Distance: 12.3 miles (19 miles with side trips)
Season: Summer, Fall
Water: Water available at lower elevations
Trail Conditions: Good
The Latir Peak Wilderness is a small Wilderness area in far northern New Mexico, and despite its size hosts unbelievable Wilderness character between more than a half dozen peaks above treeline, plentiful wildlife and beautiful aspen and fir forests.
There are not many trails in the Wilderness, but the one main loop connecting Lake Fork Trail – Trail #82 with Bull Creek Trail – Trail #85 is the best option for seeing a large portion of the range. These trails also serve as jumping off points to summit Baldy Mountain, Latir Peak, Vernado Peak, Virsylva Peak, Cabresto Peak, and Pinabete Peak, along with a few other unnamed ones.
From Questa, head north on NM-522. About a mile north of the junction with NM-38, take a right onto Llano Road. In about a half mile, this will merge with Forest Road 134. Go Left.
After about 3.5 miles, you will reach a signed junction with FR 134A pointing towards Cabresto Lake. This last 2 miles of road is extremely rough. A high clearance, four wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended. It is possible to leave your car at the junction and add an extra 2 miles onto your hike.
FR 134A deadends at the parking area at Cabresto Lake.
From the the parking area, pick-up the Lake Fork Trail – Trail #82, which follows the lake shore on the left (west) side about 30 feet above the surface of the water. After about 1/4 mile it enters the canyon hosting the lake’s inlet stream, Lake Fork. For the next 3+ miles, you will follow it upstream at a steady grade.
Upon leaving the lake, you will soon enter the Latir Peak Wilderness. Keep following the stream on the west side, climbing steadily, but rarely steeply uphill. At certain points, the water is immediately accessible, but at times, the trail climbs above the creek. This entire stretch of trail is in good condition and very easy to follow.
After 2.5 miles you will reach the junction with the Bull Creek Trail – Trail #85. Note this junction as it will be your return route. Continue straight (right) to remain on the Lake Fork Trail, which crosses Bull Creek and continues to follow the Lake Fork upstream at the same steady pace.
After about .5 miles after the junction, the trail switchbacks away from the creek and briefly levels-off before resuming its steady grade.
NOTE: The trail does return to water again shortly, but there’s some chance this could be your last best opportunity for water for a while. When I did this hike at the end of September, Heart Lake was choked with algae. There was a small trickle of water in the outlet stream, about 100 yards below the lake. It was a good water source but not one I’d want to depend on.
Continue to follow the trail as it climbs, veering further and further away from the creek. Around this point, it also leaves the mixed aspen-fir forest and enters an exclusively fir forest.
Slightly more than 1/4 mile from the lake, you will reach a signed junction. Go left to reach the lake. The Lake Fork Trail continues for another .4 miles to the Mt. Baldy Cabin.
Once you’ve dropped your pack and made camp, the trip up to Mt. Baldy Cabin is a nice side trip given the relatively short distance to the lake. This section of trail is well maintained, although just before the cabin, a downed tree slightly obscures the path.
The recently restored cabin is a classic Forest Service design with dark wood, white chinking and a green roof. The cabin is accessible during very bad weather, but not any place you’d want to spend a lot of time if you don’t have to. There’s also an old privy just behind the cabin.
At this point, you can either return to the lake or continue up to Baldy Mountain. To continue the detour, pick up the trail again behind the cabin. At this point, you will be on the Midnight Trail – Trail #81.
After about 1/4 mile, the trail begins to climb up to a small saddle below the ridge. There are a few trees down in this forested section, so pay attention so as not to lose the trail. The trail briefly enters a meadow in the saddle below another small peak to the left, and then immediately turns back into the woods and continues to climb to the south (right).
After a short ways, the trail will enter a clearing and you will pass a sign for Baldy Mountain. At this point, leave the official trail to climb to the top of the treeless ridge. After about 5 minutes of climbing, you will reach the top.
While the peak itself is nothing too exciting, the views it offers are nothing short of spectacular. In addition to views of the Latirs, you can also see Wheeler Peak and Gold Hill as well as much of the Valle Vidal. In mid-September, stands of aspens scattered throughout this expanse were exploding with color. Spend as much time as daylight will allow, as Heart Lake will likely be somewhat dull in comparison.
