On Saturday, July 13, Carol Munch led us into the Pecos Wilderness Area of northern New Mexico. We started at the Santa Barbara trailhead and began ascending gradually on the West Fork Trail. The two nights before we stayed with Carol and her husband Ed Niehaus at a rustic cabin complex which belonged to Carol’s family in nearby Eagles Nest. There were several cabins in a pine forest. Carol had learned about being a wilderness guide and instructor at the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch and Ed was a retired CEO from the Bay Area. It was a sunny and warm morning when we started and as we hiked, we saw increasing rainbows of wildflowers, including geraniums, thimble berry flowers, wild roses and other flowers. Carol took detailed pictures of the different species while I photographed the natural bouquets. In places, we found large stands of columbines. The snowy winter and spring had been great for summer wildflowers.
We continued up the canyon hiking by the Rio Santa Barbara, a fast moving stream. Farther up the trail, we could see Chimayosa Peak at the head of the valley with a patterned snowfield near the top. We missed a stream crossing and began wandering in the low, wet riparian bottom, struggling to find our way while keeping our feet dry. There were a number of muddy trails which had been created and churned by cattle. Using GPS, we realized we had to go back to the stream crossing and after crossing carefully on a collection of logs, we began to climb more steadily. As we reached a series of switch backs and climbed up the steep side of the canyon, it began to drizzle with the deep booms of thunder bouncing off the canyon walls. For a brief time we found shelter under evergreens when it rained heavily but mostly we hiked with drizzle. At the top of the switch backs and stream valley, we found a campsite deep in the forest, above a stream. I helped some, but Carol, Ed and Heeja were extremely efficient at gathering wood and building the campfire.
On Sunday we hiked gradually up from our campsite through deep, dark forests. Beautiful purple, parry primrose are normally found at stream crossings but this year, on this trail through the forest, we found them scattered along the trail. We reached a small snow field to cross and immediately left the forest, climbing rocky switch backs up the vertical slope above the trees. Part of the way up, I realized the beauty of the place and raised my hands above my head and shouted my joy at the astounding vistas.
We climbed the long switchbacks to an unnamed pass where we had broad views of the wilderness to the south and where Chimayosa loomed above us along the ridge, just to the east. North Truchas Peak to the west of us, with an elevation of over 13,000 feet above sea level, looked like an overly difficult climb, whereas Chimayosa, at 12,841 feet looked like something we could do from the pass. Ed was feeling mild altitude symptoms, so Carol, Heeja and I climbed 800 feet up the ridge, over a snow field and steeply up the final approach to the top where we could see all three Truchas Peaks. From the top far to the north, we could see Wheeler Peak, which we had climbed two days before. While enjoying the scenery, we heard a loud boom of thunder to our east. We quickly began rushing down the mountain and back to the pass. Looking back at the peak, we could see a black cloud directly above it.
We hiked down off the pass and a mile or so to Truchas Lake, where we found a nice campsite among scattered boulders, with views of the wilderness to the south. Among the trees, we spotted a female bighorn sheep. After chores, I walked in a light drizzle to the upper lake where I found the spot I had camped with a group years before. Above me, I saw the steep slope of scree which the group had descended from the west. I saw a herd of bighorns on a steep, grassy slope below the top of the ridge. Later, several female sheep came to visit us in camp. Unfortunately, they were very tame. People had probably been feeding them. I tried to chase them away several times. Wild animals should be afraid of humans, the most dangerous animal on the planet.
Just after I retired to my tent, we had a ferocious thunder storm with a great deal of rain and hail. When I got up in the morning it was clear and quite windy, and after breakfast and packing up, while waiting for the others, I walked to the lakes. It was a crystal clear day and despite the wind, the mountains and trees reflected nicely on the water.
We left camp and hiked up to the Skyline Trail on the open ridgetops of a high divide. On the alpine tundra, there were all types of small alpine flowers of many colors. We walked through a garden of miniatures. We hiked around Chamayosa Peak and saw female bighorns grazing on the side. After lunch, we had to climb steeply to a high point where we had sweeping views of the wilderness and back to the Truchas. From the top, we spotted several bighorn rams near us with a couple of females. They did not seem to be bothered by us. Looking down into the South Fork Basin, we spotted a large elk herd with over one hundred individuals. We sat near the top enjoying the grand wilderness tableau with large movements of animals among the flowing, flowered alpine terrain. As we descended, the elk began to move as a group away from us.
We descended down the east fork trail although it was not really a trail. In fact, we followed cairns and poles which we had to spot in the distance. Several time, we had to search the area for our route or use GPS to get back to it. Further down we saw cattle and the trail in the forest was muddy and damaged by them. We camped at a nice spot on the edge of a large meadow next to the East Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara. The next day we continued down the muddy East Fork Trail and not far from camp found beautiful wild irises. Further down, we went through a gate and merged with the Middle Fork trail which descended gradually. That trail was very pleasant, undamaged and lined with wild roses and other flowers. It took us back to the West Fork Trail and the trailhead.