Full Circle on the Northern New Mexico Loop

Journey’s End (back at square one): St Francis Cathedral at Santa Fe Plaza

“If at first you don’t succeed…” (fly, fly again!)

One caveat about this hiking route: A thru-hike of the Northern New Mexico Loop might require a grand total of four one-way airline ticket purchases in order to successfully pull it off, but only if your fortunes are breathtakingly amiss.

After a first attempt to hike this loop in the fall of 2011 – which ne’er got off the ground due to an ill-timed episode of Bell’s Palsy (I began drooling on the way into Santa Fe) – I returned in late spring of 2012, thankfully recovered, and embarked on a challenging and ultimately remarkable journey worth every cost of admission. Second time’s the charm: Five weeks, five hundred and some odd miles (old-school mpd’s here; I’m a happy convert), countless reasons to smile and give thanks – maybe even to drool on purpose. This was a fantastic hike!

As un-ground-truthed long-distance hiking miles go, these miles proved to be as solid as they come, with very little slogging and lots of good connections, from trail to dirt road to x-c and back. As much as I revel in revisiting familiar stomping grounds (like the GET and its forever unfinished trail business) the fact that nearly every mile of this trip was of the “new-to-me” variety greatly enhanced the sense of adventure and day-to-day intrigue. Among the highlights, I got to explore the wonders of Bandelier National Monument and the fascinating diversity of the Jemez region, to finally complete (after 9 years away) the CDT in New Mexico, and to dive feet-first into an ocean of unknown depths, as I crossed volcano-dotted plains and the Rio Grande Gorge (bringing the river fording count to two). I walked nearly the full length of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbed Wheeler Peak – the state’s highest – and traveled for weeks among boreal forests, flowing “ritos” and wildflower meadows somehow thriving just above the troublesome zones of heat and drought. A 500 mile oasis in the desert indeed this was! And the loop motif was arguably the only way to make it happen, at least down here in this region, at this time of year, and in this era of unpredictable climate conditions.

I could prattle on about the wildlife encounters (some of which made it into my camera output) and the shirt-off-the-back kindnesses of people along the way (most of whom, portraiture curmudgeon that I seem to be, did not). In fact I’ve spent the past several weeks doing exactly this and more, in photo galleries and captions, also the occasional video clip, all of which can be viewed at my Picasa page here. The galleries are intended to function partly as a daily photo journal as well as a guidebook of sorts, with details (where helpful and not readily available elsewhere) on the specific route I took, water sources along the way, highlights of the journey and what worked well, as well as what I’d consider doing differently the next time. (There’s also an interactive Google map of the route available here.)

Without further ado, then, here are some of the highlights from my maiden voyage along Northern New Mexico Loop. Click on any image or link in the sequence below to visit the full photo gallery, with many more pics and musings.

Bandelier & the southern Jemez:

In this first photo album, we begin west out of Santa Fe, exploring the Caja del Rio Plateau and fording the Rio Grande in remote White Rock Canyon, then tour Bandelier National Monument and the southern Jemez Mountains en route to the tiny outpost of La Cueva…


“Compared to the volcanic heck I’d endured descending to the river, the climb up the western side of White Rock Canyon was much quicker and easier due to some vestiges of a game trail I was able to follow.”

Rio Grande crossing at White Rock Canyon
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 1 – Santa Fe to the Jemez

“I saw no sign of recent visitors to this celebrated site – no other footprints on the ground…”

Painted Cave prehistoric pictograph panel, one of the best-preserved in the Southwest.
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 1 – Santa Fe to the Jemez

“The uppermost portion of the East Fork Jemez River Canyon was quite narrow, with frequent unimproved crossings of the distinctively dark-hued waters.”

East Fork Jemez River
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 1 – Santa Fe to the Jemez

“Creeks, springs, and cascades are lavishly abundant along the perimeter of the Valles Caldera.”

Jemez Falls
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 1 – Santa Fe to the Jemez

Jemez Mountains to the Continental Divide:

In this second photo album of the series, we follow the Rio San Antonio and Rio Cebolla along the west side of the Valles Caldera, then up onto the Nacimiento Plateau in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness, there joining up with the CDT and continuing north through colorful mesa country to historic Ghost Ranch…


“Upstream of San Antonio Hot Springs, the welcoming canyon opened up and an unmarked social trail dabbled with the leisurely creek.”

Rio San Antonio near well-known hot spring that shares its name
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 2 – Jemez Mountains to Ghost Ranch

“You know you’re ruined for the wilds when the CDT, of all trails, promises easier travel and a (slightly) diminished sense of adventure.”

