Archives for posts with tag: Southwest
01 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch (in shadow) from clifftop turnaround point

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

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

Trailhead:

02 Rim view of trailhead

NM-117 and trailhead seen from ledge

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

03 Lava hummocks in malpais

Lava hummocks in malpais and distant cinder cones

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

04 cobbled trail with cairn

Cobbled trailbed with cairn

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

05 sChain Of Craters cinder cones and distant Escondido Mountain

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

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

06 Tinaja and Ponderosa

Sandy depression in the sandstone

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

07 kipuka (narrow band of forest) below horizon

Kipuka in the middle distance

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

08 Mt Taylor across a sea of lava

Hazy Mt Taylor in the far distance

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

Recommendations:

10 Ventana Arch

Ventana Arch in the midway sun.

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

Alamo Canyon

Overview:

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

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

Trailhead:

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

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

Data:

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

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

Hike Description:

View from Frijoles Canyon rim to the Tyuonyi talus houses

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

Pinyon pine, juniper and the San Miguel Mountains

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

At rim of the first canyon on the Middle Alamo Trail

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

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

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

Entrance to Lommis Canyon

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

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

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

Ponderosa bole in front of the southwest wall of Alamo Canyon

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

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

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

Yapashi ruins – possibly a pit house

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

Shrine of the Stone Lions

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

Recommendations:

Closeup of the impressive Tyuonyi circular pueblo

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

 

 

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!

 

 

Avalanche fans and cornices on Jicarita ridgeline

Overview:

Serpent Lake is a gorgeous mountain tarn sheltered below the massive ridge leading to Jicarta Peak. Currently Serpent Lake is not frozen, even though the trail is under snow. The trail is well blazed, but navigation will be remain a challenge as long as the snow lasts.  The view to the ridge suggests that there remains numerous glissade lines for adventurous springtime hikers to enjoy. Get your favorite adventurers together and get up there!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25, in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for the NM-599 Santa Fe Bypass.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left onto NM-599.
  • After 13.2 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-285/US-84 North
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-285/US-84 North
  • After 14.5 miles, at a light, go right onto NM-503 (Nambe Road)
  • After 7.5 miles go left onto Juan Medina Road (County Road 98). There are no stop lights, but signs before the junction indictate that the turn is for the “High Road to Taos Scenic Byway” and the way to “Santuario de Chimaya / Chimaya”
  • After 3.5 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-76. After 8.2 miles NM-76 makes a 90-degree left-hand turn, while a different road goes straight ahead into Truchas, NM. Just before the turn watch for signs for the “High Road to Taos Scenic Byway” with an arrow pointing left, and a sign for “Ojo Sarco / Penasco / Taos”
  • After 21.6 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-75
  • After 6.9 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-518.
  • After 13.7 miles go right onto Forest Service Road 161. There is a sign on NM-518 before the junction. This road turns to gravel immediately after the cattle guard.
  • After 4.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of the road.

If you plan on returning along the same route then be aware that the turn from NM-76 onto Juan Medina is a little obscure. On your return along NM-76 watch for a signed intersection for NM-503 then, 1.8 miles further, come to the junction with Juan Medina. This junction is signed for “Santuario de Chimaya”

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead is simply a broad gravel pad with a Forest Service trailhead board. The service has put posts into the pad to mark out parking for trucks pulling horse trailers. Please give these spots as much space as possible as it takes some room to maneuver the trailers into position.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 10,400 feet
  • highest elevation: 11,840 feet
  • net elevation: 1,440 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: 4.1 miles

Hike Description:

A snow-free start to Serpent Lake

Currently the Serpent Lake Trail is about 90 percent under snow. Most of the time the trail makes an obvious corridor through the trees, but care is needed least you stray from the corridor. From the trailhead follow a broad, snow-free two-track to the west. In about 400 feet come to a signed junction. The Angostura Trail #493 goes to your right, while the Serpent Lake Trail #19 and the Santa Barbara Trail both go to the left. Turn left and head into the trees. On this date the snow began almost immediately.  In about 200 more feet the Santa Barbara Trail departs to the left, although it isn’t easy to discern exactly where. Fortunately you need only stay on the broad two-track as it heads to Serpent Lake. It soon swings to the right, crossing the bottom of an unnamed drainage.

