Santa Fe National Forest: The Aspen Vista Trail
The Aspen Vista Trail is probably the most popular trail in the Santa Fe area. The trailhead is around 14 miles from downtown Santa Fe with abundant parking, right along Hyde Park Road (NM 475) and the trail is a 5.7-mile double track to experience wide grade and wonderful views. Especially in the autumn. The elevation of the trailhead is at 10,000 feet, and if you make it to the crest of Tesuque Ridge, you’ll find yourself on the lip of a cirque at nearly 12,000 feet, well above the tree line.
The hike I’ll be describing is a much shorter excursion of about a mile, with a steep side trip along upper Tesuque Creek to a unique meadow. While the Aspen Vista Trail is open to dogs on leashes, livestock, and mountain bikers, the unmaintained path to the meadow is steep and littered with downed aspen, making it impossible for livestock and bikes. This is definitely a summer and autumn hike. Be prepared for thunderstorms from June through September.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a butterfly census around the Fourth of July weekend, led by a local lepidopterist (the oddest things happen in Santa Fe) and the high point of the walk – literally – was a tiny meadow along upper Tesuque Creek, just off the Aspen Vista Trail. Full of flowers – and butterflies – this little rift in the forest has been a favorite place to visit over and over again, to enjoy the changing palate of wildflowers that it offers over half the year.
Although it has no formal name, for me it will always be the Butterfly Meadow. It’s a remarkable spot.
I still haven’t learned the names of all the flowers that live there. I learned three new ones this weekend alone, among which was a showy member of the mustard family that grows with its feet in the water:
Who would have guessed that a hot-tempered plant like a mustard would like a frigid mountain stream?
The first of the seductive (and poisonous) Monkshoods are unsheathing their jewel-toned cowls:
At this time the meadow is full of pale lavender Richardson geranium, bright yellow Mountain parsley, intensely red Scarlet Indian paintbrush, pink and blue Franciscan bluebells, and twinkly-white Cowbane. Deep Carmine King’s Crown is blooming along the creek, and there are plenty of Magenta Shooting Stars along the walk up the path. Nature journalists have to bring all their colored pencils this time of year!
Rock-lovers will enjoy the boulders of high-grade Gneiss that fill the meadow:
And of course – once the sun breaks out of those ominous thunderheads that have already gathered over Tesuque Ridge – the butterflies appear as if by magic:
Butterflies aren’t the only creatures that enjoy this meadow:
Having disregarded my own advice about bringing rain gear, and tempting the summer rain gods thereby, I was of course caught in the shower that came up with remarkable speed. Pellets of stinging ice were soon added, although I was spared the thrill of lightning. I crept under the dense skirts of a short Engelmann spruce that swept the ground and was immediately snug and dry in a fragrant cave where I could sit quietly and wait out the rain. In that way that nature has of offering you a treasure if you will only be quiet and receptive, toward the end of my wait I spotted a carefully hidden nest among the boughs – the work of a Hermit Thrush – with a perfect jewel lovingly set within:
I wouldn’t have spotted this in a hundred chattering hikes among the spruce and aspen. It took a time of enforced quietude for me to receive this gift.
Every weekend brings a new wave of blooms and butterflies to the mountains above Santa Fe, now that summer is here. You could do no better than to take John Muir’s advice:
“Keep close to nature’s heart . . . and break clear away once in a while, climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. . . Go to the mountains and get their glad tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Getting there: The Aspen Vista trailhead is clearly accessible at the eastern end of the extensive parking area along Hyde Park Road. From the Inn on the Alameda, you turn north on Paseo de Peralta, and then turn right at the light at the intersection of Paseo with Bishops Lodge Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way.
The path to the Butterfly Meadow is about 0.8 miles along the Aspen Vista walk, just after you see the sign that says “Tesuque Creek Trail” (which heads off downhill to your right). A few steps further along, you’ll see the creek flowing under the road, with the informal trail up the mountain just in front. You’ll be making a left turn and heading uphill. It’s a steep hike of about 0.2 miles, with lots – and I mean lots, after our hard winter – of downed aspen to step over, under, and around.
When you think of travel, one of the things that pops into your mind is what you had to eat that you wish you could have again. Food is definitely one of the elements that makes a journey memorable, and sometimes just the hint of a special aroma brings you back to that place and time.
The good news is that green chile can travel back home with you easily in its frozen form. All our local markets sell it, and there are a variety of brands from which to choose, although you should believe the packaging when it is labeled “HOT.” Simply slide your frozen tub of green goodness into a Ziploc bag, slip it into your carry-on bag, and voila, it will be defrosted and ready to use when you arrive back home. Do make sure your chile is frozen, since once it liquifies, it will be confiscated by the TSA at check-in. As in all recipes, the better your ingredients, the better the results.
So, without further adieu, here’s how to make the Chilaquiles Alameda and Alameda Hashbrowns appear on your own table!
