Bikepacking The Continental Divide Trail - New Mexico

This is a story about thru-riding the Continental Divide Trail. The CDT is not the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route; instead, it's nearly 3,100 miles of trail stretching border to border along the spine of the continent. It parallels the GDMBR, and on occasion overlaps with it. It's a Congressionally Designated Scenic Trail and one of the "triple crown" trails of thru-hiking, the others being the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. It's the only long trail that's open to mountain bikes. Our goal is to thru-ride as much of the trail as possible, outside of Wilderness Areas, this summer. We aim to establish a thru-route for bikes, determining which sections are worth riding and which aren't worth the trouble, reassert the presence of bikes on the trail, and have a summer-long adventure.

The CDT, unlike its counterparts the AT (Appalachian Trail) and the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), is a choose-your-own-adventure trail, even for hikers. There are countless alternate routes and often times the majority of hikers choose these over the official trail. Even the "official" start is in question. We opted for the most popular start location, Crazy Cook, which is located on the boot heel of New Mexico. Our shuttle driver wouldn't drive the last 30 miles of rough road, so our journey actually started by heading south to reach the border before turning around. On the plus side, we got to cache water and food along the way. For the first 100 miles, there's no water to be found and the BLM and Trail Angels help support five water caches along the route, all of which we added water to on our way to the border.

The route from the border to Lordsburg had several across country (not XC) sections, meaning that tread hadn't been built. While this isn't an issue for hikers, we worried about our tires in the prickly, desolate desert with no trail. Would we be hiking for miles? Would I regret forgetting my spare tube? As it turned out, most of it was rideable and the 200-plus hikers in front of us had blazed a trail that very nearly resembled singletrack. We made short work of the miles to Lordsburg, which included many miles on roads, as the CDT is only 70% completed, and many of the incomplete sections are in NM.

More roads took us out of Lordsburg as we opted to skip another across country section. We found our first official singletrack of the trail - beautifully contouring miles to the base of Jackson and Burro Peaks. Our first major hike-a-bike led to blissful descending on the other side and 15 miles of newly constructed trail that the hikers weren't taking because it took them out of the way of Silver City. On bikes, we didn't care if had to ride the highway into Silver City from the west (with the new trail) or the south, as the hikers mostly opted to do.

A stay at the famous "Bike House" in Silver gave us a taste of the cycling fanaticism that grips this small NM city.

We headed north the next morning, taking some trail before having to detour off route and onto the GDMBR because of a fire. We'd be on the GDMBR for the next day, bypassing the Gila Wilderness. The section of road crushes Tour Divide riders (including myself in 2012), but we found it pleasant at touring pace. Yes, the hills were steep, but we weren't in any hurry to get up them.

Upon reaching the edge of the Wilderness, we were treated to some quality CDT. Hike-a-bike up, then roll down the other side. Rinse and repeat. The trail would go in and out of existence all the way to Wagon Tongue Mountain, which would prove to be one of the most sublime 2,000-foot descents we'd ever done…and quite likely never ridden by a mountain biker before.

We rationed our food and rolled into Pie Town the next morning with half of a Lara Bar remaining and famished. We tried every type of pie they made and took up residence for two nights at the Toaster House, run by a woman named Nita who opens up the space to any thru-hikers or riders. We'd arrived along with six thru-hikers, all of whom we'd run down on the 18-mile road stretch into town. Bikes ruled supreme on that county road. 12-plus mph is greater than 2.5 mph.

We took roads to Grants, following the GDMBR through the Chain of Craters. Up and over Mt. Taylor, a holy mountain for Native Americans in the area, and then back down into the desert only to find No Bike signs at the trail entrance. No Wilderness. No Wilderness Study. Just closed. Bummed, we took the GDMBR to Cuba instead of the trail.

A variation on the GDBMR took us to a hot springs north of Cuba before we opted to try a National Recreation Trail down from the Jemez Mountains. What started as beautiful trail turned into a river valley with 200-plus trees down and tons of boulders; you win some, you lose some.

We found ourselves at Ghost Ranch; a peaceful retreat nestled into the red sandstone. We couldn't help but take two nights there, taking our spare day to explore the newly built trails created by the Army Corps of Engineers around Abiquiu Lake.

A stiff hike-a-bike took us out of Ghost Ranch. Running into some thru-hikers, we were asked, "How did you get out of Ghost Ranch?"

"The same way you guys did. We walked."

We soon made up time on them on a combination of trails through meadows and abandoned dirt roads. The next day brought nearly 100% singletrack, only briefly spending time on rugged dirt roads and a brief foray onto the GDMBR route at Hope Lake. As it turns out, riding trails all day is exhausting and we were happy to find a high camp on a ridge where we could listen to elk bellow all night above the San Antonio River.

Some more singletrack in the morning brought us to the Brazos Ridge section of the GDMBR. We deviated slightly to catch a little more trail before snow started accumulating and we bailed, along with the thru-hikers, back onto the GDMBR and followed it across the NM/CO border and on to Cumbres Pass. From there, it was an easy pedal back into NM and into Chama for a few days rest and to plan our strategy for avoiding the snow that was still sitting in the high mountains of Colorado.

NM had been magical by all standards. We'd found miles of trail perfect for mountain bikes, and miles of trail that we wouldn't go back and ride again. The green chili was blow-your-socks-off good, and we only found one section of trail that was closed to bikes for unknown reasons. It took us 30 days, including a three-day work break in Grants and a few zero days, and was by all measures, an astounding success.

--------------- TO BE CONTINUED...

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Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi

When Eszter Horanyi was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels.


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sam koerber | September 6th, 2014

sounds amazing.  I want to hear more.  Someday I hope to be out there tracing your steps.

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Bonnie | September 21st, 2014

Hey I’m looking into biking a section of the CDT this weekend, but cant find any useful information on the web. I have some family near Cuba, so I was hoping to find something decent in that area. Any suggestions?

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Eszter | September 23rd, 2014

Unfortunately, a lot of the CDT is closed right around Cuba, on the south for reasons I don’t understand (it’s just BLM land) and on the north because of a Wilderness area. The trail on the Mesa de Chevato (sp?) south of Cuba was good. Going northbound, we saw a “Bikes welcome” sign but when you dump out on the road after descending off the mesa, there’s a no bikes sign, so I’m not sure where the transition occurs. There’s no one out there so I wouldn’t worry too much about it…but you probably wouldn’t want to climb up the mesa southbound.

If Grants is within your radius, the CDT north of there all the way up to Taylor Mt is pretty good.

Also, the CDT from Hopewell Lake to Cumbres Pass is awesome, but that’s definitely north of Cuba.

If you want an approximate track of what we did, our SPOT data is here:

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