01 South Sandia Summit from north

South Sandia Peak seen from the north, along the Sandia Crest

Overview:

This is a fun and strenuous alternative to the much-traveled Embudito Trail. The Embudito Trail lies near the bottom of Embudito Canyon and its views are limited by canyon walls. The Oso Ridge Trail is placed high on the Canyon’s northern rim and has terrific views down to the Albuquerque Basin, west to Mount Taylor and north to the cliffs adorning the Northern Sandias. The Embudito Trail makes long switchbacks across the Sandia’s imposing high face, producing a relatively gentle ascent. The Oso Ridge Trail faces squarely into the fall line, producing a steep ascent. On either trail you will get to South Sandia summit. From the summit this route descends along the Embudito Trail to Oso Pass and then departs onto the Whitewash trail and finishes with a brief road walk back to the trailhead. It is a terrific workout.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) north through Albuquerque and get off at exit 232 for Paseo Del Norte Blvd NE / NM-423.
  • After 0.1 miles merge into the left-most lane of the Pan American Frontage Road N. You will want to move over into the two right-most lanes on the Frontage Road.
  • After 0.3 miles stay to the right of a traffic island at the intersection with Paseo Del Norte Blvd NE / NM-423. Turn right onto NM-423, going east to the Sandias.
  • After 4.8 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right (going south) onto Tramway Blvd.
  • After 3.1 miles, at a light, go left onto Montgomery Blvd.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a four-way stop, turn left onto Glenwood  Hills Drive NE.
  • After 0.5 miles turn right onto Trailhead Road NE
  • After 0.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of Trailhead Road NE.

(This route works for those who are coming into Albuquerque from the north – like me. For many people, particularly those coming into Albuquerque from the east, it will be much shorter to take the Tramway Blvd exit from I-40 and head north on Tramway Blvd to where it intersects Montgomery Blvd then continue as above).

Trailhead:

02 Mighty Camry at Embudito Trailhead

The mighty Camry in Embudito Canyon

The trailhead is a paved parking area. There are no fees. I did not see any trash cans, toilets or water. Entrance to the parking area is gated, but the gates were wide open at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I did not see any signs indicating that the gates are routinely closed. You can check the hours of operation on Albuquerque’s Open Space webpage. There are several homes adjacent to the parking area – early-arriving hikers should try to minimized noise.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6240 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9782 feet
  • Elevation Gained: 3542 feet
  • Miles: 10.0 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle (for trailhead) and Tijeras quadrangle (for summit)

Hike Description:

03 Embudito Trail #192

Sign for Embudito Trail #192

From the north edge of the parking lot (left side, as you drive in), walk up over a berm and drop down to its far side, then follow the trail as it heads alongside the berm into the canyon. The trail soon pulls out into the canyon bottom and in less than 100 yards goes through a fence opening, passing an iron sign for the Embudito Trail #192.

 

04 North Rim Embudito Canyon

Height of initial rise

The trail crosses the canyon outflow and continues along the south-facing side of a small rise – this is the north rim of Embudito Canyon where it descends to the canyon mouth. I did not notice a path going up onto the rise, but the terrain is completely open and it is no trouble scrambling up onto the height of the rise. On the height you will find a well defined climber’s tread. Turn your back to the Albuquerque basin and ascend. It is steep in places and foot placement becomes an important task. Don’t become too absorbed in that one aspect of the hike! Behind you are great views out to Mt Taylor (a little hazy on this date) and Cabezon, while to your left lie the huge cliff faces of the Sandia’s northern ridgeline.

 

05 Sandia Ridge from N Embudito Rim

View from rim: South Sandia Peak is the high-point on the right and your approach is between the two knolls immediately north (to the left) of the peak

After 1.4 miles you get a small reprieve, descending gently in terrain populated by numerous junipers and jumbles of strikingly rounded boulders (the weather can be hard on a young rock). There is a potential bailout point, marked with a cairn, that departs to the south (right on ascent), which may lead to the bottom of Embudito Canyon. Continue straight on Oso Trail and you’ll find that your reprieve is over – the rim invites you to engage your quads and make some altitudinal gains. The reward is a high point at 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Here you will find a useful glimpse of your destination. South Sandia Peak is the local high-point on the Crest. You can see it on the right side of the picture above. North of the summit (to its left in the photo) lie a series of crest-top knolls. The first knoll north of South Sandia Peak has a cliff-like face. You will be ascending in the darkly forested region north (left) of that cliff face.

07 Battlement Cliff

Nearing Vertical Forest: battlement-topped cliff

You now get a great rim-top ramble. Views open to the bowl on your left (which contains the Pino Canyon trail) . Juniper fades to pinyon and pinyon to ponderosa. The tread climbs up each bump along the canyon rim, sometimes followed by a steep descent but always with greater gain than loss. Where the tread crosses glades you will see the battlement-like top of the first knoll north of South Sandia Peak. Sometimes the tread lunges south, appearing to aim directly at South Sandia, but have no fear.

7a first Crest views

First views from the Crest, looking north

The cliff face eventually pulls near (staying on your right) and the terrain begins to seriously steepen. The sandy tread segues to forest duff. Big Douglas Fir crowd the path as you enter the Vertical Forest. The tread makes a half-hearted switchback or two, but there is not enough room for such indulgences. Eventually the trail is forced to cut north across  the waterway. Slogging upward, you will find a incursion of scrub oak lunging down the hillside on your left. The tread flees back across the canyon bed and plunges into the Douglas fir. Slowly, there appears a hint of light coming from low between those big tree-trunks up above. Could that be the Crest? Or is this a deceitful and cruel transition into steep and impenetrable Gambel Oak? Pop out of the firs, pass a sharply leaning single-seed juniper surrounded by small aspen and then, boom!, you are on the Crest.

08 summit view

Summit view: northeast to Ortiz Range (middle ground) and faint Sangre de Cristo Range (left horizon)

Just past the aspen, 4.0 miles from the trailhead, you will come to a faint T-intersection with an informal trail that runs along the west side of the Crest. (We will call this tread the West-Crest Trail). Turn south (to your right on ascent) and follow the tread over that now-familiar “first knoll”, drop to a saddle and ascend through trees to reach a cliffy section below the summit. Find a path up the rocks and arrive at South Sandia Summit, 9782 feet above sea level. This summit is often exposed to chilly winds. Fortunately there is a well-protected notch on the summit’s east side. On a clear day you will have great views: southeast to Ladron Peak, west to Taylor, north to the highpoint of the Sandias, and northeast to the Ortiz Mountains (mid distance) and the Sangre de Cristo Range (horizon). Views south and southeast are blocked by trees.

10 Summit Block from south across meadow

View back, across the broad meadow to the summit block

You could return to the West-Crest Trail and continue south, but on a windy day it is worth departing the summit east on a trail that quickly crosses the above-mentioned notch, descends to an escarpment-like rock wall, follows the wall south (to where the wall sinks into the soil) and then descends very steeply off of the summit block. This will deposit you in a large meadow. Here the trail pretty much disappears. Cross the meadow angling to the west (to your right). This will return you to the west side of the crest and back to the West-Crest Trail. Turn left (south) and follow the tread as it enters an enormous open bowl, home to innumerable scrub oak.

10 descent into Oso Pass

Oso Pass: trail to left is Three Guns Spring, trail to right is Embudito. Go straight up the leaf-lined gully for the Whitewash trail

The trail angles down into the bowl and at 4.9 miles ends at an intersection with the Embudito Trail (currently signed!).  Turn downhill (to the right) on the Embudito trail and follow it as it gently traverses two or three open bowls. Reaching a large rib the trail turns downhill and descends swiftly to Oso Pass. At the Pass you could turn right to stay on the Embudito Trail or turn left to head north along the Three Guns Trail. Both trails are signed. Instead, go across the pass to what looks like a small gully and ascend from the pass on the (unsigned) Whitewash Trail.

11 boulders, ponderosa and cliff faces

Ponderosa, bolders and views

The upper Whitewash is one of the prettiest places on the west face of the Sandias. It is the domain of widely spaced Ponderosa and Douglas fir, sunny glades, enormous egg-shaped boulders and occasional views to the Sandias and the Albuquerque basin. It seems unnaturally flat, its long shelves of erosion resistant rock joined by short, sharp descents. At 7.2 miles from the trailhead, come to a small meadow where the trail forks. The more deeply worn tread falls off to the left, while a much less worn tread veers off to the right.

