"El Penitente de Chimayo" Bikepacking Overnighter
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
This grueling overnighter provides stunning views in a unique and historic part of New Mexico.
Located just miles from Espanola, the Chimayo Badlands consist of sandy arroyos, towering sandstone formations, and grand mesas sprawling from the nearby Truchas Peak to the East. The roads that exist in this huge plot of BLM land range from fast and flowy hardpack dirt, steep chunder descents, miles of hike-a-bike through arroyos, and nice pavement finishing in the historic Santuario de Chimayo. Even though this is a technical bikepacking route, the logistics are easy to plan for if one is ready for a hard day of adventuring.
This isn't a big mileage route, only being about 40 miles, yet the Chimayo Badlands contain a huge amount of classic New Mexican scenery all while providing constant challenges to traverse. The start of the off-road section begins in Santa Cruz and begins with an immediate plunge into the loose arroyo sand. You will have to push your bike for around six miles through this sand unless you have a capable fatbike. There will also be hike-a-bikes up very steep hills and down into a slot canyon to get to the final descent into Chimayo. The majority of the road quality actually consists of dreamy, fast and flowy primitive roads that make all the suffering worth it!
Historically, this area has always been a sacred place and that tradition continues to this day. El Santuario is located beneath one of the sacred mountains to the Tewa people and is now a place of pilgrimage for Catholics worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands of people will walk up to one hundred miles away to visit this sacred place. The pilgrims that undertake this pilgrimage do so because they believe the "holy dirt" inside the church has curative properties and is a spiritual connection to the land and their faith. This is a place of living New Mexican history with its own distinct flavor, full of people that live their lives close to this sacred land. Chimayo also happens to have some of the best red chile in the world and can only be found in this little town. Breakfast in the morning at Rancho de Chimayo really is the best way to end this adventure, just make sure to get something with the famous red chile!
The name "El Penitente de Chimayo" comes from the simple fact that this is a very tough route in relation to the mileage. In New Mexico and southern Colorado, Los Penitentes are a brotherhood that are known for their aesthetic practices and undertaking acts of deep discomfort as an act of faith. This route isn't a sleepy overnighter, but rather a day of suffering under the intense exposure of the high desert sun. It was designed with the intention of pushing one's limits and I feel I have accomplished that with this route. Pushing your bike under the hot sun while alone with your thoughts is a great way to make yourself mentally and physically hardened, leaving us with a feeling of being able to take on the world. New Mexican cycling slang also refers to a "penitente" as a hard day on the bike traversing rough terrain, it's not too fun while we're doing it but it makes us tough. If you can ride through the wilderness of New Mexico, you can ride anywhere!
Even with its low mileage, this is a technical bikepacking route. The terrain is rough even for New Mexico standards, a fair amount of backcountry navigation is needed, and is very remote seeing hardly any visitors. There is a fair amount of hike-a-bike through loose sand and babyheads making for slow travel. This route is best enjoyed by a fairly experienced bikepacker. Get ready for a workout before attempting this ride.
This is logistically a simple ride. If starting in Santa Fe, you can take a Park-And-Ride bus (ample room for bikes) up to Espanola. Once in Chimayo, either cycle back to Espanola via rd76 to catch a bus or cycle back to Santa Fe.
If needed, get a breakfast burrito or two at Blakes Lotaburger not too far from the bus depot. There is a gas station in Santa Cruz that one can stock up on food and water before entering the badlands.
I recommend packing light and foregoing a stove, partly to save weight and also because the camping area is very dry and wooded making it easy for a wildfire to start. A light bike will also be easier to push.
Pack at least 6 liters of water, there are no reliable water sources along the badlands.
You need a GPS device to accurately follow this route.
A fatbike would be the best option considering the long sandy stretches, however this route was ridden on a 29x2.35 with aired down tires. Not suitable for a gravel bike.
Wear shoes that are appropriate for light hiking.
