Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico
July 6-12, 2008
5 adults, 7 youth ages 11-16. This was a youth trip, with Camp Fire USA Balcones Council, based in Austin, Texas. I am the volunteer backpacking coordinator for the Council. After two summers of missing trips because of scheduling problems, we have finally had a very nice trip. We had two older youth, Jackson and Nathan, serve as Youth Assistant Leaders, which was very helpful. Budgeting was a little tricky because of rapidly escalating gasoline prices, but we made some savings on the groceries by careful shopping and by preparing dehydrated meals from scratch. At the beginning of June, a group of Horizon youth, working on their trip planning skills, met and made meal plans and shopping lists for the trip. One of the parents made us a nice chicken and vegetable stew for the first night on the road.
We gathered early Sunday morning, July 6, in Austin. One family (the S’s) was vacationing in Colorado, so we arranged for them to meet up with us Sunday evening. We stopped for a picnic lunch at a rest area near Post, in the Texas Panhandle. Sunday night, we stayed at Camp Monakiwa, a Camp Fire camp belonging to the Lubbock Council, 18 miles up a mountain road near Las Vegas, NM. (This is a pretty little camp up next to national forest land.) Heavy rain in the late afternoon made the unpaved portion of the road to the camp muddy, but it was driveable. The camp has a nice lodge, and A-frame cabins with cots and mattresses. The gas wasn’t on, so we used our backpacking stove to heat supper in the lodge kitchen. The S’s arrived later in the evening. There had been more rain, so they had more trouble with the muddy road in the dark. The youth convened and made a plan for meal duty for the remaining days of the trip, played cards, and hung out. Adults completed some of their own final gear-sorting chores. Our pack weight rule is no more than 30% of body weight, so we had some winnowing to do. Adults on youth trips are especially prone to adding “just in case” duplicate gear.
Monday morning we arrived at Pecos National Historical Park at about 10:15 a.m. By prearrangement, Dr. Bob Mallin, Volunteer Park Ranger and retired surgeon, gave us a fascinating presentation about field surgery in the Civil War. There was a Civil War battle at Glorieta, near the park. We walked through the Ancestral Puebloan ruins, climbed into the kivas, saw the ruined mission church and convent, and lunched on sandwiches at the visitor center picnic area. Then we drove the 25 miles north up Hwy 63 through the town of Pecos and into the mountains, to Jacks Creek trailhead. While group members readied packs, we shuttled Laura’s and Catharine’s cars to the Panchuela trailhead a few miles away. Each hiker needed to bring about 3 liters of water, since our camp would be a dry camp, and the next water source would not be until lunchtime on Tuesday. There was a light rain as we started up Trail 25, but it soon let up, and people stopped to remove rain jackets. Everyone hiked well, after a few pack adjustments. Nathan led, and Mina was sweep. This trail climbs the side of a ridge in switchbacks. After a couple of miles it tops out at the “rock pile,” where we like to camp. We set up tents and tarps in the trees, and everyone climbed the rocks to explore, hang out, and enjoy the expansive views across to the high Santa Fe Peak on the west, and to East Pecos Baldy, our destination. Down below, Jack built a “lean-to” with logs. We used both stoves, the Council MSR Simmerlite and Mina’s Bushbuddy Ultra wood burner, to make polenta/pesto/gorgonzola supper. We determined that the bushbuddy doesn’t burn well with a larger pot on it, so we used the smaller pot in stages, to boil water for tea. Everyone turned in soon after dark. During the night it rained and blew hard. Mina and Connie experienced some blown-in rain under Mina’s ID 8 x 10 silnylon tarp but in general folks stayed dry. Mina had set the tarp a little too high. She braved the dark and the driving rain to crawl out and lower the foot end. We were damp around the edges in the morning, but OK.
