New Mexico's Enchanted Circle and Colorado's Great Sand Dunes, 2009

Page 1: Bicycling the Enchanted Circle Highway
Page 2: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Saturday, June 6, 2009

It's time for our first family vacation of 2009, and so we've planned a week of child-friendly bicycling and hiking near the Colorado-New Mexico border. Our family has grown up a bit since last fall, so Maggie (1 year old) now walks, runs and babbles, and Daniel (4 years old) is a bit too big to ride comfortably with his sister in our bicycle trailer. Daniel recently started riding a trailercycle, which connects to the back of our tandem bicycle and converts it into a triple-seat bicycle. After a couple weekend rides with the trailercycle, we decided to try a short bicycle tour in New Mexico, "The Land of Enchantment."

In northern New Mexico there is an 84-mile highway loop that crosses the Sangre de Cristo Mountains twice and passes through the historic town of Taos and the ski resort towns of Red River and Angel Fire. For marketing reasons, it is called the Enchanted Circle Highway. If I were bicycling it alone I would ride the loop in one day, but with my whole family we'll take 3 days. Short days should give our kids time to rest and play in the mountains.

After exploring New Mexico for a while, we'll add some child-friendly hikes to our trip by visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park, home of the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Tonight we're camped just north of Taos on the property of Bill and Kit, hosts who we found through the "Warm Showers" bicycle touring website. We cooked and ate our dinner in the kitchen of their guesthouse, which Bill also uses as an art studio. Hosts like Bill and Kit provide a huge benefit to bicycle tourists like Kathy and me, and we always feel comfortable staying with a host.

We crossed the Rio Grande Gorge just a few miles before arriving in Taos.

Before crossing the gorge we parked our car and walked across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 5th highest bridge in the United States (650 feet high.)

Daniel liked the view from the bridge, but walking it made him nervous so Kathy carried him.

Kathy stands by the front door of the guesthouse. Behind the guesthouse is Bill and Kit's brand-new house, which they had moved into just a couple days earlier.

Maggie plays with gravel in the front yard.

Daniel eating dinner in the guesthouse.

Getting ready for bed. Daniel was looking forward to camping, so we slept outside in our tent.

An adobe style house in Bill and Kit's neighborhood. Adobe style is very common here.

Full moon over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Sunday, June 7

Distance: 37.2 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 59 minutes
Average speed: 9.3 mph
Maximum speed: 33.7 mph

Our ride was much hillier than I expected, but a strong tailwind helped us reach Red River before dinnertime. 37 miles may not seem very far, but you have to consider our setup: a tandem bicycle followed by a trailercycle followed by a child trailer. It's heavy, difficult to control, and has lots of wind drag. We kept our load lighter by not bringing a tent or sleeping bags, and choosing to stay in hotels instead. Daniel loves riding his trailercycle, though he doesn't bother to pedal much. Today he rode the first 7 miles before climbing into the child trailer to escape the strong wind.

20 miles of hilly riding brought us to the tired town of Questa, where the most prominent businesses seemed to be liquor stores. We sat down in front of a liquor store to eat our lunch, and soon found ourselves talking to a friendly, but very intoxicated, Hispanic man. He told us about the molybdenum mines in Red River Canyon (we saw the mines later in the day.) Chevron shut down the mines more than a year ago when the U.S. economy went into decline, and fired lots of employees, including the drunken man talking to us. No wonder the town seems tired. At the end of our conversation he offered to let us spend the night at his home up in the canyon. That was a nice offer, but it's hard to feel comfortable with someone who gets drunk before 2 o'clock on a Sunday. We told him that we already had hotel reservations (which was the truth.)

Riding north out of Taos.

Kathy looks down the hill into Questa.

After lunch the hilly ride of the morning was replaced by a long, steady climb up the pretty Red River Canyon. By 5 o'clock we were in Red River, a tiny ski resort town that may be busy in winter and summer, but is nearly deserted in late spring. I was hugely disappointed to learn that the chairlifts won't start running on weekdays until a week from now. The chairlifts ran today, Sunday, but were shut down at 4 p.m. before we arrived. Our kids would love riding to the top of the mountain.

Our hotel's lawn had some picnic tables and a small swing set, so we cooked and ate our dinner outside before beginning the long process of getting both our children to sleep. Kathy put Daniel in bed while I walked Maggie back and forth across town in our stroller, eventually lulling her to sleep. We can't just put them both to bed at once in the same room, because they will deliberately keep each other awake. I hope they grow out of the "I don't want to sleep" phase someday.

The road through Red River Canyon.

Maggie in her trailer during a snack break.

One of the many mining sites that we could see in Red River Canyon.

Swinging outside the Lazy Miner Hotel in Red River.

Cooking dinner outside.

Maggie eats a snack before dinner.

