The single-track mountain-bike trail drops through a scrubby high-desert landscape of gnarled trees and thorny bushes and directly into a tunnel formed of spiky cactus.
There is no other way to describe the formation. One side of the trail is framed by a wall of tall cholla, a plant famous for wicked barbed spines like those of a porcupine. The long bristling arms of a huge cardon “elephant” cactus thrust overhead on the other side, leaving just enough space to fit my bike and me—if I duck. And so I pedal inside, wincing, and concentrate on the light at the end of the tunnel. My Specialized bike is light and supremely agile. I only wish my cycling skills were its equal. My forearms are already patterned by a crimson criss-cross of cactus kisses.
I’m in Mexico, far from home, on vacation only about two hours from the famously hard-partying town of Los Cabos. But I am also far away from any type of madding crowds, and the threat of Covid seems delightfully removed. It’s simply no struggle to maintain six feet of distance out here in the desert mountains of Baja California, doing one of the things I like best: biking outdoors in natural splendor.
Local pro mountain-bike racer Joel Ramirez frequently trains on the trails that lace the ranch.
Early in the pandemic, the popularity of cycling skyrocketed, with sales of bikes nearly doubling, according to The New York Times, and demand has stayed strong. A majority of Americans feel that biking helps relieve stress, according to another survey. Combine this new ardor for the sport with the thirst to still travel safely, and the Venn diagram meets beautifully here at Rancho Cacachilas, a sustainable eco-and-adventure resort dedicated to both the environment and some of the most challenging mountain-bike trails in North America. The getaway closed temporarily after Covid came to dominate global headlines and, as of press time, was set to reopen now.
Rancho Cacachilas is the brainchild of an unlikely source and benefactor: Christy Walton, one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune. Walton, 72, who held Forbes’s mantle as the world’s richest woman as recently as 2015, is the widow of John Walton (the middle of founder Sam Walton’s three sons), who died in 2005 when his experimental, ultralight plane crashed near Jackson, Wyo.
In the first week of March 2020, I spent four days at the resort, including a day speaking and hanging out with Walton, learning about Rancho Cacachilas and her expansive vision behind it. A cycling resort in Mexico isn’t as off-brand for Walmart and the Walton clan as you might think. Her husband was an avid cyclist, she says, as are his brothers, Jim and Rob. Jim’s sons Tom and Steuart acquired a majority stake in Rapha, the high-end cycling apparel company, in 2017, and the family publicly entered the mountain-biking world in a big way over the past decade when the young brothers began transforming the land outside of Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., into a mountain-biking hot spot. They have helped develop a public-trails network of almost 500 miles, putting more than $70 million into biking infrastructure via the Walton Family Foundation. The sport has become a tourism draw there, and Tom and Steuart have said that they envision the area as a “ski town for bikes,” where the trails are an integral part of the community.
Gathering around the fire pit at night.
The idea of bringing greater good to a community by way of eco-friendly tourism makes sense to Walton. “My nephews have concentrated on an area, Bentonville,” she says, “just like I’ve concentrated on [bringing sustainable tourism] here.”
Walton grew up in Arizona and Southern California. Noting the similarities of the dry and arid terrain, she says, “This land speaks to me. I understood this land.” She spent her formative years at less-than-glamorous jobs and sold both mobile homes and encyclopedias door to door. She later met and married John. They discovered the Baja region together. “We’ve been coming here forever. This is where we sailed first, 30, 40 years ago. Now I’m here most of the time.” She compares the otherworldly cardon cactus “forests” to the life forms found only on the Galápagos Islands. “We have so many unique species that have evolved here that aren’t anywhere else on Earth. But they’re going fast.”
Though Walton rarely grants interviews, we spend a busy afternoon together, getting a look at her many projects in the area under the umbrella of iAlumbra, an alliance of Mexican-based businesses that are aimed at sustainability for both the locals and the environment. In fact, Walton talks almost exclusively about her interests in science, sustainability and holistic land management. Other projects include Earth Ocean Farms, an open-ocean aquaculture farm that places innovative submersible cages two miles offshore, and is the first venture to successfully breed Pacific red snapper. Like many of her projects, the aim is to create a profitable business in a responsible way.
Much of the Baja-inspired food is grown on Walton’s ranches or locally.
It’s the same ethos behind Rancho Cacachilas. Over the years, Walton had been buying former cattle ranches in the mountains, most of which had consistently overgrazed the land, resulting in erosion. She has since instituted a program that manages livestock and encompasses organic gardens, cheese production and tourism, a mix that protects the land from the type of rampant hotel tourism plaguing the region and yet provides much-needed jobs. “I’m trying to create an economic value to wild land,” she says. Walton wants to safeguard the dark night sky and rich habitats of the cardon forests. “All of that is important to not looking like Cancún or Cabo.”