For 4 people, you will need the following:
- 1 cup of either prepared Pico de Gallo, Red or Green Chili Sauce
- 1 cup of Beef Chorizo
- 1 cup of Grated Cheese (Cheddar and Mozzarella)
- 4 Hand-Fulls of Tortilla Chips
- Cook the Chorizo in a pan over medium heat, add the sauce of your choice.
- When fully heated, add 4 handfuls of tortilla chips, break them after adding to the pan. Toss to mix, do not overcook, tortilla chips should be crispy.
- Heap onto individual plates topped with a cheese and a fried egg. Garnish with sliced avocado, diced onions, and a sprig of cilantro. Serve with a side of beans and sour cream.
Alameda Hash Browns
You will need the following:
- 5 cups fresh or frozen shredded potatoes
- 2 bunches of diced green onions
- 8 slices of diced bacon
- 2 cups of heavy cream
- ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350℉
- Mix all ingredients except the cheese
- Place in a 9×13 baking dish, top with cheese, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove foil and bake for 10 more minutes.
- Serve with your favorite chili sauce.
I know both Santa Fe and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico very well. Right now spring is arriving in these mountain valley towns. Here, the beauty is so remarkable that, if you were an artist, you would be helplessly drawn to these magnetic norths of human creativity. But today I want to focus on the incredibly beautiful palate of blooming trees and flowers particular to each town. It is amazing how many species were brought to the New World from all parts of the globe, an area where trade was so driven by the markets in Europe that from there, Spain initially was the country that first brought fruits, nuts, and vegetables from most of the world. In fact, trade of any sort with any of the Americas was nonexistent until the 18th century.
At this moment the view from my terrace of San Miguel is covered in the purple-blue flowers of the jacaranda tree. This tree can grow to 50 feet and fills out as majestically as any oak I have ever seen. Each year at this time, they burst into an almost indescribably unique purple-blue flower. Not periwinkle blue, not navy, not sky blue. Jacaranda—indescribable. The Spanish brought so many things to the New World: horses, grains (like wheat, oats, and rice), and citrus (from Australia, Southeast Asia, and India). It’s hard to imagine Florida, Southern California, south Texas, and Mexico without lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. All of this and so much more came here through the ports of Spain, in the days when New Spain held control of access to all of Latin America. But of all the treasures that came to San Miguel, the jacaranda in April is the most amazing.
In Santa Fe, European hybrid grapes for wines and brandy were brought by the monks and settlers, bulb plants of all kinds, lilacs from the Balkans, apricots from Armenia. While no single plant in Santa Fe so completely dominates the skyline (as the jacarandas do for over a month here in San Miguel), spring up north brings a veritable explosion of blossoms of every hue and every variety: lilacs, roses, wisteria, and the same for fruit trees—apricots, apples, pears, plums, and cherries.
How has Santa Fe come to possess such a wide variety of so many plants!?
It was due to an educated and brilliant French bishop named Jean-Baptiste Lamy. This Roman Catholic prelate is credited with giving Santa Fe its unique spring and summer beauty. It is an interesting story, the arrival of Bishop Lamy. After reports reached Europe that self-flagellating extremists from the Catholic Church were moving to the mountain villages of Northern New Mexico, far away from the missions, and practicing an embarrassing, pagan, ritualistic form of Catholicism, the Pope dispatched Lamy and a legion of nuns to re-Catholicize, reform, and educate the people of the Northern Provence capital of New Spain: Santa Fe. With him came huge quantities of dry-rooted plants, bushes, vines, and trees. He knew that beauty and a real feeling for the earth might serve as a small enticement for bringing the scattered flock home to existing towns such as Santa Fe.
So when you arrive at the Inn on the Alameda and have settled in, you will immediately be struck by our landscaping and its wonderful impact on the setting and property.
Above Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, journaling
Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during your outings, or your travels, with drawings and sketches, and hand-written notes. Generally, the drawings dominate. Some people love hasty sketches made spontaneously in the field, in a cheap notebook, while others make lavish, multi-media illustrations that run over the pages of their hand-bound books, and make the entire journal a work of art. No two nature journals are, or ever will be, the same. If you begin to keep one, you will be creating something utterly and uniquely yours.
I have to say this has been one of the most enriching and rewarding activities I’ve ever undertaken. And I admit I was resistant at first, for the same reason you’re probably feeling right now: I didn’t like the way I drew. Quite a few early attempts were discarded, journal and all, in a childish dissatisfaction. I even tried adding drawings to my written journal, where they lost themselves in the verbiage. But as it says in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain“, if you can sign your name, you can draw. It’s true. You have to learn to draw what you see and not what you think you see. You have to learn what to exclude, as well. With just a little perseverance you’ll be on your way.
The materials you’ll need are few and inexpensive and easily tucked into a day pack: a plain bound notebook, a pen with ink that doesn’t smear, and a tin of 12 colored pencils and a sharpener are all I ever carry.
My journal is a blend of nature observations, travel notes, sketches, including hand-drawn maps, and some feeble attempts at “artful” page compositions, geared to my trips and outings. My friend’s journal includes these elements, but with a seasonal continuity and a strong sense of composition. It’s all good.
The opening pages of “Summer” in Scott J’s journal
Many of Scott’s pages are devoted to “traditional” nature journal subjects, ranging from things seen on nearby hikes to the changes occurring right outside the window:
Even a bird’s nest, tossed into the driveway by the wind, can become a work of art:
A vacation becomes an excuse for pages of drawings:
We both love to draw what are often called “event maps”. These annotated, hand-drawn maps are an attractive way to telescope a day’s activities and observation all in one multidimensional place. It’s interesting to notice how one’s observations overlap – or don’t – with another’s. Following are two event maps of the same area, made during the same visit, at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico:
Scott J’s Chaco event map
Scott R’s Chaco event map
Many of my recent event maps have taken on a look like this:
A day’s hike to Puerto Nambe, all captured on a page
The need to figure out just what that attractive flower or odd lizard is named, which means poring through guidebooks later, has led to a vast improvement in my knowledge of local natural history. (This need has also filled shelves with natural history guides) I’ve completely worn out Robert Ivey’s comprehensive “Flowering Plants of New Mexico”. My rock identification skills, submerged under years of corporate knowledge, have resurfaced as well. I love to include cross-sections of the local geology, drawn from various sources; these help me put the regional natural history in context:
Everyone has their own particular interests, of course. But no matter what catches your eyes, you’ll discover that you are starting to see in a different way than you did before. You will start seeing like an artist. And you’ll be creating a record of your life’s experiences that is much more satisfying than a simple photo album or written journal, as important as those things can be. I have a stack of written journals 4 feet high that I never open – they might as well be sediment accumulating on a dark seafloor. There are no guideposts in that mass of scrawls. But I look through my nature journals with pleasure all the time. They quickly answer every question like “when did we go there?” or “when did the peaches ripen?” with visual cues to guide you. And as the years go by, these colorful records will be there to remind you of all the wonderful things you really have been doing in your life.
Scott J. sketching on Raven’s Ridge, far above Santa Fe
There are many websites devoted to nature journaling. Here are a few to get you on your way:
Hiking in the snow forest
We know that many of you out there are celebrating the imminent arrival of warm weather with a spring break getaway. While we are very much looking forward to springtime here in Santa Fe, far above us in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, some 2000 to 3000 feet higher up, the thick stands of Engelmann spruce are reveling in the snow.
Engelmann spruce and a similar tree, the subalpine fir, make up what Audrey DeLelly Benedict aptly calls, in her recent book, “The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies”, the Snow Forest. These trees form nearly pure stands above 9000 feet elevation up to timberline in the Southern Rocky Mountains, and they are happily adapted to their short, cool, rainy summers, and the two to five feet of snow that fall each long winter. I’ve only ever found the Engelmann spruce in the mountains above Santa Fe. Our neighbors in Colorado enjoy a mix of spruce and true fir.
Engelmann spruce poking through winter aspen and darkening the ridge
Dense, dark, and a little mysterious on a summer hike – I always associate the mutter of thunder with a walk through these trees – the spruce forest takes on an entirely different quality in winter. Thick layers of white hide the tangle of downed trees on the forest floor and reflect light up into the somber thicket. Festoons of snow trapped in the branches brighten the entire woods.
Why not break out the snowshoes and make the half-hour drive up to the parking lot at Ski Santa Fe. Here you can have a walk down the Rio En Medio Trail, which meets the parking area on the western side of the lot. The elevation here is 10,300 feet, right in the middle of the subalpine zone, and the spruce trees crowd right up to the asphalt.
A patriarch in the forest, snug in blanketing snow
This is a tree made for snow. I can’t help but offer this long quotation from a delightful book A Natural History of Western Trees. Mr. Peattie captures the enchantment of the snow forest in evocative words:
“The most dramatic tree of your first trip in the Rockies will almost certainly be the Engelmann Spruce. Your memories of it will be linked with the towering Grand Tetons, the long, forested valleys of the Yellowstone, the breath-taking beauty of Lake Louise, the park-like spaciousness, the exciting dry air, of Rocky Mountain National Park. And the meeting with a bear, glimpses of bounding deer, the insolence of crested jays, the racket of nutcrackers, the chill of high mountain lakes, the plop of a diving beaver, the delicious taste of camp food cooked in appetite-sauce, and mountain meadows glorious with larkspur, columbine, and lupine – all these are part of your composite recollections of the realms where this fine Spruce grows. But you would not recall it as distinct from other trees had it not an inherent personality of its own. Fifty and 100 feet and more tall, it is, in dense forests, slender as a church spire, and its numbers are legion. So it comes crowding down to the edge of the meadow where your tent is pitched, to the rocks surrounding the little lake that mirrors its lance-like forms upside down. And when the late mountain light begins to leave the summer sky, there is something spirit-like about the enveloping hosts of the Engelmanns. Always a dark tree, the Spruce’s outlines are now inky, and it’s night silence makes the sounds of an owl, or of an old moose plashing somewhere across the lake, mysterious and magnified in portent.”
And so it is. Come see us and find out for yourself.