Archives for posts with tag: Santa Fe Mountains

01 North Truchas PeakOverview:

This two-day backpack begins with a riparian ramble through forests of Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce, meanders through stands of tall aspen, ascends across a series of narrow riverside meadows and segues to a series of switchbacks that rise swiftly to a beautiful tarn-side camp. This same tread leads onward to a col separating the north-flowing Rio Santa Barbara from the south-flowing Pecos River. From the col it’s an off-trail scramble up the wide-open slopes of North Truchas Peak – home to mountain goats and an eagle’s view of the Santa Fe Mountains. Allot all the time you can (it still won’t be enough).

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25, going north, take exit 276 for NM-599 north, signed for Espanola.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-599 north.
  • After 13.2 miles take the left-hand fork for the ramp onto US-84 West/US-285 North
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-84 W/US-285 N
  • After 19.3 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn right onto La Puebla Rd./ CR 88
  • After 2.7 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-76 N.
    • NM-76 goes into Truchas, NM where it makes a sharp 90-degree turn to the left at 12.5 mile from the CR-88 junction. Watch for a sign for “Taos High Road” with an arrow pointing left and another sign for “Oja Sarco / Penasco / Taos”
    • The junction with CR-88 can be hard to spot from NM-76 when returning in the dark. Watch for signs for “County Road 88”, I did not see any signs for “La Puebla Road”.
  • After 29.5 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-75.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a fork where NM-75 veers strongly to the left, veer slightly right onto NM-73.
  • After 1.7 miles turn left onto Santa Barbara Road (there is a small sign naming the road, but the junction is otherwise unremarkable).
    • After 2.9 miles on the Santa Barbara Road the road becomes gravel and is currently in excellent shape.
  • After 4.8 miles, after crossing a bridge, the road becomes signed for Forest Road 116. Continue straight ahead
  • After 1.2 miles past the bridge the road ends at the trailhead.

Google’s algorithms currently report that the Santa Barbara Road rejoins with NM-73. That is not correct.

Trailhead:

02 the mighty Camry

The mighty Camry the Rio Santa Barbara Campground

There is a campground immediately past the trailhead, but on this date the campground was gated closed. I was told that the it closes soon after Labor Day. The trailhead consists of a gravel parking lot just before the gate. There is a vault toilet. The Rio Santa Barbara runs past the trailhead and there is a hand pump for potable water, but it is currently wrapped in plastic (much tattered) and duck tape (in better shape). It appears that the forest service closes down the pumps at the trailhead and in the campgrounds once the temperatures fall to near-freezing. Currently, there are no trash receptacles.

The USDA/Forest Service website indicates that usage can be very heavy in the early summer so you will want to arrive early during July.  The Camry was the only car at the trailhead on a Wednesday morning in October. The website mentions a trailhead parking fee of $3.00 per vehicle. A sign just before the trailhead also demands payment, but there were no envelopes at the self-service post nor did the signage at the trailhead make any mention of the dollar amount. It looks as if it may not be worthwhile for the Park Service to collect payments as winter nears.

Data:

  • Start Elevation: 8840 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 13,020 feet
  • Net Elevation: 4180 feet
  • Distance: 11.4 miles (one way!)
  • Maps: USGS Truchas PeakPecos Falls (2017) and Jicarita Peak quadrangles. Surprisingly, the 2017 version of Pecos Falls quadrangle shows the trails. I used the 1995 versions of the other maps that I had downloaded earlier, when the 2017 versions did not display any trails at all.

Hike Description:

Day 1:

03 First Santa Barbara crossing

Western cliffs in morning sunshine

From the trailhead follow the road as it loops across the campground and at the far end of the loop find trail #24, the East Fork Trail. This is a very well maintained tread, perhaps a reflection of the horse-riding community (who can be better organized than us hikers for tasks such as arranging trail work and getting funding for the national trails). The tread bumps along the Rio Santa Barbara in thick conifer forests, starting elevation of just over 8800 feet. On a cool autumn morning you may want to keep a jacket on for the first mile or two – much of the morning will pass before the sun reaches all the way to the river.

