Mountain biker rides the ridge line in the Ojito Wilderness Study Area.
The recently introduced Ojito Wilderness Act could permanently protect this area from environmental threats and development.
The Ojito Wilderness Study Area and surrounding features
Hoodoos and a Ponderosa Pine in the Ojito
Tour de Ojito
John Knight told me some time ago that there were some great bike trails in the Ojito Wilderness Study Area. He really likes to ride there when the moon is full, but I picked a bright Sunday morning in October to take him up on his offer to show me the Tour de Ojito. Members of the New Mexico congressional delegation had just introduced the Ojito Wilderness Act to add these eleven thousand acres to to the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects wild areas that have "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." The legislation would also prohibit mountain bikes.
The Ojito is just twenty miles up US 550 on the other side of the white cliffs of Centex that can be seen from Placitas. Two miles before San Ysidro, we turned left onto Cabezon Road, took the left fork, and drove 4.3 miles to a turnout just after power poles cross over the road. At this point there is a No Motorized Vehicles sign and a fence blocking an old jeep trail that heads into the wilderness. After pushing the bikes around the fence, we headed up the road, which soon crests at a spectacular overlook of the entire area. A USGS survey marker shows the point to be at an elevation of just over six thousand feet, but it seems higher. Beautiful and sometimes bizarre land formations stretch east to the Jemez Mountains, back south to the Sandias, north to the dominant volcanic plug of El Cabezón, and west to the wide open spaces.
John pointed to a long ridgeline that extends about five miles all the way to US 550. Getting to the ridge was a bit of puzzle because the crumbling ground changes with erosion and trail washout, or maybe it just looks different in the sunlight. Pretty soon, though, we were whizzing down the knife edge of the ridge, stopping occasionally to regroup and look around. Walking would have provided a better venue for detailed sightseeing, but we covered a lot of ground and had a lot of fun.
At the end of the ridge there is a very inviting trail that leads back up a valley. It would be a good way to walk, but bikes would have to be pushed or carried up the last mile or so back to the truck. We took a jeep road that climbs gradually through hills and arroyos, past unique geological formations and seeping springs. We reentered Cabezon Road several miles south of the truck.
Quads burning from the long uphill, we drove another four miles north to a place John had found on a GPS web site that reveals special little-known places. We proceeded about half a mile on foot to where GPS coordinates steered us to a cove next to the cliffs below a mesa. Here the air was filled with the smell of ponderosa pine that seemed out of place, far below the elevation where the pines usually grow. The main attraction was a cluster of hoodoos—geological formations created when rocks and soil erode from beneath a caprock and result in weird, sometimes magical shapes. One of them looks just like a chicken. Rocks that look like walnut shells and peanuts are scattered everywhere. Okay, so it's not Yosemite, but it is a nearby wilderness and there was nobody there.
For the third stage of the Tour de Ojito, John took us back up the road a couple of miles and stopped in a parking area beneath the prow of a long mesa across the road from a cattle gate. We got back on our bikes and took a rocky trail up to a place John called Gizzard Stone Gulch. He said that this place had been shown to him on a tour conducted by the Wilderness Alliance.
Shiny, multicolored stones that obviously have a different origin litter the arroyo. They are purported to be gizzard stones from dinosaurs that came here to die. They probably won't be there for long, even though the Wilderness Act prohibits the collection of these and other fossils. Just a little further was the site of a dig that produced the giant skeleton of a seismosaurus that is now in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. The site is on an outcrop overlooking the vast high desert to the west. Nearby, a number of well-preserved petroglyphs remain on the ridge above a cliff with a small cave that was probably used by primitive hunters.
Hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and horseback riding can be enjoyed in the Ojito Wilderness Study Area without a permit. Until the Wilderness Act becomes law, all roads and trails are open to mountain biking unless designated closed. There was plenty more to see, including kivas and other Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Pueblo, Navajo, and Spanish cultural sites. There are rare plant species, birds, reptiles, mule deer, and mountain lions. But it was getting late, so we headed for the final stage of the tour: the Milagro Brewery.
The Ojito Wilderness Act has been widely praised as an example of bipartisan cooperation among our congressional delegation. Martin Heinrich, coordinator for the Coalition for New Mexico Wilderness, said, "This is the broadest coalition I've ever worked with—not just our representatives, but the environmental community, 350 businesses, and the pueblos." The act also would add protections to lands buffering the proposed Ojito Wilderness which are largely surrounded by Zia Pueblo. The pueblo would be allowed to purchase these lands as public open space, so long as they remain open to the public for continued recreational, scientific, and conservation uses. By purchasing the land, the pueblo would be able to unite the two separate parts of its reservation with aboriginal lands that have important religious and cultural value.
I won't protest the loss of my bike-riding privilege if this legislation passes, which could happen next year, if the President abandons his usual policy toward public lands and signs this legislation to permanently protect the Ojito as wilderness.