After nearly six weeks away from Moab, I am back home.
I am back home again for about two weeks before I take off to Colorado’s Front Range and then fly out to the East Coast.
But for now, I am happy to arrive home. My favorite trip partner and I are taking local jaunts, enjoying each other’s company, and reminiscing about the 500-mile walks we each took this past summer.
Which brings up the walk I just took on the 500 or so miles on the Northern New Mexico Loop (NNML). The NNML is another route by Brett Tucker aka “Blister Free” creator of the Grand Enchantment Trail, Lowest to Highest Route, and other thru-hikes that people seeking jaunts off the beaten path enjoy hiking.
Why this loop?
I stated my reasons previously. But, in brief, northern New Mexico is one of my favorite places in the world. I love the blend of different cultures, the deep history, the food, and the sublime scenic beauty. New Mexico is not all desert; it is a land of red rocks, alpine peaks towering over 13k ft, broad grass valleys, and river gorges. A beautiful, unique, and remarkable landscape.
And a chance to explore this landscape on foot for about a month? Something I’ve been contemplating for almost a decade.
There are many reasons why New Mexico locals call this state the “Land of Entrapment”!
The Route Itself
I walked a 500 mile or so loop that started an ended at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe from August 2nd until August 28th.
The route itself takes in some of the following areas:
- Bandelier National Monument with its Ancestral Pueblo dwellings and Rock Images.
- The Jemez Mountains
- Back on the CDT for a bit in New Mexico
- Valle Vidal (The Yellowstone of the Southwest)
- and the grand finale in the ever-gorgeous Pecos Wilderness
Of course, the Santa Fe Plaza with its rich history for the start and the end of the journey seems a perfect place to begin and end a stroll through New Mexico.
The Northern New Mexico Loop (NNML) is not a beginners route, but it is not as remote as my previous treks in Utah or Canada. Physically, other than the Sangre De Cristo Mountains at the end, the challenges are not overly complicated (other than potentially crossing the Rio Grande; see info below).
For a hiker experienced with water management, competent with basic navigation, does not need a linear thru-hiking community, physically fit, comfortable with non-official routes, and not expecting a “connect-the-dots” experience should do fine on the NNML.
What the route is, in the end, a fantastic way to experience the grandeur of northern New Mexico.
Brett Tucker and Melissa Spencer (Treehugger) have put together an excellent CalTopo map set, town info, and databook for hiking this loop.
Melissa and Brett plan on hiking a scouting trip during the fall of 2019 to update their information. They will incorporate notes provided by Jim Sells (Sagebrush Hikes) from his hike this past summer and myself. Once they compile the summaries, new information should be publically available.
In the meantime, check out the NNML website and the lightly used NNML Facebook group.
UPDATE March 2023 – They completely revamped the route and released a newly updated map set, data book, and navigation resources now that it is post-COVID – https://simblissity.net/northern-nm-loop-mapset.shtml
Maps and Navigation
The route is a mix of single track, jeep road, less than 50 miles of cross country travel, and some minimal amount of pavement walking. And the cross country typically meant following old and abandoned jeep track, but not always. About 130 miles of the route follows the Continental Divide Trail from the Pedro Park area to Brazos Ridge with a 17-mile spur hike to Cumbres Pass just over the Colorado border for resupply purposes in Chama, NM.
The NNML CalTopo map set with ample notations, in conjunction with the databook, meant I rarely had trouble with navigation.
For any trickier sections (such as areas with a maze of old jeep roads), the track provided for GPS use worked well. I used Gaia GPS with a mix of NatGeo, USGS, and USFS 2016 layers.
Other than camping in Bandelier, and possibly the Wild Rivers Recreation Area if you choose that option, no permits are needed.
- Water carries in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and other nearby areas mean you have to pay attention to springs, stock tanks, and rivers. But, no worse than any typical alphabet soup route most thru-hikes find themselves on at times. Pay attention to your maps, carry accordingly, and you’ll be fine.
- You have to cross the Rio Grande twice on the route. Typically both crossings are easy fords. However, during this higher snow year, an inflatable pool float proved useful for the crossing at White Rock Canyon outside of Bandelier. The second crossing? Well…
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Another milestone: I crossed the Rio Grande again. This time at the historic Sheep Crossing at the Wild Rivers Recreation Area. …. Normally this ford is knee-high (or if you are 5’6″ as I am, thigh-high?) Well in this high snow year? I learned that a pack keeps me buoyant enough to float and do a backstroke across the river. Interesting morning. …. Grabbing some chile relleno here in Questa and I’ll be in the Columbine-Hondo wilderness this evening. Onward! … #newmexico #newmexicotrue #landofenchantment #hiking #backpacking #camping #thruhking #northernnewmexicoloop
I should note there are longer alt routes to avoid these fords. They are not necessarily convenient but are safer with a high runoff. For the Sheep Crossing above, I suspect I’d take an alternate route this past spring.
