Forest Service Team clearing the heavily-encumbered Johnson Lake Trail

Overview:

This is a spectacularly limnic excursion that reaches two high and beautiful lakes then descends along a roaring  mountain stream. The suggested loop ascends above Winsor Creek on the Winsor Ridge Trail #271, traverses below Santa Fe Baldy on the Skyline Trail #251 (with side trips to the lakes) and then descends along Cave Creek and Panchuela Creek on Cave Creek Trail #288. It is a long hike and a great workout. On this date there were interlocking stacks of nested deadfall blocking long stretches of the Johnson Lake trail. Fortunately the Forest Service has a hard-charging team at work (pictured above) clearing the tread. They’ve already cut through hundreds of logs; the balance-beam requirement for the Johnson Lake ascent may soon be history.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) heading north, take exit 299 for Glorieta/Pecos.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left over the overpass bridge.
  • After 0.1 miles, at a stop sign, go right onto NM-50
  • After 5.9 miles, at a stop sign, go left onto NM-63
  • After 19.1 miles go left onto Windsor Road
  • After 0.2 miles go right onto Panchuela Road
  • After 1.4 miles, at the roads end, arrive at the trailhead.

All these roads are paved. Panchuela Road is a narrow, single-lane road with numerous turnouts. There are also five or six closely spaced traffic bumps outside a horse ranch on this road – go slowly. Driving directions from Google currently state that you should turn left onto NM-50. That would take you west, to the gates of the Glorieta conference center. Instead, you want to turn right onto NM-50 to go east.

Trailhead:

The mighty, yet shy, Camry at the Panchuela Creek trailhead

This is a full-service trailhead with water, vault toilets and bear-proof trash receptacles. I was hiking on a Thursday and had no problem getting a parking spot. However, this trailhead has all the signs of being tremendously popular on weekends. You may want to arrive early.

On the 2002 USGS Cowles quadrangle the Panchuela Road is shown coming into the trailhead from the south. That is no longer the case. Instead, the road now goes past the trailhead, makes a 180-degree turn, and enters the trailhead parking lot from the north. This road revision can cause confusion at the start of your hike!

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 8280 feet
  • highest elevation: 11,120 feet
  • net elevation: 2840 feet
  • distance: 17.1 miles round trip
  • maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle

Hike Description:

Signs on Panchuela Road, just above the trailhead

From the trailhead go back along the road as it makes a climbing turn. At the end of the turn, in about 50 feet, come to a trail entrance. The entrance is signed, but rather strangely says nothing about connecting to any particular trail. Leave the road and almost immediately come to an intersection with the Winsor Ridge Trail, which is signed. Turn left and follow the path as it parallels Panchuela Road, in places the trail is almost on top of the road. This is a strange tread, one that is obvious in most places but which occasionally braids out into alternative trails. The alternatives seem attractive because they offer the chance to rise above and away from the road, but many “alternatives” are really dead ends. Stay low – today’s jaunt will be long enough for most appetites.

Trail junction where the Winsor Ridge Trail turns uphill to ascend Winsor Creek.

In 0.8 miles, across the road from a house, the trail bends to the south and the song of the wild Pecos River rings in the ear. You soon encounter log structures where the trail rises grudgingly above them. Picking out the correct tread can be difficult. At 1.0 miles from the trailhead you’ll encounter an old but obvious two-track. Don’t follow the two-track as it swing uphill, instead cross the two-track and pick up the faint tread on the far side where it drops back down to hug the Panchuela Road.  At 1.2 miles the trail actually rises and at 1.4 miles reaches a signed junction. From this point forward the tread remains obvious.

View from Winsor Ridge to snow capped Santa Fe Baldy

And gorgeous.  After a languorous switchback the trail takes on a gentle, generally west-northwest ascent. There is a pattern of easing northerly to enter sub-canyons, contouring across the the bed and then easing southerly to rejoin the Winsor Creek wall. It is a ponderosa paradise, dappled with aspen groves and quilted with green meadows. Views open to distant, still snow-capped peaks. At 4.9 from the trailhead (about 9850 feet) arrive at an unsigned trail junction offering two obvious treads. One fork rises to the right to ascend along a waterway. The second fork sticks to the contour line and curves off to your left. Go left.

Lake Stewart and surrounding ridge lines.

After 6.7 miles arrive at a signed junction with the Skyline Trail #251. Ultimately you will want to head north on this trail, but take a few minutes to follow the tread south and you will come to Stewart Lake, nestled below the ridges of Santa Fe Baldy. If you find yourself pressed for time this would make a fine turnaround point. It isn’t likely that you will have this tarn to yourself. The numerous hardened paths surrounding the lake suggest that Stewart Lake is very much loved by the public. Have a bite to eat and check with your party. If everyone’s OK at 10,200 feet and the weather is holding then shoulder those packs and return north to the trail junction.

Skyline Trail: home to meadows and mountains

Stay on the Skyline Trail #251 as it bumps along to the north. Broad meadows and dense forest greet you as the trail rolls underfoot. There are two stream crossings of note, both headwaters to the Rio Oscuro. On this date it was easy to find a log for dry-footed crossing, but during peak snow-melt these streams could be real barriers to progress. At 8.1 miles from the trailhead (about 10,300 feet) and just past the second Rio Oscuro tributary, come to the signed junction with the Johnson Lake Trail #267.

A moderate set of blockages along the Johnson Lake Trail.