12 junction at head of Sunset Canyon

Well-used left fork and less-used right fork, which might return to Embudito

Here you are at the head of Sunset Canyon. The map suggests that if you take the less-traveled trail to the right you would be returned directly into Embudito Canyon. On this date, however, I took the more-traveled fork left (this fork is shadowed in the photo, but you can get a larger and clearer image on a computer screen if you click the image). This tread goes onto the rim separating Sunset Canyon in the north from Embudo Canyon in the South. Most people descending this path are interested in getting to the Embudo trailhead. Follow this tread and you soon find that it departs the top of the rim and clings to the north-facing wall of Sunset Canyon (contouring around a large bump on the rim). At 7.7 miles the trail regains the top of the rim. A cairn marks an intersection where a trail goes left to descend into Embudo Canyon. Keep going straight, staying up on the rim of Sunset Canyon.

13 view across Sunset and Embudito Canyons

View to north rim of Sunset Canyon and beyond to Sandia Peak

The rim begins making a series of steps, dropping rapidly through pinyon pine and down into the realm of juniper. The trail bed on these drops is covered with pea-sized gravel. Take your time. The tread amounts to a steep pile of ball bearings. At 8.9 miles the trail reaches a saddle and an intersection, go right and descend the few remaining feet to the bottom of Sunset Canyon. Here the trail braids out immensely. Cross the canyon and pick up a good tread near the wall on the north side. Turn downhill towards the houses at the mouth of the canyon. Pass through a gate in a wire fence (unsigned) and onto Cedarbrook Avenue (paved). Descend Cedarbrook and turn right onto Glenwood Hills Drive, follow that to Trailhead Road, and ascend Trailhead Road to return to your vehicle (about 0.8 miles on road).

Recommendations:

14 summit pose

December: goose down and fleece!

This route is one of the steeper trails leading up to the Sandia Crest. If you have a party that is not well adapted for altitude then you might want to find a less challenging tread. On the other hand, if this proves to your liking then you might want to consider scrambling to the high-point of the Sandia Mountains via TWA canyon.

If there is snow or ice on the ground then you’ll need traction devices. This is especially true if you are going to descend along the Vertical Forest portion of the trail. Poles and microspikes would be required. If it is truly icy then you might want full-on crampons.

I went through a liter of water on a cold December day. On a warmer day you’d want a multiple of that.

The new sign at the junction of the Embudito Trail and the informal tread I’ve called “West-Crest Trail” is loosely attached to its post. On this date the wind was banging it around. Eventually that sign will split off unless someone helps. If you’re going up in the near future please consider bringing along a crescent wrench and tightening the hex-head screws. (Leave a comment so others will know, thanks)!

In the future I would try the right fork at the head of Sunset Canyon. If it “goes” then the road-walk can be avoided.

Links:

My interest in this hike was initially spurred by an exceptional trail report on the Paint, Dig, Write, Hike, Gaze site. That author descended along the full length of the Embudito Trail rather than switching to the Whitewash – it is a good option to consider.

The ASCHG has a brief write-up of this trail. It includes a very useful map. As with the report mentioned above, this route also descends entirely on the Embudito Trail. (Note: there is another Oso Ridge Trail in California, don’t get confused!)

The Strava site has an interesting variation in which you follow the north rim of Embudito Canyon up through the Vertical Forest to the Crest. Then turn back and descend the forest. At the point where you return to the rim they depict a trail descending into Embudito Canyon and then down the canyon and back to the car.

 

 

 

Advertisements

This site includes GIS data that describe the hiking routes. There have been a couple recent requests for instructions on how to download this data and now there is a semi-reasonable (that is, not simple) response. Instructions for downloading the data can be found here.

The data is not professionally vetted nor is it even double-checked. Use it at your own risk. Comments describing problems with the data are gratefully accepted. Please be careful up there!

01 North Truchas PeakOverview:

This two-day backpack begins with a riparian ramble through forests of Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce, meanders through stands of tall aspen, ascends across a series of narrow riverside meadows and segues to a series of switchbacks that rise swiftly to a beautiful tarn-side camp. This same tread leads onward to a col separating the north-flowing Rio Santa Barbara from the south-flowing Pecos River. From the col it’s an off-trail scramble up the wide-open slopes of North Truchas Peak – home to mountain goats and an eagle’s view of the Santa Fe Mountains. Allot all the time you can (it still won’t be enough).

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25, going north, take exit 276 for NM-599 north, signed for Espanola.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-599 north.
  • After 13.2 miles take the left-hand fork for the ramp onto US-84 West/US-285 North
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-84 W/US-285 N
  • After 19.3 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn right onto La Puebla Rd./ CR 88
  • After 2.7 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-76 N.
    • NM-76 goes into Truchas, NM where it makes a sharp 90-degree turn to the left at 12.5 mile from the CR-88 junction. Watch for a sign for “Taos High Road” with an arrow pointing left and another sign for “Oja Sarco / Penasco / Taos”
    • The junction with CR-88 can be hard to spot from NM-76 when returning in the dark. Watch for signs for “County Road 88”, I did not see any signs for “La Puebla Road”.
  • After 29.5 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-75.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a fork where NM-75 veers strongly to the left, veer slightly right onto NM-73.
  • After 1.7 miles turn left onto Santa Barbara Road (there is a small sign naming the road, but the junction is otherwise unremarkable).
    • After 2.9 miles on the Santa Barbara Road the road becomes gravel and is currently in excellent shape.
  • After 4.8 miles, after crossing a bridge, the road becomes signed for Forest Road 116. Continue straight ahead
  • After 1.2 miles past the bridge the road ends at the trailhead.

Google’s algorithms currently report that the Santa Barbara Road rejoins with NM-73. That is not correct.

Trailhead:

02 the mighty Camry

The mighty Camry the Rio Santa Barbara Campground

There is a campground immediately past the trailhead, but on this date the campground was gated closed. I was told that the it closes soon after Labor Day. The trailhead consists of a gravel parking lot just before the gate. There is a vault toilet. The Rio Santa Barbara runs past the trailhead and there is a hand pump for potable water, but it is currently wrapped in plastic (much tattered) and duck tape (in better shape). It appears that the forest service closes down the pumps at the trailhead and in the campgrounds once the temperatures fall to near-freezing. Currently, there are no trash receptacles.

The USDA/Forest Service website indicates that usage can be very heavy in the early summer so you will want to arrive early during July.  The Camry was the only car at the trailhead on a Wednesday morning in October. The website mentions a trailhead parking fee of $3.00 per vehicle. A sign just before the trailhead also demands payment, but there were no envelopes at the self-service post nor did the signage at the trailhead make any mention of the dollar amount. It looks as if it may not be worthwhile for the Park Service to collect payments as winter nears.

Data:

  • Start Elevation: 8840 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 13,020 feet
  • Net Elevation: 4180 feet
  • Distance: 11.4 miles (one way!)
  • Maps: USGS Truchas PeakPecos Falls (2017) and Jicarita Peak quadrangles. Surprisingly, the 2017 version of Pecos Falls quadrangle shows the trails. I used the 1995 versions of the other maps that I had downloaded earlier, when the 2017 versions did not display any trails at all.

Hike Description:

Day 1:

03 First Santa Barbara crossing

Western cliffs in morning sunshine

From the trailhead follow the road as it loops across the campground and at the far end of the loop find trail #24, the East Fork Trail. This is a very well maintained tread, perhaps a reflection of the horse-riding community (who can be better organized than us hikers for tasks such as arranging trail work and getting funding for the national trails). The tread bumps along the Rio Santa Barbara in thick conifer forests, starting elevation of just over 8800 feet. On a cool autumn morning you may want to keep a jacket on for the first mile or two – much of the morning will pass before the sun reaches all the way to the river.

04 continue on Trail 25

Depart to #25

The trail initially follows the west bank of the river. Eventually that side of the drainage steepens and the opposite bank beckons. Cross on a broad bridge meant to sustain horse traffic. At 2.4 miles come to a signed junction. The East Fork Trail #24 rises to your left to follow along side the Middle Branch – eventually Trail #24 will reach a second fork where it finally strikes the banks of the East Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara. You, however, should bear right onto the West Fork on Trail #25. The trail goes another 0.3 miles (2.7 miles from the trailhead) before crossing the actual Middle Fork on a sturdy log bridge.

05 Meadow views to Santa Barbara Divide

Chimayosos from river meadows

This is an unbeatable place for an autumn exercise in serene backcountry hiking. The tread is in excellent shape, the grade is mellow, there are occasional glades of tall aspen (which have already lost their fall foliage) and gorgeous meadows. The trail passes through a single gate, suggesting that grazing rights are contracted out or that there is a private in-holding that contains the upper valley.  The surrounding cliff faces are spectacular. Somewhere above those heights to the west lies Trampas Peak.

