aren’t well marked and you go over hill after hill, each one seemingly dotted with a methane extraction facility, all looking the same and nothing really indicating that there is primo singletrack in the neighborhood. Having a local or a good map helps. If all else fails, ask one of the guys sitting in their energy company’s pickup truck for directions.
Once on the trail, it didn’t take long to realize it was worth the effort to get there. The one way (CCW) trail is 8 miles of excellent singletrack interspersed with pieces of slickrock. You can take a leisurely spin through the Junipers or hammer the flowy ribbon to your heart’s content. If you want additional technical challenge, you must take the detour on the aptly named “Black Hole” trail. If you do, beware that, when the Black Hole rejoins the main route, it can double you back where you came from. Once you get that feeling of déjà vu, you need to turn around and find the continuation of the trail. Some better marking here would be helpful, but you can’t get too lost, so press on with confidence. Don’t worry about losing your way on the slickrock portions either–they’re well marked Moab-style, but rather than a simple white dash painted on the rock, it’s the heads of little green men! If you want more miles and physical exertion, you can also hit the newer “Outer Limits” trail for an additional 9 miles of up and down.
The only drawback to the route, other than the remoteness, was the constant presence of the gas extraction facilities. You can’t always see them, but you can usually hear them.
One of the most unique aspects of this ride is the plaque that sits at the far end of the main loop about 20 yards off the main trail. This plaque commemorates the alleged crash of an alien craft on the mesa at that location in 1948. It was a real hoot reading the plaque in the midst of hammering the excellent singletrack.
At the end of the ride, miniskibum and I were both sporting ear-to-ear grins both for the quality of the ride and the uniqueness of the experience. Miniskibum instantly declared it one of his top 10 and held to that assessment throughout the trip.
Physical difficulty of our route: 3/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 3/5 (with a 4+/5 for the Black Hole)
Skibum’s grade: 4.5/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 4.5/5 stars
After this, we quickly loaded up and began the two and a half hour journey to our second ride of the day, one with which I was already familiar: The High Desert Trail System on the edge of Gallup, NM.
Travel tip: if you take this route, plan more time than you would think to get through Farmington, NM. While home only 46,000 people, Farmington is very spread out and has dozens of stoplights between one end and the other.
After turning south from Shiprock, NM, there’s almost two hours of the most desolate terrain you will ever see. Other than the rock from which Shiprock takes its name, there’s almost no relief, few humans, and much of the poverty that’s often associated with Native American reservations. I’ve now passed through this area half dozen times and, every time, encountered a hellacious dust storm. This time the dust was worse than any blizzard I’ve driven in; I had to slow the car to 20 MPH, praying the guy in the semi behind me had done the same!
Finding a clean hotel in Gallup at a reasonable price can be a trick, but the Red Roof Inn served us well. I recommend avoiding everything else on the West end of town, including the well known chains. The East end of town has some reputable places, but you will pay double or more what the Red Roof charges.
We got to Gallup and checked into the Red Roof before heading back out to the trail. The wind that we’d fought all the way from Shiprock was still there—steady at 25 to 35 mph with gusts much higher. However, we refused to be weathered out of a ride on the first day! We hit the trail with the wind at our backs knowing we would pay dearly on the way back.
The High Desert Trail System consists of three main trails making a sort of three lobed figure 8. First Mesa is rated novice, Second Mesa intermediate, and Third Mesa advanced. Personally, I don’t see much difference between First and Second Mesa; both are advanced beginner to early intermediate, and the Third Mesa, while having a few tough spots, is well within the grasp of a confident intermediate. It’s all high quality singletrack with a few soft spots and some brutal but not-too-long climbs. The trail is accessed either from the First Mesa or Third Mesa side. We opted for the Third Mesa side, so we could hit the most interesting stuff and skip the less interesting loops, getting us out of the wind sooner, off the trail before nightfall, and saving our legs for the next nine days! Maybe it was the wind, but Miniskibum wasn’t nearly so enamored with this trail as he was with Alien Run. Maybe it was the one vicious climb—I might have done him better to ride this loop CCW, but there are climbs either way. My preference is CW, but from what I can tell, I’m in the minority on this.
If you’re an advanced rider and want a quick hit on the good stuff, start at the Third Mesa side. If you’re a more casual rider and aren’t sure how much you want to commit to, start at the First Mesa Side. In either case, you can ride anywhere from 7 to 20 miles depending on your fitness and available time.
Travel Tip: While I have parked at the Third Mesa trailhead and never had a problem, word is that there is frequent smash-and-grab activity there so keep your valuables safe (one reason we checked into the hotel before heading to the trailhead). This may not be inner city Detroit, but it’s still a pretty rough neighborhood. If you are staying on the West end, you may even choose to ride to the trailhead.
This ride is one I mentioned as being easily accessible from a major interstate highway. Another unique feature you’ll find here are the steel silhouettes of wildlife mounted at various spots throughout the ride.
Physical difficulty of our route: 3/5 (crank that up to a 4 if you do all three loops)
Technical difficulty of our route: 3.5/5
Skibum’s grade: 4/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 3.5/5 stars
In total, day one was challenging, but not exhausting, finishing with bikes and bodies intact, just as it should be. Next installment: on to Phoenix! (With Miniskibum still in one piece–you can relax now).