Distance: 29 miles (with many potential variations)
Season: Summer, Fall
Water: There are frequent water sources along the trail.
Trail Condition: Excellent to Moderate
This is one of my favorite trips in the Pecos Wilderness, and I’ve done different variations of it every year I’ve lived in New Mexico. In 2017, I invited 8 high school friends out to New Mexico for a backpacking trip and wanting to show-off New Mexico, I naturally opted for this loop.
I was a bit nervous given the elevation and that everyone was coming from sea-level, but as a whole, everyone did great and had a fantastic time. Most of the climbing is completed on the first day and after that, the trail cruises atop the headwaters of the Pecos River, which flows the length of New Mexico before meeting up with the Rio Grande in west Texas.
Depending on your exact trip, there are a couple different trailheads from which to start, but I always start from the Jack’s Creek trailhead north of Cowles.
The first few miles as you climb out of the campground are a bit dull, and I try to motor through this section as quickly as possible before the trail opens into a large meadow at a trail junction. You can likely do this loop in either direction, but I have always done the route clockwise, which lines up some good campsites. If you take the trail to the left, Jack’s Creek Trail – Trail #257, the trail to the right, Beatty’s Trail – Trail #25 will complete the loop.
The trail winds through some pretty stands of aspen trees before traversing to the west side of the mesa, providing fantastic views of peaks of southern Sangre de Cristo.
After crossing through a series of open hillsides, the trail reenters the forest and drops down to Jack’s Creek. There’s another trail junction here. Stay right to follow the creek upstream.
After another half-mile, the trail forks again. This time take the trail to the left to stay on Trail #257 and climb away from the creek. This portion of the trail cuts through a burn area that has come back well. In 2017, the grasses growing amidst the burned snags were lush and we came across one of the most fantastic clusters of fireweed I have ever seen.
The trail reenters unburned forest before crossing a small creek and making the final climb to East Pecos Baldy Lake. Just before reaching the lake, there will be another trail junction. If you are not camping at the lake, turn right to go north on the Skyline Trail – Trail #251.
Each time I have done this trip, I have camped at the Lake my first night out. Typically, in mid-summer it is possible to do these 6.8 miles after work on Friday, but in this case, we used the full day to reach the lake to make sure no one had trouble with the altitude.
East Pecos Baldy Lake offers plenty of camping on its northern and eastern shores, and with East Pecos Baldy looming above the lake, there is no bad option.
Also, look out for bighorn sheep that come down from the mountain’s rocky slopes to drink from the lake. If you have binoculars, you may even be able to spot some sheep from camp on the peak’s north ridge.
NOTE: There are no fish in East Pecos Baldy Lake.
Our group got into camp early in the afternoon and enjoyed a couple of relaxing hours before a small group of us decided to make the side trip up to East Pecos Baldy.
The Skyline Trail – Trail #251 wraps around the east side of the lake before climbing steeply to a small saddle. From the saddle, take the East Pecos Baldy Trail – Trail #275 that climbs the final half-mile to the peak.
NOTE: #251 continues down the other side of the saddle. This section of the Skyline Trail between the saddle and Horsethief meadows is passable, but contains a lot of dead fall. Not recommended.
The first part of this well-trodden trail contains good tree coverage, but thins out about half-way up. A storm was moving in, so we all moved quickly and decided to leave our metal trekking poles once the thunder started to get closer. Even so, we were able to enjoy the summit and take a few pictures before quickly descending to camp.
After a wet night thanks to a monsoon storm that just didn’t quit, we awoke to sunny skies. Returning to the trail junction just east of the lake, we climbed out of the small basin on #251 going north. After less than a mile, the trail forks again before reaching the top of a Trailrider’s Ridge, a wide, grassy ridge with views in all directions. Continue to follow #251 to the top of the ridge.
With its the Truchas Peaks to the north, Española Valley to the west, Pecos basin to the east and East Pecos Baldy to the south, this is my favorite place in northern New Mexico. For a little more than two miles, the Skyline Trail follows the ridge’s undulating curves, showing-off some of the most stunning scenery in all of New Mexico. In June and early July, the wildflowers can be stunning.
After a couple miles, the trail comes to a marked junction and drops off the east side of the ridge and quickly comes to another junction with the Rito Azul Trail – Trail #263.
NOTE: From the trail junction on the ridge, there should be another trail, the Joe Vigil Trail – Trail #351, that drops off the west side toward Jose Vigil Lake. From the grassy junction, the trail is not discernible, but it quickly reenters the forest, from which it may pick up again.
