Its been entirely too long since my last post. I have a small back log of hikes I’ll try to post, but between illnesses, injuries and other life goings on, I haven’t been able to spend as much time with a pack on as I’d like. Fortunately, I’m injury free for the moment, don’t seem to be sick, and while I don’t want to jinx anything, the life stuff seems be…not getting worse at least. At any rate, what better way to deal with life stuff than wearing a bit of the bottoms off your boots and adding another salt ring to your pack?
Over the Memorial Day weekend I decided to try a two-day trip I’d wanted to take for a few years now and pack up to Pecos Baldy Lake below East Pecos Baldy to the east. I was also keen to take a peek at Trail Riders Wall to the north. I should probably say a bit about why this wasn’t the smartest trip I’ve ever taken, but why I needed those few days and did the hike anyway. Although I do on occasion hike on my own, I tend to hike solo in areas I know and that while certainly not crowded (because then why would I hike? ) are certainly traveled on a regular basis. Hiking solo in areas I don’t know is something I almost always avoid. Good company can make a good hike great, and its always safer to hike with others. That being said, I did this one solo. Life stuff…lets just say that outside of work, this has been a less than enjoyable year. In fact, its been pretty brutal. Skipping a ton of details, the event that sort of sent me over an edge was the passing of my Dad. This was the end of his long struggle with Alzheimer’s.
If you’ve never had a loved one afflicted with Alzheimer’s, you’re lucky. It’s a terrible thing. **Yes, I’ll get back to the hiking stuff in a second but this relates to this hike….and its my blog…so there.** I don’t have a lot of great memories of time with my Dad. Good memories to be sure, but not many great ones. My Dad in many ways waited until I was grown to get to know me, and to let me get to know him. It was about then that the disease started to do its damage and took my old man away before I had a chance to know him as well as I’d have liked to. Many of my great memories of Dad come from the two trips we made to Philmont Scout Ranch for summer backpacking. I think that’s why, despite not being in the best frame of mind (as in distracted and not always thinking clearly) I felt the need to throw the pack on and go spend a night in the mountains near a lake. I needed to connect to those memories in a little stronger way than I could from my couch.
There are a lot of ways to end up at Pecos Baldy Lake, but for this trip, I elected to take the most direct, and shortest route at around 7 ½ miles each way and an elevation gain of 2600 feet. The trailhead is at the Wilderness Parking area of the Jacks Creek Campground. Parking is $2/day and you’ll likely get to see horses since they are in the adjacent parking area…and horses are cool. If you’ve never driven up Pecos Canyon its well worth the trip even if you don’t intend to get out of the car. There are multiple campgrounds, fishing and lots of trailheads leading into the Pecos Wilderness. Jacks Creek is the last established campground and indeed the literal end of the road in Pecos Canyon. Jacks Creek, while still below tree line, feels much higher up than it actually is and has some amazing views. It also, in my admittedly limited experience, tends to be less crowded than much of Pecos Canyon, parts of which can be bumper-to-bumper campers on some weekends. Now before you run off to take a stroll up there, there is, at the moment (May 31, 2013) a fire burning across the lower Pecos Canyon near the community of Tres Lagunas that has the entire area shut down.
Starting out on Trail 25 from Jacks Creek you’ll be on the steepest part of the hike right off the bat. The trail steadily climbs a ridge to the south of Round Mountain. After roughly 1 ½ miles you top out the ridge, cross to the other side and continue up at a much gentler incline to the intersection of Trail 257 in the grassland below the peak of Round Mountain. Trail 257 branches to the left (west) and almost immediately takes you into some wonderful stands of aspen trees and purple mountain iris that had just started to open.
Trail 257 crosses Jacks Creek…yes, there is an actual creek by that name, not just a camp ground, not long after you pass below the peak of Round Mountain to the east. This is one of two actual creek crossings, the other being higher up and very close to Pecos Baldy Lake. By this point you are well over half way up to the lake and if you’ve been hydrating well, it’s a good chance to filter some more water into your bottles. Incidentally, Jacks Creek does flow down by the camp ground which shares its name…and it’s probably not a terrible idea to check it down low to see if its running before starting out. If you are looking for a shorter hike or back packing trip, there are some great spots to camp in this area. At this point, Trail 257 merges with Trail 259 for a ways as it heads north along Jacks Creek.
