"LET'S GO RIDE SOME DITCHES," Matt Mason says. We pedal through downtown Las Cruces and quickly turn off the pavement onto a dirt path alongside a dry irrigation ditch. For a few minutes I wonder if, like so many other cyclists, I’ve been roped into something only Mason thinks is a good idea. The ground glitters with bits of broken glass, and litter sticks to fences. “This is the trashiest bit,” he assures me.

Soon we're weaving among backyards and sneaking voyeuristic glimpses of gardens, clotheslines, and picnic tables. Then the city sights shift to farm fields plowed into corduroy-like furrows and pecan orchards with bare limbs cutting dark silhouettes in the sky. Morning sunlight slants over the shoulders of the Organ Mountains and pinks the hills in front of us. Where ditches carry a trickle of water, grass has responded with emerald blades.

We bike half a dozen miles to Mesilla, spotting the plaza by its church steeple, almost all of our route navigating ditch banks that ride like well-maintained but car-free dirt roads.

Then the wind turns against us. It switches from whistling through our wheel spokes and nudging us sideways to blasting dirt in our faces. Sand swamps us, requiring we put a foot down to reset our bikes on firmer ground. The sand and wind are, as best as Mason can guess, a big part of what made the original bikepacking route he created so hard.

For years, Mason worked—on his own dime and time—to piece together trails and roads through the four sections of the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument. The outdoors advocate and stay-at-home father of two called it the Monumental Loop—more than 300 miles of mountain ranges and mesas, with detours for petroglyph panels and near-perpetual solitude.

Because water is so rare, the route is better biked than hiked. And because it veers deep into the desert for days of riding at a time, cyclists strap everything they need to survive onto their bikes. It’s bikepacking, backpacking’s two-wheeled counterpart.

“You get to all these places you couldn’t otherwise access,” explains Hayley Clifford, another Las Cruces–based bikepacker. “It’s pretty vast here. Cycling is the best way to see the land. You’re going slow, so you can see things that in a car you normally wouldn’t, and you can smell things and hear things and feel things—like cactus spines.”

Debuting in 2017, the Monumental Loop became southern New Mexico’s flagship bikepacking route, sparking a growing bicycling community in Las Cruces and luring out-of-state riders. But even experts like Mason and Clifford had to admit it was harder than expected.

So this March, Mason published an online overhaul: Monumental Loop 2.0. The original route centered on a backcountry experience rich in scenery and seclusion. The revision focuses on smoother trails and weaving riders through the city and into surrounding towns for burritos, beer, and hot springs. Mason thinks it could stoke the economic engine of those places while still delivering an enjoyable ride—with taco breaks.

Matt Mason created the loop, which carries riders through a desert landscape anchored by units of the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument.

WHEN MASON MOVED TO LAS CRUCES A DECADE AGO, he was a hiker who expected to learn the Organ Mountains by walking through them. At the time, the city was deep in discussions about designating wilderness areas in the Organs. To understand the stakes, he wanted to spend time in the mountains on foot, map a hiking route, and inspire additional advocates. But he soon discovered that hikers here face distances between water sources that require carrying several days’ worth of supply. And the overall geography is called basin and range—long, arid valleys interrupted by peaks. “You’re in the mountains, and it’s really fun,” Mason says. “Then you have 40 miles of flat to get to the next mountain
range. I got kind of bored with it.”

When he tapped into the bicycling community through Outdoor Adventures, a local bike shop, two wheels emerged as a better way to get around. He and his friends started exploring existing roads and trails, some in better condition than others, looking for a big route they could link together.

“We’d stare at the maps all week,” he says, “then on the weekends go out and ride something and see how horrible it was.” Deep sand, rocks, or overgrown brush made many potential paths unrideable. “Many times, what looks like a road on a satellite image just isn’t acceptable. It’s barely walkable.”

But sections of trail started to cohere. When he set out to ride the whole thing, he found it hard, but doable. And for him, captivating scenery and quiet nights in the desert with a star-filled sky erased the struggle to get there. He posted the Monumental Loop online for others to try.

"Bikepacking is niche, but it’s new, and people are always looking for something new. It could be a great thing for Las Cruces."

—Hillary Dutcher

They did. Then came the hate mail. People were upset their vacations weren’t as fun as they wanted them to be. (One sample: “I was pushing my bike for two hours!”) Despite his efforts to weed out the worst of it, the route still included plentiful sand, rocky climbs, and frequent cacti. On Bikepacking.com it scored a 9 on a scale of 1–10 for difficulty.