Monday, June 8

Distance: 29.9 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 12 minutes
Average speed: 9.3 mph
Maximum speed: 33.7 mph

We cooked breakfast by the bank of the Red River this morning so that Maggie and Daniel could toss rocks into the water while they were waiting. Maggie made me nervous by standing on the edge of a steep bank to toss her rocks and screeching at me angrily whenever I tried to hold her hand for safety. On the other side of the river were some steep ski runs, and above us some technicians were servicing a chairlift. Daniel and I crossed a bridge and hiked up a ski run far enough to look down over the town and to get a good look at the chairlift, which seemed to fascinate Daniel. On the way back down he picked a few dandelion flowers to give to Maggie, as is his habit.

Daniel and Maggie throw rocks into the Red River after breakfast.

Looking down at the town of Red River from a ski run.

The first few miles of our ride were a steep (8% grade, I think) climb to the top of Bobcat Pass. Kathy and I took the slow, easy option by walking up most of the way. After that the ride was mostly downhill or level, with great views of Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in New Mexico. The wide valley below Bobcat Pass is beautiful, with mountains on both sides and a small number of large ranches in the middle.

We thought our ride to Angel Fire would be easy, but a strong headwind dashed that hope. We pedaled hard at less than 10 m.p.h. through the mostly level valley, arriving just before dinnertime again. Overall our ride was beautiful but uncomfortable. It was a little bit overcast, a little bit cold, and very windy. Guiding our huge bicycle rig down the steep descent from Bobcat Pass was tricky in the gusty winds, and Daniel made us nervous by riding unsafely. He was probably just too tired. I forced him into the trailer after letting him ride about 10 miles, and he slept in the trailer for more than an hour.

Once we arrived in Angel Fire, everything improved. The wind slowed down, the clouds broke up, the temperature rose, and the children began behaving well. Why couldn't that have occurred earlier in the day? Kathy cooked dinner and I capped off the evening by buying pie and ice cream for dessert - a rare and special treat for our children.

Pushing the bicycle up towards Bobcat Pass.

Michael and Daniel on Bobcat Pass.

Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in New Mexico (13,167 feet.)

The Moreno valley east of Bobcat Pass.

Daniel talks to Maggie after giving her a freshly picked wildflower.

The Angel Fire ski resort, as seen from the balcony of our hotel room.

Tuesday, June 9

Distance: 32.4 miles
Riding time: 2 hours, 42 minutes
Average speed: 11.9 mph
Maximum speed: 29.1 mph

Not everyone understands the joy of bicycle touring, as the owner of our hotel demonstrated this morning. She came by our room around 10 a.m. to see if we had checked out yet, and after a couple minutes asked, "Are you folks homeless? Do you need a place to stay? I don't want to put you out if you're homeless." We answered, "No, we're on vacation," and had to explain our vacation plans a few times to convince her. I guess she thought that only a poor, desperate family would bicycle into town and ask for the cheapest room at a hotel. She came outside and watched us mount the bicycle and ride away, apparently to make sure that our outrageous bicycling story was genuine.

Soon we were pedaling up a steep, winding canyon to the top of Palo Flechado Pass. Daniel pedaled enthusiastically for the whole 2-mile climb, though not always in the right direction. Kathy occasionally pleaded, "Daniel, please pedal forward, not backward!" After summiting the pass we had a long, downhill ride into Taos, which helped us overcome the fierce headwind. As we descended the canyon the temperature rose and the signs of civilization increased, first with cattle ranches, then rustic lodges and campgrounds, then small hotels and art galleries, and finally the town of Taos. Taos is an old town by American standards, established in 1615 after the Spanish conquest of New Mexico. We ate lunch at a restaurant in the historic Taos Plaza, and noticed that it's very difficult to distinguish a historic building from a brand-new one, for two reasons. First, all the new buildings copy the adobe style that's been around for hundreds of years. Second, most of the historic buildings have been upgraded with modern windows, doors and signage so that they look like recent structures. Kit Carson's home is one of the exceptions, and it does look old.

The historic downtown of Taos is packed with art galleries that Kathy and I would have loved to visit, but we didn't have the time and our kids didn't have the patience. After three nights of minimal sleep, Daniel and Maggie were both starting to act frantic and emotional. We rode on to Bill and Kit's house, arriving at about 5 p.m.

Kathy and I told Daniel that we were very proud of him today, both for behaving well and for riding his trailercycle about 20 miles. We hope to take our family on a much longer bicycle tour this fall, so we want Daniel to be very capable on his trailercycle.

Riding west from Angel Fire in the morning.

Daniel growls like a bear near the top of Palo Flechado Pass.

The highway west of Palo Flechado Pass, which took us downhill for more than 20 miles.

Old adobe buildings in Taos, including Kit Carson's house.

A rainbow appeared shortly after we finished our ride at Bill and Kit's house.


Page 1: Bicycling the Enchanted Circle Highway
Page 2: Great Sand Dunes National Park