While Albuquerque bakes in the desert heat, cool mountain breezes beckon to us on this Saturday morning. Lots of other city dwellers will hear the same call and head out to spend their weekend in one of our nearby mountain ranges. Where can we go to escape both heat and crowds? Our answer is an hour’s drive to Grants and then a drive into the Zuni Mountains.
We enjoyed a refreshing 5-1/2 mile hike and only saw one other person who wasn’t in a car driving somewhere. And that individual was a Forest Service employee, not someone out for a hike. As he pointed out, very few people hike in the Zuni Mountains because there are no official trails.
Most of the Zunis are public land, some of it part of the Cibola National Forest and some part of El Malpais National Monument. Being in a sparsely populated area of New Mexico contributes to the lack of visitors. These mountains are not as high, rugged or dramatic as the Sandias and the Sangre de Cristo, or even the Jemez Mountains. The outdoor types who visit most often are hunters and ATVers, but this time of year they aren’t out here.
As we drive to our destination we can see that the summer afternoon showers that have been circling Albuquerque without dropping any moisture have been leaving some rainfall here. There are meadows bright with fresh green grass and sprinkled with summer wildflowers. It wouldn’t compare to the mountains in Colorado, but looks awfully good to us. I am also struck by how green the trees are. There aren’t the large areas of trees devastated by pine bark beetles that we see in the Sandias or the slopes scarred by wildfires that we see in the Jemez. And with no civilization for miles around the 360 view we see from the Oso Ridge Lookout is unbroken serenity.
Since there aren’t established trails here and we don’t hike with GPS devices, we found ourselves hiking up and back down a Forest Road. Originally, we thought we would drive up the Forest Road and then hike further along the ridge on what a book described as an old logging road. But when we started up the road it was obvious that a 4-wheel drive vehicle would be needed. So we turned around, parked the car and hiked our way up. Without anyone else being on the road it just meant we had an extra wide hiking trail all to ourselves.
Looking over the landscape of the area east of Socorro, you wouldn’t think of it as a very interesting place to hike. A 25-mile dirt road known as the Quebradas Backcountry Byway cuts through a vast emptiness of arroyos, ridges and open rangeland. But if you park at one of the stops along the Byway for a closer look you find many opportunities worthy of further exploration. Today we chose a hike up one of the named arroyos, Arroyo del Tajo, and were rewarded with spring wildflowers, as well as interesting geology.
I had hoped that we would see more of the claret cup cactus blooms, as they really are my favorite. But I think this spring has been too dry. Most of the cactii I saw had blossoms that looked like they had dried up before they had a chance to bloom. But it never ceases to amaze me that as dry as the desert is, it can still produce such a variety of wildflowers. I only posted photos of a small portion of the different kinds that we saw today. And with even a little bit of rain between now and when we go on our next hike there will be all kinds of new blooms. If you just get out of your car for a closer look at what might seem a barren landscape you realize the desert is actually full of life.
We still manage to find new hikes within 60 miles of Albuquerque that surprise us with their remote beauty. It wasn’t just that we failed to see another soul on the trail, but after we left the paved road and drove across 10 miles of desolate, flat rangeland to reach the trailhead in the foothills we never even saw another vehicle, either going in or coming back out.
Monte Largo Canyon is on the west side of the Manzano Mountains, which we’ve hiked in before, but usually our hikes start on trails that are on the east side of the mountains. The west side of the mountains are reached by driving south of Albuquerque to Belen and then east. Below is a picture of our track on Google Maps.
We found it quite amusing to see all of the street names on the map. It must be someone’s dream of future development because driving out there you see nothing but flat rangeland, rough dirt roads and, once in awhile, an isolated ranch. There are no street signs anywhere.
For our friends who are familiar with the Manzano Mountains, notice that the hike is climbing up towards the crest, about halfway between Manzano Peak and Gallo Peak. We’ve been up there on the crest before, but always by hiking in from the other side. Forest Service Maps do show a trailhead for Monte Largo Canyon, but not a trail. That seems strange because it was a trail that was fairly easy to follow, basically up the drainage of the canyon.
We got some nice views from an overlook about 2.5 miles in from the trailhead, at which point we turned around and came back down. If we were real ambitious, of course, it would have been possible to get all the way to the crest. But maybe another time.
Finding hoodoos is one of our favorite activities that comes with hiking in New Mexico. Awesome views and bright blue skies are right at the top of our list, too. After what seemed like a long, dark, cold January we welcomed the start of February with a hike that gave us all of our favorites.
So what is a hoodoo? Here’s an example:
Over eons of time, wind and water (mostly wind in New Mexico) work on layers of rock to erode away the softer rock and leave behind columns of harder rock layers. And many times on top of the column you will see a stranded rock precariously perched looking like a giant hand decided to just set it down somewhere.