Tuesday morning started out clear, and after oatmeal for breakfast, drying gear and packing up, and a nice group stretch led by Nathan, we started out. There are lots of meadows and flowers in this stretch. There was also lots of mud from the overnight rain. We met some horse riders. At least one of them turned back, it was so muddy. As we neared the Jacks Creek crossing, it began to rain again, so steadily that we strung up tarps and put on jackets for our lunch stop at the creek. We used Mina’s Katadyn Hiker Pro filter to refill our water bottles at the creek. Since Nathan was leading and had been through the area before, Mina showed him, on the map, where to make camp, outside the lake basin in a sheltered hollow. During the gradual 3-mile climb from Jacks Creek to Pecos Baldy Lake, we got rain off and on, and the group got pretty spread out. Some of the slower hikers were apparently feeling the effects of altitude. We have not had much problem with altitude on this hike on past trips, but felt it more this time. Nathan found the hollow and, with Connie and Xavier who arrived shortly after him, started to set up camp. There was a delay before Nathan got back up the hill to direct the others to the camp. In the meantime, some of the middle group arrived at the lake and began to set up camp in the grove above the lake basin where we camped in 2004. This is a more exposed location, and with the continuing possibility of more thunderstorms, not satisfactory. The last group arrived, and, believing that the site had changed possibly because of the hollow already being occupied, also began to set up in the grove. Shortly thereafter Mina headed over to the hollow looking for Nathan, found him and Connie heading back, and discovered that the hollow was available. So we had to break it to everyone else that we were moving camp to the hollow; this news was not met with glee, but after the work was done, people agreed that getting away from the wind and the possibility of lightning was a good idea, and the hollow is a very nice, sheltered camp. We had a short discussion about the miscommunication, and determined that the main cause was the group getting a little too strung out along the trail. Another contributing factor was that although the other group members were present when Mina gave Nathan the instructions about where to camp, they did not listen, and did not take the time to seek out Nathan upon arrival at the lake. This kind of thing happens sometimes, although we do our best to avoid it. This time it was a relatively benign learning experience for the participants. We made our supper of broccoli and rice casserole on the simmerlite, and since hunger is always the best seasoning, everyone enjoyed it very much. Jack and Xavie were very tired and went to sleep before supper, so we saved them some for morning. There being no burn ban, we made a nice fire in the existing fire ring. It did not rain during the night, but stayed cloudy.
Wednesday morning was still cool and cloudy, but not raining. Had it been clear, we would have followed our original plan of climbing East Pecos Baldy this morning, but enthusiasm was low for climbing into the clouds, and folks mainly wanted to rest around camp in the beautiful forest. We found a small stream coming down the hillside deeper in the hollow; this made a more convenient water source than the lake. Some earlier camper had wedged a hollowed out branch into the water flow to make a chute for gathering water. Some of the water we filtered; Catharine used some Aqua Mira she brought, and Mina used some Klearwater. We kept a fire going pretty much all day, as the weather stayed chilly and overcast, although still dry. Nathan, Jack, and Xavier set about making fishing poles and lines with branches and bits of tackle found down by the lake. Eventually all the youth were working on whittling projects such as fishing gear, a bow and arrow (Nathan), and various implements like forks and chopsticks (Sarah, Lisa, and Georgia). Mina and Connie went for a walk around the lake and saw marmots and many birds and wildflowers and some patches of melting snow. Many people were feeling slow, and we attributed it to feeling the altitude, which is about 11,000 ft. at Pecos Baldy Lake. (Austin elevation is about 550 ft.) At lunch we ate up all the delicious brownies Laura had made for Tuesday supper, which had gone forgotten in our tiredness the night before. In the afternoon, Rick and Mina went for a walk up the opposite saddle towards Trailriders Wall. There was a whole colony of marmots up there. Way up on top, we encountered a group of five Bighorn Sheep rams napping and grazing, and got some great pictures, including close-ups of one guy who came over looking (apparently) for snacks, which of course we did not provide. We also met a couple of young men, brothers from Santa Fe and Tuscon, hiking down from the Truchas area, who asked to borrow our binoculars to scout a route straight up the side of East Pecos Baldy. We watched them climb that side of the mountain before heading back down to camp. Some of the kids, meanwhile, tried fishing with their new-made gear, and later reported that, while they didn’t catch anything, a fish did make off with the worm. Connie and Catharine explored around the lake and the forested slope above. Later in camp, Jackson taught a bunch of the youth card games. Laura, Nathan, and Mina held a planning conference to rearrange our itinerary so that we could still, if conditions permitted, make the climb up East Pecos Baldy, still make the much-requested excursion into Santa Fe on Friday, and complete the long drive to Monahans before midnight Friday. We decided that, instead of heading over to Horsethief Meadow on the Skyline Trail 251 on Thursday, we would turn off towards the Dockwiller Trail 259, and go as far as possible down towards the Cave Creek Trail 288 and Panchuela before making camp. This would allow for a much shorter hike Friday morning, and an earlier visit to Santa Fe. We would miss the caves higher up on the Cave Creek Trail, but that seemed a lower priority to the youth, so the change was made. For Wednesday supper, since our rest day in camp allows more cooking time, we made our pasta and tomato sauce dinner. Boiling a big pot of water and cooking noodles takes a long time on a camp fire, but it worked. We wanted to save the simmerlite fuel for Thursday night. Supper was delicious and we consumed every last bit. The smoke column from our fire attracted a man and his daughter, camped in the grove above the lake. Their stove ignition had broken, and they had no matches. Since we had a whole lot of matches, we were glad to give them some. After dark, the sky cleared and the stars came out. Folks who did not fall asleep right at dark enjoyed stargazing.
