Self-Contained Touring for the First Time

December 15, 2016 - Jenn Milyko is Adventure Cycling's Routes & Mapping Assistant Director.

Photo by Jenn MIlyko
Wide open blue skies of northern New Mexico.

It was around this time in 2015 that my friend, Tammy Schurr, proposed a weeklong, self-contained tour in New Mexico. It seems only fitting I let those memories of a sunshine-filled trip warm me up from the inside while winter howls outside my office window today.

Tammy is New Mexico born and raised and a long time event director and tour leader for Adventure Cycling. I was confident she would cook up a great tour showcasing her home state. Honestly though, in spite of being surrounded by the joys of bicycle travel on a daily basis, I have not done a lot of bicycling touring, and the tours I have done in recent years were fully supported. I was a tad nervous to be taking on a self-contained tour with a seasoned pro, but at the same time, I was thrilled to be learning the ropes from someone in the know. To add to the mix, she extended an invitation to her fellow tour leader and our mutual friend, Sid Voss, to join us. (No pressure!)

Photo courtesy Jenn Milyko
The three amigos: Sid Voss, Tammy Schurr, Jenn Milyko

Because Tammy and Sid are busy running and working tours throughout the summer, our shared windows of opportunity were fairly narrow. We settled on a week in early June. Being in Minnesota and Montana respectively, where spring can come late, Sid and I were both a bit nervous about tackling a tour so early in the season, but decided to go for it! Synchronistically, our tour began on the Sunday of the inaugural Bike Travel Weekend. The stars were aligning for a great trip.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Schurr
Tour Day 1, also Sunday of Bike Travel Weekend 2016. 

The original intention for our route was to do a figure eight loop including the well-known New Mexico Enchanted Circle. We commenced pedaling in Questa, riding east, south, then back west to our pivot point of Taos. From Taos, we’d head west to Ojo Caliente, south through Española and Pojoaque, north through Chimayo and Peñasco, and back to Taos where we’d finish the western side of the Enchanted Circle back to Questa. This would be over seven days with no off-bike days.

Our first day was a 15-mile warmup to an almost deserted National Forest campground on the Red River. At our grocery stop en route, we loaded up on breakfast food, snacks, and necessities including ingredients for a first night camp-cooked dinner. In the evening I got my first lesson on lighting our MSR Whisperlite stove, as well as establishing the routine of making camp. Though I demonstrated adequate competence, Sid readily took on the role of camp stove attendant. He was up before either Tammy or I every morning and had hot water ready for coffee and tea. So appreciated!

Photo by Jenn Milyko
Mmmmm, lentils for dinner!

Beyond knowing if I’d have the chops to camp well with them, I was also worried about riding in the mountains. Northern New Mexico has some doozies. The second day featured our steepest climb of the week. We started at around 8,100 ft. and needed to get over 9,820 ft. Bobcat Pass first thing that day. 

Photo by Jenn Milyko
Tammy was still all smiles on the way up Bobcat Pass

We rose early and got a good start on the climb just out of Red River. Like many western U.S. passes, it is gently graded, but goes on for what my muscles insisted was near forever. At one point, my speed dropped to a mere 4.4 mph. As I rounded the last curve, I was surprised to realize I would be the first to make it to the top. I happily took a drink of cool water and ate a snack to celebrate until Tammy and Sid followed me shortly thereafter. We took the prerequisite group sign picture and headed downhill for lunch and our overnight in Eagle Nest.

Photo by Jenn Milyko
We crested our first pass of the tour!

Throughout the week, wind and heat were our other two regular companions. The wind was fierce the night we spent at Eagle Nest Lake. Thankfully, Sid brought a large tarp we used as a windbreak to supplement our campground shelter, thus allowing us to prepare dinner without losing our flame.

Photo by Tammy Schurr
Pausing at the the post office before procuring much needed salty, crunchy snacks and brews.

The next day brought another climb, this time over 9,101 ft. Palo Flechado Pass. While our beginning elevation was 8,200 ft., this pass is more steeply graded and sports a far smaller (non-existent at times) shoulder. The bonus is that it winds though the trees and has very little traffic. My muscles (and lungs) again insisted it would never end. Today was not a strong day for me, and both Sid and Tammy beat me to the top. Sid was eager to get going to Taos, but Tammy and I lingered and enjoyed our lunch in the shade of the well-placed sign at the pullout.

Photo by Jenn Milyko
Topped out on Palo Flechado Pass.

That night in Taos, we had a great meal at a brewery in town. Over our food and beverages, we discussed the route thus far and where we were headed next. We realized the climbs and heat were beginning to take their toll, and we wanted to continue having a good time together. So, as is the case in many situations, the best laid plans were set aside to make way for a reality check.

Consulting maps and tapping into Tammy’s experience, we decided to pedal on to Ojo Caliente to enjoy the hot springs. At that point, we would need to decide if we were continuing on our planned route or doubling back in the Taos direction.

Photo by Jenn Milyko
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
Photo courtesy of Jenn Milyko
Whew! We made it across the bridge to a rest area with shade!

At 46 miles, Taos to Ojo was to be one of our long days with the last 10 miles being a virtual coast to camp. Instead, we pedaled hard into a headwind across every inch of those 10 miles after dealing with a side wind earlier in the day. We arrived together, and it didn’t take much conversation to decide we would spend an unplanned off-bike day at the resort to enjoy the healing waters of the hot springs. It turned out to be an excellent decision.

