Heading up to Gold Hill from the Taos Ski Valley

Santafe.com | SantaFe.com - April 25, 2010

Winter's End - But the beginning of Spring!

This will be my last snowshoe journey for the season. We are heading up to Gold Hill from the Taos Ski Valley. The snow is still three or four feet deep but crusty and packed. The skiers are thinning out and some of the slopes are closed. I can see the runs; they look barren in spots while others still retain enough base to keep them open. The snow has lost its sparkle. The top crusty layer is sprinkled with flecks of brown and broken pine needles. A fine layer of dust rests on top, almost as if it is pushing the snow into the ground. The softness from last month has been replaced with snow that has melted and reformed. Snow that has been windblown, rained on, and felt the touch of spring. It makes the hiking easier but the beauty, glitter, powder, and depth are quickly fading.

Gold Hill isn't really a hill; it's a sister to Wheeler Peak and sits on the edge of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area. From the top you can gaze northward to the Latir Wilderness, and towards the south, Wheeler looms tall and firm with patches of snow and ice. Gold Hill is 12,400 feet. The approach varies. The most common is from the Bull of the woods trail but it can also be reached from Questa, north of Taos.

The trail head is located at the ski area; the trail to the top is short and goes by the name of Bull of the Woods trail. It's about two miles, not too bad but occasionally steep. You reach the Bull of the Woods meadow after two miles. This is a well used and well packed trail. The trail follows a stream for half the hike. The stream is iced over in spots with layers of ice dripping over the flowing water. These sorts of streams always captivate me. I enjoy sitting quietly by their side and watching the ice and water playing off each other; the ice hanging over the edge and the sunlight turning it into specks of diamonds. Within a month flowers will begin to bloom along its banks and I will begin packing my macro lens for the spring and summer.

I have written before about the Bull of the Woods trail. It is a pleasant hike, a little steep in sections but well worth the effort. It takes less than 2 hours and at the top of the trail head you can go right, or northeast to get to Wheeler Peak. You can also go left or northwest, to go to Gold Hill. You can even go straight ahead and eventually end up on the Santa Barbara trail.

When you reach the top of the trail the markers are still snow covered. I know from past hikes where the trail should start and by looking closely at the land I can see the slight curvature in the snow that distinguishes the trail. From here the hike to Gold Hill will cover about 1500 feet of elevation in about two miles.

I've been to Gold Hill in the summer and was there again last winter. The trail is easy to follow when there isn't snow. Switchbacks are built into the trail making it easier in the warmer months. In the winter it is just a matter of following my GPS and staying away from the ravines and arroyos that flank each side. The trail to the top is steep and after 11,000 feet the altitude slows you down. It travels through forests of pine and aspen. The branches are no longer heavy with snow, instead the brown of the winter frost is evident and the trees look lifeless awaiting the warmth of spring to liven up their drooping features.

Even Luna wasn't as rambunctious, she didn't romp like usual and when she did she quickly returned to my tracks. When winter begins to fade like this you can sense the change and the loss. The intensity and fury of winter that brings the beauty and tranquility is quickly dissipating. The light that usually sparkles off fresh pure snow is waning. In its wake spring is beginning to demonstrate that this frozen wasteland will become meadows of bright new flowers.
After 11,500 feet the trail begins to widen into broad open areas with vast vistas of the surrounding mountains. The beauty of the mountainous region of northern New Mexico greets you with its majesty. Mountains everywhere, some with patches of snow, some still completely blanketed. The major peaks will retain some snow until June. I was pleasantly surprised to find the winds calm but the temps hovered around 30 degrees or less. Although Gold Hill was in sight there were still areas to be crossed. It was a bit difficult without a trail due to surrounding ravines and gullies. I stared intensely for a while to sight a course to prevent me from having to go down into a ravine and have to hike back up. I knew from prior hikes that it was possible to stay on high ground so I carefully picked my course and was able to reach the foot of Gold Hill safely.

Emptiness is form and form is emptiness. Standing alone at this broad expanse of mountainous terrain I was able to sense both those features. Emptiness allows this area to become filled with the formation of these massive mountains. Without one the other could not occur. There is no desolation here; I am and never have been alone in the mountains.

Luna and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch and then said our goodbye's to winter. I'm particularly fond of this area and I am looking forward to next summer when we could spend a few days camping at the base of Gold Hill. The journey down was simple since we could follow my snowshoe tracks. We quietly watched the sun set as we headed back down Bull of the Woods trail to a nearly empty parking lot and the last of the skiers.

Greg Lewandowski