Trip Report: Cabezon Peak Overnighter
This trip began with our crew in Placitas, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque via Rio Rancho; a deviation off the route between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, an otherwise not notable exit to a growing suburb and the unassuming gateway to the Colorado Plateau. I met up with Mick and his wife Lupe at our HipCamp site, following a road that snaked into the hills onto a driveway that seemingly dipped into an arroyo before opening up to a hillside camp. We had the entire space to ourselves, complete with an outdoor kitchen, composting outhouse, and kitschy solar lights dangling from the trees.
While the evening light glowed in the cottonwoods in the arroyo, we sipped the local Santa Fe 7K IPA and I performed my night before the trip ritual of actually packing everything that I haphazardly threw in the truck that morning. I sorted snacks into baggies while we swapped stories about past trips and discussed this trip. Our ride around Cabezon Peak would be Lupe's longest bikepacking trip to date; she called Mick and I "the pros" while I silently fretted over how little I've been riding this year.
Just after 5 on Saturday morning the sun lit up our campsite, leading us to all believe we had slept through our alarms. Luckily this was not the case, and after coffee and packing up at a leisurely pace, we were on the road and to our trailhead around 8. This being Saturday on a holiday weekend after a year of minimal travel, I was surprised to see we were the only folks out, and I expected more to roll up while we loaded our bikes--however, it turned out to be the first sign of a delightfully quiet weekend.
With bags strapped to bikes, sunscreen slathered, and water filled, the three of us rolled out of the parking lot and immediately onto a short, steep climb. Mick made a comment about how most of the day would be uphill, right before we were rewarded for our first effort with a long coast downhill to some sandy flats. Dropping off the top of the Tierra Amarilla anticline, a long geologic feature that can best be described as a buried arch, the landscape changed from a cholla-covered rolling scrubland to mounds of gray, purple, and red shale capped with massive yellow and white sandstones. The first 8 miles was hilly, with punchy climbs punctuated with quick downhills and flat sections that made it go fairly quickly. As the road wound below small sandstone cliffs, with the Ojito Wilderness to my right and Zia Pueblo to my left, I scanned for signs of petroglyphs, to no avail. Approaching our first turn off of Cabezon Road to Pipeline Road, I was well ahead of Mick and Lupe, and noticed a serendipitously placed wide juniper tree casting its shade over a flat slab of sandstone. I stopped for shade and snacks while I waited, and they soon appeared, grinding up the climb that carried us upward through geologic time, out of the shale and back on top of the sandstones and again approaching the cholla scrubland.
In no hurry to get back on the road, we snacked and chatted about the ride so far, and the longer climbs ahead, including some 400' over 2 miles that would deliver us to the loop portion of this lollipop-style loop. We were aiming to stretch this 69-mile overnighter out to a leisurely two-night route, giving us two 25-ish mile days and a shorter third day. This is where I unknowingly made my big mistake of the day--I resumed ride tracking on my Wahoo, but didn't notice that my navigation had either paused on its own or by operator error (most likely the latter). Making the right turn onto Pipeline Road, the road ascended toward the horizon ahead, and I hopped out of the saddle to generate some momentum for the climb ahead. I got ahead of Mick and Lupe again, and over the next few miles, I'd glance over my shoulder and see them on the previous hill, just behind me. I hate climbing on a loaded bike in the company of others, mostly because of my own huffing and puffing, so I try to either get ahead or hang back on most climbs. At the top of a particularly steep push, I stopped to sip water, and a pickup truck rolled up beside me. I chatted with the driver, who was out driving the loop we were riding. He told me it was still a few miles to the turn off to the peak and that Mick and Lupe were maybe a mile behind, and I jokingly asked for a tow as he waved goodbye.
Pedaling ahead, I finally hit a downhill stretch; past a gated driveway across a cattleguard on my left and a half mile or so later, sailing past a left turn onto a road that quickly disappeared beyond the cattleguard into thick cholla. With no beeps or chirps from my wahoo, I remained on my straight course and eyed the road ahead, thinking the steep climb approaching would end with the fork in the road. About two miles later I pushed my bike the last 10 yards of a climb, and looking down at the road as I approached the crest of the hill, something didn't seem right. There were sandy patches on the road, but a pickup truck definitely didn't come through here in the past hour. Looking ahead, there was a long descent and no sign of a fork in the road, with a high ridge obscuring most of Cabezon Peak from my view. Looking back down the road I came from, I didn't see Mick and Lupe.
Little did I know that as I tabbed through the menu on my Wahoo only to realize that it was not navigating and I was two miles off route, Mick and Lupe were making the left turn across the cattleguard I rolled on by, and Lupe noticed that she didn't see any bike tire tracks in the sandy road that ascended through the thickets of cholla. I sipped some water and ate a couple of dates, turned the bike around, and prepared to chase them. Down a steep hill and back up another, repeated a couple of times, I made it back to the turn off quickly, but the heat of the day was quickly catching up with me. With a few hundred extra feet of climbing in my legs, I turned my efforts toward the 400' in the next two miles, eyeing the road ahead for any sign of Mick and Lupe. The road here was sandy, the air still with the mesa ahead breaking any breeze that might have provided relief, and the sun approaching its noon position. Out of the saddle and watching the last bit of road before it disappeared around a bend up the steepest part of the climb, I finally saw the flutter of Lupe's bandana. Already sucking air, I decided against calling out, and knew if I pedaled hard, I could push the bike up that climb and hopefully catch them taking a break at the fork in the road.