04 continue on Trail 25

Depart to #25

The trail initially follows the west bank of the river. Eventually that side of the drainage steepens and the opposite bank beckons. Cross on a broad bridge meant to sustain horse traffic. At 2.4 miles come to a signed junction. The East Fork Trail #24 rises to your left to follow along side the Middle Branch – eventually Trail #24 will reach a second fork where it finally strikes the banks of the East Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara. You, however, should bear right onto the West Fork on Trail #25. The trail goes another 0.3 miles (2.7 miles from the trailhead) before crossing the actual Middle Fork on a sturdy log bridge.

05 Meadow views to Santa Barbara Divide

Chimayosos from river meadows

This is an unbeatable place for an autumn exercise in serene backcountry hiking. The tread is in excellent shape, the grade is mellow, there are occasional glades of tall aspen (which have already lost their fall foliage) and gorgeous meadows. The trail passes through a single gate, suggesting that grazing rights are contracted out or that there is a private in-holding that contains the upper valley.  The surrounding cliff faces are spectacular. Somewhere above those heights to the west lies Trampas Peak.

06 Chimayosos Peak

Chimayosos closeup

At 5.7 miles from the trailhead come to the only crossing of the West Branch. In autumn it is an easy crossing, made easier by a bundle of branches laid across the stones. It would doubtlessly be far more challenging during the spring melt-off. After the crossing the tread takes on a moderately steeper angle. You will find yourself hiking well above the valley bottom, checking out the huge stands of enormously tall aspen on the far side of the valley (perhaps arising from old burns). At 7.3 miles come to the first switchback on the trail – a hint that you’ll need to up your game as the valley ups its gain.

07 lahar

Lahar on steep hillside

The trail remains beautifully maintained, but it crosses odd rocky stretches where the forested hillside displays a dense scattering of gray metamorphic rock on the surface of the forest floor. These are thumb-sized (scree) to fist sized (talus) bits of stone of the sort that splits along planar faces. These flattish stones tend to accumulate on the trail and makes footing a bit awkward. In places where transient streams have descended these rocks are heaped into tall banks, similar to the shape of a wake behind a powerboat. As you get higher you will find yourself crossing deep gouges in the hillside. These look like lahars – stretches of soil and loose rock that (presumably) got water saturated and broke free, ripping four or five foot deep trenches straight down the mountain.

08 junction to No Fish Lake

Hollow stump and cairn at path to No Fish Lake

After rounding the 6th turn on these switchbacks you will begin another steady climb along the much-diminished West Branch. At 8.9 miles enter a gully that contains the highest reaches of the West Branch. The trail leaves the gully and immediately traverses a swale-like water-way. If you want to camp at No Fish Lake then it is time to watch carefully. You may notice a boot-path going up onto the rim of the swale on your right –  if you check, you will find the boot-path descends to a possible campsite with an established fire ring on a bench in the swale. About 100 feet further you will find another campsite about 20 feet off the trail on your left. Within a quarter mile of these initial sites you will come upon the unsigned trail that leads down to No Fish Lake. On this date there was a smallish cairn marking this trail. The tread contained some ancient deadfall, which makes it seem like an unlikely campground trail. Follow it for about 50 feet over a forested spur, however, and you should see No Fish Lake peeking through the trees below you. There are several very pleasant camping sites near the lake’s outflow.

8a Chimayosos Peak from col

Chimayosos Peak from Santa Barbara Divide

Day 2:

From No Fish Lake return to Trail 25 and continue ascending. The forest starts to thin and at 10.1 miles from the trailhead the tread emerges onto a broad slope covered with tussock and talus. Two mellow switchbacks later and you will stride out of the Santa Barbara Drainage and look into the Pecos drainage. Don’t descend! To the east (left on ascent) is the broad and grassy face of Chimayosos Peak. To the west is the broad, but cliff-scarred face of North Truchas. Turn west.

10 opening in fir thicket & North Truchas summit

Fairway through the firs below North Truchas

The west end of the col has a fir thicket on it. The initial wall of these firs, which are closely interwoven, can be difficult to penetrate but inside that wall the trees are well spaced. About half-way through the thicket you will find a ski-trail-like opening that will take you a bit south. That positions you on the upper edge of the thicket with open views to the summit. From here just about any path up will do. My path initially headed straight at the summit, but stiff winds made it advisable to steer from one lonesome fir to the next just for temporary shelter from the breeze. Watch for raptors and big horned sheep. The ground is steep and the air is thin. You may want to practice your rest-step.

