Archives for posts with tag: hiking in new mexico
01 Jack's Peak

View past pines to summit of Jack’s Peak

Overview:

The Jack’s Peak Trail is an out-and-back expedition into the Burro Mountains of southern New Mexico that has much to offer. It is easy to access, it is fun to hike, it crosses two significant life zones, it offers a great morning’s exercise (well within the ability of most hikers), and provides views all the way to the the distant mountains of northern Mexico. Jack’s crown of antennae diminishes the Peak’s claim to wilderness, but those of us who carry cell phones into these mountains cannot complain too much about that. Frankly, it seems unlikely that people will travel from Albuquerque or Tuscon just just to hike this particular trail. For folks who live in the Silver City – Las Cruces – Lordsburg area, however, this destination offers a sovereign cure for the perils of cabin fever. 

Driving Directions:

03 kiosk at start of trail

Trailhead kiosk

  • From Silver City, at the junction of US-180 and NM-90 (signed as Silver Heights Blvd and N. Hudson Road within the City), go south on NM-90.
  • After 21.4 miles on NM-90, past a sign saying “Continental Divide Trail”, turn right onto Forest Road 4090-O (turns to gravel).  You’ll find the sign and the turn just past mile marker 22. 
  • After 0.3 miles on FR 4090-O, at the far end of a closed loop in the road, park at the trailhead. The trailhead is marked by a kiosk saying “Jack’s Peak – CDNST Trailhead”

FR 4090-O is rutted. It is perfectly passible in a sedan but a little caution is advised.

If you are driving north on NM-90 out of Lordsburg you will go past mile marker 21 (it’s there, I checked). Then you will drive over a small hill with a sign saying “Continental Divide 6355 feet”. Near the bottom of the hill there is another sign saying “Continental Divide Trail” after which you’ll find the left turn onto 4090-O.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry at Jack's Pk trailhead

The trailhead is simply a wide spot along FR 4090-O. There are no toilets, water or trash recepticals. Indeed, a sign on the kiosk marking the trailhead pleads with visitors to pack out any garbage they bring in with them. It seems that visitors do pay attention. There was little litter along the trail. The loop at the end of FR 4090-O brings you through a large and very attractive meadow. Even in the chilly month of October it was home to several RVs and campers.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6380 feet
  • ending elevation: 7960 feet
  • net elevation: 1580 feet
  • distance: 4.2 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Burro Peak quadrangle

The CDT no longer runs exactly as shown on the 1999 version of the USGS map. See the GPS route in the map above for more current guidance.

Hike Description:

04 Broad height of land above trailhead

This height of land obscures the view to Jack’s Peak

From the kiosk head north in sandy, juniper-shaded terrain.  Ahead of you is a broad and steep height-of-land that prevents you from seeing the summit of Jack’s Peak. In about a quarter mile the trail comes to the foot of this steep landscape and swings to the west, preferring a long ascending contour rather than a direct assault. Soon, however the land is slashed north-to-south by Whitetail Canyon. Here the trail turns up-canyon, clinging to the upper reaches of the canyon walls. This is Upper Sonoran terrain. The cholla and prickly pear cacti compete with with banana yucca and mountain mahogany. It is surprising to learn, from Julyan’s valuable The Mountains Of New Mexico, that the core of the Burro Mountains is igneous. The fist-sized talus under your feet has the pale coloration and granularity of sandstone. Perhaps these are the remains from the sedimentary layer that suffered the igneous intrusion. 

06 Yellow Cliff

Yellow cliff below the high ridge

Eventually the trail clambers up onto the canyon rim just above a knoll, which makes a good landmark for your return trip. Whitetail Canyon remains on your left while an unnamed drainage falls sharply off on your right,  leaving you atop a rib. Follow this rib as it ascends, “staircase style”, with steep passages over softer rock alternating with relatively level passages on the hard stuff. After four or five of these steps you will note that the trail is heading directly toward a high ridge fronted by yellowish cliff. Pinyon pine becomes more dominant. Suddenly the trail comes to an unexpected gap where the terrain drops steeply into a canyon draining to the east. 

05a (maybe) layer cake

A level stretch before the next riser

Here the trail loses it’s northerly fixation and swings to the northwest. It becomes  a mild up-and-down ramble as the trail skirts around the headwaters of the intervening canyon and eventually swings back north. There is another short pattern of slogging up steep risers and crossing brief shelves. Eventually, at about 2.6 miles from the trailhead, come to the top of the ridge that is fronted by that yellow cliff band. As you arrive you will leave the Upper Sonoran behind and enter the Transition life zone. Juniper and pinyon  give way to Ponderosa Pine. 

07 Florida Mts from top of yellow ledge

view to the Florida Mountains

At the ridge the trail turns sharply east. Glimpses north thru the pines reveal the antenna-strewn summit that is your destination. Views open up to the southeast, where the Florida Range dominates the horizon. The large bowl to the northwest contains the headwaters for Sawmill Canyon. Reaching point 7651 (shown on the USGS map) the trail finds a narrow ridge that will again allow it to resume its northerly course. This is very pleasant, Ponderosa-shaded terrain. There were deer, cow and horse tracks on the trail, but surprisingly little evidence of bootprints. Scattered along this section of trail is snowy white quartzite – sandstone that has seen some high temperature and pressure.

08 earthern cattle tank

Earthen water tank along the trial

At 3.6 miles from the trailhead come to an earthen water tank. It seemed nearly full on this date, but this is the end of monsoon season and in other times of year the water levels will vary. It is very muddy. You would want a serious pre-filter and filter system before using this water. (In fact, there is a water source just minutes away that often has clear water so you may want to hold off).  Past the tank come to the Jack’s Peak Road, a well maintained gravel road used to service all those antennae. Study this intersection carefully as you’ll want to recognize it on return. Then follow the road uphill. 