06 Chimayosos Peak

Chimayosos closeup

At 5.7 miles from the trailhead come to the only crossing of the West Branch. In autumn it is an easy crossing, made easier by a bundle of branches laid across the stones. It would doubtlessly be far more challenging during the spring melt-off. After the crossing the tread takes on a moderately steeper angle. You will find yourself hiking well above the valley bottom, checking out the huge stands of enormously tall aspen on the far side of the valley (perhaps arising from old burns). At 7.3 miles come to the first switchback on the trail – a hint that you’ll need to up your game as the valley ups its gain.

07 lahar

Lahar on steep hillside

The trail remains beautifully maintained, but it crosses odd rocky stretches where the forested hillside displays a dense scattering of gray metamorphic rock on the surface of the forest floor. These are thumb-sized (scree) to fist sized (talus) bits of stone of the sort that splits along planar faces. These flattish stones tend to accumulate on the trail and makes footing a bit awkward. In places where transient streams have descended these rocks are heaped into tall banks, similar to the shape of a wake behind a powerboat. As you get higher you will find yourself crossing deep gouges in the hillside. These look like lahars – stretches of soil and loose rock that (presumably) got water saturated and broke free, ripping four or five foot deep trenches straight down the mountain.

08 junction to No Fish Lake

Hollow stump and cairn at path to No Fish Lake

After rounding the 6th turn on these switchbacks you will begin another steady climb along the much-diminished West Branch. At 8.9 miles enter a gully that contains the highest reaches of the West Branch. The trail leaves the gully and immediately traverses a swale-like water-way. If you want to camp at No Fish Lake then it is time to watch carefully. You may notice a boot-path going up onto the rim of the swale on your right –  if you check, you will find the boot-path descends to a possible campsite with an established fire ring on a bench in the swale. About 100 feet further you will find another campsite about 20 feet off the trail on your left. Within a quarter mile of these initial sites you will come upon the unsigned trail that leads down to No Fish Lake. On this date there was a smallish cairn marking this trail. The tread contained some ancient deadfall, which makes it seem like an unlikely campground trail. Follow it for about 50 feet over a forested spur, however, and you should see No Fish Lake peeking through the trees below you. There are several very pleasant camping sites near the lake’s outflow.

8a Chimayosos Peak from col

Chimayosos Peak from Santa Barbara Divide

Day 2:

From No Fish Lake return to Trail 25 and continue ascending. The forest starts to thin and at 10.1 miles from the trailhead the tread emerges onto a broad slope covered with tussock and talus. Two mellow switchbacks later and you will stride out of the Santa Barbara Drainage and look into the Pecos drainage. Don’t descend! To the east (left on ascent) is the broad and grassy face of Chimayosos Peak. To the west is the broad, but cliff-scarred face of North Truchas. Turn west.

10 opening in fir thicket & North Truchas summit

Fairway through the firs below North Truchas

The west end of the col has a fir thicket on it. The initial wall of these firs, which are closely interwoven, can be difficult to penetrate but inside that wall the trees are well spaced. About half-way through the thicket you will find a ski-trail-like opening that will take you a bit south. That positions you on the upper edge of the thicket with open views to the summit. From here just about any path up will do. My path initially headed straight at the summit, but stiff winds made it advisable to steer from one lonesome fir to the next just for temporary shelter from the breeze. Watch for raptors and big horned sheep. The ground is steep and the air is thin. You may want to practice your rest-step.

10 (S) Truchas, Medios, Middle and the North Truchas cairn

South Truchas (distant-left), Medio and Middle Truchas (ridge in middle ground) and summit cairn in foreground.

There is a cairn at the summit and a small summit log in a plastic container. To the south you will see the span of the Truchas massif, including South Truchas (the high point), “Medios Truchas” (not an official name) and Middle Truchas. Look north to see the Sangre de Cristo mountains ranging all the way into Colorado. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains. You will see the broad profile of Redondo Peak (the high point of the Jemez Mountains) and at the north end of the the Jemez you can pick out Cerro Pedernal in its narrow profile. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

13 summit pose

Author, blocking view to Chimayosos Peak

I heard a couple rifle shots on the first day I was on the trail. Hikers will want to flaunt their orange attire this time of year. The New Mexico Department of Game & Fish website has data on the various hunting seasons, but it seems to be “siloed” in various Department publications that are broken out by target species. This makes sense if, for example, you want to know if you can hunt for grouse in a given area. But it doesn’t help if you simply want to know if hunters are active in a particular spot. It would be great if they could provide a map-based interface for the non-hunting public. For the record, this hike is entirely enclosed by Game Management Unit number 45 (abbreviated as GMU 45) in the department’s publications. The department’s (non-interactive) map of GMU 45 can be found here.

October is a chilly month for campers at 11,000 feet. Bring good sleeping gear and keep an eye on the weather. Much of the summit block on Truchas is an open grassland, but there are adjacent cliffs that would make this a poor place to practice white-out navigation.

This is a high altitude hike. You’ll want your party to be familiar with the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. An excellent discussion can be found at altitude.org.

Links:

Phil Robinson reports a similar approach in a PeakBagger report, but he and his son used the opportunity to climb Medios Truchas, Middle Truchas, Barbara Peak, Chimayosos as well as North Truchas Peak. Very impressive backpacking and an excellent writeup.

The SummitPost overview is very brief, but it has links along the left side to numerous reports and suggestions about alternative approaches.

A 2007 report from the Los Alamos Mountaineers also makes note of how high the water can get and the difficulty that can cause. (The two bridges on the current route may be newer than that, so at least some of the difficulties may have been addressed).

A writeup on the SantaFe.com website reports that Truchas, the Spanish word for “trout”, is also slang for “knife”. The author speculates that the main ridgeline may have looked knife-like to the conquistadors.

 

Truchas, N Truchas, Chimayosos over cairn top

Truchas (left), North Truchas (center) and Chimayosos Peaks (right)

Overview:

Is it possible for a short backpacking trip to be “impossibly scenic”? Inquiring minds need to know. Pack your gear, jump in that car and get the answer to your question with a strenuous scramble into the heart of the Santa Fe Mountains. There are streams, deer, high peaks, bugling elk, tarns, soaring fir forests, mountain goats, sunny meadows, gorgeous views and sore, sore quads in your future. This is why we have the word terrific.

The trail is also demanding and lonesome. This route would be a poor choice for a party fresh from sea level, youngsters, acrophobes, route-finding novices or scramblers trying to get back into shape.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 299, northeast of Santa Fe. The exit is signed for Glorietta/Pecos NM-50.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the northbound ramp, turn left onto NM-50. This junction is not signed, but it helps to know that NM-50 ends at this junction. If you were to turn the other way, to the right, you would be on Fire Station Road heading into Glorieta, NM.
  • After 0.1 miles, having crossed over I-25, stay on NM-50 where it makes a 90-degree right-hand turn. There is no stop here, even though it looks as if you were arriving at a T-interesection. There are several signs at the junction, the most useful indicating that the Glorieta Conference Center is to your left and the town of Pecos is to your right.
  • After 5.9 more miles, at a four-way stop, turn left onto NM-63 in Pecos, NM.
  • After 19.2 more miles arrive at Cowles, NM and continue straight ahead on Forest Road 555. The most prominent feature at this junction is a bridge crossing the Pecos River on your left and a green road sign saying “Cowles”. There is a tiny wooden “555” sign on your right, but it is hidden behind a small fir tree. On Google Maps Forest Road 555 is labeled “Cabana Trail”.
  • After 2.3 miles turn right onto a drive signed “Wilderness Camping”. A brown Forest Service sign just before this drive points up the drive for “Trailhead” and “Equestrian Camping”.
  • After 0.3 miles park at the trailhead.

The roads are paved except the loop where the trailhead is located. The gravel loop is currently in excellent condition.

NM-63 from Tererro to Cowles (about 5.5 miles) is paved but it is rough, very narrow, and twisty. The fall-off from the road edge can be cliff-like. Allow extra time to drive this short distance and be prepared to slow to a crawl if you encounter oncoming vehicles (especially trucks dragging trailers). Fortunately, the road bed of FR-555 is wider and smoother.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The mighty Camry at the trailhead for Beatty’s Trail

This is a full service trailhead with potable water, bear-proof trash receptacles, aluminum can recycling, vault toilets and trailhead signage. The fee for parking is currently $2.00 per day, although there are discounts for military service passes and other national passes. The multi-agency recreation.gov site has a detailed description of the camping opportunities and seasons, but it is very much focused on $10-per-night car camping. There does not seem to be any mention of the trailhead fees. Similarly, the USDA site only mentions the $10 fee, but the signs at the trailhead clearly state the $2 trailhead parking fee.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 8830 feet
  • Ending elevation: 13,110 feet
  • Net elevation: 4280
  • Distance: 27.0 miles, round trip
  • Maps: maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

The net elevation gain is a little misleading here due to the fact that several peaks are visited on this scramble. The GPS record indicates that you’ll be ascending about 5100 feet and descending 2400 feet on the first day. The second day involves a gain of 3300 feet and a descent of 5980 feet.

