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.

 

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