Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Riding the 50-Mile Activity Loop Around ABQ

One Reporter, One Bicycle, 50 Miles of Trail


Open roads, museums, coffee shops, breweries and some of the most extensive art collections in the Southwest await the daring voyager willing to tackle Albuquerque's 50-Mile Activity Loop. The highlight of a network of over 400 miles of trails, the 50-Mile Activity Loop offers an experience unlike any other in New Mexico.

A product of a revitalization effort in the early 2010s that involved the city, county, Sandia Pueblo, Bike ABQ, and the New Mexico Touring Society, the 50-Mile Activity Loop was originally intended to connect neighborhoods and preexisting bike paths throughout the city. After receiving enthusiastic support from the city's vibrant and outspoken cycling community, City Council approved its creation in 2012 and expanded it to include maintenance and improved facilities along the path. Today the loop boasts an abundance of culinary, cultural and natural attractions unrivaled anywhere else in the state. The loop's reputation is further elevated by some of the best-kept trails in the country.

The state's high peaks seem to garner the lion's share of attention in the winter with their world-class ski resorts and endless bluebird days. However, winter cycling is an endeavor that should by no means be overlooked. Albuquerque should be considered a year-round cyclist's paradise with over 310 days of sunshine and temperatures that regularly climb into the upper 50s.

Downtown and Old Town

For our guide we begin our journey in the heart of Downtown Albuquerque before traveling west through Old Town and the South Valley.

As a resident of Downtown Albuquerque, I find that one of the greatest draws of living in this part of town is the abundance of coffee shops and cafes. For me, I've been a faithful customer of Zendo Coffee for years, and this is where our journey begins.

Matcha Latte at Sister Bar

This neighborhood coffee shop will satisfy any coffee addict. The Zia Latte (white or dark chocolate latte with cinnamon) or Aztec Latte (dark chocolate with cayenne) are both beloved options served by the coffee shop. Still, as a customer of Zendo for years and having sampled nearly every drink they have to offer, it's difficult to go wrong with any order.

My go-to is a matcha tea latte paired with a green chile burrito from Sister Bar that the shop serves. A word to the wise is to arrive before 8am, before the morning crowd buys out these legendary burritos.

Other beloved Downtown options that lie either on the trail or just a block away include Java Joe's, Por Vida Coffee (also a great place to grab a tattoo), The Brew, Humble Coffee, Castle Coffee and Cecilia's Cafe.

Caffeinated and with a belly full of green chile, my day begins on Silver, racing beneath a hodgepodge of towering high-rises and historic adobe and brick buildings from Albuquerque's time as a railroad boomtown in the late 19th century. Towering high-rises quickly give way to neighborhoods and ancient twisted cottonwoods that liberally line the path. An abundance of idyllic parks lines the path leading to Old Town, which has recently become a center for the culinary arts in the city. The neighborhood is also the site of the Albuquerque Museum, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and Explora, an interactive science and technology museum.

Originally occupied by Tiwa Pueblos, the village of Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as a strategic outpost along the Camino Real. The Mexican government established Old Town as we know it today in the early 19th century, and many of the original adobe buildings that line the narrow streets host an eclectic mix of cafes, galleries and tourist shops. For the voyager who doesn't want to get caught up with the tourists, I would recommend visiting either the Albuquerque Museum or Old Town Farm, just a few blocks from Old Town. Old Town Farm is one of the benefactors of the city's investment in the 50-Mile Activity Loop, most evidenced by the small and wildly successful coffee shop they've opened, Bike In Coffee.

Located on 40 acres of farmland, Bike In Coffee is reminiscent of a shop one would find in the Italian countryside, with a food menu that punches far above its price and drinks that have kept customers coming back for years.

"Everything just fell together for us. It really comes as a result of the things that the city and county have done to promote cycling and in the preservation of places to go, specifically the Bosque and all the museums that are down here. Really, Albuquerque has created the environment," Owner Lanny Tonning of Bike In Coffee said in an interview with The Paper.

Tonning and his wife originally started Bike In Coffee to support their horse care business. But as word of this hidden spot started to take off, the small coffee shop expanded to include a tantalizing menu, making it a go-to place for meetings for the likes of Bike ABQ and the Gila Conservation Society among others. Its former horse barn even serves as a wedding venue. Even with their expanded clientele, Tonning still credits the success of Old Town Farm and Bike In Coffee to Albuquerque's cycling community.

"We don't advertise. People tell each other, and that's a good thing. Because all the years that we've been doing this and all the thousands of people who have come through here, [there's only been] one jerk. So that's cool."


Once you cross the river over to the Westside and navigate the construction on Bridge, the bike trail becomes a path almost solely dedicated to cruising. On Bridge before Unser, there are dozens of small, locally owned businesses, with several options for a quick and affordable bite. For the snacker I recommend stocking up here, because the route up until Tramway has slim pickings for food. But this is where I found my rhythm and even considered this one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire ride. The volcanoes are a major reason.

Often referred to as "Albuquerque's volcanoes" or "Three Sisters," the volcanoes are iconic landmarks that rise to the west of Albuquerque and are only a small detour along the route. A rare example of a fissure eruption, where magma rises through cracks that produce lined eruption craters, the volcanoes are an easily accessible geological jewel.