- Exposed areas for lightning. In the Sangres, you are above treeline a fair amount. But, again, there are lower routes available.
I should say, my plan to hike in August worked out well. I started in the middle of the “Monsoon season,” and the lower (and hotter) areas tended to have cloud cover. By the time I entered the higher regions, I had ended up hiking at the very start of fall in the high country; worked out beautifully.
Here are some pieces of equipment, clothing, or tools that worked well for me:
- The Katabatic Flex 22 lived up to its name and vented well for warmer weather and kept me cozy during the cool, early autumn nights in the high country.
- My Montbell Versalite continued to be a key “go-to” piece during the heavy afternoon downpours during the early parts of the trip. My hiking shirt stayed dry.
- Speaking of downpours, the quick-to-set-up old warhorse of the Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis still serves me well. Pyramid tarps, in my opinion, are the most versatile of all shelters.
- I wore the same pair of ExOfficio boxer briefs for the guiding in Yosemite and on this loop. And there is no noticeable wear and tear. An excellent purchase I can heartily endorse.
- I switched to USB headlamps a while ago. But earlier this year, I splurged a bit and bought the 1 oz version of the popular Nitecore NU25 headlamp. Very light, bright, and two red light settings. Makes for a versatile headlamp and the $35 price is not overly expensive. (Looks like it went up a few bucks since my purchase.)
- Moab no longer allows disposable plastic shopping bags. The local dollar store ended up using reusable shopping bags made of heavy plastic allegedly suitable for 135 uses. These are now my favorite bags for sorting food. And are included with every purchase I make at the dollar store.
- The UBtech pants purchased at Costco are still my “go-to” hiking pants.
- I prefer polycotton blend long sleeve shirts for hiking vs. “real” hiking shirts. They breathe better, they provide sun and insect protection, the thin fabric dries quickly, and the shirts button up or down and allow rolling up the sleeves for ventilation as needed. In particular, I’ve gravitated toward the classic plaid “Western-style” snap shirts. The snaps are easy to button or unbutton and the plaid color hides stains a lot easier than a solid color shirt. Not to be discounted, I frankly looked more presentable in town or in high use areas vs. the “Hiker trash” motif of my earlier years. And I can often find them for less than $20.
- For the first Rio Grande crossing, the $5 Intex pool float toy ended up being clutch. I wore my pack, used the float as “wings,” and doggy paddled/kicked my way across the Rio Grande. I went upstream slightly and floated downstream to what seemed less thick vegetation on the opposite shore. Wish I had this float for the second crossing, too!
If you still have gear questions, please see my (more or less) current gear list.
- For the 17-mile spur route from the NNML to Chama, I opted to purchase a train ticket, take the railroad, enjoy an AYCE lunch at the stop in Osier, CO, and then hike back to the NNML rather than hitch and re-hike the same 17-miles again. Ended up being a unique experience and a way to see something different.
- The CDT in 2006 meant hiking obscure jeep tracks and overgrown USFS trails in many cases while in New Mexico. In 2019? Wow…excellent, well-marked singletrack with great views.
- I’ll never get tired of the green chile delights in New Mexico among the other New Mexico-style cuisine. Sopapillas, huevos rancheros, chile relleno, green chile cheeseburgers, excellent craft beer, and even New Mexico style pizza with green chiles and black beans.
And speaking of New Mexico cuisine…
And now some musings on the northern New Mexico culture, food, and history
(Skip to the photos below if you’d rather not see my wordy musings on history. 😉 )
Part of why I enjoy being in northern New Mexico so much is the history that permeates this area. The blend of Native, Spanish, and American West cultures form the New Mexico culture. I find it fascinating that I can walk a 500+-year-old trading route, visit a town inhabited for over 1000 years, and see dwellings inhabited when Charlemagne’s empire existed and the Viking raids weren’t just legend over in Europe.
The food reflects much of this deep history with the famous green chiles, corn, tortillas, and other spices from the Pueblo people, and the introduction of beef, chicken, pork and some cooking techniques from the Spanish. The cuisine is not Mexican, it is a similar, but ultimately unique, New Mexican cuisine that is delicious.
Then there is the Hispano culture of northern New Mexico and nearby southern Colorado. The Hispanos are similar to the Quebecois in a sense they developed much of their culture separate from the main cultural stream of the Spanish world after generations of separation. And the Hispanos speak a variation of the language that is older than current Spanish with loan words from the native population and English. A colleague of mine from over a decade ago grew up on the CO/NM border. His family has been here for over 300 years, and he spoke New Mexican Spanish as his first language. Tom had much pride in this identity and his roots. And the more I learn about this part of the world, the more I understand this pride.