Guests fly into modern Los Cabos International Airport and are then shuttled north. The home base of the eco-resort can be reached only by a miles-long private dirt road, which leads into 33,000 undeveloped acres in the Sierra Cacachilas Mountains. There, visitors will find a small collection of permanent buildings and 10 glamping-style safari tents set on a high-up perch with dazzling views of the Sea of Cortez. Guests are capped to around 20, and much of the food is local. (There are goat and cheese farms just down the road on the greater property.) The trail system accommodates both hikers and mountain-bike riders—the ranch’s two central pursuits—and threads throughout the properties Walton owns.
A view from an upper trail.
But whereas Bentonville, in the Ozarks, has soft, rolling hills, the land in Baja is full of hard granite, countless cacti and thorny bushes—and is home to rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats and tarantulas. For the last four years, three crews of workers have toiled full-time to create new trails. At this point, there are about 40 miles of single-track that meet the stringent standards set by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. They are built largely by hand, at great expense, with materials such as rock and stone and in a way that ensures minimal erosion. Walton demurs when asked about the cost, but locals say that when they talk about biking those million-dollar trails, they are being literal.
Isolation was always one of the main attractions, says Walton over lunch and beers at the Museo Ruta de Plata, a museum dedicated to the region’s mining history that she has funded in the nearby town of El Triunfo. “If you’re going to have a wilderness experience, you need enough land to have it,” she tells me. She’s got a point. The upsides of that seclusion are quickly evident. You haven’t really seen a night sky until you marvel at the velvet-black panorama, set with millions of glittering LED-bright stars, unmarred by the artificial light of towns or cities.
Later, Walton takes me along desert roads in her beat-up, late-model Mitsubishi SUV. (She drives herself around the desert, very quickly and with a confident hand.) We end the day with a visit to her small, supremely modest, off-grid home, located in the hills near the ranch. It is a tiny adobe house that she calls her “earthen home,” and it, too, is reached on a washed-out dirt road. “You’re riding shotgun,” she says with a laugh, “so you’re on gate duty.” She hands me a key to manually open a padlock on the ranch-style swinging gate. There are no fancy automatic gates in Walton’s life.
High-performance bikes are from Specialized.
As such, Rancho Cacachilas’ amenities also veer not to spa sessions (of which there are none) but rather to top-tier bike rentals, something of a rarity. Specialized S-Works Levo E and Stumpjumper mountain bikes are available, though not with the $2,500 carbon-fiber Roval wheels that are on the bike I’m pedaling today. Guests also have access to local guides.
Walton herself was a dedicated mountain-biker “until I tore off both my arms,” she says, referencing an accident six years ago. She smiles. “I was going downhill really, really fast—because I like going fast—and I hit a crack coming into a tight corner.” Thrust onto a pile of decomposed granite, which has the consistency of sand, her wheel twisted.
“I went over [the handlebars] and hit so hard that it didn’t hurt. Massive trauma in both arms.” Walton’s helmet was cracked, but she kept biking for another two hours. The crash earned her seven pins in one arm and five in the other.
The day after my time with Walton, I get to find out what the trails are really like. I’m an average rider: the equivalent of a skier who mostly sticks to blue runs. There are several appropriate trails on the property for my level. But on this day there are about a dozen guests, a mix of men and women mostly from Western states like Colorado and New Mexico, and they’re a hard-core bunch. They’re going on a group ride, and I opt-in.
Riders climbing one of the hand-built trails.
Fifteen minutes later I’m wondering if I should have taken a guide and done my own thing. We’re descending a steep trail that traverses a rocky ridge. The trail is broken up by a series of tight S- and C-shaped switchbacks. The corners are built thoughtfully, with a camber favoring the biker.
But the ground is decomposed granite, loose and slippery. And the drop-offs are bone-crushingly steep. Come in too hot, and you could easily sail into space. I grab the brakes desperately a few times, my bike’s wheels perilously close to the edge. I’m pretty sure these are the same trails where Walton had her big accident. That loud sound? That’s the yammering of my heart.
And then I get it disastrously wrong. I swing too wide on a switchback, and my front tire sweeps off the precipice, my body following. It’s a Wile E. Coyote moment, to be sure—and then my handlebars crash into a lone, thin tree growing at the very edge, arresting my fall.
Founder Christy Walton at her home overlooking the Sea of Cortez.
I look myself and the S-Works bike over carefully. One of the shifters has been knocked askew, and my leg has two bleeding puncture marks. Otherwise, both the bike and I are unbent. I get back on, decide to swallow my pride and stick to the very back of the group. Slow and sure will be my mantra.
Once the pressure is off, I settle in and find a rhythm. Up and down over the ridges. Often, I rise over a swell to find views of the glimmering sea. Other times, the group reaches the bottom of a ravine to discover an unexpected oasis, cool trickles of water feeding palm trees that sprout out of the desert soil. It is magical.
And so it is, moments of reverie over the natural world spiked with shots of wild adrenaline. A perspective of a landscape you would never otherwise access. Tonight there will be artisanal cheese from goats that live on the ranch, fresh tortillas and tequila by the fire pit. And views of the stars.