10 Mimbres basin and Cookes Peak

View across the Mimbres Basin, east to Cooks Peak

As you near the summit you will find a level stretch where a cabin once stood. All that is left is a foundation and a freestanding chimney. Are you looking for water? Go straight north, past the right-hand side of the chimney, and ascend a small rise. At the top you will find a large rectangular concrete catchment. From the north edge of catchment a pipe runs to a corrugated steel water tank and (below the tank) there is an open concrete trough. The trough currently holds about 6 inches of clear water.  To the north lies the highpoint of the range, Burro PeakFrom the trough return to the road and follow it to the summit. There is some serious looking communications gear here. Take a few fast snaps of the incredible terrain, including the eye-catching Cookes Peak, then get away from all that microwave activity.  Have lunch amidst the pines and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

11 author at chimney

The author, dressed for hunting season

This is a wonderful hike on an autumn day. It might be chilly but it should be doable on most midwinter days. The lower slopes are poorly protected from the sun. It would be best to find another hike on scorching, midsummer days.

Most people will want to carry their own water for this hike. On this date a 700 ml bottle was plenty. On warmer days, of course, you would want much more. Comments on the Guthook app (a phone-based navigation app) report that the concrete trough near the summit was dry at earlier times this year. Try to keep your stays short when stopping near the earthen water tank and the summit trough. Those are both likely to be critical resources for wildlife in the Burros.

I saw a surprising number of cattle along the trail. Give the lack of grass on this hike these cattle may be pretty stressed. Go gently and give them as wide a berth as you can.

I saw a grand total of one lizard on this date. I suspect that the chilly nights of late have encouraged the others to den up.  The challenge poised by our venomous neighbors on the trail may be close to a minimum.

Links:

The 100 Hikes In Silver City site has a brief report on the trail (although not all the way to the summit).

CDT hikers give mention to this part of the CDT: Peter Shaw in 2011 here, Mudbug in 2016 here, and Kate On The Road Less Traveled in 2015 here (scroll down to Day 15). It is hard to do much more than hike, eat and sleep on the trail so these mentions are understandably brief.

 

 

Snow on the Big Burro Mountains

Overview:

This route is a pleasant morning’s stroll into the Big Burro Mountains. The trail takes you from an easily accessed trailhead across ponderosa strewn slopes and across sunny meadows. There are views from the Big Burro Mountains across the northern end of the Mimbres Basin to the Cobre Mountains. This would be a great place for introducing newcomers to the backcountry.

Note that the CDT braids out in the Big Burro Mountains. This particular “strand” lies on the CDT route that takes you from the Big Burro Mountains all the way up to US-180, about 12 miles west of Silver City.

Driving Directions:

03 Note the Q!

Note the “Q”

If you are coming from the south then drive Interstate Highway 10 to Lordsburg and take the exit for NM-90 north towards Silver City.

  • After mile-marker 30 on NM-90 watch for a yellow junction sign labeled “TYRONE RD”.
  • Go left onto Tyrone Thompson Road (signed), which is gravel.
  • After 7.4 miles, where the road briefly levels, look for Forest Road 4248Q on your right and park in the tiny turnout there. The “Q” is important! There are quite a few alphabetic variations of FR-4248 departing from the Tyrone Road.

If you are coming from the north then drive to the intersection of US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City. (Inside the city these roads are named Silver Heights Blvd and N. Hudson St, respectively).

  • Turn south on NM-90/N Hudson St
  • After 12.4 miles, past mile marker 31, turn right onto Tyrone Thompson Road and proceed as above.

Tyrone Road has two slightly ambiguous forks. The first is at 5.8 miles and has a brown forest service sign pointing left for “Burro Mountain Homestead “. Go left. The second fork is at 6.5 miles and has a commercial sign saying “Burro Mountain Homestead” (no arrow). Go right.

Trailhead:

Burro Pk trailhead

The Mighty Camry, at intersection of Tyrone and4248Q

There is parking for just one car at junction with FR 4248Q. There is a marginal widening of the roadway about 50 feet further and a second forest road entrance about 250 feet beyond that (on the left of Tyrone Road). The problem is that the road grader has left tall banks of gravel at the road edges, so you will need either a high clearance vehicle or a good shovel to park safely in those two alternative spots.

Data:

  • start elevation: 6740
  • end elevation: 7560
  • net elevation: 850 feet
  • maps: Burro Peak, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

04 Meadows and mountains

Meadows below Ferguson Peak

From FR 4248Q continue up Tyrone Road to where the CDT crosses the road. Turn south (to your left) to enter onto the trail. The initial two miles is an easy ramble on a generally obvious tread. The trail winds through stands of ponderosa, crosses the occasional grassy meadow and concerns itself chiefly with dropping into and rising out of the numerous small waterways that furrow the flanks of the Big Burro Mountains. This terrain is still under the influence of the Chihuahuan desert, with much prickly pear, cholla and even a few small columnar cacti poking out along the flanks of the tread, while alligator juniper and pinyon pine compete for the skyward reaches.

05A Mud Spring

Mud Spring (there is a trough below the spring)

The trail goes almost due south towards Burro Peak, crossing a woods road at mile 1.1. Generally the tread is very clear, and where ambiguities arise there are cairns and (occasionally) the rounded triangle emblem used to signify the CDT. Watch these, as the trail builders have often placed these at the end of switchbacks, particularly where you might wander off the trail onto watercourses that have strikingly trail-like features. At 1.6 miles the trail reaches the base of the northern most peak, Ferguson Mountain. The tread swings to the east and begins a gradual rising ascent along the northeastern flank of the mountain. At 2.1 miles you will note a profusion of tracks leading downhill. There, just 30 feet below the trail, is Mud Spring. On this date Mud Spring was full and the trough below the spring had a thickening skein of ice.

