This is a beautiful, lasso-style loop into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is more lonely than the tread to Santa Fe Baldy, although the trail gains almost the same altitude and offers a chance to explore three named peaks. It is not recommended if your party has just flown in from Boston or San Diego, but for those who’ve acclimated this is a fantastic entrance to the Pecos WildernessPecos WildernessPecos Wilderness.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico:
- Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
- After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
- After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
- After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
- After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
- After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.
All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.
The trailhead has vault toilets and is paved. There is a piece of equipment that looks like a water outlet, but it was not working. The Rio Medio runs past the parking lot, but it is strongly advised that you treat that water before using. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and can get crowded. On this weekend REI was in the ski area parking lot offering Clif bars and introductory classes on map-and-compass work.
- Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
- Ending Elevation: 12,409 feet
- Net Gain: 2,160 feet
- Distance: 10.8 miles round trip
- Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe). The portion of the hike from Raven’s Ridge to Lake Peak is not shown as a trail on the USGS map.
From the trailhead, cross the Rio Medio (here, a small stream) on a plank bridge and intersect Trail 254, the Winsor Trail. Turn right and follow the Winsor Trail along the stream for about 100 yards where it switchbacks and pulls away from the river. The trail is very popular and beautifully maintained. It gains about 600 feet in the first 0.8 miles, where it comes to an attractive wooden fence atop Raven Ridge. Trail 254 worms through a needles eye in the fence and drops the Rio Nambe basin. Instead, turn right and begin following trail 251, the Raven’s Ridge Route, eastward as the tread surges into the sky.
Enter a fir, spruce and aspen wood where the fence becomes a very business-like barbed wire assembly. it can’t be easy to haul fencing material up this way, yet the fence is being carefully maintained. Hikers should maintain awareness of the barbs, since the trail can brush quite close to the wires. The tread rises pretty steadily, with agreeable terrain benches occasionally breaking the monotony. Patches of aspen alternate with patches of spruce and fir, although by the time you arrive at 11,000 feet the aspens have almost completely disappeared. At just over 11,300 feet (about 1.5 miles from the trailhead) the trail hits a canyon rim above Nambe Lake, the headwaters of the Rio Nambe. Stroll a bit off-trail, to the rim, and look up to your right for initial views to the toothy precipice that is Lake Peak.
Turn left and follow the trail as it ascends, just a little west of south and braids out in open conifer forest. Stick close to the rib that overlooks Nambe Lake. On this date the reason for that carefully maintained fenced became evident, as it was necessary to pick a path between somewhat skittish cattle (at 11,500 feet, by far that highest herd I’ve ever encountered). Cattletude! The trail bumps along here, sometimes losing but more often gaining against the pull of gravity. At about 2.1 miles the trail hits a major bump and views begin to open to the grassy summit block of Deception Peak. The trail drops a surprising way to a saddle, then pushes boldly into the open terrain and on to gain the summit at 12,240 feet and 2.8 miles from the trailhead. Even in late July the winds can be very chilly! The views are great, but there is this deceptive, just-barely-higher, chunk-o-granite that blocks the full 360-degree panorama. So, grab a bite to eat, take a swig of water, and drop down a little as you head southeast towards Lake Peak.
The drop into the first notch is quick and neither exposed nor challenging. However, at this first notch you must make a decision. You can take a high route that involves scrambling up from the notch and over boulders on a narrow ridge. This route is reported to involve exposed, class 3 climbing moves. Alternatively, you can descend to the south on open, steep and crumbly terrain to gain a foot trail that is visible about 15 feet below the notch. The guys in front of me seemed to be unaware of the difficulty of the upper passage and had to turn around. I took the lower route on this day and enjoyed the mildly exposed and steep terrain in sub-alpine woodlands very much.
