Archives for posts with tag: Northern New Mexico
01 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch (in shadow) from clifftop turnaround point

Overview:

This is an easy amble along the top of a steep-sided scarp, terminating on a dramatic cliff overlooking the enormous Ventana Arch. Along the way you get a birds-eye view of the dark lava and struggling vegetation in the El Malpais National Conservation Area. The trail stays at a relatively low altitude and is unusually easy to access. This is a great way to introduce newcomers to the hiking in New Mexico. Alternatively, the trail provides a mellow means for getting out of doors and warming up those hiking muscles as the winter winds down. On this date it also served to test minumum expectations for a new pair of hiking shoes (which passed).

Driving Directions:

  • From Albuquerque get onto Interstate-40 (I-40) going west and take exit 89 near Grants, NM (about 70 miles).
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn south (left if you were on the west-bound lanes of I-40) onto NM-117.
  • After 21.8 miles turn left into The Narrows Picnic Area.
  • After about 50 feet, at the end of the first curve in the road, park at the trailhead.

Trailhead:

02 Rim view of trailhead

NM-117 and trailhead seen from ledge

The picnic area has vault toilets, picnic benches and trash recepticals. There is a small wooden sign near the trailhead announcing The Narrows Rim Trail. There are no fees. On a 4th of July weekend there was only one other vehicle in the picnic area when I arrived and it did not seem crowded on return. Parking should not be an issue. There are no usage fees.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7500 feet
  • Net Elevation: 400 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS North Pasture quadrangle. This hike is shown at the very top edge of this map and a small segment is cut off. If you want to see the complete trail or would like to identify northern landmarks the you should also take along the Arrosa Ranch quadrangle.

Hike Description:

03 Lava hummocks in malpais

Lava hummocks in malpais and distant cinder cones

From the trailhead follow the trail as it clambers up a low rocky ledge and then turns north. The hardest part of your hike is now over. The trail gently ascends along the rim, yet quickly achieves a view west into the malpais (Spanish for “bad country”). This lava-covered terrain exhibits broad regions of black rock that are being slowly colonized by juniper and pines. These lava flows came from multiple eruptions, the most recent occurring only 1500 years ago. Several trails run across this tortured terrain and you have to imagine that the footing across the malpais is rough indeed.

04 cobbled trail with cairn

Cobbled trailbed with cairn

The top of this escarpment is covered with fine, light brown-sand. The lack of any coarse material suggests that it was wind deposited. There are many sandy stretches on the tread itself and you might want to put on gaiters to keep sand from filling your boots. In other places the tread has an almost cobbled appearance. Daily temperatures can swing across 50-degrees (Farenheit), and over the years these swings have carved grooves into the rock. In still other locations those deep grooves conspire to release fist-sized chunks of rock, real ankle-twisters. As the day warms that light-brown sand reflects the sunlight with surprising efficiency.

05 sChain Of Craters cinder cones and distant Escondido Mountain

Malpais view: snaking lava tube nearby, a small kipuka in mid-distance, far-distant Escondido Mt on extreme left and cinder cones dominating the horizon.

There are no real navigation problems because the trail stays within 100 feet of the escarpment face (and usually much closer). In some places the tread can be a just little difficult to find – typically where a stretch off-trail sandstone has an eye-catching, sidewalk-like appearance. There are numerous cairns in these stretches to help keep you on track.

06 Tinaja and Ponderosa

Sandy depression in the sandstone

There is only a sparse display of pinyon pine and single seed juniper, reflecting the harsh growing conditions on this dry mesa. In places along the trail there are small depressions in the sandstone called tinajas (Spanish for “jar” or “tank”). Water draining into these depressions deposits a flat bed of sand. Nearby you’ll often find small stands of Ponderosa pine. These are not large pines by high-mountain standards, but they tower over the pinyon and juniper.

07 kipuka (narrow band of forest) below horizon

Kipuka in the middle distance

As the tread rises you’ll see greater detail across the malpais. There are corridors of black rock snaking through the green scrub. These could be flood-swept channels. The long stretches of black rock that lie closest, however, look like collapsed lava tubes. You will see considerable variation in the vegetation. There are small patches of terrain that produce stands of trees that are markedly taller and denser than the surrounding scrub. These stands probably lie on mounds of older lava that were tall enough to deflect the more recent lava flows (kipukas), so their high points retain deeper accumulations of soil.

