Think you have to be a hardcore adventurer to take on the Continental Divide Trail? You don’t. This National Scenic Trail is epic, but there are many trails and activities that are vehicle accessible for an hour or day-long adventure. We specifically sought out adventures like this when filming for a half hour PBS episode on the trail throughout the state of New Mexico.
The below Continental Divide Trail Road Trip itinerary combines hiking, rafting, mountain biking and great food and culture for a cool vacation that will earn you bragging rights. Some of the most memorable stops include the artists town of Silver City, a monastery that welcomes guests to stay the night and the stunning and remote Gila National Forest. Rafting the Rio Chama in New Mexico
Background on the Continental Divide Trail and Rio Chama
There are eleven National Scenic Trails that stretch more than 100 miles across areas of scenic, historic, natural and cultural significance. You may have heard of some of these, including the storied Appalachian Trial, iconic Pacific Crest Trail or breathtaking Continental Divide Trail, a long-distance trail that traverses over 3,100 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border.
The Continental Divide Trail passes through a variety of states, with a truly diverse section running through the state of New Mexico. Not to be left out, over 12,000 miles of free-flowing rivers and streams are protected under an act signed in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Waters like the Snake River Headwaters in Wyoming and portions of the Rio Chama in New Mexico. We included the Rio Chama into our CDT itinerary and this is where we’d start you out.
We filmed these adventures in September, which was a perfect time to be in New Mexico.
Continental Divide Trail Road Trip itinerary
Day 1- Chama in Northern New Mexico
Drive from your location, perhaps the Albuquerque Airport, to Chama to enjoy a day of rafting with Far Flung Adventures. The drive up to Chama is gorgeous, so leave some extra time to stop and photograph or just enjoy the scenery. Far Flung Adventures owner Steve Harris has been a river guide for more than 30 years and either he or another guide will take you out for a day or multiple days along this tributary of the Rio Grande, with approximately 25 miles protected as Wild & Scenic.
The good thing about theses rafting adventures is that while you will hit some whitewater, this is not intense rafting. You do a lot of floating interspersed with some small rapids. This gives you the chance to enjoy the scenery. You’ll be floating through country whose multi-colored cliffs were immortalized in paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. Scenery on the drive up to Chama in Northern New Mexico.
Many people who visit this area camp out or stay at Ghost Ranch. We tried something even more unusual– staying at Monastery of Christ in the Desert. There’s a two-night minimum, but you may want to stay longer than that. This Benedictine Monastery on the banks of the Rio Chama welcomes less than twenty-five guests at a time and has simple, no frills, but comfortable rooms. If you stay here, please note that you’ll be sharing a bathroom, so you may want to pack your shower sandals.
Meals are had in silence in the refectory, the monastic dining room, with the monks. Travelers that wish to do so can wear the necklace that’s placed in your room alerting people who see you that you’ve taken a vow of silence for your stay. Even if you don’t remain silent, you’re expected to be quiet during meals. This took a little getting used to for our crew.
Day 2- Hiking the CDT at Skull Bridge
Spend the morning either attending prayer services and helping the monks with chores or go for a hike around the monastery grounds, where horses graze. Head on down the road to Skull Bridge to hike along the CDT. You’ll have crossed under Skull Bridge yesterday on your rafting adventure, so today, enjoy seeing the river and terrain from a different perspective.
In September, the start of the Ojitos Trail was strewn with wildflowers and further along, got more rugged and turned to single track. The trail is located along Forest Service road 151, which is a gravel road. Skull bridge is five miles before the Monastery on Monastery Road. Skull bridge is the only bridge and there’s a parking lot, so hopefully you can’t miss it.
Day 3- Hike a Sacred Mountain… and Eat Pie Drive from Chama to Grants, which is about an hour and a half west of Albuquerque.
From the Monastery of Christ in the Desert to downtown Grants, it’s a little less than a four hour drive. From Monastery Christ in the Desert, it’s a little less than a four hour drive to Grants. Grants has some Route 66 history and a pretty cool roadhouse restaurant called Wow Diner where you might like for lunch before heading into the Cibola National Forest.
From Grants, drive around 30 minutes to La Mosca Peak to the Gooseberry Springs Trail for the half mile hike up Mount Taylor. A half mile may sound easy, but keep in mind this is a higher altitude hike, so you will lose your breath if you’re not used to it. The start of this hike winds through the woods and once you get to the top of the trail, the views of the verdant surrounding mountains are spectacular and much more different than the desert environment in Chama.
