The Snow Forest

Hiking in the snow forest

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.

Englemann spruce poking through winter aspen, and darkening the ridge

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.

Looking up

Looking up

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

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.

The Randall Davey Audubon Center

The Randall Davey Audubon Center


The Randall Davey Audubon Center

The Randall Davey House at Santa Fe’s Audubon Center

If you are staying in downtown Santa Fe – perhaps with us here at Inn on the Alameda – and you need a quick taste of the natural world, there is no better choice than Santa Fe’s Audubon Center just at the end of Upper Canyon Road, in the spacious entrance to the canyon of the little Santa Fe River. It’s about a two mile drive from the Inn, along some of Old Santa Fe’s most picturesque streets, and while the very last section of the road is unpaved, there’s plenty of parking and a welcoming nature center waiting for you at the end of your short journey.
The Audubon Center’s ground is just beyond the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, where there is even more parking available, as well as trailhead access to the network of paths in Santa Fe’s Dale Ball Trail system. The Dale Ball Trails give you a way to to explore the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above town – and get some great views – without really leaving town at all.

Beaver ponds in the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve

The Audubon Center supports a small network of trails, which are great for morning bird walks, and the Nature Conservancy maintains a trail loop in their preserve, with some strategically-placed interpretive signs along the way.

Sinuous beaver dam on the Santa Fe River

In the early days, a sawmill was built here in the mouth of the canyon – which subsequently became the Randall Davey House – and Santa Fe’s first dam was constructed to hold back a small reservoir. This soon proved insufficient for the growing town, and other small dams were built upstream, higher in the watershed, to impound the spring runoff. Most of the canyon was deforested for firewood.
With this movement of attention up-canyon, the area around the Randall Davey House began a slow recovery, which has been greatly assisted by the efforts of the Audubon and the Nature Conservancy. The most remarkable of these rejuvenations is the growing family of beavers that has moved back into the stream.
Although I enjoy spotting birds as much as the next person (not very reliably, I have to confess), the Canyon Preserve also offers other opportunities to explore natural history. There is a short stony trail along the north side of the canyon, just above the beaver ponds, that skirts a window into Santa Fe’s more distant past – a past in which Santa Fe might have looked a little more like Cabo San Lucas than the high desert resort it is today.
The north part of the trail is built on a scree of fractured gneiss that has slid into place along an old metal retaining wall built to keep debris out of the old reservoir below. These rocks are extremely old. They form part of the crystalline basement – the ancient continental crust – that was pushed up here during the birth of the Rocky Mountains some 70 million years ago or so. The gneiss itself is over 1.5 billion years old.

Fractured pink gneiss with green stains of saussurite

Although it was born in an environment so hot, deep, and pressured that the rock could flow like taffy, subsequent movement upward brought it into a cold, low-pressure environment (our environment) where the rock became brittle and easy to fracture.
A little further along the trail, just beyond a section of seriously brecciated (broken) gneiss, layered and blocky grey beds appear, separated by gentle slopes of a powdery soil littered with fragments of rock. The grey layers are beds of limestone, a rock that practically always points to a shallow marine conditions at its time of deposition, and the slopes in between hide easily-eroded beds of shale, formerly mud, which also must have settled out of a body of water. (Shale is not quite as helpful in distinguishing its environment as limestone –  it plugs up river channels on land, silts up lakes, softens the contours of the sea floor deep or shallow, regardless) And while sedimentary rocks like these are initially laid down in practically horizontal strata, these layers are strongly tilted in places:

Tilted beds of limestone in along the trail

Shattered gneiss juxtaposed against tilted sedimentary strata indicates faulting – a process in which rocks are offset along fractures in the Earth’s crust. These particular layers of limestone and shale aren’t very thick on Santa Fe’s side of the mountain, but if you were to hop over the mountains to the east, you’d find entire ridges worth of the stuff. On this side of the mountain only a few small slivers of the limestones and shales are preserved, and these are inset into the crystalline basement rocks along faults such as the one you’ve just walked across on the trail.
A closer look at the limestone beds gives a much stronger indication of their marine origin:

Marine fossils in Pennsylvanian limestone along trail

The rocks are full of fossils – brachiopods (the shells), crinoids (sea lilies), and byrozoans (looking like sea fans) – which strengthen the interpretation that these limestones were laid down in a shallow sea. Such creatures typically thrive in shallow, warm, sunlit waters. The fact that most of the fossils are abraded or broken up into fragments suspended in limy mud (geologists call this a “fossil hash”) also hints at waves and tidal currents dispersing the remains.

