One area that caught my attention was the Pecos Wilderness between Santa Fe and Taos. The wilderness lies at the southern end of the Rockies in the southern most reaches of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Those of you that read my blog regularly know that I frequently hike in the Sangres in Colorado and live at the base of the northern Sangres, 200 some miles north of the Pecos Wilderness.
In the spring, I found a book with a backpacking in route in the Pecos. The route started near Santa Fe and covered about 45 miles. The route featured travel through some of the highest mountains in the state with plenty of travel above treeline in alpine terrain. I bought a map of the area and put the area on my short list of destinations.
I was planning another multiday backpacking trip in the fall before winter conditions hit the mountains. It seemed like something always came up preventing my trip. First, my pack needed a repair and I was without my pack of choice for several weeks. I had a prolonged cold that kept me indoors for a week and a half. Then I had an issue with my car that I didn't feel safe traveling with until I got it repaired among other little things.
By now it was late October, usually the end of the backpacking season in the higher elevations of the Rockies. An extended dry and warm period kept most of the snow in the southern mountains to a minimum. I had a window of decent weather and my car was repaired. Puma was okay with me leaving for a few days on a moment's notice.
I came up with a 50 mile loop almost entirely within the Pecos Wilderness. I started with some of the route in the book and added another portion further north. Because of lack of information, I couldn't find much on the northern section of my hike, but it looked to include even more alpine terrain while taking in most of the highlights from the guidebook route.
On Monday, October 24th, I was up at 430AM and soon on the road to northern New Mexico. My destination was the Santa Barbara Campground, just north of the Pecos Wilderness. The trailhead at the campground has several routes that make a loop into the wilderness possible.
Just after 9AM Monday, I was on the trail. Within a mile and a half I crossed over the wilderness boundary. There are several routes along the various branches of the Rio Santa Barbara (New Mexico uses the Spanish Rio for many of its rivers) that will work for this loop. The lower reaches of the trail follow along the Rio Santa Barbara as it enters a small canyon with rocky walls.
|Rio Santa Barbara
|Entering the wilderness
|The trail traveling on the banks of
the Rio Santa Barbara
|Cliffs rising above the
Rio Santa Barbara
|More cliffs higher up the valley
|The view up the West Fork
|The ridge along the West Fork
|Looking back down a meadow on
the Middle Fork Trail
|I'm guessing elk bones with my foot
|Looking up the East Fork Trail
|Creek crossing with ice on the opposite bank
|Leaving the trees on the Middle Fork Trail
|Looking down a meadow near the end
of the Middle Fork Trail
|Looking west toward the Santa
|View into the Pecos River drainage from the
Santa Barbara Divide
|A cairn along the Santa Barbara Divide
marking a section with no trail
|Looking back along the Santa Barbara Divide
|Trailrider's Wall with East Pecos Baldy behind it
|Cruising along a section of the Santa Barbara Divide
with no trail at 12,000'
|Continuing west along the Santa Barbara Divide
|A narrow section of the Divide
|Approaching Chimayosos Peak
|Narrow ridge before flanking Chimayosos
|Little Chimayosos Peak
|Peaks of the Truchas Group
|North Truchas Peak
|Good views as the trail drops back in the trees
|Rugged section on the east side of the Truchas Group
|Reflection in Truchas Lake
|More lake reflection
|North Truchas above the lake
|My home on the first night
|This view is a just above my campsite
|My tent is just across the trail maybe 100 yards away
|The view about 100 feet below my tent
When I emerged from the tent, the visibility higher up was poor with clouds and snow. While most of my day ahead was at lower elevations, I had to climb to nearly 12,000 feet to traverse a high alpine ridge called Trailrider's Wall. I was a little concerned with the poor visibility. Trailrider's Wall could prove extremely difficult with bad visibility, especially if the trail was as sparse as the Santa Barbara Divide.
With the snow intensifying, I nearly ended my trip and headed back to the trailhead via the East Fork Trail. I started hiking that direction and traveled the 1/4 mile back to Truchas Lake. From the lake I could see the flank of Chimayosos was relatively clear of snow and had some hope for decent travel. I turned around and began heading toward Trailrider's Wall.
