Introduction - Passes Around the San Luis Valley 2019 - CycleBlaze



This is a 20 day motel bike tour in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. 731 miles (1170 km), with 7 major mountain passes and 4 unpaved segments. May 29 thru June 17, 2019. The schedule was fixed because lodging was reserved in advance.

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The route is very challenging for me because it has so much climbing, I'm not acclimatized to high elevation, and I'm 58 years old. To compensate I took more rest days than ever. 5 rest days during the 20 day tour.

The route is quite rural, mostly in remote mountain valleys. Most days have no services between the start and finish. The biggest towns are Salida (population 5856) and Taos (population 5668).

The route revisits a few places I saw during my first bike tour in 1988. I pedaled 5 small portions of this route during previous tours but most of the route is roads and areas that I had never seen before.

The route also took me to 4 hot springs that I had never visited. 2 commercial, 2 natural.

It's easier to visualize the route if you click the button in the upper right of the map and select Terrain view.


The big valley in the middle of the loop is the San Luis valley. It's very high, mostly above 7500 feet (2287 m) elevation, and surrounded by mountains except for a narrow outlet in the south. The climate is arid but the valley has many irrigated crop circles because the Rio Grande river flows through the middle.

The entire route is very high elevation. The lowest elevation on the route is 6233 feet (1900 meters) at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico.

The highest elevation on the route is 10,857 feet (3310 meters) at Wolf Creek pass which had a lot of snow on May 30 but is not especially high by Colorado standards, merely the 18th highest paved pass in Colorado.

The route criss-crosses big mountains that surround the valley. West of the valley the route crosses Wolf Creek and Cumbres passes in the San Juan mountains. Southeast and east of the valley the route crosses Sipapu, Bobcat, and La Veta passes in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Northeast of the valley is a big climb to Promontory Divide between the Sangre de Cristo and Wet mountains. North of the valley the final climb is Poncha pass, a saddle between the Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo ranges.

The Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ) and San Juan (Saint John) mountains are the southernmost segment of the Rocky mountains, the longest mountain range in North America. The route map above shows the I-25 highway wrapping around the south end of the Rocky mountains east of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The north end is the Liard river in British Columbia.

Rough location of the Rocky mountains.
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Most of the route is east of the Continental Divide where water flows towards the Atlantic ocean. Pagosa Springs is the only overnight destination west of the divide where water flows towards the Pacific ocean.

I have been fascinated with water divides since biking through the Canadian Rocky mountains and learning that the Columbia Icefield drains to 3 oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic). Most maps of the U.S. continental divide stop abruptly at the borders. This North America water divide map helps me visualize the 6 major watersheds: Pacific ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic ocean, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Hudson bay, and Arctic ocean.

Major water divides of North America. By Pfly - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
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Scott AndersonVery interesting map. Thanks for including it.
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2 years ago


To me the most fascinating aspect of this region is that it still has many remnants from colonial Spain. The San Luis valley was the northern frontier of New Spain. Settlements were relatively successful there but much less successful to the west, north, and east because of hostile natives. Much of the land is still farmed by Spanish settler families who have been in the region 300 to 400 years.

New Spain at its peak in 1810, the year Mexico declared independence.
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It's interesting to see that Spain claimed to own the Louisiana Purchase 7 years after the U.S. purchased the territory from France. Spain never had successful settlements in the Louisiana Purchase region. Spain had coastal settlements in New California but had little or no control over inland areas. Spanish Louisiana and most of New California were imaginary parts of the Spanish empire. In between, the province of New Mexico was a very real part of the Spanish empire.


The weather was very hot during last year's tour in northwest Colorado, July 3-20. This tour is farther south so I decided to start earlier in the season to have cooler weather. In March I made reservations that committed me to a start date of May 28. I was hoping for high temperatures in the 70's and low 80's (21-29C). Instead the weather was below normal most of the time. High temperatures in the 55 to 80F range. I successfully avoided the heat but some days were uncomfortably cold.

Bike and Rider

I turned 58 during this tour and started the tour with a weight of 188 pounds (85 kg) which is 4 pounds lighter than when I started a tour last May.

Rio Grande Gorge bridge. June 5, 2019.
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The bike is a 2007 Bacchetta Giro 20 with Euro-Mesh seat, Ventisit pad, Terracycle underseat rack, and Arkel RT-40 underseat panniers.

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