Hike Description:

Day 1.

Montane grasslands, burn-scarred forest, high peaks and New Mexican skies.

Pecos Baldy (leftmost summit) & East Pecos Baldy (right end of the high ridge)

The hike from the trailhead to Pecos Baldy Lake is a national treasure. The route descriptions for East Pecos Baldy and Truchas Peak (exploratory) both rave over the glories of this segment. Interested readers can click through to get details. To summarize, you hike along a scrupulously maintained tread (Beatty’s Trail #25 to Jack’s Creek Trail #257) that will bring you through Douglas fir forest, high montane grasslands, distinct groves of aspen and spruce, a short stretch of burned forest, thickets of corkbark fir and Engleman spruce – all in the company of spectacular views into the the Sangre de Cristo Range and the headwaters of the Pecos River. If this doesn’t have you humming “The Sound Of Music” then nothing will.

04 East Pecos Baldy above Pecos Baldy Lake

East Pecos Baldy from Pecos Baldy Lake

After hiking 7.4 miles from the trailhead come to the intersection of the Jack’s Creek Trail #257 with the Skyline Trail Trail #251. A short distance above this intersection the Jack’s Creek Trail enters the basin where Pecos Baldy Lake sits below East Pecos Baldy. Fire is not permitted within 200 feet of the lake, so it is probably best to retreat back to the Skyline trail. Here you can head west (go left on ascent) to several campsites that have great views of both East Pecos Baldy and the lake. These are sites are exposed, however, so they may not be the first choice under windy conditions. Less dramatic but better protected sites can be found on the Skyline Trail just east of the junction. This is a popular destination so it pays to arrive early. Set up your camp and re-pack your bag for the trip up to Pecos Baldy.

View of grass covered saddle at junction of Skyline Trail and E. Pecos Baldy Summit Trail, the latter marked by paired cairns across the grassy saddle

East Pecos Baldy Summit Trail signpost (twin-cairns are below the left edge of the Skyline sign, click to enlarge.)

The ascent to Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy begins by hiking west on the Skyline trail as it traverses the rim of the basin. (A description of the East Pecos Baldy route under snowy conditions can be found here). At the basin’s edge the trail goes by a sign reminding east-bound hikers that fires are not allowed near the lake. Here the trail forks. Go right onto the more-traveled fork. The tread meets a steep-sided and heavily forested rib and begins to rise. Crossing a broad, swale-like drainage the trail pokes over the far bank onto terrain that is very steep indeed. Alarmed, the trail switchbacks abruptly and clings to the side of the swale, which is also steep. The tread twists as it pushes through the trees, but eventually makes a convincing turn westward (to your right on ascent) and begins a long leg that emerges from the forest onto a grassy saddle. In the saddle you will find a signed junction with the East Pecos Baldy Summit Trail #275.

click to enlarge

View to Pecos Baldy (left) and the Obligatory Gratuitous Bump (center)

The sign may be obvious but the Summit Trail is faint. For guidance, look across the saddle and on the far side you will see a pair of cairns. Pass between them and you will find yourself on the tread. The trail takes you up over talus and scree, weaving between widely-spaced spruce. The angle is steep and the air will be thin. Take time to look around – is that Penitente Peak, over there by Santa Fe Baldy? Eventually, at about 1 mile from camp, the trail reaches the ridgeline. You could turn right for nearly instant gratification in bagging the summit of East Pecos Baldy, but for now turn to the left and study it’s western neighbor, Pecos Baldy.

click to enlarge

East Pecos Baldy viewed from top of the Obligatory Gratuitous Bump

The view is of a ridge connecting Baldies east and west, interrupted by the usual Obligatory Gratuitous Bump (OGB: a firm reminder that convenience is not a major force in epeirogenesis). Descend towards the bump along a climber’s tread. This is an arctic-alpine environment graced by lichen and glittering with metamorphic rock. (I met a NMU geologist here, who was kindly identified the glittering material as quartzite). The boot path reaches to the top of the OGB and then nearly disappears. There is good reason for this; from the top of the bump you get an excellent closeup view of the ascent to Pecos Baldy and it isn’t for everyone. Take a good look and poll your party. Is everyone OK with off-trail terrain that is steep and (in places) somewhat exposed? After all, you do have the option of bagging East Pecos Baldy and getting back to camp in time for a well earned supper!

click to enlarge

View, off-route, across grass-lined avalanche chute to a rib.

Those chosing to continue should descend from the bump to saddle below the summit block. The terrain falls sharply away from both sides of the saddle, making the ascent along the ridge’s rocky spine the only obvious option. The initial pitch is straightforward. Generally stay on the spine, but watch for several stretches where you can get off the spine to the south (your left, on ascent) wherever you see a boot path left by earlier climbers. Eventually you will come to a decision point where you could lateral south across a grass-lined avalanche chute or continue up the spine as it starts to soar. (I started into that chute but turned back, the footing is sketchy).

click to enlarge

View from Pecos Baldy to Truchas Peak massif (center) and Chimayosos (on left)

Stick close to the rocky spine and climb in class 2-to-3 terrain up to a shoulder. The protected areas along the steep spine hold a dwarf evergreen that may be bristlecone pine. It certainly bristles! Those sharp-pointed green needles can pierce unwary fingertips. It is easy hiking from the shoulder to the summit. Be sure to study the Truchas massif to the north – that’s your destination tomorrow. Return to camp the way you came, but take a minute to walk to the summit of East Pecos Baldy and it’s dizzying view down to Pecos Baldy Lake.

Day 2.

click to enlarge

Trailrider’s Wall (center), Truchas and North Truchas Peaks (horizon)

From camp head east on the overlapping Skyline Trail/Jack’s Creek Trail. The trail initially winds through evergreen forest, emerging to view montane grasslands at about 0.6 miles from camp. Here you will find a junction where the Jack’s Creek Trail departs due east (to your right on ascent). Stay on the Skyline trail (to your left on ascent) as it swings north and enters the grasslands. At 1.1 miles from camp there are striking views to a set of cliff bands below you (called the Trailrider’s Wall) and glimpses of Truchas Peak, North Truchas Peak and Chimayosos Peak. Keep your camera out because the views will keep coming from this point forward.

click to enlarge

Bighorn lambs and ewes – fierce guardians of the Skyline

This ridge-top trail is obvious and frequently marked by large cairns – several over five feet tall. It may be that these stone monuments are meant to guide skiers during the spring backcountry season. Or they could be the work of hikers caught in the throws of grandeur-induced delirium. You can’t be sure. The tread twists, rises and falls as it sticks to the ridge top. High winds are a common occurrence so keep a jacket handy near the top of your pack. There are signed junctions for trails coming in from the west (to your left on ascent), but these trails are extremely faint. It may be helpful to know that these trails lead to Trail #164, which parallels the Skyline Trail on the the west side of the ridge where it may be less windy. At 2.3 miles from camp the Skyline makes its sole switchback, gently descending into the low saddle below Truchas Peak.

click to enlarge

Grassland, forest, Obligatory Gratuitous Bump II (left peak) and summit (right peak)

In this low saddle, about 2.8 miles from camp, come to lonely signpost indicating that the Skyline trail is about to depart the ridge by descending to the east (to your right on ascent). Here you will be going off-trail so take a moment to study the terrain ahead. You need to cross another half mile of grassland, ascend through forest, and then gain a middle saddle on the broad rib leading up to Truchas. Between the middle saddle and the true summit is a false summit (Obligatory Gratuitous Bump II), that you must either climb or circumnavigate. You can presume that there is a short descent on the far side of this bump to a high saddle, then a long slog up a boulder field to where the rib meets the ridgeline a little west of the summit.

