New Mexico’s Unique Trail Riding Opportunities

Living in New Mexico can be a horseman's paradise. Contrary to what many people think, riding in New Mexico doesn't always mean traveling through sagebrush and sand; there are hundreds of square miles of forested areas to the north and northwest of Albuquerque including the Valle Grande Nature Preserve, the San Pedro Wilderness, and the Valle Vidal.

Living in New Mexico can be a horseman’s paradise. From my home in Corrales, I can ride out my driveway and be along the Rio Grande River in about 25 minutes. If I want to load into a trailer and drive for an hour, I can be in the middle of nowhere on Bureau of Land Management land, a national forest, or a private preserve. With a little more driving, I can find vast areas where one could ride for days and never see the same scenery twice and rarely run into other riders.

Contrary to what many people think, riding in New Mexico doesn’t always mean traveling through sagebrush and sand; there are hundreds of square miles of forested areas to the north and northwest of Albuquerque. My three favorite places to ride in this region are the Valle Grande Nature Preserve, the San Pedro Wilderness, and the Valle Vidal.

The Valle Grande

The Valle Grande Nature Preserve is just over an hour drive-time from Albuquerque, about 45 minutes from Los Alamos, and about 90 minutes from Santa Fe. It’s located along Highway 4 between the little village of San Ysidro, along Highway 550 and Los Alamos.

The Valle Grande is a former private ranch, which was donated to the federal government to be used as a private preserve for cattle grazing, as well as recreational uses, including equestrian activities. The equestrian program, which began in summer 2004, runs from June through late September. Reservations are required, and only a limited number of riders are allowed in each day.

The longest loop trail is 13 miles; it takes riders through deeply forested areas and beautiful open meadows. Highlines are set up in several locations for breaks. There are several shorter trails, as well.

There are no guided rides, but there are a few equestrian volunteers who roam the area in case anyone gets lost or hurt. Water for your horse is generally available in the parking area, but it never hurts to have your own supply.

You may see deer, elk, wild turkey, and even an occasional bear. Late in the season, the elk begin their mating season, and it’s quite common to hear bull elk bugling.

Elevation ranges from about 6,500 to 8,000 feet; the temperature can range from in the low 50s to the mid 80s. Summer is monsoon season in New Mexico, so raingear is essential.

The San Pedro Wilderness

Just north of the Valle Grande is the San Pedro Wilderness and the Santa Fe National Forest. Access to this wonderful area is found in the village of Cuba, along Highway 550, or off State Route 96 that takes you west from Highway 84, and then heads north to Chama from Espanola.

From Cuba, you can head east along State Route 126 several miles into the mountains and follow the signs to the parking area off the main road. The trail takes off from there and works gently uphill past lush meadows, San Pedro Lake, and into the high country where you can wander at will. (Call ahead to the ranger station to arrange to get a map.)

Another access point is the Los Pinos trail. Just a mile or so north along Highway 550 from Highway 126 is the Los Pinos Trailer Park. Turn on this road, and follow it a few miles until you see the United States Forest Service road to the right. This dirt road is treacherous after a rain, so be careful. At the top of the road is a parking area and a few corrals. The trail takes off from the end of the parking area and heads uphill for three miles through the trees before reaching the top of the mountains. From that point, you’ll ride in spectacular open meadows; the riding possibilities will seem endless. Bring in water for your horse.

The third access point is south of the little village of Gallina along State Route 96. There, USFS roads will take you back into the national forest to a lovely overnight campground. Riding out from this campground is a real treat, but getting there is a chore. Driving time from Albuquerque is 2 1/2 to 3 hours; it’s about 2 1/2 hours from Santa Fe if you go through Espanola. There’s usually stream water for your horse, but bring in your own supply for human consumption.

Elevation ranges from 6,000 to 9,000 feet. In the warm, dry, New Mexico summer, it’s a welcome relief to ride in cool places such as this. Again, this can be monsoon season, so raingear is essential. Morning temperatures can be in the 50s and the afternoons may warm up to the high 70s or low 80s.

The Valle Vidal

In the extreme north central part of the state is the Valle Vidal. This huge tract of land was donated to the federal government in 1982 to be used as a nature preserve. There are approximately 100,000 acres of land available for hiking, riding, hunting, and fishing.

The Vidal is located southwest of Raton and northwest of Cimarron. The easiest access is off of State Route 64 four miles north of Cimarron. The first campground, McCrystal, is approximately 30 miles in, along a dirt road. There are several places for horses; you may highline your horse between the trees.

There’s a second campground about 10 miles farther up the road. At each campground are bathrooms, non-potable water, and a water trough for horses. Bring your own water for personal use. Elevation ranges from 7,000 to about 9,500 feet.

The riding possibilities are endless; you could literally ride for days and continue seeing new scenery. Elk, buffalo, deer, and bear are commonly sighted in the area. The trails, if you follow one, will take you through lush forests, beautiful open meadows, and through valleys that were once logged, and where signs of early settlements and a narrow gauge railroad still exist. There are also several natural lakes, manmade ponds, and a creek in the area.

In the late fall, winter, and early spring, we ride on the mesas and on BLM land at the lower elevations. Here, we do ride through sagebrush and sand. But come mid-May, we all head for the high country where it’s green and lush, and the temperatures are cool and refreshing.

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