08 Mt Taylor across a sea of lava

Hazy Mt Taylor in the far distance

At about 3.5 miles trail crosses a tinaja underlain by strikingly dark rock. The sands of this small depression are littered with small dark stones, some of which have pocked surfaces suggestive of volcanic scoria. Just beyond there is a stand of five or six notably large Ponderosa. Pass through this grove and views open north to Mt Taylor. Arriving at the northern-most extremity for this segment of the escarpment the trail turns east. In just a few hundred feet the tread terminates at a high overlook that gives you wonderful views of Ventana Arch. Kick back, watch the hawks soar above the arch (tracking visitors who scare up the rabbits) and plot your return along the approach route.

Recommendations:

10 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch in the midway sun.

This would be a terrific spot for introducing young hikers to moderate length hiking. They would need to carry sufficient water and be very clear that cliffs are not playthings. The attractions include hawks soaring overhead, horned toads on the ground, and innumerable tracks in the sand to interpret.

The morning of June 2nd was surprisingly cold. Don’t let the daytime temperatures mislead you, a bivouac at 7500 feet could be a very chilly experience. That said, the light brown sands do reflect a lot of sunshine. You’ll want sunscreen under your nose and across the backs of your knees.

There isn’t any water along this trail. I took three liters and that may have been a little over the top. Unless the day is extremely hot two liters would be fine for most people.

Links:

A widely quoted trail handout from the Bureau of Land Management can be found here (PDF).

Julie White, writing for the website OnlyInYourState, has an enthusiastic writeup of this trail and good photographs illustrating the dramatic aspects of this hike.

NewMexicoNomad posts some great photos of the area and has an interesting introduction to the geology. Most of it focuses on the dramatic volcanic flows of the Malpais, much of that quite recent by geology standards.

Alamo Canyon

Overview:

The Yapashi Ancestral Pueblo site lies on the Pajarito plateau, a gigantic mass of tuff that arose from eruptions of the Valles Caldera. The resulting territory is pretty flat save for erosion-carved, steep-sided canyons. These cleave the plateau into skinny protreros. It’s a southwestern archetype: sun-dominated by day, cold at night and fire swept in season. The narrow and pine-dominated canyons contrast with the broad and juniper-dominated mesas. The flat Pajarito plateau opens to the soaring Jemez mountains. There are easy ambles on the protreros and arduous ascents from the canyons. The Tyuonyi Ancestral Pueblo at the beginning includes reconstructions and is much visited.  The Yapashi Ancestral Pueblo at the end is untouched and utterly lonesome. Grab your gear and go.

This isn’t a good hike for very young hikers or those with strong acrophobia. You’ll need water.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) take exit 276 for NM-599 Santa Fe Relief Route (also signed for Madrid, Los Alamos, Espanola).
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-599
  • After 13.3 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-84 N/US-285 N Espanola
  • After 0.5 miles merge onto US-84/US-285
  • After 13.5 miles take the exit for NM-502 West (signed for Los Alamos)
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-502
  • After 11.4 miles, at a fork, stay right to go onto NM-4 signed for Bandelier National Monument
  • After 12.7 miles (see note) turn left onto Entrance Road into Bandelier National Park.
  • After 3.0 miles (within sight of the Visitor Center parking) turn left onto a road signed for Cottonwood Picnic Area
  • After 0.2 miles, park at the trailhead (look for a trailhead sign near to a water fountain).

The National Monument is popular and there is limited parking in the bottom of Frijole Canyon. The Park has a shuttle service on NM-4 in White Rock, eight miles from the park’s entrance. The shuttle is currently running from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m and during those hours it’s mandatory. (There are a few exceptions, such as for backpackers). During off-shuttle hours you can drive straight to the park – an unusually reasonable parking solution!

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry facing down the southwest wall of Frijoles canyon.

Entrance to the park costs $20.00 per car. There are numerous allowances for people arriving by motorcycle, bike or in organized groups, as well as for the various passes (e.g. military or senior passes). See the park’s Basic Info page for up-to-date information. This is a super high-service trailhead: rest rooms, potable water and trash receptacles are available. There is a Visitor Center and a gift shop/snack bar as well.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 5895 feet
  • highest elevation: 6670 feet
  • net elevation: 775 feet (but see note, below)
  • distance: 6.1 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Frijoles quadrangle

“Net elevation” is just the difference between the highest point and the lowest point. The total elevation gain is well over 3000 feet, due to repeated drops into several canyons.

