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.

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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.

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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