12 mystery construction project below OGB II

Construction ruins and the boulder-strewn face of OGB II (right)

Once your mental map is ready go off-trail directly towards Truchas Peak. There are hints of a tread across the grassland, but it is easier to watch for cairns. These will take you into the forested stretch. At the edge of the forest you will find an obvious tread, so navigation is not a problem. At 3.4 miles from camp the forest thins and you enter the middle saddle you spotted from below. In the center of the middle saddle there is a strange gouge in the grass – the ruins of an old construction project of no discernible purpose. It is, however, a great landmark for your return.

click to enlarge

Cairn atop OGB II and view to the true summit of Truchas Peak

From here you must either ascend Obligatory Gratuitous Bump II or circumnavigate it. The latter is possible, but poses navigation problems. The terrain on the southwest side of the Bump is broken by gullies slashed into the bedrock – all these gullies are steep and all are vertically walled. More will be said about the problem towards the end of this route description, but for now suffice to say that only scramblers with robust navigational skills should opt for this approach. Navigation is trivial, however, if you simply ascend the south face of OGB II. You may want to put away your hiking poles as there are places where it is convenient to have four firm points of contact with the rock. The terrain slowly turns a bit greener as the angle eases and at 3.7 miles from camp you’ll arrive at the summit cairn atop OGB II. From the cairn descend about 150 vertical feet on easy terrain to the high saddle, directly below the summit block.

13 faint climbers tread on rib leading to main ridge

A faint boot path on the boulder and talus strewn rib

The rib you’ve been following trends north-northwest towards the ridge-line. There is a good climber’s tread, but finding it is a task. The best approach is stay on the top of the rib as you ascend or, wherever that is inconvenient, on the west side of the rib (to your left on ascent). The rib begins to lose definition as you ascend, and you will be simply climbing the south side of the mountain towards the ridge – a little west of the true summit. At 4.2 miles from camp gain the ridge. Pause for a moment to study your entrance point so you know where to depart on descent. Then turn uphill for an easy (if still breathless) ramble to the summit.

click to enlarge

View from Truchas summit to Middle Truchas (left), “Medio” Truchas (center) and North Truchas (right). At far right is Chimayosos.

The top provides a grand view of the world. East lies the famous prominences of the Santa Fe Mountains including Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak. North lies the remaining Truchas massif and the enormous tumult of the Sangre de Cristo range, extending all the way into Colorado. West lies Chimayosos Peak and the headwaters of the Pecos River. South lies Pecos Baldy, the long valley carved by the Pecos River and the southern limits of the Sangre de Cristo range.

15 OGB II from summit, trail goes from saddle to cliff at right

View down to OGB II and trails leading west (rightward) around the bump.

The southern view also includes the high saddle (uphill of OGB II). You will see a couple goat trails that lead from this saddle toward a cliff band on the west side of the Bump. This is a usable alternative to re-climbing OGB II. Follow these trails and you will go past the foot of a cliff face, after which you will come to the first of three rock-walled gullies. It doesn’t seem to be especially tractable at first and it may be tempting to turn back and just climb the wretched bump! But look closely and you can find a steep, gravelly path that gets you into the highest reaches of the gully bed. On the far side there is a steep but short ascent up the opposing rock wall. (This point might be particularly hard to discover if you were on ascent, which is why it is recommended that most scramblers simply climb the Bump). From the top of far wall you can see the middle saddle with its peculiar ruins, but as you descend towards it you encounter a second gully. The trick is to ascend since the origins of the gully are not far above your head. Then, on your way back to that saddle, you should pass above a third gully. If you should run into this third gully then repeat the climb-and-traverse trick. From there it is easy to get to the saddle and return the way you came in.

Recommendations:

Do this scramble! (But first see the comments below).

The trail up to Pecos Baldy Lake is very popular and many of the campers at the lake will also ascend to East Pecos Baldy. In contrast, the other legs of this scramble are quite lonesome. Make certain that someone knows your intended route and your estimated time of return.

Acute mountain sickness is genuinely possible on this scramble. Truchas Peak is the second highest peak in New Mexico. At 13,108 feet it is 608 feet higher than the altitude where airplane pilots are required to use oxygen when flying with passengers. Visiting scramblers should be given opportunity to acclimate before the hike. Do know the signs and symptoms for acute mountain sickness and it’s more severe forms, HAPE and HACE. An excellent discussion can be found at altitude.org

Pick a nicer day!

Author on Truchas summit, about to be rained on.

Don’t be like me! It was unwise to press forward on a monsoon morning where cumulus clouds were obviously building. By pure luck the storms passed to the south of me, but thunder is an dangerous sort of background music for long ridge rambles.

I think that elk hunting season is open – at least I talked to two hunters who were inquiring after elk sightings. Other hunting seasons (fall turkey season) have definitely started. A bit of orange gear would not be out of place.

Links:

In an exploratory route description I mentioned posts at ChrisGoesHiking, Sam at Landscape Imagery, and an overview article at SummitPost as being useful guides for folks interested in this route to Truchas Peak.

Otherwise the online material is surprisingly scant. Some of the most popular sources, including Peakware and HikeArizona, did not provide the kind of information I thought was needed. Treat this as further evidence of how lonesome this scramble can be.

01 Truchas, center peak, N Truchas, Chimayosos

(South) Truchas, North Truchas and Chimayosos Peaks

Overview:

Truchas (Spanish for “trout”) may be 60 feet lower than Wheeler Peak, but it is far more isolated and far less visited. The mountain lies directly at the heart of the Santa Fe Mountains, an empress of altitude in spectacular high country. Billions have been spent on stadiums and museums to console the disconsolate who’ve no access to this style of hiking. The lucky will hike through a comprehensive tour of the Canadian, Hudsonian and arctic-alpine life zones: climbing through dense Douglas fir forest, sauntering across gorgeous meadows and arriving where the tough alpine grasses grudgingly give way to rock and lichen. Pick a couple nice days, hoist your pack and allow your expectations to soar. You won’t be disappointed.

Weather can be an issue. I turned back when the surrounding stratocumuli demonstrated cumulonimbus aspirations. As a result this description ends in the grassland below the summit.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 299, northeast of Santa Fe. The exit is signed for Glorietta/Pecos NM-50.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp from the northbound lanes, turn left onto NM-50. This junction is not signed, but it helps to know that NM-50 ends at this junction. If you were to turn the other way, to the right, you would be on Fire Station Road heading into Glorieta, NM.
  • After 0.1 miles, having crossed over I-25, stay on NM-50 where it makes a 90-degree right-hand turn. There is no stop here, even though it looks as if you were arriving at a T-interesection. There are several signs at the junction, the most useful indicating that the Glorieta Conference Center is to your left and the town of Pecos is to your right.
  • After 5.9 more miles, at a four-way stop, turn left onto NM-63 in Pecos, NM.
  • After 19.2 more miles arrive at Cowles, NM and continue straight ahead on Forest Road 555. The most prominent feature at this junction is a bridge crossing the Pecos River on your left and a green road sign saying “Cowles”. There is a tiny wooden “555” sign on your right, but it is hidden behind a small fir tree. On Google Maps this road is labeled “Cabana Trail”.
  • After 2.3 miles turn right onto a drive signed “Wilderness Camping”. A brown Forest Service sign just before this drive points up the drive for “Trailhead” and “Equestrian Camping”.
  • After 0.3 miles park at the trailhead.
02 Transition from NM-63 to FR-555

NM-63 to FR-555 continuation

The roads are paved except the loop where the trailhead is located. The gravel loop is currently in excellent condition.

NM-63 from Tererro to Cowles (about 5.5 miles) is paved but it is rough, very narrow, and twisty. The fall-off from the road edge can be cliff-like. Allow extra time to drive this short distance and be prepared to slow to a crawl if you encounter oncoming vehicles. Fortunately, the road bed of FR-555 is wider and smoother.

Trailhead:

04 packed trailhead parking

The mighty Camry, squeezed into the last-open trailhead parking spot

This is a full service trailhead with potable water, bear-proof trash receptacles, vault toilets and trailhead signage. The fee for parking is currently $2.00 per day, although there are discounts for military service passes and other national passes. The multi-agency recreation.gov site has a detailed description of the camping opportunities and seasons, but it is very much focused on $10-per-night car camping. There does not seem to be any mention of the trailhead fees. Similarly, the USDA site only mentions the $10 fee, but the signs at the trailhead clearly state the $2 fee.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 8830 feet
  • highest elevation: 11960 feet (not at summit!)
  • net elevation: 3130 feet (not to summit!)
  • distance: 9.9 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

04 junction with horsetrail on Beatty's TrailFind the start of the trail on the steep embankment uphill of the trailhead parking. It is signed “Beatty’s Tr. No. 25”. The tread begins with a long, ascending contour up the east wall of the canyon containing Jack’s Creek. The forest here is dominated by Douglas fir and some ponderosa pine. At 1.1 miles from the trailhead it begins a series of switchbacks and comes to a junction at an opening in a fence (see above-left photo). This path from the other side of the fence is where the horse-folk enter the trail. You’ll want to watch for “horse apples” on the trail thereafter.