Hike Description:

View from Frijoles Canyon rim to the Tyuonyi talus houses

From the trailhead ascend past the trail sign and come to a signed junction. To your right is a gently rising traverse up the southwestern wall of Frijoles Canyon. Straight ahead is a steep and heavily switch-backed ascent of the wall. For reasons unknown I chose the direct ascent. It has advantages, the view down to the large circular pueblo of Tyuonyi on the canyon floor is impressive. Against that you have to balance the wear on your reserves – there is much and more too see ahead of you.

Pinyon pine, juniper and the San Miguel Mountains

The direct ascent will bring you to a junction with the Frijoles Canyon Rim Trail, turn right to travel northwest. More than 60% of Bandelier National Monument was burned during the colossal Las Conchas fire in 2011. That fire did not seem to reach this area, which is grassy terrain,  populated with stands of single-seed juniper, pinyon pine and the occasional alligator juniper. The trail stays close to the rim until, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, you come to a junction where the “gently ascending” tread from the canyon bottom comes in from your right. Turn left onto the Middle Alamo Trail (signed for Yapashi) and begin traversing the first mesa.

At rim of the first canyon on the Middle Alamo Trail

At 1.5 miles from the trailhead begin your first descent into a small canyon. Tall pines appear in this protected niche. The tread is an exemplar of trail construction. Heavy rocks have been lugged, levered and shoved into staircase formation. Trail workers dealt with steep and exposed bedrock by carving steps into the rock. In some spots the teams constructed huge rock walls so they could throw stair steps through the air! During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps was busy here at the park, it may be that the numerous rock steps and well-worn wooden water bars are their enduring work.

Terrain recovering from the Las Conchas fire with San Miguel Mountains on the horizon.

As you depart this canyon signs of fire become unmistakable. The burned snags have almost all toppled so there is relatively small danger of windfall on the hike. Much of the scorched earth has transformed into a pleasant grassland. Some of the waterways in the mesa-top bowls look like engineered canals – flooding has carved unnaturally straight stream beds going directly down the fall line. Looking west across this open terrain you will see the San Miguel mountains in the adjacent Dome Wilderness. Rabbit Hill is the small, bell-shaped outlier to the north (to your right, not in the photo above). At the south end is a long ridge reaching to the high, flat-topped summit of St. Peter’s Dome. In the center is the sharp, cone-shaped Boundary Peak. Just north of the Boundary Peak is a broad summit that may be Peralta Ridge.

Entrance to Lommis Canyon

Enjoy the easy rambling as you contour around a small height of land, Corral Hill. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead you will come to the rim of Lummis Canyon (signed). Drop 120 brisk feet into the canyon, turn downstream (to your left) for about 300 feet while watching for cairns, then enjoy a couple relatively long switchbacks up and out, back onto the mesa. Allow a moment of regret for having to leave those shady pines behind. The aligator juniper on the canyon rim do not provide much shade.  Be grateful for the persistent good work of the CCC – the trail is everywhere obvious and beautifully maintained.

Rock ribbed rollercoaster trail straight down to the bed of Alamo Canyon

Here the trail heads southwest and then south seeking to follow the contour of a broad, open and shallow bowl set into the plateau. A single stream runs gun-barrel straight down the center. At 3.6 miles come to the rim of Alamo Canyon and consider the etymology for the word “precipitous“. At another canyon in Arizona the Park Service is famous for reminding people that “down is optional, up is mandatory”. Is your party OK with a 500 foot drop  in less than a third of a mile and an equal rise on return? If so then you can launch yourself into the recent geological past. The dark upper layer of crumbly tuff is from the Valle Caldera’s most recent eruption, about 1.2 million years ago. The trail doesn’t switchback so much as writhe down this rock. Fortunately, every inch is covered with rock steps – trail building from the age of heroes. Eventually you will get down to the top of the white band of crumbly rock – tuff from an eruption 1.6 million years ago. You’re not done yet, but at least the eagles are mostly flying above you. Down, down, down and reach the tops of tall Ponderosa. Down a little more and, finally, canyon bottom!