Junction with Angostura Cutoff

At 0.6 miles from the trailhead, come to a junction where the Angostura cutoff trail trail departs to the north (to your right on ascent). Stay left as the Serpent Lake trail begins a long, slow, ascending traverse across the southern wall of the Rito Angostura drainage. At 0.8 miles from the trailhead the trail rises to a remarkable flow of water that insists on gushing across the slopes rather than down. This is the La Sierra Ditch, which brings water to farms and gardens in the Holman Valley. The flow of water can be pretty strong. On the left side of the crossing there may be a log that bridges the ditch. Some generous soul had left a long aspen pole for hikers to brace themselves while making the crossing – very useful. If there is no log then you will probably get your feet wet. Not that it matters – warm temperatures convert the top couple inches of snow to a slushy consistency and this will wet your boots soon enough.

Blaze with ax-edge lines in the sapwood

Study the blazes on the trees alongside the trail. They will be an important part of navigating your way back down the mountain. Most of the blazes are single, ax-hewn slices that peel away the bark and leave the underlying sapwood exposed. It can be easy to confuse these deliberate markings with ordinary bark-damage, so it pays to train your eye to look for the lines that the ax-edge leaves in the sapwood. At about 1.9 miles from the trailhead the traverse ends. The trail turns sharply south (to your left on ascent) and begins a short series of small switchbacks that soon turns into a straight-uphill climb. Study this right-angle turn – it can be easy to miss on descent.

Twin blazes

The ascent is not particularly steep – Jicarita Peak has massive cliffs in its highest reaches but down here the grade is quite gentle.  Even under snow the trail has a distinctive, gully-like shape accented by the fact that the east-facing side of the trail (on your right going uphill) melts out quite a lot faster than the west-facing side. It offers a fairly bold corridor through the trees but take care to track the blazes. There are several spots where I thought I was on the obvious corridor but, “blazes!”, decided I had to scout downhill for a more useful tread.

Well signed wilderness

At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, at about 11,600 feet, come to a sign for Carson National Forest. It was about here that I noticed that the single-blaze that characterized the start of the trail was now a double-blaze, usually a small cut above a larger cut into the bark. I can’t say for certain, but this change may be due to an intersection with the Santa Barbara Trail. On descent, make certain you stay on the Serpent Lake trail.  The Santa Barbara leads back to the same trailhead but it is considerably more difficult to follow.  You are now in high terrain – signaled by an abundance of corkbark fir and Englemann spruce.

View into Serpent Lake basin

Shortly after the sign, at about 3.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail briefly levels as it contours below the top of Point 10899 (as denoted on the USGS quadrangle) and then descends to a saddle. At the saddle find two signs, one indicating that you’re about midway between the Santa Barbara campground and the Agua Piedra campground. The second, a few feet away, points to the branch trail leading to Serpent Lake.  On this date I poked a bit further along the main trail, hoping to get above the trees to photograph the ridge. That was neither successful nor necessary – the short side trip down to Serpent Lake opens spectacular views. Have a bite to eat and watch for marmots. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author at Serpent Lake

The deep snowpack makes it pretty easy to get misplaced in the woods. You will want a map, compass, and GPS. Wands could be helpful if you are heading into open snowfields below Jicarita summit.

A liter of water met my immediate needs on this cool spring day.

I was fortunate to be on Jicarita on a calm day. Others, however, have commented on how extraordinarily windy this hike can be (see below). If the weather forecast is for strong winds then it might be a good idea to pick another hike. FS-161 is a long trip through a badly stressed forest. Your return could be livened-up by deadfall. It may be a good idea to have an ax and saw in your vehicle. If you are going earlier in the year (or on a snowier year) then you may need chains for your car as well.

The sun reflects off of the snow’s surface with remarkable efficiency. Protect the bottom of your nose and ears. If you’re hiking in shorts then give consideration to the back of your knees as well.

This is high terrain. If members of your party are not well acclimated then you might want to review the altitude sickness symptoms described here.

Links:

Cindy Brown, at the Taos News, has a write-up of the trail as you might expect to find it later in the season. She mentions the possibility of seeing marmots and big-horn sheep.

The New Mexico Backpackers Meetup group has posted some nice photos here. These are from an October trip and are snow-free, but they suggest that spectacular views awake hikers who get to the summit.

A similar trip report, from an August trip, can be found at the Los Alamos Mountaineers site.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a June post, which has a good trail description and makes note of the extreme winds that can be encountered even below the ridgeline.

