Archives for category: Sangre De Cristo Mountains

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.

Jicarita Peak from NM-76

Overview:

Jicarita Peak is a prominent, rounded mountain reaching to 12,835 feet. It forms part of the Santa Fe Mountains, a sub-range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which themselves are a subrange of the Rocky Mountains. In Spanish, “jícara” means a container made from clay or the gourd-like bark encasing the jicaro’s fruit. Sometimes Jicarita is translated as “little basket”, but perhaps “little bowl” is a better fit.  There are open slopes on the highest reaches that seem to promise good glissading. This post was originally meant to explore that option. The lower mountain is still deep in snow, however, which made route finding considerably more difficult than expected. Consequently, this post describes one of many different options for tunneling through the trees on the lower slopes and then finding your way back. Spring conditions pose some extra challenges. First, it is turkey hunting season so orange attire would be a good idea. Second, Forest Service Road 161 can be blocked by trees or snow. Have a bow saw, axe and chains handy.

Driving Directions:

Driving to Jicarita Peak

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) near Santa Fe take exit 276 for NM-599, the Santa Fe Bypass
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go right onto NM- 599
  • After 13.1 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-285/US-84 North, (towards Espanola)
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-285/US-84 North
  • After 19.1 miles, at a traffic light, go right onto La Puebla Rd
  • After 2.7 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-76 (not signed). If you plan on returning the same route then take careful note of this intersection – there isn’t much to see and it is easy to go blasting past on NM-76.
  • After 26.0 miles, at T-intersection, go right onto NM-75. NM-76 makes a long, steep climb into the town of Truchas where it makes an abrupt, 90-degree turn to the left. This turn is signed, but it is so uncharacteristic that it would be easy to miss.
  • After 7.0 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-518.
  • After 13.8 miles go right onto Forest Service Road 161 (FS-161, signed). The road turns to gravel immediately after the cattle-guard.
  • After 2.5 miles, at the end of the road, arrive at the trailhead.

It is springtime and FS-161 has patches of snow on it. If you drive a four-wheel-drive truck or Jeep then that snow won’t pose much of a problem, but some of the patches were a challenge for the low-slung Camry. In the morning the patches were frozen solid and chains were needed. In the afternoon the patches were soft enough to drive over.

Trailhead:

The mighty, if somewhat battered, Camry finally at the trailhead.

The trailhead is a wide gravel parking area with posts demarking parking spots for trucks dragging horse trailers. Leave as much space as possible for the trailers since it takes a lot of room to swing them into position. There are no fees, no vault toilets and no water services. There is a signboard to the left of the departing trail.

Data:

Starburst icons in the map indicate points where I turned back, (see the description, below).

  • Starting Elevation: 10,380 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 11,840 feet (arbitrary turn-around point)
  • Net Elevation: 1460 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: 2.8 miles (one way to the turn-around point, without the side trips)

Hike Description:

A sign that you’ve passed the Santa Barbara junction, go back!

From the parking lot head west along a broad two-track for about 400 feet to come to an intersection (signed). The Angostura Trail #493 goes to your right and the Serpent Lake Trail and the Santa Barbara trail go left. Go left on the Serpent Lake Trail/Santa Barbara Trail. These two trails diverge in just a short distance, but the junction is not signed and snow can mask the intersection. In fact, it is easy to go past this junction. The other trail, to Serpent Lake, follows a two-track that is much more obvious than the light tread of the Santa Barbara trail. The map shows that I followed the “obvious” two-track all the way to the intersection with Agnostura Cutoff #19A (signed, fortunately, see photo above) before returning to scout the Santa Barbara junction. If you think you’ve gone too far on the Serpent Lake trail then return to the sign for Santa Barbara/Serpent Lake/Angostura and re-ascend for 200 feet (a bit more than 100 single-steps). On your left you should see the steep end of a rib dropping to the trail, creating an amphitheater-like opening in the woods. Ascend into the amphitheater.

View straight downhill across the La Sierra ditch

Rising up through the amphitheater, come to a bench in the terrain and find an astonishing flow of water called the La Sierra Ditch (sometimes “Holman Ditch”). This is an acequia, a community water project with recognized legal rights that in this case date back to 1717. Natural streams flow mostly down hill. This aqueduct takes water from Rito Angostura and traverses laterally across the broad slopes of Jicarita Peak, delivering water to farms in the Holman Valley. The water flow is brisk at this time of year and it takes a leap to cross.

View, to your right as you ascend, into the drainage

Above the ditch you will find yourself on a steep-sided rib where the sun can penetrate. There may be patches of bare ground with stretches of trail sign. To your right is a fall-off into a small, unnamed drainage. You should be close to, but (oddly) not on, the rib-top. You might think of rib-tops as the preferred locale for trail builders, but much bush whacking failed to find any evidence that that the trail was up there. Instead, ascend the rib staying close to where the terrain falls off sharply into the drainage. The route heads south initially but soon bends towards the west (i.e. curving to your right on ascent). This sharp-sided drainage is a surprisingly reliable guide for the lower half of the trip. You can ascend with confidence to about 11,200 feet where the waterway becomes a mere gully. Even under snow the gully is still evident and can be followed for another few hundred feet. Here, however, the snow masks the waterway amidst the “pit and mound” microterrain that is characteristic of conifer forests. There certainly are a lot of conifer, Corkbark fir and Engelmann spruce testify to your location in the Hudsonian life zone. At this elevation the slope of the mountainside is so gentle that it is an open question as to which direction is “directly uphill”.

