The trail’s not on any modern map (hello, solitude!), but if you know where to look, you can still travel a fading path across alpine tundra to Horseshoe Lake, a 10-acre tarn nestled at 11,750 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The 11.4-mile out-and-back is a great place to practice routefinding. Park at the end of Forest Road 161 (1) and hike .2 gravelly miles to the intersection with the Angostura Trail. Take the Serpent Lake Trail #19, climbing 1,500 feet over three miles through mixed conifer. Pass the signed trail leading north to Serpent Lake at mile 3.3. In the next 200 feet, look for your turn-off (2): A faint path heads south-southwest from an old-growth spruce; there may also be a cairn marking the turn. If you start to climb the ridge, you’ve gone too far. From here, only faint paths, small cairns, and our GPS track mark your way. Keep the Jicarita Peak ridge to the west, and when in doubt, traverse the slopes at around 11,800 feet; this route is mostly flat. Cross a dry wash at mile 3.7 (3). From here, the trail gets even trickier as you climb over dead logs; if the winter’s been wet, snow drifts can add to the challenge until late June. Look for old blazes cut into trees and evidence of one-time maintenance to help guide you into an open meadow at mile four (4). Quick-growing grasses erase all signs of a trail here; angle southeast and look for a faint path near a rocky outcrop when you reach the trees in .3 mile (5). Climb 200 feet in .3 mile to your above-treeline high point at 12,049 feet (6). Descend gently, keeping a small, unnamed pond below you to the east (7). Travel over tundra dotted with blue forget-me-nots (midsummer), wet marsh, and small creeks (highest May and June) for another .7 mile to Horseshoe Lake (8). Camp under large pines near the outlet (9), in the company of pikas (“See This,” next page) and bighorn sheep. If time permits, scramble up the scree slope west of the lake to the Ridge Divide Trail #36 for more views and exploring (“Locals Know,” next page). Return the way you came.
Get there From Santa Fe, take US 285 N to NM 68 N, NM 75 E, then NM 518 S. In 14.5 miles, turn right on FR 161 and go 1.5 miles until it dead-ends.
Gear up Sangre De Cristo Mountain Works, 328 South Guadalupe St., Santa Fe. (505) 984-8221; sdcmountainworks.com
Contact (505) 757-6161; fs.fed.us/r3/sfe/
KEY SKILL: Acclimate to altitude
Hovering around 12,000 feet will put you at risk for the headaches, nausea, and fatigue of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Separate science from tall tales to perform your best up high.
Myth If you’re in good shape, you shouldn’t worry about AMS.
Reality Susceptibility is partly genetic, and partly related to how quickly you climb. If coming from sea level, spend a night at altitude before hitting the trail (Santa Fe’s 7,200 feet should do it).
Myth All headaches up high are bad news.
Reality AMS often goes away without serious consequences. Pop 400-600 mg of ibuprofen (and check to see if your pee is nearly clear; dehydration can mimic AMS). If your headache worsens, you’re confused, or you start having trouble with coordination or balance, then descend below where the symptoms started.
Myth You should avoid caffeine at altitude.
Reality If you’re used to pouring back the java, going cold turkey is sure to give you a headache; maintain your normal intake.
SEE THIS: Pikas
As you make your way past scree-covered hillsides near treeline, listen for the high-pitch call of the pika. With luck, you may catch a glimpse of the hamster-size, brown mammals as they dive into their rocky burrows. Cute but tough, pikas are members of the rabbit family, with small round ears and no visible tails. To survive harsh winters, they sun-dry and store piles of grass to feed them through the year. In fact, they’re so adapted to cold that even short exposures to temperatures above 78°F can kill them, putting them at risk as the climate warms.
Extend your journey into one of our mapper’s favorite weeklong adventures by traversing the wilderness another 40 miles to the Santa Fe Ski Basin. You’ll pass five more lakes, summit a 12,500-foot peak, and visit some of the forest’s least-traveled corners. Head south from Horseshoe Lake to join Trail 269 toward the Pecos River basin. Take Trail 456 to Trail 239. Head toward Beatty Flats on Trail 24, then climb out of the valley on Trail 259. Take Trail 257 as it parallels Jack’s Creek on a gradual ascent through thick forest to Pecos Baldy Lake. Detour to summit Pecos Baldy, then take Trail 251 down through Horsethief Meadows and past Stewart Lake. Head south on Trail 254 to Spirit Lake and on to the Santa Fe Ski Basin parking lot. backpacker.com/hikes/26815