07 Trail junction (looking back)

Signed junction (click to enlarge)

Ponderosa begins to dominate the terrain. On this date snow dusted the forest floor. A chilly February wind can make you very glad to have a jacket with you. At 2.7 miles from the trailhead come to a junction (signed) with another “braid” in the network of trails that is the CDT. It may be that the departing trail heads down Deadman Canyon to an intersection with Tyrone Thompson Road, offering another approach to the Big Burro Mountains. (This seems very likely from the maps, but I have not as yet checked it out).

08 Burro Peaks & distant mts in Gila NF

View from turnaround point back to Ferguson Peak.

Continue on the main CDT trail as it turns south and enters the dale separating Mt Ferguson from Burro Peak. Here some sort of localized disaster has struck the ponderosa population – there are a few acres of logs flattened higgelty-piggelty. It may be some combination of drought and beetle stress plus a strong microburst laid these trees low. Fortunately the trail builders have been out in force, and the tread threads the maze without the need for high stepping. On this date I managed a few of the switchbacks above the dale, trying to get to Burro Peak. At 2.8 miles from the car I hit my turnaround time – just as views were opening up to Mt Ferguson and out across the sere Mimbres Valley. Was that snow up on the distant Black Mountains? I couldn’t be sure, but it seems likely given the local dusting. I turned back but you may be more fortunate. Burro Peak lies just above! Beyond that lies the siren call of Jack’s Peak with its stunning (if antennae-laced) views of the basin and range domains to the south. Happy hiking!

Recommendations:

Get all your non-hiking friends together and go! They may complain about blisters, fatigue or appointments but this is a sure cure for the mid winter blues.

These peaks are pretty far south and they are not very high. Still, bring warm clothing. The winds can be cutting.

Mud Spring looked clean but it is clearly visited by all sorts of creatures and a filtering system is going to be useful. I’m not certain how reliable this water will be later in the season, so even though one liter should be enough for one person, you might want to bring two.

Links:

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition recommends an 8-mile traverse of the range with a shuttle setup.

As mentioned above, there is a second trail leading from Tyrone Road to Burro Peak that joins the trail described here. There is an entry at SummitPost that I believe describes this alternative route.

The post at Southern New Mexico Explorer also indicates that the side road off of Tyrone Road, “shortly after the Gila National Forest sign” is the Deadman Canyon approach into the Burro Mountains. Take note – he describes the summit of Burro Peak as forested and with limited views. Also, he describes a nearly-70 degree day for which short sleeve shirts were perfectly adapted.

 

01 Signal Peak LookoutOverview:

This is a short hike, steep in the early stretches and distinctly civilized in terms of the antennae and fire lookout on Signal Peak.  The tread is clear, much of the route is sunny and at 9000 feet it is low enough to to tempt when winter starts to drag. This outing demands little in terms of planning. Just grab your pack, round up all the cabin fever victims and head into the Gila National Forest.

Driving Directions:

The southern part of New Mexico is traversed by Interstate Highway 10 (I-10). From east to west this highway links El Paso (TX), Las Cruces, Deming, Lordsburg and then heads towards Tuscon (AZ). To get to the trailhead you first need to get to Silver City, which lies north of this corridor. If you are coming from the east then take route US-180 north out of Deming. If you are coming from the west then take route NM-90 out of Lordsburg.

If you come into Silver City from Lordsburg on NM-90

  • At the intersection with US-180 turn right onto US-180 East.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto NM-15 (a.k.a Pinos Altos Road)
  • After 14.4 miles, immediately before a cattle guard, turn left into the parking for the Signal Peak Trail (there are signs for the trail on the road).

If you come into Silver City from Deming on US-180

  • As you approach Silver City you will see a “Welcome To Silver City/Altitude 5900 ft” sign at the top of a small hill.
  • After 0.5 miles, at the first stop-light in town, turn right onto 32nd St.
  • After 1.3 miles, at a 4-way stop, turn right onto NM-15/Pinos Altos Dr.
  • After 13.3 miles, immediately before a cattle guard, turn left into the parking for the Signal Peak Trail (there are signs for the trail on the road).

Winter driving on NM-15 can be hazardous. Snow on the road banks tends to melt during the day and form ice patches when the sun sets. The road twists enough to inflict motion sickness on a rattlesnake and it performs these contortions on the cliffs above Bear Creek. Learn to love the traction.

If you are returning home by way of Deming then it can be easy to miss the point where you turn left onto 32nd St. Look for a 4-way stop. Just before the stop there are signs signs on NM-15 indicating that you should turn left to get to the Nation Forest Service Offices. At the stop you should see a fire station on your right.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry, midst snow and ice.

The trailhead is just a gravel parking area. There are no toilets, water or trash receptacles. There is only space for two or three cars. If it is full then the reports say there is additional parking a few hundred feet up NM-15. There is an old forest road, signed 4257E, that departs to the west (wrong direction) out of the parking area, don’t go that way! Instead, cross NM-15 to the signed entrance to the Signal Peak trail #742.

Data:

Note on KML file: I left my GPS unit turned off at the start of the hike. Consequently, the initial 0.6 miles is missing but the tread is obvious and the return track shows the entire route.

  • Starting Elevation: 7220 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9010 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 1790 feet
  • Distance: 3.9 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Twin Sisters quadrangle

Hike Description:

03 Sign on far side of NM-15Cross NM-15 to find the signed start of the Signal Peak trail. The tread drops into a broad meadow, strikes the foot of Signal Peak and begins climbing in earnest. On a cool winter morning your fingers stay chilled for a while but the rest of you warms up fast. The tread is obvious even where it was cloaked in an inch or so of snow. The terrain is populated by young ponderosa pine and (if you look into the woods on either side) rotting old stumps. Apparently the trail you’re on is an old woods road. The largest growing trees looked to be about 10 to 12 inches in diameter, so perhaps the logging occurred 80-100 years ago.