|Truchas Lake after the snow started
|Another look at the lake with snow
|The trail is barely visible in this picture
|Obscured visibility in the snow
|Traveling through the woods in the dusting of snow
|Trail traversing talus
|Small unnamed lake along the trail
|Another stretch of snowy trail
|The visibility became worse as
I approached Trailrider's Wall
|Just beyond the rock field, I spooked the elk
|Good tread and large cairns marked my way on
the viewless Trailrider's Wall
|Tiny, quarter sized tracks in the snow
|Typical view along my traverse
of the Trailrider's Wall
|Not much to see at Pecos Baldy Lake
|Traveling through an old burn
|A large meadow crossing along the Dockweiler Trail
|Another section of the old burn
I could see something standing in the meadow, possible a trail marker. I made my way to the trail marker which turned out to be just the bottom of a dead tree. Even though the dead tree had nothing to do with the trail, I saw a clear path through the grass below the tree. It was clearly a trail. I followed this trail as it dropped toward the river. It turned out that I found the trail I lost in the higher meadow and I was back on track.
|Another large meadow crossing with barely visible trail
After crossing the river, I made my way up the Pecos Trail. The trail climbed away from the river quickly. Even though it paralleled the river, the river was far below out of sight. The Pecos Trail traveled through a mix of forest and meadows. Fortunately, the meadows on this trail had more visible tread. Although I didn't see people, I passed a group of horses off of the trail. I could see a tent and smell a campfire but never did see the people.
|Looking back toward Beatty Flats
|Hiking along the Pecos Trail
|Much of the Pecos Trail traversed large meadows
|Horses near a campsite
I made my was back to the Pecos River. Just below my route was a short side trail leading to Pecos Falls. The falls tumbles some 90' over its total length. The longest drop is maybe 40'. The falls is at its most impressive when the runoff is high in the late spring. Even with its late October water flow, Pecos Falls is pretty and a nice spot for a break.
|The main drop of Pecos Falls
|Another look at Pecos Falls
|Near the start of the Pecos River Trail
|Further along the Pecos River Trail
|The Pecos River Trail followed this meadow the entire route
and the trail was very faint and disappeared at times
|My home on the second night
Before eating, I set up my tent. Soon after, a light drizzle began to fall. The forecast called for clear skies, but the clouds were increasing. The ridge of the Santa Barbara Divide that was visible near my camp became increasingly obscured. I was a little concerned since my next day required extensive travel above treeline. Not only did I not want to miss good scenery, but the guidebook mentioned the lack of visible trail. I didn't really want to spend the day navigating in a shroud of clouds and no visibility. I ate under increasingly heavy showers and thickening clouds. I was laying down for the night by 7PM given the early nightfall. Not much later the rain stopped and the wind picked up. I didn't hear anymore rain through the night.
I woke up a few times during the night. Around 11PM I heard another nearby elk making a grunting sound for a little bit before wandering off. I noticed it became significantly colder toward morning, a good sign of clearing. As it became light toward morning, I noticed the condensation in my tent was frozen.
Not long after light, I got moving and broke down my camp. The rain drops from the night before were frozen on my tent fly. The heavy condensation from the cold night created a heavy frost on the inside of the rainfly. A couple segments of my tent poles were frozen and I had to warm them with my hand to break them down. By the time I got moving my hands were getting quite cold. My water bottle had a pretty heavy lining of ice on the inside. My Camelbak bladder stayed unfrozen in my vestibule over night but the hose quickly froze before I was hiking.
Upon starting hiking for the day, I had to cross the Pecos River. At this point the river is no more than a few stepping stones wide. I was camped close to the source of the Pecos River as it travels more than 900 miles from here before joining the Rio Grande. I only had to step on a few rocks and I managed to slip and submerge a foot. Luckily I was wearing a Gore Tex shoe and my actual foot stayed dry in the freezing temperatures.