Stay left at the junction with Trail #263 to remain Trail #251. The Skyline Trail contours around the bases of the Truchas peaks for the next few miles before reaching another trail junction with the North Azul Trail – Trail #264 just below the Truchas Lakes.
NOTE: The North Azul Trail – Trail #264, as of 2016, does not exist. Although parts of this trail remain, the majority of it is either overgrown or covered with dead fall. The trail still appears on most maps, but is not navigable.
Again, stay left to remain on the Skyline Trail, which after a short, steep climb, passes by the lower and larger of the two Truchas Lakes. This is a great spot to camp or just to take a break.
NOTE: While there are some fish in the lake, the numbers were extremely few as of 2015. Due to its elevation above 11,000 and relative shallowness, there is likely large amounts of winter kill. In 2015, however, I did see a tiger salamander enjoying the lake’s cool waters.
The trail crosses the outlet of the lake before continuing to contour around the headwaters of the Pecos River. In a about a mile you will pass a marked junction for the Jack’s Creek Trail – Trail #257. This is where the many variations of the loop begin. Over the next few miles, junctions with Jack’s Creek Trail, Beatty’s Trail – Trail #25, and the Pecos Trail – Trail #24 all offer potential return routes.
For the best scenery, remain on the Skyline Trail. After a short, slow climb from the junction with #257, you’ll reach another junction with #25 that climbs north to the top of a saddle before dropping into headwaters of the Santa Barbara River.
Continue straight (right) on the Skyline Trail for another mile until you reach another junction with the Beatty’s Trail – this one dropping off to the south (right) and back toward your car.
NOTE: Pay close attention to the weather during this section of trail, especially during the summer monsoon season. The general rule of thumb is to be away from any exposed areas by noon, but storms can roll in sooner or later so pay attention and be smart.
My preferred option, if weather allows, is to continue on #251 toward the Pecos Trail as you get a few extra miles above tree line. On this trip, we left the ridge here, following #25 to the right, but on others I have continued on the Skyline Trail to the Pecos Trail.
Considering that it receives little foot traffic, this section of #25 was in overall good condition. At a couple points, it briefly disappeared upon entering short sections of meadows, but quickly reappeared upon reentering forested areas. A couple times, our group had to spread out and look for the trail, but it never took more than 5 minutes to find again.
We did, however, lose the trail upon crossing the the Rito del Padres, but this was mostly because were were fooled by a social path that turns sharply to the right on the east side of the creek. Do not take this path, but rather stay straight once you have crossed the creek.
After a few miles on Trail #25, you will come to a junction with the Gascon Trail – Trail #239.
NOTE: This segment of the Gascon Trail – Trail #239 is 1 mile long and connects the Pecos Trail – Trail #24 with Beatty’s Trail – Trail #25. From each junction, the trail is easy to follow. But from #24, the Gascon Trail disappears upon cresting a small hill. From Beatty’s Trail, the Gascon Trail disappears even quicker. While this section of the Gascon Trail no longer exists as a unified segment, the hill it crests offers amazing views of Trailrider’s Wall, so if you are up for doing some cross-country walking, it may be worth the detour. Due to the wide-open nature of the terrain, it is possible to navigate off-trail if you are going from #24 to #25. If you are traveling from #25 to #24, the Gascon Trail disappears earlier, which makes it more difficult navigate.
Continue to follow #25 downstream until you enter the Beattys Cabin area. Here, the otherwise narrow, densely forested gorge opens up into a grassy lush valley where the Rito del Padres joins the Pecos River.
Unfortunately, no camping is allowed in the area, but if you backtrack upstream on #24 about 1/4 mile, crossing over the Rito del Padres, there is a great camping spot just beyond the no camping area. We were lucky enough to claim the site, but if it is occupied, continue to follow Trail #24 upstream to some camping areas overlooking the grassy glen.
To return to Jack’s Creek, follow Trail #25 downstream through the Beatty’s cabin area, remaining on the west side of the river. There is a high route and a low route. Take either one as they will meet back up again within 1 mile. I have always taken the higher route, but either one should go.
Once the two segments meet up again, the trail is easy to follow and remains in forested areas for most of the distance back to the junction with Jack’s Creek Trail – Trail #257. In the final mile or so, the trail reenters an open, grassy mesa that boasts wonderful views to the east.
Upon reaching the junction with Trail #257, you will have completed the loop. Follow Trail #257 for the final two miles back to the parking lot.