Top 10 Destination: Capitol Riding in Santa Fe

A year ago, Singletracks included Santa Fe, New Mexico on its list of the top 10 mountain bike destinations.  The capitol of “The Land of Enchantment” does indeed sport a superb variety of riding, in addition to being a destination for arts and culture, spectacular southwest weather, and history. As for the cycling vibe, Santa Fe is supportive, leaving all non-wilderness trails open to cycling and even hosting the sixth biennial International Mountain Bike World Summit in October 2012.  Santa Fe is also a Silver level IMBA Ride center.  The riding around Santa Fe ranges from wide, groomed rail trail to extended miles of ultra-gnar.  If you’re not having fun in Santa Fe, you’re definitely not doing it right.

Dale ball sign ckdake
The Dale Ball Trails offer miles of loop options, but they are well signed making them easy to navigate. (photo: ckdake)

Keep Your Eye on the (Dale) Ball

Santa Fe’s “town trails” are known as the Dale Ball trails, named in honor of the man with the vision to create a year-round, accessible trail system adjacent to town.  The Dale Ball trails are actually comprised of three adjacent trail systems divided by a couple highways, but easily linked together by simply crossing the street.  The systems get progressively more challenging, both physically and technically, moving from north to south.

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Typically sweet Dale Ball singletrack. (photo: ckdake)

Dale Ball North does sport a few good climbs, but the trail is mostly wide and the switchbacks navigable.  It is a great playground for a reasonably-fit lower intermediate.  Crossing highway 475 (Hyde Park Road) to the south takes you to Dale Ball Central.  Although lacking the quick elevation gain of the North trails, the Central trails have a less “groomed” feel with more ruts, loose tread, and rocks, making for a more challenging ride.  This is a unique area as you spin and grunt through classic New Mexico pinion and juniper forest, which occasionally gives way to views of the higher mountains and the well-hidden subdivision you are actually riding in the midst of.

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The view from Atayala Peak (photo: ckdake)

Moving further south takes you into the Dale Ball South trails which are by far the steepest and rockiest, making for a significant challenge for the intrepid rider.  A great stand-alone ride for someone not afraid of a climb is the Atayala Peak trail which takes the rider on a gorgeous–yet strenuous–climb from the bottom trailhead near St. John’s College to the summit of Atayala Peak, 1,800 vertical feet above, in under three miles.  The forest is so inviting that the pain of the climb seems to dissipate, and then the return trip is a real screamer.  Like all the Dale Ball Trails, Atayala Peak is also a popular hiking destination, so keeping speed in check when there is no clear line of sight, remains essential.

Nine miles of rapid . . . and fun . . . descending await on the Winsor Trail

Shuttle Monkey Heaven

For those looking for a little less crowding, but over 3,000 verts of descent, the marquee run is a shuttle on the Winsor Trail, which we detailed last month.  If that’s too tame, consider shuttling the Rio en Medio Trail.  Like Winsor, it is possible to ride it from the bottom, but it will require a good deal of hike-a-bike.  I’ll never do it as an out-and-back again–I’ll wait until I can arrange a shuttle.  While the Winsor drops those 3,000 verts in about 10 miles, Rio en Medio drops a similar elevation in just under seven, and includes at least one mandatory hike and half a dozen probable hikes for most riders.  If you’re looking to test yourself on a steep, relentlessly-rocky downhill, Rio en Medio is your ticket.  Rio en Medio is also stunningly gorgeous with a mix of pine and aspens, and a collection of waterfalls along the way.

Rio en Medio hike
If you’re not shuttling, I hope you brought comfortable hiking shoes. Rio en Medio Trail.

Spinning for Miles

The Santa Fe Rail Trail runs 12 miles due south from the edge of town on mostly level, groomed surface, with an occasional dip through an arroyo (Spanish for “gulch” or “wash”).  This is the perfect place to spin out some leisurely, or not-so-leisurely miles.  The 24 mile round trip makes for a great outing, especially when the higher elevation trails are snowed in.  if you really want to put on some miles, you can take the Santa Fe Rail Trail to the Galisteo Basin Preserve, a sweet lower-intermediate trail system with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Arroyo Hondo Santa Fe Open Space and Trails
Right next to I-25–you’d be hard pressed to find a more accessible novice network than the Arroyo Hondo Open Space trails. (photo: Santa Fe Open Space and Trails)

Another easy option on the south end of town is the relatively-new Arroyo Hondo Open Space.  There’s only about three miles of singletrack here in a couple of connected loops, but the accessibility is stellar and there’s just enough climbing and chunk along the way to make it a perfect training ground for the adventurous novice looking to improve.  A lap or two here makes for a great recovery day.

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Don’t start riding until you put your jaw back up where it belongs: top of Aspen Vista (photo: ckdake)

For high altitude spinning, if you’re not adverse to doubletrack and really appreciate scenery, head for the aptly-named Aspen Vista trail which runs from a pullout on 475 all the way to the summit of the Santa Fe Ski Area.  While gorgeous anytime,  this is a must ride in early to mid-October when the aspens are ablaze in all their golden glory

La Terra Map chukt
Many loop options are available at the La Tierra Trails (photo: chukt)

La Tierra need not be Tortuous

Just north of town, accessible from multiple trailheads, lies the La Tierra Trails, home to the annual La Tierra Torture race.  If you’re not racing, however, these trails are really not tortuous, especially with things like Rio en Medio and Atayala Peak nearby.  This is actually an intermediate heaven with oodles of singletrack and occasional doubletrack crisscrossing the dry hills on the north side of Highway 599.  Recent years have seen the addition of stunts, so if you’ve got the freeride bug, there is additional fun to be had here.

Rio en Medio Waterfall
One of the many delightful waterfalls on the Rio en Medio trail.

Much More than Biking

If you’re traveling with a non-biking significant other, Santa Fe is one of the best biking destinations you could hope for.  Santa Fe is one of the world’s greatest art hubs, sporting over 250 art galleries showing anything you could possibly imagine.  The museums and churches in Santa Fe are a history buff’s dream.  Santa Fe also has a world-famous opera house and more theater companies per capita than any city in America.  The food is absolutely spectacular; of course the southwestern cuisine is the centerpiece, but you can find absolutely anything you want, and at a very high quality level.  No matter how many times I pass through Santa Fe, I never tire of the place.  There’s a reason everyone from authors (Cormack McCarthy (The Road), George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire)) to recording artists (Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers) to actors (Gene Hackman, Shirley MacLaine, Wes Studi) have made their homes there.

If you’re looking for a great cycling destination with plenty else going for it, give Santa Fe a spin.  Lying on I-25 and only a short distance north of I-40, Santa Fe is easy to get to.  The Taos topo map from Sky Terrain Trail Maps, which details all the rides in this article, will be a huge help and is available here on Singletracks.  Santa Fe is also a short drive from Albuquerque, Los Alamos, and Taos, with all the great riding they offer.