Avalanche fans and cornices on Jicarita ridgeline

Overview:

Serpent Lake is a gorgeous mountain tarn sheltered below the massive ridge leading to Jicarta Peak. Currently Serpent Lake is not frozen, even though the trail is under snow. The trail is well blazed, but navigation will be remain a challenge as long as the snow lasts.  The view to the ridge suggests that there remains numerous glissade lines for adventurous springtime hikers to enjoy. Get your favorite adventurers together and get up there!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25, in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for the NM-599 Santa Fe Bypass.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left onto NM-599.
  • After 13.2 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-285/US-84 North
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-285/US-84 North
  • After 14.5 miles, at a light, go right onto NM-503 (Nambe Road)
  • After 7.5 miles go left onto Juan Medina Road (County Road 98). There are no stop lights, but signs before the junction indictate that the turn is for the “High Road to Taos Scenic Byway” and the way to “Santuario de Chimaya / Chimaya”
  • After 3.5 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-76. After 8.2 miles NM-76 makes a 90-degree left-hand turn, while a different road goes straight ahead into Truchas, NM. Just before the turn watch for signs for the “High Road to Taos Scenic Byway” with an arrow pointing left, and a sign for “Ojo Sarco / Penasco / Taos”
  • After 21.6 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-75
  • After 6.9 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-518.
  • After 13.7 miles go right onto Forest Service Road 161. There is a sign on NM-518 before the junction. This road turns to gravel immediately after the cattle guard.
  • After 4.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of the road.

If you plan on returning along the same route then be aware that the turn from NM-76 onto Juan Medina is a little obscure. On your return along NM-76 watch for a signed intersection for NM-503 then, 1.8 miles further, come to the junction with Juan Medina. This junction is signed for “Santuario de Chimaya”

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead is simply a broad gravel pad with a Forest Service trailhead board. The service has put posts into the pad to mark out parking for trucks pulling horse trailers. Please give these spots as much space as possible as it takes some room to maneuver the trailers into position.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 10,400 feet
  • highest elevation: 11,840 feet
  • net elevation: 1,440 feet
  • Maps: USGS Jicarita Peak quadrangle. (Use the 1995 version as it shows trails that are missing from new editions. Declination has shifted from the legend’s 10-degrees to 8.2-degrees.).
  • distance: 4.1 miles

Hike Description:

A snow-free start to Serpent Lake

Currently the Serpent Lake Trail is about 90 percent under snow. Most of the time the trail makes an obvious corridor through the trees, but care is needed least you stray from the corridor. From the trailhead follow a broad, snow-free two-track to the west. In about 400 feet come to a signed junction. The Angostura Trail #493 goes to your right, while the Serpent Lake Trail #19 and the Santa Barbara Trail both go to the left. Turn left and head into the trees. On this date the snow began almost immediately.  In about 200 more feet the Santa Barbara Trail departs to the left, although it isn’t easy to discern exactly where. Fortunately you need only stay on the broad two-track as it heads to Serpent Lake. It soon swings to the right, crossing the bottom of an unnamed drainage.

Junction with Angostura Cutoff

At 0.6 miles from the trailhead, come to a junction where the Angostura cutoff trail trail departs to the north (to your right on ascent). Stay left as the Serpent Lake trail begins a long, slow, ascending traverse across the southern wall of the Rito Angostura drainage. At 0.8 miles from the trailhead the trail rises to a remarkable flow of water that insists on gushing across the slopes rather than down. This is the La Sierra Ditch, which brings water to farms and gardens in the Holman Valley. The flow of water can be pretty strong. On the left side of the crossing there may be a log that bridges the ditch. Some generous soul had left a long aspen pole for hikers to brace themselves while making the crossing – very useful. If there is no log then you will probably get your feet wet. Not that it matters – warm temperatures convert the top couple inches of snow to a slushy consistency and this will wet your boots soon enough.

Blaze with ax-edge lines in the sapwood

Study the blazes on the trees alongside the trail. They will be an important part of navigating your way back down the mountain. Most of the blazes are single, ax-hewn slices that peel away the bark and leave the underlying sapwood exposed. It can be easy to confuse these deliberate markings with ordinary bark-damage, so it pays to train your eye to look for the lines that the ax-edge leaves in the sapwood. At about 1.9 miles from the trailhead the traverse ends. The trail turns sharply south (to your left on ascent) and begins a short series of small switchbacks that soon turns into a straight-uphill climb. Study this right-angle turn – it can be easy to miss on descent.

Twin blazes

The ascent is not particularly steep – Jicarita Peak has massive cliffs in its highest reaches but down here the grade is quite gentle.  Even under snow the trail has a distinctive, gully-like shape accented by the fact that the east-facing side of the trail (on your right going uphill) melts out quite a lot faster than the west-facing side. It offers a fairly bold corridor through the trees but take care to track the blazes. There are several spots where I thought I was on the obvious corridor but, “blazes!”, decided I had to scout downhill for a more useful tread.

Well signed wilderness

At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, at about 11,600 feet, come to a sign for Carson National Forest. It was about here that I noticed that the single-blaze that characterized the start of the trail was now a double-blaze, usually a small cut above a larger cut into the bark. I can’t say for certain, but this change may be due to an intersection with the Santa Barbara Trail. On descent, make certain you stay on the Serpent Lake trail.  The Santa Barbara leads back to the same trailhead but it is considerably more difficult to follow.  You are now in high terrain – signaled by an abundance of corkbark fir and Englemann spruce.

View into Serpent Lake basin

Shortly after the sign, at about 3.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail briefly levels as it contours below the top of Point 10899 (as denoted on the USGS quadrangle) and then descends to a saddle. At the saddle find two signs, one indicating that you’re about midway between the Santa Barbara campground and the Agua Piedra campground. The second, a few feet away, points to the branch trail leading to Serpent Lake.  On this date I poked a bit further along the main trail, hoping to get above the trees to photograph the ridge. That was neither successful nor necessary – the short side trip down to Serpent Lake opens spectacular views. Have a bite to eat and watch for marmots. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author at Serpent Lake

The deep snowpack makes it pretty easy to get misplaced in the woods. You will want a map, compass, and GPS. Wands could be helpful if you are heading into open snowfields below Jicarita summit.

A liter of water met my immediate needs on this cool spring day.

I was fortunate to be on Jicarita on a calm day. Others, however, have commented on how extraordinarily windy this hike can be (see below). If the weather forecast is for strong winds then it might be a good idea to pick another hike. FS-161 is a long trip through a badly stressed forest. Your return could be livened-up by deadfall. It may be a good idea to have an ax and saw in your vehicle. If you are going earlier in the year (or on a snowier year) then you may need chains for your car as well.

The sun reflects off of the snow’s surface with remarkable efficiency. Protect the bottom of your nose and ears. If you’re hiking in shorts then give consideration to the back of your knees as well.

This is high terrain. If members of your party are not well acclimated then you might want to review the altitude sickness symptoms described here.

Links:

Cindy Brown, at the Taos News, has a write-up of the trail as you might expect to find it later in the season. She mentions the possibility of seeing marmots and big-horn sheep.

The New Mexico Backpackers Meetup group has posted some nice photos here. These are from an October trip and are snow-free, but they suggest that spectacular views awake hikers who get to the summit.

A similar trip report, from an August trip, can be found at the Los Alamos Mountaineers site.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a June post, which has a good trail description and makes note of the extreme winds that can be encountered even below the ridgeline.

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