Archives for posts with tag: Sangre De Cristo Mountains
01 Truchas, center peak, N Truchas, Chimayosos

(South) Truchas, North Truchas and Chimayosos Peaks

Overview:

Truchas (Spanish for “trout”) may be 60 feet lower than Wheeler Peak, but it is far more isolated and far less visited. The mountain lies directly at the heart of the Santa Fe Mountains, an empress of altitude in spectacular high country. Billions have been spent on stadiums and museums to console the disconsolate who’ve no access to this style of hiking. The lucky will hike through a comprehensive tour of the Canadian, Hudsonian and arctic-alpine life zones: climbing through dense Douglas fir forest, sauntering across gorgeous meadows and arriving where the tough alpine grasses grudgingly give way to rock and lichen. Pick a couple nice days, hoist your pack and allow your expectations to soar. You won’t be disappointed.

Weather can be an issue. I turned back when the surrounding stratocumuli demonstrated cumulonimbus aspirations. As a result this description ends in the grassland below the summit.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 299, northeast of Santa Fe. The exit is signed for Glorietta/Pecos NM-50.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp from the northbound lanes, turn left onto NM-50. This junction is not signed, but it helps to know that NM-50 ends at this junction. If you were to turn the other way, to the right, you would be on Fire Station Road heading into Glorieta, NM.
  • After 0.1 miles, having crossed over I-25, stay on NM-50 where it makes a 90-degree right-hand turn. There is no stop here, even though it looks as if you were arriving at a T-interesection. There are several signs at the junction, the most useful indicating that the Glorieta Conference Center is to your left and the town of Pecos is to your right.
  • After 5.9 more miles, at a four-way stop, turn left onto NM-63 in Pecos, NM.
  • After 19.2 more miles arrive at Cowles, NM and continue straight ahead on Forest Road 555. The most prominent feature at this junction is a bridge crossing the Pecos River on your left and a green road sign saying “Cowles”. There is a tiny wooden “555” sign on your right, but it is hidden behind a small fir tree. On Google Maps this road is labeled “Cabana Trail”.
  • After 2.3 miles turn right onto a drive signed “Wilderness Camping”. A brown Forest Service sign just before this drive points up the drive for “Trailhead” and “Equestrian Camping”.
  • After 0.3 miles park at the trailhead.
02 Transition from NM-63 to FR-555

NM-63 to FR-555 continuation

The roads are paved except the loop where the trailhead is located. The gravel loop is currently in excellent condition.

NM-63 from Tererro to Cowles (about 5.5 miles) is paved but it is rough, very narrow, and twisty. The fall-off from the road edge can be cliff-like. Allow extra time to drive this short distance and be prepared to slow to a crawl if you encounter oncoming vehicles. Fortunately, the road bed of FR-555 is wider and smoother.

Trailhead:

04 packed trailhead parking

The mighty Camry, squeezed into the last-open trailhead parking spot

This is a full service trailhead with potable water, bear-proof trash receptacles, vault toilets and trailhead signage. The fee for parking is currently $2.00 per day, although there are discounts for military service passes and other national passes. The multi-agency recreation.gov site has a detailed description of the camping opportunities and seasons, but it is very much focused on $10-per-night car camping. There does not seem to be any mention of the trailhead fees. Similarly, the USDA site only mentions the $10 fee, but the signs at the trailhead clearly state the $2 fee.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 8830 feet
  • highest elevation: 11960 feet (not at summit!)
  • net elevation: 3130 feet (not to summit!)
  • distance: 9.9 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

04 junction with horsetrail on Beatty's TrailFind the start of the trail on the steep embankment uphill of the trailhead parking. It is signed “Beatty’s Tr. No. 25”. The tread begins with a long, ascending contour up the east wall of the canyon containing Jack’s Creek. The forest here is dominated by Douglas fir and some ponderosa pine. At 1.1 miles from the trailhead it begins a series of switchbacks and comes to a junction at an opening in a fence (see above-left photo). This path from the other side of the fence is where the horse-folk enter the trail. You’ll want to watch for “horse apples” on the trail thereafter.

