Wanted: Aspens and High Peaks (The Hike to East Pecos Baldy Saddle)

I don’t recall the exact conversation but as Callahan and I were planning our next hike we both agreed that we needed to see more aspens and to get to the top of something else, preferably before we got the first big snow in the mountains. Hiking to the Truchas Peaks – the three conical mountains to north-northeast of the peaks we’d already ascended – kept popping up, but an approach from the south through the Pecos Wilderness would be 22 miles and nearly 5,000 feet in elevation gain. This was almost certainly outside our capabilities as far as a day hike goes with mid-October daylight hours. But yet the mountains were so tempting, luring us with their stunning profiles and forested valleys below….

And so a plan was formulated in which we’d hike back out along the trail to East Pecos Baldy that we’d done a couple weeks earlier and hopefully a) take the cutoff to the Trailriders Wall Trail and make it as far as we could walking along the exposed ridge and maaaaaybe to the peaks or b) at least ascend the saddle to the northwest of the peak that would likely have good vistas. The benefits of this route, in addition to a familiarity with the trail that we hoped would translate to us getting within striking distance of the peaks, also included opportunities for aspen viewing along the middle section of the hike.

Sometimes however things don’t turn out exactly as planned. Mishap one resulted in us having to turn around a half hour into the drive and go back to Santa Fe. Mishap two ocurred when a doe jumped in front of my car as we were rounding a curve going up Pecos Canyon. Unfortunately I bumped her legs at about 5-10mph as I skidded to a stop; she limped off and settled in the grass to the side of the road, blinking at me and making what only can be described as chewing motions with her jaw. Certain I’d broken her leg we turned around and went back down the canyon to in order to get cell service to report it to Fish & Game (we were a few miles outside the boundary of the national forest at this point and there is no ranger station nearby).

Because we had to wait for the office to open at 8am, it was nearly quarter to 9 before we arrived at Jack’s Creek Trailhead. The plus side was that as we drove back up canyon an hour later the doe was gone which made us hopeful that she was able to walk under her own power. All this meant however that we had to abandon our hopes of getting too far though we figured we’d still be able to make the saddle, which is about 14 miles RT and ~3,300 feet in elevation. Of course we’d definitely be able to enjoy the aspen groves on the way too.

The forest – and specifically the aspens – did not disappoint. The first mile and a half of the trail is mostly fir, but we could already spot the splashes of yellow across the valley as we rose up the hillside. And once we ascended to the ridge we got some closeups. It got better though: After we reached the junction with Jack’s Creek Trail we turned into the loveliest of mature aspen stands where admired the golden leaves while taking a slew of photos.

Conscious that we’d be returning the same way we moved on, breaking out of the aspen into the open meadow and delighting in the views of Santa Fe Baldy before plunging back into the fir and spruce for the final few miles of ascent. Reaching the lake under bright blue skies but behind-schedule we took a short break while we decided our next move. The problem was that we were more tired than we’d been at this point in the hike a few weeks ago – and we did not have much extra time. Begrudgingly we decided to skirt the lake and ascend to the saddle rather than start off on the Trailriders Wall Trail.

I think it took us a half hour, and more than a few stops to catch our breath in which we cursed our legs, but we made it to the saddle and to the unobstructed views of the Truchas. We also made it to the windiest spot in the whole freaking wilderness; the air was tearing through the gap between East Pecos Baldy Peak and the prominence to the southeast, making it unpleasant to stay for more than a few minutes. But no matter, the views were spectacular and we were very happy to have made it.

On the way back we marveled in the splendor of the remaining blazing aspen trees, stopping for numerous photo breaks now that we were more certain how much time we had left. As it turned out this was our last hike amongst the yellow leaves, but we sure did make the best of them.