Cannot be ridden during the monsoons. The first 1/3 will be subject to flash floods.
Camping spots are abundant but the best views can be found along Mesa de la Ceja.
Once descending from the rim of Mesa de la Ceja, there are areas with sheer drops along the arroyo. Practice backcountry caution and follow the gps points to safely enter the slot canyon.
I began this ride around 6:30am from my front door in Santa Fe, pedaled to the South Capitol Bus Terminal and caught the first Red bus around 6:50am. The bus and train routes are reliable and can carry plenty of loaded bikes with ease. This bus is a comfortable coach, and the particular one I rode was empty besides myself. Another benefit is that it only costs $2 to get from Santa Fe to Espanola, way cheaper than gas! The bus ends at the Espanola Bus Terminal which is where I get off around 7:50am.
I then pedal to the Blakes Lotaburger just a mile or so away and get two breakfast burritos and a coffee. I ate one of the burritos and stashed the second burrito in my backpack for later. Blakes has always been my bikepacking food of choice while traveling in New Mexico. They can be found all over the state and their food is always great for the price. Whenever I get hungry on a long adventure, I always imagine a classic Blakes green chile cheeseburger with fries. It’s what propels me forward!
After eating breakfast and waking up, I pedaled 4 miles East towards the little community of Santa Cruz to begin the off road segment. I stopped at the only gas station in Santa Cruz, stocked up on no-cook food, then got to the arroyo shortly afterwards. The turnoff into the arroyo is in a pretty nondescript place situated between two houses and having a short and steep dropoff into the sand. This spot is public land and there is evidence of vehicles driving up the arroyo along the path this route traverses.
Once hitting the sand it became too soft to pedal through and immediately stopped me. This was the beginning of the long walk through the desert pushing a loaded bike. The views are great along the entire walk, consisting of large sandston hills adorned with high-desert plants and dry riverbeds running throughout. I'm glad I did this in the morning because it would have gotten extremely hot in the afternoon summer heat. Even though it was a slog to get to rideable terrain, the arroyo section is very memorable and worth the effort.
Eventually it leads to dreamy hardpack desert roads that are fast and flowy. These roads are a pleasure to ride on and are largely made of perfect dirt. I could imagine these roads would be rough to ride through if rain appears, being that the soil is just too soft. Eventually the dreamy road turns into several hike-a-bikes up steep but short hills. The last descent before climbing into the mountains is fairly technical, being very steep and loose. I walked my bike down because it felt like my tires didn't have quite enough traction to safely descend. I'd rather walk a bike than crash while far from help, call me cautious.
I got to the road that leads into the mountains directly East. This road is a constant climb with changing terrain. The first half is somewhat sandy but manageable then eventually turns into typical chunky mountain riding. The road eventually becomes tree covered and is an immediate relief from the hot sun I had been riding through all morning. I then get to a spot on my original route where I have to navigate up a primitive trail to get to the next available road. I didn’t immediately see where the trail was so I had to examine the area for a couple of minutes. I then find what appeared to be a trail of some sort, albeit very overgrown. I figured this is where I was supposed to go. I returned to my bike, pushed it up to this overgrown “path”, then came across a barbed wire fence blocking my access. This sucked to see after pushing my bike up all that crap! I returned to the road and had to reroute the direction I was going. I decided to stay on this main road and hopefully find a way to go south towards Truchas.
About 27 miles in I come across an unmarked and rough road that leads exactly where I need to go. This road isn't on any maps and is easy to miss if not paying attention. There was no way of knowing if this path would take me to the right place and not into more trouble, but I took the gamble and it paid off very well. There is a mile or so of rocky climbing before reaching the top of the plateau. I rode across a couple of beautiful homesteads before taking another right turn to get to the last mesa. This area opens up to great views of Truchas Peak and I once again had long vistas to gaze upon.
