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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.

Singletrack meets Slickrock in rugged and remote Northern New Mexico's Alien Run Trail

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.

Going right at the sign leads to the fun stuff!

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.

You'll have plenty of help finding your way on this trail!

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.

Always remember to wrap your helmet in tin foil before riding this trail!

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.

One of the fun spots on Third Mesa

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.

Miniskibum struggles to clear the last obstacle nearing the top of the big climb

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.

Being able to ride these switchbacks downhill is one of the reasons I like to ride Third Mesa clockwise

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.

Unfortunately, this is the last I would see of Miniskibum . . .

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).

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# Comments

  • mtbgreg1

    Awesome blog post! Sounds like you guys had an excellent time! Love the sound of the Alien trail. If I’m ever out that way, I’ll need to check it out!

    Can’t wait for the rest of the series!

    Also, just have to mention that these conspiracy theorists need to work on their punctuation. “Nations” at the end of the plaque should be “nation’s.” There’s no reason to capitalize it, and it needs an apostrophe. /end English major rant.

    • skibum

      Often, the tin hat crown and weak communication skills seem to go together . . .

  • RoadWarrior

    I wouldn’t park at the 3rd Mesa TH either. I always ride in from the truck stop. Much safer place to park, and makes a nice warm up/ cool down. High Desert is one sweet ride if you can catch the moisture level just right.

    • skibum

      I’ve ridden from a hotel, but that’s a long way and I hate that much road. I never thought of parking at the truck stop . . . what a great compromise!

  • GTXC4

    Thanks for the post and review. I’m on a short vacation myself, had a lot of riding planned, but didn’t get through half of it. Stripped bolt on my EVO link. 🙁

    • mtbgreg1

      No back up bike?!

    • skibum

      Probably don’t want a nice bike sitting unattended in the truck at the 3rd Mesa Trailhead!

  • jeff

    Sounds like a great trip, looking forward to hearing more!

  • Hooter

    Rode the alien yesterday afternoon for the first time. Definitely going back, great brewpub downtown Farmington – 3 Rivers, pizza and beer for recovery and recharge!
    Photo posted to trail link…

  • Bubblehead10MM

    Great! I stopped at that truck stop. Probably passed you right by, and had fun with a dust storm. I’ll need some acclamation for the close to 7K ft but it’s High Desert is on my list. 🙂

  • Bill_Siebersma

    I love the High Desert Trail System, and I’m lucky enough to live in Gallup, so it’s sort of in my back yard. I know the Mentmore Trailhead looks pretty ghetto but there has never been a reported incident of vandalism there. There were two at the Gamerco Trailhead many years ago, but sheriff deputies quickly staked out the trailhead and caught the guy. He was subsequently sent to prison for that other more serious crimes where he died as I recall. Gallup actually established a fund at that time to help any future victims of such activity, and to date it has not been used. Please feel free to park at the trailheads if that is more convenient.

    • RoadWarrior

      That could be the source of the rummer of it not being a safe place to park. Still wouldn’t want to temp anybody by leaving valuables in plain sight.
      I ride from the truck stop to the Mentmore TH several times a year, and the locals have been nothing but courteous.

  • abegold

    Let me know when you’re in Tucson and I can show you some of the trails. A few of the better ones here include the 50 Year Trail with the Chutes and looped with Middle Gate. Robles Pass, the Arizona Trail in the Rincon Valley and the AZT/ATV, Bug Springs/Milagrosa shuttles just for starters. 450 miles of trails!

    • skibum

      Tried to call the number you PM’d me while I in town, but no answer–left a message. We really could have used a guide on one of the rides. You’ll read about them in parts IV and V. Looking forward to your comments about out misadventures in part V! I’ll definitely look you up if we go back next year.

    • abegold

      Probably yesterday when just a few drops of water killed my cell phone from the headboard shaking too much!

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