Camping in New Mexico’s Mountains

“Do you want to go hiking?” I asked my cattle-dog mix, Sadie. She was only 8 months old, but had already learned the “h-word,” and when I pulled out her blue doggy pack, her enthusiasm intensified as she eagerly glanced toward the door.

It was Friday and it was summer, which meant my mind was far from work and already in the mountains.

Away from screens and roads and drivers not using turn signals, camping is a chance to temporarily tune-in and drop out. Similar refrains have become clichés, but that doesn’t make them any less true, and in northern New Mexico, the urge to take refuge in the mountains, away from the summer heat of the desert, is a practical exercise driven by natural impulse. And few people outside northern New Mexico even know such opportunities exist.

So with the long summer days working in our favor, the plan was to leave immediately after work, follow the Winsor Trail to Puerto Nambe, set-up camp to lighten my load for the final summit push and return in time to enjoy sunset from a private meadow view.

Print Map - TopoZoneThis was the crux of my plan. From my door to the parking lot of Ski Santa Fe took 30 minutes, and 15 minutes after that, I would cross into wilderness. This is a uniquely Santa Fe experience, as few places, especially capital cities, offer residents the ability to stand in wilderness less than an hour after leaving their homes. Yet there I was, and on a Friday evening, I enjoyed the kind of privacy rarely found on the Winsor Trail. After the first few miles, Sadie and I were on our own—she freely followed her nose from smell to smell as I basked in the anticipated splendor of a Friday-night backpacking trip.

Everything went as intended by the time I reached my planned camping location—a meadow a few hundred yards beyond the trail junction separating the trails to Baldy and Spirit Lake. On a previous ill-advised early-season venture to Lake Katherine, this meadow had struck me as a wondrous place to spend an evening, and suddenly this formerly foolhardy expedition became an expertly executed scouting mission. Sadie pounced through, across and around the meadow as I dropped my pack, enjoyed a snack and set-up my tent.

A few years ago, I started keeping a journal whenever I was in the backcountry. As someone who finds immense joy in crawling into a sleeping bag at the end of a day, the idea was that away from the monotony and stresses of daily life, my mind, suddenly at ease, would produce insights and provide perspectives that typically escape me. I imagined flowery passages in the vein of Muir and Stegner as I reclined beside alpine lakes and bubbling brooks, where trout jumped and the occasional elk or deer strode by.

In practice, however, these rosy reveries hardly reflected reality. Half the time, I’m too tired to put much effort into writing, and other times, I fall into a pattern of merely reporting my day. But on this night, with Sadie curled at my feet, a rare moment of introspection came over me. Looking back on that entry two years later, I’m confronted with a more tumultuous relationship with spending a night outdoors than my mind chooses to remember from the comfort of my desk at the end of winter.

After setting up my tent, I continued to hike toward the saddle below Baldy before leaving the official trail to climb the final ridge to the summit. Up until that point, the sky had hosted a healthy number of clouds, but as I would write in my journal that evening, “The sky was cloudy but as the last months have taught me, storm clouds only rarely translate into storms.” Upon reaching the saddle, however, I was confronted with a view into the Pecos resembling that of Mordor. The sky was pitch black and the cloud ceiling hung low. Rain was imminent, and in the distance, lightning flashed intermittently. The trees along the ridgeline continued about a third of the way toward the summit, so my plan was to hike to the end of the tree line and reassess.

As I climbed, the clouds swirled but the ridgeline acted as a barrier they didn’t dare cross. When I reached the last tree, the conditions hadn’t changed, so I continued. Unfortunately, my anxiousness proved warranted as I reached the false summit, roughly a quarter-mile short of the true peak. The storm clouds, having sucked me into their trap, moved rapidly. Lightning came closer, thunder joined it, and the rain began. I dropped my pack, rushed to the summit, tagged it, returned, shouldered my pack, and ran directly downhill toward the nearest stand of trees, trading the easier walking of the worn path for the comfort of cover.

A change in the weather is known to be extreme, but Sadie hardly noticed until my strained and urgent calls caught her attention. Not long afterward, the rain turned to hail and we took cover under a hearty spruce. It wasn’t the first time we’d been caught in a hailstorm that year, and Sadie’s face expressed a certain exasperated disbelief at our repeated predicament.

Once the hail subsided, I returned to the meadow where my tent sat soaked and sagging with precipitation. My enthusiasm for spending the night had waned and I considered packing up and heading home. I stood listlessly unable to decide, as neither option seemed all that appealing. My single-wall, trekking pole-tent had never performed well in the rain, and between that and a wet dog, the prospect of hunkering down in a less-than-spacious, soggy bivouac only five miles from my car seemed silly. But the weekend before I had been confronted with a similar dilemma after trudging through a rainy, overgrown trail. I eventually turned around, and facing this scenario once again, I wondered whether the problem was me. As I’d write a few hours later, “As much as I wasn’t looking forward to what the night had in store, I also couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. Am I getting soft?” I wondered. “Can I really not hack it?”

Eventually, the rain slowed and Sadie took refuge under the tent, which persuaded me to stay. I changed into warm clothes, found a good sitting rock, cooked dinner, read a book, and watched the freshly fallen rain transpire back into the air.

I breathed deeply and savored the opportunity to have this tranquil little meadow to myself. Bordered by tall spruce and fir and framed by Baldy behind it, a more bucolic scene could not be imagined and I remembered what I loved so much about camping. When I crawled into my tent and zipped up my sleeping bag, a sense of calm contentment washed over me as crickets serenaded me to sleep.

Except for a light morning shower, the skies spared me any additional moisture, and by morning, the previous evening’s events had already passed and become a badge of honor. After all, misadventure is half of why we love exploring the outdoors, and deciding to sleep through it all with just a thin piece of nylon—or sometimes less—separating us from the elements demonstrates the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment these kinds of endeavors bring us.

On any given summer day, dozens of day-hikers crowd the Winsor Trail for short explorations into Santa Fe’s backyard wilderness, but very few make it all the way to our namesake mountain, and even fewer decide to spend the night. While part of me loves the solitude this brings, as the threats––both natural––to our wild spaces mount, the other part of me cannot help but scream “Go! Know it and love it as much as I do, and the soporific song of crickets will always be there waiting for you.”