Typical view: shallow slope, much snow and many conifers

When the gully disappears you will will have few obvious markers for your path. A look at the map will show that you’re not far from the large bowl that contains Serpent Lake, which should be easily recognizable. To get there you will need to contour north of a knoll denoted as Point 10899 on the USGS map. Pull out a compass, check for a declination of 8.2-degrees East  and begin heading straight west, keeping a sharp eye for any landmarks you might use on descent. You may run into a large and steep sided hummock at 11,500 feet (there are many hummocks, but this one is prominent enough to work as a landmark on descent). For the sake of having a landmark, stay at the bottom of the hummock and allow it to guide you for about 100 yards south of west. When the terrain returns to pit-and-mound, take a bearing of 315 degrees (to the northwest) to correct your course.

Yet more exciting views of snow and conifer.

On this bearing from the high end of the hummock (at about 2.4 miles from the trailhead and 11,600 feet elevation) I came across the Santa Barbara trail. At this unplanned junction the trail is sufficiently wide and boldly-enough blazed to be recognized. You may not have the same luck! My GPS track indicates that I either crossed the Santa Barbara trail or ascended along it four or five times earlier and never picked up on that fact. Trails lose their obvious qualities when snow-shrouded. Still, it is still worth knowing that the slopes just northwest of Point 10899 have trail-beds so prominent that they can be scouted.

Trail sign found above the ascent-line’s junction with the Santa Barbara trail

If you find the trail then follow it as it rises southwest. (Otherwise, you could continue north of Point 10899 and enter the basin). Trail-finding here demands that you follow blazes. Blazes can be unambiguous, especially when the trail-makers put blazes on both sides of the tree. These are a great reassurance for the navigator. In many cases, however, blazes are found on just one side of the tree. These blazes are old and the thick ring of bark surrounding each blaze looks little different than ordinary bark damage. In some cases the blazes have been painted a much-faded red but in at least one case there was a blue-painted blaze. Most blazes, however, are a shade of anonymous “tree-injury brown”. Trail finding is faster than forest-navigation, but it is not fast. If you arrive at point 10899 and you’ve reached your turn-around time then take heed. On this date I tried following the blazed trail back to the car (as the map shows) but wound up losing the blazes. I had to turn back to the junction and return along the ascent route. Keep your eyes and options open, keep your map handy and have fun!

Recommendations:

Two-track as it leaves the trailhead for the woods

The potential for getting lost on this sojourn is unusually high. I brought a GPS, a cellphone with a GPS app, an altimeter watch, and a map and a compass. The watch, compass and map were kept ready-to-hand for about 90-percent of the hike. The main concern is how to find your way down through the trees once you’ve summited. There aren’t many distinctive landmarks in that forest. Also, don’t discount the possibility of white-out conditions above tree line. If that happens then the return back to the trailhead will be even more demanding. If you have any weather concerns then consider bringing wands to mark your route above tree line.

Don’t count on being able to follow your tracks down the hill. In direct sun the melt-out of your tracks can happen in a matter of hours. As they melt out they lose contrast. Moving from bright sunlight into dark shadow confuses the eye and makes tracking harder. When you do find stretches of footprints you will want to be able to distinguish your boot tread from the tread of other hikers and hunters.

As mentioned in the hike description, there were many stretches on the trail where the axe-blazes were difficult to follow. Delusions of adequacy can be painfully spotlighted in this exercise. The decision to turn around on descent and find my way back via the ascent route was both correct and unsettling.

This has been mentioned twice already, but in the spirit of having a good checklist let me repeat that it pays to have chains, shovel, axe and a bow-saw in your vehicle. I sawed through two small trees and was surprised at what it cost me (having forgotten that this exercise occurred at well above the 9000-foot level). The forest has been hammered by drought and beetles, snow and wind. It would not be out of line to bring a chainsaw, if you have one.

Sun exposure was not bad in the forest, but UV radiation is often intense above tree line. You will want high-SPF sunscreen and lip balm, a broad-rim hat and possibly a bandana if you climb into the high tundra.

I got through one liter of water on this hike and was happy to have brought along just two. More is better in the warmer seasons.

Links:

Sign at junction where the two-track meets the trail system.

Station KRQE has images of a late-May storm including one of abundant new snowfall on Jicarita Peak.

Summit Post has a page with driving directions and seasonal suggestions. The Climber’s Log link has comments about early season snowfall, late season snowfall, mid season thunderstorms and comments on the shallow slope angle on this high peak.

The Albuquerque Hiking & Outdoor Meetup organized a hike in September, 2012.  The photos show this hike as it appears at the end of monsoon season.

There is a detail trail description in a trip report from the Los Alamos Mountaineers. The photo of the open terrain surrounding Serpent Lake (in warm weather) might be useful for navigation.

SummitPost also has a useful description is of a spring-time ski down Jicarita. There are good photos showing conditions comparable to those encountered on this hike. The authors describe getting a little misplaced, needing to follow GPS instructions to get back to the car. GPS are wonderful and lifesaving devices. Use them. Part of the mission at Meanders, however, is to encourage all hikers to explore as if they batteries had already expired in these delicate electronic items. Situational awareness matters.

Bighorn at Wheeler Summit (photo credit: John Vitagliano)

Overview:

In summer this, the shortest trail to the highest point in New Mexico, is as graced with hikers as it is with superlatives. In springtime, the trail sees fewer footprints. This is understandable since the flanks of Wheeler Peak form open and obvious avalanche terrain. The glissading potential, however, is fantastic. You sit on the snow and glide down 1200 feet in a matter of a minutes – pure exhilaration. Striking a risk/reward balance is a matter of personal taste and responsibility. The air is thin and the demands are strenuous. You need to have an ice axe, to have practice using your ice axe, to have experience hiking off-trail and to have tracked the weather carefully. You cannot have bigger fun in the mountains.