Then, last winter, a couple from Colorado posted a video on Instagram. In it, the man asks, “Are we having fun?” and the woman sobs, “No!” as she pushes her bike. Within an hour of seeing it, Mason had mapped the Monumental Loop 2.0.

“I was like, Nope, never again,” he says. “There needs to be another option—one that’s pushed as the first option—so people aren’t out there crying.”

He focused on smoother trails and more manageable terrain, informed by additional years of riding. The 245-mile route still tours among the rosy Doña Anas, the gray mesas of the Sierra de las Uvas, Chihuahuan Desert basins thick with creosote, yucca, and sotol, and the matchless Organ Mountains. But it also stops in towns for spicy food, craft brews, and a chance to soak up local culture.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Yes, that’s what we wanted the whole time,’ ” he says. This fall through spring—prime bikepacking season in southern New Mexico—Mason predicts that “it’s going to explode.”

Which means that a guy with a few ambitious friends, a map, and a plan has drafted what’s becoming a significant tourist draw for the city.

“People will definitely show up for it,” says Hilary Dutcher, outdoor recreation sales manager for Visit Las Cruces. “Bikepacking is niche, but it’s new, and people are always looking for something new. It could be a great thing for Las Cruces.”

The Organ Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to riders on the Monumental Loop.

MASON HAD NEVER HEARD OF LAS CRUCES BEFORE his wife’s job moved them there. He thought they would stay a few years, then head back to Arizona. But a decade later, their roots only grow deeper. Now he’s invested in the community, in adding riders, and in increasing interest in the loop he made from nearby trails.

As a meeting spot for our ride, he suggested the Plaza de Las Cruces, which marks both the start and finish line for the Monumental Loop 2.0. Riders who came for the original route would have missed downtown entirely, and, perhaps more importantly, people in town would have missed seeing them.

He points to the Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery’s patio facing the plaza. “People sitting at Little Toad can look out and be like, ‘Hey, here come more bikepackers.’ ”

He’d like a sign posted there that announces, “You’re at mile zero of the Monumental Loop,” with a map of it. He wants more locals to recognize the abundant riding available, including the national monument less than an hour’s ride away from anywhere in the city. The revision also links commuter bike paths and routes a kid might pedal to school, and he hopes to see signage that lets people know they’ve already cycled sections of it.

“If they get the idea, ‘Oh, this connects to the Doña Anas and Tonuco and all these wonderful places,’ I think that alone will encourage people to try more of it,” he says.

“There’s something magical about seeing a trail sign and being like, ‘Where is this taking me?’ if it’s part of a bigger route,” says Clifford, Mason’s fellow rider. “I remember being so enthralled with the Sierra Vista trails. I was like, ‘Oh, it goes all the way to Texas. I wonder what it looks like, doing the whole thing.’ It sparks that sense of adventure.”

"Biking has changed my life in so many ways, and i think the most important part of biking, for me, is reconnecting with my city."

—Eloisa Torres

The new route drops into surrounding villages in part to add some well-deserved rest. But Mason also hopes to draw dollars to those places by steering hungry and thirsty riders to the likes of a burger from Sparky’s, in Hatch, a microbrew from the Spotted Dog, in Mesilla, or an overnight stay and soak at the Hacienda del Camino Real & Hot Springs, in Radium Springs.

“Growing up here, and then riding the ditch banks and stuff now, it’s like, Wow, Las Cruces has a different feel from this angle,” says Eloisa Torres, a ninth-grade New Mexico history teacher and relative newcomer to bicycling. “Biking has changed my life in so many ways. I think the most important part of biking, for me, is reconnecting with
my city.”

The ditches, built by the city’s first families, travel through some of the oldest neighborhoods in Las Cruces. But riding also takes her out to the farms of the North Valley, reminding her of the workers we rely on for food, and reconnects her with the land, its Indigenous stewards, and the need to honor, acknowledge, and care for these places.

The local biking community broadens the connections by loaning gear and helping beginners learn the basics, including through groups like the Doña Ana She-Wolves, a women’s cycling group that Torres and Clifford belong to. Torres knew so little when she showed up for her first overnight bikepacking trip that her bags were upside down. Her experience and skills have grown so much since then that this spring she and Clifford biked through Big Bend National Park, in Texas, for four days.

“It was so liberating to be able to pack what you need and get away, knowing that you can survive, even if it’s only for one night,” she says. “It’s just a simple way of being for a few days.”

