The New Mexico's Western Highlands Loop! This 280-mile-long rough "gravel" bikepacking route meanders through the Black, Mogollon, San Francisco, and Gallo Mountains of western NM and the gorgeous Blue River Canyon in easternmost AZ. The loop takes riders on very, very quiet roads (~80% dirt, 20% paved) through almost entirely public lands, linking small communities, passing widely scattered ranches, and traversing a landscape where wolves still roam. Most of the loop is above 7,000 feet in elevation, making it a cool shoulder season ride or a relatively comfortable summer ride passing through beautiful ponderosa pine forests, high grasslands, and aspen glades.
This rough “gravel” bikepacking route is a circuit through the high country of western New Mexico and extreme eastern Arizona – the Black, Mogollon, San Francisco, and Gallo Mountains, and the gorgeous Blue River Canyon. The loop follows short sections of Adventure Cycling Association’s Great Divide MTB Route on the east, some of Bikepacking Roots’ Mogollon Connector on the south, and very quiet roads around the rest of the loop (~80% dirt, 20% paved). Most of the country through which this loop passes is very remote – scattered ranches and tiny
communities are widely spaced.
Most of this route follows a mix of rough gravel and very quiet paved roads. It’s very manageable on a gravel bike with 50c tires that have reinforced casings/sidewalls, although sections of the loop are rougher than typical “gravel.” A hardtail mountain bike would be a comfortable choice, as well.
Late spring or autumn is the ideal time of year to ride this route. Higher elevations can hold snow into April in some years, summer heat is intense at the lower elevations along the route, and mid- to late-summer monsoon rains can turn long stretches of the route to impassible mud
until they dry out. September and October tend to be cooler, drier, and gorgeous. But most of the route is at elevations above 7,000 feet, so the majority of the miles tend to be relatively cool during summer months. Long stretches of the route, however, can turn to impassibly sticky clay-rich mud when wet.
The vast majority of this route is on public lands managed by the USFS and BLM, and dispersed camping options are plentiful along the entirety of the loop. Reliable water sources and resupply options are more widely spaced, so plan carefully around those.
This route was put together by Kurt Refsnider; last updated February 2023.
Riding the Loop
This description of the loop starts on its northeast side at the Highway 12 crossing and proceeds clockwise. The route can be ridden in either direction, but the climbing in the Mogollon Mountains is considerably less difficult going clockwise. From Highway 12 south, the route follows mostly well-maintained gravel and dirt roads used by the Great Divide MTB Route all the way to the USFS Beaverhead Work Center. Riders pass through high grasslands and ponderosa pine forests and traverse gently rolling terrain. Virtually all of this section is on public lands, and water is sparse until the reliable hand pump at Beaverhead Work Center. Camping is not allowed at Beaverhead, but public lands immediately to the south or west offer nice dispersed camping opportunities (the land just to the north is private).
At Beaverhead, the route turns west and follows the Mogollon Connector, initially climbing a well-maintained gravel. To the south is the Gila Wilderness, and to the west are the domes of the Mogollon Mountains where the route heads. Again, water is sparse on this stretch, so riders should plan carefully. Road conditions deteriorate and tend to be quite rough (likely the roughest on the loop) until Dripping Vat/Snow Lake Campground (this small reservoir has multiple names). West of the campground, road conditions improve notably, and a spigot in the small campground offers a reliable water source during non-winter months. Then the climbing begins in earnest as riders start the ascent into the Mogollon Mountains in earnest. Recent fires burned through some of this area, so expect rougher roads in places after summer storms. Dramatic views, aspen forests, and cool air are highlights of this section. After the high point, a very rough descent leads to the old mining town of Mogollon where a few businesses are generally open during the summer tourist season. From there, a paved descent dives into the San Francisco River Valley below to the west. The small community of Alma sits just off route to the south, and the Alma Store and Cafe are right on route just north of town.
Past the Alma Store, riders follow the very quiet Highway 180 north for ~40 miles, mostly climbing toward the San Francisco Mountains. These are the lowest-elevation miles of the loop (hence, usually the warmest), and most of the land along this road is public. Views on the last part of the climb are expansive and look over most of the terrain on the eastern half of the loop. Pine forests up higher offer some respite from the warmer valley below. The route leaves Highway 180 at its high point in the San Francisco Mountains, and riders have the option of a shortcut by sticking to the highway and heading to Luna (no services are available in Luna, however). Continuing on the main route, generally well-maintained but somewhat rough dirt roads meander across the crest of the mountains before beginning crossing into Arizona and beginning a very long descent into the scenic Blue River Canyon. At the bottom sits the tiny community of Blue (no services available), and a very well-maintained dirt road follows the canyon northward. Keep an eye (and ear) out for wolves – they frequent this area and would be a real treat to see. A few small USFS campgrounds offer comfortable camping options with ample shade, and the Blue River is a reliable water source. After 13 miles of riding along the river, riders climb out of the canyon to the town of Alpine where all services (aside from a bike shop) are available.
East of Alpine, riders will again follow the quiet Highway 180 through pine forests to Luna before turning north onto seldom-traveled dirt and gravel roads, and the remaining 65 miles of the loop traverse high-elevation grassy parks, pine forests, and a mix of rolling terrain to start and then the low Gallo Mountains before rejoining the Great Divide MTB Route below the imposing Mangas Mountain. Water sources from livestock tanks are more readily available along this section of the route, and camping options are unlimited. Finally, a long descent delivers riders back to the Highway 12 crossing to close the loop.
Photos by Kurt Refsnider
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