For the past five years Hailey and I have planned a week—usually in January or February—to escape the comparatively cold, snowy environs of Colorado’s northern Front Range and head for a desert region for some bike camping. It’s always been a good way to bust the rust on our touring skills—what and how to pack, ideal sleep kit, effective layering systems, etc.–-and get the stoke rolling for the coming bikepacking season in the mountains.
Previous years have taken us to southern Arizona for the Sky Islands Odyssey route and southern California for the legendary Stagecoach 400 loop. This year, we opted for southern New Mexico and its Monumental Loop. The Monumental Loop comprises a figure-eight with the twist in the loop centered on the college town of Las Cruces, NM. The conceit for the loop–-as devised by route co-founder Matt Mason—is to link all four tracts of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument created in 2014.
True to form, we arrived in town later than planned and parked the van in Matt’s driveway, which he’d kindly offered up for the four days we planned to be “looping” (as the locals seem to say). Ever the host, Matt led us to a nearby coffeeshop (on his custom Monē) where we topped off our caffeine and carb levels before finally embarking. Our first half-day of riding got us out of town and quickly on to some classic desert two-track—chunky punches and sandy washes—that had us immediately praising the quality of the route. Our bivy for the evening was a rare smooth, flat patch in an area called Yucca Flats. Indeed, a stand of the eponymous Dr. Suessian sentries watched over us that evening in the light of a brilliant desert full moon.
For me, that first morning of waking up on the ground is one of the most delicious moments of a bike tour. It had been a chilly night, so we were in no hurry to pack up and lingered over cup after cup of hot coffee, enjoying the feeling of being disconnected from our normal lives and waiting for the sun to melt the frost on our bivy bags. We’d need the extra caffeine boost as the next sector over White Gap Pass was some of the most challenging terrain of the whole loop.
Although much of the steep climb up the pass was paved—we’d opted to tackle the North Loop in the arguably more forgiving clockwise direction—pumice stone baby-heads cobbled the double-track for the last few miles and there was still plenty of hike-a-bike to surmount the final saddle. Over the hump, eight miles of technical descending deposited us on the highway leading to Hatch. Cloudy skies kept conditions on the brisk side, but we weren’t complaining. The cool weather meant water was never an issue on route.
Ah, Hatch. We arrived early afternoon and were ready for some food. We picked a restaurant right in the middle of town and loaded up on burritos and enchiladas, all drenched appropriately in red and green chile of which Hatch proclaims itself the world capital. A claim that our meal left us with no reason to dispute.
To motivate for the next section, we purposely packed a bit light on food, a decision that would force us to perhaps briefly abandon our vacation mindset and push through the ensuing technical and hilly terrain to reach dinner at the Blue Moon Grill in Radium Springs. We would need the carrot. After climbing back into the Monument on a beautiful gravel road, the route descended and gave way to a rough, sandy double-track in the bottom of a canyon just as we were losing daylight. The final 10 miles to dinner took us more than an hour-and-a-half as we scrabbled up and down rolling rubble and ruts, engaging stuff to be negotiating by dynamo-light. Some fish ‘n chips at the pub offered a hearty warm-up before we rolled into the nearby state park for another chilly (well below freezing) sleep amongst the creosote and cat claw.
The morning of day three brought delightful singletrack in the Doña Ana Mountains portion of the Monument. After the previous day’s rude chunkiness, this sinuous flowtrack with expansive views of the towering Organ Mountains felt like a gift. Dirt canal paths offered a nearly car-less riding experience through the heart of Las Cruces where we stopped for lunch and splurged on a lightweight two-person tent at Outdoor Adventures, the bike shop in town. With frost on our bags and nearly frozen solid water bottles the first two nights, we were wary about the upcoming forecast calling for even colder nighttime temps in the low-20s.
Thanks to the capacious Zeitgeist Handlebar Bag, the new tent and fly fit right in (we stashed the poles on Hailey’s rear rack) and I barely noticed it on the 20+ miles of singletrack that consumed the afternoon and evening hours. The Sierra Vista trail lives up to its name as it courses north to south along the western foot of the Organ Mountains. A slight tailwind and an evolving lightshow of vibrant orangey-pinkly-purply hues on the hills and horizon kept our enthusiasm high as we rode into the night and eventually pitched our new tent in a tucked-away patch of sand on the banks of the Rio Grande.
It delivered. Wide open spaces with an endless horizon and a thin track to follow through the magnificent desolation might be my favorite kind of riding. We climbed out of the Rio Grande valley knowing that we had about 75 miles to cover before we would descend back into it in Las Cruces. After all of the singletrack and chunky riding of the previous three days, however, we both relished the hours of more mindless pedaling that allows you to plug in a podcast or some music and just let the mind wander.
The crosstail we enjoyed on the ride out to the maar volcano, Killbourne Hole, and Potrillo Mountains—the southwestern quadrant of the Monument—inevitably became a full-on block headwind for the remaining 40 miles back to Las Cruces. The wind is something that you just have to contend with in that part of the country this time of year—but we knew it was coming and its certainty somehow made those last few hours a little more tolerable than if we hadn’t been expecting it.
All in all, the Monumental Loop provided just what we were looking for: a tuning up of our riding legs and dusting off of our camp skills, plentiful sunshine and dry weather, and just a dash or two of try-hard that let us know we were out there living. We came away rejuvenated to be sure, but also eagerly scheming further antics for the upcoming season.