The final 200 miles of my journey featured some of the most remote, undeveloped, and beautiful country I’ve seen since starting in Southern Wyoming. Far from any population center, the mountainous terrain of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico offered virtually no services and presented me with some of the most difficult riding of the whole trip.
On Saturday morning, I left Del Norte at 9:30 am, later than I’d wanted to, and began the epic climb up Indiana Pass, the route’s high point at nearly 12,000 feet. Initially, I hoped to get to the top or over the pass in one day, but it soon became apparent that it would be too far. The first dozen miles out of town were level to rolling and on pavement, so I was able to grind up the mileage quickly, but that was only like the pre-game warm-up. I gained about 1,000 feet of elevation in that time, so I’d still have to climb another 3,000 feet in the last dozen miles, on a dirt road.
As with many of these passes and big hills, the beginning was very steep, kinda loose, and somewhat intimidating. It was especially tough because I had to load up on water at the bottom. Streams and creeks would be scarce in the miles ahead, and once I crossed over the pass, I’d be in the middle of the Summitville Mine Superfund site, where the water is contaminated. After about 18 miles of riding from Del Norte, I was up at 10,500 feet and feeling exhausted, so I decided to make my camp and finish the last six miles of the climb on Sunday morning, when it would be cooler and the skies would hopefully be less threatening.
On Sunday, I woke up shortly after dawn and started up the pass once again. The first couple of miles were the steepest and had me soaked in sweat even though it was cool outside. Fortunately, the grade eased up toward the end.
The scenery at the top is impressive. You’re right at tree line and there are several barren peaks in the vicinity, including Grayback Mountain, a 13er in the South San Juan Range. But not long after you start descending, the ugly scar of the Summitville mine becomes visible and soon you’re riding right through the toxic waste site.
For the first time in days, I was able to descend the backside of the pass without a vicious headwind slowing my progress. In fact, on Saturday and Sunday, I had something of a tailwind during much of the climb up Indiana Pass; I shudder to think what it would be like to climb that mother with the wind holding me back. Yet another pass–Stunner–awaited me on Sunday, but I was already way up there, so it wasn’t as high, long, or as tough as Indiana.
My map suggested I might be able to pick up a meal and groceries in the little outpost of Platoro, 50 miles from Del Norte, but I’d learned not to bank on such possibilities. Thankfully, the store and cafe were open, so I stat down for a huge cheeseburger and fries–the guy at the next table said he’d driven 75 miles from Pagosa Springs for the burger. I noticed he was drinking ice tea so I figured it was OK to order that as well, even though my map said tap water in Platoro might be contaminated. I was in GI distress later that afternoon, but it’s hard to say why given the dubious water sources I’ve been relying on.
There was just a smattering of food available for sale in the Platoro store, so the only thing I bought was another box of mac and cheese and a packet of ramen. From there the route followed the Conejos River downstream. It was a pretty stretch, but there were a fair number of vehicles on the road, many with Texas plates. I made my own campsite a couple hundred yards off the road and next to the river. It felt great to bathe in the water, which wasn’t too cold and surprisingly swift given the drought.
By the final week, some of my gear was being held together with duct tape and safety pins. All of the zippers on my tent and fly stopped working, so it would take a half dozen zips for me to get at least some of the teeth to hold. If rain threatened, I’d use safety pins to close the gaps. Both earpieces on my sunglasses had snapped and were being held together with duct tape. My GPS watch had failed in the first week, so I had to estimate distances because using my iPhone would drain its battery too quickly. I’d lost one hiking shoe along the way and there was no way to get a replacement pair, so my biking cleats would be the only thing on my feet for the rest of the trip. And then my rear derailleur started to malfunction. I could shift into easier gears, but not into harder ones; not unless I manually pulled on the cable running down my top tube. That’s how I’d downshift for the rest of the trip because I could never fix the problem. The dust, mud, rocks, and rain had subjected my bike to a lot of abuse over the previous three weeks.