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear. We breakfasted on cous cous and granola (the oatmeal having been consumed earlier in the week), and of course lots of coffee, packed up, treated water, and headed out into the pretty morning through green grass and wildflowers, up to the saddle and the junction with the East Pecos Baldy Trail. The climb up the ridge went smoothly, although Laura and Jackson were still feeling the altitude and went pretty slowly. At the saddle we ran around, took in the views, shot photos, and collected snacks, water, and windbreakers for the mountain hike. Jackson and Laura were not sure about going any higher, but decided in the end to attempt it. Mina hiked with them, slowly, up the trail, with the rest of the group ahead. Everyone eventually made it to the top! We got out the map and compass and looked around at all the mountains and other features on the horizon, puzzled over picking out our trail of the last 3 days, ate snacks, and snapped pictures. Nathan, who climbed fast, had a little bit of a sinking spell at the top, probably from altitude and ignoring the need for food and water, but after a rest, a drink, and a snack, he felt a lot better. We returned to our pile of packs at the saddle, rested, and ate lunch before shouldering our packs and heading down the other side. We filled water again at the headwaters of Rio Perrito, a small creek. About 2 miles down, we turned eastwards at the trail junction over towards the Dockwiller Trail, and entered new territory for everyone, including Mina and Nathan, who have both hiked the larger loop previously. This section climbs over a ridge into the Jacks Creek drainage, so we had our last uphill section for the day. It was longer than it appeared from the map, and didn’t have an expected creek crossing, so we suspect the map is not quite accurate. Fortunately for our water supplies, we passed a smaller creek in a small side drainage higher up the ridge, and were able to refill there. On the downhill side we joined the Dockwiller Trail, which follows Jacks Creek down on the opposite side of the valley from Tuesday’s trail up. This section has a lot of open aspen forest with exceptionally large aspen trees, and flowery meadows, including stands of ferns and some white umbel-like flowers (angelica, maybe?) almost as high as our heads! We began to hear distant thunder, and pretty soon it was cloudy and raining again on and off. Since this stretch of trail has no creek crossings or trail junctions for several miles, we arranged for Nathan, in the lead, to stop the group at 45-minute intervals instead, to give the slower hikers time to catch up. This afternoon’s hike was a long one, and everyone was anxiously looking for the drop down to Cave Creek long before it arrived. Late in the afternoon we finally all arrived at the junction. Nathan and Rick had gone, as suggested, in opposite directions up and down Cave Creek seeking an appropriate campsite. We had almost decided to give it up and head for Panchuela, when Rick found, farther upstream, a really nice creek bottom camp, one of the fishing camps Mina remembered from earlier trips. Some youth, anxious to be near cars after several days of car-deprivation, were disappointed to be heading the other way. But it was a nice camp. Since we were all pretty tired, Mina took the lead in making the cheese and tuna casserole supper, with the assistance of designated cooks Jack and Xavie. The simmerlite fuel, fortunately, lasted for this last trail supper. (The wet conditions and late hour would have made campfire cooking a pain.) The casserole and the stewed fruit dessert were well-received by all, and we turned in full and very tired.