04 Rock wall marking switchbacks

Snow dusted trail alongside boulders

At the half mile point the trail passes a wall of 20-foot tall boulders and begins switchbacking steeply to gain the top of a rib. The rib is itself steep enough to keep those switchbacks coming. At 0.9 miles you will reach a broad shelf and a glimpse through the surrounding ponderosa of the summit block. To your right you will get views to the southeast, including the round-top Twin Sister Peak (apparently the namesake of the USGS quadrangle) and the more distant Bear Mountain. The trail now contours around the summit block and makes a rising traverse along the block’s southeast face. Openings in the trees provide views to the southeast.

05 View SW from below summit block

Twin Sisters Peak (left, rounded hill in middle distance) and Bear Mountain (on horizon just right of middle)

The traverse ends at a small watercourse (1.9 miles from the trailhead) and makes a brisk turn to the north. In another tenth of a mile it comes to what seems to be a junction. To your left an obvious tread that ascends steeply towards a large block of stone that is partially screened by a small ponderosa. It turns out that this is a dead end. Instead, turn right and follow the tread as tops another rib and then follows the rib past hoodoos and scrub oak to gain the summit of Signal Peak, 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

08 tower view of Black Range

Black Range on horizon and snow-clad approach road below the tower.

The summit is populated with antennae, a fire tower, supply hut, picnic table (with grill), a rustic helicopter pad and a strikingly well-maintained road coming up on from the southeast. This is a great place to take a break and drink in the surrounding views. The top of the tower is padlocked for the season, but you can still ascend the tower steps to get distant views north and east. (The south and west are blocked by trees). To the southeast lies the forested dome of Black Peak. Is your party up for a nice ridge ramble? Pick up that bag and follow the road out.

13 sign past the gate

Entrance to CDNST/Signal Peak trail overlap.

The road arrives at a sturdy metal gate at 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Immediately past the gate the road makes a sharp turn to the left and begins to descend from the ridge. You should stay high and find the entrance to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST). It is currently flagged with a yellow sign warning hikers that trees along the trail are fire-damaged and especially prone to fall. True that; you will almost immediately begin to see fire scars on some of the trunks. The trail stays below the ridge top, on the northeast side. That does provide some amount of shelter from the prevailing winds.

17 Sunny saddle before black peak

Sunny and open saddle

At 3.1 miles the trail begins a traverse of fire killed trees. It makes for a desolate winter scene. It also, however, opens expansive views to the north. You can only hope that the soils remain stable long enough to get this terrain reforested. Keep an eye out for woodpeckers – they seem to have no problem with coniferous devastation. In less than a quarter mile the fire damage eases and the tread resumes its quiet, rise-and-fall ramble through the trees.  Watch for a sunny and open saddle above you, that is a sign you are nearing Black Peak.

16 cairn indiating trail to Black Peak

Burned trunk with cairn; trail goes up along the right side of the photo

The fire has produced an unusual amount of deadfall and this deadfall can obscure trail junctions. Keep an eye open as you reach 3.8 miles from the trailhead, about 8940 feet of elevation. There is a blackened tree trunk on the right side of the trail (which may be the source of some of the deadfall) with a cairn at it’s base. Go off the CDNST and follow the short, boot beaten tread steeply uphill to Black Peak, 3.9 miles from the trailhead. This is another antenna-dominated summit, but one with terrific views to the south and west. Enjoy the views and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

18 author on signal peak

Author on Signal Peak

This is an exceptionally clear tread, which is useful when there is a dusting of snow that might otherwise raise navigation issues. If you’re looking for a mellow winter hike and are getting a little bored with the Pine Tree Trail in the Organ Mountains then drive over to Silver City and enjoy a new winter destination.

On this date there was just a dusting of snow, rarely getting over the top of my hiking shoes. I was happy to have gaiters with me as they protect the opening of the shoes and add warmth. If the snows got any deeper then it would be very advisable to wear boots and to watch for navigational challenges that pass your comfort level. Turning back is the smartest option under those conditions.

The side-trail up to Black Peak can be a little hard to detect, particularly in contrast with the well defined CDNST. Watch for that sunny saddle and the cairn, keep your map in hand and monitor the ridge top. I had an altitude watch and found it very useful for checking the location on my map.

Links:

Fire closures are a real thing, as this hike makes obvious. It pays to check in with the National Forest Service website, here. It includes good additional instructions about how to find parking for this hike if the first parking area is filled.

The 100 Hikes Near Silver City website documents a summer approach to Signal Peak. They note that it is a popular trail and they encountered several other parties on an April outing.

Southern New Mexico Explorer provides a brief description of this trail and comments about being invited up onto the top of the lookout tower – evidently the views are great.

The Hike Arizona site also describes the trail and recommends it for people who are traveling along NM-15 to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Finally, the Summit Post writeup suggests that you can drive to the summit and provides directions. (I doubt that they meant for you to try this in wintertime).

01 Truchas, center peak, N Truchas, Chimayosos

(South) Truchas, North Truchas and Chimayosos Peaks

Overview:

Truchas (Spanish for “trout”) may be 60 feet lower than Wheeler Peak, but it is far more isolated and far less visited. The mountain lies directly at the heart of the Santa Fe Mountains, an empress of altitude in spectacular high country. Billions have been spent on stadiums and museums to console the disconsolate who’ve no access to this style of hiking. The lucky will hike through a comprehensive tour of the Canadian, Hudsonian and arctic-alpine life zones: climbing through dense Douglas fir forest, sauntering across gorgeous meadows and arriving where the tough alpine grasses grudgingly give way to rock and lichen. Pick a couple nice days, hoist your pack and allow your expectations to soar. You won’t be disappointed.

