Continental Divide and Colorado BDR
Last May, I drove the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route with three others, one Jeep and two motorcycles. Bill, Patrick, and John were great to travel with and we had an awesome trip. So, this year when they said they wanted to do the Colorado BDR, I was all in. Their schedules dictated that we do the trip the week beginning on July 5, and we would do the trip south to north.
Our family usually goes up to western Montana to visit my stepdaughter, fish, and generally laze about around the end of July, so I thought maybe I could combine a trip up the Continental Divide, the CO BDR, and our family vacation into a great adventure. My wife, stepson, and grandson could not do the whole trip due to other commitments, jobs, etc., so…
On June 26, I left home on epic journey (for me, anyway). I set off to drive the Continental Divide Route, primarily solo, with a detour to do the CO BDR. I would meet up with the family late in July in Missoula after completing the CDR and we would drive home together in early August. This was by far the longest trip of its kind I had ever attempted, let alone by myself.
Day 1 – Albuquerque, NM to Las Cruces, NM – 225 miles
The journey started with an uneventful drive down I-25 to Las Cruces, NM and a stay at what I assumed would be the last motel for a while. I picked up a dozen green chile cheese tamales at Roberto's and put them in the fridge for later. Had a grilled cheese and a couple beers at Picacho Peak Brewery, and called it a night.
Day 2 – Las Cruces to Silver City – 275 miles
Today began the CDR in earnest. Drove west on I-10 past Deming. Headed south through Hatchita, between the Big Hatchet Mountains and the Little Hatchet Mountains, to the Border Crossing at Antelope Wells, which was closed. This is the “official start” of the CDR.
The current town of Hatchita is actually “New Hatchita” and was formed in the early 1900s when the railroad came through. The original settlement of Hatchita was a mining town several miles away, now known as “Old Hatchita.” It was abandoned and became a ghost town when silver prices plummeted in the 1920s. In the 1970s, a retired New York businessman came west and built a church, Saint Catherine of Sienna, out of the old high school building. The church remains but is now abandoned due to declining population.
Just a few miles north of the border crossing is a sign-in book for CDT hikers. The last entry was 9 days earlier, on June 18, and the penultimate was 10 days before that, on June 8. By this time of year, it’s already getting too hot to start a northbound trek.
Between Antelope Wells and I-10 is the first Divide crossing, at only 4,520 feet elevation.
I retraced route back to I-10 and headed north towards Silver City on the first dirt roads of the trip. This section is pretty remote ranch roads until you get to NM 90 which takes you into Silver City. No sooner had I hit the pavement on NM 90, the skies opened up with a good New Mexico monsoon.
I stopped in Silver City at the Little Toad Creek Brewery to wait out the rain. The original plan was to continue past Silver and camp somewhere in the Gila National Forest. After a sandwich and a beer or three, the rain was still coming down. Ambition to drive around in the mud looking for a camp was gone, and I got a room at the historic Murray Hotel , just up the street from the brewpub. Two days in and two hotels, not an auspicious start!
Those same monsoon's came through Cruces with a vengeance. They just this week got some of our roads cleared.
I guess I should fill you in on some of the details. I’m traveling in our ’16 Sportsmobile Sprinter. It’s a low-top with a canvas pop-top. It’s on KO2s and it’s 4wd with low range but no lockers. The suspension has been upgraded, with a front swaybar disconnect, it’s lifted, fully skidplated with rocker guards (thanks VanCompass), and has a 12k winch & bumper (thanks Roambuilt). I carry a hi-lift (just in case), maxttrax (4), and an electric chainsaw (again, Just in case). We also have an onboard air compressor (more on that later).
Day 3 – Silver City, NM to El Malpais National Monument – 270 miles
This day covered a good part of NM, through the Gila National Forest to the flat dry (usually) ranch lands south of Grants, NM. I headed east out of Silver City, past the ginormous Santa Rita copper mine and into the San Lorenzo valley.
There used to be a town where the mine is now. Santa Rita de Cobre was established at the beginning of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the underground copper mines played out and the operations were converted to an open pit mine. The mine soon became the largest open pit copper mine in the world! By the 1950s, Kennecott owned both the mine and the town, and with the pit completely surrounding the town, the entire town was sacrificed to the mining operation, which is now about 1 ¾ miles across and over 1,300 feet deep.
Then north a ways up the valley, and then northeast on dirt into the Gila National Forest.
If I had continued up the San Lorenzo valley I’d get to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. There was a big wildfire, the Johnson fire, burning just west of the cliff dwellings and the monument was partially closed, so I didn’t detour over there. It was cloudy and drizzly all day, and with the cloud cover and winds out of the east, I didn’t even see any smoke from the fire. Did see a group of javelina, but they split before I could get any pics.