Monday’s ride was relatively short, about 23 miles, due to the rainy weather. I woke up to cloudy skies and by the time I was rolling it had started to drizzle. After following the Conejos River downstream for another seven miles, I turned onto a state highway and headed up La Manga Pass, 10,230 feet. The pavement made the climb tolerable but the weather worsened the higher I got. By the time I reached the summit, it was pouring and I had to put on my rain pants. Descending was a little cold and miserable, but the showers soon passed and I started to hear the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad. It passed me behind a ridge, so I only got a glimpse of the locomotive and passenger cars, but I could see the trail of steam for a long way as it chugged up the valley. For the next two days, I’d occasionally hear that steam whistle and it added a nice little soundtrack to the rugged scenery, making it easier to imagine what it was like to traverse these mountains by rail, in a stage coach, or on horseback more than a century ago.
I missed an unsigned turn off the highway and wound up climbing an extra mile to Cumbres Pass, where the RR passes through, but then retreated and headed down into a valley, past some guys working on the tracks who really loved my BOB trailer and its suspension system. From there, the road quickly deteriorated and confronted me with some of the gnarliest riding of the trip. There would be a couple short stretches that would be unrideable even without the trailer.
In a few miles, I came to the NM border and the Carson National Forest. The skies were once again darkening and it looked like water would be hard to find in the miles ahead, so I called it a day at Apache Creek. It wound up being one of my favorite campsites. As soon as I got there, coyotes on the opposing ridge broke out into a cacophony of howls, yaps, and barks. I could hear and see elk up the valley, along with some cows. There were tons of birds flying around and the sky was incredible: clouds swirling before my eyes without the aid of time-lapse photography and moving in all different directions. I made camp around 2:30pm and promptly crashed in my tent for a deep sleep of a couple hours.
On Tuesday, I awoke on the edge of a slender fog bank that had settled above Apache Creek. Everything was covered in dew and I was on the shady side of the drainage, so many of my clothes were still wet. I’d washed my shorts and jerseys in the Conejos River, but then the monsoon returned and made it hard to dry them, even when I strapped them to my bag in an effort at air drying. As soon as the sun peeked over the high ridge, the fog burned off and I hauled a lot of my stuff out into the middle of the little valley so it could dry, at least partly.
While packing up to go, I heard a galloping sound to my right and turned to see a huge black bear tromping along, about 100 feet away from me. His big snout was sniffing intently on the ground and gave a nod over in my directions, but he just kept moving, up the valley, never threatening me at all but making me think about using my bike as a last-ditch shield if he charged. I was amazed at his size and how fast and agile he was (I’m assuming he was a male since there weren’t any cubs around, but that’s just a guess). Looked like he could easily outrun me.
The encounter with the bear definitely woke me up and I seemed to have a little extra oomph in my pedaling as I set out for another tough day of biking. Tuesday’s ride would take me up to nearly 11,000 feet, along the Brazos Ridge and around the Cruces Basin wilderness area. At times, the road was muddy, rocky, narrow, and fairly steep. I’m not sure my Subaru Forester could have made it through some of the technical sections. My map had warned me of the conditions and that I’d be facing a half-mile stretch that was unrideable. Sure enough, that segment wasn’t really a road, but more like a river of rocks and small boulders. It was a 20-minute slog, pushing the bike and BOB up that pitch, but I knew I’d be close to the top when I was done.
Along the ridge, you get an expansive view into the Cruces Basin and I was impressed by how undeveloped the entire area seemed (aside from the cows and roads). Amazingly, I got a strong cell signal up there and was able to call Ginette, which gave my morale a real boost.
I was able to make good time the rest of the day because much of the route was downhill. There were some great stretches of bombing through forests at high speed that reminded me why bikepacking can be pure fun. I did about 40 miles on Tuesday and camped in a pleasant enough setting in Cisneros Park, although the cows in the area were super loud and woke me a bunch of times in the middle of the night.
I tried to get an early start Wednesday because I knew the forecast called for rain, but it still got a little doused during the day. There was a climb up to Burned Mountain, 10,192′, but that would be the last time on the trip I’d be above 10,000 feet.
I had some trouble finding water. The wells at a picnic area weren’t working and when I got to Canada del Oso, there was just a tiny trickle coming out of the culvert. Strangely enough, the water was clear and some of the best-tasting I had on the trip.