05 Beatty's Trail - Jack's Creek Junction

I have no idea how the base of these aspen dissociated from their upper boles

There is plenty of light filtering through the trees from above, a sign of terrain change. Accordingly, the trail soon reaches a flat rib top and begins nice ramble, bending to the east above the small basin where Allbright Creek parachutes into the Pecos River. (The creek itself may be dry at this elevation). At 2.5 miles from the trailhead the tread pokes its nose out into the broad, green meadows that make this hike famous. Here find the signed junction between the Beatty Trail and the Jack’s Creek Trail No. 257. Turn left onto the Jack’s Creek trail and follow it as it winds its way through a pleasant stand of tall aspen. You may encounter cattle (make certain of your control over Rover), but this herd has much experience with ignoring the intrusion of horse riders and hikers. They will, however, gaze at you with a lofty sense of disregard.

05 upper meadows

Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy from upper meadow

At 2.8 miles emerge from the Aspen for your first traverse in the emerald kingdom that is the mesa between Jack’s Creek and the Pecos River. The views are spectacular – east into the Santa Fe Mountains, west into the headwaters of the Pecos River, and around your knees where lies a profusion of wildflowers. If you did bring pets know that they can get warm in this open country. I was told that there is a spring (drained by a length of PVC pipe) in the woods to your left after you hike over the first prominent rise in the meadows. The ground itself can be surprisingly damp, given an August date in New Mexico high country. Where horse hooves meet the boggiest stretches it can be downright muddy. Still, rock hopping across 20 foot patches of bog is a small price for admittance to such gorgeous terrain. At 3.3 miles pass through a glade of spruce trees and then re-enter another half mile of meadow. Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy frame to view in front of you. The gentle, forested height of land on your right is Round Mountain.

08 cut deadfall to Jacks Creek

A route through the deadfall

At the upper end of the meadows the tread begins to descend, penetrating into dense young forest on the hillside above Jack’s Creek. Just this past July this portion of the trail was an obstacle course of flattened trees. The Forest Service has been hard at work, however, and innumerable fresh cuts now open the way for hikers and horsefolk alike. At 4.4 miles arrive at Jack’ Creek, which had a good flow of water but was easy to cross dry-footed.

09 Burn and flowers

Burn flowers

On the far side of the creek find a junction with the Dockweiler Trail No. 259. The combined Jack’s Creek/Dockwieler trail ascends besides the creek bed. It is muddy in places and those heavy horse seem to be facing a struggle – there are hoof-skids and deep, horseshoe-sized pocks in the trail. Also, there was some deadfall in the trail, so be prepared to keep your eyes focused on the ground before you. At the end of five miles the Dockweiler Trail departs to your right. Continue ascending on the Jack’s Creek trail as it eases alongside and then penetrates into a swatch of burned forest. This is a dense stand of snags and some caution would be needed on a windy day. It is scorched above the 3-foot level, but below that is an understory unbound; spectacularly green and densely appointed with wildflowers.

10 first glimpse of Pecos Baldy

Pecos Baldy from Jack’s Creek trail

Climb past the upper limit of the burn at 6.1 miles from the trailhead. The forest now presents Engelmann Spruce and corkbark fir, typical of forests in the Hudsonian life zone. The snow banks that graced the side of the trail two months ago are gone. The terrain is fairly gentle until you reach a small running stream at 6.8 miles (you may want to filter your water here). The terrain noses up and you ascend the last quarter mile to where the Jack’s Creek trail makes a junction with the Skyline trail, #251. Just past the junction is the entrance to the cirque containing Pecos Baldy Lake.

11 Pecos Baldy Lake Basin

Pecos Baldy Lake basin

Camping is not allowed in the lake basin. There are, however, camp sites along the Skyline Trail just below the basin. It looked as if the best views were found on a couple sites west of the junction (turn left on ascent), but these are quickly claimed at this popular destination. One camper remarked that there is running water close to the camp sites to the east of the junction, which would make them a good choice as well. I did not scout hard enough to find that stream. Instead, I used the stream that descends from the steep face of East Pecos Baldy into the lake. The lake is beautiful, but is frequented by horses, deer, bighorn sheep and elk. Filter, boil or treat the lake water with bleach before drinking it.

12 deer on ascent

Fearless Deer

To continue to Truchas peak, go east (right on ascent) onto the Skyline Trail #251. The tread is a mellow ascent in widely-spaced trees typical of old growth forest. On this date I encountered a deer so acclimated to hikers that it stood and watched as I stood and watched. It even advanced a few steps towards me before regretting its curiosity, something that I’ve never before seen a deer do. The trail breaks out of the trees and reaches a junction where the Jack’s Creek trail departs to your right. Stay to the left on the Skyline Trail as it climbs into montane grasslands and slowly bends to the north.

13 Trail Riders Wall

Truchas, North Truchas and Trailrider’s Wall (below).

Before you lies a grand triumvirate: Truchas Peak (sometimes called South Truchas), North Truchas Peak and Chimayosos Peak lie to the left, center and right respectively. Look closely at the east facing shoulder of Truchas and you will see the summit of another montane magistracy. I think is the 13,040 foot mountain (unnamed on my maps) that lies in the center of a “Y” shape joining South Truchas at the bottom to both Middle Truchas and North Truchas Peaks at the top. This sweep of high terrain contains much of the headwaters for the Pecos River. Closer by, below you on your right, lies the striking cliff band known as the Trailriders Wall.

16 Signpost At The End Of The Trail

Joe Vigil Trail and Skyline Trail junction

This is open country – even in August you may find yourself pulling a jacket out of your pack to cope with the constant winds. Continue north on good trail, occasionally marked by cairns that can reach six or seven feet tall. The cairns may be intended to guide backcountry skiers when the trails are under snow and they are impressive examples of their kind. The tread rises and falls as it meanders across the grasslands. At 9.9 miles from the trailhead come to a sign for a junction even though, on this date, the only tread in sight was the Skyline Trail. The incoming Joe Vigil Trail was nowhere to be seen. The route to Truchas is an off-trail climb directly ahead, you will see the summit from the junction. The Skyline trail uses the saddle to depart to the east, dropping below the ridge top. On this date, however, I turned back due to increasingly dense cloud cover.

Return the way you came. Take your time. Savor the spectacle.

Recommendations:

Trailhead parking was packed and all the camp sites in the lake basin were in use, despite the fact that this trip took place midweek during the monsoon season. Try to get an early start!

It was chilly at night, probably in the low 40s, so you’ll want a decent sleeping bag. That said, the sun at mid-day is a real problem. You may want to wear a wide-brim hat, long-sleeved shirt and full-length pants just for the solar protection. Sunscreen and lip balm are near-musts.

This isolated and high altitude hike would be a dubious choice if you are leading a party fresh from sea level. The folks at Altitude.org have a clear and very useful summary of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness and it’s severe offshoots, HAPE and HACE. The first section of the post is titled, “Don’t die of altitude sickness”. Good advice.

There are horses, cattle, big horn sheep, deer and (reportedly) elk and bear to be found along the trail. Please make sure that your pets will behave around the megafauna.

Links:

The ChrisGoesHiking site has a well written and nicely photographed description of the trail up to Pecos Baldy Lake. Also, he describes his intentions to simply continue along the Skyline trail to traverse the cliffs known as the Trail Riders Wall, which is exactly what this trip report describes. Chris, however, was hiking on a Memorial Day weekend and there was enough high-country snow to discourage travel beyond Pecos Baldy Lake.

Sam at Landscape Imagery has a 2009 report of a multi-day hike up to both Pecos Baldy and Truchas Peak using the same access route. There are numerous photos, including some very useful images of the summit approach as well as a detailed trip description.

An overview of the various approaches to Truchas Peak can be found at SummitPost. It includes a warning about the sometimes-confusing nomenclature for the various summits in this group and describes the permissions required at various trailheads. Also, there are some thoughtfully expressed concerns regarding vandalism at certain trailheads, although the report is now 12 years old and I don’t know if the concerns are still valid.

01 Mazanos Mountains from NM-55

Morning Manzano Mountains from NM-55

Overview:

The Manzano Mountains are central New Mexico’s unsung treasure. They offer cool Douglas fir forests, broad stretches of montane grassland, a trove of fossil finds, views west across the Estancia Basin and views east across the Albuquerque Basin; deer and raptors are common, bear and elk are present. Given its close proximity to Albuquerque you might think it would be mobbed. In fact, solitude is a Manzano virtue. The Bosque Trail #174 ascends directly to the crest, shaking off any morning chill with brisk efficiency. Turning south, the Crest Trail #181 winds across open grasslands to a junction with Vigil Trail #59. This new trail crosses the crest leading to an off-trail venture to the high point of flat-topped Bosque Peak. To make a loop return to the Crest Trail and explore north towards the base of sheer-sided Mosca Peak and then return along the mellow Cerro Blanco trail #79.

