The Great Divide Route

Mountain Biking in New Mexico
By Joe Lehm - New Mexico Mountain Bike Adventures

The Great Divide is where the rivers change directions. When it reaches New Mexico, so do a lot of cyclists. However, all it takes is a little perserverance and advance planning to have a soul-satisfying, near-wilderness experience on the Great Divide Route through the Land of Enchantment.

When complete, the route will be the worlds' longest mountain bike route, stretching 3000 miles along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. The 850 mile New Mexico segment is the longest of any state, and lays down some tough obstacles, mostly because it's so durn isolated. Dehydration is a real danger: there are few dependable sources for drinking water. Run out of food? Welcome to the starvation diet club: the next supply stop might only be a post office. You'll be sweating whether Mom remembered to mail those dried food packets and oatmeal cookies. Even the smallest, grungiest store will look like a heavenly oasis after 90 miles of desert.

That's the wilderness trade-off. When the Great Divide Route reaches New Mexico, it leaves behind (human) creature comfort and enters a realm of soul-enriching solitude as it passes through some of our most beautiful forests and deserts.

The Adventure Cycling Association has been coordinating the mapping of the Great Divide Route. Maps for sections in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado are completed. We at New Mexico Mountain Bike Adventures have been fortunate to help chart the route through our home state, getting the opportunity to traverse some fantastic country and do some legwork for guided trips we will offer along the route.

The Great Divide Route leaves Colorado's Rio Grande' National Forest and enters New Mexico in the San Juan Mts. where it heads south through the Carson National Forest. The village of Abiquiu, made famous in paintings by Georgia O'Keefe, is an important supply stop before entering the Santa Fe National Forest and climbing over the rugged Jemez Mountains to the town of Cuba. This ancient volcanic range is only a million years old and erosion hasn't had time to wear it down completely. Nothing rides like volcanic ash and pumice. This terrain does not turn to mud after a rain, instead it wicks the water down like some high tech fabric, making it possible to ride moments after a downpour. After the ride you just blow the ash off your bike.

Next is the expansive deserts of Chaco Mesa through Indian Reservations and BLM land, then around (or over) Mt. Taylor, another large volcano in the Cibola National Forest. Grants is the next supply stop, then into El Malpais National Monument in southwest New Mexico where some of the lava flows are less than 1000 years old. Indian legend refers to the"rivers of fire" consuming their fields, and covering trails. The Sawtooth Mts. right on the Divide take us to Pietown, where one can re-supply or ride extra miles to stock up for the next segment. You might want to use the only pay phone in this part of the county before pedaling south into the Apache and Gila National Forest.

Silver City is the southern most "city" on the route and another 100 miles of low desert still lies betweent here and the Mexican border. The dot on the map that marks the border is called Antelope Wells, New Mexico -- but you can call it the middle of nowhere.

As spring has brought dry roads and warmer weather to New Mexico this year, we have started work through the desert sections of the route. We confirmed a route through Navajo country from Cuba to Grants across 90 miles of desert and mesas. Good water sources and helpful BLM people were encouraging and enabled us to complete this segment in two-days. The landscape is dotted with volcanic "Necks" which is what's left of an ancient volcano's plumbing. Next stage is the High Country, which will open up in another month or so.

Our efforts have taught us that designing and navigating a route is an ancient art, and a fascinating history in itself. The centuries-old routes through New Mexico were established by Natives according to the lay of the land, natural features and clever insights derived from diligent observations. The ancient Indian trails became trade and travel routes as the promise of a new discovery drove thousands of new people into the land. Then cattle tranformed the landscape and rutted the old trails, allowing erosion to create down-cut arroyos. As the railroads expanded across the West, these routes were replaced and re-aligned to accomodate the modern age of Iron. Finally the permanence of pavement has galvanized the concept of "routes" and simplified the art of terrain navigation to a "no brainer."

We have also learned that nothing approaches the thrill of exploration. As Mountain Bikers, we often think of loops, out and backs, descents. Books, maps, and even GPS devices tell us where we are and where we're going. Along the Great Divide, we've discovered the excitement of NOT knowing where you are or will end up can be its own reward. When complete the Great Divide Route will be a fantastic place to get lost!

New Mexico Mountain Bike Adventures has been helping the Adventure Cycling Association to complete the mapping of the Great Divide Route. Maps are already available from the Association for the sections in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Their address is P.O. Box 8308, Missoula, MT 59807. The maps for New Mexico will be available this spring.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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