These fossils help in another way: they allow geologist to assign the rocks to a specific period in the distant past – in this case, the Pennsylvanian Period (320 -286 million years ago). Reconstructions of the positions of the drifting continents puts New Mexico practically at the Equator at that time. A foreshadowing of the Rocky Mountains – the Ancestral Rockies – were punching up through shallow seas then, responding to stresses set up by the convergence of the North and South American continents. In my mind’s eye, I can picture a calm ocean glittering under a hot equatorial sky, with arid islands of granite shimmering in the distance – like the Sea of Cortez off La Paz – right here, where Santa Fe sits today, 7000 feet above the ocean.

So next time you’re here in town, take a short drive up Alameda Street and Upper Canyon road, get out and stretch your legs, say hello to the nice people at The Nature Store, and have a walk, with eyes either tuned to the past or the present, in this wonderful natural treasure only minutes from the Plaza.

THE MAGIC OF BUTTERFLY MEADOW

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...

read more
Under The Volcano

Under The Volcano


Under the Volcano

Today I’m going to give a little overview of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills. Before I begin, however, I would like to direct the attention of those more serious inquirers and rockhounds to an article by a true expert on this area, Stephen Maynard: “The Geology of the Cerrillos Hills“. My intention is to highlight some of the bold features you might see on a walk in the new State Park on a sunny afternoon, with a few photographs to guide us along. If this piques your interest, don’t hesitate to build some context by having a look at Stephen’s excellent and easy to read summary.

“Grand Central” in the Cerrillos Hills

Everyone has seen pictures of volcanoes, but did you ever wonder what it might look like under the smoking mountain? A walk in the Cerrillos Hills will give you that opportunity, with a little guidance from the geologists. All that pent-up magma, liquid and mobile, seeking a new equilibrium in the Earth’s crust above those places where it has been born, exerts a tremendous amount of pressure as it wedges its way up through the rocks. In places it pauses and pools horizontally, splitting the crust and lifting it up, forming a sort of gigantically hot flat pancake in the crust. If the magma freezes there, the body of rock it leaves is called a sill. (Think flat, like a window sill).

If the pancake of magma continues to grow, eventually its roof will rupture in vertical cracks, and the hot batter will squirt up into the splits with great violence, propping them open. If the magma freezes here, the body of rock it leaves is called a dike. Exposed by erosion at the earth’s surface, these features often stand up like walls or dams, hence the name. Here’s a small dike you might walk by in the park:

A dike exposed by erosion in the Cerrillos Hills

While these splits and ruptures can cease at any time, if they do continue upward and breach the surface, the magma gets out. We call the “getting out” a volcanic eruption.

In our part of the American West, it so happens that a very thick body of shale – mud that has accumulated on the floor of an ocean or a lake, and subsequently compacted into rock – stood in the way of the ascending magma and led to some unusual effects.

Laccoliths are sills with bulging roofs, bowing up the rocks above, like a blister. In the Cerrillos area, these blisters actually stacked themselves one above the other, forming – in the fevered imagination of a geologist – something like a stony Christmas tree. The relative weakness of the thick shale encouraged this phenomenon. To put you out of your suspense, the magma did eventually reach the surface, forming a volcano, but persistent erosion dispersed the volcano and etched its way down into the stack of sills and dikes among which we can walk, today.

An outcropping along the railroad tracks that might help put things into perspective.

The pale grey stuff on the left, with the skirts of loose talus, is the shale. (It has a name, the Mancos Shale, about which more in another piece) The craggy orangy-grey cliffs, forming the little peak on the right, is a partially exposed sill of frozen magma. Keep in mind, from this perspective, the magma didn’t so much push up through the shale as out toward you. And it froze in place far underground. The little layer of orange stuff capping the grey shale on the left is a modern blanket of loose rock eroded from the sills and dikes and spread out as a thick rocky soil.

The magma frozen into the sills and dikes in the Cerrillos Hills has a very distinctive texture. Here’s an example:

Andesite porphyry

You can see a thick speckling of white crystals and clots of black crystals suspended in a greenish-gray mass of stone. An igneous rock with this sort of texture – visible crystals floating in a fine grained groundmass – is called a porphyry. To a geologist’s eye, this texture indicates at least two episodes of cooling. And the stony appearance of the groundmass is a clue that the final episode of cooling was fairly rapid and occurred under low confining pressures, a characteristic of volcanic activity.