Driving Directions:

  • Sangre de Cristo Mountains from NM 150

    From Interstate-25 (I-25) in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for NM Route 599 North.

  • After 13.2 miles take the left fork for a ramp to US Rt 84/US Rt 285 North
  • After 0.7 miles merge onto Rt 84/Rt 285 North.
  • After 21.9 miles, at a light in Espanola New Mexico where US 84/285 turns left, continue straight onto NM Rt 68 North.
  • After 49.9 miles, at a light about three miles north of Taos, go right onto Route 150. (This is a slight oversimplification. Route 68 turns into Route 64 in downtown Taos but the change is not well signed. At the northern edge of Taos, at 46.4 miles from the start of Route 68, there is a fork with a sign indicating “Taos Pueblo” to the right and Route 64 to the left. This is the first notice that I saw, northbound, indicating you’ve switched to Route 64. It is easier to think of Route 68/Route 64 as a single road.)
  • After 14.5 miles on Route 150 come to a large sign for the Taos Ski Valley. The left hand turn into the parking lot is currently forbidden (a sign indicates that it is one-way). Instead go straight for another 0.3 mile. The road bends past the ski area lodges, climbs a bit and begins to turn back into the parking lot.
  • At the high end of the parking area find a gravel road on your right with signs for Twinning Road. Turn right on Twinning road. This road is steep If it is icy then four-wheel drive will be essential. (It was dry on this date and no problem for a two-wheel drive Camry).
  • After 1.8 miles on Twinning Road (which becomes Kachina Road at some point) come to an signed intersection with Deer Lane. Turn right onto Deer and immediately left onto the trailhead signed “hiker parking”.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at Williams Lake Trail #62 trailhead.

There are port-a-potties and trash receptacles at the trailhead. There was no fee for parking. Bring water – there wasn’t any available at the trailhead. There was parking for about twenty cars but it was nearly full by early afternoon. You want to arrive early, anyway, to catch the best glissading conditions.

Data:

(Note on the track: on ascent I left the Williams Lake trail and headed uphill, bearing too far to the south. That put me onto sketchy terrain. I did not want to lead casual readers into that terrain, so it has been deleted out of the track shown above.)

  • Starting Elevation: 10,200
  • Ending Elevation: 13,161 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2960 feet
  • Distance: 3.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: National Geographic “Taos Wheeler Peak”. The ascent from the Williams Lake trail to the peak (as  described here) is not shown in the usual 7.5 minute maps. The 1995 USGS Wheeler Peak map does show the trail to Williams Lake, while the 7.5 minute map from 2013 does not show any  trails at all.

Hike Description:

Junction between steep driveway and trail to Williams Lake

From the trailhead, follow Deer Lane as it passes through woods, drops slightly to a pond-laced meadow, turns sharply left around a restaurant and then bends back to the right to get around ski area buildings and the bottom of a ski lift. On this date the road was clear of snow. However, past the lift you will find the foot of a steep private driveway where the trail departs to the right. Look for the sign shown in the photo above. Here the snow became continuous and visual contact with the trail ended.

This is a trail, with the eastern rim showing above the trees.

Fortunately, you are in the bottom of a long canyon and can hardly go wrong as you parallel the canyon wall. Initially the tread follows a ski trail. Williams Lake draws many hikers, so the lower tread is packed down and quite obvious. The main trail stays to the east of the main stream bed, so when in doubt keep to the left as you ascend. In the early morning the packed snow is hard, icy and pocked with yesterday’s footprints. You’ll be glad you have traction device on your boots.

Nearly buried Lake Williams Lake Trail sign

At about 0.7 miles from the trailhead the ski run departs to the west, traversing the canyon bottom. The Williams Lake Trail dives into the trees and continues uphill. As you enter the woods you may see the sign shown at the left. Of course, if you come earlier in the season or in a year with more snow the sign could be buried. The tread generally stays close to the east wall of the canyon, although ribs on the wall or debris from old avalanches will periodically force you into the canyon’s center for short stretches.

This is not a trail, although it may look like it.

Small meadows appear from time to time. Sometimes they happen at the foot of avalanche chutes coming down from your left, offering recognizable landmarks for your return trip. It is easy to mistake yesterday’s snowboard tracks for the trail. Look for circular blue blazes (about four inches across) painted on the trees, knowing that there are a few stretches where the blazes are widely separated (or possibly under snow). As you hike along the east side, monitor the opposing (west) rim as it peeks through the trees. As you get higher those views become more numerous. Skiers descending from that rim have left dramatic tracks across the wall. Climbing further, the box-end of the canyon begins to pull into sight. The terrain takes on a rolling quality as the tread rises to the highpoint of the Williams Lake Trail.

View from the high point on the Williams Lake trail to the box-end of the canyon

In the summer a signpost would let you know where to depart from the Williams Lake trail – a short distance before the highpoint. If snow has buried the signpost then you might go past the turn-off and arrive at that high point, about 1.7 miles from the trailhead. Here you get a panoramic view of the cirque that contains Williams Lake (photo to the left). Rather than descending to the lake, turn left and begin ascending the wall. Your next task is to gain 500 feet through the trees to gain the open slopes below Wheeler Peak. You could ascend directly uphill, but as you climb you will re-encounter the blue blazes and you can follow these instead. Scout carefully. At the end of a long southerly course the blue-blazes  turned directly uphill and then switch back to the north. If you were to continue south (as I did) you will enter onto steep headwalls. This is not recommended.

