“About A Mile”: Backpacking Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico

Summary: 45.5 miles over five days, mostly above 10,000 feet, 5700 ft of altitude gain (and loss), waterfalls, elk, cold, hail, and a wonderful time!

The South Plains Council of the BSA has a camp facility named Tres Ritos in north central New Mexico. The camp is between Las Vegas and Taos, NM, and is about 45 miles SW of Philmont Scout Ranch (beloved of Bill). Ian and I were able to go to Winter Camp at Tres Ritos a couple years ago, and Ian went to Summer Camp there three years ago. We were both able to go this year, and both attended the Tres Ritos Pecos Packers program, which is a five-day backpacking trip in the Pecos Wilderness.

Update: I have some aerial shots of the Pecos Wilderness area we hiked on another blog entry, here.

We left OKC Saturday morning, with about 45 people in three vans and a couple personal vehicles, and three trailers filled with personal and Troop gear. We had our first “oops” outside Clinton, OK. The van I was driving started having transmission slippage. We thought that going through the mountains with transmission problems was Not A Good Thing, so we left the van in the K Mart parking lot after redistributing the people riding in the van, and rearranged trailers. We had lunch at a rest stop in the Texas Panhandle, and made our way to Tucumcari, where we stayed overnight on the grounds of the New Mexico National Guard Armory. The nearby Mesalands Community College has a wind turbine:

We went through the Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum, which is an excellent paleontology museum and research facility in Tucumcari. The staff was kind enough to take us through both the public areas and the research areas. The crew there had been out in the field that morning collecting fossil specimens for cleaning and display.

These are fossilized turtle shells found in the area:

A bone found locally:

It was dry and warm, so I elected to unroll my closed-cell pad on a sidewalk next to a hedge (there was a lot of lights on the outside of the building) and slept under the stars. When I woke up, this way my view:

We had a great dinner cooked in the parking lot of the Armory Sunday evening, with chicken and steak fajitas ala Sweatt, including beans and rice. Great stuff!

We headed out Sunday morning after breakfast and went to Las Vegas, NM. We bought lunch stuff at the Wal Mart there and lunched on the parking lot, while one of the Troop vans that had been running hot was getting a new thermostat installed. We had a longish wait, and took the boys to a city park, which was shaded and had a lot of playground stuff for them to burn energy. After a bit, we headed into Tres Ritos and got checked in and camp set up.

Dinner in camp Sunday evening was cooked by the staff; it was fajitas, and they were pretty darn good.

The pictures from the camp and the Pecos Packers backpacking trip are in my Picasa/Google+ account.

Day 1

We got up long before the Sun hit the meadow. The boys cooked breakfast of eggs, sausage, cereal, milk, and juice. When the boys went off to morning flag ceremony and got to the first program of the day, the Pecos Packers (there were 16 of us) got our trail food and got packed up.

We got divided into two crews due to a Forest Service reg that allows no more than 15 “noses” in a crew (one horse is a nose, and one person is a nose). Four of our guys (including Ian) went with a partial crew from Texas, and the rest of us went as a group (so we had 13 including our Pecos Packers guide, the very fine guide Danny).

Only one comment as to the groups. The food is rationed for four people. The guide joins one of the groups, which means that five people have to eat the rations for four. The rations are NOT enough. From Tuesday noon until Friday, I was literally hungry 90% of the time. You burn a lot of calories while backpacking (I’ve seen estimates of 7K-8K calories per day), and the food bulk needed to replace those burned calories needs to be larger than the Backpackers Pantry four-person meals. Lesson learned: bring more food to supplement those meals.

We loaded up into our vans and headed to the trailhead, getting there around 0930. We started at the Santa Barbara trailhead. The first of the three Pecos Packers crews headed out, we waited about 20 minutes, then we headed out. The altitude was just under 9,000 ft.

The trail heads steadily uphill for a while, then enters the Pecos Wilderness area. We had lunch at a bridge over the Middle Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara; it was PB&J on “mountain bread”. Mountain bread looks like a Ritz cracker on steroid, but doesn’t taste like a Ritz; they are dense and largely tasteless. Recommendation: bring your own crackers. Put the mountain bread in the container for toxic waste :).

After lunch, we hit a series of switchbacks that took us up at 700 ft. The trail continued to gently rise. We made it into camp around 1600 and got set up. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but it was good.

The first day was 7.3 miles and about 1700 ft of altitude gain. Sleeping was great! Camp was at over 10,600 ft.

Day 2

We were up the next morning around 0700. Breakfast was good and fast. We hit the trail around 0800.

Again, the trail started up. And continued up. We walked steadily up the Santa Barbara valley. The views were stunning. We say towering cliffs on the west, and rock slides to the east.

Eventually we made it to treeline, and took a couple long switchbacks to the Santa Barbara Divide, above treeline at just over 12,100 ft, for an altitude gain of 1500 ft. We had lunch here. It was chilly and a bit breezy. More mountain bread. Oh boy. The views were of the Rio Grande plain to the NNW, and the Pecos River drainage everywhere in front of us.