Overview:

The Domingo Baca Canyon Trail, the La Luz Trail and the Crest Spur Trail form the uphill section of a loop that begins in Albuquerque and leaps to the highest point in the Sandia Mountains. The Crest Trail and the Pino Canyon Trail form the downhill portion of the loop from the summit back to Albuquerque. This is a seriously strenuous scramble. Readers who have just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail will find it mildly diverting. Ordinary mortals, however, must use caution. The route up Domingo Baca is a steep and protracted scramble – retreat due to bad weather or under icy conditions is not desirable. The Crest Trail can be a mellow experience, but snow can stress your navigation skills and lightning can spoil your ridge ramble. The final descent through west-facing Pino Canyon will test your water logistics, particularly if it’s warm. The hike is time consuming and the road into the Elana Gallagos Open Space is gated shut (bang!) at 7:00 pm.

That said, this is a hike through the vertiginous dreams of a spaghetti-western director. Go on a day when you’re feeling strong, when the sky is blue, the temperatures are mild, the days have lengthened and the Crest Trail is free of snow.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 heading north in Albuquerque, take exit 232 for El Paso Del Norte (NM 423). Stay to the right.
  • After 0.1 miles veer right at a secondary off-ramp signed for El Paso Del Norte East. This puts you in the left-hand lane of a 3-lane frontage road. It will help if you can get into either of the right-hand lanes.
  • After another 0.4 miles the frontage road arrives at the intersection with El Paso Del Norte East (NM 423) where it forks around a traffic island. Stay to the right of the island and turn right (east) onto NM 423.
  • After 4.8 more miles arrive at a T-intersection with Tramway Blvd (NM 556). Turn right (south) onto NM 556.
  • After 1.2 miles, after a very slight bend to the right, look for Sims Park on your left. Just before the intersection there is a roadside sign for Elena Gallegos Park Road on the right side of the road. The Sims Park intersection does not have a traffic light. Go left (east) onto Sims Park Road.
  • After 1.3 miles arrive at the guard station for the park. On the south side of the station is a self-service pay station. After paying, follow the road as it curves tightly behind the guard station and then starts back towards the west. Immediately on the right will be a road headed north. Currently the only road sign says “Kiwanas”. Go right (north) onto this road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at the Cottonwood trailhead and park.

Trailhead:

The entry fee is currently $2.00 on weekends and $1.00 on weekdays. Put the envelope stub close to the windshield. The park has covered picnic tables and there are vault toilets just before the trailhead (on the right, screened by junipers). I did not see any water. The park is popular and on weekends parking can be scarce. The park is gated after hours (currently it is open until 7:00, check with the park’s website). There are several online reports of car break-ins. It may be wise to keep your gear out of sight.

Data:

loop profile

  • Starting Elevation: 6400 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,670 feet
  • Net Gain: 4270 feet
  • Distance: 15.4 miles (round trip).
  • Maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle

Hike Description:

Proto-hoodoos above Domingo Baca Trail

From the trailhead follow trail 230A (signed) about 100 feet to where it merges with another trail going right (uphill). At 0.5 miles from the trailhead pass an intersection with Trail 342. At 0.7 miles pass a second intersection, this time with Trail 341. Both of the intersecting trails come in from the right, simply keep going straight ahead. At 0.8 miles the trail comes to a third intersection, also signed. Trail 230 goes straight ahead, but go right, past the “Domingo Baca Trail” sign, and onto USFS property. This tread takes aim at a large knoll of tough rock that is being weathered into hoodoos, contours around the base of the knoll, and then drops into the bed of Domingo Baca Canyon.

Stone shelter

Follow the path as it turns up-canyon and dives between canyon walls north and south. As you ascend the walls begin to pull together. Nearing the pinch point you will find the remains of a rough stone shelter, about 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Push through the narrows and into a bowl with good views of the high terrain that is your destination. Looking about you will see pinyon pines, an indication that you’re transitioning out of the Upper Sonoran life zone. On this date there was water to be found in the canyon bed.

Sandy tread and arrowhead boulder at junction where you leave the gully

The first navigation challenge comes at about 1.8 miles from the trailhead where you must leave the waterway. Watch for a section where you pull out from under dense canopy, passing a table-like rock about 10-foot long and 3-foot high on your right and then onto a 15-foot stretch of sandy tread. Here you might find that the path upstream is blocked with a pile of branches (although any floodwater is likely to make short work of that). A better indicator is a blocky, whitish boulder that presents an arrowhead silhouette to hikers coming up the trail. To your left there will be an obvious path up the north wall of the gully. Don’t take that! Instead, look to your right for an obscure, rough, rock-strewn tread up the south wall of the gully. Take that.

