Hiking in the Pecos Wilderness

Autumn has to be the best time to take walks and hikes in the Southern Rockies. The weather is mild, the sunshine glorious, and the inconvenience of an afternoon thunderstorm minimized. The aspen put on their annual fall spectacular – they’re at their peak here on the Santa Fe side of the mountains – and the plants on the floor of the forest take on all sorts of autumnal colors, in counterpoint to the mostly yellow leaves of the aspen. Our forests are relatively dry and radiant with light, especially this time of year, and the intense sunshine distills seductive aromatics from the aspen leaves and spruce needles, to the point where you may find yourself drifting down the trail in an almost blissed-out state.

Unfortunately there is so much else going on here in Northern New Mexico that you may find trouble budgeting for a walk, with all the choices you’ll have to make. I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful artist studio tours which occur on practically every weekend now. That’s my excuse, anyway, for the brevity of this week’s entry, as well as my choice for a hike: the Pecos Studio Tour opened this past weekend, and there was an artist a friend of mine simply had to see. Studio tours are great. Not only do you get to talk to the artist in his or her natural habitat, you get to poke your nose in peoples’ gardens and kitchens and studios and bedrooms, and meet their dogs, cats, parrots, goats, turtles, doves, etc, etc, and see how they’ve rigged their water catchment systems, and so on. Fascinating!

Anyway, being in the Pecos area, which is the gateway to the enormous Pecos Wilderness just to the north and east of Santa Fe, a drive north up to Cowles – the jumping off spot for hikes and trail rides deep into the wilderness – immediately suggested itself. There wasn’t time for a long hike, and it’s a 20 mile drive from Pecos back in to Cowles, so we chose a relatively short two-mile walk up Panchuela and Cave Creeks, to see the little caves for which the creek is named. Caves have a sort of elemental attraction to geologists and nature mystics, and they aren’t all that common in our part of the state, so off we went.

The first cave entrance along Cave Creek

The trailhead for this hike is clearly marked at the end of the Panchuela campground just above Cowles – here is a link for the trail you can print – and at least for the first two miles to the caves it’s an easy walk with a gentle increase in elevation. In another two miles or so, the trail leaves the creek and makes a steep climb out of the drainage and up onto the soft flattened summits of the thickly wooded mesas that characterize the southern part of the wilderness. If you have any energy – and time – left after this ascent, you can follow a branch of the trail into the uplift of granite that forms the backbone of the Santa Fe Range, and switchback up to Lake Johnson, one of the least visited of the glacial lakes in the wilderness.

But that’s for another time. The caves make a perfect place to stop and have a snack, and maybe pull out the nature journal for a sketch or two:

Yours truly in front of the mountain’s nostrils

The gentler parts of the Pecos Wilderness are cut out of a vast thickness of Pennsylvanian strata deposited back when Santa Fe sat nearly on the Equator, and blue mountains shimmered in the hot sun above glittering inlets of a tropical sea. Layer upon layer of sand – some of it coarse and pebbly – and mud accumulated in the shallow water, washed out of an early edition of the Rocky Mountains called the “Ancestral Rockies“. During those times when the water clarified, limy beds  – many full of fossilized brachiopods, crinoids, bryozoans, and horn corals – interpolated themselves between the soon-to-be sandstones and shales. It is in a rather crinkly bedded cliff of these limestones that the caves occur.  The creek crowds up against the ledge, and disappears into pits that have formed like dental cavities right at the gum line, so to speak, of the limestone. (Limestone is a rock that is soluble in the slightly acidic groundwater of a forest floor and hence prone to cave-forming.)

When it dawns on you that the merry sound of the creek you’ve been following for a mile has stopped, and when you realize you are now walking along a suspiciously dry creek bed, it is time to start looking for the caves. You’ll find them on the left side of the trail, up against the cliffs, just about the time you hear water gurgling again.

Even without these mysterious entrances to the underworld to entice you along, Cave Creek makes a nice walk.

A little waterfall on Panchuela Creek along the way

Judging by all the rose hips and iris stalks along the trails, this canyon must be an absolute garden of wildflowers in early summer. Plenty of water pours down Panchuela and Cave Creeks, even at this dry time of year, and that always makes for a pleasant walk in the summer and fall. We were a little early for the aspen on this side of the range:

A grove of aspen just beginning to turn

In another week these trees will be dazzling. On our side of the mountains, up at Aspen Vista and Big Tesuque, the trees are at their peak of color, and I can’t wait to get up there. That is, if I can tear myself away from the Pilar Studio Tour, and the Farmer’s Market, and the train ride down to Albuquerque, and the newly restored CCC Visitor’s Center at Bandelier, and . .

Getting there:

There are several ways of accessing the Pecos Wilderness from Santa Fe, as you can see here. Read up on “access from the south” for this hike. Just as you reach the tiny town of Cowles, you’ll see a bridge crossing over the Pecos River, which you’ll take, followed by a very sharp right uphill on the narrow road to the Panchuela Campground. It’s about a mile and a half from the turning. Be sure and bring $2 to pay the day use fee to park at the campground.

We didn’t think to bring a flashlight, but you can scramble into the caves a short distance. I have to mention that water drains freely into the entrances, which looked clogged and muddy a short way in and not inviting at all. I recommend staying outside in the sunshine.

Like all trails in the Pecos Wilderness, you may be sharing with horses and their riders. Pack rides and overnighters are very popular here. Just be ready to step aside for a short while as the riders pass.