Rio Puerco

Distance: 9 miles

Water: Plenty of water throughout route

Season: Summer, Fall

Trail Conditions: Good to Poor

The San Pedro Parks Wilderness is an underappreciated gem in northwest New Mexico at the western edge of the Santa Fe National Forest. The small Wilderness area sits atop a plateau above 9,000 feet, but due to its geography, retains moisture throughout the summer.

From the main trailhead, south of San Gregorio Reservoir, this day hike reaches the headwaters of the Rio Puerco, a formerly significantly tributary of the Rio Grande that is now dry for much of its length.


From US-550, take a right onto NM-126 in Cuba. After climbing steeply up atop the plateau, follow signs for San Gregorio Reservoir and the San Pedro Parks Wilderness by taking a left onto Forest Road 70. The parking area for the hike is about 2.5 miles from the junction.

From the parking area, cross the dirt road to pick up Las Vacas Trail – Trail #51, which heads uphill into the dense spruce and fir forest that defines much of the San Pedro Parks area.

The first mile to San Gregorio Reservoir is wide and well traveled. Many people make this easy walk to the lake to fish, and it is even possible to find people carrying canoes or kayaks.

After winding through the forest over undulating hills, the trail pops out just north of the lake after 1 mile. The trail continues to the right (north), crosses Clear Creek, and then steers back into the forest. Be watchful here. There’s another trail that continues straight into the meadow, but the Vacas Trail goes right to continue north.

The next 3/4 miles  to the junction with the Damian Trail – Trail #436 is easy to follow but there’s a significant amount of deadfall. In many places, social trails skirting these downed trees have been established, but others require going over or around the fallen trees.

Just after crossing Clear Creek again, you will reach a junction with the Damian Trail. Go left to stay on the Vacas Trail, which follows Clear Creek going upstream. In this section, the small canyon narrows as the trail follows the stream on the east side.

Again, there are a few downed trees here, although not as many as before. The trail is easy to follow as it climbs gently through the predominantly spruce forest. After about another mile, the trail passes a post that appears to be an old trail sign. Ignore this. The actual junction with the Lucero Trail – Trail #34 is a few hundred yards upstream.

There are many possible loops to do either as day hikes or as backpacking trips, but seeing the headwaters of the Rio Puerco does hold a certain appeal given that it is a direct tributary of the Rio Grande. So, at this junction, go left to follow the Lucero Trail, leaving the Vacas Trail and crossing to the west side of Clear Creek.

Hiking through the rain near the junction of the Lucero Trail and the Upper Clear Creek Trail

The forest opens up and the trail enters a large grassy meadow continuing to follow Clear Creek upstream. After about 1/2 mile, the trail reaches a junction with the Upper Clear Creek Trail – Trail #417. Go left again to remain on the Lucero Trail, hiking through the small meadow toward the forested edge. The trail may faded briefly, but should be easy to pick up again at the end of the meadow.

After reentering the forest, the trail climbs briefly to a small rise before dropping to the Rio Puerco. Unfortunately, this section of trail is in far worse condition than any previous point on the route. The downed trees become frequent, and at one point, the trail became wholly obscured for about 50 years due to a large blow down.

As long as you are patient and perceptive, you should be able to refind the trail, but it remains choked with down trees all the way to the Rio Puerco.

After the trail reaches the small summit, it is flat for a short ways before dropping steeply to the Rio Puerco. Again, the downed trees remain plentiful, but the underlying trail is easy to follow as long as you can tolerate the frequent obstacles.

It is 4.5 miles to the Rio Puerco from the trailhead. This makes a good turnaround spot for a day hike, but the Lucero Trail continues to follow the Rio Puerco upstream, providing options for a longer day hike or backpacking trip.

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