|The view up the meadow near my camp as I began hiking
|The uppermost reaches of the 900+ mile Pecos River just
before I slipped and sunk my foot in it
|Leaving the woods
|A look back at the meadow I just traversed
|Trailrider's Wall and East Pecos Baldy
|The faint Skyline Trail before it disappeared
|No trail to follow above treeline on the Skyline Trail
|A close up of the Trailrider's Wall
|The route followed the crest of the ridge much of the way
|Enjoying the clear skies after a dreary day in the
high country the day before
|Hermit Peak to the south
|Looking toward the Santa Barbara Divide
|Jicarita Peak miles away in the distance
but my destination in several hours
|Looking across the upper reaches of Rincon Bonito
|A narrow section of the ridge
|Looking across Rincon Bonito, the Divide Trail is the near ridge
and Jicarita Peak is in the distance
|Despite the flat terrain, the Skyline Trail travels above 12,000'
|Cow elk trying to figure out if I'm a threat
|Elk on the run
|The best shot I could get of the running elk
|Last look at the fleeing elk
|Looking west along the Santa Barbara Divide from the
shoulder of Santa Barbara Peak
|Looking back my route from Santa Barbara Peak
|A closeup of Trailrider's Wall with East Pecos
Baldy above it
|The flat summit of Santa Barbara Peak
|A look back along the Santa Barbara Divide
as I join the Divide Trail
|Rincon Bonito (Rincon is a southwest term for meadow)
|Looking down the Divide Trail from Santa
|Looking into the East Fork Basin
|Looking up the Divide Trail on a ridge separating
the East Fork Basin and Rincon Bonitio
|The long ridge I was going to follow toward
|The Divide Trail shortly before it disappeared
for several miles
|Despite an elevation consistently above 12,000', the
Divide Trail traveled a flat alpine plateau
|Desert terrain east of the mountains
|Despite no trail, travel was easy
on the grassy tundra
|An occasional cairn marking the route
|Santa Barbara Peak is the higher point on the left
with the Truchas group in the distance
|A closeup of the Truchas Group
|A different angle of the Truchas Group
|Surprisingly flat tundra at 12,000'+
|Continuing north on the Divide Trail
|The occasional rocky section
|Traversing a talus field
|My first view of the sheep
|Not too concerned with my presence
|Continuing to graze
|A younger ram
|A herd of 11 distant bighorns
|A look back along the Divide Trail
|I traveled miles above treeline at this point
|I have several miles above treeline to go
|A good look at the huge area of flat tundra at 12,000'+
|The views were continuous
|The rams after they got up
|They slowly walked away
|They didn't give me a good photo shot unfortunately
|A good look at their horn size
|Stopping to graze
|Eventually the rams went up this ridge near Jicarita Peak
|Looking south from Jicarita Peak
|A close up of Santa Barbara Peak from Jicarita
|Truchas closeup from Jicarita
|Looking down the north side of Jicarita
|Looking back at Jicarita
|The line of mountains above the East Fork Rio Santa Barbara
|Another look back at Jicarita
|Tomcat, hiking the Divide Trail with Jicarita behind me
|The ridge above the East Fork
After contemplating and agreeing we were off course, we decided to bushwhack directly toward the proper drainage. 100 yards or so further back I noticed a cairn marking the entrance of a fairly worn path in the right direction. Rather than bushwhack we took our the path since it was headed in the right direction. The path was clear all the way to the road along the Rio Santa Barbara. A sign at the end of the path indicated we were on the Bear Mountain Trail and had mile or so walk back to the trailhead. Neither of us could figure out how or where we ended up on the wrong path. We are both experienced hikers and thought we were on track and confirmed our route with the map frequently. Either way it all worked in the end. I probably added and extra mile or two to my day wrapping it up close to 20 miles by the time I was back at my car. My hike was finished somewhere around 51-53 miles depending on how much the little detour in the end added.
Compared to Colorado, there is not much information on this area. What little I could find sounded quite promising. The trip exceeded my expectations. The scenery was wonderful throughout the route. I would have liked to have clear views on Trailrider's Wall, but the weather isn't always going to perfect in the mountains. Usually the weather isn't this nice at high elevations this late in the season. The views on this route were nearly endless. I never expected to find so much extended terrain above treeline in New Mexico. Even where the route dipped below treeline, the route was punctuated with numerous meadows. Even with late season water levels and a dry period, their was no shortage of water along the route with the exception of the Divide Trail. I saw plenty of large wildlife which is a plus. Given the lack of tread through the meadows and above treeline, I'm guessing this area sees quite a bit less traffic than most sections of the Colorado Rockies.
The Pecos Wilderness travels in both the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. More than 400 miles of trails traverse this more than 220,000 acre wilderness. The terrain in the Pecos features the densest concentration of 12,000' peaks in New Mexico. My hike covered just over 50 miles and featured a nice diversity of terrain. Unlike the steep and narrow nature of the Sangre de Cristos Range in Colorado, the southern portion of the range in New Mexico is a backpacker's dream with nearly endless possibilities for backpacking loops. Northern New Mexico and the Pecos Wilderness are not on everyone's radar but the area is a great destination for those seeking time in the mountains
Luckily this trip went well. While my four hour drive home was uneventful, my first few minutes home took and unexpected bad turn. About ten minutes after reaching my house, I was ready for a shower. Puma made it clear that I wasn't smelling too fresh. I had three full days and 50 miles of trail funk on my body. Only moments after rinsing in the shower, the shower became slick and greasy. I slipped, twisted, and made a 180 degree turn on my feet before falling hard on my side onto the top of the tub. All signs indicate bruised or cracked ribs. It's not debilitating, but most torso movement is uncomfortable. Coughing and sneezing is painful. I'm guessing it will be several weeks before I'm able to think about serious mountain travel. I made it through 50 miles of travel over trailless and alpine terrain, experienced fresh snow, below freezing, temperatures, icy rock, lost trails, and bushwhacking with no problems; then a shower injures me.
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