10 (S) Truchas, Medios, Middle and the North Truchas cairn

South Truchas (distant-left), Medio and Middle Truchas (ridge in middle ground) and summit cairn in foreground.

There is a cairn at the summit and a small summit log in a plastic container. To the south you will see the span of the Truchas massif, including South Truchas (the high point), “Medios Truchas” (not an official name) and Middle Truchas. Look north to see the Sangre de Cristo mountains ranging all the way into Colorado. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains. You will see the broad profile of Redondo Peak (the high point of the Jemez Mountains) and at the north end of the the Jemez you can pick out Cerro Pedernal in its narrow profile. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

13 summit pose

Author, blocking view to Chimayosos Peak

I heard a couple rifle shots on the first day I was on the trail. Hikers will want to flaunt their orange attire this time of year. The New Mexico Department of Game & Fish website has data on the various hunting seasons, but it seems to be “siloed” in various Department publications that are broken out by target species. This makes sense if, for example, you want to know if you can hunt for grouse in a given area. But it doesn’t help if you simply want to know if hunters are active in a particular spot. It would be great if they could provide a map-based interface for the non-hunting public. For the record, this hike is entirely enclosed by Game Management Unit number 45 (abbreviated as GMU 45) in the department’s publications. The department’s (non-interactive) map of GMU 45 can be found here.

October is a chilly month for campers at 11,000 feet. Bring good sleeping gear and keep an eye on the weather. Much of the summit block on Truchas is an open grassland, but there are adjacent cliffs that would make this a poor place to practice white-out navigation.

This is a high altitude hike. You’ll want your party to be familiar with the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. An excellent discussion can be found at altitude.org.

Links:

Phil Robinson reports a similar approach in a PeakBagger report, but he and his son used the opportunity to climb Medios Truchas, Middle Truchas, Barbara Peak, Chimayosos as well as North Truchas Peak. Very impressive backpacking and an excellent writeup.

The SummitPost overview is very brief, but it has links along the left side to numerous reports and suggestions about alternative approaches.

A 2007 report from the Los Alamos Mountaineers also makes note of how high the water can get and the difficulty that can cause. (The two bridges on the current route may be newer than that, so at least some of the difficulties may have been addressed).

A writeup on the SantaFe.com website reports that Truchas, the Spanish word for “trout”, is also slang for “knife”. The author speculates that the main ridgeline may have looked knife-like to the conquistadors.

 

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Truchas, N Truchas, Chimayosos over cairn top

Truchas (left), North Truchas (center) and Chimayosos Peaks (right)

Overview:

Is it possible for a short backpacking trip to be “impossibly scenic”? Inquiring minds need to know. Pack your gear, jump in that car and get the answer to your question with a strenuous scramble into the heart of the Santa Fe Mountains. There are streams, deer, high peaks, bugling elk, tarns, soaring fir forests, mountain goats, sunny meadows, gorgeous views and sore, sore quads in your future. This is why we have the word terrific.

The trail is also demanding and lonesome. This route would be a poor choice for a party fresh from sea level, youngsters, acrophobes, route-finding novices or scramblers trying to get back into shape.

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 northbound ramp, 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 Forest Road 555 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.

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 (especially trucks dragging trailers). Fortunately, the road bed of FR-555 is wider and smoother.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The mighty Camry at the trailhead for Beatty’s Trail

This is a full service trailhead with potable water, bear-proof trash receptacles, aluminum can recycling, 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 trailhead parking fee.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 8830 feet
  • Ending elevation: 13,110 feet
  • Net elevation: 4280
  • Distance: 27.0 miles, round trip
  • Maps: maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

The net elevation gain is a little misleading here due to the fact that several peaks are visited on this scramble. The GPS record indicates that you’ll be ascending about 5100 feet and descending 2400 feet on the first day. The second day involves a gain of 3300 feet and a descent of 5980 feet.

Hike Description:

Day 1.

Montane grasslands, burn-scarred forest, high peaks and New Mexican skies.