After filtering the water, I started off, but only made it a few feet before I discovered my front tire was flat–my first one of the whole trip. So I set about replacing the tube with a spare, but the little stem in the presta valve snapped off, so that tube was history. And then I realized that I didn’t have the second spare tube that I thought was in my bag. My only option was to patch the flat tube and then hope that it held. I was worried that another stem would fail or I’d get a gash in a tube I couldn’t patch, in which case I’d have to flag down a motorist. Thankfully, the patch held and I was extra delicate in filling the tube.
My map told me that an upcoming stretch would be muddy if wet, and it had definitely been raining a lot, so I decided to take a small detour on a paved road. The dirt road on the route would also put me in an area where I might be stranded for a while if I got a flat. It felt a little like cheating, until it became apparent that I’d have to climb about 4 miles into a stiff headwind. Not sure the detour saved me much time, but at least I’d be able to hitch a ride if my bike failed, which felt increasingly likely.
I made it to the hamlet of El Rito at about 4pm and the only thing open was a “bar” that was more like a liquor store with some snacks. It was the first place I’d come to since Platoro that had any food for sale. I figured I’d be safe buying some packaged Grandma’s cookies and a Hostess fruit pie, but turns out these things have expiration dates and both were so stale I couldn’t eat them. The only other establishment I found in the town was a little hole in the wall restaurant, but it wasn’t opening for another half hour, so I headed back out of town to find a campsite.
El Rito is at about 7,000 feet, so the surroundings are covered with pinion, juniper, prickly pear, and creosote. Sadly, there’s a ton of trash in the area and it was tough to find a decent place to pitch my tent. I walked up a wash–carrying my bike to avoid thorns–and found a flat spot near some discarded construction materials. I went back to the restaurant for a burrito, which wasn’t so hot, literally and figuratively, and then headed back to what was my least attractive campsite of the trip.
It rained solidly for at least an hour Wednesday night before I feel asleep. As soon as the sun peeked over the horizon, it blasted my tent and I was broiling inside my sleeping bag. I only had about 20 miles to go to Abiquiu, but I was convinced that my tires would go flat due to the thorny environment and proliferation of broken beer bottles along the roads.
Much of the ride from El Rito to Abiquiu is downhill, so I made good time on the paved state highway. It was amazing how many empty cans and bottles of alcohol were on the side of the road. Plenty of other garbage as well. I don’t think the state has an adopt-a-mile roadside cleanup programs in this area because it’s so remote, but it was sobering to think how much drinking and driving is going on in this area. Not surprisingly, there were also plenty of white crosses denoting fatal accidents, mostly at curves and the crests of hills.
Three miles from Abiquiu, I took a right onto US 84 and promptly ran over the remains of a broken bottle that was scattered across the shoulder. I could hear the crunching under my tires and within a minute I could feel my front tire going flat. I didn’t have any spare tubes left and with so little distance to go until my final destination, I didn’t feel like stopping on the side of the highway to patch the tube. The leak wasn’t a gusher, so I was able to stop every few minutes and add some more air with my CO2 cartridge. By the time I reached the Abiquiu Inn, the tire was totally flat. I got off the bike, walked over the cattle guard, into the parking lot, and was done with the ride.
Although it was just 11 am, I was able to check-in and the prospect of a shower, real food, and being off the bike filled me with joy. I’m staying in their cheapest room, which isn’t much, but it feels like the Taj Mahal after six days and five nights of camping and bikepacking through some of the toughest terrain on the whole route.
After showering and getting settled in my room, I went to the hotel’s cafe and had some delicious huevos rancheros and a Santa Fe IPA. There’s no cell service or much of anything here. Abiquiu is where Georgia O’Keeffe spent summers and that seems to drive much of the tourism. The Ghost Ranch where she lived is 12 miles up the road, but I’m content to just hang out here at the hotel, relax, and recover. On Saturday, Ginette and her mom Jen will pick me up on their way from Mesa Verde to Taos and then we’ll stay in Santa Fe for a night before heading back to Denver.
I’ll have more to say in another post about what I learned, what I liked, and what I could have done without during the trip, but at this point I’d sum it up as one of the greatest adventures of my life!