The rocky landmark has long attracted human activity, being the site of over 20,000 petroglyphs. Native peoples looked at these towering basalt hills as creations by spiritual beings of the past. Today, pueblos along the Rio Grande consider this area as one of the last unspoiled sites along the Rio Grande.

The protected area is a sight to behold, boasting an unparalleled view of the city, vast open grasslands littered with basalt outcroppings and one of the most pristine protected natural areas around the city.

Near the Petroglyph National Monument. Photo Courtesy Justin Schatz

Below the volcanoes, the loop zooms through miles and miles of suburbs. The quality of the trail through these neighborhoods is especially noteworthy. No cars, no crowds, just other cyclists and the occasional runner dominate this section of the path. Despite the great length of this section (roughly 10 miles), it felt like the shortest, since all of my focus was dedicated to riding and enjoying the surprising amount of open spaces and groves of cottonwoods hidden among the numerous arroyos.

At Alameda—and before the long-anticipated and, in my case, dreaded ascent to Tramway—there is an opportunity to refuel at either Flying Star, Satellite Coffee or Boxing Bear, just on the other side of Alameda.

The Great Ascent

After one last relatively easy section leading up to Tramway and passing El Pinto, located in an old hacienda that offers some of the finest culinary dining options in the North Valley, I head back toward Albuquerque. With limited daylight during this time of the year, I recommend this leg of the trip for only the most disciplined of riders, which I will admit I am not. I'm often prone to almost any distraction, especially cultural landmarks, along the way.

Before gathering the strength to tackle what I would consider the most challenging part of the trail, I would recommend one final stop at Bien Mur Travel Center, just across from the always striking Sandia Resort & Casino. The route leading up to Tramway was also the route of the World's Toughest 10k, an annual race that climbed over 1,500 feet from the Sandia Casino to the bottom of the world's longest tram.

From the travel center, the path ascends a 12 percent grade to the base of the awe-inspiring Sandias, which only grow in grandeur during the approach. This section also provides a perspective on the stark contrast between the city of Albuquerque and the Sandia Pueblo. Suburbs clamor for space south of the road, while vast unspoiled open grasslands that climb all the way up to La Cueva Ridge of the pueblo dominate the north side of the road. If timed right one might even have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a herd of buffalo that the pueblo manages.

Tramway Blvd.

Beautiful but unforgiving on the legs, this section is a true test of the spirit on an otherwise relaxed trail. Once on Tramway, the trail reminds me of the Westside, with admirably spacious and well-maintained trails. Tramway is a runner's or cyclist's dream. The trail travels south over gently rolling hills that teem with runners, cyclists and a mix of just about any outdoor recreational activity. The Sandias, rising over 5,000 feet above the valley to an impressive 10,678 ft. at the Sandia Crest, is nonstop eye candy for any lover of the outdoors, especially after a fresh dusting from one of our infrequent snowstorms.

Nob Hill

After several miles beneath the Sandia's granite cliffs, the path takes a sharp turn west right before Indian School, descending back toward Downtown. The arroyo that the path follows is often empty of all bike traffic and is an enjoyable respite from many miles of cars and the occasional chaotic intersections on Bridge. This section will also place one in range of Uptown, being the site of two of the city's three malls and countless other shops and dining options.

I, however, sought the familiarity of Bike Boulevard and one of several breweries located in Nob Hill or Downtown. These two neighborhoods have been my home and are also some of the most bike-friendly neighborhoods in the city, with no shortage of breweries to sit back at and reminiscence about 50 miles under a cool and clear Albuquerque day.

For those unfamiliar with what Nob Hill has to offer, let me tell you that you will be far from disappointed. For the ravenous and weary traveler ending their day on the 50-mile bike loop, there is El Cotorro, which serves up some of the finest—if not the finest—tacos that Nob Hill has to offer. Other dining options include the always reliable Fan Tang, Slice Parlor, Il Vicino, Shogun Japanese, Two Fools Tavern (one of my favorites, especially after a long day on the pavement), Bosque Brewing, Sala Thai and Guava Tree Cafe.

If a cold-perspiring pint and food trucks are more your vibe after a long day, well, you're in luck. Tractor Brewery in Nob Hill features a food truck parked on the curb most evenings. Although Gecko's Bar & Tapas is technically not a brewery, they feature an impressive list of local brews and a savory menu that has turned me into a loyal customer. A little farther down, just across from campus, you'll find no shortage of options on busy Harvard Dr. Known as the Bricklight District, Harvard and neighboring blocks feature Cheba Hut (another favorite of mine while studying at UNM), Salt and Board and Brickyard Pizza. (There's no shortage of pizza in New Mexico.) Naruto Ramen and O Ramen lie just a block down Central from the hustle and bustle of Harvard.

For me, my soul craves the relaxed neighborhood atmosphere of either Thirsty Eye Brewing, Sidetrack Brewing or Boese Brothers Brewery. These microbreweries are just a few of a host of breweries that continue to open in Albuquerque's brewery boom.

That night I decided to end my daylong bike excursion with a hazy IPA from Thirsty Eye along with birria tacos served by Steam Q. The back of my neck was sunburned (do bring sunscreen), my cheeks a little wind burned, legs were sore, but my soul was satisfied with the sights and people I encountered that day along Albuquerque's 50-Mile Activity Loop.


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