The old route, now dubbed DangerBird (no more sugar-coating, Mason says), is still out there for people who want that challenge.

“It’s a good way to have both,” says Clifford, who jokes that she’s one of the few people who haven’t cursed Mason’s name for the trouble he’s brought them. Clifford has ridden the DangerBird route twice and holds the women’s record for fastest completion. She likes to push herself on the trail, even when that means training until 2 a.m. to prepare for riding all night on a record attempt.

But not everyone wants to suffer that much. Even she likes slowing down sometimes. A mellow overnight into the Sierra de la Uvas this spring, she says, left her free to hike into the canyons by moonlight.

Hayley Clifford takes a breather on the trail.

IN A SAMPLER COURSE OF DAY RIDES, I NAVIGATE a maze of trails around the pale, round shoulder of Tortugas, or “A” Mountain. A few stretches rattle over rocks or run so thick with sand that I stall out. One ocotillo leaning over the trail swipes my arm and leaves scratches. Then the Organs come into view, lining the eastern horizon in late-afternoon sun. The light draws out their clustered rock pipes, long slanting faces, and blocky spires, while the desert before them glows gold.

As I drive out to ride a section of the Sierra de las Uvas, I meet a pair of bikepackers. Both are dressed for nonstop sun in thin layers but long sleeves, their bike frames hidden by the bags strapped to them.

They’d been out enough days to be happy to see bad weather in the forecast, prompting plans to spend a night in a hotel, with showers and laundry. In just the first weeks after Mason published the reroute last spring, he’d heard of 10 people finishing it. Here were two more, well on their way.

Down a series of dirt roads through worn ranchlands, I park where I plan to start pedaling. Looking at the scrubby hills and thorny bushes, a landscape flattened by harsh midday light, I wonder what nice thing I can possibly think of to say about this place. But as I ride, I start to see details in the rippled black and red sand along the road, the tender colors in the mesquite, the dimples in washes from jackrabbit and coyote feet.

In the Doña Anas, which I’d heard offer some of the best riding around, I pedal swooping trails and climb the peak’s flank to covetable campsites tucked among boulders. The trail stretches on across the desert, beckoning, but a storm is rolling in. Clouds snag on the Organs, then pour between the spires and into the basin below. Soon the mist also drapes the rocky red mounds of the Doña Anas. Bits of rain and snow pelt my jacket. Later I will try to recall the cold or the damp, and can’t place those sensations, but I do feel the tug of the trail, leading onward.

Story Sidebar

Jason Baca, Clifford, and Matt Mason kick back in a trailside campsite.

Bikepacking for Beginners

Use these tips for a smooth ride.

IF YOU'RE JUST GETTING INTO bikepacking, try it on a trail you’ve ridden before (camping regulations permitting) so the terrain and riding are familiar. “Just ride whatever loop you like in the evening, camp, then get up and ride in the morning,” Matt Mason says. Carry just enough water for the evening and morning, adding a liter for insurance, plus a few hygiene items, a sleeping bag, and a dinner that travels well.

Serious bikepackers dial in a system of small bags and straps to lash gear to a bike frame, under the saddle, and along the handlebars. For those who just want to get a feel for it, a small backpack can do. Feeling inventive? Stuffsacks, drybags, straps, and bungee cords work well.

Just about any mountain bike will do for the Monumental Loop 2.0, but wider tires and a trusted system for handling thorns and flats are advised. Stock up on gear and trail advice at Outdoor Adventures in Las Cruces.

Follow the Monumental Loop on Facebook and Instagram to learn about group rides and beginner-friendly outings.

Bring a camera. You’ll want to preserve the memory of this view.

Rides to Try

A few starter trails on the Monumental Loop.

THE BEST ONLINE RESOURCE for finding your way around the Monumental Loop, or pieces of it, is Bikepacking.com. Try these:

The Doña Ana Mountains trail system, on Desert Wind Way (at exit 9 off I-25), boasts narrow, smooth riding in a choose-your-own-adventure network of trails.

For a popular overnighter, ride from downtown Las Cruces to the Sierra Vista Trail, which runs along the Organ Mountains off Dripping Springs Road, and camp with a stunning view of the many nearby mountain ranges.

An out-and-back ride from Radium Springs cruises mostly flat gravel roads along the Río Grande, passing Geronimo’s Cave and a slot canyon into the Robledo Mountains.

For more ideas, check for overnighter loops on Ride with GPS, a free online mapping service that Matt Mason has used to offer variations of the Monumental Loop.