Driving Directions:

  • From the intersection of Interstate-25 (I-25) and I-40, take the ramp for I-40 going east.
  • At the end of the ramp merge onto I-40 east
  • After 14.0 miles take exit 175 for NM-14/NM-333/NM-337 (also signed for Tijeras/Cedar Crest). The ramp will fork, stay to the right for NM-333/NM-337.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a stoplight at the end of the ramp, go straight ahead onto NM-337
  • After 29.2 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-55 South
  • After 3.2 miles, as you climb a small hill out of the town of Tajique, turn right onto a gravel road. On this date there was no sign naming the road, but there was a prominent sign for the 4th of July Campground/Inlow Youth Camp, both of which are on this road.
  • After 8.4 miles come to the Cerro Blanco Trailhead on the right.

02 Sign on NM-55 before turn onto gravel FR-55FR-55 (the gravel road) is currently in excellent shape for the first 7.0 miles, at which point you pass the entrance to the 4th Of July Campground. Immediately past the entrance there is a sign saying that the road is not fit for passenger cars. On this date there were dozer-tracks on the roadbed so I went ahead. The road is pretty rough but the Camry was able to make it as far as the Cerro Blanco trailhead. Past the trailhead the road gets very rough. It is possible to drive to the Bosque trailhead, but a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.

Google labels this road as “County Road A013/Torreon Tajique Loop Road”, although I did not see any road signs using this nomenclature. There are, however signs at various points along the way identifying the road as “55”. FR-55 is prone to flooding, check with the Mountainair Ranger District if the weather has been particularly wet.

Trailhead:

03 mighty Camry

The mighty Camry at the  lush Cerro Blanco trailhead

The Cerro Blanco Trailhead has parking for two cars and offers a Forest Service information sign. If you peer up the trail you will discover a second sign saying “Cerro Blanco Trail No. 79”. If the parking spaces are taken you might be able to park at a turn-out on the opposite side of the road about 100 feet further along FR-55. Be cautious, however, since that turn-out looked pretty wet on this date. The first part of this loop is a hike of 0.7 miles along the road to get to the Bosque Trailhead. That trailhead has much more parking, along with picnic tables, fire rings, bear-proof trash receptacles and a vault toilet.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7800 feet
  • Highest Point: 9585 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1785 feet
  • Distance: 10.5 miles
  • Maps: USGS Bosque quadrangle. The 1995 version shows the trails mentioned in this guide and is recommended. The 2017 version does not show the trails, which makes it much less useful.

Hike Description:

04 huge aligator juniper with pole

Old aligator juniper (with hiking pole for scale).

From the trailhead walk south along FR-55 to the Bosque trailhead, 0.7 miles. The sign for the trailhead is becoming obscured by brush, but that is more of a problem for drivers than hikers. There is a long entrance drive bordered with picnic tables and fire rings. At the end of the drive is trailhead parking. Go past the trailhead sign and proceed along the well-maintained trail. This forest is dense with tall ponderosa pine. Alongside the trail is a big old alligator juniper, the largest that I’ve seen.

06 flat-topped Bosque

Bosque Peak from Bosque Trail

At 1.4 miles from the trailhead the tread bolts upwards. The occasional, half-hearted switchback will ease the burden on your thighs, but this is chiefly a rib-top rocket shot meant to put a hiker on the crest. In theory this trail should immediately convert into a gully, but it seems to have received a strikingly high level of trail maintenance. Water bars have been installed all along the trail. At two places on the ascent there are signs directing you off the “old” track and onto a new segment, presumably to allow the brush to over-run and restore the old track’s deepening tread.

06 obvious tread through the trees

Obvious tread through the trees

The 1995 USGS quadrangle shows the trail departing the rib-top and crossing the waterway that lies south of the rib. This departure occurred at about 2.2 miles from the Cerro Blanco trailhead, almost exactly at the point where the second sign directs you to the north, away from that departure. I spoke with Janet, Erik and Jill just above this point. They were returning because the trail above had become uncomfortably sketchy as it reaches into the high meadows. Either we all missed the route across the southern drainage or the trail has been re-routed.

07 Fire ring before Crest Trail junction

Fire ring at meadow’s edge, just before Crest Trail junction

Indeed, at 2.6 miles the trail enters subalpine terrain where the trees thin, small meadows appear and trail finding becomes a challenge. There are cairns of the small, informal, and contradictory sort. Given a choice it is usually better to favor a southerly route over a northerly route (i.e. stay to your left on ascent). The trail becomes much more evident where it leaves the ledgy meadows and re-enters forest. At 2.8 miles come to a wide and seemingly untracked meadow. Follow its edge in the clockwise direction until you pas a fire ring made of rock. Then, 100 feet past the ring, come to the intersection with the Crest Trail. The junction is unsigned but marked with one of the world’s least impressive cairns. Enjoy the meadows. Here you’ll find views of Guadalupe and Mosca Peaks, the impressive steep-sided mountains that dominate the northern section of the Manzanos. Study, too, the fractured limestone at your feet. In places it is thick with fossilized shells.

08 distant Sandias, Guadalupe, Mosca and distant Ortega Mts

Montane Grasslands, Sandia Mts, Guadalupe Peak, Mosca Peak and distant Ortega Mts

Turn south (left on ascent) to follow the Crest Trail. This is a part of the Grand Enchantment Trail, a network of trails that leads from Albuquerque to Phoenix, Arizona. As with the Bosque Trail, the tread is most obvious where it penetrates the trees. At 3.0 miles however, you will walk out onto the montane grassland that dominates much of the crest. Navigation becomes a matter of steering from cairn to cairn. Fortunately these are serious cairns, raised high enough to be seen above the tall grasses. An incredible amount of stoop labor has gone into making this trail.

09 Vigil trail and Crest Trail junction

Junction with Vigil Trail (note exposed soil, mid-picture)

At 3.8 miles come to the junction with the Vigil Trail. This junction is obscure.  Watch for a point where the Crest trail passes through mixed trees and meadow and then comes to a squared trail-post in open grassland. Curiously, the post is not at the junction but rather 50 feet or so north of the junction. Traverse that distance south, keeping your eyes peeled for a short section of disturbed ground that looks as if water has cut into the soil. That “cut” is the start of the Vigil trail. The Crest trail does continue south from this junction, in the form of grass-thatched wishful thinking. It can make you doubt your junction judgement.

 

10 Albuquerque Basin from Bosque Peak

Albuquerque Basin from Bosque Peak

Follow the Vigil trail as it disappears and reappears in a journey west across the very top of the crest. At 4.1 miles the Vigil trail makes a sharp right-turn and runs through the aspen and thorn-tree forest that adorns the top of Bosque Peak. Go off-trail and continue hiking west on a gradually rising grassland. Coming to the cliff that marks the western edge of the Manzano Crest.  Technically the high point is a few feet above your head and shrouded in thorn bush. My best efforts to penetrate that thicket were unproductive, but if you find a path please leave a comment! You may prefer to pull up next to the lonesome pine that adorns this cliff top, seat yourself comfortably in its shade and have lunch while examining the Ladron and Magdelana ranges.

11 Guadelupe & Mosca Peaks, Ortega Mts

Guadalupe Peak and Mosca Peak

To return, head back along the Vigil trail and then the Crest Trail, following it all the way to the junction with the Bosque Trail. If the weather is looking doubtful then the Bosque Trail is your best option. If you’d prefer a loop hike then stay on the Crest Trail as it continues north. You will soon discover that those treads you considered “faint” on ascent are actually bold examples of the trail maker’s art. In comparison, the trail north of the Bosque junction is a true wallflower – indistinguishable from the competing game trails. Fortunately, you need only stay close to the crest to be approximately on track. Mosca and Guadalupe peaks, the steep sided twins of the northern Manzanos, serve as a beacon before you. The occasional huge cairn is there to confirm your navigation.

12 Small bear guarding cairn

Small bear by meadow’s edge (click to enlarge)

Soar along the crest in the company of eagles – these raptors are hoping that you’ll scare up some game. On this date there were muddy spots with elk track, although the animals themselves were not to be found. The trail is so seldom used that it can disappear in brush thickets, be a bit careful as you push through since some of the brush includes thorny mesquite. The tread generally stays a little below the crest on the east side. At 6.6 miles come to the unsigned intersection with the Yellowstone trail #60. If you get diverted onto this trail you’ll find yourself dropping into the west side canyons. Turn back and rediscover the Crest trail.

