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.
- 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.