With the IMBA World Summit heading to the Land of Enchantment in October, here’s your chance to gain some priceless local knowledge.
Words and Images by Bob Ward
The four corners region is made up of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. You may have heard of the actual four corners where you can lie down and put your hands and feet in four different states at the same time. In the realm of mountain biking, New Mexico is usually the redheaded stepchild to the other three states. New Mexico mountain biking has been a closely guarded secret receiving very little media exposure other than in Mountain Flyer Magazine. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Although I like to cross paths with other riders, I don’t really have a problem going on a long ride and not seeing anyone else: hiker, biker or otherwise.
Alas, the times just might be changing. While visiting the Santa Fe area in 2011, the IMBA Subaru Trail Crew discovered that Santa Feans were sitting on a gold mine of great trails. Discovered might not be the correct term, just like Columbus didn’t really “discover” the Americas but nevertheless, they came away impressed. They were so impressed that they nominated Santa Fe to host the 2012 IMBA World Summit this coming October.
The competition to host the summit was tough. Santa Fe had to compete with the likes of Bend, Jackson Hole and North Lake Tahoe. Certainly when you hear Bend and Lake Tahoe, you conjure up images of two famous mountain bike destinations. You probably think of skiing when you hear Jackson Hole, but where there is skiing, there is usually mountain biking in the summer. But when you mention New Mexico, more people than you think, even in the bike industry, don’t even realize it is part of the United States, let alone a potential mountain bike vacation destination.
I am not kidding about this. Case in point: A couple years ago when I registered to attend the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas, the registration coordinator sent me a letter to present to my local United States embassy to assist me in getting a Visa to enter the United States. I got a good laugh out of this, and I still have the letter on a wall in my office.
Let me assure you, whether you come to Santa Fe for the IMBA World Summit or just for a mountain bike getaway, if you are from the Estados Unidos you will not need a visa to enter New Mexico, the 47th state in the Union. You can drink the water, you can get away with only speaking English, and we are happy to accept your American dollars.
In the state of New Mexico, Santa Fe reigns supreme. Besides being the capital, and the one of the oldest citis in the United States, it is also the biggest tourist draw in the state. For decades, millions of visitors have come to Santa Fe, lured by its reputation as one of the biggest art markets in the country, its 400-year history, a unique blend of cultures, and food to die for.
Now there is a new game in town. Mountain bikers from the four corners region and beyond have been discovering that there is more to this little town nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Santa Fe offers a diverse assortment of mountain bike trails that can keep a smile plastered to your face for as long as you want to hang around.
The City of Santa Fe has failed to promote the great outdoors in favor of the old stand-bys. With Santa Fe perpetually making the lists of top destinations in a variety of travel magazines, it has been a successful formula. However, that success has continued to fill the town with older and less active vacationers.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t have anything against old folks, especially since I am one myself, but old or young, Santa Fe has not done a good job of luring tourists whose biggest priority is enjoying the local trails. In fact, if one was to research a potential Santa Fe vacation by perusing the Santa Fe Convention and Visitor Center website one would not get excited about the potential for outdoor fun. In contrast, you will find much about the opera where folks spend warm summer nights sipping wine and nodding off in their seats while waiting for the fat lady to sing.
I attended a meeting with the mayor, the city manager, some folks that were working to land the IMBA Summit, and Terry Breheny, the event coordinator from IMBA. One of the first questions from Mayor Coss to Terry was “Had you been to Santa Fe before?” Terry’s response was “No, but my parents have visited here frequently.” The mayor replied, “That is just want we want to change.” While Mayor Coss isn’t the mountain biker that the semi-famous mayor of Gallup was, he is pro-bike and is working to promote and expand all types of bicycling in the Santa Fe area.
While the trails in and around Santa Fe will probably never achieve “mountain bike mecca” status, it does have a few advantages over many of the “must do” mountain bike destinations. For instance, mountain bike foodies will find themselves in heaven once they have feasted at some of the great restaurants in Santa Fe.
There is a reason why the Santa Fe Visitor and Convention Bureau heavily promotes Santa Fe’s restaurants. While it can be argued that the trails around Fruita and Downieville might be better, they, like most bike towns, are in the minor leagues when it comes to before- and after-ride food choices. In some bike towns, you might have the option of the local café, a bad pizza joint or those ancient hot dogs that have been going around the rotisserie for who knows how long at the corner gas station. In Santa Fe, you are only limited by your budget and your physiological capacity to enjoy great food.
While you can travel the culinary world in Santa Fe with a plethora of choices from every region of the globe, you at least have to sample what is commonly referred to as New Mexican, Southwestern or Santa Fean cuisine. Whatever you call it, you can be assured that it is liberally spiced with New Mexican chilies. There is even an official question from your server that follows your order: red or green? This refers to what kind of chilies you want slathered over your order. If you want both, then the reply is “Christmas.” One word of warning is in order. If you are not used to spicy foods, then ask for your chile on the side. At most places you will also be served a sopapilla for dessert. This fried pillow is meant to be eaten with honey and/or honey butter and will cool the burn.
