Los Alamos, New Mexico

Pajarito Bike Park: Is this the Only Volunteer-Built Lift-Served Bike Park in the USA?

Mountain Biking

, by Greg Heil

The iconic wooden corkscrew feature. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Neal Pederson

The first time you drive up the narrow mountain road from the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, to Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, you'll quickly realize that this isn't your average Rocky Mountain ski resort. The road narrows down to a lane and a half, twisting and turning sharply as it climbs thousands of feet up a stunningly beautiful mountainside. Even from the pavement, the views are stupendous, and from higher up the mountain's slopes, they're truly breathtaking. This bastion of lush aspen groves, towering pine trees, and grassy meadows stands in stark contrast to the arid desert surrounding the mountain on all sides.

The second thing you'll notice is the size of the resort—or lack thereof. Forget having to worry about parking or competing with hordes of other tourists—half of the riders on the mountain on any given weekend greet each other by their first names.

As you walk around the elevated decks connected to the small lodge, you can read about Pajarito's unique history on a series of plaques. If you do, you'll learn that this small local's ski area has a long history of volunteerism. In fact, the resort as it stands today was largely built by the hands of volunteers. Volunteers cut the runs through the forested slopes of the mountain. Volunteers built the lodges at the bottom. And for many years, volunteers ran the entire operation, too.

The volunteer-owned and operated ethos changed a bit about 10 years ago when they found that they weren't able to pay the bills anymore—due in large part to climate change and a lack of snowmaking infrastructure. At that point, they entertained different buy-out offers and eventually sold to Mountain Capital Partners (MCP) to keep the ski resort afloat. But even after the acquisition, the volunteer efforts at the resort have continued to this day.

Most importantly, with the downhill bike park.

It's quite unusual for such a small, local ski resort—especially one without a detachable high-speed lift—to have a downhill bike park, much less a park with such an expansive network of trails spread across the entire mountainside that Pajarito boasts. There's never been any money for trail development on the mountain, so locals decided to take matters into their own hands.

About 20 years ago, in 2003 (before the sale to MCP), Neal Pederson and a group of friends built the first downhill trail on the mountain. And since then, "me and my buddies have built up the entire mountain," said Neal. "It's almost a hundred percent built by volunteers. I've been managing the volunteers. We come every Wednesday night, fix trails, build new trails, do whatever's needed."

Even after the MCP purchase, Pajarito isn't "a ski area that's generating a lot of revenue. It needs some help," so they kept many of the volunteer crews in place. While this includes the bike park crew, it also notably includes a tree-clearing crew that cuts downed trees from the ski slopes every Tuesday night. A vast swath of the resort burned in a wildfire about a decade ago, so many of the dead trees are falling and need to be cleared. Volunteers to the rescue.

Having a volunteer-led trail crew build and maintain an entire downhill mountain bike park is an absolutely mammoth task, but for the passionate local builders, it's also a rare opportunity. I am unaware of any other team of local volunteers who possess almost free reign to build and maintain a complex network of downhill trails served by a running chairlift in the summertime.

Pajarito might be the only volunteer-built, chairlift-served downhill bike park in the nation, if not the world. 

Neal recognizes what an incredible opportunity it still is to build and work on the trails at Pajarito, even 20 years on. "It’s kind of fun because we get to design our own courses and do a lot of stuff that other bike parks don’t do," he said. "We have a lot of wooden features, lots of log rides. We have a big wooden corkscrew, a lot of drops, just a lot of fun North Shore stuff like that. Since it is mostly hand-built, the trails are more singletrack, kind of like backcountry riding. They tend to be steeper [than most bike parks]—it is a steep mountain. A lot of the early trails we built were what we wanted to ride, which were more tough and technical than the average person can ride or what’s going to make money at a bike park, but if we’re going to put all that time into it, we kind of went that route."

Having ridden thousands of trails across the Southwestern USA, I can vouch for the uniqueness of the riding at Pajarito. It's rare to find this many wooden features in the Southwest. On Pajarito's trails, high-speed rock gardens and old-school jumps funnel into lengthy log ride skinnies, ladder bridges, boner logs, wooden gaps to ladder bridge landers, wall rides, and more. To find this amount of old-school wooden gnar, you'd have to travel to the Pacific Northwest, if not cross the border into British Columbia. 

