One of New Mexico's oldest wilderness areas, the San Pedro Parks Wilderness was established as a primitive area in 1931. Despite its long history, the wilderness remains unknown outside the northern third of the state. On a given summer weekend, resident elk far outnumber human visitors to the high parks. Quiet solitude, gentle grades, and a spiderweb network of trails make this wilderness accessible to a wide variety of users from multi-day backpackers to local fishermen to families.
The wilderness lies in the narrow band of the San Pedro Mountains. In this case, mountain is a misnomer. You'll find no peaks to stare at or ascend, no jagged, unclimbable rock faces. The range is an uplifted plateau of granite, more like a mountain that has lost its head. Even without prominent peaks, the parks average over 10,000 feet in elevation.
The flanks of the range are deeply incised, carved with abrupt canyons by streams draining the plateau. The summit, if that is the proper word, is relatively flat. Open meadows -- the parks -- surround a plethora of tiny streams and more than half of the central portion of the range is grasslands. Thick stands of spruce and fir are interspersed with the grass, adding to the park-like nature of the meadows. The mix offers an expansive feeling not often found at high elevations.
It's wet up there. Most of the year's average of 35 inches of precipitation falls as winter snow. The high elevation causes much of the snow to linger into summer, feeding the dozens of streams that radiate from the parks. The meadows remain damp, even soggy, throughout the year.
The patchwork of forest and meadow make the parks ideal elk habitat. A large herd summers in the valleys of the San Pedro Mountains, wintering at lower elevations in the Jemez Mountains. It is common to round a bend in the trail and be startled by an equally startled elk thrashing through the forest. Bear and wild turkey are other wildlife common in the parks.
An extensive network of trails leads in and around the parks, inviting a couple days of exploration. With over 100 miles of trails, the parks offer many trip possibilities, most of which can be made into loops. Many of the trails follow small streams, which have been given the Spanish designation of rito.
Las Vacas Trail is the main artery into the central portion of the San Pedro Parks. It is about six miles from the trailhead on Forest Road 70 to the Rio de las Vacas. The trail gains 1,000 feet in the distance, but never climbs steeply. After passing the often heavily-used San Gregorio Reservoir, the Las Vacas Trail meets up with Clear Creek, which it follows for about a mile before striking northeast. The route alternates between forest and open meadow before reaching the broad park bordering the Rio de las Vacas.
The trail meets the stream in the middle of the network of trails that threads through the parks. The Las Vacas Trail continues up the valley of the stream and leads to other small creeks with their attendant trails. For a nice, eight-mile loop from the central hub, walk a grand triangle with the Las Vacas, Los Pinos, and Anastacio trails. Campsites are plentiful along the entire route.
It's a bit shorter to the parks from the Palomas Trailhead. From there the walk is four miles via the Palomas Trail to the Las Vacas Trail. For a 15-mile loop around the eastern half of the wilderness, follow the Las Vacas Trail to the Penas Negras Trail, then return by way of the Perchas Trail. Spots to pitch a tent are found along the Rio de las Vacas and the Rito de las Perchas.
Consider a walk to Vega Redonda, perhaps the most delightful meadow in the wilderness and home to a sizable portion of the elk herd. From the Palomas Trailhead, take the Palomas and Perchas trails six miles to the meadow. From a base camp here you can explore the area surrounding the San Pedro Peaks.
For more trip ideas, get a copy of the Forest Service San Pedro Parks Wilderness Map, or contact the Cuba Ranger District at (505) 289-3264.
Don't forget your fishing rod.
A backpacking trip can bring different pleasures to different people. In most cases I enjoy the solitude best, and wildlife watching is high on my list. But when I plan a trip to the San Pedro Parks Wilderness, one thing is on my mind: Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The diminutive streams of the San Pedro Parks holds the finest populations of these native fish in the Jemez Mountains.
It's not the size that draws me to seek out this particular species of trout. I can't recall ever landing a Rio Grande cutthroat over seven inches long. It's not the ease of catching them, although, like all high-elevation trout, they are notorious for taking almost any fly that floats by. As a catch-and-release kind of fisherman, I've never tasted one's flesh.
The why is simple: The Rio Grande cutthroat is the prettiest trout in the southern Rockies.
It's a trout to match the dominant colors of New Mexico's high desert. The cutthroat's back is washed in muted green with a hint of bronze, like the underside of a cloud at sunset. Brilliant orange-red slashes add a touch of color to the lower jaw. A distinguishing pattern of heavy black spots are crowded toward the tail. Swimming in the gin-clear water of the Rio de las Vacas or the smaller streams in the parks, the fish seem to shine as if polished by the currents.
Most of the waters of the San Pedro Parks hold these native fish. Angling is best in the largest of the waters, the Rio de las Vacas. Large is relative term -- at its greatest breath, the Las Vacas is only eight feet wide. More often the stream is but a crack in the grasses. What make this such a fine stream is the fact that in many places the stream is deeper than it is wide.
On many of the Rio Grande cutthroat waters it is a challenge just to cast onto the water. For fly fishermen, even a wisp of a breeze can send a fly five feet into the grass. In water where you can spot a penny on the bottom through four feet of water, the cutthroats are spooky. An angler that brings a couple trout to his fly can be proud of his accomplishment.
Rio Grande cutthroats were once found in streams throughout central New Mexico, but habitat changes and the introduction of non-native trout species have pushed the species into the headwater streams. In recognition of the sensitive nature of Rio Grande cutthroat populations, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has placed a two fish possession limit on these trout.
Location: The San Pedro Parks lie just to the east of Cuba, New Mexico in the Santa Fe National Forest. Easy to reach from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the wilderness sees moderate usage on summer weekends. Trails approach the parks from all directions, but those to the north, west and east require long, jolting drives on rutted roads to reach the trailheads. Most hikers come into the parks from the south.
Directions: The easiest access and most popular trailhead is for the Las Vacas Trail near San Gregorio Reservoir on Forest Road 70. Reach the trailhead via State Road 126 out of Cuba or the village of La Cueva, which is north of Albuquerque on State Road 44 and State Road 4. Take State Road 126 about 30 miles from La Cueva, most of which is unpaved, but is passable to all vehicles except in winter and after heavy rains. From Cuba, take State Road 126 about six miles, all but the last half-mile paved. Turn onto Forest Road 70, reaching the trailhead in three miles. If you continue past the main trailhead for ten miles you will reach the Palomas Trailhead. Entering the parks via this route cuts off several miles of hiking on the parks' most heavily-used trail.
Don't get lost: The trails in the San Pedro Parks are easy to follow through the forests, but the tread often disappears in open bogs along streams. Soupy areas occur not only along permanent streams, but also in minor drainages. When the trail disappears, watch for stout wooden posts that mark the route in these areas.
Weather: Following winters with average or more snowpack, the parks stay wet throughout the summer. Mud and water are often found on the trail. When hiking the parks, wear your most waterproof hiking boots. Boots with full-leather, one-piece uppers provide the best protection; leave lightweight, leather-and-canvas boots at home. Bring a second pair of shoes or all-terrain sandals to wear in camp. This will give your boots a chance to dry.
Clothing: A combination of polypropylene sock liners under wool or synthetic hiking socks will keep your feet dry. Carrying three or four pairs of extra socks in also a good idea. Nights are cold in the San Pedro Parks, even in June and July. Expect temperatures to drop below freezing except during the hottest spells. The chill begins as soon as the sun drops below the horizon, so bring a thick fleece jacket. Heavy dew, or perhaps frost, and summer thunderstorms make carrying a tent essential.