The Northern New Mexico Loop is a self-made long distance hiking route born of multiple objectives. Probably most obvious among them, to anyone who’s traveled here, seen the land, met the people, is a simple desire to become more deeply immersed in a place as unique as this, so profoundly unlike anywhere else in present-day America. And make no mistake, Northern New Mexico is a distinct region within this part of the state, the north-central portion of it exclusively, with the Four Corners region lying to the west and the short-grass prairie of “Little Texas” to the east. The general perimeter of Northern New Mexico, so defined, includes Santa Fe on the south, the Colorado border to the north, the Jemez and Tusas mountains to the west, and the lofty Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east. Indeed, the entire region lies bounded by the southern edge of the Rockies, where, bifurcated by the mighty Rio Grande, it becomes a range of surprising geographical and ecological diversity. Upon this varied backdrop thrives the state’s three distinct yet interwoven cultures – Pueblo, Hispanic, and Anglo – which coexist and complement one other as nowhere else. From the elaborate ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and ruins preserved at Bandelier National Monument, to the living village and trading post at Taos Pueblo, to the renowned artist colonies of Taos and at Santa Fe Plaza, the region presents to the world a bright patchwork tapestry, long-revered yet forever new in changing light. And yet these well-known places present only facets of a complex region, with much else worth seeing and experiencing well away from the casual public eye.
Northern New Mexico is also a place where the established long trails roam. Or at least where one of them roams. A portion of the 2800-mile Continental Divide Trail is here, exploring the lofty, island-like San Pedro Parks Wilderness near the village of Cuba, meandering ever northward through the colorful badlands of the Rio Chama and Ghost Ranch, then spanning the length of the forested Tusas Mountains to Cumbres Pass. In fact the Northern New Mexico Loop makes use of the CDT for 130 of the loop’s approximately 500 mile length, or a good portion of its western perimeter. (Southward, beyond the CDT, this portion of the loop connects to Santa Fe via the spectacular Jemez region and Bandelier.) The eastern end of the loop, along the high crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, lacks a singular trail of any great distance, but does offer many shorter, interconnecting trails, particularly in the surpassingly scenic Pecos, Wheeler Peak, and Latir Peak wilderness areas. In between these two standout Rocky Mountain regions – west and east – lie the lower elevations surrounding the Rio Grande, where lonely dirt roads and abundant opportunities for cross-country travel allow passage through more open terrain, here and there dotted with hulking volcanic cones. Here too are gems worth exploring, most notably at the Wild Rivers Recreation Area, which preserves the stunning Rio Grand Gorge near its confluence with Red River, offering foot trails along the rim and down to the river and an opportunity to ford the Rio Grande itself – one of two mandatory crossings of this river on the loop.
Meanwhile, not more than 50 raven miles to the south, beyond the loop at Santa Fe, lies Albuquerque and the northern and eastern extent of the Grand Enchantment Trail. While the Sandia Crest here has always represented the natural terminus of the GET, it’s hard to deny the allure of the region just to the north. Since the early days of the GET project, I’d imagined what it might be like to simply continue hiking, to keep going north perchance to begin a whole new adventure as the first one ends. From atop that mountain crest outside the big ABQ, distant Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point at 13,065 feet above sea level, (and located along the proposed loop) seemed an obvious objective. The Continental Divide Trail was another noble destination, a goal perhaps to reunite with the backbone of the continent which, in earlier miles, farther south, the GET also explores for a time. And so, I mused and now fully believe, the Sandia Crest might become a nexus, an interchange along the brave new superhighway of long-distance trails poised to thread the nation anew. Upon finding a backcountry way to Santa Fe environs, an explorer on this network of trails and routes might choose the eastern side of the loop – the Sangres – or the western side – the Jemez. In either case, the Northern New Mexico Loop facilitates passage onward to the CDT. Likewise, the long-distance CDT hiker could veer off onto the loop, exploring this region more fully, then perhaps joining the GET for an entirely unique long-distance hiking experience across the Land of Enchantment.
