The healthy crown of a White Fir along the Chamisa Trail
It’s the time of year here in Santa Fe when an afternoon ramble in the mountains seems like the perfect way to refresh your spirits after a late breakfast, or a bout of Christmas shopping among the shops downtown. A fifteen minute drive from the Plaza will bring you to easy trails that wind through the mixed conifer forests so characteristic of the middle elevations of the Southern Rockies. Typically free from snow this time of year, and bathed in the warm slanted sunlight of the dry New Mexico winter, these trails invite you into a woods of surprising variety. And one tree which is sure to catch your eye is the White Fir Abies concolor.
This is the tree that makes the waxy blue note among all the other evergreens:
The distinctive silvery-blue to silvery-green needles of the White Fir
A closer look reveals ranked and upright needles curling from grey twigs. If you crush a few of these between your fingers, you’ll release the sweet balsamic fragrance of pineapples.
White Fir needles
Although the bark of young trees is smooth and grey, mature trees are clothed in a thick, rough, furrowed ashy-grey bark quite in contrast to the warm cinnamon-colored plates of their companion Ponderosas:
The bark on a mature White Fir
You almost never see these trees’ cones littering the forest floor. Perched high at the top of the trees and sitting upright in the manner of true Firs, the scales of White Fir cones disaggregate easily and fall unnoticed to the ground:
White fir cones
When the White Fir is free to reach for the sky unimpeded by neighboring trees, it takes on a distinctive ‘nose cone’ profile which frequent hikers come to recognize:
The profile of a tall White Fir along the Chamisa Trail
It’s hard to admit that such a fine tree could have a bad habit, but since it is reluctant to self-prune its dense whorls of branches, it often retains a skirt of dead wood right down to the ground. Ponderosa Pines, by contrast, are commonly as free of lower branches as a palm tree. These branches can act as fire ladders to carry flames up into the canopy during forest fires. On a less significant note, this also means that White Firs rarely invite you to sit under them, and while I have climbed high into Douglas Firs, and sheltered under Engelmann Spruce, I don’t think anybody except for a squirrel has climbed a White Fir:
The uninviting thicket at the base of a White Fir
When I think of fir trees, I picture boreal forests high on cold mountain peaks, making a last stand just at timber line. And indeed, in Colorado the slender Alpine Fir occupies this very position, as does the magnificent Red Fir of the Sierra Nevada, dominating the lofty granite ‘flats’ of those mountains. But the White Fir is happy at middle elevations, from 7500′ to 10,000′ in our Rockies, and it drops out at greater heights, where the snow forest of Engelmann Spruce and aspen takes over. Like the Ponderosa Pine, it seems perfectly content with long dry summers as well as snow.
Young White Firs immediately put you in mind of Christmas trees. It’s that time of year, you know.
A young White Fir along the trail
The most common Christmas trees sold by local families in Santa Fe are these firs, cut in the mountains east of us. Brought inside and transfigured by lights, ornaments, and love, the White Fir becomes the shining star of the Christmas season:
Christmas in Old Santa Fe
Looking from Aspen Vista toward Santa Fe
It was bound to happen sooner or later, and over this past weekend the Southern Rockies made their annual abrupt bump down from autumn to winter. Temperatures plunged, and Santa Fe awoke to a dusting of snow on Sunday morning. And as if I had never seen snow before, I had to drive up the mountain to have a look. I made it up to Aspen Vista, the viewing area and trailhead for the popular walk – or snowshoe, or cross-country ski – up to Tesuque Ridge, where I parked and got out, only to discover it was FAR too cold to enjoy much of anything outside the car.
But it sure was beautiful in a wintery way. About 5 inches of snow had fallen and gusts of wind shook clouds of glittering ice crystals from the spruce trees. The overnight storm was still breaking up over the mountains so shadow alternated with sunlight as I watched. The change in conditions from only a few weeks ago was striking. This weekend:
And just a few weeks earlier:
This bodes well for skiing this winter. It’s time to start checking the Ski Santa Fe website for condition updates. And it looks like I need to dust off the snowshoes out in the garage!
An invitation for winter recreation
Aspen and light
As the days shorten and the temperature drops here in the Southern Rockies, fall color begins to move downward into the mid-elevation canyons below the crest of the mountains, spilling down like trickles of bright paint toward the old Spanish villages and dreaming Pueblos that dot the broad and luminous valley of the Rio Grande. The great burst of yellow among the high forests of aspen and spruce fades as quickly as it flared, but further below, color seems to concentrate and richen in the smaller groves and stream-side meadows, set off by the deep greens, rich olives, and waxy blues of the mixed-conifer forest.
Ponderosa. “Of all western pines this one seems to the beholder most full of light”
The aspen will follow you half-way down the mountain, clinging to the cooler drainages, and forming a golden canopy of light far over your head as their turn comes to shine:
Aspen high above the Bear Wallow Trail
But now a new palette of color emerges. The scrubby Gambel Oak sheds its dour summer aspect and dons the most surprising wardrobe of warm copper, persimmon, and Indian red:
A tangle of Gambel Oak
Wild currants throw off all restraint:
This dogwood relative goes deep into the red end of the spectrum,
while the Cliffbush simply can’t make up its mind:
Strawberries display a bipolar nature you would never suspect them of
while their proud and thorny relative, the wild rose, takes on a tasteful, conservative dress:
The lovely Rocky Mountain Maple glows in a pure chartreuse yellow:
Other shrubs experiment experiment with warmer combinations of color, flaunting the fashionable yellows:
All of these photographs were taken along the Bear Wallow Trail, about halfway up the road to Ski Santa Fe, just beyond Hyde Memorial State Park, about 8 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza. The Borrego-Bear Wallow loop is a hike we frequently recommend to guests here at the Inn, and while it is a beautiful walk any time of the year, it is simply exceptional right now.