Stony path up and out of the gully

Above the gully the tread heads out on pleasant, nearly level terrain. The path goes almost due east until it begins to run up against the walls of the bowl, then swings a bit more northerly. Somehow, unnoticed, a rocky wall 20-feet high has crept up on your left side. A stream bed (with running water on this date) has formed beside the trail. Growth in this portion of the canyon is exuberant. Even the scrub oak and the juniper bushes have formed serious boles and are jostling for skyshare. The terrain begins to steepen. Waterfalls form in the stream bed.

Enormous pines and soaring rocky spires

At 2.7 miles the trail takes a turn to the north, seeming to pull away from the main flow of the canyon. The path now takes dead aim at an immense pair of rocky spires that tower above your head. Strange sounds penetrate the forest that soon resolve as coming from the high wires of the Tramway. You may see the tram itself pause overhead and hear amplified guide-patter coming from above. Wild, yes. Untrammeled? Not so much. As you ascend higher into the canyon the trail goes directly below the Tramway then slowly pulls away.

Boulder scramble near the TWA site

At about 3.4 miles from the trailhead come to a boulder pile obstructing the canyon bed. Most people will find this an easy challenge, provided that your boots are dry and rock is free of ice or snow. A log braced against the lower rock gives you access to a shelf about half way up, then it is a matter of creeping carefully past the uppermost boulder to regain the trail. If you have party members who are not comfortable with this level of exposure there is an alternative route. You can find the junction just a short distance down-stream, adjacent to a thick, 20-foot tall snag in the middle of the trail. (A detailed discussion and a GPS track can be found in the Ondafringe link, below).

View down-canyon over the memorial site

A short distance above, at the foot of a cliff, come to the site where TWA flight 260 met its end. The trail jogs to your left and tracks a sobering story expressed in shredded aluminum and smashed engine blocks. In an otherwise spectacular canyon – soaring rock walls spaced only 20 or 30 feet apart – this sad tail of lost lives and concentrated wreckage seems to never end. Scramblers take heed, experts attribute this disaster to a failure of the aircraft’s compass. This is a memorial site, please leave the debris where it fell.

Cliff face above navigation problem – go to the right of the cliff

Few hikers climb above the crash site so it is not surprising that the tread becomes much fainter above the narrows. Keep to the canyon bottom which trends just a little east of north. At 3.8 miles, about 9000 feet of altitude, come to another potential navigation problem. A huge cliff face drops right to your boots. There is one opening to its left and one opening to its right. Which to choose? The map will show that I explored the left-hand option first (see the little stub going off to the northeast). Most navigators, however, will point to the obvious tread tucked up against the eastern wall of the “above-right” canyon and ascend in that direction.

Tunnel through the oak thickets

It now gets steep and you enter a scrub oak thicket. If it were completely untouched then passage would be impossible. Fortunately, kind and unbelievably strong volunteers have lugged saws and brush clippers into this high realm. Take advantage of their handiwork. This might be a good place to stop for a bite to eat and careful consideration of your next move. Is the weather still good? Is the party OK with the altitude? Great! If not, then a return from this point will be a great deal easier than retreat from the ever-steeper bowl above.

Down canyon view from grassy shelf

Clamber the slopes, side hilling where the soil shows signs of releasing from under your boots. The tread ascends straight up the hill without pause or apology. Practice you rest-step and remember to look over your shoulders for intense views through the narrow canyons and out onto the Albuquerque basin. At 4.4 miles come to a pleasant surprise. The thickets give way to a narrow grassy shelf and the terrain above, while still steep, is open. You may hear voices from hikers above you. There does not seem to be any obvious tread off of the shelf. For the sake of keeping the grasses (and soil) in place it is best to make your own careful zig-zags up the slope. At 4.5 miles make a glad entrance onto La Luz Trail.

Cliff bands above the La Luz Trail

Turn west (to your left, looking uphill) and follow the La Luz as it contours around a ships-bow buttress and heads north towards a small saddle. In the saddle find a signed junction with the Crest Spur Trail. That is your path to the Crest House on Sandia Summit.

Summit view of south Sandia Crest

Reach the summit having hiked 5.7 miles from the trailhead. There is a cafe in the Crest House and it is a rare luxury to sit atop a summit with hot coffee paired to your chips and salsa. There ought to be great views all around, although on this day the haze made it hard to pick out even Mt Taylor. Cast your eye over the parking lot and sympathize with those overheated engines.

