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The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are New Mexico's highest, largest and most important mountains. The mountains form an abrupt western border of the Great Plains on their east and the towering eastern edge of the Taos Plateau to the west.
Anchored by a core of Precambrian crystalline rock over 570 million years old, the mountains stretch two hundred miles from their northern beginnings near Salida, Colorado, to their southern edge in the foothills east of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The steep spinal ridge of the Colorado Sangre de Cristo, punctuated by several peaks over 14,000 feet, flattens slightly in New Mexico, as the mountains fold and broaden into several distinct ranges.
The mountains are overlain by sedimentary and volcanic caps. Wheeler Peak, reaching 13,161 feet above sea level near Taos, is New Mexico's highest peak; it is the crown of the Taos Range, named for the Indian pueblo in its shadow.
The Latir Range, to the north, and the Truchas Range, to the south, also boast craggy peaks extending far above treeline. The high peaks look over beautiful alpine lakes and basins in glacially scoured valleys. The peaks and the lakes, and high meadows and aspen-fir forests which shelter their approach lure both dayhikers and backpackers into the mountains.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are a counterbalance to the Rio Grande Gorge which slices through the Taos Plateau. The river, replenished each spring by snowmelt, and the mountains which are the source of this annual rejuvenation have interacted geologically through eons. This symbiosis is not dissimilar to the relationship between the diverse cultures which also define the area.
The landscape cannot be severed from the area's history. Petroglyphs, perhaps the earliest trailmarkers, are etched into random boulders and on rock escarpments, offering observant hikers a glimpse into a way of life still celebrated by modern day Pueblo peoples in the valley.
The foothills of the Sangre de Cristos are home to several pueblos, including the Tiwa people of the Taos and Picuris Pueblos. Taos Pueblo, like the mountains, seems timeless and eternal. Continuously inhabited for several hundred years before Christopher Columbus was born, the Pueblo continues to pray the sun up daily.
Europeans, like the river, are relative newcomers. Spanish explorers made their first appearance in 1540. Spanish settlers, driven by zealous missionaries in search of souls to save, followed, wending their way through the mountains near present day Trampas and Penasco along the Camino Real (the "royal highway").
Spanish relations with the native Pueblo Indians, tentative at best in that first century of co-habitation, were set back by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the native people briefly sent the foreigners back down the river.
One legend has it that the revolt provided the source of the mountains' name. A dying Spanish padre asked for a sign from heaven; the red glow of sunset on the mountains' flanks gave him relief as he expired with the words "Sangre de Cristo," or "Blood of Christ."
Today, the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests manage the resources of the high mountains for multiple use, including recreation. Today, a system of trails offers hikers access to the rich solitude and history of these New Mexico mountains.
There are seemingly endless possibilities for both dayhiking and multiday backpack treks in the Sangre de Cristo. Mountain bikes, horses and hikers share many of the trails, except for those actually within Wilderness Area boundaries, which are restricted to foot and horse travel. There are three Wilderness Areas within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Many of the trails described below emanate from trailheads leading into Wilderness Areas. Overnight and multiday trips are possible from each of these trailheads; specific routes are only suggested. If you are planning an extended trip, please leave an itinerary with someone back in town. Know and realistically assess the physical capabilities of each member of your hiking party. Do not go into the wilderness unprepared. There is a definite trend, spurred by suggested legislative action, for Search and Rescue teams and the State Police, to charge for their services.
Latir Peak Wilderness Area
The relatively small Latir Peak Wilderness Area was established in 1980. Covering 20,000 acres, it spreads over the southern slopes of the Latir Peak Ridge north of Questa, New Mexico. It is bordered on the north by the privately held Rio Costilla Land Company. Hiking season usually begins in mid-June. Check locally for conditions. Substantial snowfields may exist into early July following wet winters.
Access: Follow Forest Road 134A north two miles from its intersection with NM 563 west of Questa, New Mexico. Trailhead is at Cabresto Lake Campground at Cabresto Lake.
Trail No. 82, Lake Fork Trail. This trail offers easy access to the Latir Ridge which overshadows Heart Lake. Views from the top offer a glimpse into the world of the Colorado 14,000 foot peaks, including Blanca and Culebra peaks lurking lurk just north of the state border. The ridge can be followed to the top of Latir Peak, 12,708. A multiday loop is possible by hiking back on the Bull Creek trail, or by staying high and following the Midnight Trail east to its trailhead off F.R. 137A.
Length: 7.1 miles one way to Heart Lake.
Trail No. 85, Bull Creek. This trail provides access to the high country between Heart Lake and Cabresto Peak. Steep pitches will test the heart and lungs. A multiday loop from the Cabresto Lake trailhead is possible by connecting with the Lake Fork trail.
Length: 6.2 miles
Red River area trails. A number of trailheads lie along NM 38 as it follows the Red River past the town of the same name. Columbine Campground is the trailhead for a complex of trails perfect for dayhikes or longer trips. Although this is not wilderness area, it offers spectacular scenery and solitude.
Trail No. 71, Columbine Canyon. The lower reaches of this beautiful trail follow a gentle grade up Columbine Canyon. It is heavily used by dayhikers from the large campground at the trailhead. Access to the creek, wildflower clad meadows and occasional views of the high mountains to the south make this an ideal outing for an inexperienced hiker. Several trails intersect the main trail, providing access to Gold Hill (elev. 12,711 feet) and offering a number of possibilities for overnight trips.
Length: 5.7 miles to Lobo Ridge (see commentary on Twining trails below
Contact: Carson National Forest, Questa Ranger District, P. O. Box 110, Questa, N.M. 87556, (505) 586-0520
Hikes in and near the Wild Rivers Area
One other area, although not actually in the mountains, deserves mention. The Wild Rivers Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, rests on the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge just north of Questa. A series of trails drop 800 feet into the heart of the gorge, connecting by other trails both at the top and along the narrow river corridor at the bottom. Because of the rim's relatively low elevation (7800 feet), this area often remains open for hiking all year long. The BLM has constructed a series of unobtrusive shelters along the river which receives relatively sparse overnight use. Driveup campsites on the rim offer some of the most spectacular car camping in New Mexico. While this is not a large area, it is perfect for weekend exploration.
Contact: Bureau of Land Management, 224 Cruz Alta Road, Taos, N.M. 87571, (505) 758-8851 or Taos Chamber of Commerce, Paseo del Pueblo Sur 1139, P. O. Drawer I, Taos, N.M. 87571, 800-758-3873, 505-758-3873
Wheeler Peak Wilderness
The Wheeler Peak Wilderness sprawls over 19,000 acres on the Wheeler Ridge. It is heavily used by both locals and tourists alike. Most use is day use by hearty hikers who make the 16-mile round trip to the top of New Mexico or by less ambitious strollers making the abbreviated trek to Williams Lake. Those seeking solitude are advised to hike other trails in the Twining area.
The Wheeler Peak Wilderness borders Taos Pueblo backcountry. The Pueblo was able to regain ownership of sacred Blue Lake after a long, acrimonious political battle. Today, the Pueblo manages the backcountry as wilderness. Please respect Pueblo boundaries!
Follow NM 150 to its end at the parking area for the Taos Ski Valley. The Wheeler Peak trailhead is marked by a series of log steps at the eastern end of the upper parking area.
Trail No. 90, Bull-of-the-Woods. This trail goes right up to Bull of the Woods pasture (about 2.5 miles) before connecting to the route up the Wheeler Ridge. Many people make this trip, both ways in a day, bagging Wheeler Peak. Several multiday trips are possible by connecting with Tr. No. 63 Long Canyon or by dropping over to the upper drainage of the Red River via Horseshoe Lake.
Length: 8 miles one way
Trail No. 62, Williams Lake. This trail follows the Lake Fork to a beautiful alpine lake. Recent development in the Taos Ski Valley has diminished the backcountry feel of the lower portion of the trail. Many locals bypass this by driving up and parking near the Phoenix restaurant (ask directions for this road at any of the shops in the Ski Valley facility; increased development of private property in the area may preclude access in the future). The hike from this upper parking area to the lake is only two miles and above the steepest grade. This convenient access has made the hike a promenade of sorts on summer and fall weekends. Taken with this in mind, it is a delightful way to spend an afternoon.
Length: 3.5 miles one way
Access to other Twining trails:
A number of other trails lead from trailheads scattered along NM 150 (Taos Ski Valley Road). These trails are similar in that they follow cascading mountain streams quickly up into the high country. These steep climbs are rewarded by a spectacular view from the top of Lobo Ridge at the top. Several loop trips, of a day or longer, are possible by following the ridge and descending another trail and then hiking back along the road to your vehicle.
Multiday trips are also possible by descending the less steep trails on the northern side of the ridge into the Red River valley. (See comment on Columbine Creek above). Although this area is not wilderness, it often occasions more solitude than the trails in the adjacent Wheeler Peak area.
Trail No. 58, Manzanita
Length: 4.3 miles one way to ridge
Trail No. 59, Italianos
Length: 3.7 miles one way to ridge
Trail No. 60, Gavilan. This trail is the least steep of the set. It also can be extremely muddy due to high usage by commercial horsepackers.
Length: 2.4 miles one way to ridge
Contact: Carson National Forest, Questa Ranger District, P. O. Box 110, Questa, N.M. 87556, (505) 586-0520
The Pecos Wilderness contains over 223,000 acres around the Truchas Range. High peaks include South Truchas (13,102 feet), Middle Truchas (13,066 feet), North Truchas (13,024 feet), and Chimayoso (12,944 feet) which define the Santa Barbara Divide. A skyline trail follows the divide for several miles; the ridge drains south to the Rio Pecos, which must travel 800 miles across the Llano Escatado before joining the Rio Grande, a mere 20 miles from its headwaters. All rivers north and west of the divide drain into the Rio Grande; some of the waters draining east eventually meet the Mississippi.
The Pecos welcomes serious backpackers. Several long multiday trips are possible without ever retracing your steps. The area is managed jointly by the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests, which have prepared a special Pecos Wilderness Area map available for a nominal fee.
The Pecos is New Mexico's second largest (the Gila Wilderness covers over 500,000 acres) and third oldest (founded in 1933) wilderness area. Although deemed wilderness, it has been used by the surrounding peoples for centuries. Grazing is still allowed in the backcountry; some grazing permittees are carrying on a family tradition which reaches back over two hundred years. There are many gateways to the Pecos Wilderness. The following information deals with the most accessible from the Taos area.
Access: Take a left on FR 116 off NM 73 2 miles from the village of Penasco, NM. Follow the signs and the road to Santa Barbara Campground. A marked parking area is located just before the cattle gate guarding entrance to Santa Barbara Campground.
Trail No. 25, West Fork of the Santa Barbara. This trail is truly the gateway to the Pecos Wilderness. The first six miles follow the West Fork of the Santa Barbara through aspen fir forest interrupted by inviting meadows. The Truchas Peaks dominate the view along the trail. The trail leaves the river after six miles and switchbacks an additional four miles to the Santa Barbara Divide. Trails to the Middle Fork and East Fork of the Santa Barbara veer east about two miles from the trailhead. These routes are generally less travelled.
A multiday loop is possible by ascending the East Fork to the Divide and then staying high along the ridge to the West Fork Trail. The gentle terrain of the first six miles of the West Fork trail are excellent for young or out-of-shape strollers.
Length: 6 miles to end of valley, 10 miles one way to top of Santa Barbara Divide
Contact: Carson National Forest, Camino Real Ranger District, P. O. Box 68, Penasco, N.M. 87553, (505) 587-2255
The seasons: Summer and early fall are the ideal time to take a hike here. Lower elevation trails may be open to hikers all year except for intervals of snow in the deep of winter and the subsequent mud of early spring. The weather, like the landscape, can be dramatic, especially in the midst of the summer hiking season. Weather is a factor for hikers whatever the season. Each season has general characteristics which include highly variable shifts in patterns of temperature and precipitation. Ambient temperature is correlated to altitude, with temperatures falling with elevation gain. The dry heat of early summer is usually broken up by the monsoon storms of the rainy season of July and August. Summer thunder showers in the mountains can bring hail, lightning, rain and even snow. Powerful storm cells can produce dangerous electrical conditions. Mountain hikers should avoid high and exposed open ridges during storms. Temperatures can drop suddenly, turning a delightful sunny walk into an uncomfortable and possibly life-threatening ordeal for those not properly prepared.
Backcountry hikers should educate themselves about the dangers of hypothermia, the loss of body heat, and take action at any warning signs of hypothermia in themselves and in their companions. The snows may start flying by mid-September. However, early fall snowstorms and autumn rains can be followed by weeks of warm, gorgeous "Indian summer" in October and early November. The golden days of the New Mexico fall, accentuated by the shimmering aspens in their autumn splendor, are ideal for hiking. However, it is also hunting season. All hikers should contact the appropriate management agency for times and locations of hunts. The cool temperatures of high elevation may mask the dryness of the air. Dehydration can be a life-threatening problem. Always carry lots of fluids, refrain from drinking from seemingly pristine mountain streams, and drink several quarts of water daily even if you are not thirsty.
Leave no trace: Trails are found on public land administered by either the Bureau of Land Management or the Carson National Forest. With the right to use this land comes the responsibility to treat the resource with respect. Hikers have the opportunity to set a standard for all back country users. Respect the rights of others, stay on designated roads and trails, and pack out everything or more than you bring in. Follow the "Leave No Trace" philosophy. If staying overnight, use a campstove for cooking whenever possible. If a campfire is necessary, build it on a small existing scar. Make sure the fire is out before leaving, and scatter the ashes and charcoal. Bury all human waste in at least six inches of organic soil and at least 200 feet from all water sources. Pack out toilet paper with other garbage. Please do not use any kind of soap product, including biodegradable, in any lake or stream.
Other users: Public land, whether administered by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service, is managed for multiple uses. This means it is open to hunting and grazing, even in wilderness areas. Please close gates on backcountry trails in areas used for grazing. This aids not only the grazing permittee but your land management agency to better manage, conserve and protect the natural resource. Both local people and visitors utilizing outfitters and guides use horses in the mountains. Polite communication and mutual respect on the trail is appropriate especially in the back country. Horses can be spooked by hikers, especially those hefting a large pack. Speak calmly to make both the horse and its rider aware of your presence. If possible, move off the trail on the uphill side and let the horse pass. Remember that the rider's motivation in being out is possibly the same as your own, simple enjoyment of the natural bounty. Also remember that many wilderness evacuations are facilitated by those same animals whose droppings you may curse.
Bears: Although bears live in the Sangre de Cristo, they do not often present a hazard to humans. Bear sightings and encounters are more plentiful following a dry winter when natural food supplies are scarce. Know how to hang food and bearproof your campsite. Ask local Rangers about any recent bear activities.