The peace of the forest is broken with a crash as three bull elk come loping out of the aspens. They freeze instantly, swiveling their antlered heads toward me—no doubt just as surprised as I am. For a long moment we simply stare at one another before the elk continue along their way. Before me are nearly 20,000 acres of pristine wilderness—mesas sharpening into mountains, every ridge dropping rivulets of snowmelt into the headwaters of the Rio de los Pinos that sustain the basin’s mule deer, bobcats, and coyotes. I listen to the thuds of the elks’ hooves and the cracking of branches as our brief encounter fades into the enveloping quiet of this wilderness.
Turn-By-Turn From the Terminus of Forest Road 572
1) Descend along the unmarked trail skirting Osha Creek. At mile 1, turn west where Osha joins Beaver Creek and follow Beaver Creek upstream for .3 mile, passing Diablo Creek flowing in from the southwest.
2) Turn northeast at the next stream, Cruces Creek, and follow it for .7 mile as it rounds the white cliffs of Toltec Mesa. As the waterway veers west and the cliffs diminish, turn north and climb a game trail up a grassy slope to the top of the mesa (mile 2.5). Look for the sheer granite walls of Toltec Gorge funneling out of sight to the east.
3) Now on the horseshoe of interconnected slopes enclosing the basin, follow cairns northwest along the gentle ridge for 4 miles until you reach the northern boundary of the wilderness and your campsite on Toltec Mesa.
4) Dip briefly back into the basin before returning to the ring of mesas with Brazos Ridge, beginning the gradual ascent of the ridge at mile 9.5.
5) Descend westward back into the basin for 5 miles until you rejoin the confluence of Cruces, Diablo, and Beaver Creeks. Enjoy this stroll through the meadows, where you are bound to see a trout fisherman or two as well as herds of cows.
6) Follow Osha Creek south to your vehicle.
Campsite: Toltec Mesa (Mile 6.5)
Select a pre-existing campsite in the aspen grove along the northern slope of the mesa for the best views of the Rio de los Pinos below. Be sure to keep your ears perked for the train whistles on the Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railroad, which skirts the boundary of the wilderness to the north. Water is typically close at hand in the form of small snowmelt streams, though it can be scarce in late summer and early fall.
The Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railroad
‘The history of this rail line dates back to the 1880s, when the Denver-Rio Grande Railroad began building extensions from Alamosa, Colorado all the way to Durango in order to serve the booming lumber industry. Today, the Cumbres-Toltec is strictly a sightseeing train, operating from May to October between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico.
Ranchers utilized the Cruces Basin’s pastures for grazing long before its 1980 wilderness designation. Today, cattle roam the basin from June to October, making a reliable water filter a necessity. If you wish to minimize contact with livestock, call the Tres Piedras ranger district for the grazing schedule.
Trailhead 36.9253, -106.2854; 35 miles NW of Tres Piedras, NM. After driving 28 miles on Forest Road 87, turn north on FR 572 and park your vehicle at the road’s terminus in front of the Wilderness Boundary sign. Note that because there are no designated footpaths within the wilderness area having a good topo map and accompanying navigation skills are musts. Season Spring to Fall Permit None Map Download Here