Ponderosa bole in front of the southwest wall of Alamo Canyon

It is just plain gorgeous in the canyon. The pines offer shade. The numerous boulders offer generous seating. The bed is generally sandy, with occasional rocky stretches and there may be log jams to negotiate. Obsidian gleams darkly in the stream bed. The white tuff rises spectacularly on all sides. Have a bite to eat and get those photos taken. Also, take careful note of where the trail entered. On this date it was marked by a tall cairn, but you want to be sure to recognize the spot on return. Head downstream for 0.4 miles looking for the tread departing to the west (to your right). The departure point is on a clear path currently marked with cairns. It  leaves the sandy canyon bed to cross a grassy inside-bend and dives into brush. The angle is very shallow at first  but stay with it and the angle will increase dramatically in just 100 more feet.

Final approach to the Yapashi site along the rim of a small canyon.

Up you go. You will need to stop, often, but only because you need to take photographs. The stops have nothing to do with the sweat soaking your shirt or the way you seem to be panting for breath. Up past the ponderosa, above the white tuff, above the darker tuff, and seemingly by magic the rim appears. Easy. The Miguel Mountains come back into sight as the tread bends due west.

Yapashi ruins – possibly a pit house

There is one last, small canyon to traverse but as a now-experienced cannoneer the hundred foot drop and rise will seem barely worth noticing. On the far rim come to a signed junction with the West Alamo Trail. Turn northwest (to your right) where the Middle Alamo Trail follows the western rim of this last canyon. The trail rises steadily to a point 5.5 miles from the trailhead where it levels markedly. Here you will find the Yapashi Ancestral Pueblo. The site is a mosaic of frost-toppled stone walls and the ground is a matrix of tiny pot shards and obsidian flakes. This is a national treasure, so please take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints (and go as light on the footprints as you can).

Shrine of the Stone Lions

Push on just a little further, to the signed junction with the Stone Lions Trail at 6.1 miles from the trailhead. Here you will find an ancient building with partial walls that enclose two engraved boulders, much eroded. These are the trail’s namesake lions.  This is an active shrine, treat it as you would any place considered sacred.  There is no sign of water. Have a bite to eat and try to work out why those busy builders of the fourteenth century would chose this particular canyon rim for their work. Return the way you came. As you near the trailhead consider taking the gentler descent into Frijoles Canyon. It is kinder on the knees and deposits you in the canyon close to the Long House, which is worth exploring.

Recommendations:

Closeup of the impressive Tyuonyi circular pueblo

On a mild, late-June day I went through three liters and really wished I had more. The sun can be pretty ferocious here. Hat, sunscreen and high-SPF lip balm are in order and you may want to hike in a long-sleeved shirt. This hike might be best reserved for a cold season expedition.

A real concern is the potential for flash flooding. The Alamo Canyon has its headwaters on the very rim of Valle Caldera; room to develop a large head of water. The log jams in the canyon bottom testify to the terrific power of such floods. The Park Service counsels hikers not to try to cross high waters, which seems like good advice.

Despite the park’s well known popularity and despite the fact that this jaunt took place on a Saturday I did not see one other person from the time I left the bottom of Frijole Canyon. Be aware that the tread can be a lonely one.

Links:

The National Park Service site is a trove of information about Bandelier National Monument. In addition to current fees it has alerts, introductions to the Monument’s archeology and geology as well as services information.

The My Backyard site has a detailed trip report with numerous photos  that include exceptional detail for the Stone Lions site. The report is from 2008, before the Las Conchas fire. It is interesting to see how desert-like and open much of the terrain was even before the fire. Evidence of stress in the pines was noted but the dead trees were being attributed to drought and beetle infestation at that time.

Paul Mags has a 2014 report of a backpacking trip up Frijoles Canyon and the back by way of the Stone Lions and Yapashi sites. The photography is excellent and reveals the terrible damage done by the fire and subsequent flooding at the upper end of Frijoles Canyon.

 

 

Overview:

This is a strenuous hike in some of New Mexico’s most dazzling terrain. Warning: the region’s beauty makes an imperious claim on the hiker – slink away after only one day and you could suffer a harsh sense of lamentable misjudgment! Make this a backpacking trip if you can.