Farther up the trail will fork with Trail 259 heading east. Stay on 257 which heads north. This will be the last point at which the trail is really close to the creek until the final crossing near the end of the hike.
The trail will become steeper here as you make the last big push up towards the lake. This is where my recent lack of activity took hold and I had to stop more than I’m used to. The good thing about this was that it allowed me to spend more time just looking at the forest while considering the hot spot on my foot. There were still significant mounds of snow dotting the shady areas of the forest that looked like they had been sculpted by wind and sun working together. In spots the trail was covered in hard packed snow while in others it had turned to slop from the runoff. Everywhere it was apparent that Spring was reluctant to give way to summer.
When you finally leave the trees you’ll be at the last crossing of Jacks Creek. I like to filter my water from moving sources if possible, so I chose to stop and refill here instead of the lake. From the creek crossing you are only a short walk from the Pecos Baldy Lake and the east face of East Pecos Baldy. Looking off to your right as you walk towards East Pecos Baldy will reveal occasional glimpses of Trail Riders Wall. The trees are smaller in this area and there are significant open patches of grass, so fining a good campsite shouldn’t be a problem. Keep in mind that camping in the actual lake basin is not allowed. Given the small size of the lake basin and the abundance of good campsites in the immediate area, this isn’t nearly as disappointing as it may sound.
Remember that fire I mentioned earlier? Before heading out on any hike or backpacking trip, you should check to see what the local fire danger conditions are and know what the restrictions allow or don’t allow. Santa Fe National Forest where I was hiking was under Stage I restrictions at the time. The short version of Stage I means that camp stoves are alright to use so long as you use them in an area that has been cleared of all flammable material. Also, no campfires outside of approved containers in established campgrounds. Just for the sake of clarity, “established campgrounds means an area designated and developed by an agency like the Forest Service or National Park Service, not a flat area in the back country with a ring or two of singed rocks that have been used as a fire pit. I’m not a fan of camp fires when I’m back packing anyway. Properly extinguishing a fire and cleaning up afterwards takes a lot of time and effort. The method of throwing a cup of water on a mass of smoldering coals and then walking away is asking for trouble. For the last several years, in New Mexico at least, I feel that its also just too big of a risk in the back country due to our ongoing drought. For this trip I decided to cold camp and leave my stove at home. Best to just not take any risk. As always I had fire making materials with me for emergencies, but heating up coffee in the morning doesn’t qualify.
Although it’s a fair distance from any parking lot, Pecos Baldy Lake does see a lot of foot traffic and several trails intersect here, including the Skyline Trail. A walk down to the lake in the morning with breakfast and a camera make it easy to see why this is such a popular spot. The lake is in a great setting, flanked by trees on two sides and the east face of East Pecos Baldy on another. Of course, there’s also the “Oh look, water!” factor that any dry state seems to cultivate. My thought for this trip originally had been to camp at the lake, and then possibly hike the peak and part of Trail Riders Wall. It didn’t take long for me to decide that for this trip, the peaks were best admired from a distance. Both East Pecos Baldy and Trial Riders Wall looked to still be snow packed and as I didn’t bring spikes or gaiters, I felt that the possibility of putting myself in a dangerous situation was just a little to great, especially as a solo hiker. Returning to check off those peaks is certainly on the to-do list for this summer…assuming the forests stay open.
I returned by the same route in reverse, taking more time to stop and look around as I knew I’d make much better time heading downhill. The Pecos is beautiful territory that I need to spend more time exploring. Only two things seemed less than idyllic on this trip, and no big surprise, they were people generated. Here are two suggestions for hikers while in the backcountry. First, trail etiquette. When two groups of hikers meet on a narrow trail, the group coming down hill should yield to the group going uphill. If you are hiking downhill and need to stop, all it takes to get moving again is one step and the wonder that is gravity has you on your way. If you are heading uphill, you are fighting gravity and getting your momentum going again is no fun. Second, and this is a huge pet peeve for me, leave your music at home. Or, if you simply cannot go for a few days without your tunes, please use headphones. I passed a group that I could hear for a ¼ mile in each direction because one person had speakers on his pack and was blaring music for all to hear. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that one of the reasons I like to hike is to get away from stereos and cell phones and all the other distractions of modern society. I want to spend an hour sitting on a rock, feeling the earth turn and listening to the wind. Folks, I hope you find a good rock soon so you can do the same. Be safe out there!