Skiers standing on broad shelf (view is from the gully leading up to the shelf). Doubleclick to enlarge.

Instead, find the switchback and track the blazes as they ascend to the north. Watch for a stretch where you cross a broad, forested, swale-like declivity.  Just past the swale the blazes switchback again,  regaining a southerly bearing. The blazes the follow a long steady course of ascent, one that will bring you above tree line with views to the crest. Looking uphill  you should be able to pick out the broad gully that feeds into that swale. On the far side of that gully is a broad shelf, roughly two to three hundred feet above you. Find a convenient course to traverse back north, re-enter the wide swale for a third time and ascend to the shelf. This is a terrific spot in which to grab a bite and study the terrain towering overhead. Directly above the shelf is Walker Peak, a bump on the ridgeline that missed being the highest point in New Mexico by a mere 26 feet. To the south (right looking uphill) is Wheeler Peak. Work out a route that will ascend the snow covered face to the saddle between the two summits.

View from just below the col, keep note of the broad shelf (middle distance) for your descent.

This is also a good time to evaluate your objectives. Are your microspikes getting enough traction for safe climbing? Is the snow really, really well consolidated? Is your ice axe off your pack and in your hand? Then let the climbing begin. On this date the climbers and skiers at the shelf were enjoying near-perfect conditions. The sun had warmed the surface into an inch of corn snow. Microspikes provided perfectly acceptable footing. Under those conditions you can head straight towards the saddle. I climbed this section with John Vitaglione (a recent law school graduate), to whom I’m indebted for several of the photos shown here. The photo above shows John approaching the col, with the broad shelf about 1000 feet below him and the trails of the Taos Valley Ski Resort in the distance.

John and bighorn summiteers taking in the views. Cimarron Mountains in distance.

At the col watch carefully for possible cornices. Turn south (right as you’re coming onto the ridge) and follow the top of the ridge for another quarter mile to the gain the summit. Views abound. The Sangre de Cristo range extends north into Colorado and south to the Santa Fe Mountains. Below you to the east lies the headwaters for the east fork of the Red River. Beyond the far ridgeline lies the Moreno Valley and the Cimarron Range. To the west, across the Rio Grand, lies the north end of the Jemez Mountains. Still got that ice axe in hand? Return to the col, sit in the snow, point your feet at the canyon floor and push off. Be safe. Have fun.

Recommendations:

Author, glissading to Taos (photo credit: John Vitagliano)

It is tricky to get the timing right for this route. I was a little late getting to Wheeler this year, meaning that the snow did not quite reach to the ridgeline and some of the best glissade lines were obstructed by rocks. Apparently the Taos Ski Valley had its last day of the season on the weekend of April 2nd, about two weeks before this hike.  Closure of the resort might be a rough indicator that the time for this hike is near.

Glissading can be done without an ice axe, but it is vastly safer and far easier on your limbs if you have an axe with you. It takes practice to get used to controlling your descent. To practice, find a relatively gentle slope that has a safe run-out at its bottom. The large shelf on the trail (mentioned above) offers such terrain. Are you wearing shorts? Glissading gets cold and wet, and friction from the snow will rasp away at exposed flesh. Bring along a sacrificial pair of rain pants, preferably old and battered. Turn back if the walls of the canyon are icy.

The most obvious risk on this hike is the potential for avalanche. The snowpack should not be a complex of poorly bonded layers; you want a snowpack that has acquired a uniform and high degree of tensile strength. Starting in early March, keep a close eye on backcountry reports. Pick a different hike if the snow has been saturated by rain. The reports from the Taos Avalanche Center are invaluable, although the Center closes for the season just as the best glissading arrives. For this hike the weather had been almost entirely sunny and clear for the preceding two weeks. Snow consolidation seemed close to perfect.

On a sunny day you’ll get clobbered by UV radiation. Direct UV radiation increases markedly with altitude (see this abstract for a summary). The indirect exposure – reflection from the snow – is also intense. Lawyers, guns and money are no protection. Bring sunscreen, shades and lip balm. (Apologies to John). Protect the backs of your ears and the bottom of your nose. If you ascend in shorts then slather the backs of your knees generously.

I went through less than a liter of water, which seems pretty typical of a hike this short at this time of year. Bring micro spikes and an ice axe. I found my collapsable hiking pole, gaiters, broad brim hat and bandana to be very useful.

Glissade tracks get longer and better as more people use them. Bring lots of adventurous friends.

Links:

Even folks who live at altitude may find the air above 13,000 feet quite thin. Recent arrivals from Miami are likely to suffer. If you have new arrivals in your party then you’ll want to know the signs of acute mountain sickness. A good summary is found here.

The http://www.mountain-forecast.com site is unusual in that it recognizes that weather can vary by altitude. I haven’t used the site long enough to have a clear idea of how accurate this distinction can be. Never-the-less, I tracked their Wheeler reports in the weeks before going on this scramble.

The Taos Avalanche Center is a great, if seasonal, source of detail data on snow conditions in the region of the Taos Valley Ski Area.

The best trip reports that I’ve found have been on the Northern New Mexico Avalanche Exchange. The interface is somewhat old fashioned, but clicking on that link will take you to NNMAE home page. There, click on the “Forum” link. This presents a table of forums (including an excellent Education link). For trip reports click the “Northern New Mexico 2016-2017 Conditions” link. That will show you a table of regions in northern New Mexico, click “Taos Ski Valley“. Unfortunately it is listed in oldest-post-first, so use the list of pages (near the upper-right) to go to the last page and the most current reports.