North of where the route crosses NM 12, I saw one, and then another, mountain biker going the opposite direction, with their serious faces on. Shortly after there was another rider stopped on the side of the trail. Robert Bigelow-Rubin from Chicago was in, he guessed, about 7th place in the 2021 Tour Divide, a self-supported mountain bike race from the Canada border to the Mexico border down the Continental Divide. He said New Mexico was the hardest section of the whole race, because of the terrain, mud, and, especially, the long distances between re-supplies. With that, he gladly took a big cured salami from me, and in exchange gave me a sticker from the messenger company he works for. The race leader, he informed me, had already finished, in under 15 days! Robert, it turns out, ended up sixth, in under 19 days.
Mid-afternoon I reached Pie Town, NM, a favorite stop for CDT hikers. There is a hostel there known as the Toaster House where hikers can stay, at no charge. The owner, Nita, no longer lives at the house, but uses donations (and I’m sure her own funds) to maintain the property and stock the fridge. How nice is that?
Got some green chile apple pie at Pie Town Pies, even though the sign on the door said they had run out of pies!
From Pie Town to El Malpais National Monument , the route follows York Ranch Road, a dirt road which turns to a muddy quagmire when it rains. Robert had told me that it took them over a day just to traverse this 30 mile long section through the mud on their bikes. Luckily, one of the ranchers saw them out there and let them stay at his ranch house overnight. After advice from one of the ladies at the pie shop that not even locals were venturing out there unless absolutely necessary, I tucked tail and took a paved detour through Quemado, NM to El Malpais. I camped at Joe Skeen campground just south of the monument and it rained off and on all night.
Day 4 – El Malpais National Monument to Abiquiu, NM – 250 miles
The day started out drizzly with forecasts for the rain to stop by 8:00 AM. Of course, it didn’t stop until late afternoon.
I headed to Grants and bought some snack (Hostess cupcakes, cheese sticks, salamis) to hand out to the mountain bike racers. I learned in my years of racing road bikes that nothing says “way to go” like a Hostess cupcake! (best racer response: “H*LL YES I want a cupcake!”)
I started up Mount Taylor on NM 547, which quickly turns to dirt (mud). Coming around a bend, I almost ran into a downed tree, and thought “great, a chance to use the new chainsaw!” Further inspection though showed that the tree had broken when it fell, and with only a quick cut with the Sven Saw it could be dragged out of the way. Bummer. The chain saw never did get used on this trip, but I was glad to have it and figure it’s kinda like having a winch…
Once off Mt. Taylor, the route turns northeast and goes across a good bit of dry (usually) range land, a mix of private, public, and Native American land. I had driven almost the identical route on the NM BDR last year and dreaded what kind of mud I would encounter. Not far into this section, I came across a long flooded section and got out to scout the situation. The water in the tire tracks was not deep, maybe 10-12 inches, but a 3 foot long stick sunk all the way into the mud beneath. With no way around, caution reigned and I turned around and detoured on pavement through Pueblo Pintado and Torreon to Cuba, NM.
I had wanted to visit Guadalupe Ruins, about 30 miles ENE of where I turned around, but that will have to wait until another time. Guadalupe Ruins are the remains of the easternmost Chacoan settlement, which consisted of at least 39 rooms and 7 semi-underground kivas. It is thought to have been built sometime between 900-1100 AD during the establishment of a trade route between the Chacoan hub in the San Juan Basin and the pueblos on the Rio Grande. There is evidence that it was abandoned by the Chacoans and then reoccupied by the Mesa Verde peoples in the late 1200s. It appears they remodeled much of the settlement and built a new kiva at the site in their own style.
From Cuba, the route turns east into the Jemez Mountains. Just outside the northern boundary of the Valles Caldera National Preserve , Forest Road 315 and then 144 were the most difficult thus far, rutted and steep in places, and then miles of imbedded bedrock blocks that made for very slow going albeit through some amazing scenery. Then the road eases and drops off the top and into a nice valley that leads to Abiquiu, NM (former home to artist Georgia O’Keeffe).
Just short of Abiquiu, I spied a group of vehicles camped by a small corral. It was group from Expedition Portal doing the CDR, who had started the week before me. I had conversed with one member, Greg, about possibly meeting up somewhere along the route, but didn’t think it would be so soon. I also knew Joe and Sherry from a Bill Burke offroad class we took together a few years ago at Anza Borrego. Everyone made me feel so welcome (once they were sure I wasn’t there to chase them off their camping spot) that I decided to finish up the NM leg of my trip with them.
Day 5 – Abiquiu, NM to Hopewell Ridge, NM – 75 miles
Today started out in a very relaxed fashion, with a trip to Bode's Store in Abiquiu to fuel up and wait for another member of the group who was joining us there. Bode’s is the place in the area to get groceries, green chile cheeseburgers, fuel, camping supplies, gourmet foods, and farm supplies.