On the 2002 Cowles quadrangle (that is, an older topo map) the Lake Johnson Trail is shown as following the Rio Oscuro uphill for a short distance, and then making a direct attack uphill to reach Johnson Lake. That is no longer the case. In keeping with this loop’s tradition of leisurely ascents there are numerous switchbacks to ease the strain on the hiker’s quads. On this date the strain was not just maintained, but positively amplified, by thickets of deadfall strewn in a bewildering variety of directions. As mentioned in the introduction, a Forest Service team was busy opening a corridor through this log hodgepodge. Thanks to their efforts you will likely be spared the need for steeplechase training. Just for fun keep a count of the logs hewn and sawed – a big task.

High, cold and clear, the waters of Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake is larger than Stewart, at 11,120 feet it is also higher and (judging from the snowbanks lingering along the southern shoreline) a bit colder as well. Small trout were surfacing constantly. A sign near the lake says that camping in the lake basin is not allowed and this has had a great effect; the shores are much less trampled than the shores of Lake Stewart. This may be the best place in the Pecos Wilderness to soak in the sun while the your feet soak in the waters (briefly, it is cold). Pull an apple out of your backpack, filter some chilled water for the trip back, and enjoy a brief nap. It is that kind of place. Don’t over-stay, there’s still miles to go!

Signage at junction of the Skyline Trail and the Johnson Lake Trail

Descend the Johnson Lake Trail back to the junction with the Skyline Trail, having hiked 11.5 miles from the trailhead. At the junction turn north (left on descent). This leg of the Skyline Trail is distinguished from the first leg by the frequent deadfall across the tread. It is quite passable – rarely do you have to deal with more than one downed tree at a time. That said, your trail rhythm gets hammered by crawls under pines, climbs over aspen, and end-runs about fir. Hopefully, that Forest Service team will deal with this on their way out. The trail is initially flat and in some places quite disconcertingly straight – you can see the grassy tread extending for a couple hundred feet. But slowly and at first almost imperceptibly the trail takes on the descent into the Cave Creek drainage.

Junction of the Skyline Trail with the Cave Creek Trail

At 13.1 miles from the trailhead (including the side trips to both Stewart and Johnson Lakes) cross Cave Creek and come to the signed junction with Cave Creek Trail #288. Turn downstream and begin descending in earnest. It was clear that the Forest Service team had already been up this trail – there were scores of freshly cut logs alongside the path. Just one monster log, more than a yard in diameter, remains to block your path. Otherwise it’s a clear go. The near-monoculture of Ponderosa Pines that characterized the Winsor Creek ascent is replaced in Cave Creek by Douglas and white firs. Cave Creek rips down this pitch.

View up the Panchuelo Creek near its confluence with Cave Creek

The track shown on the map (above) looks like it crosses Cave Creek, but that is a canyon-bottom distortion of GPS signal. The trail stays constantly on the north bank of the creek. At 15.4 miles you reach the confluence with Panchuela Creek. The trail crosses the Panchuela on logs (assuming that storm water has not swept those logs away). The terrain eases here and the broader flow of water shows more pools and fewer waterfalls. The Spanish term “pancha” means something like “tranquil”, so perhaps Panchuela Creek can be thought of as, “little tranquil creek”. A side effect of the gentle slope is that the trail occasionally climbs to avoid creek collisions or to move away from (and protect) rare creekside meadows. Your leg muscles may whine, but there is no help for that!  At 16.1 miles pass the signed junction with the Dockweiler Trail #259. Continue on the Cave Creek Trail for one last mellow mile to return to the trailhead, having hiked 17.1 miles.

Recommendations:

Author, at the outflow from Johnson Lake

It took about an hour to thread my way over-under-and-around vast log heaps (well past my turn-back time) on the Johnson Lake Trail. So I was thrilled to meet up with the Forest Service crew. Carving an open trail through such mazes is hard and dangerous work. Moreover, this is a wilderness areas where power tools are not allowed – you have to imagine that operating a crosscut saw at 11,000 feet is exhausting. The Forest Service has it’s critics, but if you hunt, hike, backpack, bike, run, fish or horse ride and you encounter one of these crews then it always helps to say “thanks” to the folks who are keeping your trail open. Please do!

On a moderately warm day at the start of June a three liter supply of water was just enough. You could lighten your pack considerably by bringing a single liter and a filter or steripen. The 6.7 miles to Stewart Lake is dry, but in reasonably wet years you should have routine access to water beyond that.

On the Windsor Ridge Trail (which has no obstructions) you might encounter horses. Many horses regard hikers as presumptive horse-eating monsters. You can best allay such reasonable fears by stepping off the trail, on the downhill side, and staying still as the riders go by.

The rumble of thunder hastened my steps for the last two miles of this hike. Down deep in the canyons there is relatively little risk of lightning strike, but you would be doing your party a favor if you can pick a storm free day for this sojourn.

Links:

The stacks of downed trees – many still showing green needles – may have been felled by microbursts this past May according to this news report.

There are, in fact, caves on Cave Creek! They can be accessed from Cave Creek Trail #288 and you can read about that hike here (which, curiously, appears to be the website for “The Inn On The Alameda”, a hotel in Santa Fe). They make mention of a map, which can be found on the “Travel Bug” website, here.

Hikers looking for fewer deadfall hurdles and shorter milage can get up to Stewart lake and back with relative ease. “Backpacker” has a useful map of a hike from the Cowles trailhead (which removes the least-attractive segment of trail alongside Panchueta Road) up Winsor Creek to Stewart Lake. They measure this hike as being 12.07 miles round trip and 2576 feet of gain. It looks great.

Matthew Peterson has a brief report from April of 2015, notable for suggesting that early season hikes up to Lake Stewart can be complicated by deep snows.

Peakbagger provides a good trail report on a scramble from Johnson Lake up to Redondo Peak. The report includes some details of the hike up Cave Creek Trail, across on the Skyline trail and up the Johnson Lake trail, as well as some pointers on the scramble into the high terrain.

 

 

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