After a bit we noticed that our guide Danny was headed up a ridge to the east. In the spirit of the buddy system, another Scout and I followed him up. We walked up, and up, and up. We saw fossils in some of the rocks, which was very good. We got to the top of the ridge and walked along it for a while. The altitude was over 12,600 ft (so, another 500 ft) and the side hike was 1.75 miles.

I took these photos while up there with my Blackberry. I had signal up there as well, so I sent it to Raegan. This is looking SW. You see the Pecos River drainage, the mountains above Santa Fe, and in the distance, the Sandia Range near Albuquerque.

After the side hike, we headed down down down. After a bit we ran across a large slide area to the left. We kept heading steadily down until we got to the Pecos Falls. These were beautiful! We headed down a trail on the east side of the Falls, then headed downstream. It was slow going. It was also wrong going! We realized pretty quickly that we were not on the right trail. Or *any* trail. We sent out a scout to find the trail; it was about 100 ft above us and back to the north. We bushwacked up a steep slope back to the trail.

We got to camp around 1600 and got set up quickly. One thing we hadn’t known was that camping is prohibited unless you are farther from the Falls than something like 300 yards. We were quite a ways away, and at 10,600 feet. Our nearest water was a walk of a couple minutes, and down about 70 feet below the camp.

We heard a couple rumbles of thunder here during the evening, but only got a couple spits of rain.

Our guide Danny told me about the SPOT device he was carrying. It gets the current GPS location, and sends one of three signals back to a satellite at the push of a button: OK, in trouble, and send help. The unit is pretty compact. The signal sent is emailed to one or more recipients, who are supposed to take action.

One of the Scouts found an abandoned camp site on the other side of the stream. There was a large tent, a sleeping bag stuff in a trash bag, and some cooking stuff including a 10″ cast iron skillet. I used a couple pine cones and a flat rock to whet away most of the rust on the skillet.

The Day 2 hike was 8.35 miles (plus 1.75 more for the couple of us that took the side hike up the ridge). The net altitude gain was pretty much zero.

Day 3

Day 3 was a layover day for us. We were to take a day hike to an abandoned cabin to the south, and loop back up along the Pecos River.

Since we didn’t have to break camp, we decided to cook the breakfast that had pancakes in it. One thing to note: the pancakes need cooking oil, which are not in the meal packet. We used the cast iron skillet from the abandoned camp to cook ours. They were good, but I just do not think that pancakes are a good trail food. The pancakes used a lot of stove fuel, as well.

We had a bright blue sky overhead through all this. I took the clothing I was not wearing and rinsed it out in the stream, ran a clothesline, and hung it all up to dry. I also took my fleece hoodie and hung it up to air.

We all selected a lunch, loaded up packs for a day hike, and headed out. We hiked along with the though of a side hike to summit a peak to the NW of camp, but by around 1030 the clouds had completely covered the area, and we started getting hail and rain. We got at least an inch of rain over more than an hour, and *five* rounds of hail, raining from tiny to pea sized. When the hail started we dodged into a grove of trees, and spread out under the biggest ones. Lightning stabbed around us. We all had rain gear that we had broken out as soon as it started raining. It was cold. We couldn’t get our of the grove due to the lightning. The storm lasted almost an hour.

After the storm had passed, we continued hiking. We got to a large meadow and lost the trail. A couple of us spread out to find it again, and found an abandoned platform made out of logs on the north end of the meadow. We found the trail eventually. We had lunch on the north side of the meadow, and decided to head back to camp. A couple of the Scouts were pretty wet.

We had two shorter delays due to more lightning, and we burned across one meadow during a slack period. We got back to camp to discover hail piled up. My laundry from the morning was still wetter, and worse, my hoodie was soaked.

A couple of us tried to light a fire for about 30 minutes. I blew air into the fire for about five minutes, and when I stood up I was so dizzy I almost fell over. James and Brent eventually got the fire going, and they and the boys piled enough wood up to form a veritable bonfire.

The fire dried off a bunch of boots, socks, sleeping pads, and one hoodie. It took a couple hours, but I eventually got that hoodie dry. I also dried off the socks I had been wearing during the day (got them a little scorched, in fact), and my boots and liners.

As we were finishing dinner, we had a couple instances of Sun peeking out. It was pretty chilly. We went to bed before the sky was fully dark.

I needed to wash my clothes, but I should not have left the hoodie out. I was lucky to be able to dry it. The other issue is that I should have carried a set of shoes for camp. I will from now on.

While we were having dinner, a couple cows tried to walk through camp. James ran them off.

Day 4

The next morning, we got up and had oatmeal for breakfast, tried to dry the tents off, and packed up. There was still hail on the ground.

We got out of camp around 0900, and headed the wrong way. It was only a short detour, and added about 3/4 mile to the trek. We crossed the Pecos River above the Falls. We headed back up along a ridge, and started contouring along the side going north. We continued to climb until we got to saddle, and pushed over it at about 11,800 foot, for an altitude gain of about 1200 feet. We got into camp at Middle Fork Lake around 1615.

My stuff was finally drying off. I had tied it all to the pack for the day’s hike, and over the day it got drier and drier, and finally was dry in camp.

