Climbing Truchas: Getting to know the Pecos Wilderness
This article originally appeared in 2008
I don’t remember exactly when Truchas Peak first got its hooks in me, just that it was early in my life. On frequent trips to Taos, I remember begging my father from the backseat to take the highroad home to Santa Fe, especially in winter, so I could stare at the peak bathing in the pink last rays of daylight. I also remember learning that trucha meant trout in Spanish, and, being a trout geek, I thought it the coolest thing that my mountain and my fish not only shared their beauty and mystery but their name as well. Having become a better Spanish speaker, I now know that trucha is also a slang term for knife. There are three Truchas Peaks, north, middle, and south (at 13,102 feet, the loftiest of the three). South Truchas is also undoubtedly what whoever was referring to when naming the peaks. Like a trout, its appearance is unique and demands to be ogled. Like a knife, it has a point and jagged edge that appear to grow sharper whenever black thunderheads pile above it.
So yeah, I have a relationship with this mountain, one I first consummated as a boy of twelve with my brother and his friend, both of whom were 14. We approached from the north, beginning at the Santa Barbara Campground near Peñasco. Just teenagers in jeans and sneakers lugging full packs, we made the summit in two days. On our first day, we hiked the West Fork Trail (trail number 25) for roughly four miles and made camp. The next day, we climbed two more miles in thigh-deep crusty snow to the top of the Santa Barbara divide, continued about three miles on the same high ridge until we summited the peak, and dropped off its east slope until we reached our next camp at Pecos Falls.
The top of Truchas, from the Santa Barbara Campground trailhead, is 12 or 13 miles. It would not have been efficient to try and knock it off in one day unless we hit the trail extremely early, say in the dark. We would have climbed the six rough miles to the top of the divide, had the three more to go, the three thousand more feet to ascend, and though the return trip would have been all downhill, we would have already had thirteen miles on our legs before we started it, on young legs no less. Not a lot of fun.
To be honest, of the Truchas routes I’ve done, there isn’t one I would recommend as a day trip to a person of normal fitness who likes to stop and smell the roses—at least sometimes—while hiking. The problem with Truchas is that so many miles have to be logged before you reach the peak itself, and then you have to climb it, probably exhausted and probably at the end of the day, which won’t really be the end of the day since you will still have to make the hike back to your car. Then there’s all the incredible country you’ll be traversing on the way, all the wildflowers and trout and fresh air you might miss if you try to rush a Truchas hike.
No matter which direction you approach from, I recommend that you take at least four days for your Truchas expedition. Go in from and come out to the same trailhead, or have someone drop you at one trailhead and pick you up at another. Your drop-offs can be at either Santa Barbara, Borrego Mesa Campground west of the peak near Cundiyo, or Jack’s Creek Campground above Cowles. Pickups can be at either of these sites as well, and anyone can reach them easily on a four day trip.
My ideal Truchas trip starts with a drop off at Borrego Mesa and a pick up at Jack’s Creek, simply because a person can bite off the heart of the Pecos Wilderness with this route, Truchas, Pecos Baldy Lake, Pecos Falls, and/or Beatty’s Cabin. To get to Borrego Mesa, head north out of Santa Fe on Highway 84/285 and turn right in Nambe onto highway 503. Proceed past the small town of Cundiyo to the entrance to Santa Cruz Lake. A little beyond this entrance, you will come to Forest Road 306. Following this road will eventually bring you to Borrego Mesa Campground and the trail up Rio Medio. On your first day, put as many miles in as you can without actually getting on Truchas or at least on the above timberline part, probably about 7 miles. This will make your second day’s hike—a continuation up the Rio Medio trail (USDA Forest Service Trail 155) to Trailriders Wall, then left to the summit of Truchas—a piece of cake. You will summit early in your day and continue to your next camp at either Pecos Falls or Pecos Baldy Lake. I like the fishing better at the falls, but the lake is a shorter walk from Truchas.
No matter where you lay up for your second night, you are in a great position to either push on to somewhere like Beatty’s Cabin or take a layover day. Either way, you will be able to get to Jack’s Creek easily on your fourth day. Of course you can plan such a trip from any of the drop-off places I’ve mentioned. I have to say though, that getting the toughest part done early is more to my liking, which is why I like the Borrego Mesa approach.
In explaining these routes, I’ve deliberately left out the fine details of the hikes themselves, primarily because a run on Truchas (or any multiple night excursion into a wilderness for that matter) is a logistical challenge and requires a degree of planning that can’t be advanced in the space of an article such as this. I recommend that you first buy forest maps for the Santa Fe and Carson Forests to frame the general scope of your expedition. Then buy the required USGS topo maps for the finer planning. I suppose I don’t need to tell you that you need to be in hiking shape to take on this project, or that you need to plan to do it outside of monsoon season. I suggest that you have a competent trout fisherman in your group and that you eat his or her daily catches; your pack will be lighter for it.
On the day we first climbed Truchas so long ago, my brother, his friend, and I met an old man on the scree on the mountain’s northern slope. He was old, ninety to the day in fact, and his name was Elliott Barker. Even as boys we knew that the Pecos Wilderness would not be in existence if not for that man. (Elliot Barker, a conservationist and author who helped make Smokey Bear part of American lore, worked for the Forest Service in New Mexico for 10 years as a ranger and a supervisor, and as Game Warden for 22 Years.) My mental image is of him looking down at us from a horse, white or pinto I think, on his ninetieth birthday. Some younger men had to lift him onto his horse, he said, and put his feet in the stirrups, and God help him if he fell off. He told the folks at home that he was going for a ride if it killed him, to his favorite place in his favorite place, Truchas Peak in the Pecos Wilderness. It was late in the day, and I was sure the ride would kill him indeed. Perhaps it did, eventually. Elliott Barker lived to be one hundred and one.