Here’s another example:
And I thought this one was cool because it looks like the silhouette of a dog.
These are not hoodoos, but they show the erosion of soft, sandstone rock that often exposes colorful layers and forms miniature “tent cities.”
Rocks aren’t the only thing that gets shaped by the wind.
This particular hike was in the Ojito Wilderness. The area with the hoodoos is commonly called Hoodoo Pines because the hoodoos are in a small grove of Ponderosa Pines. Most of the terrain in the Ojito is desolate, open desert with scattered mesas here and there. So it’s a bit unexpected to find Ponderosa Pines.
Many of times over the years I have driven on Interstate 25 north of Santa Fe on my way to places in Colorado or Wyoming. There isn’t much in the way of civilization in that part of New Mexico. Las Vegas, NM, is one of the few towns along the way and I was never impressed with what I could see of it from the highway. I was vaguely aware that there was a hike in the mountains to the west of the town but we always seemed too busy planning hikes to other areas of the state to investigate that area. But this week we finally made the 2-hour drive up there for an overnight camping trip and then the next day a truly awesome hike of Hermit’s Peak.
Before we planned the hike I wish that we had spent more time researching the history behind the name. There was a hermit who lived in a cave near the summit in the 1860’s. Many people believed that he was a saint and over the years made treks up the peak to view the cave. If we had known about the cave we might have spent some time trying to find it. Or maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t because we barely got off the peak before the thunderstorm hit. In any case, this site tells a good story about the hermit.
And another interesting connection is the description of the same hermit who lived for a time in a cave east of Las Cruces. We saw that cave when we did some hiking last winter in the Las Cruces area. This site describes the cave in Las Cruces.
One of the most remarkable things about the two days of hiking we did this week is that on neither of the two hikes did we see another human being. We were camped at a National Forest Campground and we did see people in the campground and on the roads, but no one seemed interested in getting out to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness. They didn’t realize what they were missing.
We were hiking in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness, located in the western Jemez Mountains, northeast of Cuba, New Mexico. From Albuquerque, it takes only about an hour and a half to drive to Cuba, and then about 45 minutes to drive up into the mountains to the campground. To get to the trailheads requires driving on unpaved Forest Service Roads, but for both of the two hikes we did, the roads were navigable with our Toyota Corolla. It was obvious that during wetter times of the year that wouldn’t be true, but since the summer monsoon rains haven’t yet appeared we were OK. Considering that this wilderness area is so easy to get to from Albuquerque, it’s even more surprising that so few people hike there.
The first day’s hike had a steep uphill climb at the beginning, but after that it was a fairly level trek along a ridge, through green meadows and lush marshlands. The word “parks” in the name of this area refers to open grasslands in a setting of mountains and forests. That is an accurate description of what you see in most of the San Pedro Parks Wilderness. The average elevation is 10,000 feet, but there aren’t dramatic mountain peaks or panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. After spending time in the summer heat of the desert, though, our eyes were thrilled at the views of tiny streams flowing through acres of green grass, surrounded by forests of aspen and spruce-fir.
On the second day we did a hike that was a much steeper climb. It was 4 miles of continual uphill, starting at about 8,000 feet of elevation and ending at 10,200. For most of the way, the trail followed a small stream, crossing and recrossing it several times. The climb was well worth it once we got to the top, where we then walked for about another mile through the grassy meadows that surround the Rio Puerco before we decided it was time to turn around. It would have been nice to keep on that part of the trail but we decided it was time to turn around after we had our lunch and then heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. We didn’t want to have to drive our car back down the dirt road that would have been quite messy with any amount of rain. As it turned out, the rain didn’t develop.
We are having a heat wave here in the Southwest, but one of the benefits of living in northern New Mexico is that you can grab your day pack, drive a couple of hours, and find yourself at the start of a trail leading up into the cool, mountain forests. Today we hiked with some friends on a trail that starts at the Santa Fe ski area (about 10,200 foot elevation) and in just over 3 miles leads to a gorgeous, little alpine lake at 11,400 foot elevation. Unbelievable that after so many hot days in Albuquerque there were still some spots of unmelted snow in the woods around the lake and on the slopes above the lake.
About a mile from the end of our hike we met a young woman who was just completing a month-long wilderness hike of 600 miles in northern New Mexico. She is what is known as an “ultra-lite long distance hiker”. The pack she was carrying didn’t look much bigger than a day pack, yet she said it contained all of the food and gear she needed, including tent and sleeping bag. The number of miles she has hiked by herself in the wild on numerous routes is incredible. Check out her blog to learn more.