Keep an eye on that ridge above you, it doesn’t take long to traverse below the worst of it. At about 3.1 miles from the trailhead (or about a quarter mile from the summit of Deception) scramble up a set of rocky gullies to regain the ridge and an easy amble to the top of Lake Peak. To the south is the broad canyon that forms the headwaters of the Santa Fe River. To the west (if you backtrack a few yards) are views to the rocky ridge that leads back to Deception. To the north is Santa Fe Baldy. Just a little east of Santa Fe Baldy are views to East Pecos Baldy, West Pecos Baldy, Chimayosos Peak and Truchas (“trout”) Peak. Immediately to the west is the grassy table-top of Penitente Peak. Beyond Penitente lies the heart of the Pecos Wilderness.
Is the sky threatening? Then hurry back the way you came. If the skies are clear then plot a course east, following a steep path in the direction of Penitente Peak. This part of the tread descends briskly in subalpine forest to a col immediately below the summit block of Penitente and 3.6 miles from the trailhead. Strangely, the trail does not go to the summit, but rather contours around to the south. (This may be welcome if the weather is degrading). Leave the trail at the col and strike out directly for the summit on open and grassy terrain. You will gain 200 feet and arrive at 12,249 feet where there is a well-constructed summit wind-break (but no summit register that I could find). Celebrate the last summit of the day! Then note that there are no obvious trails on the summit, despite all the work that went into that wind break. Strike off north east, descending the long axis of this near-plateau. Where the table-top begins to fall off steeply you will regain Trail 251, the SkyLine trail.
This trail takes you into the hanging valley between Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak. The descent is on switchbacks so broad that sometimes they seem to be taking you away from the valley. Don’t panic. It is all part of the game plan. At 6 miles from the trailhead reach a saddle where terrain descending from Penitente Peak collides with terrain descending from Santa Fe Baldy. This gap, called Puerto Nambe, separates the Rio Nambe drainage flowing west into the Rio Grande and the Windsor Creek/Holy Ghost Creek drainages that flow east into the Pecos River. At Puerto Nambe the Sky Line Trail intersects with Trail 254, the Winsor Trail.
Turn west (left) onto the Winsor Trail and follow it into the open terrain of Nambe Meadows at 6.4 miles. The trail is broad, sometimes stony, but carefully engineered and signed. In the meadows the Sky Line Trail will depart to the northeast (for Lake Katherine), but stay on the Winsor Trail if you wish to return to the trailhead. The trail descends a few hundred feet from Nambe Meadows, crosses several small drainages that feed into Rio Nambe, and then begins a miles-long ramble below the faces of Penitente, Lake and Deception peaks. At 10 miles from the trailhead return to the fence atop Raven’s Ridge. You’ve completed the loop portion of this hike. Go through the fence opening and take off downhill. Return to the trailhead having hiked about 10.8 miles.
I had four liters of water and still had a liter left at the end of the hike. Unless you’re hiking on a very hot day that should be enough.
During monsoon season get an early start. That way you going in the cool of the morning and it will help get you off very exposed ridge lines before the afternoon storms appear. I haven’t done much hiking in this area myself, but all the guidance I’ve seen suggests that it’s best to be below treeline before 1:oo p.m., although that is just the most general kind of guidance.
Due to the presence of cattle and the sketchy nature of the trail in some places you may want to leave your pets at home. If you do take Rover along, then I’d strongly recommend against trying the upper route from the notch below Deception Peak.
This is a route that begs for zoom lenses. (Which I did not have, alas). If you’ve got an old point-and-shoot at home you should dig it out rather than rely on cellphone cameras.
Like all loops you can hike it either counterclockwise (as described here) or clockwise. The counterclockwise route gets the heavy climbing in early, when hikers are still fresh. This is going to be the more enjoyable direction for most parties.
The OutBound blog has some nice photos, check out the images of the narrow ridge between Deception and Lake Peak.
This post on the Hiking Project has a description of this hike, a map, and evidently managed to get a dog across the narrow ridge!
Summit Post has detailed trailhead directions and some spectacular images of Lake and Deception in winter time.
There is a cool discussion of the area’s geology at Geological Joy New Mexico. It uses Google Earth to position a view into the cirque that holds Nambe Lake, giving you a fine chance to pick out the arrangement of Deception, Lake and Penitente peaks.
The Santa Fe New Mexican (local newspaper) has an article on hiking in the area. It is notable for covering nearly all the basic concerns about hiking around Santa Fe.