By the way, that dark mineral you see is rich in iron, so as these rocks weather at the surface, they acquire a patina of rust. That’s why the rocky outcroppings in the hills are more orange than grey.

As if all this blistering wasn’t enough, in a second episode of igneous activity, a big slug of magma of somewhat different composition forced its way through the pile of laccoliths to feed another generation of volcanism. Some of this magma froze into a large, roughly cylindrical plug – called a stock – right in the middle of our stack of sills, and when erosion hacked its way into this mass, it left the stock standing in relief. It’s big. We call it Grand Central, now, and you can see a picture of it at the beginning of this entry.

This second episode of intrusion was sufficiently forceful to dome up and distort the entire package of shale, sills, and dikes. And this mass of melted crust had an additional cargo of elements humans find either useful or attractive – like gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc. Now we’re talking!

An intrusion of this magnitude takes a long time to crystallize and cool off, and as it does so, all kinds of secondary effects can occur. The heat of the magma sets groundwater into motion. Much of this water is superheated and aggressively corrosive. The crystallizing magma itself rejects volatile elements like hydrogen (i.e. more water) chlorine, and sulfur. It also rejects elements that don’t fit into the atomic framework of the bulk of the minerals that are crystallizing: the heavier metals that we love to use in wedding rings and bullets and car batteries and telephones. This hot brew of chemicals seeks its way toward the surface as best it can, staining everything it touches and leaving behind crusty residues of exotic minerals rich in those valuable metals.

In the Cerrillos Hills a system of fractures oriented in a northeasterly direction guided these potent juices to create bleached and iron stained zones of rock the old miners called veins or lodes. Erosion gradually unearthed some of them (with weathering effects adding lovely new complexities, one of which is called turquoise) and miners both ancient and modern began poking around for the riches:

Prospect pit in the Cerrillos Hills

The ancient ones (and not a few modern rockhounds) sought turquoise, which was used for adornment and was traded far and wide. They also used some of the lead minerals to make pottery glazes. The pragmatic Spanish had no use for turquoise, but lead was always useful for bullets, copper for utensils, and silver for money. The turn-of-the-last-century Anglo miners loved that silver too, but also had industrial markets for lead, zinc, and copper. (There’s not much gold in the Cerrillos Hills, but in the rugged mountains you can see just to the south, the Ortiz Mountains, there was – and is – plenty of gold) Turquoise experienced a new vogue in jewelry and small mines were developed to find it. (You always wondered why the box from Tiffany’s had that particular color, didn’t you?)

As usual, the richer and easier to find deposits were exploited to the point of exhaustion. There’s still a faint halo of copper minerals in the rocks, exploitable by modern mining techniques – but it would require the removal of the Cerrillos Hills themselves to get it (not to mention an ocean of unavailable water) and this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But for now, we can admire the efforts of the early miners, preserved in the park, and we can enjoy a unique natural museum of subterranean activity – under the volcano – laid out for anyone who takes the time to look.

THE MAGIC OF BUTTERFLY MEADOW

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...

read more

The Acceleration Into Summer

The Acceleration Into Summer

m-shutterstock_81888892
Cerrillos Hills State Park has a number of trails, all of which you can see on the maps found on the website cerrilloshills.org. There is little shade in the park and your exposure to the sun is high, so be prepared with hats, water, and sunblock. Pets are welcome on leashes. Broken Saddle Riding Company uses many of the park’s trails for escorted horse rides. Since this is a State Park, there is a $5 day use fee, payable at the parking area near the entrance of the park. There are no camping facilities.

Apache Plume in full headdress in the Cerrillos Hills

We are moving rapidly into summer, here in the Southern Rockies, and the natural world is bursting with activity. My favorite change can be seen from here in Santa Fe, looking up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east: the grey expanses of aspen high on the mountains are donning their bright yellow-green coat, with the usual suddenness that never fails to impress me. It’s a look as soft as the fuzz on an elk’s new antler, and as welcome as summer itself.

Red columbines along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

The alchemy of change is strong up there among the leafing aspen, and this is that brief moment of transition when the fairies appear in the forest. By which I mean, the fairy flowers; those two species that seem the most fairy-like of all our woodland flowers here – the diminutive Red Columbine, and the elusive Calypso Orchid.

