Distance: 27 miles
Water: Plenty of water throughout route
Season: Summer, Fall
Trail Conditions: Good to Unpassable
This is a fantastic loop hike that includes some highlights of the Pecos Wilderness including a short stretch on the Santa Barbara Divide, Pecos Falls, Beatty’s Cabin and views of the high peaks of the southern Sangre de Cristo.
From Pecos, follow NM-63 north into Pecos Canyon. You’ll pass the town of Terrero and the roads will climb up on the east side of the river. Eventually you’ll pass the Mora campground and the road will climb again and you’ll reach a junction that points to the Iron Gate Campground. Turn right.
Follow this narrow road as it continues to climb. There will be a handful of smaller roads or driveways that turn off at a number of points. Stay on the main road, which passes through a small community with a number of homes. At points, it can feel like you are driving through a private subdivision (which you kind of are), but keep going. At points, the road can be rough, so a vehicle with good clearance is recommended and if there’s been any recent rains, 4WD is likely required.
The road keeps going until you’ll cross back onto national forest land and eventually deadend at the Iron Gate Campground. The parking area for the trailhead is at the top of the campground loop.
From Iron Gate, the wide, well-marked Hamilton Mesa Trail – Trail #249 switchbacks gently onto the ridge of Hamilton Mesa. After about 1/2 mile, you’ll reach a junction. Go left. In another 1/2 mile, the trail forks again. The Hamilton Mesa Trail goes left, but the Mora Flats Trail – Trail #250 goes right. Either works, but for whatever reason, I chose to follow the Mora Flats Trail down to the Rio Mora.
This section of trail starts in pretty aspen forest and slowly winds its way downhill to the small stream at the bottom of the valley. It is well-marked and easy to follow.
There’s a nice campsite where the trail hits the river at a junction with the Los Esteros Trail – Trail #226. Stay left on the west side of the river, following it upstream along the wide flat valley.
After .5 miles, the trail forks again. Follow the Rio Valdez Trail – Trail #224 to the left. This canyon quickly closes in with dense vegetation growing closely in bottom of the narrow canyon. In this section, there were a number of downed trees that made the stream crossings slightly tricky.
After about a mile, the canyon begins to open up again and a half mile after that there’s a junction with the Bob Grounds Trail – Trail #270.
For the purposes of this loop, it is just as easy to continue to follow the Rio Valdez upstream to the junction with the Gascon Trail – Trail #239, but the ridge on Hamilton Mesa offers better views, which makes taking Trail #270 a slightly better option.
That being said, Trail #270 fades in the open grassy slop after about 1/2 mile of switchbacks. The ridge is almost completely open and clear of trees, so although the trail is difficult to find, you can easily just hike to the top of the ridge until you rejoin the Hamilton Mesa Trail – Trail #249.
Upon rejoining Trail #249 going north, you will reenter the forest while remaining atop the mesa. The views disappear, but the trail remains in good condition for the next 3.5 mile until the junction with the Trail #239.
Go right at the junction to follow Trail #239 for a mile until it joins the Rio Valdez Trail – Trail #240 in a meadow near the stream’s headwaters.
Shortly before this junction, there’s a nice campsite atop a small cliff overlooking the Rio Valdez.
Go left at the junction to rejoin the Rio Valdez Trail – Trail #224 following it upstream to the stop of the Santa Barbara Divide.
When I was there in June 2016, there was still significant snow in this section making parts of the trail difficult to follow. For the first half-mile, the trail stays on the west side of the creek, but eventually crosses to the east as it makes the final climb to the divide.
If you lose the trail, stay close to the creek. In the last 1/2 mile, the trail climbs above tree. This makes it easy to travel off trail. There’s a prominent sign at the top of the divide marking the junction with the Skyline Trail – Trail #251 and the Pecos River Trail – Trail #456. If nothing else keep your eye out for this sign.
From the sign, turn left to follow Trail #456. For the first few hundred yards above treeline the trail is faded, but I was able to follow it to the crest of the ridge where it begins dropping to the Pecos River. Once at the edge, the trail appeared again, and remained easy to follow the remainder of the way.
Despite it being easy to follow, however, the trail was extremely rough. Partially due to how steep it is, the trail is washed out and eroded in places and contained a few downed trees. I was happy to have my trekking poles and by the time I reach the Pecos River, my legs were burning.
Upon reaching the Pecos River, the trail crosses to the west side. On my hike, the river was running high with snow melt. The crossing was by no means dangerous, but trickier than many given how much water there was.
Once I was on the other side of the stream, I followed the trail through a series of open meadows for a few miles downstream until I found a nice flat spot to camp.
Continuing along Trail #456, the next morning I hiked downstream, paralleling the Pecos River through open, grassy meadows to the junction with the Gascon Trail – Trail #239. I took a right on Trail #239 to follow it west, but the impressive Pecos falls are just a short scramble downhill from this junction. They are well worth the side trip and justify a short break.
This 1/2 mile section of the Gascon Trail between Trail #456 and the Pecos Trail – Trail #24 is in good condition and well-marked. There are a handful of junctions in this short stretch, so pay attention and be sure not to make a wrong turn
Just after crossing Jarosa Canyon, go left to follow Trail #24 downstream along the Pecos River toward Beattys Cabin. This section of trail stays high above the river traversing a series of damp meadows. There are pleasant views of the surrounding valley, and despite how lush it is, the trail is well-trodden and easy to follow all the way to Beattys Cabin.
In the last half mile before Beattys Cabin, the trail starts to switchback and drops steeply down to the river.
Once in the Beattys Cabin area, continue downstream but look for a sign and a bridge crossing the Pecos River about a 1/4 down from where the trail passes through a gate, marking the official entrance to Beattys Cabin.
Once you’re on the northside of the creek, the trail beings to climb out of the valley and reaches a junction slightly less than 1/2 mile above the stream.
NOTE: Follow the Lark Spur Trail – Trail #260, right fork (straight). Do not follow the Bob Grounds Trail – Trail #270 to the left.
Unfortunately, I did not have the necessary information to follow the above advice, and I opted for the Bob Grounds Trail – Trail #270 with the goal of maximizing my time along Hamilton Mesa. This was a bad choice.
From the junction, the trail is clear, beckoning unsuspecting hikers to follow it up to Hamilton Mesa. But after roughly a 1/2 mile, the trail becomes completely clogged with downed trees and requires intense climbing up and around. Surprisingly, the underlying trail remains followable, but this would not be recommended to anyone.
This 1.5 mile detour took my way longer than it should have, but I eventually popped out on to the grassy ridge that is Hamilton Mesa and rejoined Hamilton Mesa Trail – Trail #249 close to where I had rejoined it the previous day after attempting another section of Trail #270.
The 4.2 miles back to the junction with the Mora Flats Trail – Trail #250 pass through a number of meadows with incredible views of the high peaks of the Pecos including Santa Fe Baldy, East Pecos Baldy and the Truchas Peaks. Although you may be tempted to speed back to the trailhead, take the time to look back over your shoulder to admire the view.
Also, be mindful of your timing with the weather. There are pockets of cover along the trail, but the trail, itself, has little cover and if a storm rolls in, you will have to wait it out.
Just before the junction with the Mora Flats Trail, you will reenter the forest. Enjoy the last mile of easy walking back to the parking lot.