Summit view down onto La Luz switchbacks

After refueling, find the Crest Trail going south from the Crest House and towards the tramway. This portion of the hike sees very heavy use and the tread is initially paved. The trail soon departs from the crest top and drops a short distance to the east. Numerous trailside signs identify Corkbark Fir and Englemann Spruce, conifers from high in the Canadian Zone. On this date there was as much as two feet of snow remaining on the ground. Put on your gaiters and don the microspikes. The trail is obvious and icy for long stretches. Then, for no clear reason, the beaten track will braid out into individual boot prints. Pick a line that parallels the crest and continue south. The tread skirts below a stone building called the Kiwanis Cabin, reaches an overlook and then descends westerly along a large field called Kiwanis meadow. At the low end of the meadow return to the Crest trail and continue south, reaching the Tramway at 7.1 miles from the trailhead.

View from tramway back towards the summit

Thread through the tramway/ski area complex (this involves staircases) and at the forest’s edge find a signed return to the Crest Trail. There is a marked reduction in trail usage here. Post-holing through deep and/or rotten snow can be tiring and slow. That 7:00 pm gate time can begin to seem worrisome. You can’t be certain of being on the trail when it is snow covered. When in doubt, return to the edge of the crest and push south. At 8.1 miles come to an overlook with great views of the crest to the south, marked as Point 9835 on the map. Looking ahead you will see, below you, a buttress on the crest bulging out to the west and, beyond the buttress, a higher stretch of ridgeline with a large bump on its southmost extremity. That bump is very close to the Pino Canyon Trail junction.

View across the saddle that contains the Pino Canyon Trail junction

The terrain forces you west from Point 9835. At about 9600 feet altitude you may find yourself returning to the tracks on the Crest Trail. On this date it was quite distinctive – leaves and needles seem to accumulate in the trough beaten into the snow. Follow it south as it contours around the east side of big bump to reach the signed intersection with the Tree Spring Trail and the 10K Trail (8.7 miles from the trailhead). Stay on the Crest trail as it gradually swings to due south. Here you depart from the comfort of hugging the crest and are tracking the ridge you saw from point 9835. This is easy hiking on a tread that rarely departs from the 9400 foot contour line. Eventually it swings a bit more westerly, descending to 9200 feet and at 10.5 miles reaches a saddle and the signed junction with the Pino Trail.

Icy tread on the upper reaches of Pino Canyon

This is a popular trail and just about all navigation issues end at the saddle. Gaiters may no longer be needed. The top of Pino Canyon Trail, however, descends a north-facing canyon wall on closely woven switchbacks. It can be extremely icy. Your weary legs will be happy that you kept those traction devices on! Down and down and down it goes until reaching 8600 feet. From there it takes dead aim at the setting sun and stretches out for Duke City. Pino Canyon has its own somber aspects. A once-magnificent forest occupied this canyon but drought and bark beetle have decimated the middle reaches. The standing deadwood is also something of a threat; be careful if the winds are strong. Look north for views into the spectacular terrain you’ve been traipsing through.

Pino Canyon: green above, dead below.

At 12.7 miles the trail significantly flattens and re-enters the domain of juniper trees and cacti. The tread becomes sandy. At 14.2 miles leave the Cibola National Forest through a gate and return to the foothill trails of the Elena Gallegos Open Space. Almost immediately you will want to go right, through a gate, to stay on the Pino Canyon Trail, #140. This is a long, level, nearly straight-line shot across the open space towards the Pino Canyon Trailhead. Unfortunately, this is not the same trailhead where you left your car. Turn right and continue slogging down the road (paved) to where it returns to the guard house. There, turn north (to your right) past the “Kiwanis” sign and return to your car having hiked 15.4 miles.

Recommendations:

21 Author, summit, Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia summit

If you’re a little worried about the shape you’re in, if you’re hiking with people fresh from sea-level, or if your navigation skills are a little rusty, then why not hike one of the lower legs of this loop? The tread up to the TWA site is challenging and solemn, but it is filled with running streams, attended by soaring canyon walls and populated with tall Ponderosa and thick Douglas fir. The Pino Canyon Trail can’t quite match that solemnity and grandeur, but it is a terrific hike through high terrain on a carefully tended tread.

On a cool, sunny March day I went through about 2.5 liters of water. I would have gone through a lot more but I was in such a hurry at the end that it never came out of my pack. It seems certain that this west-facing hike gets baked during the summer. In those conditions 5 liters might not be sufficient.