There aren’t many other reports about trail conditions for this springtime route. There were a few “made it” comments at AllTrails and four terse sentences on the climber’s log at SummitPost.

01 Deception (right) and ridge leading to Lake Peak (left)

Deception Peak (right) and narrow ridge to Lake Peak (left)

Overview:

This is a beautiful, lasso-style loop into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is more lonely than the tread to Santa Fe Baldy, although the trail gains almost the same altitude and offers a chance to explore three named peaks. It is not recommended if your party has  just flown in from Boston or San Diego, but for those who’ve acclimated this is a fantastic entrance to the Pecos WildernessPecos WildernessPecos Wilderness.

Driving Directions:

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

  • Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
  • After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
  • After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
  • After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
  • After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
  • After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.

All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.

Trailhead:

03 trailhead

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead has vault toilets and is paved. There is a piece of equipment that looks like a water outlet, but it was not working. The Rio Medio runs past the parking lot, but it is strongly advised that you treat that water before using. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and can get crowded. On this weekend REI was in the ski area parking lot offering Clif bars and introductory classes on map-and-compass work.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,409 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,160 feet
  • Distance: 10.8 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe). The portion of the hike from Raven’s Ridge to Lake Peak is not shown as a trail on the USGS map.

Hike Description:

03a fence at National Forest border

Fence at National Forest border, go right (along the fence)

From the trailhead, cross the Rio Medio (here, a small stream) on a plank bridge and intersect Trail 254, the Winsor Trail. Turn right and follow the Winsor Trail along the stream for about 100 yards where it  switchbacks and pulls away from the river. The trail is very popular and beautifully maintained. It gains about 600 feet in the first 0.8 miles, where it comes to an attractive wooden fence atop Raven Ridge.  Trail 254 worms through a needles eye in the fence and drops the Rio Nambe basin. Instead, turn right and begin following trail 251, the Raven’s Ridge Route, eastward as the tread surges into the sky.

04 view into Nambe Canyon

First View of Upper Reaches of Nambe Canyon

Enter a fir, spruce and aspen wood where the fence becomes a very business-like barbed wire assembly. it can’t be easy to haul fencing material up this way, yet the fence is being carefully maintained. Hikers should maintain awareness of the barbs, since the trail can brush quite close to the wires. The tread rises pretty steadily, with agreeable terrain benches occasionally breaking the monotony. Patches of aspen alternate with patches of spruce and fir, although by the time you arrive at 11,000 feet the aspens have almost completely disappeared. At just over 11,300 feet (about 1.5 miles from the trailhead) the trail hits a canyon rim above Nambe Lake, the headwaters of the Rio Nambe. Stroll a bit off-trail, to the rim, and look up to your right for initial views to the toothy precipice that is Lake Peak.

Deception and Lake Peaks

Santa Fe Baldy on left, Deception summit in foreground, Truchas Peak in background and Lake Peak on right.

Turn left and follow the trail as it ascends, just a little west of south and braids out in open conifer forest. Stick close to the rib that overlooks Nambe Lake. On this date the reason for that carefully maintained fenced became evident, as it was necessary to pick a path between somewhat skittish cattle (at 11,500 feet, by far that highest herd I’ve ever encountered). Cattletude! The trail bumps along here, sometimes losing but more often gaining against the pull of gravity. At about 2.1 miles the trail hits a major bump and views begin to open to the grassy summit block of Deception Peak. The trail drops a surprising way to a saddle, then pushes boldly into the open terrain and on to gain the summit at 12,240 feet and 2.8 miles from the trailhead. Even in late July the winds can be very chilly! The views are great, but there is this deceptive, just-barely-higher, chunk-o-granite that blocks the full 360-degree panorama. So, grab a bite to eat, take a swig of water, and drop down a little as you head southeast towards Lake Peak.

Notch below Deception Peak

View to notch (upper left) and lower trail (lower right). Double-click to enlarge.

The drop into the first notch is quick and neither exposed nor challenging. However, at this first notch you must make a decision. You can take a high route that involves scrambling up from the notch and over boulders on a narrow ridge. This route is reported to involve exposed, class 3 climbing moves. Alternatively,  you can descend to the south on open, steep and crumbly terrain to gain a foot trail that is visible about 15 feet below the notch. The guys in front of me seemed to be unaware of the difficulty of the upper passage and had to turn around. I took the lower route on this day and enjoyed the mildly exposed and steep terrain in sub-alpine woodlands very much.

IMAG0132

Narrow ridge looking back to Deception

Keep an eye on that ridge above you, it doesn’t take long to traverse below the worst of it. At about 3.1 miles from the trailhead (or about a quarter mile from the summit of Deception) scramble up a set of rocky gullies to regain the ridge and an easy amble to the top of Lake Peak. To the south is the broad canyon that forms the headwaters of the Santa Fe River. To the west (if you backtrack a few yards) are views to the rocky ridge that leads back to Deception. To the north is Santa Fe Baldy. Just a little east of Santa Fe Baldy are views to East Pecos Baldy, West Pecos Baldy, Chimayosos Peak and Truchas (“trout”) Peak. Immediately to the west is the grassy table-top of Penitente Peak. Beyond Penitente lies the heart of the Pecos Wilderness.

..