13 trail departs downhill to left of center rock

Crest Trail departs the crest top to the right of the large center bolder.

At 7.8 miles contour around the east side of two steep-sided knolls then enter onto a short knife’s-edge section of the crest. It is close to here that you depart from the crest top. You will need to keep a sharp eye out for the departure point since an informal but obvious tread extends past the junction atop the crest. Take the steep switchbacks down to about 8800 feet until, at 7.8 miles from the trailhead, you come to a signed and obvious intersection with the Cerro Blanco trail. Follow the Cerro Blanco as it makes a leisurely and well-shaded northerly descent. Pass a junction with the Albuquerque Trail at 9.2 miles. Eventually the tread returns you to the Cerro Blanco trailhead, having brought you a total of 10.5 miles.

Recommendations:

One of the distinguishing features of this trail is the tenuous nature of its trail bed. If you want to challenge some young hikers with advanced trail finding problems, this is the place to take them.

It may be wise to carry bear bells or to keep up a lively discussion while bush-bashing along the northern part of this loop.

13 Monique and Michael on Albuquerque Trail

Monique and Michael, enjoying the Albuquerque Trail

Although the temperatures only got into the low 80s along the crest I still burned through 2.5 liters of water. I should have carried 4 liters. I did not find any water sources along the route. The sun is a serious piece of business at 9,000 feet. Sunscreen will make your day much easier.

Start at daybreak and finish early during monsoon season. You don’t want to find a thunderstorm barreling towards you as you cross over the Manzanos crest.  This crest does have some forested sections, but it would still be a pretty poor locale for waiting out a storm.

Links:

The Albuquerque Senior Centers’ Hiking Group has a short but remarkably detailed report on this loop. The report makes mention of a deep cave, a log cabin ruin, a mountain-top cemetery and a plane wreck to explore. Additionally, this 2015 report mentions a narrow trail leading between the Cerro Blanco trailhead and the Bosque trailhead, which would eliminate the road walk.

SummitPost has a summary, including driving directions and season suggestions for summiting Bosque Peak.

There is a brief description at the GeoCaching website, but the comments section is particularly interesting. As noted there, this is not t-shirt and shorts terrain. Also, hikes in the Manzanos do require strong situational awareness. Getting lost can happen.

The cabin mentioned in the ASCHG report apparently belonged to the Rea family. A family history of this mountain clan can be found here (pdf).

 

 

01 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch (in shadow) from clifftop turnaround point

Overview:

This is an easy amble along the top of a steep-sided scarp, terminating on a dramatic cliff overlooking the enormous Ventana Arch. Along the way you get a birds-eye view of the dark lava and struggling vegetation in the El Malpais National Conservation Area. The trail stays at a relatively low altitude and is unusually easy to access. This is a great way to introduce newcomers to the hiking in New Mexico. Alternatively, the trail provides a mellow means for getting out of doors and warming up those hiking muscles as the winter winds down. On this date it also served to test minumum expectations for a new pair of hiking shoes (which passed).

Driving Directions:

  • From Albuquerque get onto Interstate-40 (I-40) going west and take exit 89 near Grants, NM (about 70 miles).
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn south (left if you were on the west-bound lanes of I-40) onto NM-117.
  • After 21.8 miles turn left into The Narrows Picnic Area.
  • After about 50 feet, at the end of the first curve in the road, park at the trailhead.

Trailhead:

02 Rim view of trailhead

NM-117 and trailhead seen from ledge

The picnic area has vault toilets, picnic benches and trash recepticals. There is a small wooden sign near the trailhead announcing The Narrows Rim Trail. There are no fees. On a 4th of July weekend there was only one other vehicle in the picnic area when I arrived and it did not seem crowded on return. Parking should not be an issue. There are no usage fees.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7500 feet
  • Net Elevation: 400 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS North Pasture quadrangle. This hike is shown at the very top edge of this map and a small segment is cut off. If you want to see the complete trail or would like to identify northern landmarks the you should also take along the Arrosa Ranch quadrangle.

Hike Description:

03 Lava hummocks in malpais

Lava hummocks in malpais and distant cinder cones

From the trailhead follow the trail as it clambers up a low rocky ledge and then turns north. The hardest part of your hike is now over. The trail gently ascends along the rim, yet quickly achieves a view west into the malpais (Spanish for “bad country”). This lava-covered terrain exhibits broad regions of black rock that are being slowly colonized by juniper and pines. These lava flows came from multiple eruptions, the most recent occurring only 1500 years ago. Several trails run across this tortured terrain and you have to imagine that the footing across the malpais is rough indeed.

04 cobbled trail with cairn

Cobbled trailbed with cairn

The top of this escarpment is covered with fine, light brown-sand. The lack of any coarse material suggests that it was wind deposited. There are many sandy stretches on the tread itself and you might want to put on gaiters to keep sand from filling your boots. In other places the tread has an almost cobbled appearance. Daily temperatures can swing across 50-degrees (Farenheit), and over the years these swings have carved grooves into the rock. In still other locations those deep grooves conspire to release fist-sized chunks of rock, real ankle-twisters. As the day warms that light-brown sand reflects the sunlight with surprising efficiency.

05 sChain Of Craters cinder cones and distant Escondido Mountain

Malpais view: snaking lava tube nearby, a small kipuka in mid-distance, far-distant Escondido Mt on extreme left and cinder cones dominating the horizon.

There are no real navigation problems because the trail stays within 100 feet of the escarpment face (and usually much closer). In some places the tread can be a just little difficult to find – typically where a stretch off-trail sandstone has an eye-catching, sidewalk-like appearance. There are numerous cairns in these stretches to help keep you on track.

06 Tinaja and Ponderosa

Sandy depression in the sandstone

There is only a sparse display of pinyon pine and single seed juniper, reflecting the harsh growing conditions on this dry mesa. In places along the trail there are small depressions in the sandstone called tinajas (Spanish for “jar” or “tank”). Water draining into these depressions deposits a flat bed of sand. Nearby you’ll often find small stands of Ponderosa pine. These are not large pines by high-mountain standards, but they tower over the pinyon and juniper.

07 kipuka (narrow band of forest) below horizon

Kipuka in the middle distance

As the tread rises you’ll see greater detail across the malpais. There are corridors of black rock snaking through the green scrub. These could be flood-swept channels. The long stretches of black rock that lie closest, however, look like collapsed lava tubes. You will see considerable variation in the vegetation. There are small patches of terrain that produce stands of trees that are markedly taller and denser than the surrounding scrub. These stands probably lie on mounds of older lava that were tall enough to deflect the more recent lava flows (kipukas), so their high points retain deeper accumulations of soil.

08 Mt Taylor across a sea of lava

Hazy Mt Taylor in the far distance

At about 3.5 miles trail crosses a tinaja underlain by strikingly dark rock. The sands of this small depression are littered with small dark stones, some of which have pocked surfaces suggestive of volcanic scoria. Just beyond there is a stand of five or six notably large Ponderosa. Pass through this grove and views open north to Mt Taylor. Arriving at the northern-most extremity for this segment of the escarpment the trail turns east. In just a few hundred feet the tread terminates at a high overlook that gives you wonderful views of Ventana Arch. Kick back, watch the hawks soar above the arch (tracking visitors who scare up the rabbits) and plot your return along the approach route.

Recommendations:

10 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch in the midway sun.

This would be a terrific spot for introducing young hikers to moderate length hiking. They would need to carry sufficient water and be very clear that cliffs are not playthings. The attractions include hawks soaring overhead, horned toads on the ground, and innumerable tracks in the sand to interpret.

The morning of June 2nd was surprisingly cold. Don’t let the daytime temperatures mislead you, a bivouac at 7500 feet could be a very chilly experience. That said, the light brown sands do reflect a lot of sunshine. You’ll want sunscreen under your nose and across the backs of your knees.

There isn’t any water along this trail. I took three liters and that may have been a little over the top. Unless the day is extremely hot two liters would be fine for most people.

Links:

A widely quoted trail handout from the Bureau of Land Management can be found here (PDF).

Julie White, writing for the website OnlyInYourState, has an enthusiastic writeup of this trail and good photographs illustrating the dramatic aspects of this hike.

NewMexicoNomad posts some great photos of the area and has an interesting introduction to the geology. Most of it focuses on the dramatic volcanic flows of the Malpais, much of that quite recent by geology standards.