We then visited the old church plaza at Santo Tomas el Apostol church, with the old El Piñon Theater right next door. The church was built in 1773 but burned down in 1867. It was rebuilt, and in 1935 was replaced with the current church.
Then off the visit the Penitente Morada south of the plaza. Many small communities were served by traveling priests who might only visit the village once a year. The Penitentes evolved as a secretive society of resident Catholic Church men who historically dedicated themselves to community service and provided religious services when a priest was not available. They practiced, and still do today in many northern New Mexico villages, in the spirit of penance and the Passion of Christ. The Morada in Abiquiu was originally built in the 1700s and has recently been restored.
Next was Dar al-Islam, built in 1981 as the first planned Islamic community in the United States. It never attained that goal, but continues as a mosque and education center.
On to El Rito for lunch at El Farolito, which was closed. So, lunch was a picnic on the side of the road. Then we turned north into the Tusas Mountains. One of the vehicles had mechanical problems and had to abandon the journey, and two others stayed back to help. The ranger at the El Rito Forest Service was very helpful dealing with the broken-down vehicle.
We remaining vehicles continued on and found a campsite on Hopewell Ridge right on the Continental Divide Trail (the hiking trail). Our campsite was spied on by one southbound CDT hiker and one mule deer doe, but neither came in close enough to talk. The other two vehicles got in late and spent the night at the Hopewell Lake campground.
Excellent writeup & pics Velo47... much appreciated.
Certainly is fun to follow along! I too enjoy the pic's with the accompanied commentary, looks to be a great ride so far.
Trip reports like this always get the exploration juices flowing. Great trip and great write-up.
Great trip, photos, and report. Thanks for taking us along.
Day 6 – Hopewell Ridge, NM to Chama, NM – 80 miles
My wife, much to her consternation, inadvertently named our van. When I got home from a hunting trip in Wyoming last year looking like this...
She exclaimed “What a Pig Pen!” And the name stuck. He does, after all, usually trundle around in a cloud of dust. I’ve latched onto the Pig Pen persona, and he appears in all sorts of unexpected places now.
This morning we started off down the ridge to Hopewell Lake to meet the other members of our group. Then we headed off towards the Colorado border.
Up into the grasslands west of San Antonio Mountain.
Then we turned west and skirted to Cruces Basin Wilderness and had a quick lunch with a bunch of mosquitoes at Lagunitas Lake. Up onto the Brazos Ridge and into Colorado.
We crossed the narrow gauge railroad tracks of the Cumbres & Toltec scenic railroad, which runs from Chama, NM to Antonito, CO. It was originally part of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, but the line has been owned by the states of Colorado and New Mexico since 1970. The track was laid in 1880, and narrow gauge was used instead of the standard gauge because it made tighter turns possible, a huge benefit in the high mountains. In 1968, the working rail line was abandoned, and in 1971 the Scenic Railroad was formed. In 1973, the railroad was designated a National Historic Landmark.
We didn’t see a train, though, until we got to Chama.
Just north of the border is Highway 17. We aired up and went over Cumbres pass, back into New Mexico to Chama for gas and supplies. Several of us stayed overnight in Chama and had dinner at Local, a nice place with good food and beer.
Day 7 – Chama, NM to Chaco National Historic Park– 190 miles
Today, the CDR group continued north into Colorado, and I turned west to meet up with my CO BDR group. I did not follow the CDR through Colorado. Rather, I drove the BDR route, which goes from Four Corners to the Wyoming border above Steamboat Springs. In the section above Steamboat, it unites with the CDR, and I would be back on track to finish the CDR. The drive was mostly pavement from Chama, through Dulce and the Jicarilla Reservation to Bloomfield, NM. There I took a short detour to Aztec, NM to see the Aztec Ruins National Monument.
The buildings that comprise Aztec ruins were built about 1,000 years ago near the Animas River, which supplied them with irrigation and drinking water all year-round. The community thrived for over 200 years, and a large complex of buildings and kivas were built. The great house of the West Ruin has over 400 interconnected rooms on three stories, as well as several large and small kivas. Building appears to have stopped around 1200 AD, and the inhabitants abandoned the pueblo by 1300 AD.
After Aztec, I continued on to Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, where I met up with John, one of my BDR travel-mates.
We took a quick tour of Chaco, as it fairly late in the afternoon and threatening rain.
Chaco is a huge complex of buildings dating back to the 800s. The population thrived there for over 300 years. The several great houses were built using masonry techniques not seen before in the region. Additionally, they appear to be pre-planned, not simply built and added onto as necessary. The great houses are oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. They were built in line of sight with each other and contain astronomical markers, communication features, and water facilities.
By 1050, Chaco was the center of San Juan Basin civilization. Chaco appeared to be a meeting place and trading center with significant ceremonial significance. Construction slowed in the 1100s and 1200s, and the sites were abandoned not long thereafter.
We lucked out and got one of the last available campsites for the night, without a reservation!
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