On this date the tread of the Skyline Trail disappeared under deep snow and the hike up the summit block suddenly became a scramble. It was steep and taxing enough to require an ice axe and microspikes. In just a few weeks the snow will be gone and the trip should be a simple hike from end to end.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) heading north, take exit 299 for Glorieta/Pecos.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left over the overpass bridge.
  • After 0.1 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto New Mexico route 50 (NM-50).
  • After 5.9 miles, at a stop sign, go left onto NM-63.
  • After 19.1 miles arrive at a junction signed Cowles. Go straight ahead on the road signed “Jack’s Creek Campground”. According to the USGS map this is NM-555, but I don’t recall seeing that signed at the junction.
  • After 2.3 miles go right, through a gate, on a narrow road signed “Trailhead”.
  • After 0.25 miles come to the trailhead.

All roads are paved.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at Jack’s Creek campground

This is a full service trailhead with vault toilets, water and bear-proof trash receptacles. There is a fee, day use hikers ordinarily pay $2.00 although there are discounts for the various passes. On a Monday there was no difficulty parking, but this seems to be a very popular trailhead and weekend hikers may want to arrive early.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 8840 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,258 feet
  • Net Elevation: 3420
  • Distance: 8.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Gate to Pecos Wilderness

Leave the trailhead on the Beatty Trail #25. The tread swings north to begin a long ascending traverse up the eastern wall of Jack Creek. In one mile the trail begins a series of leisurely switchbacks, rising toward top of the north-south running rib that divides Jack Creek from the Pecos River.  At 1.5 miles, very near the rib crest, you will come to a gate through which you could contour into the Pecos Wilderness.

Signed junction of Beatty Trail and Jack’s Creek Trail

Turn your back to the gate, doggedly sticking to those switchbacks. Light pours in from above, making it obvious that large meadows lie over head. Pull onto the rib crest and enter the anticipated meadows. The tread wanders through montane grasslands until, at 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you come to a signed junction with Jack’s Creek Trail #257. Turn west (left on ascent) onto Jack’s Creek Trail. The tread enters a spacious, glowing aspen grove, winds about and (establishing a pattern) returns to meadowlands.

View from meadows to Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy

This is high country rambling at its very finest. To the east are views of Santa Fe Baldy and its neighbors Lake Peak (rather pointed, to the south) and Redondo Peak (broad and rounded, to the north). To the east lies a deep drainage where runs the wild Pecos. To the north lies the snow-patterned ridge connecting Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy. But the big surprise is your immediate surroundings: the snaking, brown tread beneath your boots and the wildflowers that brush against your knees, the aspen-filtered morning sunshine that reaches your eyes. It is green. It is open. It is high. It is cool. You might feel the need to avert your eyes while you run a checklist against possible Pixar-esque delusions. It is not a snare. You are here!

Deadfall across Jack’s Creek Trail

Of course, tired legs, dark cumulus or a wind sharp of tooth can affect the situation. On this date the main issue was with downed trees. A decadal drought and bark beetles conspired with a fierce winter to keep you high-stepping. Looking around you will see the grim lessons learned by firs with shallow root systems. Other hikers have beaten boot paths around most of these obstacles. The first clump of deadfall appears as you hit 10,000 feet of elevation. That is pretty high for our rattle-y friends, but it helps to keep you in practice if you first place your hiking pole before planting a foot beyond a log.

Green understory in burned area

Reach the bed of Jack’s Creek having hiked 4.3 miles. If you are toting a water filter then this is a great place to refill and you’ll have lots of options for either shade or sunshine. The trail braids out here, but if you stay close to the creek you will start out on track. At 4.9 miles pass a signed junction for the Dockweiler Trail. Stay on the Jack’s Creek Trail. A few hundred yards pass this junction the trail starts to parallel a burned region. A vividly green understory is showing, but seedlings are still very scarce – the fire must have been quite recent. The tread begins to cross into the burned forest at about 5.3 miles and re-enters unburned forest at 6.2 miles.

View on the south shore of Pecos Baldy Lake

The tread ascends at a mellow angle. On this date patches of snow starting showing up here, beneath the densest stands of trees. At 7.1 miles come to a signed intersection with the Skyline Trail #251. Continue past and almost immediately enter the Pecos Baldy Lake basin. This is a magnificent place to give tired feet a break, pull a couple plums out of your pack, or take photos of the high summit block you are about to approach. Study those thin lines of snow that decorate the summit. It can be hard to see past the dazzle, but some of them may have tell-tale shadows cast by cornices.

