The Winsor Trail always gives you a bit of everything, from smooth glides to bone-jarring rocks, from gentle slopes to brake-screeching pitches, from rich aspen forest to thirsty pine woods. Few single tracks in any part of the country offer such a variety of experience in the course of ten miles.
Much of the variety is the result of the dramatic change in elevation of the trail. Indeed, it is this elevation change that has firmly established the trail's reputation as one of the premier mountain bike rides in the country. From the lower trailhead near Bishop's Lodge, the Winsor Trail climbs 3,400 feet to the fir forest at the Santa Fe Ski Area.
Hiker vs. Biker
Put such a trail only minutes from downtown Santa Fe and not only do you have world-class mountain biking but a situation for an overused and abused trail. Add the presence of a multitude of hikers out to enjoy the same quality outdoor adventure as bikers, and you've got a sensitive area loaded with potential conflict.
The Winsor came first to the world's attention as a downhill cruise. It seemed that every mountain biking publication touted the joys of the descent, never mentioning how to get to the top. Everyone out for a joy ride got someone to drop them off at the top of the mountain, a practice that soon led to insanity. Hordes of thoughtless riders bombed down the trail at top speed, leaving other trail users to jump out of harm's way as best they could.
Nowadays, riding the trail only in the downhill direction is frowned upon.
"Why do you think no one runs a shuttle to the top of the mountain?" says J.C. at Coyote Bicycle Shop in Santa Fe. "They know the outcry against it would be too much to bear."
J.C.'s opinion is typical of the local attitude. "I feel that you have to earn the pleasure of the downhill," he said.
I can't deny that one of mountain biking's extreme pleasures is gliding down a gentle incline through the deep conifer forest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is as graceful as the usually jarring sport of mountain biking gets. Following a pine needle-covered trail is like water falling lazily along its course.
Before I knew better, I did the trail the easy way, from top to bottom. But I've discovered going up isn't as difficult as you might expect. The grades are gentle and at slower speeds, the delightful scenery is more noticeable. At the top, the pleasure of turning around and having gravity as your ally is supreme.
Riding uphill can help solve a lot of the problems caused by downhill speed demons. J.C. points out, "After the draining climb to the top you don't feel much like hot dogging your way back down."
Unlike many single tracks, the Winsor Trail does not require advanced riding skill to negotiate. Much of the trail is smooth and hard packed. Short sections are steep, have loose rocks or dirt and caution is required. Other trail hazards include steep drop-offs at trailside, tight turns, and plenty of rocks. When riding downhill, always control your speed.
Trail hazards are less pronounced in the uphill direction, but climbing the Winsor Trail will test your stamina. Miles of constant ascent will slowly wear you down. By the halfway point, the air is noticeably thinner than at the trailhead. When your lungs feel like they've stopped working, a gentle stretch will usually give you a bit of a respite.
Riding in either direction, the trail is a delight. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow the entire way. The upper miles wind through canyons and over ridges that are heavily forested. This is the most enjoyable part of the ride, cruising amid the firs on a narrow trail. Cool and shady with slightly inclined grades, you'll wish this could last forever. In fall, the aspen stands along the way turn brilliant gold, giving the trail a unique quality of light.
The middle section of the trail parallels Tesuque Creek. This stretch is highly scenic, passing through aspen stands, along the stream, and through open meadows. At times the route is perched on a ledge above the stream. In the grassy meadows, trail widens to a road. With no sudden drops or climbs, this section of the trail is less physically demanding than the others.
The bottom four miles of the trail are the most challenging. The trail crosses Tesuque Creek 15 times, and in summer splashing through the stream is welcome relief to the heat. Much of the trail is rocky in this stretch and getting up some speed is not much of an issue. Short but steep grades in this area have been severely eroded. Help protect the trail by not skidding or spinning your tires.
Several years ago, conflicts between users on the Winsor Trail were common. The gentle grades of the trail make it popular with hikers, and the middle section of the trail along Tesuque Creek is part of a heavily-used loop hike easy enough for families. Weekends were a bad time to be on the trail. Mountain bikers blasting downhill ran hikers and their dogs or children off the trail. Rumblings of closing the trail to mountain bikes came from the Forest Service.
No one can recall such an incident from the last riding season.
"In the past year, everyone seems to have cleaned up their act," J.C. said. "Now the locals know better. They don't want to see this trail closed to bikes."
J.C. also credits a docent program run by the Forest Service and the local Sangre de Cristo Cycling Club for helping reduce conflicts. The program puts volunteers from the club on mountain bikes on the trail. They offer fellow riders friendly reminders about safety and sharing the trail.
"The fact that they have a presence up there on weekends has curtailed much of the insanity," J.C. said.
Riders can help avoid potential conflicts with hikers by always yielding to other trail users and always controlling your speed. Avoid riding during peak use by hikers by riding during the week or early in the morning.
Rather than attempt the downhill blast, try one of three alternatives to get to the top of the Winsor Trail. The obvious route is to ride the trail up. Many riders prefer this option because it provides the maximum time on single track. You can shorten the up-and-back trip without taking away any of the fun or challenge by starting at the Chamisa Trail instead of the lower Winsor trailhead.
The easiest route to the top is riding the pavement of State Road 475, the road to the Santa Fe Ski Area. Traffic is moderate on this road during the summer, but you can avoid much of it by starting before 8 a.m. About 14 miles of climbing await if you go this route.
The Pacheco Canyon Road, Forest Road 102, offers a dirt road and different mountain scenery for the climb. Park at the lower Winsor trailhead, then ride State Road 591 north through the village of Tesuque. Turn right at the intersection with State Road 592. At County Road 76, turn right. This road turns into Forest Road 102. You'll reach the Winsor Trail in about seven miles.
Access to the Winsor Trail is via State Road 475. Take Washington Avenue north for a half mile from the Santa Fe Plaza. Turn right onto Artist Road, which becomes State Road 475. The Chamisa Trailhead is six miles up the road on the left, and it is 14 miles to the upper Winsor Trailhead at the Santa Fe Ski Basin.
To reach the lower trailhead, take Washington Avenue north from the plaza. This road becomes State Road 590. About four miles from the plaza, turn right onto the gravel Country Road 72A. Parking for the Winsor Trail is about a quarter mile up this road.
Despite the fears of hikers, the Forest Service, and mountain bikers themselves, conditions on the Winsor Trail are improving. Retailers and cycling clubs continue to educate riders on proper trail etiquette. With user conflicts at an all-time low, the Forest Service is no longer looking at the possibility of closing the trail to bikes. Last summer, mountain bike riders worked with the Forest Service to improve sections of the Winsor Trail, by-passing highly eroded spots and placing water bars to prevent further trail damage.
The future of mountain biking on the Winsor Trail is again bright.