The Zen Forest

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. On the map for which I’ve provided a link, the portion of the trail from the parking area to its intersection with the Nambe Lake Trail is shown, a walk of about 2.5 miles one way. There is a relentless elevation gain of 760 feet in about a mile, to reach the crest of Raven’s Ridge and the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness, so be prepared – 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 tree line.

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.

A walk in the “Zen Forest” along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

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 the 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.

Light and aspen

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 tasseling aspen adds its note.

And 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 aspen begin to replace the dark evergreens.

Forest Service bridge over the Rio Nambe

These trees grow larger, the light magnifies, and presently you’ll reach a spruce whose branches sweep toward the trail, forcing adults to genuflect 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. In spite of the high elevation, some of these forest dwellers have an almost tropical luxuriance:

Golden Banner

A spray of Corn Lily near the Rio Nambe

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 truly 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.

Ancient metamorphic rock on the forest floor

When you reach the cheerful Rio Nambe and leave the Zen Forest, you will catch views of Santa Fe Baldy shouldering its great massif skyward, to the north.

Santa Fe Baldy, looking north from a clearing near the Rio Nambe

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 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 instead 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.

Heading home

A Rocky Mountain iris in a meadow near the Winsor trailhead

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.

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