Get outside and follow the light.
Warm autumnal light among the aspen
‘Then there was the good weather. It would come in one day when the summer was over.’
Apologies to Ernest Hemingway and the opening lines of A Moveable Feast, but I couldn’t help thinking of that quiet commencement as I had a walk up to Puerto Nambe, high above Santa Fe, after last week’s subtle ending of summer, in a day and night of cold, steady rain. The best weather for hiking in the Southern Rockies is here, and the mountains are glowing with warm light and changing leaves. The first flush of the yellow aspen is spreading over the peaks:
Looking south from the trail ascending to Puerto Nambe
Frost has reached the forest floor with colorful results:
Thimbleberry dotting the forest floor
The Winsor Trail leaves the Ski Santa Fe parking lot at a high elevation, well within the spruce-aspen forest, and while you will gain even more altitude if you follow the trail all the way to Puerto Nambe, you will never leave the forest. You’ll be accompanied by chickadees flitting from branch to branch, so close you can almost touch them, juncos rustling along the forest floor, and pine squirrels scolding you from their fragrant perches as they stuff their faces with seeds from their spruce larder:
Englemann Spruce cones sharing their abundance
The trails are littered with the brown scales of these cones, discarded by winter-wary chickarees.
As you climb higher into the Nambe Creek watershed, views open up in all directions:
Looking west down Nambe Creek
Soon you’ll feel like you’re truly in the Rockies, with forested peaks surrounding you
Lake Peak in the south
and a sky that almost hurts your eyes:
Even the stones seem to throw back an inner light.
Milky quartz and alpine plants
For the next month or so these high country trails will be at their best, so if you’re coming out for a visit, please make time for a walk in the mountains. The color change will peak in about two weeks, among the aspen, but the hiking will be wonderful well into October. Come indulge in a truly moveable feast.
A charming pooling along Tesuque Creek
During my weekend walks up in the mountains, lately, I’ve been exploring a little away from the network of trails that weave their way through the Santa Fe National Forest just above Santa Fe. It’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself; following a tributary of a mountain stream is not a particularly risky undertaking, especially if you are within earshot of a frequented trail. (Striking off boldly across country is another story. You’ll want a good map, a compass, some basic navigational skills, and the foresight to let someone back home know roughly where you’re going and when you’ll be back)
Creekwalking is always rewarding, and the watershed of Tesuque Creek feeds several small streams that run down wooded canyons with plenty of spots to sit and enjoy your temporary solitude. Some mountain wildflowers grow nowhere else than these damp and cool corridors. One of my favorites is blooming now:
A cheerful Spotted Monkeyflower
Little hanging gardens decorate rocky clefts in the shade:
A fern hanging above the creek
The tributary I chose was full of this beautiful flower, but one with a dark nature, hinted at, perhaps, by its deep color and oddly involuted blossom – the Western Monkshood:
The Western Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum
This isn’t the most poisonous flowering plant in the forest – I think that honor goes to the Water Hemlock – but all parts of this plant are dangerous to ingest, and its roots are particular potent, laced with aconitine, the “Queen of Poisons”. Its other name is Wolfsbane.
Geologists love creek beds because these are often the best places to find exposed bedrock in wooded places. The upper reaches of the Tesuque Creek watershed cut into various parts of the crystalline heart of the Santa Fe Range, and on my walk, I found a place where the water had scoured right down into the living rock, gliding over polished granite in a gleaming sheet:
A glissade of water over polished rock
Fascinating details emerge in the wet smoothed stone. Other patterns are revealed in the boulders brought down by the water, like this beautiful granite pegmatite cutting across a finer-grained grey tonalite:
A coarsely-crystalline pegmatite cutting through dark grey tonalite
Wherever there’s a sunny spot you’re almost sure to find a butterfly or two, this time of year:
A Satyr Comma on an aster near the creek
In the Ancient Days every spring and pool had its Naiad, and you could be forgiven for feeling like these sweet transparent waters, pausing in mossy basins floored with gleaming coppery stones, conceal a Secret. Perhaps if you sit quietly enough. . .
An illuminated pool on Tesuque Creek
We’re finally getting our summer rains here in Santa Fe, after a brutally dry and hot June, and now the challenge for you hikers and trail bikers out there is, just how early in the morning do you want to start your adventure? That’s because, by about noon, the clouds are boiling up all along the mountain ranges in New Mexico and you’re very likely to get doused by cold rain or even sleet if you’re up on any of the high country trails after that.
Even if you need to shorten your walk, if you can get up to the trailheads by 8 or 9 in the morning, you can get in a refreshing bit of recreation and mountain air. The formerly parched forest floor has plumped up nicely, and the meadows are full of mid-summer wildflowers and lots of butterflies.
Moss and lichen clinging to a boulder along our walk
This past Sunday a friend and I made a short “off the beaten path” visit to a string of meadows along Tesuque Creek, in the mountains above Santa Fe. Creek-walking has the big advantage of minimizing your chances of getting lost, once you’ve left the trails behind, and anyway, what could be nicer than having the music of a mountain stream accompany your ramble?
Steep outcroppings of granitic rock across Tesuque Creek
You don’t need to go far to find peaceful places to just sit and drink in the beauty around you.
An aspen meadow with lots of Douglas fir nearby
Kinnikinnick growing over a stone
A Rocky Mountain maple with those very characteristic crimson spots
Cumberland Rock-shield spreading over a boulder of tonalite
Monument plant – an aberrant gentian – thrusting itself up 5 feet out of the meadow
So make plans to be out early, and back in town in time for lunch, if you’re thinking of making a high country outing. Toss a cheap poncho in your daypack and keep an eye on the clouds. And above all, follow this advice: