Backpacking the Pecos Wilderness (La Vega)

This Memorial Day weekend we met our friends Erik and Steph to do some backpacking in New Mexico’s Pecos wilderness area.  Erik discovered the area after moving to New Mexico a few years ago, and was excited to show us some of the alpine beauty this state had to offer.  We were originally planning to overnight at a high alpine lake (Lake Katherine), however, we decided it was just to early in the season to camp this high. So we instead targeted La Vega Meadow with a day hike to summit Santa Fe Baldy.  We decided to spend the night in Santa Fe Friday night so we could get an early start Saturday morning.

If you don’t want to read all the details of the trip I would suggest you start with the Video

You can view an interactive map of the trip at Every Trail.  
Or download the GPX file(with routes and lots of useful waypoints)

Lets start off with a quick map of the trip.

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Day 1– Ski Santa Fe -> La Vega Meadow.  

We got up early, grabbed breakfast and started the 45-minute drive up Hyde Park Road.   The trail head for Winsor Trail (#254) is at the upper parking lot of Ski Santa Fe (google map).   We took advantage of the last toilet we would see for a few days, and then shouldered our heavy packs.   The trail doesn’t waste anytime; it is steep right off the trailhead.  You climb 600 feet in the first .5 miles of the trail.  You will give most of this back over the next couple of miles.  At around ½ mile in you hit the boundary of the Pecos Wilderness.  We stopped here to sign in.  After entering the wilderness you drop downhill to the Rio Nambe.  I hate loosing elevation close to a trailhead because you know you will have to climb back out when you are tired.  2.4 miles after leaving the trailhead you will hit the intersection with trail Upper Nambe Trail (#101).  This trail serves as a shortcut, and is the most direct route to La Vega.  The trail gently looses elevation and eventually meets up with the Rio Nambe.   You cross the Rio Nambe via a log bridge. This spring had unusually low runoff.  I would bet this crossing could be problematic this time of year.  At around 3 miles we hit the Rio Nambe Trail #160.  (This trail also intersects Winsor trail).  Not to long after joining 160 you will come to a little hill and a clearing in the trees.  As the trail breaks through the trees you are treated to a beautiful view of La Vega Meadow.   

La Vega  (“The Meadow”) is a beautiful high alpine meadow.  It is said to be one of the nicest meadows in the Sangre De Cristos.  Unfortunately we were to early for the wildflower show that paints the meadow from mid June – mid August.  Judging by the amount of aspen around the meadow, fall must be something to see in the area as well.  Providing a nice backdrop to the meadow is tomorrow’s target,  Santa Fe Baldy with its mustache of spruce trees stretching across its bare face.   

La Vega provides at least 5 good camp sites that are spread out enough to provide solitude.  We were there on a busy weekend and only saw three parties come through the meadow.   We selected a site at the very end of the meadow.  The site was well protected from the high winds forecasted for the weekend.   We wasted no time in getting our heavy packs off and setting up our campsite.   After a couple of hours of chores we sat down for a cold lunch.    We spend the remainder of the day exploring the meadow and relaxing around camp. 

We enjoyed conversation and marshmallows around the campfire as we admired the stars in the clear sky.   We headed for bed around 10:30PM.  It was remarkably warm (low 50s) when we went to bed.  The wind kept gusting into camp, which made it hard to sleep.  It would start low in the valley with a sound like an approaching jet.  As it hit the camp the trees would sway and bang against each other, and the rain-fly would make a racket.  So much for restful sleep before our climb.  

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Day 2– La Vega Meadow -> Santa Fe Baldy

Due to our poor nights sleep we didn’t get up until after 7AM.  Again it was remarkably warm for this time of year.  I had to take off my fleece shortly after getting up as I was already hot.  We enjoyed breakfast and coffee before getting our gear together for the hike.  After reviewing the map we set off down trail 160 towards Santa Fe Baldy

Santa Fe Baldy is a major peak in the Sangre De Cristo range.  At 12,632 ft there are no higher points south to the New Mexico border, and the peak stands as the highest in the Santa Fe area.  Our plan was to take the Rio Nambe Trail to Windsor and then up to the Skyline trail.  This would make for a round trip of around 8 miles and 2500ft elevation gain.  If it weren’t a holiday weekend we would have moved camp to Puerto Nambe.

Less than a mile into the hike we lost the trail at a river crossing.  We both have Garmens and the map showed a second trail to our north.  We decided to take this route (which doesn’t exist).   So we spent the next 45 minutes bushwhacking our way towards Puerto Nambe.   Finally we broke out into another beautiful meadow called “Puerto Nambe”.  This area is a great choice for camping or taking a lunch break.  At the meadow, Winsor trail hits Skyline #251 which is the route to the top of Baldy.  After leaving the meadow the trail gains 750 ft over 1.3 miles towards a ridge.  You will need to time your hike so that you are back off this ridge before afternoon thunderstorms hit.  So this is a good time to stop, enjoy the view, and evaluate the weather.  In our case we couldn’t even talk in the winds that were howling across this ridge.  It was about 11AM and the winds were forecast to really pick up after noon.  We took shelter behind a tree and talked it over before deciding to continue up the trail.  So we made left turn off the trail (look for the cairn) and simply followed the ridgeline for 1mile 1000ft elevation towards the summit of Santa Fe Baldy.   After ½ mile the winds continued to pick up, and we could see a lot of ice / snow on the trail at the summit.  We decided the smart thing was to turn around 200 vertical feet short of the summit and return to camp.    

We made a hasty retreat down the ridge and back to the protection of the trees below timberline.  We made a quick stop on the ridge to spread some of my brother-in law’s ashes (this was the 4th anniversary of his death).  Soon we were back at Puerto Nambe where we located some shade, and sat down for lunch.  After four hours of hiking it felt great to sit down for a while.  

After lunch we finished hiking back to camp (This time we used a trail).  We arrived back in camp around 3PM, and immediately headed for the stream to soak our tired feet.  We spent the remainder of the day lounging around.    We fired up the stoves and cooked up dinner around 7.  We noticed the wind had changed directions, and it now had a cold bite to it.   We started the campfire before dusk, and headed to bed a little before 10PM.   Our hike and a little calmer winds made for a good nights sleep. 

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Day 3– La Vega Meadow -> Ski Santa Fe

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and packed up camp.  We lifted our loads onto our back, and began trudging back down the trail towards Ski Santa Fe.  The hike out was pretty consistent up hill with a few steep places.   We made good time and hit the wilderness boundary in about an hour.   We saw 7-10 parties headed up 254 as we were leaving.  This was by far the most people we saw all weekend.   As we descended the last ½ mile to the parking lot, Steph tripped and scraped up her leg.  Just goes to show how easy it is to get injured when you’re tired and in a hurry on your way home.

We headed toward Santa Fe for some New Mexican lunch and a Margarita before heading for home. 

We noticed a nice looking spa http://www.tenthousandwaves.com/ where you could stop for a soak after your long hike.  We were anxious to get home so we skipped this treat, though I did get an earfull from my wife about not going. 

 

Here is a video report of the trip.

 

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