View back to lake from part way up the snow covered rib

To ascend to the summit return to the junction with the Skyline Trail #251 and turn right (west). This will take to you a rib that descends on the west side of Pecos Baldy Lake. The north slope of this rib is heavily forested, which can protect a depth of snow late into the season. After seven miles of wondering “who carries an ice axe in June?” you may get a splendid answer. This snowy challenge won’t last long, but for the moment an ice axe and microspikes are almost essential. It would not be out of line to have full-on crampons instead of microspikes. (Crampons make plunge stepping much more reliable). Although the trail disappears beneath the snow navigation is not difficult. Steer by occasional glimpses of the lake through the trees and, much more often, peeks to the summit.

View (over a cornice) down to Pecos Baldy Lake

There is a prominent knoll atop this ridge and you want to find the saddle uphill of the knoll. The saddle is graced by a meadow (currently snow free) where the Skyline Trail surfaces at a signed intersection with the East Pecos Baldy Summit Trail #275. Cross the meadow and being a long series of switchbacks up the summit trail. This exposed slope is covered with short but extremely sturdy pines, possibly Rocky Mountain Bristlecone growing into krumholz. Near the summit there may be a wall of wind-deposited snow. You’ll have reason anew to be thankful for the ice axe and microspikes. Once past the wall stay away from the snow – there is risk of cornices still. Reach the summit cairn having hiked 8.8 miles from the trailhead. The views are amazing. The wind will probably howl.  Get those summit shots and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author atop East Pecos Baldy

I believe that dogs are allowed on these trails (although a Google search failed to come up with clear support). There are cattle, horses and, reportedly, big horn sheep in this area. Pets should be leashed.

Weather is a key consideration for this hike. Winds could become a problem during the traverse of the burned area. Lightning, as always, is a huge threat for anyone stuck on these high and unprotected ridge lines. Pick a clear, cool and calm day for this hike. UV exposure at these altitudes is going to be pretty high – pack along sunscreen and reapply periodically.

I brought just one liter of water and a filter. In June of a relatively wet year there was no issue with getting adequate resupplies.

Links:

Summit Post has a useful and succinct route description that includes the traverse from East Pecos Baldy to Pecos Baldy.

There are some nice photos and an extended description of a camping trip that went to East Pecos Baldy and then beyond (to Truchas Peak) at http://www.landscapeimagery.com/truchas.html

A great description of the hike and numerous photos (including fall aspen) for this hike at the Hike Arizona site (a really terrific resource, and despite its name it covers hikes all over the west).

I’ve been using the weather forecasts found at www.mountain-forecast.com and was impressed with it on this trip. They promised afternoon winds of 30 mile-per-hour at the top. Despite long periods of near-calm on the inward leg of this hike the wind was howling on the summit. Good call!

The USDA site offers up-to-date information on the trailhead including closures and fees. The site currently says that the day-use for picnicking is $10.00 but I think that only applies to the campground area. At the trailhead it is definitely signed for $2.00 per day.

 

Forest Service Team clearing the heavily-encumbered Johnson Lake Trail

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

Trailhead:

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

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

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

Signs on Panchuela Road, just above the trailhead

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

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

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

View from Winsor Ridge to snow capped Santa Fe Baldy

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

Lake Stewart and surrounding ridge lines.

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

Skyline Trail: home to meadows and mountains

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

A moderate set of blockages along the Johnson Lake Trail.

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

High, cold and clear, the waters of Johnson Lake

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

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

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

Junction of the Skyline Trail with the Cave Creek Trail

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

View up the Panchuelo Creek near its confluence with Cave Creek

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

Recommendations:

Author, at the outflow from Johnson Lake

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Overview:

This hike is a very pleasant stroll in the woods but it suffers in comparison to some of New Mexico’s grander summits. Views are limited because the top of Glorieta Baldy is densely forested (in spite of its name). Long sections of the Glorieta Baldy trail lie atop dusty two-tracks. Forest Road 97, the access to the trailhead, is currently in rough shape. That admitted, the hike also has stretches of beautiful high-country trail, an all-too-brief tour along the lush bed of Apache Canyon and opportunity for exercise aplenty. If you land on a bonus hiking day then don those boots and follow this footpath into the sky.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25), going north near Santa Fe, take exit 284 for The Old Pecos Trail.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left onto Old Pecos Trail (no road signs)
  • After 0.3 miles, at a light, go right onto Old Las Vegas Highway
  • After 3.0 miles go left onto County Road (CR) 67C
  • After 0.8 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto CR-67
  • After 2.1 miles go left onto CR 67A  (there is new pavement – still quite dark – just before the turn). CR-67A is paved for about 0.7 miles then abruptly becomes a gravel road in the town of Cañada de los Alamos. At the end of town the road swings left and begins climbing steeply past a cattle guard and then about 100 feet further to the ridge crest where the road forks.
  • After 2.0 miles, at the crest of a ridge, turn left onto Forest Road (FR) 79.
  • After 2.8 miles (estimated) come to a 4-way intersection and park the vehicle.