Pecos Baldy (leftmost summit) & East Pecos Baldy (right end of the high ridge)

The hike from the trailhead to Pecos Baldy Lake is a national treasure. The route descriptions for East Pecos Baldy and Truchas Peak (exploratory) both rave over the glories of this segment. Interested readers can click through to get details. To summarize, you hike along a scrupulously maintained tread (Beatty’s Trail #25 to Jack’s Creek Trail #257) that will bring you through Douglas fir forest, high montane grasslands, distinct groves of aspen and spruce, a short stretch of burned forest, thickets of corkbark fir and Engleman spruce – all in the company of spectacular views into the the Sangre de Cristo Range and the headwaters of the Pecos River. If this doesn’t have you humming “The Sound Of Music” then nothing will.

04 East Pecos Baldy above Pecos Baldy Lake

East Pecos Baldy from Pecos Baldy Lake

After hiking 7.4 miles from the trailhead come to the intersection of the Jack’s Creek Trail #257 with the Skyline Trail Trail #251. A short distance above this intersection the Jack’s Creek Trail enters the basin where Pecos Baldy Lake sits below East Pecos Baldy. Fire is not permitted within 200 feet of the lake, so it is probably best to retreat back to the Skyline trail. Here you can head west (go left on ascent) to several campsites that have great views of both East Pecos Baldy and the lake. These are sites are exposed, however, so they may not be the first choice under windy conditions. Less dramatic but better protected sites can be found on the Skyline Trail just east of the junction. This is a popular destination so it pays to arrive early. Set up your camp and re-pack your bag for the trip up to Pecos Baldy.

View of grass covered saddle at junction of Skyline Trail and E. Pecos Baldy Summit Trail, the latter marked by paired cairns across the grassy saddle

East Pecos Baldy Summit Trail signpost (twin-cairns are below the left edge of the Skyline sign, click to enlarge.)

The ascent to Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy begins by hiking west on the Skyline trail as it traverses the rim of the basin. (A description of the East Pecos Baldy route under snowy conditions can be found here). At the basin’s edge the trail goes by a sign reminding east-bound hikers that fires are not allowed near the lake. Here the trail forks. Go right onto the more-traveled fork. The tread meets a steep-sided and heavily forested rib and begins to rise. Crossing a broad, swale-like drainage the trail pokes over the far bank onto terrain that is very steep indeed. Alarmed, the trail switchbacks abruptly and clings to the side of the swale, which is also steep. The tread twists as it pushes through the trees, but eventually makes a convincing turn westward (to your right on ascent) and begins a long leg that emerges from the forest onto a grassy saddle. In the saddle you will find a signed junction with the East Pecos Baldy Summit Trail #275.

click to enlarge

View to Pecos Baldy (left) and the Obligatory Gratuitous Bump (center)

The sign may be obvious but the Summit Trail is faint. For guidance, look across the saddle and on the far side you will see a pair of cairns. Pass between them and you will find yourself on the tread. The trail takes you up over talus and scree, weaving between widely-spaced spruce. The angle is steep and the air will be thin. Take time to look around – is that Penitente Peak, over there by Santa Fe Baldy? Eventually, at about 1 mile from camp, the trail reaches the ridgeline. You could turn right for nearly instant gratification in bagging the summit of East Pecos Baldy, but for now turn to the left and study it’s western neighbor, Pecos Baldy.

click to enlarge

East Pecos Baldy viewed from top of the Obligatory Gratuitous Bump

The view is of a ridge connecting Baldies east and west, interrupted by the usual Obligatory Gratuitous Bump (OGB: a firm reminder that convenience is not a major force in epeirogenesis). Descend towards the bump along a climber’s tread. This is an arctic-alpine environment graced by lichen and glittering with metamorphic rock. (I met a NMU geologist here, who was kindly identified the glittering material as quartzite). The boot path reaches to the top of the OGB and then nearly disappears. There is good reason for this; from the top of the bump you get an excellent closeup view of the ascent to Pecos Baldy and it isn’t for everyone. Take a good look and poll your party. Is everyone OK with off-trail terrain that is steep and (in places) somewhat exposed? After all, you do have the option of bagging East Pecos Baldy and getting back to camp in time for a well earned supper!

click to enlarge

View, off-route, across grass-lined avalanche chute to a rib.