Another attraction for visitors and locals alike is the weather. An average of 320-plus days of sunshine a year makes for a long and pleasant bike season. I mountain bike year round. However, if I was to be traveling to Santa Fe to bike, I would avoid the peak of winter as options would be limited if there is a heavy snowfall. Our typical riding season is March through November although you should wait until late April or May if you want to ride some of the high-country trails.
While spring winds might stir up dust for a few days or forest fires in New Mexico or Arizona might mess with our air quality from time to time, this has not prevented Santa Fe from being ranked as having the second best air quality in the country. That is not to say that you will not be sucking air on your rides. Santa Fe itself is situated at 7,000 feet with some of our rides taking you to above 12,000. With this in mind, unless you are coming from the high country you need to give yourself some time to acclimatize before you head out on a long epic.
The diversity of the terrain in and around Santa Fe is a real plus. You can spend the morning biking in the high country surrounded by aspen, firs and wildflowers and then take an evening or night ride in what is often referred to as New Mexican pigmy forest made up of piñon pines and junipers. For that matter, in the spring you can ski in the morning and bike in the afternoon. You can also mix it up with badlands riding at Nambe or White Mesa or among the mining ruins of the Cerrillos Hills State Park. Speaking of night rides, bring your lights as the night riding can be nothing short of fantastic.
Perhaps the biggest card up Santa Fe’s sleeve is that there is so much to do while off your bike. Certainly, if your traveling companions are not big into mountain biking they will be able to find plenty to do while you are finding your bliss on the trail. With so many museums, art galleries and other points of interest, you will be able to ride without guilt.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that Santa Fe does not have much in the way of nightlife, not that it has any effect on me since I am an early-to-bed and up-before-dawn type. But Santa Fe has something to do with that. At first light, I can’t wait to get out and play, whether it is on one of my days off or before or after work. I feel like I am on vacation every day.
Where to Ride
There are too many options to discuss them all, especially if you are willing to drive an hour or more from your Santa Fe basecamp. But in the interest of brevity I will share a little beta on the three areas that will be featured as part of the IMBA World Summit. Two of these areas are accessible by bike from the Plaza. The third is also accessible by bike if you are looking for an epic ride.
The first is the Dale Ball Network of Trails just to the east of Santa Fe. Many of the trails themselves are actually within the city limits. The Dale Ball network features about 25 miles of technical singletrack that can also link up with many additional trails. Generally speaking the easier trails are in the northern and central sections while some of the more hardcore trails are to the south. There is even a new connecter trail from the northeast corner that taps into the National Forest trails if you are willing to take on one section of challenging hike a bike.
The La Tierra Trails have been around for quite some time, but have been receiving a major facelift. This city has been transforming this property north of town into a bikers’ playground. Some of the ongoing improvements currently in the works include new trail segments, signage and mapping. La Tierra currently has about 30 miles of routes, with most of it singletrack. There are also two jump parks for BMX and freeriders. This area is also great for riders of all levels as the trails are, for the most part, non technical and there are no big or steep climbs. This is also my favorite place for twilight/night rides.
The final ride that will be featured at the IMBA World Summit is the Winsor Trail which parallels the Hyde Park Road up to the ski area (and beyond that before entering the Pecos Wilderness.) Many years ago this ride was featured in a bike mag as one of the best trails in the country. While it has moved well down the list, it is still a classic. This ride is often started at the town of Tesuque which gives you a 20-mile out and back with well over 3,000 feet of climbing. One can also tap into Winsor from about a half dozen other trailheads to create a wide variety of out-and-back and loop options. Expect to get wet on this ride as there are over a dozen creek crossings each way.
All is not rosy on the Winsor as it is threatened with closure as the occassional a-hole on wheels will bomb the trail with no concern for other users or any clue about trail ettiquette. The Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, the host club for the IMBA World Summit is hoping to prevent a closure by adopting and maintaining a large section of the Winsor and by helping to educate riders on the rules of the trail. If you come to Santa Fe to ride this classic, ride responsibily.
Where to Eat
Santa Fe is indeed a foodie’s delight. Admittedly, my budget tends to be on the low end. OK, call me cheap. For many of the higher-end restaurants you will be better off checking reviews on Yelp. However, I have a few recommendations to share.
