Distance: 22.5 miles
Season: Summer, Fall
Water: See full description
Trail Conditions: Moderate/Poor
On the west side of the Pecos Wilderness, this hike tops out at Jose Vigil Lake, southwest of Truchas Peak. Both the lake and the route as a whole see few visitors and thus require experience and comfort traveling off-trail as the faint path frequently disappears for short sections. Perseverance is the name of the game, but if you’re up for the task, you’ll be rewarded with solitude along with fantastic views of the Pecos Baldies and Truchas Peaks.
From Nambe, turn right onto NM-503. Pass the turnoff for Chimayo to remain on NM-503 passing through the small town of Cundiyo. A couple miles past the down, just after the turn off for Santa Cruz Lake, turn right onto FR 306. Follow this road all the way to the Borrego Mesa Campground. Upon entering the campground, stay right, close to the edge of the mesa. After a few hundred yards, you will reach a small parking area with a trail sign.
Although the loop can be done in either direction, for a number of reasons, starting down the Rio Medio and completing the loop counterclockwise is the preferred route.
From the trailhead, pick up the Rio Medio Trail – Trail #155. The trail will quickly drop into the large burn area, slowly descending southeast toward the Rio Medio below. Despite being severely burned, the trail here is in good condition with fairly few downed trees. This area is exposed, but there’s regeneration occurring with aspens and ponderosas starting to pop up.
After about .5 mile, the trail will enter unburned ponderosa forest as you near the creek. The trail briefly hits the bottom of the canyon before climbing slightly above the water to bypass some small cliffs. For the next 5 miles, the trail will remain on the north side of the creek. At times, it remains close to the water, but for much of this section, it remains on a bench, 100 feet or less above the water. There are at least 4 side canyons that the trail contours around taking you further away from the water.
Throughout this section, there are a few downed trees, but for the most part, the trail is in good condition and is easy to follow – probably the easiest of the entire route.
After 5.5 miles or so, the trail drops down to the water one final time. It follows along the southside for a short while before appearing to cross the creek. In fact, you will remain on the same side, but must shuffle along a small rock wall. Even with the high water in late June, I was able to complete this maneuver without getting my feet wet.
Shortly after this, the trail will actually cross the creek, but luckily there is a large tree down across the creek, making for an easy crossing:
NOTE: There are trees purposefully felled across every major stream crossing. Most of them were in good condition, but at least one was old and starting to rot, so be sure to test them before trusting them with your weight.
The trail will remain on the southside past the junction with the Capulin Trail – Trail #158. As the trail approaches the side canyon hosting the Capulin Trail, the trail will fade. Continue upstream, with the stream about 100 feet away on your left, and you should pass the sign marking the trail junction. As you continue past the junction, the trail should reappear and become easier to follow.
About 1/3 of a mile past the Capulin Trail, the Rio Medio Trail crosses the creek and enters a grass meadow. Cross over the small knoll to leave this tributary and pick up the trail, marked by a cairn, which continues to follow the main stem of the Rio Medio. The trail starts in good condition, but will disappear for a moment. You should be able to find it again quickly however.
The trail crosses the creek again soon after this and turns right to continue upstream. Throughout this section, the riparian area along the creek is grassy, which means the trail frequently fades, but the canyon is narrow, so it is difficult to get “lost”.
Eventually, you’ll reach the junction with the Joe Vigil Trail – Trail #351. There is no trail sign, but there is a large pile of rocks where the trail sign used to be. In this small clearing, this junction should be easy to pick-up despite the lack of a sign.
NOTE: The next 1.4 miles to the junction with the Vigil Lake Trail – Trail #352 can be very difficult to find. Trust that if you remain along the creek, you will be okay, but having experience traveling off trail is a must from this point on.
From the junction, take a hard left to pick up the trail. You’ll quickly cross a small creek, follow it upstream and cross it again before returning to the Rio Medio. From here, the trail becomes very difficult to find due to a combination of downed trees and thick vegetation that has swallowed it into oblivion. Look for cut logs that signify past trail maintenance. These will be your best and most reliable markers of refinding the trail.
In addition to the trail fading away, the grade becomes considerably steeper. The trail crosses the creek a couple times over the 1.4 mile section, but spends the majority of this section on the north side. Before reaching the junction with the Vigil Lake Trail, the creek bed goes dry, the understory growth falls away and the terrain temporarily flattens. The junction is marked and hard to miss.
Go left to pick up the Vigil Lake Trail – Trail #352. After about 100 yards, the trail takes a sharp left and climbs up a small knoll before flattening out once again and wrapping around into the canyon where you’ll pick up the Rio Medio once more. At this point, it might more accurately be described as the outflow of Jose Vigil Lake.
