A First Time Bikepacking: Caldera Crest

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The trip would be a simple overnighter: start out at Pajarito and traverse the Valles Caldera, spend the night above the rim, and then end at Bode’s in Abiquiu for burgers. It all sounds easy enough and while it fundamentally is, your first time bikepacking has a fairly steep learning curve. Long time customers and friends of the shop, Michael and Bob recently bedecked their bikes with Oveja Negra bags and equally loaded their credit cards at REI with ultralight gear to discover a new way to explore this beautiful state of ours. Kyle, our in-house nerd and photographer, and of course Kim, our carbon expert and team racer, would accompany them along the way.

Step 1: Weight and Volume and Storage

If you have ever been backpacking you already know the challenge of managing space and counting grams. Bikepacking is very similar with a few notable exceptions. A typical backpack will have 60-70 liters of space, while a bikepacking setup will rarely exceed 40L. Where weight backpacking will kill your knees and wear you down, weight carried on a bike isn’t as critical. Oddly, then, the priority is volume over weight.

All four riders would have a similar setup: bedroll using a hauler on the handlebars, frame bag for essentials, a seatbag for clothing and food, and at minimum space for 2L of water. Given this layout, tough choices must be made: will I have a second pair of socks? Do I really need a stove and coffee maker? Is bigfoot really attracted to jerky?

Loaded an ready: Kona Hei Hei, Salsa El Mariachi, Blacksheep SS and Sklar SS

Step 2: The Bike Setup

Unlike a typical bike ride, a bikepacking setup changes how a bike handles and changes priorities. You’re never going to descend like your chasing KOMs thus the focus of packing is keeping everything tight and balanced. Anything left to bounce will eventually break loose or cause such a racket you will inevitably want to silence it.

Likewise, fast rolling tires with some volume helps take the edge off. While there are routes that require heavy casings and sidewall stiffness, comfort and low rolling resistance tend to take priority. Handlebars may be adjusted for a more comfortable position and forget about using that dropper: throw some electrical tape on the stanchion to protect it from the frame bag moving around.

Then there are a few personal but recommended setups. First, stiffen up that suspension. While you may lose weight over the ride, your bike suddenly gained quite a bit of heft and needs that support. Second, consider flat pedals as you may find yourself wanting to explore nearby sites or the inevitable hike-a-bike rears its head.

Step 3: Route Planning

Despite everything said above, this is the most critical part of your trip. Depending on your time, the weather, interest and a million other justifications, everyone has a route they would like to pursue. Mapping your route using a mapping software like Ride With GPS, Trailforks, or Gaia GPS will help you avoid costly pitstops or accidental reroutes.

Determining sources of water is also of critical concern. Here in New Mexico, water sources can be questionable at best. Knowing how much water you can carry and what sort of filtration you need is absolutely necessary.

The last components to check off the list is ensuring your route is legal, considerate, and safe. We share this beautiful place with multiple tribes, private land owners, government agencies and everything in between. Knowing whose land you’re on and where to camp is not only the legal thing to do, but also the respectful one. Leave every campsite and route better than you found it.

The Caldera Crest Route

Stunning Northern New Mexico landscapes.

The group started with a quick jaunt from Pajarito straight into a big downhill descent into the Valles Caldera National Preserve. After making a few bike adjustments and getting a feel for a loaded bike, they descended into the vast, big-sky country of the preserve. Greeted by scampering herds of elk and fresh bear tracks, the transition from a parking lot to a wilder place could not have been more stark.

Cruising along the long stretches of gravel roads piercing the fields of goldenrod, both Michael and Bob already expressed they were jazzed at loaded riding. Rounding a bend and through a canyon, the Rio San Antonio appeared revealing part of the goal for the day: fishing. For our narrow streams and cutbank meadows, Kyle recommends tenkara fishing–a simplified form of fly fishing. And just like that, fresh Brown trout were retrieved from the narrow river and dinner was set for the evening. Ok, maybe it wasn’t that easy, but he doesn’t want to reveal all his secrets…

A 16″ brown is a pretty good size fish for this area.

With the sun casting shadows and a big climb ahead, everyone agreed it would be best to get started on their way after topping off their water. Kyle and Kim use a Steripen for clear water, while Bob squeezed his through a Sawyer filter. Knowing they must climb out of the Valles and back into the Jemez peaks, water would be necessary.

Here the hiking shoes showed their value. Within a half mile of the first climb everyone was dismounted and pushing their bikes. Sadly, this would continue for at least another 30 minutes as the grade was too much for even Eagle gearing. Once at the crest, though, their reward awaited: a panoramic vista of the entire Valles Caldera.

Now chasing evening light, they descended into Chihuahuenos canyon where they would spend the night. After spooking some elk, then seeing hunters, only to spook yet more elk, did the group find their campsite. And just in time; the sun had set and their fish needed cooking. After unpacking their tents and donning down pack-able jackets, a small fire was made and dinner was cooked over open-flame under the million stars of the Milky Way.

Content with the days progress and satisfied with their shelters, rest would come easy.

Riding Out

Morning broke with the familiar cold of high-country autumn. The sound of a Jetboil firing echoed off the canyon walls and the groan of tired legs coming to life was shared. Despite only spending a single night out of doors, the pace of the world had already slowed and no one was in a hurry to get camp packed.

Packing up camp was easier this time round with less space taken by food and familiarity advising. A quick bike check and everything seemed well and after ensuring the fire was dead and no remnants of camp was left behind, the crew started their journey home bound.

Caldera Crest Trail

By now Michael and Bob were completely hooked. The freedom of knowing everything you need is on your bike and the ability to travel greater distances than by on foot was everything they had hoped it would be. There were other revelations as well: loaded bikes pedal well and provide a stable, accessible way to explore the backcountry. Combined with good comraderie and the excessively beautiful vistas of Northern New Mexico…well, you have a match made in heaven.

Heading towards Abiquiu wouldn’t be as idyllic–winds from the south picked up and mile after mile of dusty gravel roads starting making the bikes protest every pedal stroke. It did not matter, as the experience would help inform further preparatory decisions and opened a door into a whole new world of travel.

This is why we love bikes. Good luck on your next ride, guys!