Panchuela creek, like many other creeks and rivers in the Pecos Wilderness winds its way through forest, over plateaus and at the base of mountains. This one is not a long creek and will quickly branch off to form others. It has it's notoriety for marking the beginning of trail 259 which will lead up to Pecos Baldy. At this time of year it's shallow and flows gently across rocks and boulders. The boulders attract me because they sit slightly out of the water and as the creek flows across them their rust and bronze colors are enhanced by the flow of water and the soft morning sunlight.
Luna and I walk down to the creek and I set my tripod in the shallow end next to the bank while Luna tastes a few refreshing lapfuls. It's the end of October and the campsite is deserted. The morning sunlight plays off the water and starts to melt the light snowfall from last night.
The creek has a few drop offs from small rock ledges and flows quietly and slowly. I still find a warm beauty to the water that causes me to stop and stare. I decide on a long foreground to the photo because I like the way the boulders protrude glistening from the flow of water, and the warm earth colors draw me in. I snap off a few shots, the light being still low I can use a long shutter speed without having to add a filter. The shots won't be remarkable but they will remind me of a pleasant place where a small creek in the middle of the wilderness works it subtle but remarkable majesty.
Luna and I begin our trek. Although I only plan on a day hike I still carry GPS, matches, emergency rescue device and a headlight. I always bring spare batteries, extra clothing, and more than enough food for me and Luna.
From the trailhead to Pecos Baldy is 10 miles. More then I can do in one day but the weather is mild at 36 degrees. We start of at just under 9,000 feet elevation. The trail is soft from the melted snow. Brown and gold pine needles and an extra layer of cushion. The trail starts with about a mile of steep switchbacks before it levels off. Im travelling through pines and some aspen, the light is dim, and the sky overcast.
I'm greeted with morning sounds; the last hoot of an owl, the birds talking away preparing for the days activities. In the distance I can see the faint shadows of elk moving through the trees. They're skittish and hard to see; the forest is thick and the light is diffuse.
After a few hours I realize Im just over 10,000 feet. The trail has more snow on it, soft and fresh. It's still early fall but the breath of winter is starting to be felt. I can still see the sag of the trail in the snow. I gaze ahead watching the trail wind through the pines.
The mist is getting thicker as I walk into an aspen grove. I feel like Im standing in a cloud. The aspens look hazy, the skylight a grayish blue. The moisture in the air seems to fade the trees, they look ethereal; the bark feels moist. I mark the trail with my GPS and begin wandering through the trees. Most of the branches are bare, but some of the trees still hold on to the yellow fall color of their leaves. The leaves don't have that sparkling glow you see in full sun, they look smoky, faint and distant. Small amounts of snow are still hanging onto barren branches. I want to capture some of this misty ethereal beauty. I snap off some shots, looking for barren branches, moist trunks, small blotches of snow and a few with the last golden leaves of fall. I gaze upward watching flecks of snow falling from tall branches and swirling gently to the ground. The wind is still.
I leave the aspens behind and once again head north concerned about the snow covering the trail. Im careful what to look for; where the trail sags between higher ridges of snow, trees on either side but none growing in the middle, logs that have been sawed by the forest service, trees that have been needlessly carved into with the initials of others. If the snow gets to be 6 or 8 inches I might have to turn back. But it's still early fall, the snow soft and the air not brutally cold. I leave my GPS on to mark my route and pay close attention to the trail.
As my elevation increases so does the snow, I have my large gaiters on and can still see the outlines of the trail. I spot 3 female elk darting through the pines in the distance, males with their odd bugling calls echoing through the trees. Luna sits and stares. Im at 11,000 feet, to the east through the trees I can see Hamilton Mesa and the lush valleys beyond. The trail is getting fainter because the snow is getting deeper, approaching 6 inches. I watch for signs on either side of the trial and check my compass. I cross a large snow filled meadow with a clear view of the sky. It remains grey and overcast, the temps are dropping.
Luna and I play in the meadow, I watch the sky, check the time, look at the mileage on my GPS. We head straight for about another mile then the trail drops down. I decide it's time to turn back. We've gone 7.5 miles, it's 3:30. We'll come back in the spring with my backpack.
The walk back is pleasant and long. With no new snow covering the trail it's easy to follow my footsteps. I reach a spot where I can see the sky to the east, clouds parting, the sky is that deep pure blue only New Mexico offers. The sun is going down in the west. Some trees with small amounts of snow and ice catch my attention, against a deep blue with the western sun lighting up the crystals. I stop one last time for photos.
We head to the car, the last half hour it's getting dark, I use my headlamp. We reach the car at 7pm, its dark. I open the back, Luna sits and I lift her in.
We settle in for a relaxing ride home.