And, as I noted before:
Colorado is the home of the “work hard, play hard” crowd. A place where you work 50+ or even 60+ hour weeks and then crush a 14er, run an ultra or do multiple yo-yos on a ski run. And then race back Sunday night to start the process all over again. A tale I know too well from my recent past.
Utah? Mixed within the outdoor experiences are gravel pits, construction sites, and ongoing mining claims. Wild spaces perhaps secondary to what purpose they serve to people who chose an industrious beehive as their emblem.
Then there’s New Mexico.
The outdoors are just there. They are part of the cultural landscape and everyday life. Not something to crush or conquer. But to experience in a lowkey and laidback fashion.
A broad brush, but it is how I feel.
Watch Anthony Bourdain’s excursion into New Mexico for a more colorful and eloquent take on this subject.
Here are some highlights of my trip via photos:
The always impressive “Painted Cave” in Bandelier National Monument and other places of pilgrimage:
I enjoyed the wildflowers quite a bit:
I saw a good amount of wildlife, too. Not pictured? A lot of elk. And three “Cinnamon bears” (black bears) that ran away before I could take a photo.
In the Jemez, I took advantage of some natural warm and hot springs.
And I enjoyed the red rock formations in and around Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keefe made so many famous paintings.
And I enjoyed the post-CDT 2006 tread:
But, time to leave the CDT behind:
Want more? See all the photos here!
(Why are the images on Flickr are not full hi-res? Besides taking a long time to upload that many pictures at the highest res avail, very few people upload the highest res photos online. Esp. in this day of mainly smart devices and social media use, along with easily copied content. Hi-res photos are for presentations, gifts, non-profit use, and commercial use typically. )
All the entries
I have multiple entries with more thoughts, more planning info, and of course, more photos.
Pretty sweet to find a dendroglyph that calls you out by name. A lot of the Aspen graffiti in northern New Mexico and other parts of the southwest are related to Basque shepherds who moved their sheep throughout the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There’s also a lot of “dendro-porn” in the Valles Caldera left by loggers during that same time period.
Joan and I saw a lot of those Basque carvings in Nevada. I saw some of the more salty carvings in the Valles Caldera as well. I had to do a double-take! 🙂
Nothing like being in the woods to think up some wild stuff! Looks like an awesome trip, and an awesome writeup as usual. Thanks!
Awesome summary, thanks for sharing. My friend and I did a loop through Bandelier in June. The rangers had recommended a route heading up the Rio Grande towards Painted Cave. We expected the banks to be marshy and overgrown, but after hours of slogging along the hillside we ran into a rock wall with three foot deep water all the way up to the shore. I’m guessing that was due to the increased precipitation this year? We ended up turning around and going cross country over to Painted Cave.
Sounds interesting. A high snow year probably did affect your experience.
I’ve really enjoyed your entire NNML series and much appreciate this followup. Thank you!
Paul thanks for this thorough report and the beautiful photos. You might be interested in David Roberts’s new book (and likely last), ‘Escalante’s Dream”; detailing his experiences following the Dominguez-Escalante route which you were close to and probably crossed on this hike. Also thanks for the photo of the lions. I read somewhere that Zuni youth were known to make a sort of rite of passage trip cross-country to that site. Now that’s a hike! Also a little sad to see the pines in that elk herd photo. Wonder how much longer we’ll have those trees around. Just got home… Read more »
Thanks, Cola. Another book to add to my list! Looks like an interesting read. Yes, the tree kill is disheartening.
[…] his September wrap-up of his Northern New Mexico Loop trip Paul “PMags” Magnanti mentioned his love for cotton-polyester blend thrift store hiking […]
[…] Magnanti’s recent Northern New Mexico Loop summary mentioned his love of cotton-blend thrift store hiking shirts. I was raised in a strict […]
Thanks for the summary, pictures, and inspiration! I’m hoping to do the route this year, most likely in July as that is the window of time I have open. Do you know of any websites that provide some good weather summaries for the region, i.e. what is typical and how current conditions are shaping up this year? Or if you’re familiar with the region at that time of year, could you comment some on what to possibly expect in regards to temps, storms, water sources, etc.? I’ve done some trips around the Sangre de Cristo and Bandelier, but those were… Read more »
I think the SnoTel sites for New Mexico would be your best bet. You’ll be able to see the water levels, any drought conditions, etc. The Rio Grande Crossing might be dicey, so you’ll probably want to walk around them via the alt routes.
Otherwise, watch for t-storms in the Pecos, Latir Peaks, or any of the higher Sangres areas. Similar weather to their Colorado cousins across the border.
Once you get the planning material, you should have the info you need for water, too.