Like the Grand Enchantment Trail before it, the Northern New Mexico Loop is a route conceived less as a physical presence on the ground – no new trail construction is planned or necessarily desired – and more as a blueprint for exploration of a region otherwise little-served and seldom visited by long-distance hikers. While the dream is a personal one, and the goal, as the route layout, is purely of my own thinking, in the end the land itself seems to be the guiding force at work, and the desire for new experiences on foot is one shared by many in the community of long walkers.
Whatever may come of it, I’m hoping to document the route and my experiences as I set out this May on a maiden journey along this Northern New Mexico Loop. My hike will begin at Santa Fe, and if all goes well will end there when I complete the route in late June or early July. I’ll follow the circuit clockwise, confronting the highest terrain (the Sangre de Cristo Mountains) within the final two weeks of the trip in hopes of waiting out any appreciable lingering snowpack, but also remaining vigilant to any monsoon storms beginning to surge across the skies at that time of year. The season for completing the loop appears to be fairly short: whether hiking clockwise in late spring / early summer or counter-clockwise in late summer / early fall, the journey’s immutable limitations are snowpack and cold weather on the one end and daily thunderstorms with heavy rain on the other. In between these extremes exist two possible hiking seasons each of a month and a half duration at most, and perhaps considerably shorter if the previous winter’s snowpack were heavy or fall snowstorms happen to arrive early.
I’ll hike the loop in typical, self-supported long-distance hiker fashion, sending supplies to towns and facilities along the way – 6 all told – and also shopping at grocery stores where available. First up will be the tiny community of La Cueva, located in the standout, quintessentially New Mexican region known to locals simply as “The Jemez.” Thereafter, between Ghost Ranch and Chama, I may even be graced by the smiling, trail-hardened faces of a few CDT thru-hikers, in the midst of their long journey from Mexico to Canada. All too soon, though, our routes will part company, as I’ll continue east through a lonely, volcano-dotted grassland region en route to the Rio Grande, which – for the second time on the journey – I’ll have to ford, hoping for a shallow creek but prepared for a bit of swimming if the current proves benign. Not far beyond lies the small agricultural village of Cerro as well as larger Questa, either one an opportunity to grubstake a foray into the surrounding Latir Peak Wilderness. A resupply at the little resort town of Red River will see me still further along the backbone of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – including the Wheeler Peak Wilderness. And a final box of provisions, mailed in care of the kind folks at Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort, will precede exploration of the Pecos Wilderness and its lofty alpine crest. Finally, after a month or more of exploring the rural and wild corners of northern New Mexico I’ll return to civilization anew, by and by through the city’s outskirts to downtown Santa Fe. Right in the middle of the city’s historic plaza I’ll end my journey, surrounded once again by the history and culture, arts and hubbub, all of it on display and beheld, I suspect, by fresh and ever-appreciative eyes.
Whether I’ll have the time and inclination after returning to Santa Fe for a “spur hike” southward to the GET terminus is hard to predict at this point, but it’d make for a nice epilogue to the story should it come to pass. Certainly that connection, hard won by map work and much trial and error, is a vital one, short and surprisingly straightforward as ultimately it looks to be. In any case, I’ll be packing along the necessary maps to make it happen, and then letting the journey dictate its own best conclusion.
During (and after) the journey I’m hoping to maintain a photo-journal, to be posted on Google Photos as internet connections allow (see follow-up blog post for links to image galleries).
To lighten the load a bit I’m opting to leave the SLR camera and lenses at home for this trip, but will take along the little Panasonic LX3 point & shoot in an attempt to do at least some justice to the scenery, and will post a full gallery after the trip.
More details of the Northern New Mexico Loop will likewise be forthcoming once the journey winds down. In the meantime, here’s an interactive Google map of the proposed route (below) as well as a very early-stage data book (counter-clockwise direction of travel) showing mainly water sources along the route. [The map below was updated in 2015 to reflect a new route layout.]