The mighty (timid) Camry, cowering below the final hillock.

On this date FR-79 was in poor shape. If you are driving a jeep, truck or high-clearance SUV you will probably not have any problem. Those who drive family sedans, however, will face several pitches of thoughtful driving. I had to back away from the last hillock on FR-79 at 1.2 miles from the trailhead. The road is here is steep, very deeply rutted and fraught with ledges. Coming down on that stuff could ruin your oil pan’s day.

Trailhead:

Normal trailhead at 4-way intersection on FR-79

The nominal trailhead is a four-way intersection on FR-79. There are neither services nor fees. (Ditto for the flat spot underneath a pair of pine trees where I left the Camry). FR-79 does continue past this intersection, but it is a much reduced road. The intersection is the effective end-of-the-line.

Data:

The map shows where I left the car and hiked along FR-79 (the initial north-bound leg). In the description below, however, all distances are from the trailhead at the four-way intersection.

  • lowest elevation: 7760 feet
  • highest elevation: 10,200
  • net elevation: 2440 feet
  • distance: 6.4 miles (one-way, from intersection)
  • maps: USGS “McClure Reservoir” and Glorieta quadrangles

 

Hike Description:

Large sign on ridge top where Glorieta Baldy Trail (two-track) leaves the forest road

From the four-way intersection head east along a deeply rutted forest road (to your right as you are driving into the intersection). In “100 Hikes in New Mexico, third edition” there is mention of signs on this road, but those signs are no longer evident.  Go past a gate at 0.24 miles and, less than 100 feet further, rise to a ridge-top. The forest road swings to your left, but look to your right for an older two-track and a huge sign displaying a topo map (with the Glorieta Baldy trail drawn in) and “You Are Here” in large letters. Follow the two-track until, at 0.6 miles from the trailhead, you find the meagre remnants of a gravel berm – evidently meant to stop vehicle traffic. Look to your left to find a single-track trail that dives east (to your left) off of the rib top.

Small gravel berm (bottom-right of picture) and single-track departing downslope (left side of picture)

At 0.8 miles the descending trail intersects with another two-track. You will want to turn north (to your left), but first commit this junction to memory. The trail coming onto the two-track isn’t very prominent and it would be easy to walk past it on return. There may be cairns, but there are enough cairns all along the road to make that problematic.

Trail junction; gully is at bottom-right of photo and trail departs road at right side.

This two-track is cut into the wall of an Apache Canyon side-cut. Here, find yourself engaged in extreme meandering; every little side-cut has littler sidecuts, each of which demands that the road twist inward, cross a waterway and twist back out only to round a rib and begin the dance again. This is hiking at its most fractal. Your challenge is to find a junction where a trail leaves the road to drop to the bottom of Apache Canyon. Watch for the second of two consecutive rib-roundings where both ribs point due south. Shortly after the second, at about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, the road begins to take a serious interest in heading north. At 1.7 miles from the trailhead watch for a deep rut in the downhill side of the road. The rut makes a sharp turn and leaves the road in the form of a two-to-three foot deep gully. On the far side of the gully is a clear path that angles off between two short, brushy pines. If you push past the brushy pines you will come to a tall Ponderosa adorned with two small plastic signs, each reading “Trail”.

Sign where trail reaches the bed of Apache Canyon.

This footpath heads almost directly east, crossing straight over an unnamed two-track and opening up views to Glorieta Baldy. Eventually it comes to the canyon wall where it falls steeply. Tracks in the tread suggest that this is a site of daring-do on mountain bikes. The steep pitch means that the descent is short, and you will enter the verdant bottomland of Apache Canyon at 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

Trail sign where Glorieta Baldy Trail intersects Apache Canyon Trail

Turn left to head up-canyon amidst huge ponderosa and Douglas fir. The tread follows a stream. The stream was flowing on this date, although there was no problem at the stream crossing about 0.2 miles up the canyon (again, this is slightly different from the description in “100 Hikes”, which mentions two crossings). The trail threads stands of timber and crosses brilliantly green meadows until, at 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you reach the signed junction with Apache Trail 176. Have a bite to eat! The next quarter mile is going to see some real altitude gain.