Watch the weather. You don’t want to be on the crest when a line of thunderstorms strike. Pick a different hike if it is monsoon season. Similarly, in winter and early spring you can be confident of encountering long icy stretches on the trail. Traction devices are essential. I had a single hiking pole but it would have been helpful to have had a second, especially while punching through snow-crust along the Crest.

It is important to have confidence in your navigation skills. It is even more important to have reason to be confident in your navigation skills. If you are not practiced at working your way through the mountains with a map and compass then this is probably not the place to begin learning. In the same light, pay attention to the members of your party and their experience with off-route situations. If it makes them uncomfortable then you can do everyone a huge favor by picking a different hike.

In a pinch you might have the option of descending either on the Tramway or on La Luz Trail. Just remember that those options terminate quite a long ways north of the trailhead. Alternatively, you might be able to beg a ride from folks who have driven to the summit. It won’t do much for your pride but it might be preferable to an unscheduled “bivy” on the Crest.

On this hike I parked at the trailhead nearest Domingo Baca Canyon. That was a poor choice. It would have been better psychology to park at the Pino Canyon trailhead and get the trudge down the paved roads over with first thing. This map suggests that you could connect to trail 230A from the Pino Canyon trailhead using the “nature trail”, thereby saving some milage and skipping the road trudge entirely!

In good weather the Crest Trail is open for horse riders. If you meet horses on the trail then please step off the trail to the downhill side.

Links:

The TrimbleOutdoors site names this loop the “TWA Canyon Challenge” and provides a brief description and a GPS track. Note that the GPS track doubles-back on itself in several places. This is typical of GPS tracks in narrow canyons. The canyon walls reflect the satellite signals, which renders the tracks (including those shown here) approximate at best. The site describes the tread above the TWA site as “faint”, “little used” and “steep”. All true.

An excellent description of the hike up Domingo Baca Trail to the TWA crash site, which includes some history, numerous photos and instructions for going around the boulder problem, can be found at the ondafringe website. That same site has separate pages here and here describing the Pino Canyon trail along with maps and video.

A short but very detailed description of the Domingo Baca Trail to the TWA site can be found at Cibola Search and Rescue. It’s an older report, from 1997, and some of the details may no longer hold. Neverless, it does emphasize the importance of getting out of the gully in the early part of the trip. It describes the stony exit as a waterfall, which may be the case in wetter years. Better, it tells you what to expect if you happened to stay in the gully and ascend past the exit.

At least one report mentions poison ivy on the trail up to the TWA site. Watch for it as the weather grows warmer. Not certain about ivy spotting? Here is a helpful guide.

A useful description of the lower Domingo Baca trail, along with a table of waypoints, can be found here in the Sandia Mountains Hiking Guide. That same site also has a useful description and maps for a crest-top loop. This loop overlaps with the sections of the La Luz, Crest Spur, and Crest Trail to the Tramway that are described here. (The chief difference is that the crest-top loop goes north from the Tramway to return to the summit, whereas the route described here goes south from the Tramway to descend to Pino Canyon).

The Albuquerque Journal makes mention of the Pino Trail. They rate an up-and-back hike on this trail as difficult. On this loop you would only be doing the “back” portion, but it is worth noting that your one-way leg involves 4.5 miles of hiking and 2800 feet of altitude loss. That could be significant if the exit road is about to be gated.

The Forest Service has a simplified map (not topological) showing most of the route described here. It only shows trails, however, so the off-trail scramble at the top of Domingo Baca Canyon is not depicted.

The Forest service also has a simplified map of the many trails surrounding the Crest House. Give it a glance so you’ll know what kind of snarl you’re going to navigate through.

22 boot trail through woods near summit

Boot trail through the woods near the summit

Weather conditions in the Albuquerque basin can be very different from weather conditions on the Sandia summit, even though they seem adjacent on Google maps. There is, after all, a mile’s difference in altitude between them. The Crest Trail, #130, is within the Cibola National Forest. The Forest Service describes this trail here, and provides contact data. The best way that I know to get information on the state of the Crest Trail is to call the contact number. Currently the phone number for the Sandia Ranger Station is listed as: 505-281-3304.

01 Cabezon Peak

Basaltic columns on south face of Cabezon Peak

Overview:

The trail – the only trail – on Cabezon Peak is a scramble on a massive volcanic plug out in the desert. The plug is one of scores of volcano relics that dot the terrain in the vast Mt Taylor volcanic field, with vistas so broad and exotic that the notion of aliens feeling at home here seems almost reasonable.  Go when the weather is great, go when the day is cool, go when there is time to soak up the views.