Those chosing to continue should descend from the bump to saddle below the summit block. The terrain falls sharply away from both sides of the saddle, making the ascent along the ridge’s rocky spine the only obvious option. The initial pitch is straightforward. Generally stay on the spine, but watch for several stretches where you can get off the spine to the south (your left, on ascent) wherever you see a boot path left by earlier climbers. Eventually you will come to a decision point where you could lateral south across a grass-lined avalanche chute or continue up the spine as it starts to soar. (I started into that chute but turned back, the footing is sketchy).

click to enlarge

View from Pecos Baldy to Truchas Peak massif (center) and Chimayosos (on left)

Stick close to the rocky spine and climb in class 2-to-3 terrain up to a shoulder. The protected areas along the steep spine hold a dwarf evergreen that may be bristlecone pine. It certainly bristles! Those sharp-pointed green needles can pierce unwary fingertips. It is easy hiking from the shoulder to the summit. Be sure to study the Truchas massif to the north – that’s your destination tomorrow. Return to camp the way you came, but take a minute to walk to the summit of East Pecos Baldy and it’s dizzying view down to Pecos Baldy Lake.

Day 2.

click to enlarge

Trailrider’s Wall (center), Truchas and North Truchas Peaks (horizon)

From camp head east on the overlapping Skyline Trail/Jack’s Creek Trail. The trail initially winds through evergreen forest, emerging to view montane grasslands at about 0.6 miles from camp. Here you will find a junction where the Jack’s Creek Trail departs due east (to your right on ascent). Stay on the Skyline trail (to your left on ascent) as it swings north and enters the grasslands. At 1.1 miles from camp there are striking views to a set of cliff bands below you (called the Trailrider’s Wall) and glimpses of Truchas Peak, North Truchas Peak and Chimayosos Peak. Keep your camera out because the views will keep coming from this point forward.

click to enlarge

Bighorn lambs and ewes – fierce guardians of the Skyline

This ridge-top trail is obvious and frequently marked by large cairns – several over five feet tall. It may be that these stone monuments are meant to guide skiers during the spring backcountry season. Or they could be the work of hikers caught in the throws of grandeur-induced delirium. You can’t be sure. The tread twists, rises and falls as it sticks to the ridge top. High winds are a common occurrence so keep a jacket handy near the top of your pack. There are signed junctions for trails coming in from the west (to your left on ascent), but these trails are extremely faint. It may be helpful to know that these trails lead to Trail #164, which parallels the Skyline Trail on the the west side of the ridge where it may be less windy. At 2.3 miles from camp the Skyline makes its sole switchback, gently descending into the low saddle below Truchas Peak.

click to enlarge

Grassland, forest, Obligatory Gratuitous Bump II (left peak) and summit (right peak)

In this low saddle, about 2.8 miles from camp, come to lonely signpost indicating that the Skyline trail is about to depart the ridge by descending to the east (to your right on ascent). Here you will be going off-trail so take a moment to study the terrain ahead. You need to cross another half mile of grassland, ascend through forest, and then gain a middle saddle on the broad rib leading up to Truchas. Between the middle saddle and the true summit is a false summit (Obligatory Gratuitous Bump II), that you must either climb or circumnavigate. You can presume that there is a short descent on the far side of this bump to a high saddle, then a long slog up a boulder field to where the rib meets the ridgeline a little west of the summit.

12 mystery construction project below OGB II

Construction ruins and the boulder-strewn face of OGB II (right)

Once your mental map is ready go off-trail directly towards Truchas Peak. There are hints of a tread across the grassland, but it is easier to watch for cairns. These will take you into the forested stretch. At the edge of the forest you will find an obvious tread, so navigation is not a problem. At 3.4 miles from camp the forest thins and you enter the middle saddle you spotted from below. In the center of the middle saddle there is a strange gouge in the grass – the ruins of an old construction project of no discernible purpose. It is, however, a great landmark for your return.

click to enlarge

Cairn atop OGB II and view to the true summit of Truchas Peak

From here you must either ascend Obligatory Gratuitous Bump II or circumnavigate it. The latter is possible, but poses navigation problems. The terrain on the southwest side of the Bump is broken by gullies slashed into the bedrock – all these gullies are steep and all are vertically walled. More will be said about the problem towards the end of this route description, but for now suffice to say that only scramblers with robust navigational skills should opt for this approach. Navigation is trivial, however, if you simply ascend the south face of OGB II. You may want to put away your hiking poles as there are places where it is convenient to have four firm points of contact with the rock. The terrain slowly turns a bit greener as the angle eases and at 3.7 miles from camp you’ll arrive at the summit cairn atop OGB II. From the cairn descend about 150 vertical feet on easy terrain to the high saddle, directly below the summit block.