Friday morning, after a cold breakfast of energy bars and overnight-soak coffee, we packed up wet gear, headed out, and arrived at Panchuela within the hour. After photos, retrieving the Scion from Jacks Creek Camp, and repacking the cars, we set out for Santa Fe. There were lots of shops and galleries to see, plus artist vendors on the sidewalks and musicians on the square, so we had plenty to keep us busy until Catharine returned with fresh bread, meat, cheese, and fruit for our picnic. After lunch, we all headed over to an ice cream shop on the square, and Connie treated us all to ice cream in honor of Xavie’s 13th birthday today! Of course we sang “Happy Birthday” in the shop. Then it was time to hit the road for the long, 8-hour, drive to Monahans. Along the way we watched distant rainstorms across the sky. We made Annie’s Mac and Cheese for supper at a roadside picnic area near Carlsbad. The designated cooks said they didn’t want to eat and were too tired to get out of the car, so Mina went ahead and cooked, and, surprise surprise, by golly, by the time supper was ready, somehow every last person was out of the cars and eating. We tossed the dirty dishes into the cars, since there was no water at this site, and pushed on through the evening and a spectacular sunset. We pulled into Monahans Sandhills State Park at around 11:00 p.m. and emerged from the cars into a magical land of moonlight, stars, and smooth rolling luminous sand. Everyone was enchanted. Most everyone rolled out sleeping bags on the dunes. The drivers were, of course, asleep quickly, but some youth stayed up for a while, walking in the moonlight and talking.
On Saturday morning there was plenty of time for exploring and playing in the sand. There were a whole lot of animal tracks all over the dunes. We rented sliding discs from the park, and everyone who wanted to got a chance to go sliding. Later it got too hot, so we all had nice cool showers, packed up, turned in the discs, checked out the visitor center museum, and headed for Austin. We had a last picnic lunch at a rest area on IH-10 near Sonora, left the S’s near their home in Dripping Springs, and arrived at Mina’s house in central Austin in the early evening.
Nathan and Jackson, the two Youth Assistant Leaders, each helped in his own way. Nathan led the group on the trail, paid close attention to the map, the time, and our location, and took major responsibility for thinking through decisions with the Trip Co-Leaders. He also included the younger kids in the great whittling and fishing projects on Wednesday, and Jack and Xavie especially looked up to him. Jackson is not as outdoorsy or as strong of a hiker, but he gave much thought to social relations in the group, taught card games, and helped out with whatever we asked. Both have earned leadership and service hours should they desire to count them. They should confer with their Horizon advisors to determine hours earned.
Some logistical notes: Nathan wanted to bring all his own food instead of participating in the group food, and we decided to let him do that since he is a senior youth, can be trusted to bring appropriate food, and wanted the experience. However, he found the group food tempting enough to participate in most of our group meals after all, and carried his own food all the way on the trail without using much of it. We were glad we had brought group food for 12 people, so that there was plenty for him anyway. We checked out two gas stoves from the Council, but only used one of them. We were supposed to have two MSR Simmerlites, but one of the stoves turned out to be a Whisperlite Internationale, a heavier version, so we decided to leave it home and bring the Bushbuddy Ultra, since there was no burn ban. This worked out OK, although the Bushbuddy Ultra is a little small for large group cooking. Shelters: REI Quarterdome 3, REI Quarterdome T1, BA Seedhouse SL 2, BA Seedhouse SL 1, SD Clip Flashlight, Kelty Noah’s Tarp 12, ID 8 x 10 tarp.
Packs were an assortment of everything from state of the art (ULA Catalyst & P2, a couple of Gossamer Gear packs, & a Vapor Ki) to ancient external frames, with some REI UL 60’s in the mix. In the photos some of the loads look bigger than they really were, because of the way they were packed. No one but Mina and Nathan had more than 30 lbs. including food and 3 liters of water apiece. Mina had some extra (1st aid, etc.) group gear, as did Nathan.
Photos of the trip are posted at: