New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness

In New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness, it's just you and the bighorn sheep looking down on the world.
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In New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness, it's just you and the bighorn sheep looking down on the world.

I'm always surprised at how many otherwise sensible people think the dramatic uplift of the southern Rockies ends at the Colorado-New Mexico line. The truth is, the high granite spines play on for 100 more miles to Santa Fe. Hiding thereabouts is the Pecos Wilderness, one of the premier backpacking destinations in New Mexico-and perhaps all of the West.

In the Pecos, more than 400 miles of trail climb in and out of canyons, run along the rugged ridges, and crest the sky-soaked summits within this 223,667-acre jewel of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Among the best of the paths, and the perfect way to reach the heart of this wilderness, is the 14-mile Winsor Trail (#254). After leaving the boggy meadows and aspen glades that crowd its namesake creek near the trailhead, the Winsor Trail climbs steadily through a dense conifer forest for about 6 miles before connecting with the aptly named Skyline Trail (#251), a 50-mile ridgeline jaunt that takes in many of the region's highlights.

Eventually, you'll find yourself between Stewart and Spirit Lakes, where you'll face a difficult choice.

Option 1: Continue west on the Winsor, and make camp amid the wildflower meadows of Puerto Nambe. Break camp early the next morning and devote the day to summiting the three 12,000-plus-foot mountains that surround you-Santa Fe Baldy, Penitente Peak, and Lake Peak.

Option 2: Head north on the Skyline for a beautiful two- to seven-day backcountry tour that carries you to 13,103-foot South Truchas Peak, the state's second-highest mountain. From the summit you'll enjoy 100-mile vistas clear to Colorado, and if you're lucky, you'll bump into the bighorn sheep that patrol the steep slopes.

Regardless of which option you choose, time spent in the Pecos will send you back to work with your head in the clouds.

QUICK TAKE: Pecos Wilderness, NM

WHERE: The Pecos Wilderness is 80 miles (2 hours) north of Albuquerque and 450 miles (6 hours) south of Denver. The Winsor Trailhead is about 45 miles (11/2 hours) northeast of Santa Fe.

THE WAY: From Santa Fe take I-25 north to Pecos, then NM 63 north to Cowles. Cross the Pecos River in Cowles, and take FR 121 west to its end. A sign marks the trailhead.

TRAILS: Nearly 430 miles of trail access the backcountry. The 50-mile Skyline and the 14-mile Winsor Trails are two of the best. Both can be linked with other trails to form convenient loops.

ELEVATION: Prepare for thin air because the trailhead at Cowles is at 8,400 feet. South Truchas Peak tops out at 13,103 feet.

CROWD CONTROL: Autumn attracts leaf peepers and hunters, but hike more than a mile from any trailhead and you'll have the place to yourself.

PIT STOP: For green chili with the local folks, try the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in downtown Santa Fe. A block away you'll find all the outdoor gear you need at Active Endeavors.

WALK SOFTLY: Wilderness lake basins are off-limits to campers, and the Santa Fe River drainage is closed to all. Keep to the trails in alpine areas to avoid trampling fragile vegetation.

MAPS AND GUIDES:Trail Guide: Pecos Wilderness ($14.95, Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association) includes topo maps, trail descriptions, and directions to trailheads. Another must-pack is the USDA Forest Service's Pecos Wilderness Map ($5). Both are available from the New Mexico Public Lands Information Center, 1474 Rodeo Rd., Santa Fe, NM 87505; (505) 438-7542.

MORE INFORMATION: Pecos-Las Vegas Ranger District, Santa Fe National Forest, P.O. Drawer 429, Pecos, NM 87552; (505) 757-6121.