Distance: 11.4 miles (10.4 miles with a car shuttle)
Season: Late Spring, Summer, Fall
Trail Conditions: Good to Poor
Honestly, it’s tough to really recommend this trip. In addition to varying trail conditions that require experience traveling off trail or with a very limited trail, there are few views and most of the trail is in either arid ponderosa forest or burn areas. Only experienced hikers should attempt this, and I would only recommend the trip for anyone who geeks out on the intricacies of the Pecos Wilderness. All that being said, there are some unique views of familiar landscapes, and when it comes to social distancing, this would be a good choice to avoid the crowds.
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 town, just after the turn off for Santa Cruz Lake, turn right onto FR 306. Follow this road up the canyon until you reach the turn off for the Borrego Trail, which is signed. Turn right and follow this road until it dead ends in a small parking area.
Alternatively, if you want to do the loop in the opposite direction, remain on FR 306 for another .5 miles until you reach a large meadow that is privately owned. There will be a turnoff with a small dirt road on the right. Park here and continue up the road for less than half mile, staying left, until you reach the trail sign for the Rito Quemado Trail.
NOTE: This is the Rio Medio, NOT the Rio en Medio or Rio en Medio Trail – Trail #163.
From the trailhead for the Borrego Trail – Trail #150, follow the trail contouring to the right for about 5 minutes before starting to switchback down the canyon toward the Rio Medio.
The first 15-20 minutes of the hike will be in a recent burn area, but the trail is in surprisingly good condition just the same. Eventually, the trail will steer back into a mature ponderosa forest that was spared by the fire and make the final decent toward a pleasant bench along the Rio Medio. Just downstream from where the trail hits the creek, there are some logs across the water that make for an easy crossing.
NOTE: In July, the crossing was easy, but earlier in the spring, it can be a bit sportier.
Once on the other side of the stream, continue up the canyon of the small tributary, Rito Gallina, stream that joins the Rio Medio. You will be on a flat bench, down stream of Rito Gallina. As you enter the burn area again, look for cut logs as a sign of where the trail is. Even though the trail is faint in this section, it should be relatively easy to follow.
The canyon eventually narrows and at times, the trail climbs a little above the slow trickle of water. Eventually, a mature, lovely ponderosa forest takes over and the trail becomes shaded again. Just before you reach the junction for the Rio Molina Trail – Trail #227, you will pass a small clearing that looks as if it was cleared for a cabin that is no longer there or may have never been built in the first place.
From the trail junction, take a sharp left to follow the Rio Molina Trail. The trail is faint, and at first, I was doubtful it would last long, but it is surprisingly durable. The trail climbs steeply for the first 1/3 mile or so before taking a brief downhill turn and resuming its climb. The trail will continue to climb until reaching the crest of ridge that divides the Rito Gallina from the Rito Quemado. From here, the trail turns right and continues to climb. Steep at first, but for varying stretches here and there, it flattens out and is quite pleasant.
NOTE: According to the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map, this section of trail is 3.1 miles, but it is much closer to 4 miles. In fact, according to the Nat Geo map, the full loop would be about 9.2 miles, but I measured it to be 11.4 miles.
The trail continues, intermittently climbing and remaining flat. It follows the ridge, almost perfectly for the first 3 miles, so even though it fades here and there, it is fairly easy to remain on the the trail. There are a mix of rock cairns, faded orange flagging and cut trees, which are always my favorite sign of a faded trail.
Eventually, you will pass a trail sign that indicates, as you would hope, that you are following Trail #227. Shortly after this sign, as the trail climbs to the top of a small knob, the trail begins to fade. At this point, you should start to pick up on the trails patterns and be able to make it to the top of the knob with little trouble.
However, from the top of the knob, things get tricky. The trail takes a fairly sharp right turn to follow a flat flank coming of the knob. The cut logs, cairns and flagging seem to disappear. I wondered around, traversing back and forth, before picking up the trail again. It fades in and out, but you should be able to follow it until it descends into a small, grassy gulch.
From here, the trail starts its descent to the Rito Quemado. The difficulty here is that the lush understory is much more tenacious than the light foot traffic can contend with. At first, the trail follows the high side of the small gulch, but eventually drops to the bottom before reaching the mouth and turn up and to the right.
At this point, if you are on the trail, it is easy to follow, but it’s also easy to lose the trail. After turning back uphill, the trail takes a small switch back to gain a small ridge before reaching a slightly larger one and making the final descent to the headwaters of the Rito Quemado, which had small trickle on the day I hiked.
The good news is that from here on out, the trail remains in good condition. After crossing the Rito Quemado, the trail climbs steeply up to the opposite ridge. At the top of the ridge, you will reach the junction with the Rito Quemado Trail – Trail #157. The sign for the junction is slightly before the actual junction, so keep going for another couple steps before making the sharp left turn.
From here, the trail climbs briefly before starting the couple mile descent back to the Rio Medio. Overall, the Rito Quemado Trail is in much better condition than the Rio Molino Trail. However, it does pass through a couple of burn areas that require your attention to remain on the trail. At the final burn area, the trail climbs briefly. Follow the rock cairns and you shouldn’t have any issues.
Eventually, the trail turns off to the right side of the ridge and drops steeply and efficiently down to the Rio Medio. Note that this section of stream is much tighter and rockier than the downstream stretch you crossed earlier that day.
Once again, the stream crossing was easy in July, but earlier in the year, with a bigger snowpack, it could definitely present some challenges.
Once you’ve crossed the creek, the trail turns left as it climbs steeply out of the narrow gorge. After climbing for about 10 minutes, the trail will crest a small ridge and contour into dry gulch. The trail crosses the gulch and continues its steep climb back to FR 306. In the final couple hundred yards before reaching the road, the trail will become an old road bed. Follow this out to the road.
A car shuttle is definitely recommended since who wants to do a road walk at the end of a long day. Plus, since it’s only 1+ miles, it’s an easy shuttle. However, if you are solo or only have one car, turn left once you’ve reached the road. The spur road to the Borrego Trailhead will appear on the left after about 1/2 mile.