13 faint climbers tread on rib leading to main ridge

A faint boot path on the boulder and talus strewn rib

The rib you’ve been following trends north-northwest towards the ridge-line. There is a good climber’s tread, but finding it is a task. The best approach is stay on the top of the rib as you ascend or, wherever that is inconvenient, on the west side of the rib (to your left on ascent). The rib begins to lose definition as you ascend, and you will be simply climbing the south side of the mountain towards the ridge – a little west of the true summit. At 4.2 miles from camp gain the ridge. Pause for a moment to study your entrance point so you know where to depart on descent. Then turn uphill for an easy (if still breathless) ramble to the summit.

click to enlarge

View from Truchas summit to Middle Truchas (left), “Medio” Truchas (center) and North Truchas (right). At far right is Chimayosos.

The top provides a grand view of the world. East lies the famous prominences of the Santa Fe Mountains including Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak. North lies the remaining Truchas massif and the enormous tumult of the Sangre de Cristo range, extending all the way into Colorado. West lies Chimayosos Peak and the headwaters of the Pecos River. South lies Pecos Baldy, the long valley carved by the Pecos River and the southern limits of the Sangre de Cristo range.

15 OGB II from summit, trail goes from saddle to cliff at right

View down to OGB II and trails leading west (rightward) around the bump.

The southern view also includes the high saddle (uphill of OGB II). You will see a couple goat trails that lead from this saddle toward a cliff band on the west side of the Bump. This is a usable alternative to re-climbing OGB II. Follow these trails and you will go past the foot of a cliff face, after which you will come to the first of three rock-walled gullies. It doesn’t seem to be especially tractable at first and it may be tempting to turn back and just climb the wretched bump! But look closely and you can find a steep, gravelly path that gets you into the highest reaches of the gully bed. On the far side there is a steep but short ascent up the opposing rock wall. (This point might be particularly hard to discover if you were on ascent, which is why it is recommended that most scramblers simply climb the Bump). From the top of far wall you can see the middle saddle with its peculiar ruins, but as you descend towards it you encounter a second gully. The trick is to ascend since the origins of the gully are not far above your head. Then, on your way back to that saddle, you should pass above a third gully. If you should run into this third gully then repeat the climb-and-traverse trick. From there it is easy to get to the saddle and return the way you came in.

Recommendations:

Do this scramble! (But first see the comments below).

The trail up to Pecos Baldy Lake is very popular and many of the campers at the lake will also ascend to East Pecos Baldy. In contrast, the other legs of this scramble are quite lonesome. Make certain that someone knows your intended route and your estimated time of return.

Acute mountain sickness is genuinely possible on this scramble. Truchas Peak is the second highest peak in New Mexico. At 13,108 feet it is 608 feet higher than the altitude where airplane pilots are required to use oxygen when flying with passengers. Visiting scramblers should be given opportunity to acclimate before the hike. Do know the signs and symptoms for acute mountain sickness and it’s more severe forms, HAPE and HACE. An excellent discussion can be found at altitude.org

Pick a nicer day!

Author on Truchas summit, about to be rained on.

Don’t be like me! It was unwise to press forward on a monsoon morning where cumulus clouds were obviously building. By pure luck the storms passed to the south of me, but thunder is an dangerous sort of background music for long ridge rambles.

I think that elk hunting season is open – at least I talked to two hunters who were inquiring after elk sightings. Other hunting seasons (fall turkey season) have definitely started. A bit of orange gear would not be out of place.

Links:

In an exploratory route description I mentioned posts at ChrisGoesHiking, Sam at Landscape Imagery, and an overview article at SummitPost as being useful guides for folks interested in this route to Truchas Peak.

Otherwise the online material is surprisingly scant. Some of the most popular sources, including Peakware and HikeArizona, did not provide the kind of information I thought was needed. Treat this as further evidence of how lonesome this scramble can be.

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. This 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.