Even in the PNW, many of the wooden features have taken on a new school vibe. Log rides and skinnies seem to be a thing of the past, with massive wooden bridges and wall rides now en-vogue. Neal and his buddies still love a good log ride, and the downed trees from the fire and windstorms only provide opportunities to add more to the mountain.

To successfully shred one of Neal's lovingly-crafted advanced trails, you'll need to engage almost every skill in the mountain bike arsenal: technical rock garden riding, slithering over root webs, ledge drops and hucks, steep rock slab rolls, jumps, slow-speed balance on the narrow skinnies, commitment to gaps, and so much more. While certain trails do retain their own particular character—such as the endless, steep rock gardens of Braking Bad (the name an ode to the cult classic TV series set in nearby Albuquerque)—other classics, like Mother's Milk, mix all of these features into one single rip down the mountain.

Thankfully, some of the biggest features offer ride-arounds. For instance, you can enjoy the Hollywood line scree field descent below the chairlift on Bonecrusher without sending the massive 15-20-foot drop below it (the largest on the mountain). However, to make it down Natural Selection, you'll either have to commit to a series of mandatory gaps on wooden features or get off and walk your bike through the undergrowth. 

Like most bike parks that began with gnarly, old-school lines, eventually, Neal and his friends "understood the need for a flow trail." So, they "convinced the owners to invest some money into it," and they were able to hire a professional local crew to retrofit an existing trail named Aspenola and turn it into a flow trail, aka "Aspen Flow." 

As a flow trail, Aspen Flow is only mediocre at best—the retrofit nature of the trail is obvious where the flow changes or there’s a gap between the flowy bits. Consequently, it’s not a perfect flow trail, but it’s the best easy route down Pajarito Mountain and is a bit of a crowd-pleaser as a result.

Moving forward, more professionally built flow trails are definitely in the cards for Pajarito. "We have enough technical trails," says Neal, "but we definitely have a need for more flow trails, more easy trails. There’s a big biking community here, but little kids—it’s hard for them to just come up and ride here. They have to go to Angel Fire or someplace that they have to drive a ways for, even though we’ve got this great mountain. So the next trail we’re pushing the ownership for us to rebuild is Chupacabara, which would actually be a black flow trail—just bigger jumps and stuff like that. But longer term, we really need a super beginner easy flow trail top to bottom, and the ownership is definitely interested in that. There’s a lot more money to do that kind of trail."

Jasen Bellamy, the new general manager for Pajarito Mountain, acknowledges that a beginner flow trail is a significant requirement to meet the needs of a more diverse audience with the bike park. While a high-speed detachable lift is also a big need, it's tough to say when an expensive upgrade like that might come to Pajarito. But a flow trail? That seems quite likely. 

While Neal and Jasen both want to expand the bike park's appeal in order to cater to a wider range of riders, Pajarito is a long way from ever being overrun. This gnarly, old-school bike park still manages to fly way below the radar, retaining its locals-only, homegrown vibe. 

"I’ve lived here since 1995," Neal reflected. "My wife grew up here. Both my kids grew up here. They’re both excellent bike riders. My son and I raced Mountain States Cup World Downhills 10, 15 years ago. My daughter got into it, and she actually won junior national champs two years in a row when she was 17 and 18, the two years they had it at Angel Fire. So we have a big history here." A few runs later, we bumped into Neal's daughter Michelle and her husband Toby, and took a few laps together. 

With $29 lift tickets (if you book online), riding here is affordable for the whole family. And if you get a downhill mountain biking season pass at any of the other MCP resorts, Pajarito is included as well. 

A family affair on Natural Selection: Neal followed by daughter Michelle and son-in-law Toby. Photo: Greg Heil

A few events throughout the year draw more people to the mountain, but the vibes are still chill. During two of the festivals, Neal sets up a free race using a Strava segment for anyone who wants to compete. "We pick a course, I set a map on Strava, and you get all day to ride it. It’s funny because me and my buddies will get a fast time, and then we’ll see if someone beat us on the chair, and we go back up and try again," said Neal. "We get donated prizes from the ski club at the end of the day and do a podium during the beer fest. That’s pretty fun."

While Pajarito might seem like a locals-only family affair, I can confirm through first-hand experience just how welcoming everyone is. If you're looking to escape the constant thrum of overly commercialized resorts while shredding gnarly, challenging, old-school tech trails, you need to set your sights on New Mexico and plan a trip to the unique volunteer-built bike park on Pajarito Mountain.