A flower like this, bright red, with nectaries perched well up into tubes, is naturally pollinated by hummingbirds, and you can hear the flying jewels chattering under the forest canopy and whirring about. The complexity of this flower is fascinating:

Hummingbird’s view of a columbine

Even more intriguing are the ephemeral Calypso orchids, or fairy slippers. After finding just one of these, years ago, along the Bear Wallow Trail, I have been searching in vain for another look. Our wet winter must have been the key to my luck this year, because I found an entire cluster of these beauties:

Calypso bulbosa along the Winsor Trail

This orchid has a surprisingly sweet fragrance, although I have to warn you that you’ll have to put your head practically on the forest floor to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, here below, in the more arid hills, a tougher set of flowers is showing off its resiliency. Our newest State Park, the Cerrillos Hills State Park, south of Santa Fe, has been offering a variety of nature walks including a Wildflower Walk.

There were splashes of color everywhere:

Paintbrush growing among the rocks

Verbena

This was a very pleasant way to spend part of a Sunday afternoon.

You can keep track of activities like these by visiting the New Mexico State Parks website. And if you prefer to explore on your own, local bookstores like the Travel Bug, Collected Works, or the Nature Center at the Randall Davey Audubon Center have good selections of guidebooks, from the most basic pamphlets, to tomes only a botanist could love.

Getting There: Cerrillos Hills State Park is about 25 miles south of Santa Fe, just a couple of miles off of Highway 14, the famous “Turquoise Trail” that connects Santa Fe to the eastern outskirts of Albuquerque. Turn into the scenic little village of Cerrillos, and then turn right at the sleeping dog – er, first stop sign, and follow the dirt road past the railroad tracks and Broken Saddle Riding Company to the park. Be sure and bring $5 to pay the day use fee.

THE MAGIC OF BUTTERFLY MEADOW

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...

read more
Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

GHOST RANCH AND THE RIM VISTA TRAIL

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

One of the most rewarding day trips you can make during your visit to Santa Fe is an excursion up to the village of Abiquiu and beyond, past Georgia O’Keeffe’s house (where you might want to pre-arrange a tour) and into Ghost Ranch, where you are always welcome to stop at the Presbyterian Retreat Center and stretch your legs, or even have a picnic, surrounded by the spectacular pastel cliffs that drew Ms. O’Keeffe into their embrace for so many years:

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

You might even drive a little ways beyond and visit Echo Amphitheater hollowed into the cliffs, or – if the weather’s fine – brave the 13 miles of rough dirt road skirting the Chama River and have a look at the haunting Christ in the Desert Monastery, isolated and spiritually charged, waiting silently for you in its own little Zion.

Or you can be a masochist and hike the Rim Vista Trail.

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

You can’t help but notice a dramatic change in the landscape as you leave the Rio Grande in the town of Espanola and drive up the Chama River toward Ghost Ranch. Not far beyond Abiquiu mounting tablelands of red rock replace the buff colored hills of the Rio Grande Valley on your horizon, and soon you are climbing up a narrow cut of the river to enter a new world: the “Piedra Lumbre” – the Luminous Stone – a bright vista of warmly glowing hills guarded by the cliffs of Ghost Ranch to the north, and the iconic blue Cerro Pedernal – Ms. O’Keeffe’s touchstone (and personal possession, if God kept His promise) – to the south. And in a sense you have entered a new world: you’ve made an abrupt transition from the sere rift valley that guides the Rio Grande southward, into the colorful mesas and buttes of the vast Colorado Plateau.

For years a friend of mine had noticed an intriguing entry in local Sierra Club’s book of day hikes, called the Rim Vista Trail, and on this past Sunday, eager for an outing, convinced me to make the hike with him. It promised great views of Ghost Ranch, and that, together with the weather being fine and the lure of New Mexico’s best breakfast burritos, sold by Bode’s, in Abiquiu, for a late breakfast on the way, was more than enough to pull me along.

I’m not sure I can recommend this trail for your first experience of O’Keeffe Country. For one thing, it is a relentlessly uphill trek, on a stony, ankle-twisting trail churned by cattle and elk. You gain at least 1700 feet of elevation and there isn’t much shade. In fact, the cruelty of our 2005 drought and ensuing explosion of pine bark beetle is strongly evident along the way:

Drought stricken pinon forest

Drought stricken pinon forest

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

We estimated that between 85% to 90% of the pinon pines had been killed here! Only an ecologist could take pleasure in this sad scene. And yet he or she would no doubt note the young and healthy new saplings emerging everywhere beneath the tough twisted junipers, bringing a new cycle of life to the land.