Soon after they disappeared around the bend, I saw Mick coming back down the hill toward me. We soon met up and I hopped off and pushed my bike up the hill toward where Lupe waited as I explained where I went wrong--and, finding a tree to take a break and get some shade, sat down and immediately planted my gloved hand onto a chunk of cholla. As cholla does, it easily pierced the glove and its barbs latched into my fingers--so, after graciously giving me an electrolyte tab and a banana, Lupe helped me pull those from my skin.
We pushed our bikes around a hairpin turn that cut between two sandstone beds, and the landscape opened up to the mesa top that we would ride to camp, with a full view of Cabezon Peak rising 1000' above its base on the desert floor. From here the ride was more forgiving, with a gentle breeze providing relief from the afternoon sun and climbs that were lower grade and more opportunities for coasting off of downhills onto flats. Turning off the main road toward Cabezon, we pedaled along a bumpy sandy trail toward the area we'd be camping in. With no designated sites, we ditched our bikes to search for the sweet spot of shade, views, and a breeze. Down a hill I saw a pair of tall, wide junipers, already occupied by two cows. The departed as we rolled toward them, but not without leaving parting gifts.
Cow patties be damned, I dropped my bike, wrestled my handlebar roll free, and unfurled my bivvy as I collaped onto it. Mick and Lupe set up their tent in the shade on the opposite side of the tree, and we all settled in for a siesta. The breeze intermittently turned to welcome gusts of wind, cooling off the afternoon and my overheated body. Eventually we all emerged and snacked on refried beans on tortillas, topped with BBQ chips. Feeling somewhat recovered but still avoiding the sun, I returned to my bivvy for a longer siesta, while Mick and Lupe checked out the area around our camp. Eventually a few clouds moved in, cooling off the late afternoon, and I joined them, picking across the chunks of loose sandstone on the ground around our camp. At the edge of our camp overlooking Cabezon the sandstone turned to a ledge with the shale beds from earlier in the day below. I pointed out preserved burrows in the sand, and the remnants of iron nodules that formed at some point and weathered away over millions of years. Pieces of shells were imprinted in the sandstone in some places, and at the furthest edge of camp, it turned from a fine beach sand to a conglomerate of chunks of fossilized seashells: the remains of the shoreline deposited as the Western Interior Seaway receded some 68 million years ago, leaving behind the dramatic massive sandstones that give much of the southwestern US its dramatic, eerie modern day scenery (after much uplifting and erosion).
Out ahead of us Cabezon Peak dominated the view, with smaller similar volcanic necks dotting the landscape for miles around, all piercing through the sedimentary rocks laid down millions of years before. Between 1.5 and 4 million years ago Cabezon and a string of other local volcanic features were active, part of the Mount Taylor volcanic field, with these volcanic necks forming as magma hardened within vents on active volcanoes. An established firepit on this lookout ledge made for the perfect place to cook dinner, so Mick started a fire to boil water for his and Lupe's dinner, and I sat up my stove nearby. With the sunlight fading and evening colors appearing in the sky and on the landscape, I ate dinner in an exhausted, content daze, and soon after putting away my titanium spork, inflated my sleeping pad and crawled into my down quilt.
Hours later I woke up to a still, eerily quiet morning, or so I thought, as the waning moon rose over the horizon and illuminated the landscape. I pulled the quilt over my head and dozed back off. Soon enough it was truly morning and I heard Mick and Lupe stirring outside their tent. Being an early riser who still isn't a morning person, I exercised my favorite part of the bivvy/cowboy camping morning routine: pulled on my fleece, sat up in my quilt, reached for my stove and water, and waved to my companions as I waited for boiling water for my instant coffee, all without leaving my bed. It was just after 5, and once again it seemed much later.
Much more sociable after two cups of coffee, we talked about the ride ahead: our first leg of the day was downhill for 8 miles to our water cache. From there, the plan was to ride another 15 miles or so then find camp. We rolled out around 7, back to the main road and up a short, steep, sinuous climb. From here, our descent began. The road rolled gently along the edge of the mesa for a while, with a barbed wire fence that was both perilously close to the road and the drop-off that it separated the road from. It was easy, fun, social riding to start the day, with lots of coasting and stopping for pictures.
At our water cache we had six gallons of water to fill up, top off, and chug. Ahead was a few miles of pavement, some more rollercoaster climbs and descents, and a five-mile climb back to to the fork in the road. On the pavement we rode at a pace fitting for a relaxed Sunday morning; rolling past houses the smell of coffee brewing and breakfast cooking wafted across the road. Soon the road turned back to dirt and feeling confident away from car traffic, I took off ahead. The road began veering closer to Cabezon; it was a wide, flat, fairly groomed dirt road and the riding was fast and fun. As it gradually climbed uphill I pushed ahead, deciding I'd stop at the top where the road forked to wait for Mick and Lupe.