05 Beatty's Trail - Jack's Creek Junction

I have no idea how the base of these aspen dissociated from their upper boles

There is plenty of light filtering through the trees from above, a sign of terrain change. Accordingly, the trail soon reaches a flat rib top and begins nice ramble, bending to the east above the small basin where Allbright Creek parachutes into the Pecos River. (The creek itself may be dry at this elevation). At 2.5 miles from the trailhead the tread pokes its nose out into the broad, green meadows that make this hike famous. Here find the signed junction between the Beatty Trail and the Jack’s Creek Trail No. 257. Turn left onto the Jack’s Creek trail and follow it as it winds its way through a pleasant stand of tall aspen. You may encounter cattle (make certain of your control over Rover), but this herd has much experience with ignoring the intrusion of horse riders and hikers. They will, however, gaze at you with a lofty sense of disregard.

05 upper meadows

Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy from upper meadow

At 2.8 miles emerge from the Aspen for your first traverse in the emerald kingdom that is the mesa between Jack’s Creek and the Pecos River. The views are spectacular – east into the Santa Fe Mountains, west into the headwaters of the Pecos River, and around your knees where lies a profusion of wildflowers. If you did bring pets know that they can get warm in this open country. I was told that there is a spring (drained by a length of PVC pipe) in the woods to your left after you hike over the first prominent rise in the meadows. The ground itself can be surprisingly damp, given an August date in New Mexico high country. Where horse hooves meet the boggiest stretches it can be downright muddy. Still, rock hopping across 20 foot patches of bog is a small price for admittance to such gorgeous terrain. At 3.3 miles pass through a glade of spruce trees and then re-enter another half mile of meadow. Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy frame to view in front of you. The gentle, forested height of land on your right is Round Mountain.

08 cut deadfall to Jacks Creek

A route through the deadfall

At the upper end of the meadows the tread begins to descend, penetrating into dense young forest on the hillside above Jack’s Creek. Just this past July this portion of the trail was an obstacle course of flattened trees. The Forest Service has been hard at work, however, and innumerable fresh cuts now open the way for hikers and horsefolk alike. At 4.4 miles arrive at Jack’ Creek, which had a good flow of water but was easy to cross dry-footed.

09 Burn and flowers

Burn flowers

On the far side of the creek find a junction with the Dockweiler Trail No. 259. The combined Jack’s Creek/Dockwieler trail ascends besides the creek bed. It is muddy in places and those heavy horse seem to be facing a struggle – there are hoof-skids and deep, horseshoe-sized pocks in the trail. Also, there was some deadfall in the trail, so be prepared to keep your eyes focused on the ground before you. At the end of five miles the Dockweiler Trail departs to your right. Continue ascending on the Jack’s Creek trail as it eases alongside and then penetrates into a swatch of burned forest. This is a dense stand of snags and some caution would be needed on a windy day. It is scorched above the 3-foot level, but below that is an understory unbound; spectacularly green and densely appointed with wildflowers.

10 first glimpse of Pecos Baldy

Pecos Baldy from Jack’s Creek trail

Climb past the upper limit of the burn at 6.1 miles from the trailhead. The forest now presents Engelmann Spruce and corkbark fir, typical of forests in the Hudsonian life zone. The snow banks that graced the side of the trail two months ago are gone. The terrain is fairly gentle until you reach a small running stream at 6.8 miles (you may want to filter your water here). The terrain noses up and you ascend the last quarter mile to where the Jack’s Creek trail makes a junction with the Skyline trail, #251. Just past the junction is the entrance to the cirque containing Pecos Baldy Lake.

11 Pecos Baldy Lake Basin

Pecos Baldy Lake basin

Camping is not allowed in the lake basin. There are, however, camp sites along the Skyline Trail just below the basin. It looked as if the best views were found on a couple sites west of the junction (turn left on ascent), but these are quickly claimed at this popular destination. One camper remarked that there is running water close to the camp sites to the east of the junction, which would make them a good choice as well. I did not scout hard enough to find that stream. Instead, I used the stream that descends from the steep face of East Pecos Baldy into the lake. The lake is beautiful, but is frequented by horses, deer, bighorn sheep and elk. Filter, boil or treat the lake water with bleach before drinking it.