CDT signpost in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 2 – Jemez Mountains to Ghost Ranch

“I opted for an o-dark-thirty start the next morning to beat the obnoxious cicadas out of bed. On the plus side: sweet morning light on the redrocks.”

Chama River Canyon Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 2 – Jemez Mountains to Ghost Ranch

“Audible long before I beheld it, the Rio Chama surprised with a roiling class 3 current beneath colorfully named Skull Bridge.”

CDT crossing of the Rio Chama
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 2 – Jemez Mountains to Ghost Ranch

“If Santa Fe were to have an official rural retreat, embodying much of what the outside world finds so attractive there, Ghost Ranch, I was learning, was it.”

The Agape Center building at Ghost Ranch Conference Center
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 2 – Jemez Mountains to Ghost Ranch

CDT in the Tusas Mountains:

In this third photo album of the series, we continue north along the CDT across the length of the Tusas Mountains. Near the Colorado border, the N NM Loop heads east, leaving the CDT, but we’ll remain with it for a few extra miles in order to facilitate a resupply at Chama via Cumbres Pass, just inside the Colorado state line…


“Looking south, back toward Ghost Ranch, unfolds one of the most impressive views along the CDT in New Mexico, and it’s not on the official route.”

Arroyo del Yeso sandstone badlands
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 3 – Ghost Ranch to Chama

“In heavier aspen stands, mile upon mile would tick by with nothing for my eyes to focus on at ground level other than caterpillars, a veritable interstate highway system of wooly worms crawling this way and that across my path.”

tent caterpillar blight in the Tusas Mountains
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 3 – Ghost Ranch to Chama

“After a long moment of befuddlement I discovered recently-constructed CDT, unsigned, climbing to a breezy outlook of the main lake and its placid emerald waters. Then almost immediately I lost it again.”

overlook of lake at Lagunitas Campground, Carson National Forest
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 3 – Ghost Ranch to Chama

“The Northern New Mexico Loop leaves the CDT here, heading cross-country down the slope, into the Wilderness, then on toward the Rio Grande Valley. For the time being, though, I remained with the CDT en route to Chama to resupply.”

Cruces Basin Wilderness from Brazos Ridge Overlook
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 3 – Ghost Ranch to Chama

“The tourist train gets more than its share of shutterbug bystanders at road crossings along the route. Thankfully good will is extended toward rail-walking hobos as well.”

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad near the NM-CO state line
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 3 – Ghost Ranch to Chama

Continental Divide to the Rio Grande Gorge:

In this fourth photo album of the series, our route leaves the CDT to explore the Cruces Basin Wilderness, lone volcanic San Antonio Mountain, and the vast treeless expanses of New Mexico’s upper Rio Grande region. Fording the Rio again, this time in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area, we rejoin civilization near the small mining town of Questa…


“Heart of the Cruces Basin Wilderness near the confluence of Beaver and Diablo creeks. This would probably be the place to run into anyone here, on the off chance such an encounter should ever occur.”

Cruces Basin Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 4 – Chama to Questa

“From here, my route would lead across a vast volcanic plain, with uncertain water prospects until the Rio Grande. As such, I needed to find water somewhere on this mountain.”

distant Ute Mountain from the flanks of San Antonio Mountain
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 4 – Chama to Questa

“I found myself standing at the edge of the stock pond, water bladder in hand, as bleating sheep – John Muir’s infamous hoofed locusts – gathered all around.”

“This intriguing line of rocks appeared to be manmade, filling a natural depression between low hills. Another rock line lay a few hundred yards away, and I could picture the intervening space holding water after heavy rains, perhaps for the benefit of livestock long, long ago.”

Punche Valley, west of the Rio Grande Gorge
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 4 – Chama to Questa

“I’d read dubious reports that Sheep Crossing was still used to move cattle across the river to summer pasture on the western side, but all evidence pointed to modern day use exclusively by elk.

Sheep Crossing of the Rio Grande Gorge, Wild Rivers Recreation Area
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 4 – Chama to Questa

Latir Peak Wilderness:

In this fifth photo album of the series, we climb sharply from the sagebrush plains to the very roof of New Mexico – the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a range we’ll follow south all the way back to Santa Fe. First up: the Latir Peak Wilderness. Rising to nearly 13,000′, spectacular Latir Mesa is home to a large population of Rocky Mtn bighorn sheep, as well as several remote subalpine lakes. The tourist town of Red River lies in the shadow of this high mountain splendor…


“A rough little foot trail headed up the drainage, having been hacked out of the heavy wood by the labor of a rancher or sheepherder’s ax. No one travels the western part of this wilderness area for recreational purposes, it surely seemed.”

