The Winsor Trail is Santa Fe’s gateway into the Pecos Wilderness from the west.
Its most popular trailhead is near the western end of the large parking area of Ski Santa Fe, at an elevation of 10,240 feet. The portion of the trail from the parking area to its intersection with the Nambe Lake Trail is a walk of about 2.5 miles one way. To reach the crest of Raven’s Ridge and the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness, there is a relentless elevation gain of 760 feet in about a mile. So be prepared as this is the price everyone must pay to enjoy this beautiful walk. Dogs on leashes, mountain bikes, and livestock are allowed on the Winsor Trail. You can hike this trail year-round, but it is snow-covered in the winter, and snowshoes or cross-country skis might be necessary. Thunderstorms are very frequent in the summer, and you’ll want to bring at least some light rain gear because the showers are chilling. Lightning and hypothermia are dangers once you get above the treeline.
The Winsor Trail, the local hiker’s route into the magnificent Pecos Wilderness east of Santa Fe, is beautiful from end to end. But there is a short section that passes through a grove of trees with such a remarkable quality of light and peace that I call it the “Zen Forest.” And since you can reach this place after only a two-mile walk from the parking area at Ski Santa Fe, it makes an ideal destination for a day hike during your visit with us.
I’M NOT SURE EXACTLY WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR THE APPEAL OF THIS STRETCH OF ASPEN.
The mature trees, tall and widely spaced, let in a generous amount of radiant northern light. The dark spruces are widely spaced as well and hang their dark boughs down in a manner admired by the Arts and Crafts printmakers, contrasting beautifully with the bright upright aspen. Huge boulders and outcroppings of white stone emerge from the forest floor in sculptural forms, nestled in a sea of bright green heath and wildflowers. At any moment in this forest, you expect to hear the sound of temple bells or catch a glimpse of a forest hermit reclining in the shadows.
And the fragrance here is heavenly. In summer, the air is drowsy with the balsamic scent of spruce needles, warming in the sun. In spring, the powerful life force of the aspen adds its note. In fall, with the yellow leaves swirling down against an alpine blue sky and collecting on the stones, there arises the subtle fragrance of oriental lilies, faint but unmistakable, distilled somehow from the aspen leaves as they participate in the Eternal Return. It’s hard for me to tell you exactly when you’ve reached the Zen Forest. Not too long after you’ve left the dense spruce thickets along the slow descent from the saddle at Raven’s Ridge, the trail begins to turn to the right, and the aspen begins to replace the dark evergreens.
These trees grow larger, the light magnifies, and presently you’ll reach spruce whose branches sweep toward the trail, forcing adults to duck down ever so slightly. You’ve entered the grove. By the time you reach the rustic little bridge over the Rio Nambe, you’ve left it. Wildflowers are abundant here. Despite the high elevation, some of these forest dwellers have an almost tropical luxuriance.
THE CLEAN WHITE BOULDERS THAT CROP OUT IN THE ZEN FOREST ADD TO THE GROVE’S LUMINOSITY. A CLOSER LOOK AT THESE ROCKS REVEALS COMPLEX PATTERNS THAT HINT AT TURBULENT PAST LIVES.
Without leaving the thread of our story too far, I just want to mention that these are genuinely remarkable rocks. They are called migmatites, and they represent metamorphic rocks that have been subjected to geologic conditions so extreme that the rocks began to partially fuse, bleeding white granitic melt and contorting into fascinating marble-like patterns.
When you reach the cheerful Rio Nambe and leave the Zen Forest, you will catch views of Santa Fe Baldy Peak shouldering its great massif skyward to the north. This might even be your destination if you are in good shape and you’ve left the trailhead early enough on a cool summer’s morning. You’d already be about a third of the way there, with a climb to a rocky summit at 12,622 feet still facing you. But you might be content to sit quietly by the stream and take in the peace of the forest, and then make your way back home, blessed by your brief sojourn among the aspen of the Zen Forest.
Getting there: The parking area at Ski Santa Fe is approximately 16 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, at the very end of NM 475. 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 Hyde Park Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way. The Winsor Trail trailhead is clearly marked at the northwestern corner of the parking area, and the Forest Service maintains some pit toilets and picnic facilities there. It would not hurt to bring a trail map if this is your first walk on the Winsor Trail. You can download the PDF from the link I provided above or purchase a map at the Travel Bug right next door to the Inn.
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.