Weather can be an issue. I turned back when the surrounding stratocumuli demonstrated cumulonimbus aspirations. As a result this description ends in the grassland below the summit.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 299, northeast of Santa Fe. The exit is signed for Glorietta/Pecos NM-50.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp from the northbound lanes, turn left onto NM-50. This junction is not signed, but it helps to know that NM-50 ends at this junction. If you were to turn the other way, to the right, you would be on Fire Station Road heading into Glorieta, NM.
  • After 0.1 miles, having crossed over I-25, stay on NM-50 where it makes a 90-degree right-hand turn. There is no stop here, even though it looks as if you were arriving at a T-interesection. There are several signs at the junction, the most useful indicating that the Glorieta Conference Center is to your left and the town of Pecos is to your right.
  • After 5.9 more miles, at a four-way stop, turn left onto NM-63 in Pecos, NM.
  • After 19.2 more miles arrive at Cowles, NM and continue straight ahead on Forest Road 555. The most prominent feature at this junction is a bridge crossing the Pecos River on your left and a green road sign saying “Cowles”. There is a tiny wooden “555” sign on your right, but it is hidden behind a small fir tree. On Google Maps this road is labeled “Cabana Trail”.
  • After 2.3 miles turn right onto a drive signed “Wilderness Camping”. A brown Forest Service sign just before this drive points up the drive for “Trailhead” and “Equestrian Camping”.
  • After 0.3 miles park at the trailhead.
02 Transition from NM-63 to FR-555

NM-63 to FR-555 continuation

The roads are paved except the loop where the trailhead is located. The gravel loop is currently in excellent condition.

NM-63 from Tererro to Cowles (about 5.5 miles) is paved but it is rough, very narrow, and twisty. The fall-off from the road edge can be cliff-like. Allow extra time to drive this short distance and be prepared to slow to a crawl if you encounter oncoming vehicles. Fortunately, the road bed of FR-555 is wider and smoother.

Trailhead:

04 packed trailhead parking

The mighty Camry, squeezed into the last-open trailhead parking spot

This is a full service trailhead with potable water, bear-proof trash receptacles, vault toilets and trailhead signage. The fee for parking is currently $2.00 per day, although there are discounts for military service passes and other national passes. The multi-agency recreation.gov site has a detailed description of the camping opportunities and seasons, but it is very much focused on $10-per-night car camping. There does not seem to be any mention of the trailhead fees. Similarly, the USDA site only mentions the $10 fee, but the signs at the trailhead clearly state the $2 fee.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 8830 feet
  • highest elevation: 11960 feet (not at summit!)
  • net elevation: 3130 feet (not to summit!)
  • distance: 9.9 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

04 junction with horsetrail on Beatty's TrailFind the start of the trail on the steep embankment uphill of the trailhead parking. It is signed “Beatty’s Tr. No. 25”. The tread begins with a long, ascending contour up the east wall of the canyon containing Jack’s Creek. The forest here is dominated by Douglas fir and some ponderosa pine. At 1.1 miles from the trailhead it begins a series of switchbacks and comes to a junction at an opening in a fence (see above-left photo). This path from the other side of the fence is where the horse-folk enter the trail. You’ll want to watch for “horse apples” on the trail thereafter.

05 Beatty's Trail - Jack's Creek Junction

I have no idea how the base of these aspen dissociated from their upper boles

There is plenty of light filtering through the trees from above, a sign of terrain change. Accordingly, the trail soon reaches a flat rib top and begins nice ramble, bending to the east above the small basin where Allbright Creek parachutes into the Pecos River. (The creek itself may be dry at this elevation). At 2.5 miles from the trailhead the tread pokes its nose out into the broad, green meadows that make this hike famous. Here find the signed junction between the Beatty Trail and the Jack’s Creek Trail No. 257. Turn left onto the Jack’s Creek trail and follow it as it winds its way through a pleasant stand of tall aspen. You may encounter cattle (make certain of your control over Rover), but this herd has much experience with ignoring the intrusion of horse riders and hikers. They will, however, gaze at you with a lofty sense of disregard.

05 upper meadows

Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy from upper meadow

At 2.8 miles emerge from the Aspen for your first traverse in the emerald kingdom that is the mesa between Jack’s Creek and the Pecos River. The views are spectacular – east into the Santa Fe Mountains, west into the headwaters of the Pecos River, and around your knees where lies a profusion of wildflowers. If you did bring pets know that they can get warm in this open country. I was told that there is a spring (drained by a length of PVC pipe) in the woods to your left after you hike over the first prominent rise in the meadows. The ground itself can be surprisingly damp, given an August date in New Mexico high country. Where horse hooves meet the boggiest stretches it can be downright muddy. Still, rock hopping across 20 foot patches of bog is a small price for admittance to such gorgeous terrain. At 3.3 miles pass through a glade of spruce trees and then re-enter another half mile of meadow. Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy frame to view in front of you. The gentle, forested height of land on your right is Round Mountain.

08 cut deadfall to Jacks Creek

A route through the deadfall

At the upper end of the meadows the tread begins to descend, penetrating into dense young forest on the hillside above Jack’s Creek. Just this past July this portion of the trail was an obstacle course of flattened trees. The Forest Service has been hard at work, however, and innumerable fresh cuts now open the way for hikers and horsefolk alike. At 4.4 miles arrive at Jack’ Creek, which had a good flow of water but was easy to cross dry-footed.

09 Burn and flowers

Burn flowers

On the far side of the creek find a junction with the Dockweiler Trail No. 259. The combined Jack’s Creek/Dockwieler trail ascends besides the creek bed. It is muddy in places and those heavy horse seem to be facing a struggle – there are hoof-skids and deep, horseshoe-sized pocks in the trail. Also, there was some deadfall in the trail, so be prepared to keep your eyes focused on the ground before you. At the end of five miles the Dockweiler Trail departs to your right. Continue ascending on the Jack’s Creek trail as it eases alongside and then penetrates into a swatch of burned forest. This is a dense stand of snags and some caution would be needed on a windy day. It is scorched above the 3-foot level, but below that is an understory unbound; spectacularly green and densely appointed with wildflowers.

10 first glimpse of Pecos Baldy

Pecos Baldy from Jack’s Creek trail

Climb past the upper limit of the burn at 6.1 miles from the trailhead. The forest now presents Engelmann Spruce and corkbark fir, typical of forests in the Hudsonian life zone. The snow banks that graced the side of the trail two months ago are gone. The terrain is fairly gentle until you reach a small running stream at 6.8 miles (you may want to filter your water here). The terrain noses up and you ascend the last quarter mile to where the Jack’s Creek trail makes a junction with the Skyline trail, #251. Just past the junction is the entrance to the cirque containing Pecos Baldy Lake.

11 Pecos Baldy Lake Basin

Pecos Baldy Lake basin

Camping is not allowed in the lake basin. There are, however, camp sites along the Skyline Trail just below the basin. It looked as if the best views were found on a couple sites west of the junction (turn left on ascent), but these are quickly claimed at this popular destination. One camper remarked that there is running water close to the camp sites to the east of the junction, which would make them a good choice as well. I did not scout hard enough to find that stream. Instead, I used the stream that descends from the steep face of East Pecos Baldy into the lake. The lake is beautiful, but is frequented by horses, deer, bighorn sheep and elk. Filter, boil or treat the lake water with bleach before drinking it.

12 deer on ascent

Fearless Deer

To continue to Truchas peak, go east (right on ascent) onto the Skyline Trail #251. The tread is a mellow ascent in widely-spaced trees typical of old growth forest. On this date I encountered a deer so acclimated to hikers that it stood and watched as I stood and watched. It even advanced a few steps towards me before regretting its curiosity, something that I’ve never before seen a deer do. The trail breaks out of the trees and reaches a junction where the Jack’s Creek trail departs to your right. Stay to the left on the Skyline Trail as it climbs into montane grasslands and slowly bends to the north.

13 Trail Riders Wall

Truchas, North Truchas and Trailrider’s Wall (below).

Before you lies a grand triumvirate: Truchas Peak (sometimes called South Truchas), North Truchas Peak and Chimayosos Peak lie to the left, center and right respectively. Look closely at the east facing shoulder of Truchas and you will see the summit of another montane magistracy. I think is the 13,040 foot mountain (unnamed on my maps) that lies in the center of a “Y” shape joining South Truchas at the bottom to both Middle Truchas and North Truchas Peaks at the top. This sweep of high terrain contains much of the headwaters for the Pecos River. Closer by, below you on your right, lies the striking cliff band known as the Trailriders Wall.

16 Signpost At The End Of The Trail

Joe Vigil Trail and Skyline Trail junction

This is open country – even in August you may find yourself pulling a jacket out of your pack to cope with the constant winds. Continue north on good trail, occasionally marked by cairns that can reach six or seven feet tall. The cairns may be intended to guide backcountry skiers when the trails are under snow and they are impressive examples of their kind. The tread rises and falls as it meanders across the grasslands. At 9.9 miles from the trailhead come to a sign for a junction even though, on this date, the only tread in sight was the Skyline Trail. The incoming Joe Vigil Trail was nowhere to be seen. The route to Truchas is an off-trail climb directly ahead, you will see the summit from the junction. The Skyline trail uses the saddle to depart to the east, dropping below the ridge top. On this date, however, I turned back due to increasingly dense cloud cover.

Return the way you came. Take your time. Savor the spectacle.

Recommendations:

Trailhead parking was packed and all the camp sites in the lake basin were in use, despite the fact that this trip took place midweek during the monsoon season. Try to get an early start!

It was chilly at night, probably in the low 40s, so you’ll want a decent sleeping bag. That said, the sun at mid-day is a real problem. You may want to wear a wide-brim hat, long-sleeved shirt and full-length pants just for the solar protection. Sunscreen and lip balm are near-musts.

This isolated and high altitude hike would be a dubious choice if you are leading a party fresh from sea level. The folks at Altitude.org have a clear and very useful summary of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness and it’s severe offshoots, HAPE and HACE. The first section of the post is titled, “Don’t die of altitude sickness”. Good advice.

There are horses, cattle, big horn sheep, deer and (reportedly) elk and bear to be found along the trail. Please make sure that your pets will behave around the megafauna.

Links:

The ChrisGoesHiking site has a well written and nicely photographed description of the trail up to Pecos Baldy Lake. Also, he describes his intentions to simply continue along the Skyline trail to traverse the cliffs known as the Trail Riders Wall, which is exactly what this trip report describes. Chris, however, was hiking on a Memorial Day weekend and there was enough high-country snow to discourage travel beyond Pecos Baldy Lake.

Sam at Landscape Imagery has a 2009 report of a multi-day hike up to both Pecos Baldy and Truchas Peak using the same access route. There are numerous photos, including some very useful images of the summit approach as well as a detailed trip description.

An overview of the various approaches to Truchas Peak can be found at SummitPost. It includes a warning about the sometimes-confusing nomenclature for the various summits in this group and describes the permissions required at various trailheads. Also, there are some thoughtfully expressed concerns regarding vandalism at certain trailheads, although the report is now 12 years old and I don’t know if the concerns are still valid.

01 Mazanos Mountains from NM-55

Morning Manzano Mountains from NM-55

Overview:

The Manzano Mountains are central New Mexico’s unsung treasure. They offer cool Douglas fir forests, broad stretches of montane grassland, a trove of fossil finds, views west across the Estancia Basin and views east across the Albuquerque Basin; deer and raptors are common, bear and elk are present. Given its close proximity to Albuquerque you might think it would be mobbed. In fact, solitude is a Manzano virtue. The Bosque Trail #174 ascends directly to the crest, shaking off any morning chill with brisk efficiency. Turning south, the Crest Trail #181 winds across open grasslands to a junction with Vigil Trail #59. This new trail crosses the crest leading to an off-trail venture to the high point of flat-topped Bosque Peak. To make a loop return to the Crest Trail and explore north towards the base of sheer-sided Mosca Peak and then return along the mellow Cerro Blanco trail #79.

Driving Directions:

  • From the intersection of Interstate-25 (I-25) and I-40, take the ramp for I-40 going east.
  • At the end of the ramp merge onto I-40 east
  • After 14.0 miles take exit 175 for NM-14/NM-333/NM-337 (also signed for Tijeras/Cedar Crest). The ramp will fork, stay to the right for NM-333/NM-337.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a stoplight at the end of the ramp, go straight ahead onto NM-337
  • After 29.2 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-55 South
  • After 3.2 miles, as you climb a small hill out of the town of Tajique, turn right onto a gravel road. On this date there was no sign naming the road, but there was a prominent sign for the 4th of July Campground/Inlow Youth Camp, both of which are on this road.
  • After 8.4 miles come to the Cerro Blanco Trailhead on the right.

02 Sign on NM-55 before turn onto gravel FR-55FR-55 (the gravel road) is currently in excellent shape for the first 7.0 miles, at which point you pass the entrance to the 4th Of July Campground. Immediately past the entrance there is a sign saying that the road is not fit for passenger cars. On this date there were dozer-tracks on the roadbed so I went ahead. The road is pretty rough but the Camry was able to make it as far as the Cerro Blanco trailhead. Past the trailhead the road gets very rough. It is possible to drive to the Bosque trailhead, but a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.

Google labels this road as “County Road A013/Torreon Tajique Loop Road”, although I did not see any road signs using this nomenclature. There are, however signs at various points along the way identifying the road as “55”. FR-55 is prone to flooding, check with the Mountainair Ranger District if the weather has been particularly wet.

Trailhead:

03 mighty Camry

The mighty Camry at the  lush Cerro Blanco trailhead

The Cerro Blanco Trailhead has parking for two cars and offers a Forest Service information sign. If you peer up the trail you will discover a second sign saying “Cerro Blanco Trail No. 79”. If the parking spaces are taken you might be able to park at a turn-out on the opposite side of the road about 100 feet further along FR-55. Be cautious, however, since that turn-out looked pretty wet on this date. The first part of this loop is a hike of 0.7 miles along the road to get to the Bosque Trailhead. That trailhead has much more parking, along with picnic tables, fire rings, bear-proof trash receptacles and a vault toilet.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7800 feet
  • Highest Point: 9585 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1785 feet
  • Distance: 10.5 miles
  • Maps: USGS Bosque quadrangle. The 1995 version shows the trails mentioned in this guide and is recommended. The 2017 version does not show the trails, which makes it much less useful.

Hike Description:

04 huge aligator juniper with pole

Old aligator juniper (with hiking pole for scale).

From the trailhead walk south along FR-55 to the Bosque trailhead, 0.7 miles. The sign for the trailhead is becoming obscured by brush, but that is more of a problem for drivers than hikers. There is a long entrance drive bordered with picnic tables and fire rings. At the end of the drive is trailhead parking. Go past the trailhead sign and proceed along the well-maintained trail. This forest is dense with tall ponderosa pine. Alongside the trail is a big old alligator juniper, the largest that I’ve seen.

06 flat-topped Bosque

Bosque Peak from Bosque Trail

At 1.4 miles from the trailhead the tread bolts upwards. The occasional, half-hearted switchback will ease the burden on your thighs, but this is chiefly a rib-top rocket shot meant to put a hiker on the crest. In theory this trail should immediately convert into a gully, but it seems to have received a strikingly high level of trail maintenance. Water bars have been installed all along the trail. At two places on the ascent there are signs directing you off the “old” track and onto a new segment, presumably to allow the brush to over-run and restore the old track’s deepening tread.

06 obvious tread through the trees

Obvious tread through the trees

The 1995 USGS quadrangle shows the trail departing the rib-top and crossing the waterway that lies south of the rib. This departure occurred at about 2.2 miles from the Cerro Blanco trailhead, almost exactly at the point where the second sign directs you to the north, away from that departure. I spoke with Janet, Erik and Jill just above this point. They were returning because the trail above had become uncomfortably sketchy as it reaches into the high meadows. Either we all missed the route across the southern drainage or the trail has been re-routed.

07 Fire ring before Crest Trail junction

Fire ring at meadow’s edge, just before Crest Trail junction

Indeed, at 2.6 miles the trail enters subalpine terrain where the trees thin, small meadows appear and trail finding becomes a challenge. There are cairns of the small, informal, and contradictory sort. Given a choice it is usually better to favor a southerly route over a northerly route (i.e. stay to your left on ascent). The trail becomes much more evident where it leaves the ledgy meadows and re-enters forest. At 2.8 miles come to a wide and seemingly untracked meadow. Follow its edge in the clockwise direction until you pas a fire ring made of rock. Then, 100 feet past the ring, come to the intersection with the Crest Trail. The junction is unsigned but marked with one of the world’s least impressive cairns. Enjoy the meadows. Here you’ll find views of Guadalupe and Mosca Peaks, the impressive steep-sided mountains that dominate the northern section of the Manzanos. Study, too, the fractured limestone at your feet. In places it is thick with fossilized shells.