Mt Taylor is one of the four sacred mountains for the Navajo and is sacred to other Native American tribes as well. On your hike here, you may come across Navajo members picking seeds and other plants for medicinal remedies and for special ceremonies.
Either stay tonight in Grants at the Holiday Inn or drive on to Pie Town. It’s about two hours and fifteen minutes if you drive straight from Mt Taylor to Pie Town. You’ll be traveling through some desolate country. Stick to the paved roads, even if your GPS tells you that it’s shorter to try a dirt one, and bring some water and other provisions in case you have any car issues.
Gas up! You’re heading into much more sparse and wild country. Your next marker of civilization along the route takes the form of fabulous pies. Pie Town is located near the intersection of the CDT and State Highway 60. There are a few places to eat pie in town and they are open on different days, so if you have a preference, plan ahead to avoid disappointment. We stopped at the Pie-O-Neer where Kathy Knapp, the queen of Pie Town and the woman who helped put Pie Town back on the map, makes some of the best. Unfortunately, Kathy has
Many CDT hikers stop in Pie Town and some stay at the Toaster House. This hostel-like, free place to stay is decorated with toasters and pretty funky. We don’t recommend staying there unless you’re a CDT thru-hiker, someone who is hiking the entire 3,100 mile trail, but it’s worth a drive by.
Our next recommendation is also only for those who like to camp. If you don’t drive on straight to Silver City and check into the historic, art deco Murray Hotel. If you like camping, drive two hours from Pie Town to the Cosmic Campground. Located in the Gila National Forest near Glenwood, the Cosmic Campground was designated as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in North America, meaning it’s one of the rare places where light pollution is almost non-existent and you can actually see a sky full of stars. The star-gazing is amazing and well worth a night in the great outdoors.
Day 4- Silver City and the Gila National Forest
Spend the next few days in Silver City abutting the 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest. Silver City is home to a lot of galleries, featuring paintings, pottery, jewelry, wood carvings, contemporary art and more. Art spills out to the sidewalks in many locations, taking the form of graffiti, murals and colorful statements from the more than 30 artists with studios in town and local youth.
We started our morning with a cup of coffee at Tranquilbuzz Coffee House and a pastry at Diane’s Bakery. Owner Diane Barrett has had a restaurant in Silver City for over 20 years and expanded to include a bakery well known for its pastries and cakes and family run along with her sons. You can even get to-go items like savory pastries and more to take out with you on your travel adventures.
Over the next few days, do some or all of these things. Visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where travelers can actually walk inside the homes of the Mogollon, who lived here over 700 years ago. Nearby, hike the Gila Middle Fork Trail. This is not the official CDT, but it is an alternate that most hikers take, just because it’s so unique. Wear sturdy shoes you don’t mind getting wet, as you’ll be crossing lots of rivers on this hike. We did it in September and the trail was lined with tall, gorgeous sunflowers.
If you’re in this area, make a stop for ice cream at Doc Campbell’s Post, owned by Ysabel and Paul Campbell. This is another stop for CDT thru hikers and one where they often fuel up and get packages delivered… and have homemade ice cream. If you want to hike on more of the CDT, head to the “official” route located near Sapillo Campground off of Highway 35.
The drive to this section of trail takes you approximately 7 miles heading south on Highway 35 from Highway 15. It looks very different from the Middle Fork area. In Silver City, dine at Diane’s Restaurant for an upscale meal and Jalisco Cafe for Mexican. Head to Little Toad Creek for craft beer and liquor and a really good green chili cheeseburger or grilled cheese sandwich.
We stopped in funky A Space Studio Art Gallery, Lois Duffy Art, Seedboat Gallery, Finn’s Gallery, Barker Manning Gallery, Syzygy Tile and Manzanita Ridge, an antiques store made famous when the owners discovered a priceless De Kooning painting in an estate that was worth over $100 million dollars. It belonged to the University of Arizona and the owners returned it– a true art lovers act of goodness.
We also recommend renting a bike from Gila Hike and Bike and taking it out on the CDT at the Gomez Peak Area where it crosses Little Walnut Road. It’s a relatively easy place to mountain bike on the CDT amid Ponderosa forest. Whether you do part or all of this Continental Divide Trail Travel Itinerary for New Mexico, this year is a good time to do it.