While waiting I glanced and RideWithGPS on my phone and noticed that the fork to the right (we'd be going left, as I confirmed repeatedly) appeared to be fairly well trafficked, based on the heat maps. I ate a fig bar and fiddled with my camera, watching for Mick and Lupe. Looking down the fork opposite our route, a cyclist suddenly appeared in the distance. We both extended our arms and waved widely, both clearly excited as always to run into someone else with a loaded down bike in the middle of nowhere. The stranger rolled up on his Salsa Cutthroat and we chatted about our rides (never exchanging names, as that would get in the way of talking about our bikes, apparently): he a Californian en route to Canada northbound on the GDMTBR, coming from Grants NM that morning and heading toward Cuba that evening. He had until July before he had to be back at work, so getting to Canada was the goal, no matter what, and he was shooting for long days in the saddle to get there. Shortly after he took off Mick and Lupe rolled up, and we decided that we'd make it a long day, try to hit that five mile climb, and reconvene to see how we were feeling after that. From there we could camp and make it an even shorter than planned day on Monday, or push out a 46 mile day and call it an overnighter.
Rolling on the road veered even closer to Cabezon, cutting up and down again through the beach sandstones and shallow sea shale beds that we saw so much of yesterday. Once again ascending to the mesa top, the landscape opened up and cattle (and a lone donkey) milled around by the road, watching me warily. I passed the turnoff for the Cabezon Peak trailhead, a four-hour or so round trip scramble if you've got the time and want to stash your bike.
Pushing on, enjoying the fast riding, I stopped for lunch under yet another juniper just before a downhill section back into the shade-free low-lying cholla thickets surrounded by arroyos. Mick and Lupe blasted past me, with Lupe shouting "THIS IS MY ONLY CHANCE FOR SOME MOMENTUUUUUUUUM!!". I took my avocado on tortilla to go and chased after them, reconvening at the bottom of the hill. From here we had a couple of miles of sandy riding punctuated with punchy climbs, before our dreaded five mile climb back to the fork in the road.
Lupe got her audiobook ready for her climb, I made sure I had electrolytes in my nearest bottle and a snack in the hip pocket of my bibs. We took off again, soon getting separated, and I cursed my dirty chain that clicked and clacked around the cassette, but didn't want to stop to fool with it and have to start climbing again.
I passed a pair of horses, who seemed to start following me, but soon fell behind. Mick and Lupe would get better acquainted with them, as I later learned. The hill steepened and flattened again and again, and when a cattleguard finally appeared at the crest of the hill, I was grateful for how quickly the last five miles passed. Once again-shade and a snack, and soon enough I heard bike tires and gravel and Mick called out "hola!". Not far behind Lupe appeared, grinning from ear to ear, as always. This was already a longer day than she had bargained for, and she never once complained or even seemed tired. We decided to hit the downhill back to the intersection with Pipeline Road, then maybe try to find some shade and take a siesta.
What had been an arduous two-mile ascent the day before was now just a plain fun hill to bomb down. At the intersection we all looked around, realized there was no shade for an ideal siesta, talked about it for a minute, and decided to keep going for a 46-mile day, Lupe's biggest on a bike ever. Up and down along the scrubland rolling plain, we retraced our route from the previous day (without the sidetrack). Rainclouds began building up back toward Albuquerque, and a headwind appeared--shockingly pleasant, bringing cool air off the rainstorm rather than the sensation of opening an oven we're so accustomed to in west Texas. Coasting back downhill, turning left back onto Cabezon Road, I returned to our first rest tree from the day before. An occasional truck rumbled by, slowing down to wave and surely to see what this maniac with all the junk on their bike was up to. Mick and Lupe arrived, with everyone in good spirits and feeling grate for what was turning into a day twice as long as planned on the bike. I took off first, with the rainclouds building and the windy threatening to get stronger, and told them I'd meet them back at the truck.
Back through geologic time, with a building headwind and the occasional splatter of an errant raindrop. Passing the White Ridge trail system parking lot, up the last climb, and finishing the ride with a bomber descent into the parking lot. The wind suddenly picked up with dramatic blasts that had to be 30-40 mph, and I stripped my bike down quickly, set it on the rack, grabbed a cold fizzy water and decided to backtrack in the truck and see if Mick and Lupe wanted to bail with dark clouds quickly encroaching. As I turned out of the parking lot, they crested the hill, and when I met up with them in the parking lot, our newly certified badass Lupe was laughing and smiling--neither of which were things I did after my first 47-mile day bikepacking!
I'd give this route a 5/10 difficulty for most people: even with a couple of stout climbs, it's balanced out with some rolling hills and long descents. The scenery, like much of northern New Mexico, is a wonderful distraction from your tired legs. There's an option to tack on some additional mileage and round it out to an 83-mile loop, which would be a great way to get more time out there, or to go for the Cabezon Peak hike (or both!).