Photo by Tammy Schurr
The Carson Post Office provided shade on our lunch stop en route to Ojo Caliente.

After breakfast in the resort restaurant (no oatmeal!), we spent the day checking out the ruins on the property, soaking in the springs, and lounging in the shade. By the next morning, we were rejuvenated and ready to return to our bikes and the road.

Photo by Tammy Schurr
Hiking among the ruins at Ojo Caliente Hot Springs.
Photo by Jenn Milyko
We lucked out and got a small showing of desert wildflowers on our Ojo hike.

Unfortunately for us, the winds shifted again and our climb out of Ojo was into a headwind. The good news about the wind was that we had gorgeous blue skies to occupy us. The route back toward Taos featured crossing the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge a second time. I had been nervous to ride it the first time, but it being a mid-week day, the traffic was light and crossing was a piece of cake. The situation was quite different on a Friday afternoon with a headwind. By the time we made it to our campground, we were beat. We pedaled to a nearby brewery, had dinner, and scampered back to camp to do laundry and head to bed early.

Photo by Tammy Schurr
Preparing to cross the Rio Grande on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge for a second time.

A short while into the trip, I started having issues shifting to my lower gears. I didn’t want to mention it even though I knew Sid and Tammy could probably help. I figured it was just my technique. Things kept getting worse. I finally spoke up and Sid looked at my bike. He did some tweaking and it helped some, but not for long. Then we realized what the problem was: a worn rear cassette. My rookie error. Though I had my bike in good running condition, I had neglected to look at the state of my rear cogs. Thankfully, I have simple bar end shifters mounted on my handlebars. Sid showed me where to flip them from index to friction shifting. This saved me. It was still an issue getting into my lowest gears but at least I had access to most of them. This solidified my position on two things. First, getting a professional tune up and look over for my bike before big trips and second, I’m never switching to a fancier shifting solution. Bar ends are my friends!

Photo by Tammy Schurr
Questa welcomes bikers! Not sure if they mean cyclists but we were happy to buy dinner supplies from them.

The ride to our final overnight of the trip was also our hottest day. I think Sid’s bike computer registered something over 100 degrees! By the time we reached the Questa grocery store, I was a little delirious. Ok, maybe not, but I was hot! A cold, sweet, soda never tasted so good. Once I replenished myself with sugar and a salty treat, I was singing with the 80s country music they were playing in the store. (I hope I didn’t embarrass Tammy!) We bought avocados and fresh greens for a celebratory salad to go with the last of our freeze-dried food.

Photo by Jenn Milyko
Sid on his way to our last night’s campground on the Red River.

On the flip side, we also had our only rain that day. Out came Sid’s trusty tarp to save dinner. It was merely a passing shower, and by the time we were done with prep and dining, it was over.

Next morning, we made our way through one more oatmeal breakfast as our tents and the tarp dried in the sun. Camp was quiet. We three were a bit subdued. Our time together was coming to an end. We left the campground and coasted most of the way back to our starting point where we sorted gear, did laundry, packed up, and prepared to head home.

Photo by Jenn Milyko
One last shot of the stunning blue skies of northern New Mexico.

While I had the luxury of touring with folks who clearly knew their stuff, I’m not one to sit back and not participate. I soaked up everything I could and learned first hand about the art of self-contained bicycle travel. Tammy and Sid were generous teachers and advisors both in the planning process and on the road. We shared stories and salty snacks daily, found a rhythm of camping and riding together that was easy and fun, and I hope to ride with them again if they’ll have me.

What’s the story of your first “big” tour? Did you go solo? With experts or other newbies? What was your rookie error? Tell me more in the comments.

Photos 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 16, 17 by or courtesy of Jenn Milyko | Photos 3, 7, 11, 12, 14, 15 by or courtesy of Tammy Schurr.


GEOPOINTS BULLETIN is written by Jennifer ‘Jenn’ Hamelman, Routes & Mapping Assistant Director, and appears once a month, highlighting curious facts, figures, and persons from the Adventure Cycling Route Network with tips and hints for personal route creation thrown in for good measure. She also wants to remind you that map corrections and comments are always welcome via the online Map Correction Form.


Brian Managan May 4, 2018, 8:21 PM

Great read Jenn! Bike touring in NM is the best! My newbie story ... 16 years old ... summer of '72 ... a round trip of 1000 miles between Columbus Ohio and Waterloo NY to go see old friends (including a special girl of course ... remember ... I was 16!). I was going solo, on my "10-speed" that was too big, geared way too high, and carrying all my stuff in a canvas Boy Scout yucca pack. Many rookie errors. I "survived" and even did it again the following summer with many hard-earned insights and a proper touring bike. Totally hooked for life! :-D

Lawrence Fitz May 3, 2017, 5:20 PM

I did the Southern Tier Route beginning on Feb 15th. West to East. Was supposed to be with an experienced tourer I found in companion wanted. He was struck by a car the very first day. He was hospitalized and has since recovered. I continued on solo. Rookie mistake ,I took to many clothes.

steve February 15, 2017, 7:27 AM

I noticed front and rear panniers plus a handlebar bag. did you feel you were overpacked? I plan on doing a trip and am curious how much I need to carry.

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