Enchantment in the Sangres – Pecos Wilderness

In my years of being in the outdoors, I’ve been able to see beautiful and wonderful places many different ways. Skis in the winter bring me into and on the snow covered peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Day hikes have allowed me to experience the mountains and backcountry unencumbered and take in a lot during the day.  There has been some dabbling into alpine climbing and seeing the mountains from a vertical point of view.  Even some memorable car camping trips that has allowed being immersed in a place that is not really a backpacking destination.

But my first and deepest love is backpacking.

The simple act of placing a pack with everything I need for the next few days on my back and then walking. Up the mountains, into the canyons, among the woods and along the creeks.

It is a pace suited for ambling, taking in the world around me and being immersed in it. Without a lot of equipment on me or needed to be brought, I can enjoy the wilderness.  And by staying overnight, I’m immersed in a world that  slowly reveals itself.

The sun rises and brings the world to life. The setting sun gently eases into the night as the first stars come out above.

Backpacking is not the most glamorous or adrenalin driven form of outdoor activity. But it is part of the reason why I love it so. It is simple and not flashy. No other goal than walking and seeing and seeing what I can see.

As Memorial Day approached this past year, my collection of maps were gone over for a place to backpack in this high snow year in northern Colorado.  My usual haunts in the Lost Creek Wilderness were too snowy. The Sangres in Colorado looked promising, but perhaps a touch too snowy as well.

Then I thought further south to New Mexico. A place I knew little of other than my CDT thru-hike and a brief trip last month with someone.  Time to explore more.

Some quick Google searching brought up the Pecos Wilderness  in the New Mexico Sangre De Cristo Mountains just south of Taos and a little over 6 hrs way.  Exploring the southernmost extent of the Rockies also had an appeal.

Above tree line views seemed to be had, alpine lakes to be explored and summits to be climbed.  It all looked promising.

Joining me for this trip would be my buddy Mark.  A good friend who also loves a variety of outdoor activities and experiences in addition to exploring new places.

The trip started by driving after work to Taos. It was a pleasure to not face I-70 traffic on this holiday weekend. The drive was pleasant and went deep into the heart of the Spanish country of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  The state line may divide the this area, but the cultural, geographical and mountain areas do not know recognize these arbitrary lines.

Arrived near the Santa Barbara trailhead , found a spot to camp and did a truck bivy. The nearby sounds of the stream and a cold beer  made for a night of contentment.

The following morning, I arrived at the trailhead proper and promptly at 8am, Mark and Judy showed up.  Judy would be in Taos all weekend while Mark and I explored the Pecos.

The loop we eventually  did would take us up to the Santa Barbara Divide to the Skyline Trail and back down along the Santa Barbara Rio to the trailhead.

The climb started off among the switchbacks. We quickly hit what looked to be an old railroad grade and cruised along.

Eventually, we post-holed in snow that became deeper and deeper.


After about two hours of this traveling through the snow, we eventually came out onto the divide.


The expansive views were the reward for the hours of post holing and navigating.

The divide was followed up the 12835′ Jicarita Peak.  


Shortly after descending from the summit, very fierce winds would pick up. We actually needed our hiking poles to keep upright at times!


After traversing the windy ridge, we spied the trail-less Horseshoe Lake and decided to make camp for the evening.


The views up to the ridge from Horseshoe Lake were equally impressive.


At our campsite, some empty beer cans were spotted.  I cursed the people who could pack in beer but not pack out the cans. Then Mark spotted a full can that seemed intact!  The people who packed in the beer were still jerks, but the Trail Gods did provide!


After an very windy night, we gained the ridge again in the morning. The winds continued to be relentless.

Hidden just over the ridge and a little out of the wind, we spotted some big horn sheep.


The wind died down a little and the sun came out. The ridge continued to lead on to more and more majestic sights.


After a little bit of hiking, it was time for a break and enjoy the warm sun and get out of the wind a little bit.


One last view from the ridge after the break before we headed to Truchas Lakes.

Off ridge, it was easier to down a little off trail  to get to the lakes.

From a high point, we noticed all the snow below towards Pecos Baldy and decided to make our loop shorter.

After a little off-trail hiking, we made it to Truchas Lakes.

Rather than head down a trail to get back to a saddle, we again went cross country.

At the very windy  saddle, we started our 12 mile descent back to the Santa Barbara Campground.

Getting back into the trees, we encountered more snow.

Rather than look for the trail, we simply crossed the creek and followed it down until we hooked up with the trail again in a thankfully snow free area.

Camp was made six miles from the campground near a  picturesque  meadow.


Our last morning saw us getting lower and lower in elevation.  The spruce gave way to aspen with their full spring time leaves.


The highlight of this lower elevation was the red columbine dotting the sides of the trail.


As we continued down the trail, we noticed more people. The snow had kept the people seen on the trail the following two days to zero!

After a leisurely stroll, we arrived back at the Mag Wag. Cotton was change into, sandals put on  and we sat on the tailgate drinking a beer marveling at what an awesome trip was had.  The bar was set very high for future backpacking trips this season.

The Pecos Wilderness proved to a be unexpected and memorable gem. Huge vertical relief, much variety in the terrain from tundra to lush river valleys and full of abundant wild life.  It is a place were I’ll have to return to explore more and continue to have more memories of this amazing area.

All the photos



Mileage and elevation gain: We did not keep strict track of the mileage. Between the off-trail travel, alt routes, navigation and post holing it is hard to say. My gut feeling is about 35 or so miles and perhaps 5000’+ gain.   The route would have been easier if the winds and post holing were not present! 😀

Maps: The NatGeo TI puts out a large, water-resistant map of the Pecos Wilderness.and surrounding areas At 1:54000, it is adequate for navigating. Has all the trails, shaded relief and 100′ contour  lines.

Getting there: These directions from Google Maps are accurate. However, it is VERY EASY to miss the left hand turn on to Co Rd 121.  If you get to a fork in the road with Upper and Lower Llano roads, you’ve gone too far by about 1/2 a mile. Mark and I both made the same mistake. 🙂

Post Hike: Taos is only about an hour away. Plenty of restaurants in this laid-back town.  Ekes Brew pub (with its green chile’ beer!) was a good choice for pub grub with a southwest flair.  An older adobe building with great outdoor seating.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

Wow, that looks awesome! I wish I’d been into backpacking when I briefly lived there in Taos, it’s a wonderful area… Loved your comments on backpacking at the beginning too, well done.

13 years ago

Something has tied me to that part of the world since I was 3 years old. I never should have left.

13 years ago

You are living all of you’re dreams. Enjoy your life to the max and keep those beautiful pictures comming. Dad

13 years ago

Loved your trip report. As I sit home recouping from a stress fracture, it has lifted my spirits. Thanks.

12 years ago

Major inspiration here, Mags. Thanks for the words and images. Now who would be fool enough to attempt a thru-hike loop of the region out of Santa Fe? CDT on the homeward leg. Bandelier or bust. Rio Grande or retirement. Anyone in? 🙂

John Betts
12 years ago

I’m getting ready to spend a couple of days at Wild Rivers in the next couple of weeks. I enjoyed your report Paul, thanks.