Season: Summer, Fall
Trail Conditions: See Description
The Cruces Basin, on the Colorado border, is a small and relatively unvisited Wilderness, but may also be one of New Mexico’s best kept secrets. It’s difficult to access and the trails, or lack thereof, largely require advanced orienteering skills and knowledge. However, the juice is worth the squeeze, especially if wide open meadows, beautiful, free flowing creeks, and forested ridgelines speak to your soul.
NOTE: There are no official trails in the Cruces Basin Wilderness. The official U.S. Forest Service map for the Wilderness marks the trailhead at the end of FR 572, but does not include any trails, which solicited a double take the first time I saw it.
Unlike most of the trail descriptions on this site, this one will focus less on one specific trail or route, but more provide some insights into the Cruces Basin Wilderness that will hopefully serve as a jumping off point for your own adventures. As a result, you should be sure to tread carefully, have a map or GPS and know how to use them!
From US-285, north of Tres Piedras, turn left onto Forest Road 118, just north of San Antonio Mountain. Follow it as it wraps around to the west side of the mountain until coming to a fork in the road. After 7 miles, turn right onto FR 87, which continues west, paralleling the Rio Nutrias. Continue to follow FR 87 by turning right at the fork after another 4 miles. Remain on FR 87 for another 11 miles until you come to the junction with FR 572. At this point, there will be signs for the Cruces Basin Wilderness and because FR 572 is cherry-stemmed into the Wilderness, you will actually see the Wilderness Boundary sign – an odd thing to pass by in a vehicle.
As long as there hasn’t been too much rain, the road up until this point should be a good condition. However, the last two miles on FR 572 can be quite rough and require a high clearance vehicle. You can always walk the final two miles or pull over at any point along the way, but assuming you can make it, follow the road, climbing at first and then descending to the trailhead.
If you’ve reached the trailhead, you’ve already seen what the Cruces Basin has in store for you. This is not the sort of hike that you rush through on a Saturday afternoon before getting back to other tasks so enjoy it.
From the trailhead, you will find the unofficial trail that leads down to the confluence of Beaver Creek and Diablo Creek. This portion of the trail is about 1 mile and leads you through gorgeous aspen forest. Depending on the time of year, the wildflowers could be spectacular.
About a 1/3 of the way down, the trail crosses a small creek and contours on the opposite hillside. There were a couple of trees down, but they are easily bypassed. As you approach the bottom of the trail, you’ll start to get a sense of the canyon above and below you.
The trail eventually veers to the left, leaving an old path that continues straight downstream. After coming to a small knoll, the trail makes a final downhill pitch to the confluence of the creeks. From here you can go up either streams or downstream toward the Rio de los Pinos.
To go downstream, turn right upon reaching Beaver Creek. There is no obviously trail at first, but after picking your way through the large boulders at the entrance to the small pinch point/canyon, a trail should emerge.
This section of trail for the next 1.25 miles remains on the east side of the creek. The trail comes and goes, but is rarely far. At certain points, the trail climbs above the water on the sidewalls of the canyon, but never for long. After 1.25 miles, the trail enters another canyon.
At this point, the creek loses about 500 feet in elevation in a rather hurried manner. As a result, the hiking becomes steep and only the most skilled and motivated hikers will reach the bottom. After dropping about 100 feet, the trail is cutoff on the east side, forcing you to cross over. It is possible to do this crossing without getting your feet wet, but be careful!
On this trip, our main motivation was fishing, so about half way down this stretch, realizing the effort, scrapes and potential falls that could result, we decided to turn around and fish our way upstream.
However, if you continue downstream, you’ll reach private land at the confluence with the Rio de los Pinos after about 3.5 miles, making for a 7 mile roundtrip.
Because much of the Cruces Basin Wilderness is open, parts of the area can be easy to navigate, including going upstream from the Beaver Creek confluence. In fact, this can connect to the Continental Divide Trail, which runs along the west side of the Wilderness are on Brazos Ridge.