Hiking to Lake Peak

Now that I’ve done some catching up with regards to my work activities with Santa Fe Habitat, I can go back and summarize some of the amazing hikes I’ve done in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. I must warn you that I’ve done a hike almost every weekend I’ve been here however so this too may take a minute. But nearly all my hikes here deserve a post as they’ve all been so beautiful.

Though I’d gotten a taste of the subalpine ecosystem on the Aspen Vista Trail 10 or so days previously, I still didn’t quite believe that the upper elevations of the range would all be so rugged. I do understand how elevation works… but at the same time I really couldn’t believe New Mexico would really have so much area that could be considered alpine. I mean, the high peaks really do look like the Canadian Rockies. So even though the trail description described Lake Peak as “rugged” and “alpine” – and I chose it because of said description – my expectations of the hike were wildly exceeded.

Abbs and I started up from the Winsor Trailhead, located at the top of the Santa Fe Ski Basin, around 7am. I had hoped to do the Lake Peak “Loop” which includes a couple other peaks, but I knew that whether or not that was a possibility we had to start early to avoid the midday monsoon season storms that are a daily occurrence in the months of July, August, and September. We ascended the 0.7 miles uphill to the Pecos Wilderness boundary line in fairly good time but soon after we turned right and continued way up along the fence, things got a bit steeper. Abby of course paid no mind but I noticed that the grade in combination with the elevation was beginning to slow me down. I compensated by pausing to take a few pictures of the lovely fir trees.

The trail led straight to the edge of a bowl (a glacial cirque) above Nambe Lake; here I got my first glances to the east – and my first views of the steep ascent to the peaks that rise over the south side of the bowl. Steep is a bit of an understatement since the grade substantially increased the next mile and a half as we ascended the rim of the cirque. This section also included more stepping up on rocks. Though the grade and the terrain forced me to slow my pace the views more than compensated for the increased difficulty.

Of course the further we went up the better the views became: Once we broke out above the treeline on my ascent of Deception Peak (the slightly-lower peak that obscures Lake Peak) I had incredible views of high peaks Santa Fe Baldy and Pecos Baldy, as well as Nambe Lake below. Summitting the bald Deception Peak provided fantastic, unobstructed vistas but most importantly it gave me my first views of the rocky, alpine saddle to Lake Peak. I was instantly smitten.

Abby and I inadvertently scrambled across the ridge to Lake Peak as opposed to following the trail, thus extending our crossing to 45 minutes; but I would argue that our route provided far superior views over the basin and the peaks to the northwest. We also stopped to eat an apple and take in the views. It was glorious. It was also my first time hiking above 12,000 feet; the ascent of Lake Peak extended my range to 12,409 feet.

After reaching Lake Peak at just before 11am I re-assessed the gathering dark clouds to the northeast – and ultimately decided to turn back rather than continue on into the storm. I could hear the thunder and, knowing that the next couple miles of the route across the (bald) Penitente Peak would be completely exposed, decided to play it safe. This proved a wise decision since the last hour-plus of our descent was in a hail storm that brought temperatures nearly 20 degrees colder than what we’d been hiking through along the ridgeline. Luckily we were well below the treeline when the lightening and hail began.