There was another abandoned tent site at the campsite. We took it down and packed it out the next day, but before we did, the boys spent the night in the tent, so they didn’t have to pitch theirs (or take them down the next morning in the dark).

We camped at just under 11,800 ft. Our total mileage for the day was 8.7 miles.

Day 5

This was a long day. We got up before dawn. Venus and a couple other planets were stunning in the east. I went to get the bear bag, and look at the sky, and saw three satellites and a couple meteors. The ISS made a pass to the NW as well, brilliant.

We headed out at 0600. We started up by bushwhacking pretty much straight up the cliff face to the west of camp. I think this was the most dangerous thing we did on the trek. It was steep and rocky. We saw some Rocky Mountain sheep on the hillside above us.

As we got up to the top of the ridge, we swung around to the south side of the ridge. Below us, we saw some elk emerge from the trees into a meadow. We stopped to watch, and the elk kept coming. After about 20 minutes, probably 100 elk had passed through the meadow. We were up much higher than they were, and we were in shadow, and quiet, so it was a perfect place to watch from.

We got to the top to get a beautiful view of the camp from the night before. We had come up 650+ ft in just over an hour. It was a tough climb.

Now started The Slog. We headed along the high ridge towards Jicarita. We walked 5 miles along the ridge pretty much continuously. The walk was up and down in 200ft+ increments. The altitude changes are not that much, but a lot of the walk was over big chunks of rock that were not particularly stable. This area would be prime for turning or breaking ankles. Some of the path was steeply down on the rocks. With packs it was not particularly fun. We all made it, but there were slips for everyone.

Eventually we got to the Jicarita trail junction. Most of the crew headed out to summit Jicarita. I didn’t, and was lucky enough to be there when Ian came down from Jicarita! His crew had spent the night at Serpent Lake below, and had side hiked from Serpent back to Jicarita. It was great seeing him and hearing how his trek had gone (well!).

For the second time on the trek, I had signal, so I made contact with Raegan and we made sure we were coordinated for meeting that evening. We waited for a bit, and then headed down to wait at the Serpent Lake trail junction. After a bit, the Jicarita summit team came down, we had late lunch, and then headed down the trail towards Tres Ritos.

This was a long segment; 9.8 miles. It was mostly downhill, and we blazed along with only one short break to pump some water at a creek. We got into camp around 1620. Our walk for the day was 14.5 miles; a long walk any day.

A longish shower was refreshing. I wasn’t particularly dirty, but it felt nice. Raegan and Erin got into camp around 1800, and we loaded up and headed out to our next adventure in Wyoming and Montana.

Maps

These are the topo, terrain, and altitude maps for the trek. I have both a plain topo, and another annotated topo.

What Went Right

I was pleased that I was physically strong enough to handle this. Mental attitude is also a large part of it, and every day on the trail helps with that aspect.

My pack worked out just fine. The Cabela’s pack had more than enough room for my personal gear and my troop gear, including food.

What Went Less Than Right

Need more food! I was actively hungry at non-meal times for several days after the trip. The Backpackers Pantry entrees are very good. They taste better than Mountain House, and the recommended amounts of water to rehydrate them are correct (the Mountain House meals tend to ask for more water than needed, and are runny). The “four-person” meals are probably 2.5-to-3-person meals. It didn’t help that we had our guide eating with us (not blaming him, of course), but the food groups should include the guide in the four-person concept.

If you use the Backpackers Pantry meals, either use one four-person meal for three people, or pack along extra food objects (maybe an extra veg or two per meal). For every breakfast and lunch, you should pack two extra food bars for each person.

Equipment Notes

My Cabela’s pack worked well for this trip. I had enough stuff that I needed to strap my closed-cell pad on the outside of the pack (Dave and I shared his tent, I carried the ground cloth, tent, and fly, and it was a bit more bulky than my tent; and I carried a 20F bag that was pretty bulky as well).

The 20F bag was good for this trip. Morning temps were probably in the low 40s (hail on the ground wasn’t melted even 20 hours later).

One of my water bags for the Sawyer filter failed, right at the top. I will try to repair it with some super glue. I also did a little research, and the Platypus hydration bag fits the Sawyer filter unit, and I think it is more sturdy. I am going to try it out on my next hike.

Summary

What a wonderful trip! The backcountry was beautiful. I was not even really aware of the Pecos Wilderness as an outdoors destination before this trip. I would like to hit some of the southern parts of the Wilderness at some point, and I would like to summit Jicarita as well (that’s worth a patch flash!).

You might be wondering about the title “About a Mile”. That was our guides standard response to the inevitable question of “How much farther?”. Perfect response.

I’m already looking forward to my next visit here. Maybe next summer?

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2 Responses to ““About A Mile”: Backpacking Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico”

  1. Kay DeCamp Says:

    Great blog! Looked like alot of fun. Cheers!

  2. A Couple Big Loops Out West – 20 – 31 July 2012 « Bill Hensley’s Random Blog Says:

    […] This year, Erin was selected to attend the Wyoming Wildlife Wonders program put on by the Girl Scouts and the Teton Science School, and as luck would have it, the dates of the WWW program was the week after Ian and I completed our backpacking trip during our Boy Scout summer camp. […]

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