Edith Grove's post about hiking in the Pecos
brought back a rush of memories about that fabulous place. And why not? The Pecos Wilderness has to be the crown jewel of all the New Mexico high country. And it just might be the absolute best of anything that our state has to offer.
Do you know these names? Hamilton Mesa, Rio Valdez, Mora Flats, Beatty's Cabin, Trail Rider's Wall, Pecos Falls, Santa Barbara Divide, Lake Katherine, Truchas Peaks, Skyline Trail. My God...what beauty, grandeur, solitude. What a place to re-create the simple life. What peace.
I have backpacked the Pecos for over 30 years. Most of the time I hiked out of Iron Gate Campground north of the town of Pecos. I liked that trailhead because it wasn't near any lakes, and lakes generally mean people. I preferred the streams and rivers. I knew the trail by heart: the uphill hike from the campground up to the ridge, then the left turn along its top, then the aspen grove, and then the trail splits off with the left branch crossing the top of Hamilton Mesa and over towards Beatty's Cabin in the Pecos River valley. I usually took the other trail, the one that follows up the east side of Hamilton Mesa. There are 3 springs on that trail and a couple views of the picturesque valley to the east. That long valley has a grassy floor with meandering mountain streams and surrounded by pines. The notch in the horizon is where the Rito del Oso comes down and eventually joins the Rio Mora and from there the Rio Valdez. This is the area known as Mora Flats.
I know this trail so well that in the middle of troubled times several years ago I would lay in bed at night and recreate the whole thing from memory: every rock, every tree, every spring. The grassy area is over a mile long and is centered around the confluence of those streams. It is only three miles from the Iron Gate trailhead.
I have camped out in Mora Flats at least a dozen times and there are two things about the place I have learned:
• Anywhere Else Is Uphill From Mora Flats.
And that leads us to a culinary feature.
• The Mora Flats Omelette.
This consists of dumping whatever food is left in your pack into your morning eggs and eating it so you won't have to carry it uphill and back to your car.
The area known as Beatty's Cabin is on the west side of Hamilton Mesa. Hamilton Mesa, by the way, is not rocky, dry, or barren. It has lush forests on its sides and the top is covered with green grass and flowers. Viewed from any of the surrounding peaks it looks like an emerald. No kidding.
Believe it or not, you can lose your way on Hamilton Mesa. On reaching the top coming out of the trees and into the broad meadow, the trail just disappears. When I found another trail on the other side of the mesa I was not sure if it was the same trail or one that was supposed to cross it someplace in the area. There weren't any signs. It turns out that the crossing trails actually form what might be called a half-mile wide traffic circle around the meadow.
I also remember it being so foggy one day that if you stepped off the trail and turned around three times you were lost for good. I passed three bow hunters on horseback. They looked like a ghost patrol fading into the fog.
But I also recall waiting out a rainstorm on the slopes of Hamilton Mesa with ABQ attorney, David Plotsky. He had his son Abe with him, and I was with my son Ivan. We were getting hungry. Dave reached into his backpack and pulled out a chicken. Now it was packaged, but it was a whole chicken. We put it on a spit and spent most of the afternoon waiting for that bird to cook over a smokey fire.
Hikers often end up at Beatty's Cabin looking for a log structure of some kind. Well, there are two forest service cabins in that little valley. Neither one is Beatty's.
Following the Civil War a man named Beatty settled along the headwaters of the Pecos River. He had been a soldier and brought with him a pair of bayonets which he used as weapons. "Sure good bear knives!"
he supposedly said. He built a small log cabin on a little rise where the Rito del Padre joins the Pecos at the head of the canyon. He found an outcropping of schist and began digging into it for precious metals. That prospect is still visible not far from where he built his cabin. Fortunately for us, he found nothing valuable or there would have been a road or rail line going up the middle of the wilderness. His cabin has long ago melted into the earth, but the cabin site and hearth area can be located right between the Rito del Padre and the Pecos River. This whole fascinating story and more is in Elliot Barker's classic book, Beatty's Cabin: Adventures in the Pecos High Country
. Laurence Parent's book Hiking New Mexico has some interesting information
as well, including a rough trail map.
Continuing west from Beatty's is the trail to Pecos Baldy and Pecos Baldy Lake. North from the lake is the trail on top of an abrupt ridge leading to Truchas Peaks. This is called Trailrider's Wall. The pictures accompanying this story are from this area. They were taken in 1978 and show a backpacking trip with a friend from my days in Santa Fe, Sherwood Case.
On this trip we left from Jack's Creek Campground and hiked up to Pecos Baldy Lake. We were the only ones there. We continued up Trailrider's Wall to Truchas Lake. I was amazed at the lack of firewood around the lake and ended up using twigs to heat water for soup. I don't think we purified the water, but I do remember going to the other side of the pond to get water where it seemed to be coming into the lake. I remember bighorn sheep being on the mountain above us. We hiked out on the third day the same way we came in. It was 4 miles back to Pecos Baldy and another 8 miles back to Jack's Creek CG...mostly downhill. We hiked the last few miles in the rain. It was beautiful.
Our equipment is worth noting. I know I was using cheap construction boots from Montgomery Wards which were NOT waterproof despite treating them. I was wearing two pair of cotton socks to try to prevent blisters. My pack is a JanSport economy model sold by Cook's Sporting Goods in WinRock. Sherwood's pack looks to be low-cost and totally uncomfortable. There is a loaf of Roman Meal bread tied to the top of my pack in one of the photos. We wore blue jeans. Sherwood's tent is actually a rainfly for a tent he never owned. He just bought the rainfly mail order. He used his hiking staff for his tent pole. My orange tent was a present from my brother & sister-in-law back then, Dan and Anna Armijo. They got it with S&H Green Stamps
. I had an army surplus sleeping bag and a big white piece of styrofoam for a pad. Sherwood brought a Sterno stove to cook on.
The Little Orange Tent
I remember the first time I used that tent. I was camped in Mora Flats with my friend Ron Taylor. I set my tent up and looked at the sky. It didn't look like rain, but you never know--so I sealed it up pretty good. Next morning as the sun filled the valley I was awakened by rainfall, and I was getting wet. I opened my eyes and after a moment realized that it was only raining INSIDE my tent. Outside it was a beautiful day. I had just learned my first lesson: in a tent with waterproof coating, open a vent or the condensation from your own breath will fall on you in the morning.
I loved that tent and used it for several years. It was very light, but it did leak. Things got so bad I took to bringing a towel to wipe up the water inside the tent during the rain. Then I started bringing a plastic tarp that I used to cover the whole tent. That seemed to work pretty well.
No City Park
But make no mistake, the Pecos Wilderness is no city park. If you get into trouble your whole party is going to have to deal with it. So be careful. But most of all, get out there. And do it fairly soon. I would not enter the Pecos after the middle of September without being prepared for severe winter conditions. Meanwhile, enjoy yourself in paradise. And be prepared to make memories that will last a long, long time.