09 Penitente Peak from point near col

Penitente Peak from col

Is the sky threatening? Then hurry back the way you came. If the skies are clear then plot a course east, following a steep path in the direction of Penitente Peak. This part of the tread descends briskly in subalpine forest to a col immediately below the summit block of Penitente and 3.6 miles from the trailhead. Strangely, the trail does not go to the summit, but rather contours around to the south. (This may be welcome if the weather is degrading). Leave the trail at the col and strike out directly for the summit on open and grassy terrain. You will gain 200 feet and arrive at 12,249 feet where there is a well-constructed  summit wind-break (but no summit register that I could find). Celebrate the last summit of the day! Then note that there are no obvious trails on the summit, despite all the work that went into that wind break. Strike off north east, descending the long axis of this near-plateau. Where the table-top begins to fall off steeply you will regain Trail 251, the SkyLine trail.

10 view down the tabletop on Penitente

View northeast (towards distant Truchas) from Penitente summit.

This trail takes you into the hanging valley between Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak. The descent is on switchbacks so broad that sometimes they seem to be taking you away from the valley. Don’t panic. It is all part of the game plan. At 6 miles from the trailhead reach a saddle where terrain descending from Penitente Peak collides with terrain descending from Santa Fe Baldy. This gap, called Puerto Nambe, separates the Rio Nambe drainage flowing west into the Rio Grande and the Windsor Creek/Holy Ghost Creek drainages that flow east into the Pecos River. At Puerto Nambe the Sky Line Trail intersects with Trail 254, the Winsor Trail.

12 Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Turn west (left) onto the Winsor Trail and follow it into the open terrain of Nambe Meadows at 6.4 miles. The trail is broad, sometimes stony, but carefully engineered and signed. In the meadows the Sky Line Trail will depart to the northeast (for Lake Katherine), but stay on the Winsor Trail if you wish to return to the trailhead. The trail descends a few hundred feet from Nambe Meadows, crosses several small drainages that feed into Rio Nambe, and then begins a miles-long ramble below the faces of Penitente, Lake and Deception peaks. At 10 miles from the trailhead return to the fence atop Raven’s Ridge. You’ve completed the loop portion of this hike. Go through the fence opening and take off downhill. Return to the trailhead having hiked about 10.8 miles.

Recommendations:

14 Author on flank of Lake Peak, Santa Fe baldy in background

Author on flanks of Lake Peak

I had four liters of water and still had a liter left at the end of the hike. Unless you’re hiking on a very hot day that should be enough.

During monsoon season get an early start. That way you going in the cool of the morning and it will help get you off very exposed ridge lines before the afternoon storms appear. I haven’t done much hiking in this area myself, but all the guidance I’ve seen suggests that it’s best to be below treeline before 1:oo p.m., although that is just the most general kind of guidance.

Due to the presence of cattle and the sketchy nature of the trail in some places you may want to leave your pets at home. If you do take Rover along, then I’d strongly recommend against trying the upper route from the notch below Deception Peak.

This is a route that begs for zoom lenses. (Which I did not have, alas). If you’ve got an old point-and-shoot at home you should dig it out rather than rely on cellphone cameras.

Like all loops you can hike it either counterclockwise (as described here) or clockwise. The counterclockwise route gets the heavy climbing in early, when hikers are still fresh. This is going to be the more enjoyable direction for most parties.

Links:

The OutBound blog has some nice photos, check out the images of the narrow ridge between Deception and Lake Peak.

This post on the Hiking Project has a description of this hike, a map, and evidently managed to get a dog across the narrow ridge!

Summit Post has detailed trailhead directions and some spectacular images of Lake and Deception in winter time.

There is a cool discussion of the area’s geology at Geological Joy New Mexico. It uses Google Earth to position a view into the cirque that holds Nambe Lake, giving you a fine chance to pick out the arrangement of Deception, Lake and Penitente peaks.

The Santa Fe New Mexican (local newspaper) has an article on hiking in the area. It is notable for covering nearly all the basic concerns about hiking around Santa Fe.

Bringing unacclimated guests? Altitude sickness symptoms are succinctly described here for people and here for dogs.

 

 

 

 

01 Summit view into Pecos

View from Wheeler Summit

Overview:

At 13,161 feet Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in New Mexico. The trail gains almost 3000 feet in four miles, provides views to forever, offers considerable wildlife and has options to link up with other hikes. This all makes for a terrific day in the high country. Make it happen!

02 Hiker Parking

Sign at trailhead

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for NM Route 599 North.
  • After 13.2 miles take the left fork for a ramp to US Rt 84/US Rt 285 North
  • After 0.7 miles merge onto Rt 84/Rt 285 North.
  • After 21.9 miles, at a light in Espanola New Mexico, continue straight (where US 84/285 turns left) onto NM Rt 68 North.
  • After 49.9 miles, at a light about two miles north of Taos, go right onto Route 150. (Note that this is a slight oversimplification. Route 68 turns into Route 64 in downtown Taos but the change is not well signed and it is probably easier just to think of Route 68/Route 64 as a single road. Note, too, that there is an ambiguous fork in the road just as you leave the downtown region of Taos, stay to the left at the fork).
  • After 14.5 miles on Route 150 come to a large sign for the Taos Ski Resort. Turn left onto a long and wide parking area and ascend.
  • At the top of the parking area (about a half mile), just as you near the resort buildings, find a gravel road signed Twinning Road on your left. Ascend on Twinning road.
  • After 1.8 miles on Twinning Road (which becomes Kachina Road at some point) come to an intersection with Deer Lane, signed for “Hiker Parking”. Park your car here. Twinning’s gravel roadbed is quite steep in places. If there is any ice then you will need a four wheeler and perhaps chains.
O3 Mighty Camry in "Hiker Parking"

The mighty Camry

Trailhead:

The parking area is large  and provides port-a-potties. I did not see any signs of drinkable water, although the Lake Fork of the Rio Hondo runs along the roadbed that serves as the start of the trail. Filter that water before drinking.

