Over half of New Mexico's more than 20 wilderness areas remain in relative seclusion, tucked away in obscure mountain ranges, living in the shadow of their older cousins, or too small to attract much attention.
The Pecos and Gila wilderness areas were among the first established in the nation, in 1924 and 1934 respectively. They continue to attract most of the attention.
It's a good thing. Small gems like the Latir, Manzano, Rio Chama, and Dome wilderness area remain almost untouched.
The Cruces Basin Wilderness is one of these treasures. Tucked up against the Colorado border, the Cruces Basin is far removed from cities and towns. This small jewel is part of the Carson National Forest and features open meadows broken by bold outcrops of speckled granite, clear streams, and long vistas. It is lonesome country.
The 18,000-acre wilderness lies entirely above 8,600 feet, but rarely do you feel like you are in the mountains. The wide-open valleys and sloping hillsides are a gentle, relaxing landscape when compared with the rugged peaks of the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Peace and solitude are in ample supply.
One facet of the Cruces Basin Wilderness that keeps many hikers away is the lack of a developed trail system. At present no maintained trails have been established in the wilderness. Hikers and backpackers must follow informal, fisherman, or game trails from point to point.
Navigating around the Cruces Basin requires the ability to use a compass, read a topographic map, or use a Global Positioning System receiver.
Hikers must also be able to determine the best route through trail-less meadows and forests. All hikers can follow the hiker-worn trail down Osha Canyon from the main trailhead to Beaver Creek, but beginners shouldn't venture much further.
Hikers with a modest amount of backcountry experience should have little trouble trekking into the canyons and forests beyond this well-established entry.
The lack of trails doesn't mean its difficult to get around. With the open nature of the landscape and the simple layout of the terrain, you can wander for days with a sense of where you are going.
The Cruces Basin is like a massive funnel bordered by high ridges. The canyons of Diablo, Cruces, and Beaver creeks reach down from the ridgelines to join near the east edge of the basin. Two miles below the confluences, Beaver Creek plunges 800 feet through a spectacular gorge -- the mouth of the funnel -- to join the Rio de los Pi-os. Confined by the ridgeline and the gorge, hikers can explore at will along the three creeks without fear of getting lost.
Each of the major creeks are surrounded by broad, open meadows that make for easy travel and easy navigation. Fisherman trails often parallel the streams, and game trails can be followed across low saddles between the valleys.
The Forest Service has published a new tearproof-plastic Cruces Basin Wilderness Map. Complete with contour lines, this map is essential to those exploring the area. For either a day hike or backpack trip, make it part of your equipment.
One well-worn hikers trail follows Osha Creek from the main trailhead at the end of Forest Road 572 to Beaver Creek. The trail drops 500 feet in two miles to a low saddle with wonderful views of the three main streams of the Cruces Basin. The confluences lies just at the bottom of the hill.
One fine trip from this central location is to follow the valley of Cruces Creek, the northernmost of the three streams. A faint trail parallels the creek as it twists beneath towering walls of granite. You can continue along the creek three or four miles to great meadows below Toltec Mesa, or follow game trails up a side drainage, over a saddle and drop into the valley of Beaver Creek.
The narrow gorge where Beaver Creek plummets from the basins to the Rio de los Pi-os make a wonderful short excursion from a base camp along Beaver Creek.
From Osha Canyon to the gorge is a 30-minute walk. Much of the time you can hike the stream banks, but small marshes and granite cliffs occasionally make it easier to skirt along the base of the canyon wall. Several active beaver dams are found along the route.
As it jumps off the edge of the basin, Beaver Creek is a complete contrast to the meandering meadow stream found a few miles above. The gorge is a jumble of room-sized boulders where walking on the slick rocks is treacherous. Water cascades from one pocket to another in a series of falls strung together like pearls on a necklace. You can poke along the edge of the stream for a couple hundred feet before the route is blocked by deep pools and unscalable rocks.
