Distance: 11.5 miles (roundtrip, including side trail to Serpent Lake)
Water: Multiple sources over the course of trail
Season: Summer, Fall
Trail Condition: Moderate to Excellent
Jicarita Peak is a prominent mountain on the seldom visited northeast portion of the Pecos Wilderness in the Carson National Forest. It is one of the hidden gems of the Pecos region and well-worth the long drive.
The Serpent Lake Trail – Trail #19 starts at the end of Forest Road 161, off NM-518, which was in surprisingly good condition given how remote it is.
After crossing a creek on the far side of the parking area, the trail, which follows a defunct two track for the first half-mile, traverses a pretty meadow before continuing into the forest. At the trail head, there was a group of blue columbine, some of the biggest and most beautiful I have seen in New Mexico.
About a mile into the hike, the trail crosses a man-made waterway, a bizarre site (even for New Mexico) at such an elevation. The crossing was a little tricky, but this was likely at fairly high water. During monsoon season, be mindful of this crossing, especially on the way down.
From here, the trail beings switchbacking and climbing steeply through a series of small meadows until gaining a wide ridge. It climb sgently and eventually crosses into the Pecos Wilderness.
Shortly afterwards, the trail reaches the junction for Serpent Lake.
NOTE: I made this 1/3 mile side trip on my way down. Given the chance of afternoon thunderstorms, I wanted to make sure I reached the peak before any rain moved into the area.
After passing the Serpent Lake junction, the trail leaves the ridge and begins switchbacking – more steeply this time – up the face toward the Santa Barbara Divide. The forest quickly shrinks away and the coniferous forest gives way to stunted willow trees. From this relatively open slope, you will get views of Serpent Lake to the northwest.
NOTE: When I did this hike in late June, there was still significant snow on the edge of the coniferous forest before the willows took over. In this section the trail was difficult to follow, so if you are hiking early in the season, be sure to keep your eye out.
Shortly before reaching the Santa Barbara Divide, the trail crosses a spring that pools before descending the mountain side. This is the last source of water before returning to the trailhead.
NOTE: This area is habitat for the white-tailed ptarmigan, a state endangered species, so be sure to remain on the trail. The brown and white mottled birds live in high alpine areas and depend on willows for nesting. New Mexico’s population is the southern most on the North American continent.
Upon reaching the Santa Barbara Divide, take a right on the Divide Trail – Trail #36 at the marked junction. From this point to the peak of Jicarita, there is no cover, so be sure there are no storms rolling in.
While the route is easy to follow, the trail comes in and out at this point, saying on the west side of a small rise that runs along the ridge. The terrain is rocky, so be mindful of your footing. Also, in June, the wildflowers in the section were spectacular. Sky pilots are an especial favorite of mine since they only grow at the highest elevations.
Before making the final climb to the peak, the trail dips into a small, wide saddle. On my hike, there was a group of 5-6 bighorn sheep. I watched them for a while as I hiked in their direction, and when I got within 100 yards, in unison, the adroitly, dove down the steep northern face of the ridge, disappearing instantly.
The official trail contours around the west side of the mountain, but the more popular route continues up the ridge to the peak. Because this trail is more of a social path, at points it fades in and out, but the route is obvious. The path becomes more obvious toward the top of the peak.
If it is windy, as it often is, there is a large stone cairn to provide shelter. Be sure to enjoy the 360° degree views, especially those of the Chimayosos and the Truchas Peaks to the Southeast. At 12,835 feet, there is no point taller than Jicarita Peak in the relative vicinity.
Follow the trail back the way you came. If you don’t follow the same route along the ridge, just be sure to find the post marking the junction with the Serpent Lake Trail.
When you reach the junction for Serpent Lake, make the side trip if you have the time. The trail descends steeply, but reaches the lake’s grassy shores after 1/3 of a mile. After you’ve had your fill relaxing on the lake’s shore, continue up to the main trail, turn left and follow it back to the trailhead.