 

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,200
  • Ending Elevation: 13,161 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2960 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Maps: National Geographic “Taos Wheeler Peak” (available in Santa Fe at the BLM office 301 Dinosaur Trail, just off of Cerrillos Road near I-25). The trail described here was put in by the National Forest Service in 2011, so it is missing from the usual  7.5 minute maps. The 1995 map does show the older Bull of the Woods trail, while the 7.5 minute map from 2013 does not show any  trails at all.

Hike Description:

04 Deer Lane

Start down Deer Lane

From the parking area, head along the gravel bed of Deer Lane as it winds its way among the facilities of Taos Ski Valley. It can be confusing, but watch for signs directing you along the Williams Lake Trail and follow these.  In about half a mile you will pass the last of the buildings and continue ascending on a wide, rubble-strewn bed (the Bluejay Ridge ski trail) as it ascends along Lake Fork stream. The ridge formed by Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, Walker Mountain and Wheeler Peak is to your left.

05 view west over boulder field

View across boulder field to western ridge

As you pass a sign for the National Forest the forest closes in and the tread immediately improves. There is considerable sign of stress in these trees, presumably the effects of prolonged drought and perhaps bark beetles. All those dying firs must make the Taos Ski Valley operators a bit nervous. The trail trends a bit east of south as it rises along the valley bottom, winding through forest stands that seem to get healthier with altitude. At 1.5 miles from the trailhead the tread takes dead aim at an enormous pile of boulders, falters and then ducks to the right to go around. The boulders may have been deposited by a huge landslide, or perhaps are the slow-eroding remains of some tough intrusion into the country rock. A second prominent pile of rock arises at about 1.7 miles from the trailhead, this time the trail bends to the left. A third pile appears a few hundred yards later. Above the third pile the forest to the right of the trail pulls away leaving an exposed field of scattered boulders. Excellent views open up to the western ridgeline, the highest point being Lake Fork Peak.

06 Wheeler signThe forest closes back in at a small height of land, marking the end of the open boulder field. On this knob, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, find a sign for Wheeler Peak. This is your cue to turn left and lateral out of the valley bottom. Rising gently at first, the trail encounters a steeper segment of the ridge wall and begins a long, long, long series of switchbacks. In the low, forested segment this is a pleasantly shaded challenge.

07 Big Horn terrain

Switchback in bighorn terrain

Soon, however, wide spaces grow between the trees and subalpine meadows appear. Avalanche chutes open views towards the summit. Try and tear your eyes away from the trail as this is the domain of bighorn sheep. They seem to like the bottom of the wide swales that hollow the ridge side. Presumably, this is where the grasses are at their densest.  If you haven’t yet put on sunscreen then this would be a good time to slather some on. You are about to hit the timber line, after which shade becomes a rare commodity.

08 Cairn marking ridgeline departure

Cairn where trail strikes ridge

Popping above the tree line, begin an enormously long, beautifully engineered switchback takes you up and up and up to the north east. At its end arrive at small flat 3.2 miles from the trailhead. Raise you eyes higher and higher to contemplate the massive wall of grass covered rock and boulder that lies between you and Wheeler summit. Take note, too, that there will be a complete absence of any privacy from here on.

09 Summiteers

Summiteers on Wheeler

Time then, to lower you eyes to the trail and begin the long talus-tango that takes you to the top. It is well worth your while to stop every now and then to look out on the confines of valley hanging below you, to check out the crowds at Williams Lake in the cirque at the end of the valley, and to study the fall lines at the ski area. The switchbacks come quickly as the trail strives for a purchase on the slope. Breath deeply because that air is not getting any denser. Finally, at four miles from the trailhead, reach the ridgeline and an intersection with the Bull of the Woods trail. Note the cairn so you’ll know where to turn off on descent, then turn south (to your right). The trail bumps along the ridge to Wheeler summit, 4.2 miles from the trailhead and 13,161 feet above sea level. There are lakes, ridges, canyons, mountains and views to the Rio Grande Valley. Keep an eye out for storms, snap some photos and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

10 Author

Author on Wheeler Peak

This is a great hike. Check with your hiking companions to see if a midweek ascent to Wheeler is possible. The weekend summit gets crowded.

I spoke to several return summiteers who mentioned that, once the snow is well consolidated, a springtime glissade down the grassy slopes can be unbelievable. I believe.

This hike is high enough and long enough that its not a good candidate for bringing new hikers into the mountains. At least, I doubt that they’d have a very good time on it. A better option would be to bring youngsters to Williams Lake, a far easier and very attractive destination.

During the monsoon season, pick a day with a good forecast, start your hike at 7:00 am and get off the ridgeline early. Looking back from NM Rt 68, at around 2:00 pm, it sure looked like these mountains were wrapped in storm.

People have enormously variable responses to altitude. For a brief review of acute mountain sickness symptoms check out this link. There’s no need to put up with nausea or headache on a mere day hike. Turn your party around if someone becomes sick.

Links:

On Walkabout has an intriguing description of a loop trip up Wheeler. For a party in good shape this seems like a fantastic idea.

An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, from April of 2015, suggests that the trail up to Bull of the Woods may be under repairs. You might want to check the trail’s status before trying the above loop.

