Pecos Baldy Lake

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.

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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.

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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.

PecosLakeHike2PecosLakeHike4  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.

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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.

PecosLakeHike7 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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First Miles on the CDT.

One of the hardest parts of starting any long term project, even one that you are excited about, is actually starting the project. As I discussed in a previous post “A Grand Idea for a Walk” I’ve been thinking about hiking the Continental Divide Trail in sections for some time now. I’ve been worried that this 3100 mile long doosey of a long term project would languish in the preparation stage for years and ultimately collapse under its own weight. The trail doesn’t always lend itself to dropping a car somewhere, hiking a small section and then returning quickly. Setting up a vehicle shuttle isn’t always ideal either. The west is once again very dry this summer, fires are springing up everywhere and fire restrictions and forest closures are slowly tightening. All in all, these aren’t the ideal conditions I would choose for even weekend back packing, let alone the multiple days some sections lend themselves too. On top of all that, despite hiking all the time, its been a while since I had the weight of a backpacking load on my shoulders! In spite of all these reasons to stay home, or perhaps because of them, last weekend I roped in a backpacking partner, her dog and the dog she was watching for the weekend, found a short section that wouldn’t be too difficult and knocked out a beautiful first 7.5 miles of the trail!

Hopewell Lake and its nearby campground are located in Carson National Forest between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarilla off of Highway 64. Although we wouldn’t be staying the night in the campground, it served as our base and we were fortunate to get a spot right next to the campsite host, a very friendly lady with equally outgoing and curious dogs, a healer and dachshund. I’d left word with family as to our intended route and schedule, but its never a bad idea to leave that information with more than one person so we talked over our plans with the host as well, who was excited to hear about our trek. We shouldered our packs, checked the map, set a waypoint for the campground and set off. Andrea, her dog Doc and Otis whom Andrea was watching for the weekend and I set off down Forrest Road 42B to the south and began to tick off some miles. A number of attractive camping sites popped up all along the road and if we return to take the trail north, we may use one of these free sites!

More than half of our distance followed the 42B which, for the first day, had a gentle, predominantly downhill slope. Walking downhill under a light cloud cover made for cool, easy hiking and we made quick progress. Free roaming range cattle are a frequent sight along the road and despite Doc’s natural instincts as a cow dog, Andrea’s training kept him right by her side. I’ve had less than stellar experiences hiking with my own dogs in the past, but Andrea’s skill at training Doc made hiking with him a real joy! Along the way we not only encountered plenty of cattle, but signs of deer and elk. When we stopped for lunch at a particularly beautiful bend in the road which overlooked a valley, we were listening to the cattle call back and forth when the unmistakable high pitched call of an elk range through the valley. Being nowhere near the rut, I hadn’t expected to hear any elk on this trip and it served as a delightful surprise! Andrea and I listened for several minutes as the call rang out several more times over the next ten minutes. Doc and Otis remained unimpressed, working to find cooler spots in the dirt and eyeing our lunch.

As we began to hike down and into this valley to the east, I kept checking and rechecking our position on the map (I’m sure driving Andrea nuts in the process) to make sure we didn’t miss where we were to turn south onto some smaller winding trails. Just as I was beginning to think that we had to right on top of the turn, we saw the first CDT trail marker of the day, right where it needed to be! As the trail went from maintained forest road to rough unmaintained road and into single track, the blue trail markers always appeared at just the right spot to make sure the correct path was easy to find. Based on an admittedly small section of trail, I have to say that the folks working on the CDT have done an amazing job of putting up just enough markers to make the route very clear without throwing them up on every tree! The “T” in the CDT marker forms an arrow that indicates the direction the hiker should take. Seeing that first marker made me nearly giddy! Not because I was unsure of where we were, but because it was the first time I had seen it out on a trail…it connected that spot to all the others hundreds of miles to the south and thousands of miles to the north.

In the area we intended to camp there were several reliable water sources marked on the map. In roughly the first spot we came across a neon green and brown cattle pond that I’m certain owed at least 1/3 of its volume to what the cattle had given back to the pond! At this point we got a little concerned regarding our water supply, but as there were supposed to be several more sources farther on we didn’t worry too much. Doc lapped water from the cattle pond, happy for the added flavor. Hiking through the forest we passed a few more CDT markers before we broke onto a small road amongst some small meadows and aspen groves. To our southwest we saw the boundary fence of a small private preserve and to the southeast a line of lush greenery came into view. The road ran into the preserve and short section of trail with blue painted rocks ran towards the greenery and crossed a small clear stream that did not run from the cattle pond. Doc and Otis both happily drank their fill. Near the creek crossing was a high flat area dotted with large healthy pines and we decided that it would make an excellent spot to camp for the night.

Our camp proved to be a nice spot for the night. Otis found a dead ground squirrel. With the rodent clamped in his maw he happily trotted into camp to show it off. Otis, who until now had been a very quiet dog, began barking at what we could only imagine were birds in the grass. He did this often, but as Doc was ignoring him, so did we. As it got dark, Otis seemed more and more nervous and found more things to nervously bark at. Again Doc seemed uninterested. We hung our bear bag away from camp and settled into the tent for the night, dogs and all. Doc quickly took a liking to my sleeping bag and spent most of the night on my feet. Otis stared nervously out of the window, flicking his head back and forth at every noise and slowly tried to either shove Andrea off of her sleeping pad or sleep on her face. Out of the dozen or so times I woke up during the night, only once was Otis not staring out the window in wide eyed doggie nervousness. Doc worked to shove me to the side of the tent and on a few occasions woke both Andrea and I as he tried to quietly crawl to the head of the tent in search of better snuggling conditions.

We awoke the next morning, as it often is on public lands, to small group of cattle next to our tent. Otis being sleepy and scared asked them to move away with a series of polite WOOF’s. Several times Otis had to provide this service before we had camp broken. Apparently we were on some of the good grass. After breakfast and caffeine, we pumped water into our bottles, shouldered our packs and started back up the trail.

In addition to the second day being almost entirely uphill (you always pay for those long stretches of downhill!) the weather was very different. Where the first day had been cool and cloudy, the second day was clear and hot. The heat slowed us a bit, but the dogs felt it the worst. We stopped more frequently to water them and let them lay in the shade to cool off. Otis, who had a pack, slowed the most. We stopped for lunch close to the same place under a large pine that provided ample shade for the dogs to lounge in until they were no longer panting, but cool and happy. As we rounded the bend we had lunched at the day before to head north we heard the first roll of distant thunder and the dark clouds that had been obscured by a ridge to the north. Not wanting to get stuck out in a thunderstorm, we picked up our pace and made for the campground. We never did see any rain while on the trail, but we did get the occasional cool breeze or few minutes of cloud cover, which the dogs especially enjoyed! I took Otis’s pack once he started to seem especially worn out.

We made it back to the campground ahead of the storms to an enthusiastic greeting from the campsite host, who was very happy we had a safe and enjoyable trip. Upon returning to Santa Fe, we dropped off the dogs and went for BBQ, because everything tastes extra good after hiking or back packing!

I now have 3092.5 miles left to go. I learned in this trip that it may be better to hike some sections first and then return to photograph areas that interest me, rather than trying to photograph every step. The important thing however is that the journey has been started. Its always that first step which is hardest. A few lines from Tolkien float to mind on occasions like this. They go something like “Be careful Frodo my lad! It’s a dangerous business going out your door in the morning. When you put your foot on the road, you never know to where it will whisk you away!”