Ride Report: Oak Flats, Tijeras, NM

With a rare Friday off, I decided to drop the munchkin off at daycare and leave the dirty dishes piled up in the sink in order to enjoy some much-needed solitude in the forest. Spring is upon us, and for New Mexico, that means ridiculous winds. Typical winds in the spring get up to 40 mph (sustained, mind you) with gusts over 60. This time of the year, you don’t want to find yourself on top of an exposed mesa. Hiding in a thick forest is the best approach to beat the sun and the winds.

With this in mind, I headed out to the Oak Flats trailhead in the Manzanita Mountains to hit up portions of the trail system that I hadn’t ridden before. There are miles upon miles of trails, so it’s fairly easy to never ride sections of the trail system, particularly after discovering favorable routes.

Smooth, cross-country singletrack nestled amongst the evergreens on Ponderosa.
Smooth, cross-country singletrack nestled amongst the evergreens on Ponderosa.

Oak Flats has been dubbed more of a cross-country area of the Manzanitas system, which is why I have avoided it until now. If I venture to the east mountains, it’s usually because I’m craving technical, rocky trails. It’s hard to drive past the trailheads with more exciting trails for rolling, smooth trails.

Every year, typically in early May, the New Mexico Off Road Series (NMORS) hosts a mountain bike race at Oak Flats. This race is pitched as fast to flowing trails that are easy, with some small rocky sections. Since NMORS has the route posted now for this race, I decided to drive past the more “exciting trails” to try out the race route to see if it lives up to the description.

I quickly found out that my navigational skills leave a whole heck of a lot to be desired. Though I had the map printed out and my route highlighted in bright yellow, I ended up experiencing a lot more of Oak Flats than I anticipated.

A relaxing spot to rest and enjoy a picnic before attempting a short rocky descent in Oak Flats.
A relaxing spot to rest and enjoy a picnic before attempting a short rocky descent in Oak Flats.

For a trail system that doesn’t get quite as much use as other trails in the area, the singletrack is in impeccable condition. The routes are very well maintained with good markings at every junction to help you stay on course (provided you’re 10% better at navigating than I am).

While there are many miles of cross country-style trails in this system, there’s enough to keep everyone entertained. I was pleasantly surprised to ride through several rock gardens and technical descents. These are the east mountains, which are synonmous with granite and rocky features, after all.

A nice attribute of the Oak Flats area is that the technical parts come in short sections with smooth singletrack to adjoin them. I can envision this area being perfect for beginner to intermediate riders. The hike-a-bike sections for the less technically-inclined would be minimal, allowing them to experience rock gardens without being miserable. Let’s face it: it’s hard to stay optimistic about mountain biking when you find yourself pushing your bike for long distances.

One of the drawbacks of the Manzanita Mountains is that a very large portion of the trails are open to dirt bikes as well. I do believe that leaving trails accessible to many interested parties ensures that government and local funds will continue to flow for upkeep of the trails. Over the years, however, dirt bikes have definitely done their fair share of trail damage in the Manzanitas, which is evident by the high number of loose rocks and the torn up trails.

Entrance to Ponderosa that is closed to motorized vehicles.
Entrance to Ponderosa that is closed to motorized vehicles.

There is only one trail in Oak Flats (Ponderosa) that is closed to motorized two-wheeled systems, though it appears that very few have found their way onto any of these trails. The flowing singletrack is nicely hard-packed, while the rock gardens lack the loose baby heads often encountered in the Otero Canyon or Coyoto region just a short drive north. There is, however, quite a bit of evidence that these trails are often frequented by horses. It has left some of the singletrack a bit rough, but not miserable.

You can see the result of the dry conditions on Ponderosa. A good portion of the foliage has yet to come back this spring.
You can see the result of the dry conditions on Ponderosa. A good portion of the foliage has yet to come back this spring.

This past winter, New Mexico received lower than normal snowfall. Though there have been a few good rains so far this spring, the area is already fairly dry. The fire hazard set by the Cibola National Forest ranger station already has the rating for moderate. While there are some green grasses in the open areas, about half is dry, dead grass. I doubt these trails will stay open much past Memorial Day this year if it continues to stay dry. The trails as a whole in this area are a little bit dusty, but not too bad so far.

As I mentioned previously, the hardpack is superb, but don’t wander off the trail any as it turns to very soft, somewhat dusty conditions. Unfortunately, I let my wheels wander a few times while trying to take in the scenery.Though the trails are already showing signs of being quite dry, overall they look like they’re in much better shape than they were the past couple of years.

All of the sections I rode had great shade from the many evergreens that line the trails. These large trees also did a superb job of blocking the wind, allowing me to enjoy the great outdoors without having to fight the weather. While I wish I could provide you with the route I took, I think it’s in your best interest to not follow my wanderings from this ride! I will recommend Gamble Oak, which offered rocky ascents/descents with rocks on the smaller side, and Pine Loop for a fairly smooth ride. Ponderosa is all fast, smooth singletrack. But be warned, it has a deceptive false flat that will slow you down.

Get out there and enjoy the spring riding season!

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