After passing these idyllic homesteads, there is a brief yet very loose, steep descent to get to the next mesa. This is a primitive road full of babyheads and lots of opportunities to slide out. After getting to the bottom, the next couple of miles are a climb leading to the rim of Mesa de la Ceja. The rim slowly gets closer leading to views of the Chimayo Valley and Truchas to the East. Even though this is such a beautiful place, the final climb to the top of the mesa has very steep hike-a-bikes dotted with perfect dirt roads.
It became very easy to find a place to camp once at the top. There are great spots everywhere, however I settled for a specific spot that has a big ledge overlooking the entire valley. It's a short walk to get to this picturesque vantage point but the view makes this rough day more than worth it. I set up camp at the top, sat on my camping chair and watched Borat while eating, and waited for the sun to lower just a bit more. Once the light was nearly perfect, I walked to the ledge to get some pictures of this beautiful place.
While walking down there, I noticed an abnormal amount of crows flying around. There were about 30 crows flying around the ledge and all seemed to be enjoying the rush of wind along the edge of the mesa. By the time I got to the ledge, many of the crows had scattered yet I was able to get some of them on camera. These crows were the cherry on top, they really made this ride remarkable. I went back to camp, ate some food, and then fell asleep to the night sky. Cowboy camping in the desert is proper living.
The next day I pack up camp and get ready for the last push into Chimayo. Immediately upon pedaling, the road began with a mix of perfect hardpack dirt mixed with the odd patch of babyheads. The views all around are stunning with the sun slowly rising over the Sangre de Cristos. The light illuminated the sheer edge of the mesa with a beautiful contrast that accented its unique textures. I enjoyed the several mile ride along this mesa before making the big descent into the valley floor.
The road that takes me down the mesa is very primitive before eventually ceasing to exist. It stops precariously close to the edge of a sheer cliff. It was tricky getting to this canyon floor safely but I eventually found the beginning of the arroyo that cut these cliffsides out of the sandy mesa. Once inside the arroyo I have to traverse a tight slot canyon before eventually getting to a road. I'm glad there weren't any sheer drops in this canyon because it would have sucked getting my bike out of there!
A sandy road suddenly appears out of this slot canyon and once again, I can ride my bike instead of pushing it! Even though this road is very sandy and loose, my bike is capable of riding it without sinking. The entire descent is filled with huge sandstone formations standing proud like a sand castle made to withstand the tests of time. The fins of the mesa are a stunning sight, however the giant sand formations really blew me away. Ending the dirt segment with these sights was a very memorable way to end a good ride.
Eventually the dirt ends and the pavement begins once again. The ride through Chimayo is very pretty and surprisingly green considering how dry it was yesterday. There is even an acequia on the side of the main road leading to El Santuario. In this dry environment people have managed to tame water and thrive in harsh conditions. I arrived at Rancho De Chimayo and am more than happy that they are open! I sit down and eat a delicious veggie omelet with red chile and have a coffee to go along with it. Eating this delicious breakfast after that breathtaking descent was one of the best mornings of my life. It was one of those moments where everything was in harmony and left me with a deep feeling of self accomplishment. I've planned lot's of bikepacking routes over the years but this one ended up panning out far better than I had expected. Usually my routes tend to have a lot of logistical hiccups but this route worked flawlessly right from the beginning. I hope all my future routes end up this spectacular!
I eventually finish my breakfast and start pedaling towards El Santuario to finish this route. To end this great route in a very spiritual place really tied everything together. Being able to contemplate the experience I just had and slow down for a moment helped with some recent anxiety I have been having. The previous day of strenuous work mixed with healing energy helped return me to a place of wellbeing. It felt like a mental cleanse clearing away the bad energy I had been experiencing. This route started out as a fun day on the bike but ended up giving me a reset I had been needing. If someone needs a trial by fire to strengthen their resolve, this is the perfect overnighter for that!
To get back home, I simply pedaled from El Santuario to Santa Fe. This added another 20~ miles but was actually a straightforward ride.
Leave me a message if you have any questions! I'm happy to help with what I can!