A peek south into the Galisteo Basin

Hoist your bag and begin the ascent. The trail is obvious and, just a hundred feet above the canyon bed, regains the normal dusty quality. At 2.8 miles from the trailhead the grade eases somewhat and more views open to Glorieta Baldy. The tread reaches a rib top with a terrific view, southeast, to the steep flanks of Shaggy Peak. The trail bumps to the northeast along this mild rib until it reaches a point almost due north of Shaggy Peak, 3.9 miles from the trailhead. Then it turns due east, taking resolute aim at the Glorieta ridgeline and begins a long climb.

Battered sign post that once announced the Glorieta Baldy trail junction

At 4.9 miles from the trailhead pull up onto that ridgeline. You will come to a T-intersection with a prominent trail. At one point this junction was signed, but all that is left of that signage is a badly battered old post with two bolts projecting from its side. Be certain to commit the location to memory as it would be very easy miss the turn on descent. Turn to the north (left on ascent) and begin a long, pleasant ridge ramble up to the top of Glorieta Baldy. The ground along the trail is littered with white, marble-like rock. This is particularly true of the ridge, where there are places where the scattered rock looks like persistent remnants of the winter snowpack.

Summiting on Glorieta Baldy: “G” and Tirzah

Arrive at the summit having hiked 6.4 miles from the nominal trailhead. You will find good views southeast, across an open summit meadow to the wide spaces of the Galisteo Basin. The summit of Glorieta Baldy is not above tree line, however, and a thick thatch of conifers blocks the views in other directions. There is a fire tower, but it has been closed and the tread boards had been removed from the lower staircases. Hiking season appears to be picking up. I met a couple who had run to the summit as part of their training for the upcoming La Luz race. Hikers “G” and Tirzah had come up from working at Glorieta Camp. All the other hikers used the Glorieta Center Trail #272. For the purposes of this trip, however, you should return along the Glorieta Baldy Trail.

Recommendations:

Author and narrow view to the distant Sandias

This is a longish hike with a fair amount of elevation gain on the return leg. You’ll want a good supply of water. I went through almost 2 liters and was glad to have a third liter handy.

The two-track roads tend to be exposed to the sun. Bring high SPF lip balm , slather on the sunscreen and carry a broad rimmed hat.

It is getting close to monsoon season. At 1:00 the skies southeast of the summit were almost pure blue, but cumulous clouds were climbing into the stratosphere to the northwest. By the time I got back to the car the summit was shrouded in clouds. Don’t get caught on the high ridge line in a thunderstorm.

The “100 Hikes in New Mexico” guide book is a great resource and I recommend it. I pointed out a couple places where the signage has changed or the trails have shifted simply to let hikers know how the lapse of seven years can affect a route’s description.

Links:

The cyberhobo site has a postive review of this hike and a GPS track that displays a slightly different return route. This is the return route recommended in the “100 Hikes” guide as well.

If this hike does not meet your off-trail and exercise requirements, check out the 2005 report that describes a scramble up Shaggy Peak as a warmup before hiking the connecting ridge north to Glorieta Baldy. I’m not certain if this is their exact route, but a wonderfully clear topo map (north rotated 90° to the normal convention) can be found at the TravelBug site. You’d burn some calories on that jaunt.

There is a succinct, very useful description of this trail on SummitPost. This description includes a short extension that would have you follow the top ridge a bit further to summit the neighboring mountain, Thompson Peak. That could be a fun extension, particularly if you have a vehicle that can make it all the way to the trailhead.

Junction with Glorieta Center Trail #272

There are two trails that lead to this summit, both similarly  named. The trail described here is the Glorieta Baldy Trail #175. A different trail leads from the town of Glorieta up to the peak and is signed as the “Glorieta Center Trail #272 (see photo to right). This alternative trail is described here and you can find a fun mountain biker perspective on this trail together with a GPS route here. There are some websites that mistakenly refer to the Glorieta Center Trail as the Glorieta Baldy Trail, don’t get confused!

 

 

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.