Continue back down as you came. Just after the Mt. Baldy Cabin, you may see an old sign pointing toward an alternative trail to Heart Lake. Ignore this sign and continue back down to the junction below. It does still exist, but is difficult to find and not worth the extra effort.
Once back down at the junction, take the left fork to climb steeply up to the lake. When you are about 100 yards from the crest of the hill past which is the lake, you will hopefully see a small trickle in the outlet stream. To avoid extra trips down this steep slope, fill up on water here.
Once at the lake, there are a number of campsites on all sides of the small body of water.
The Bull Creek Trail picks up again at the lake on its south side. Almost immediately, it climbs away from the lake through thick forest before suddenly popping out above treeline.
NOTE: At this point, you will be above treeline for at least the next 3.2 miles. If you stayed the night at Heart Lake, be sure to get an early start. If you are attempting this as a day hike, be very mindful of the weather. There is zero cover after this point.
The trail switchbacks steeply up the open face to the top of the mesa. More than anything else, the elevation makes the climb difficult so go slowly and be sure to stop and admire the view behind you from time to time.
This section of trail is in very good condition, but once you reach the top of the mesa, the tread disappears and you are left to navigate via large 3 foot cairns. In clear weather, this should not be difficult at all, but in stormy weather consider turning back unless you know the route well.
Unfortunately, reaching the top of the mesa doesn’t mean the climbing is over. Following multiple cairns, the trail eventually reaches a crest, just below 12,700 feet. From the saddle below the crest, the trail veers to the left and a tread reappears. To the right, the Wilderness’s namesake peak lies less than a mile away on a low ridge.
NOTE: While the final route to Latir Peak is in the Wilderness, the peak itself is on private land.
Following the trail to the left, you will cross a scree field on a well defined trail before dropping back into a grassy saddle. The tread disappears again, but on either side of the small rise in front of you, you should see the tread resume. Choose either one of these options, as long as you wrap around to the west (right) side of the ridge to bypass the next knob.
Once again, this section of trail on the right side of this fin is well defined. But traversing over scree, the footing can be tricky so pay close attention.
At the end of this section, the trail pops back out onto the grassy meadows that you should be accustomed to. The tread is in slightly better condition, but there are still cairns to follow, which are your best bet. This is also the jumping off point to summit Venado Peak.
If you choose not to summit the peak, follow the draw downhill towards a signed junction that should eventually come into view. At this junction with the Rito del Medio Trail – Trail #87, stay straight (left) hugging the treeline below you.
Once you’ve bypassed the trees, the trail turns downhill again to a saddle toward another junction. From here, the Bull Creek Trail goes left, downhill back in the direction of the trailhead. The Pinabete Peak Trail – Trail #88 goes straight uphill.
To complete the loop, go left, but if you have time, check out Cabresto Peak, which will be about a 2 mile, roundtrip detour. To reach the peak, follow the faint, Pinabete Peak Trail up to the small knob, eventually wrapping around the west side. Once you’ve passed the knob, leave the trail to the right to reach the small saddle below the ridge that climbs up toward Cabresto Peak.
There is no official trail to Cabresto Peak, but there is a social path that makes the walking slightly easier. From the Pinabete Peak Trail, you should be able to detect the false summit that you will encounter half way up the peak, so do not be fooled when you reach it. Parts of this route contain some scree, but largely the terrain is pretty straight forward.
Once again, the views from the top of Cabresto are stunning. In addition to the rest of the Latirs, you can see Sierra Blanca in Colorado, the Rio Grand Gorge, the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and San Antonio Mountain.
Once back at the Bull Creek junction, follow the trail as it switchbacks steeply downhill. After the first 1/4 mile, which is through open grassland and interspersed trees, the trail enters a fir forest with little ground cover. Like other parts of this route, this section can be difficult to navigate due to the forest’s open nature. There are also a few downed trees that make things tricky, but as long as you are paying attention, it should not be difficult to remain on the trail.
A short ways down the trail, you will encounter your first water since leaving Heart Lake. The water will first appear on your right, but the trail quickly veers away from the creek, so do not wait to fill up.
The trail switches back and forth between gently traversing and descending steeply. Eventually, it cross another stream to the left and parallels it downstream before crossing over just before the junction with the Lake Fork Trail.
At this point, you are back where you began the loop. Go right to return to your car.