You will reach the poorly marked junction with the Dome Trail – Trail #151 just as you reach the stream. The sign marking the junction is leaned up against a tree and can be easy to miss, so especially if you plan to take the Dome Trail back, take note of the junction.
After passing the Dome Trail, the Vigil Lake Trail follows the creek upstream for about 1/4 mile before switchbacking up and away from the creek. You will cross two smaller streams and after the second one, the trail switchbacks once again and follows this smaller tributary.
After about 3/4 mile, the terrain begins to ease. You will pass a small talus patch and if lucky, you will be greeted by the chirping of pika. From this talus patch, a faded trail veers uphill and to the left. This can be difficult to find, but at this point, you are so close to the lake that it doesn’t entirely matter. On the trail or not, steer uphill and to the left. In less then five minutes, you will reach Jose Vigil Lake, surrounded by the southwestern flanks of Truchas Peak.
Sadly, there are no fish in the lake, but considering you will almost certainly have it to yourself, it’s difficult to imagine a prettier place to spend an evening in the woods.
You can either do an out and back hike, following the same 10.6 mile route back along the Rio Medio or to make a loop, you can follow the Dome Trail and eventually the Rio Quemado Trail – Trail #153 along with a 2 mile road walk back to your car.
Assuming you opt for the loop, follow the Vigil Lake Trail for 1.1 miles back to the junction with the Dome Trail. If you start to veer away from the stream, you have gone too far.
From the junction, the trail is faded at first. Cross the creek and follow it upstream for a short while and the trail will begin to emerge. For the next few miles, it should be in fairly good condition despite some downed trees.
You will pick-up a tributary stream, follow it uphill and cross it to the east. After climbing some more, the trail will wrap back towards the stream, into a small canyon, and cross it at a point where the terrain has flattened enough to produce a small wetland. From here, the trail will continue to climb. The understory falls away, which makes the trail less defined, so look for cut logs to be your guide.
About 30 minutes from leaving the Vigil Lake Trail, you will top out on a small ridge and immediately drop back down on the other side. The next mile should be some of your easiest walking of the hike. The trail flattens out as it traverses across this hillside. There are some downed trees, but the terrain is easy allowing you to travel quickly.
The trail will eventually start to climb again, steeply, eventually gaining the ridge once more. From here, you should get a nice view of Middle Truchas Peak and Rio Quemado sprawling below.
From here, the trail follows the top of the ridge for the next short while, eventually trending to the left side and then dropping steeply into a deep saddle. The trail will switchback a number of times and as it approaches the saddle, the amount of downfall increases substantially. Throughout this section, the trail can be very hard to find, but if you lose it, look for cut logs and make your way to the bottom of the saddle. You should be able to find the trail here.
Climbing out of the saddle, on the left side of the ridge, the trail improves rapidly, but once atop the next knoll, it fades again. The ridge is flat for the next 1/4 mile and eventually takes a sharp right turn. Here the trail crosses over from the left side of the ridge to the right. If you lose the trail on top of the ridge you should be able to pick it up before it descends into the next saddle.
Once you’ve reached the saddle, the trail becomes extremely difficult to find for the next 1/4 mile due to the sparse vegetation making it easy to blend into the loose, gravelly soil. But as long as you remain on the ridge, you should be fine. If you lose it, zig zag across the ridge to find the trail again. There are also a handful of cairns throughout this section of trail to help guide you.
You should be able to pick up the trail before the final steep ascent to the Dome. This 1/3 mile section is extremely steep, so it’s definitely in your interest to find the trail, if you have lost it.
The Dome is 11,336 foot peak. Just before reaching the top, you will have a view of the Pecos Baldies through the trees behind you, but the peak itself is heavily forested so the views from the top are non-existent.
The trail descends from the peak. This first part is in good condition – the best trail you will have encountered for a few miles. But upon entering the next saddle, the downfall picks up again. From the Dome, it is slightly less than 2 miles to the junction with the Rio Quemado Trail.
The downfall is significant throughout this section, but at this point, you should be more than accustomed to it and not have much difficulty finding the way despite frequent obstacles.
Eventually the trail will turn downhill to the left and quickly reach the junction with the Rio Quemado Trail – Trail #153. Continue downhill. In the first mile of the trail, there are a few more downed trees, but this should be a cake walk compared to the previous day and half. The last mile of the trail should be almost completely clear. In a couple places where aspens are the dominant over story, grass has grown up in the trail, obscuring it, but again, this shouldn’t be much of an obstacle if you have made it this far.
Eventually, the trail will pop out in a large meadow with a small cabin. This is private land and the trail circumnavigates the meadow on the right side, eventually hitting the dirt road on the opposite side from where you hit the meadow.
If you have two cars, you can drop one here to eliminate a two mile road walk, but assuming you don’t, follow the road. It will eventually meet FR 306 at the bottom of a large hill. Turn left and follow the road back to the Borrego Mesa Campground.