Zuni Cooldown

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.

Not The Highest in New Mexico

We had tentatively planned an overnight camping trip this week that would put us in the area of Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico. The hike to the top of Wheeler Peak is one we haven’t yet done because it’s a bit too far from Albuquerque for a one-day outing. On Tuesday, however, the weather forecast for the Wheeler Peak area was calling for rain. So we decided instead that we would head to the Zuni Mountains for our overnight camping and hiking trip. And today, instead of hiking to the top of New Mexico’s highest peak, we hiked to the top of Mt. Sedgwick, at 9256 feet, the highest peak in the Zuni Mountains.

The Zuni Mountains are not as well known as other mountains in New Mexico, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed our time there. Driving in on the series of dirt roads today that took us to Mt. Sedgwick we saw one log truck coming down, but, other than that, we did not see another person the whole day until we finished our hike and were on the road back towards Grant.

It appears that most of the people who spend time in the Zuni Mountains are not hikers, but are loggers or hunters. There is no actual trail up Mt. Sedgwick but, instead, you follow an old fire road that would be drivable with an ATV. Since there was no one else up there today it was not at all unpleasant to be hiking on a road rather than a trail.

The road/trail that we hiked to get to the top of Mt. Sedgwick.
The road/trail that we hiked to get to the top of Mt. Sedgwick.
Approaching the "peak".
Approaching the “peak”.
View east from Mt. Sedgwick; Mt. Taylor in the distance.
View east from Mt. Sedgwick; Mt. Taylor in the distance.
View south from Mt. Sedgwick. Chute Mesa in the distance is a possibility for another hike in the Zunis.
View south from Mt. Sedgwick. Chute Mesa in the distance is a possibility for another hike in the Zunis.
Looking west from Mt. Sedgwick.
Looking west from Mt. Sedgwick.

Ok, so Mt. Sedgwick is not exactly an impressive peak to climb. But even without dramatic peaks the Zuni Mountains have much to offer in the way of forested plateaus, cliffs, and canyons. The history here is interesting, as well, some of it a sad story of how the Ponderosa Pine forests were devastated by logging in the early 1900’s. The Forest Service has done a lot in recent years to make the area more attractive. A fun activity for those not inclined to hike is the Zuni Mountain Historic Auto Tour, a piece of which we stumbled upon today on one of the roads we were on.

Wildflowers along trail up Mt. Sedgwick.
Wildflowers along trail up Mt. Sedgwick.
Stop #15 on the Zuni Mountain Historic Auto Tour. Marks the location of Post Office Flat.
Stop #15 on the Zuni Mountain Historic Auto Tour. Marks the location of Post Office Flat.

The story of our hike in the Zuni Mountains wouldn’t be complete without a couple of pictures from the place that we camped the night before. Originally, we had intended to camp in one of the National Forest campgrounds, but only one of them had water, and it was a much longer drive from there back to Mt. Sedgwick. Instead, we camped at Bluewater Lake State Park. This brought back memories of the one other time, 3 years ago, when we camped at Bluewater in March and spent a miserable night in freezing temperatures. It was a much milder night there last night. We enjoyed a walk along the edge of Bluewater Canyon before dinnertime and then a walk to the other side of the lake later that evening.

Campsite at Bluewater Lake.
Campsite at Bluewater Lake.
View of Bluewater Lake from the campground.
View of Bluewater Lake from the campground.
Bluewater Canyon and Bluewater Creek, short stroll from campground at Bluewater.
Bluewater Canyon and Bluewater Creek, short stroll from campground at Bluewater.

On side of Bluewater Lake across from the dam and the campground.
On side of Bluewater Lake across from the dam and the campground.

It was truly an enjoyable outing and exploration of the Zuni Mountains, with much more to see at a future time. And, of course, climbing the highest peak in the Zunis, doesn’t let us off the hook for climbing the highest peak in New Mexico, another activity for the future.