For most of my life, I have been on the quest for the perfect burger. I think I have come close to burger nirvana at Bobcat Bites. I am far and away not the first to rave about the green chile cheeseburger at Bobcat Bites. Bon Apetit magazine named this burger the best in the country. GQ included it in an article of “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die” and it was one of eight iconic hamburgers featured in the documentary “Hamburger America.” Do a little research and you will find many other great reviews. My daughter was a vegetarian for over a decade and still rarely eats red meat, but every time she comes to visit she always asks to get a burger at the Bite. You have to make an effort to get there, as it is a 15-minute drive from the Plaza. The restaurant is quite small, so depending on the time of day you may be in for a worthwhile wait. They are closed two or three days a week depending on the season so check this out ahead and they close at an odd 7:50 p.m. Make sure you have cash for your Bobcat burger as credit cards are as worthless as an IOU from your brother-in-law. Bobcat Bites is located at 418 Old Las Vegas Highway.
I have always been a fan of good barbecue and fortunately there are two options on Guadalupe Street. While many folks dine at the Cowgirl BBQ because of the Santa Fe funkiness that it exudes or PBR Tuesdays, I prefer the Whole Hog Café that is just across the street. I never go wrong with the brisket, pulled chicken or pulled pork and the potato salad is some of the best I have ever had. The Whole Hog is located at 320 Guadalupe St.
There are many great places in the downtown area to get great New Mexican food that I would recommend, but I will mention Tomasitas since it was the first place I ever ate at in Santa Fe during a mountain bike road trip in 1988. This place is popular with tourists and locals alike and they serve the best sopapillas. They do post a warning about the heat of their chile and recommend that the timid take it on the side. Tomasitas is located at 500 South Guadalupe, just across the railroad tracks from REI.
Another recent favorite that is very close to the Plaza is the Coyote Rooftop Café. While only open from April to October, the great food and the second floor patio dining is hard to beat on a warm summer late afternoon or evening. The Coyote Rooftop Café is located at 132 West Water St.
Although my beer tastes lean toward that award-winning beer called PBR, beer snobs will find quality microbrew at the Second Street Brewery or the Santa Fe Brewery.
Certainly, if selection of bikes for sale were the main criteria, Santa Fe Bike and Sport would be considered the premier bike shop in town. If you are not looking to purchase a bike on your vacation, they at least have the added benefit of being located next to a Trader Joe’s where you can stock up on your snacks and local brews. Bike and Sport is at 524 West Cordova Road.
If you are flying to New Mexico and leaving the bike at home, there are two shops that feature rentals. If you are staying near the Plaza, Mellow Velo is conveniently located and offers an eclectic mix of high-end mountain bike rentals. Be sure to contact them ahead of time to make reservation, as the selection is limited. 621 Old Santa Fe Trail.
While Santa Fe Mountain Sports can be difficult to find, they also rent mountain bikes. Unless you are interested in one of their high-end demos, their hardtail Kona’s are easier on the pocketbook than the Mellow Velo fleet. They also have good deals for extended rentals. 1221 Flagman Way.
If you are not staying near the Plaza, then there is a good chance that you will be bedding down at a motel along Cerrillos Road. A reliable shop in this part of town is Rob and Charlie’s, located at 1632 Saint Michaels Drive. Steve, the manager, is very involved in local bike advocacy and is a great source of info should you be interested in riding in the mostly untapped backcountry, known as the Caja, west of Santa Fe.
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the shop where I work which is the REI in the Santa Fe Railyard. While we don’t sell high-end mountain bikes, we do have everything else that you might need, along with the friendliest bike shop staff in town. Ask for Bob, and if I am around I will share some ride ideas with you or maybe even join you.
Places to Stay
Visitors to Santa Fe have a wide range of lodging options as well as camping nearby. Although you will pay a premium for the privilege I recommend that you stay within reasonable proximity of the Plaza. One of the features of Santa Fe is to enjoy the historic ambiance that in centered around the plaza, with Spanish-influenced architecture that dates back to 1610. One can enjoy an after-ride stroll down the streets and alleyways or even one of the free concerts at the Plaza that run for much of the summer.
Of course, if you are a biker on a budget, you will get more bang for the buck the further away you are from the plaza. Most of the truly bargain motels are along Cerrillos Road.
There are also several campgrounds that are relatively close to town. The Santa Fe Ski Basin is just 15 miles up mountain from the city. About half way up the hill there are two excellent campgrounds. One is the Black Canyon Campground in the Santa Fe National Forest and the other is at Hyde Memorial State Park. Location: Eight miles from downtown Santa Fe on NM 475. Take Bishop’s Lodge Road to Artist Road, which will turn into NM 475, also known as Hyde Park Road. One plus for staying at either of these campgrounds is that during the heat of the summer you will probably be about 10 degrees cooler than downtown and you also have easy access to the great trails that have trailheads along the Hyde Park Road. Seasons: Weather dependent, April through November.
For additional information on riding in Santa Fe, check out the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society