Distance: 38 miles
Water: Many water sources throughout trail
Season: Summer, Fall
Trail Conditions: Excellent to Moderate
In 2017, we were lucky to have July 4th fall on a Tuesday, which produced a 4-day weekend. By taking off early on Friday afternoon, we were able to put together an amazing 4 night, 5 day backpacking trip, linking together some of the best lakes of the Pecos Wilderness.
Taking off early on Friday night, we started at the Winsor Creek Trail, west of Cowles, and took the Winsor Creek Trail – Trail #261 to Stewart Lake.
We reached Stewart Lake just as it was getting dark. Caddis flies were hatching, so as Sullivan set up the tent, I fished and was able to land one rainbow trout before night set-in.
One of the big features of this trip was to create base camps and do day hikes as opposed to taking down camp and putting the weight on our backs each day. So on day 2, we left our camp as is and backtracked along the Skyline Trail – Trail #251 to the junction with the Winsor Trail – Trail #254.
Turning right onto Trail #254, we followed the Winsor Trail for a mile until it met the Lake Katherine Trail – Trail #242. Trail #242, climbs steeply towards Lake Katherine. It crosses some smalls scree field, but remains easy to follow all the way to the lake.
Because of the long, holiday weekend, Lake Katherine was crowded with campers, so we didn’t linger long at the lake before picking up the Skyline Trail – Trail #251 on the south side of the lake. This trail traverses out of the small basin and climbs to the saddle below Santa Fe Baldy. Even in July, there was a bit of snow on the final, north-facing pitch before the saddle.
There’s no official trail to the summit of Santa Fe Baldy, but the trail that does exist is very well-worn and easy to follow. We climbed the mile-long ridge trail to the top of the peak. There’s a false summit 1/3 of a mile before the peak. Once you’ve reached the false summit, the majority of the climbing is behind you and it is easy walking to the peak.
Naturally, the views from here are amazing. Not only can you see the Espanola Valley to the west, but the entire Pecos Wilderness unfolds to the east.
NOTE: Be extremely mindful of incoming weather. I have been caught on top of Baldy in quick moving thunderstorms. Cover is not nearly as far away as in other places, but the peak is well above treeline.
After descending to the saddle, instead of returning to our camp via Lake Katherine, we steered right along Trail #251 back to the junction with the Winsor Trail. AT this junction, we turned left (right goes towards Ski Santa Fe) on #254 and followed it over the low pass and down to Spirit Lake.
Like the rest of the Winsor Trail, this section is in excellent condition. It passes through lush Douglas fir forest, and we were accompanied by a parade of butterflies as we hiked along.
After passing Spirit Lake, the trail comes to the junction with Trail #242, where we had climbed to Lake Katherine earlier in the morning.
Taking a right to follow #254, we retraced our route back to camp at Stewart Lake.
After the long day, the day before, we made this one a short day. After fishing in the morning, we packed up camp and continued north on the Trail #251 to Johnson Lake. At the junction with the Johnson Lake Trail – Trail #267, we turned left and made the 1.8 mile trip up to the lake.
We made camp just downhill of the lake, out of the basin, and spent the day fishing, reading and otherwise enjoying the gorgeous weather.
On our fourth morning, we opted to keep our camp at Johnson Lake in place as we hiked to Horsethief Meadows along the Skyline Trail.
Following Trail #267 back to the junction with Trail #251, we took a left to follow the Skyline Trail northward. This section of #251 slowly descends towards Cave Creek where it meets the Cave Creek Trail – Trail #268.
Here, the Skyline Trail turns left and climbs over a small pass. While this trail was easy to follow, it was not in good condition. There were lots downed trees over the switchbacks. It was possible to hike around them, but given the steep pitch, it was not easy. Additionally, the trail contained a lot of loose rock that did not make walking any easier.
Once the trail reached the small pass, the hiking became easier. But again, on the descent into Horsethief Meadows, there were many downed trees covering the trail. This section was easier to navigate, but still not ideal.
NOTE: While driving out the next day, we ran into a Forest Service ranger who said that section of trail is being rebuilt.
As the trail descends through lush forest, it begins to open up in the last 1/4 mile before the meadow. Cross the small stream and enjoy a long rest in the large meadow. We were lucky enough to come across the largest patch of elephant head flowers I have ever seen.
After spending an hour in the meadow, we returned how we came back to our camp at Johnson Lake.
On our final morning we quickly packed up our stuff and headed back down Trail #267 to the Skyline Trail and took a right toward Stewart Lake. A 1/4 mile before Stewart Lake, at the junction with the Winsor Ridge Trail – Trail #271, we look a left on Trail #271.
This well-marked trail slowly descends toward Cowles above Winsor Creek. It crosses through a mixture of Douglas Fir, Aspen and oak forests as well as some pretty meadows.