Unaccountably, a few old survivors still held their heads high:

The trail follows an ancient landslide of arid hills, covered mostly in juniper now, which allows you to avoid the impossibly steep cliffs of the Entrada Sandstone (which form such a prominent and colorful component of the landscape here) and gain some elevation on the mesa. Eventually you reach the base of another set of sandstone cliffs and begin an angled climb to the rim, to receive your reward:

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

The trees are healthier up on this mesa, and it’s a great place to shed your pack, eat a snack, and do a little nature journaling:

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

These ledges are formed by the Dakota Sandstone, one of the most important sandstone “bookmarks”, as I think of them, in the pages of the geologic record of the Rocky Mountain States. The ancient sands, nearly 100 million years old – well within the Cretaceous Period, the age of dinosaurs – are river-laid at the bottom and beach-like at the top, and they mark a major reorganization of the tectonics of western North America, and indeed, of the entire planet. The Jurassic stomping grounds of the dinosaurs went under the waves for the last time, to be buried ultimately by the thick grey marine muds of the Mancos Shale. These rocks wouldn’t see the sun again until the Rockies shouldered their way up, 30 to 40 million years later.

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

The Cretaceous Period, by the way, was a time during which flowering plants gained dominance over more primitive (yet very much still with us) spore-bearing plants. Infinitely adaptable, we enjoy them today, even in the most unpromising environments:

So be sure to include a day trip to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch when you come to visit us here in Santa Fe. I think you can safely skip the Rim Vista Trail – there’s more than enough to see and do with more gentle walks. But I’m not kidding about those breakfast burritos.

Book Your Next Stay at Inn on the Alameda

THE MAGIC OF BUTTERFLY MEADOW

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...

read more
Bandelier from above: the Frey Trail

Bandelier from above: the Frey Trail

BANDELIER FROM ABOVE: THE FREY TRAIL

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

You would think, after all the hiking I’ve done around Santa Fe and northern New Mexico over the years, that I would have discovered this overlooked gem long ago. But it took a last-minute change of plans, leading me to an unpromising trailhead on the arid uplands of the Pajarito Plateau, to put me on its track.

On a recent Sunday, with splendid weather, I decided it was a perfect day for a drive to Bandelier National Monument and a walk along the Rito de Frijoles under the Ponderosas. Unsurprisingly, I was not the only person to have this idea, and while the drive to the park entrance was swift and uneventful, a little sign at the ranger’s booth let me know there would be at least a 20-minute wait in the canyon below, to find a place to park. This is extremely unusual. Plan B formed swiftly in my mind. I knew there was a little-used trail that leaves from the campground above Frijoles Canyon, called the Frey Trail, that winds its way to the canyon rim, but I’d never walked it. Now was an as good opportunity as any.

As I suspected, there was almost nobody parked at the trailhead. A dusty and unpromising path led off to the south:

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

Although the temperatures were mild today, the sunlight was intense, and I could imagine calling this the “Fry” Trail in June. But there were promising vistas above the pinyon and juniper:

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

It was certainly an easy walk. From time to time the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s was evident:

Old sign

Old sign

And then I reached the rim of Frijoles Canyon, and discovered what I’d been missing all these years:

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Amazing views of the ruins on the floor of the canyon, which I’d only walked past before, opened up from a raven’s eye perspective:

Tyuonyi ruins from above

Tyuonyi ruins from above

I could survey the heart of the canyon from my perch:

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

And looking east

And looking east

Below me a few other hikers traversed the lower switchbacks, pausing along the monumental stonework built by the CCC to take in the view:

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

I walked down as far as that clump of Ponderosa pines you can see above, and had a light lunch in their shade, gazing happily out over the canyon floor and the visitors walking along the paved paths to the cliff dwellings. Afterward, I wound my way back up the switchbacks and walked back to my car, meeting no one else along the way. Which is remarkable in itself in such a popular place, on a beautiful weekend.

I can’t recommend this walk highly enough. It’s only about a mile and a half hike from the trailhead at the Amphitheater in Juniper Campground down to the ruins at the floor of the canyon, and the switchbacks have been carefully constructed to make the descent – or should I say, ascent – relatively painless. Perhaps there’s a reason for the unusual beauty of this trail. Up until 1934, this was the only way into Frijoles Canyon and its wonders. And that’s reason enough, in my mind, to make the walk and relive the adventures of those early travelers, seeing the canyon as they saw it, back when the first parks and monuments – America’s Best Idea – were being conceived.

Book Your Next Stay at Inn on the Alameda

THE MAGIC OF BUTTERFLY MEADOW

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...

read more
BOOK NOW