12 deer on ascent

Fearless Deer

To continue to Truchas peak, go east (right on ascent) onto the Skyline Trail #251. The tread is a mellow ascent in widely-spaced trees typical of old growth forest. On this date I encountered a deer so acclimated to hikers that it stood and watched as I stood and watched. It even advanced a few steps towards me before regretting its curiosity, something that I’ve never before seen a deer do. The trail breaks out of the trees and reaches a junction where the Jack’s Creek trail departs to your right. Stay to the left on the Skyline Trail as it climbs into montane grasslands and slowly bends to the north.

13 Trail Riders Wall

Truchas, North Truchas and Trailrider’s Wall (below).

Before you lies a grand triumvirate: Truchas Peak (sometimes called South Truchas), North Truchas Peak and Chimayosos Peak lie to the left, center and right respectively. Look closely at the east facing shoulder of Truchas and you will see the summit of another montane magistracy. I think is the 13,040 foot mountain (unnamed on my maps) that lies in the center of a “Y” shape joining South Truchas at the bottom to both Middle Truchas and North Truchas Peaks at the top. This sweep of high terrain contains much of the headwaters for the Pecos River. Closer by, below you on your right, lies the striking cliff band known as the Trailriders Wall.

16 Signpost At The End Of The Trail

Joe Vigil Trail and Skyline Trail junction

This is open country – even in August you may find yourself pulling a jacket out of your pack to cope with the constant winds. Continue north on good trail, occasionally marked by cairns that can reach six or seven feet tall. The cairns may be intended to guide backcountry skiers when the trails are under snow and they are impressive examples of their kind. The tread rises and falls as it meanders across the grasslands. At 9.9 miles from the trailhead come to a sign for a junction even though, on this date, the only tread in sight was the Skyline Trail. The incoming Joe Vigil Trail was nowhere to be seen. The route to Truchas is an off-trail climb directly ahead, you will see the summit from the junction. The Skyline trail uses the saddle to depart to the east, dropping below the ridge top. On this date, however, I turned back due to increasingly dense cloud cover.

Return the way you came. Take your time. Savor the spectacle.

Recommendations:

Trailhead parking was packed and all the camp sites in the lake basin were in use, despite the fact that this trip took place midweek during the monsoon season. Try to get an early start!

It was chilly at night, probably in the low 40s, so you’ll want a decent sleeping bag. That said, the sun at mid-day is a real problem. You may want to wear a wide-brim hat, long-sleeved shirt and full-length pants just for the solar protection. Sunscreen and lip balm are near-musts.

This isolated and high altitude hike would be a dubious choice if you are leading a party fresh from sea level. The folks at Altitude.org have a clear and very useful summary of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness and it’s severe offshoots, HAPE and HACE. The first section of the post is titled, “Don’t die of altitude sickness”. Good advice.

There are horses, cattle, big horn sheep, deer and (reportedly) elk and bear to be found along the trail. Please make sure that your pets will behave around the megafauna.

Links:

The ChrisGoesHiking site has a well written and nicely photographed description of the trail up to Pecos Baldy Lake. Also, he describes his intentions to simply continue along the Skyline trail to traverse the cliffs known as the Trail Riders Wall, which is exactly what this trip report describes. Chris, however, was hiking on a Memorial Day weekend and there was enough high-country snow to discourage travel beyond Pecos Baldy Lake.

Sam at Landscape Imagery has a 2009 report of a multi-day hike up to both Pecos Baldy and Truchas Peak using the same access route. There are numerous photos, including some very useful images of the summit approach as well as a detailed trip description.

An overview of the various approaches to Truchas Peak can be found at SummitPost. It includes a warning about the sometimes-confusing nomenclature for the various summits in this group and describes the permissions required at various trailheads. Also, there are some thoughtfully expressed concerns regarding vandalism at certain trailheads, although the report is now 12 years old and I don’t know if the concerns are still valid.

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.

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.