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:
Looking down on Aspen Vista and the Rio Grande Valley from Tesuque Ridge
When the weather gets hot in Santa Fe, as it has the past week or so, those big blue mountains to our east begin to look like a perfect place for a cooling walk or a refreshing picnic. A short drive from town can take you up as much as 3000 feet higher where, even on the driest, sunniest day, temperatures moderate and there is shade among the aspen and evergreens just a few steps off the road.
This past Sunday a friend and I walked most of the length of the Aspen Vista Trail, probably the most popular of all high country trails around Santa Fe. This doubletrack route is graded as a rough road up to the radio towers high on Tesuque Peak and so it climbs in a practically leisurely fashion up the Tesuque Creek watershed, through aspen and mixed conifer, into the Engelmann spruce forest, and finally out into open, tree-dotted meadows near the crest of the ridge, where the views to the west are spectacular.
The desert air, lofting up the flanks of the southernmost Sangre de Cristo Mountains, filters through literally square miles of sun-drenched spruce, distilling a heavenly balsamic fragrance that will surround you from the moment you step out of your car.
Englemann Spruce shading the trail
After about four miles’ walk the trees thin abruptly and the big views begin. At this point you’re about 11,200 feet above sea level and the light is glorious:
Approaching tree line with fair-weather cumulus filling the sky
Our goal was the crest of the spur that you can see in the photograph above. Here an unusual outcropping of granitic boulders makes a perfect stopping point with lots of sheltered places to sit and enjoy a snack:
The ‘Stone Circle’ on Tesuque Ridge
Wildflowers bloom in every nook and cranny of this natural Alpine garden:
Blue Rocky Mountain Columbines
Spotted saxifrage nestles among the rocks
The rocks themselves are a kind of granite unusually rich in dark minerals, set off by a bright white, sodium-rich feldspar more common to the Sierra Nevada Mountains than the Rockies. It’s called tonalite and it is a very handsome rock:
Lichen on stone
The nice thing about the Aspen Vista Trail is that it’s always back downhill to your car at the trailhead, no matter how far you’ve chosen to walk.
So keep an escape plan in your back pocket when the summer heat gets a little too oppressive. A cool, green, fragrant world awaits you up there. . .
A refreshing spring along the Aspen Vista Trail
Nambe Lake, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe
Summer weather opens up all of the wonderful high country hikes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe, and if you’re up for a more challenging trek, be sure and put the hike to Nambe Lake – the nearest alpine lake to Santa Fe – on your bucket list. You’ll need to be in more than average condition to reach the lake, which sits at an elevation of over 11,300 feet, but the actual hiking distance is only 3.3 miles from the trailhead at Ski Santa Fe, the jumping-off spot for most of the high country hikes around here. If you’re longing to be immersed in alpine scenery, this the the hike for you!
A glacial meadow above Nambe Lake
Wildflowers are everywhere now, and some of the Rockies most beloved species are showing off all along this climb.
Rocky Mountain iris with Western Swallowtail
Star Solomon’s Seal in shady places at the beginning of the hike
The elusive Calypso Orchid, in the aspen forest
All along the cascades of the Rio Nambe you’ll find this gem now:
A flash of purest magenta will catch your eye
This is the Bog Primrose, or Parry’s Primrose, one of the delights of the high country streams. Its color is amazing.
Parry’s Primrose, glowing above the burbling water of Rio Nambe
The cheerful little Elkslip brightens all the damp and boggy places:
Elkslip flowers by a streamlet of pure transparent water
If you have any energy left to climb up among the massive bouldery talus that borders the cliffs, you might be rewarded by the first blossoms of the true Queen of the High Rockies, the etherial Blue Columbine:
Rocky Mountain Columbine
The Rio Nambe accompanies you along the entire climb you make after you turn at the junction of the Lake Trail (400) off of the Winsor Trail (254) – a climb that will take you up 1000 feet in just about a mile, in a canyon choked with glacial moraine. The stream cascades endlessly from rock to rock:
Waterfalls along the Rio Nambe
A little over midway up the canyon, a boggy glacial meadow opens up and gives you a respite from the stair-mastering you’ve been enjoying previously. It’s our own little mini-Yosemite:
The first glacial meadow
and the creek here meanders lazily in deep trenches of purest water:
Corn lilies along the Rio Nambe in a meadow setting
Don’t be fooled however; you’ve got another massive step in elevation over a steep and bouldery trail to reach the lake.
It’s worth it:
Nambe Lake, looking up into the cirque
Lake Peak towers above the southern end of the lake:
The north face of Lake Peak
This is the perfect place to sit and enjoy a well-deserved break:
At the edge of Nambe Lake
The air here is fragrant with the balsamic incense of the Englemann Spruce which surround you on every side:
A grove of Englemann Spruce glowing in the alpine sunlight
Little details will catch your eye, like this patch of stonecrop clinging to a outcropping of gleaming white granite:
Stonecrop and granite
Every view here is captivating:
Nambe Lake, looking downstream
Now is the perfect time to plan this hike. The days are long and the summer thunderstorms of July and August haven’t set in yet. As I mentioned, this is not a walk to be undertaken lightly: although the distance is only 3.3 miles, you’ll make an immediate 800 foot elevation gain in the first mile of the walk, enjoy a leisurely descent back down toward the Rio Nambe, and then face a 1000 foot gain in the last mile of the hike, over two enormous bottlenecks of glacial moraine, the second of which holds back the lake. The trail is rough in places and even a little hard to follow in those sections where hikers have made alternative paths along Rio Nambe. It’s popular in the summer months, and you may not find that perfect solitude that we New Mexicans are accustomed to enjoying on many of our mountain trails.
But is sure is beautiful up there.
Agua es Vida
Spring has gathered all its momentum now and the forests above Santa Fe have shaken off their slumber and thrown aside the winter blankets for good. A short drive from downtown into, say Hyde Memorial State Park, with its well-kept trails into the woods, will bring you right into the heart of all this freshening activity. Morning and Springtime go together well, and one of the nicest things about Santa Fe is that you can have a pleasant breakfast in the comfort of town, and still reach a trailhead while it’s cool and quiet. And mystic. . .
I had an early morning walk there Sunday, well before the excitement of the evening’s solar eclipse, and I had hardly started breathing in the sweet air when I was startled by three deer bounding up a forested hillside. Ravens quonked overhead in the bright sky, soaring above the Ponderosa groves:
On the Circle Trail
In the cool shadows of the rocky cleft that leads to the waterfall in Hyde Park, new life is leafing out everywhere. The graceful and feminine Water Birches are completely awake, showing off their new clothes in the dappled light:
The Water Birch, Betula fontinalis
These little trees have a distinctive smooth grey bark and their presence always means water – hence the Latin name fontinalis.
The trunk of the Water Birch
The Mountain Ash, or Rowantree – that most magical of trees – is flowering streamside now,
and the Cliffbush won’t be far behind:
I call the Cliffbush the ‘tree of life’ because when it is in bloom, it seems to swarm with bees, butterflies, and insect life of every kind, sharing its vitality with all these small creatures.
Strawberry flowers – a wild rose – dot the path:
In shadier places the almost tropical-looking False Solomon’s Seal – a wild lily – raise their fronds from the forest floor:
False Solomon’s Seal
Deer and Raven, Groves and Fountains, the Rowan and the Tree of Life, the Rose and the Lily, the Seal of Solomon; in my mind at least, these spirits tangled into a kind of Springtime magic – a magic crowned by the Solar eclipse at sunset that evening.
Of course, we can’t promise you an eclipse on your visit with us, but we can send you out to receive the blessings of the Forest almost anytime you’re here. Come join us soon!