08 distant Sandias, Guadalupe, Mosca and distant Ortega Mts

Montane Grasslands, Sandia Mts, Guadalupe Peak, Mosca Peak and distant Ortega Mts

Turn south (left on ascent) to follow the Crest Trail. This is a part of the Grand Enchantment Trail, a network of trails that leads from Albuquerque to Phoenix, Arizona. As with the Bosque Trail, the tread is most obvious where it penetrates the trees. At 3.0 miles however, you will walk out onto the montane grassland that dominates much of the crest. Navigation becomes a matter of steering from cairn to cairn. Fortunately these are serious cairns, raised high enough to be seen above the tall grasses. An incredible amount of stoop labor has gone into making this trail.

09 Vigil trail and Crest Trail junction

Junction with Vigil Trail (note exposed soil, mid-picture)

At 3.8 miles come to the junction with the Vigil Trail. This junction is obscure.  Watch for a point where the Crest trail passes through mixed trees and meadow and then comes to a squared trail-post in open grassland. Curiously, the post is not at the junction but rather 50 feet or so north of the junction. Traverse that distance south, keeping your eyes peeled for a short section of disturbed ground that looks as if water has cut into the soil. That “cut” is the start of the Vigil trail. The Crest trail does continue south from this junction, in the form of grass-thatched wishful thinking. It can make you doubt your junction judgement.

 

10 Albuquerque Basin from Bosque Peak

Albuquerque Basin from Bosque Peak

Follow the Vigil trail as it disappears and reappears in a journey west across the very top of the crest. At 4.1 miles the Vigil trail makes a sharp right-turn and runs through the aspen and thorn-tree forest that adorns the top of Bosque Peak. Go off-trail and continue hiking west on a gradually rising grassland. Coming to the cliff that marks the western edge of the Manzano Crest.  Technically the high point is a few feet above your head and shrouded in thorn bush. My best efforts to penetrate that thicket were unproductive, but if you find a path please leave a comment! You may prefer to pull up next to the lonesome pine that adorns this cliff top, seat yourself comfortably in its shade and have lunch while examining the Ladron and Magdelana ranges.

11 Guadelupe & Mosca Peaks, Ortega Mts

Guadalupe Peak and Mosca Peak

To return, head back along the Vigil trail and then the Crest Trail, following it all the way to the junction with the Bosque Trail. If the weather is looking doubtful then the Bosque Trail is your best option. If you’d prefer a loop hike then stay on the Crest Trail as it continues north. You will soon discover that those treads you considered “faint” on ascent are actually bold examples of the trail maker’s art. In comparison, the trail north of the Bosque junction is a true wallflower – indistinguishable from the competing game trails. Fortunately, you need only stay close to the crest to be approximately on track. Mosca and Guadalupe peaks, the steep sided twins of the northern Manzanos, serve as a beacon before you. The occasional huge cairn is there to confirm your navigation.

12 Small bear guarding cairn

Small bear by meadow’s edge (click to enlarge)

Soar along the crest in the company of eagles – these raptors are hoping that you’ll scare up some game. On this date there were muddy spots with elk track, although the animals themselves were not to be found. The trail is so seldom used that it can disappear in brush thickets, be a bit careful as you push through since some of the brush includes thorny mesquite. The tread generally stays a little below the crest on the east side. At 6.6 miles come to the unsigned intersection with the Yellowstone trail #60. If you get diverted onto this trail you’ll find yourself dropping into the west side canyons. Turn back and rediscover the Crest trail.

13 trail departs downhill to left of center rock

Crest Trail departs the crest top to the right of the large center bolder.

At 7.8 miles contour around the east side of two steep-sided knolls then enter onto a short knife’s-edge section of the crest. It is close to here that you depart from the crest top. You will need to keep a sharp eye out for the departure point since an informal but obvious tread extends past the junction atop the crest. Take the steep switchbacks down to about 8800 feet until, at 7.8 miles from the trailhead, you come to a signed and obvious intersection with the Cerro Blanco trail. Follow the Cerro Blanco as it makes a leisurely and well-shaded northerly descent. Pass a junction with the Albuquerque Trail at 9.2 miles. Eventually the tread returns you to the Cerro Blanco trailhead, having brought you a total of 10.5 miles.

Recommendations:

One of the distinguishing features of this trail is the tenuous nature of its trail bed. If you want to challenge some young hikers with advanced trail finding problems, this is the place to take them.

It may be wise to carry bear bells or to keep up a lively discussion while bush-bashing along the northern part of this loop.

13 Monique and Michael on Albuquerque Trail

Monique and Michael, enjoying the Albuquerque Trail

Although the temperatures only got into the low 80s along the crest I still burned through 2.5 liters of water. I should have carried 4 liters. I did not find any water sources along the route. The sun is a serious piece of business at 9,000 feet. Sunscreen will make your day much easier.

Start at daybreak and finish early during monsoon season. You don’t want to find a thunderstorm barreling towards you as you cross over the Manzanos crest.  This crest does have some forested sections, but it would still be a pretty poor locale for waiting out a storm.

Links:

The Albuquerque Senior Centers’ Hiking Group has a short but remarkably detailed report on this loop. The report makes mention of a deep cave, a log cabin ruin, a mountain-top cemetery and a plane wreck to explore. Additionally, this 2015 report mentions a narrow trail leading between the Cerro Blanco trailhead and the Bosque trailhead, which would eliminate the road walk.

SummitPost has a summary, including driving directions and season suggestions for summiting Bosque Peak.

There is a brief description at the GeoCaching website, but the comments section is particularly interesting. As noted there, this is not t-shirt and shorts terrain. Also, hikes in the Manzanos do require strong situational awareness. Getting lost can happen.

The cabin mentioned in the ASCHG report apparently belonged to the Rea family. A family history of this mountain clan can be found here (pdf).

 

 

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 canyoneer 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.