More adventurous hikers can explore the ridgeline of Toltec Mesa in the northern section of the wilderness. From the northern trailhead, begin walking on a closed road heading east. In two miles, reach the wilderness boundary at an abandoned corral near the ridge top. From here, simply follow the ridge to the southeast, enjoying the magnificent views from the open meadows. From the ridge you can drop to Cruces Creek for camping or to explore the rest of the wilderness.
Important summer range for elk is found in the meadows and forests of the Cruces Basin. A large herd roams the basin, foraging in the wet grasslands and stands of spruce. Elk sign is plentiful in the valleys, but the animals themselves are elusive in summer.
Fall offers a better opportunity to spot elk along the creeks, particularly in the upper reaches of Beaver and Cruces creeks. The sound of bugling elk echoing from the hills makes a fall trip to the area especially attractive.
For the skillful angler, brook trout are the most abundant summer residents. The stocking program for brook trout in Beaver Creek was halted more than 30 years ago. The brookies found in the stream today are wild fish, born and raised in the creek, not in a hatchery. The trout are spooky and a bit more challenging to catch than a hatchery rainbow.
Brookies are found in all three major creeks in the basin. In the tiny tributary streams the fish are plentiful but remain small, ranging from five to eight inches. In Beaver Creek below the confluences, the trout can reach 11 inches or more. Size is no matter: the colors on even the smallest brook trout are as exquisite as a New Mexican sunset.
Brook trout will take bait, but they feed primarily on insects. Fly fishermen will find success with a variety of small dry flies cast to quiet water in beaver ponds, deep pools, and beside rocky banks. A New Mexico fishing license is required.
Directions: The main point of entry to the Cruces Basin Wilderness is out of Tres Piedras, about 33 miles west of Taos and 55 miles north of Espanola. From Tres Piedras, continue north on US Highway 285 about 11 miles to Forest Road 87 and turn left. Forest Road 87 is a long gravel and dirt road passable to any vehicle when dry, but sections of the road can be impassable for days following heavy rains. Follow Forest Road 87 through several junctions, passing Forest Road 87A in 21 miles. A mile beyond Forest Road 87A, turn right onto Forest Road 572, a rough road but a carefully driven car can make the two miles to the trailhead. To reach the north trailhead on Toltec Mesa, take Forest Roads 5 and 103 out of Antonito, Colorado to Osier. A four-wheel drive road continues across the Rio de los Pinos and leads in about 8 miles to the trailhead. Due to the nature of these roads, try to time a trip into the Cruces Basin during fair weather. It's a good idea to store extra water and food in your car in case a storm makes the roads impassable while you are in the wilderness.
Length of trip: The remote location of the Cruces Basin demands more than a day trip. Plan to spend several days here, exploring from a base camp somewhere along one of the major drainages in the basin. The open meadows provide an abundance of places to pitch a tent, although finding a site that provides a bit of shade is another matter. Water is plentiful in the creeks, and remember to always treat stream water before using it for cooking or drinking.
What to bring: In late spring and fall, nights at 9,000 feet are quite chilly, so pack in a three-season sleeping bag and a good insulating jacket. During July and August, afternoon thundershowers occur almost every day. A tent is mandatory of comfortable summer camping. Pack in your rain gear, too.
When to go: If you plan to visit the Cruces Basin from mid-October through the first heavy snow of winter, be prepared for nighttime temperatures in the teens. Fast-moving autumn storms can bring a half-foot of snow any time after September. When visiting in the fall, get a recent weather forecast and come prepared for severe conditions.
Camping: Primitive campsites found along Forest Road 572 just outside the wilderness make excellent overnight stops before a trip into the basin. Or you can camp at Lagunitas Campground, located five miles west of Forest Road 572, and fish for some of the rainbow trout stocked in the half dozen lakes found there. The long, dusty access road discourages most prospective visitors, but a carefully planned trip in good weather will present no problem. The nearest facilities are at least 30 miles away in Tres Piedras or Antonito, Colorado.