This route is one of the most exposed scrambles that has so far appeared in this blog – in places a fall would be costly or fatal. On a per-mile basis it is certainly strenuous. It is usually evaluated as a class 3 route, meaning that most people will not feel the need to be roped in. Acrophobes will not be at all happy here. Very young hikers should not be brought here. On this date a boy scout troop was on the route with experienced leaders. The 11 and 12 year olds seemed to be doing fine.

Driving Directions:

  • Informational sign on BLM 1114 at turn for trailhead road

    Take exit 242 on Interstate-25 (just north of Albuquerque) and go west on US-550. Cabezon Peak comes into view from US-550 a few miles before you turn off for NM-279

  • After 41.6 miles, just past a sign for San Luis, Cabezon and Torreon, take a left onto NM-279 going west. There are a couple things to note about this road:
    • At 8.5 miles the paved road takes an abrupt turn right. Keep going straight ahead onto a gravel road. You’ll come across several signs warning that bad weather can render the dirt road impassable. Judging from the huge ruts in the road, this is entirely believable.
    • At 11.7 miles the road reaches a small rise and swings to your right. Make note as you go by since there is a fork here that is otherwise easy to miss. On return you do not want to go straight, but instead take the more prominent left-hand fork.
  • After 12.3 miles come to a fork and go left onto BLM 1114. I didn’t see a sign, but this will be obvious as the right-fork would take you away from the huge volcanic plug on your left.  Here are some landmarks for this road.
    • At about 0.9 miles past the fork the road pitches over an embankment and descends to the Rio Puerco bottom where it crosses on a bridge. It then winds along the bottom eventually coming out on a steep rise.
    • At 1.9 miles past the fork come to a second fork and, again, go left. As before, this will be obvious since this fork keeps you closest to the mountain.
  • After 2.9 miles, at a minor crest, turn left onto a dirt road. There is a park interpretive sign at the junction. The sign is in the shape of a trapezoid with its shorter base on the bottom. It is nearly illegible. Apparently it has been out in the desert sun for a long time.  You can still make out the words Cabezon Peak if you look closely. The road is not named, but let’s call it Cabezon Trailhead Road.
  • After 1.0 mile, at the end of Cabezon Trailhead Road, come to the trailhead. NOTE: This road is not maintained. If you have a high clearance vehicle you should have no problem here. A family sedan, however, is another matter entirely.  The Camry crawled the length of this road and, later, crawled back out. If the roadbed is even slightly muddy then consider walking the mile to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

There is a trailhead sign and a sturdy, raised, metal platform containing a sign-in sheet. Otherwise there are no trailside services. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6480 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7785 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1305 feet
  • Distance: 1.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Cabezon Peak quadrangle

Description:

Trailhead sign and view to the peak

From the trailhead, look east at the soaring basaltic wall that is Cabezon Peak. At its base is a steep-sided debris field making a “skirt” around the plug. A little to the south you will see a small hillock that the debris field extends towards, but does not bury. Between the hillock and the peak is a small draw. As the trail leaves the trailhead it will be rising on the debris field skirt, ascending along the draw in the direction of the saddle between the peak and the hillock.

View of peak, southern hillock and the draw between them

The initial part of the trail is fairly mellow. The tread is strewn with rock, so it pays to watch your footing. You are, unquestionably, deep into desert terrain. Prickly pear lunges into into the tread at its lowest level and cane cholla does its best to occupy the upper reaches. Tough juniper trees do show up here and there, but there is no protection from the sun. This would be a very hot trek in mid-summer.

The top of a rock fin peeks out from behind the main volcanic plug

Instead of heading to the saddle the trail increases the angle of attack across the debris skirt. It rises much higher than the saddle until it reaches the rib that extends down to the saddle. Here it turns almost directly uphill. Gravel underfoot makes contact with the tread wonderfully uncertain until, at about 0.8 miles, the tread pulls onto a flat spot, drops into a broad declivity dense with junipers and then rises yet a few feet more. As you reach this area you will begin to see a tall fin of rock peeking out from behind the main plug. The gully between the main plug and that fin is your approach to the summit.

Rock arrow screened in the grasses below the talus trail

The trail contours just below the talus field at the foot of the plug. Dropping slightly, trail comes to broad shelf populated with cairns. On your right will be a large arrow constructed of rocks with the arrow pointing uphill. You may have to look closely as the grasses can obscure it. (Which is odd, since this arrow is visible in satellite photos). If you examine the talus uphill from the arrow you will see a faint, boot-beaten track ascending toward the fin. Following it is hard work as steeply piled talus tends to roll under your boot.