You can get an idea of the current conditions by looking at the Taos Ski Valley’s High Line Ridge webcam or the Kachina Peak webcam.

The Forest Service description, along with current fire conditions, is available.

 

 

01 Santa Fe Baldy from Winsor Trail

Santa Fe Baldy summit from Winsor Trail

Overview:

This is a much-loved hike in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just outside the city of Santa Fe. The trail is obvious and very well maintained. At 14-miles (round trip) it is a workout, especially since it starts off at 10,250 feet and winds its way up over 12,640 ft. This is a wonderful training hike, but crowded. Both thunderstorms and altitude sickness can set in quickly, be watchful.

Driving Directions:

07 High altitude flower show

High Altitude Flower Show

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

  • Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
  • After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
  • After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
  • After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
  • After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
  • After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.

All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry, with friendsThe trailhead has vault toilets, appeared to have a water faucet (I did not test it) and is paved. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and the parking lot can be packed on nice weekends.

 

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,640 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,390 feet
  • Distance: 6.7 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe).

Hike Description:

03 Plank Bridge over Rio Medio

The stream that runs along the edge of the parking lot is the Rio Medio. Cross it on a plank bridge and turn right to ascend on the broad and remarkably smooth Winsor Trail, trail #254. In about 100 yards it will pull away from the waterway and begin switchbacking its way up to Ravens Ridge and the start of the National Forest. At the ridge, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead, you will have gained about 600 feet. There is a “needles eye” opening in the fence that marks the edge of the national forest. Push through it and begin to lose some of the altitude you just acquired.

 

04 Well signed trail junctinos

Signage on trail

There are four side trails. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead you will pass trail #403, the Lower Rio Nambe Trail, departing on your left.  (Nambé is said to be a Spanish rendition of a Tewa word meaning ’rounded earth’, evidently a reference to pueblo architecture). According to the Sierra Club’s Day Hikes In The Santa Fe Area this trail is known informally as “the elevator shaft”.  Trail #400, signed for Nambe Lake, departs to your right at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead. The Upper Nambe Trail, #101, departs to your left at 2.5 miles.  The Rio Nambe Trail (which descends along side the Rio Nambe) departs to your left at 3.3 miles. Soon thereafter the trails crosses the upper reaches of Rio Nambe (which had running water on this date) and begins to switchback, arriving at Nambe Meadows having gone 4.1 miles from the trailhead. All intersections are well signed.

05 Entry to Nambe Meadows

Nambe Meadows

The three-plus miles of trail between Raven Ridge and Nambe Meadows mostly follows the 10,400 foot contour and winds through patches of fir (possibly alpine fir) and strikingly homogenous aspen groves. As mentioned in the introduction, this is a much-visited trail and you will likely find trail runners, horse folk, backpackers and fishermen sharing the trail with you.  This part of the trail has more roots and rocks than the first mile, but it is still very well maintained.

06 View from col, Pecos Baldies to distant left

Saddle on Sky Line Trail

In Nambe Meadows, depart trail 254 to your left on the Sky Line Trail, #251 (signed). This is another broad and well maintained tread that takes you through spacious subalpine terrain towards Lake Katherine. After several long switchbacks arrive at a saddle at 5.7 miles from the trailhead. There are terrific views into the Pecos Wilderness from here. To the north (left as you arrive at the saddle) there are distant views of Pecos Baldy East and Pecos Baldy West. From this point the Sky Line Trail drops down to Lake Katherine.

08 Ridge at top of Santa Fe Baldy

Nearing the top ridge with view to Santa Fe Baldy summit

Don’t go to Lake Katherine. Instead, at the top of the saddle depart trail #251 to the left at an unsigned intersection on a much rougher trail that heads directly towards the open summit. This trail is a bit more apt to disappear into the trees or become braided out in the open terrain, but there is really no navigation problem. It simply follows a ridge from the saddle to the summit. The air begins to get a little thin – light-headedness was a common complaint as you get to the shoulder of the broad summit. Spectacular views open up to the tall Truchas Mountains (Spanish for “trout”).

09 Santa Fe Baldy Summit

Summit from ridge traverse

Reach the shoulder, panting, and follow a much gentler tread as it traverses the broad ridge to the summit of Santa Fe Baldy 6.8 miles from the trailhead and 12,640 feet above sea level. On this date there were small remnants of snow banks still clinging to protected areas below the summit. There are views south to nearby Lake and Penitente Peaks, east into the Pecos, southwest to the Sandias and northwest to the Jemez Mountains; they are spectacular. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

12 Rain threat, about 2:00 pm

Storm threat on descent

This is a wonderful training hike and a great place to introduce strong new hikers to the high terrain in northern New Mexico.

Almost every discussion of this hike makes mention of lightning strikes on the summit ridge. This was certainly borne out on this day – the entire ridge was shrouded with cumulus by the time I got back to Santa Fe in late afternoon. Turn around if the weather gets iffy. It pays to start the hike early and to depart from the summit early.

I had three liters of water and it was not enough. I would have been much happier with four.

Links:

10 Lake Katherine from Summit

View to Lake Katherine from Santa Fe Baldy

There is an excellent overview of this trail on SummitPost, including mention of the desirability of getting off the ridge lines by early afternoon during thunder season.

A brief account of a wintertime hike, with some terrific photos, can be found at The Blonde Coyote.

Many people include Lake Katherine in their Santa Fe Baldy excursion. For an account of a warm-weather camping trip (including a scramble up the north ridge of Baldy) and some more great photos, click through to My Life Outdoors.