Virgin Canyon, Latir Peak Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 5 – Questa to Red River

“A dead-ringer for Colorado, and pretty close to the real thing at that. At well over 12,000 feet this was the highest point of the journey to date and the first time above true treeline.”

Latir Mesa
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 5 – Questa to Red River

“I spent the night in the splendid company of Heart Lake, then poked about the shoreline next morning, confirming suspicions that I was alone.”

Heart Lake, Latir Peak Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 5 – Questa to Red River

“The town of Red River hosts Old West Shootouts from the parking lot on most days.”

Frye’s Old Town Trading Post in Red River
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 5 – Questa to Red River

Wheeler Peak & the Taos Mountains:

In this sixth photo album of the series, the N NM Loop leaves the village of Red River heading south along the spine of the Sangre de Cristos. We first tour the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area then climb into the adjacent Wheeler Peak Wilderness, summiting the state’s highest peak amidst spectacular alpine scenery. The route then explores the rolling, forested Taos Mountains near Angel Fire, before reaching Sipapu, another ski community and a resupply opportunity…


“A nexus of trails converged on the tundra south of Gold Hill, some of them marked, others mysterious.”

Wheeler Peak group as seen from Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 6 – Red River to Sipapu

“This was my first time atop the roof of New Mexico. Exhilarating, but far from a walk in the park, especially with a full pack!”

summit of Wheeler Peak (13,161′)
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 6 – Red River to Sipapu

“What a gift to see these guys in their natural habitat, behaving more or less as they would without human interference.”

“At Palo Flechado Pass I joined the famed Elliot Barker Trail. Perhaps famous is an overstatement, but this trail is something of a big deal to locals.”

Elliot Barker Trail near Angel Fire NM
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 6 – Red River to Sipapu

“Many roads in this area, the legacy of past clearcut timber harvesting, the most recent of which may have occurred only a decade ago, yet all seemed quiet now. Views northward helped anchor my outlook in an otherwise sea of unknowable fir-clad ridges.”

Wheeler Peak Wilderness from Cuchillo de Fernando
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 6 – Red River to Sipapu

Pecos Wilderness:

In this seventh and final photo album, the N NM Loop tours the Pecos Wilderness, second largest wilderness area in the state after the Gila. The route quickly climbs above treeline near Jicarita Peak to follow the ragged spine of the Santa Barbara Divide. It joins the Skyline Trail from near Truchas Peak to Pecos Baldy and the Winsor Trail around Santa Fe Baldy and along Tesuque Creek. Other trails continue nearly the entire way back to Santa Fe Plaza at journey’s end…


“Encountering a newborn elk calf at close range, like hearing the howl of a Mexican wolf or the plaintive mew of a mountain lion cub, is one of those extraordinarily special, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime moments in the great outdoors.”

“Nearby thunder and the mocking pelt of light hail were my cues to get out of dodge, despite the major effort of cross-country travel in the oceans of scree that all but drown the Santa Barbara Divide.”

off trail along the Santa Barbara Divide, Pecos Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 7 – Sipapu to Santa Fe

“Despite a beautiful early summer Sunday in one of the West’s finest and best-known wilderness areas, I continued to walk for miles in solitude.”

Truchas Peaks from Trailriders Wall, Pecos Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 7 – Sipapu to Santa Fe

“Visiting the bushes I happened upon what must have been an ancient cutting tool; perhaps the rock’s carefully-shaped point was once used for gutting fish caught at nearby Stewart Lake. I could only speculate, and return it to the ground for another wilderness wanderer to one day discover anew.”

stone artifact near Stewart Lake, Pecos Wilderness
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 7 – Sipapu to Santa Fe

“First to go were the spruce and fir, then the ponderosa pines, until it was just me and the arid pinyon-juniper once more, save for the summery verdancy of riparian Tesuque Creek, destined – we two – for the outskirts of old Santa Fe.”

Tesuque Creek along the Winsor National Recreation Trail
From Northern New Mexico Loop: part 7 – Sipapu to Santa Fe

View more video clips from the Northern New Mexico Loop here. (Additional videos to be added in the near future.)

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2 comments on “Full Circle on the Northern New Mexico Loop

  1. I am unable to get the link to your photo journals to work. I am interested in the sections through Bandelier to the intersection with the CDT. Are you still offering access to your maps? Would I be able to tell where we could get off the trail via a road crossing or traditional trailhead?

    • Hi Laura. There should be a working link on one of the Northern Loop pages which goes to the photo albums. Sorry about that – Google dropped Picasa a while back and created a billion dead links across the internet in the process. I just sent you a link to view the mapset. Let me know if you have any questions.

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