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).

 

 

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