View of the crux move in the gully behind the rock fin

The tread soon pulls between two tall rocky knobs and hits a cul-de-sac. The upper end provides the first of your climbing exercises on solid, whitish rock. Flex your fingers and go to work. Above this first exercise is a stretch of steep boot-beaten path and then, voila!, you are in the gully between fin and plug. The problem immediately in front of you is the crux. This might be a good time to check your party and make certain that all are ready, willing and able to ascend and descend the next 10 or 12 vertical feet. All OK? Have fun.

The juniper snag (just jutting above the horizon) that appears above the gully

It isn’t exactly mellow above the crux, even though the angle eases. There is quite a bit of toe-and finger work to pull you up to a shelf high on the southeast side of the plug. From there look ahead for an old snag of a juniper, about 100 feet distant. Follow the tread towards this tree but you don’t want to go below it. About 20 feet before the snag look for an ascent on large, rounded lumps of pillow basalt. It is steep, but it will get you up to the level of the snag and the continuance of the trail.

Rounded boulders leading to the uppermost wall

Here the tread rises and falls less than 100 feet before turning uphill on rounded boulders for another pitch of finger and toe work. Cross beneath a thriving juniper and come to what appears to be a fork. Above you is a climbable route going up on an steep wall. To your right is an array of flattish rocks that might be more trail to the north. Alas, the latter is just feint. You will want to ascend the steep wall. The holds are a bit sparse on the lowest eight feet and, for some scramblers, may be just as challenging as the crux move below. Above, however the rock takes on a gnarled aspect with many welcome protrusions.

Windbreak on the summit of Cabezon

At the top of this pitch come to steep grass-and-cactus terrain. Follow it to the summit where you will find an elaborate windbreak. In the windbreak is a metal box containing the summit log. All about you, for many many miles, lies desert, the escarpments above the Rio Puerco, and innumerable smaller volcanic necks. To the north east lie the Naciamento Mountains (source the river), and the Jemez Mountains. To the southeast lies Mount Taylor. The high ridge to the distant west may be the Chuksa Mountains.

Recommendations:

Author at the foot of the talus tread leading to the fin

This is a cool-weather hike. It would be brutal in summer.

In cool weather this scramble can be very popular. In addition to the Boy Scouts I passed two other parties on the route and met another party on return to the trailhead. Bring a helmet because rockfall is a big concern. The shout of “Rock!” formed most of the conversation between people ascending the crack formed by the fin.

There isn’t much sense in picking Cabezon Peak if the weather is foul. Just traversing the roads could become a memorably demanding occupation. Pick your day and make your day!

I had a pretty heavy bag and that was a mistake. It was my usual bag for solo hiking and carried about four liters of water and full-on winter gear in case of a bivouac. It made for pretty sketchy scrambling. I poured out all but a half liter for the descent and put on much of the heavy fleece. That made things much easier to handle.

Bring friends. Today’s scramble was fun but it would have been great to pick out more distant peaks with folks who really know the area.

Links:

14 Cerro Cuarte from summit

Summit view west to (left to right): Cerro Santa Clara, Cerro Chafo, the trailhead road, Rio Puerco and Cerro Cuarte. Mesa Chivato forms the left horizon.

There are lots of good resources for Cabezon Peak. These are the ones I happened across when preparing for the hike:

There is terrific photography at Mary Caperton Morton’s site, Travels With The Blonde Coyote. She rates the last pitch as a class 4 and I’m inclined to agree.

SummitPost also has a very good route description, including a much better photo of the “the old snag” which is described by them as a “gnarled tree”. Additionally, there is a photo of the ascent up the talus slope with the route helpfully drawn in.

D’Ellis Photographic Art provides numerous great photos of the Peak and the surrounding terrain. The photo of the Cabezon interpretive sign, from a time at which the sign was still legible, may be of particular interest to your vehicle’s navigator.

A short description can be found at ClimbMountains.Com that is notable for offering difficulty ratings for individual phases of the climb. It also has a photo of a scrambler looking down the last pitch. The photo is a little grainy, but of all the pictures I’ve seen this is the best for giving a clear idea of what the pitch looks like.

Cabezon Peak is on BLM land. The BLM website (with driving directions) is found here.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has a terrific geology writeup and a useful map if you want to identify the other volcanic plugs nearby.