Distance: 13 miles
Season: Summer Fall
Trail Conditions: Moderate to Good
This loop on the east side of the Pecos Wilderness offers a great opportunity to leave the crowds behind but not sacrifice some of the featured characteristics of the Pecos Wilderness. The North Fork and Agua Fria Trails are in very good condition, but the Middle Fork Trail sees far less traffic and is only recommended for more experienced hikers. Still, both lakes are a sight to be seen and make the trip well worth the effort for either a day hike or backpack.
From the town of Mora, take NM-518 north for a few miles to the town of Cleveland and turn left at the fire station. You’ll immediately come to a T. Turn left again. After another few miles, the road forks. Go right and follow the Rio del la Casa. The road will cross the creek twice. After the second time, you will come to another T. Go right and follow the road that switchbacks, climbing away from the water.
Continue to follow this road past a number of homes until you’ll eventually cross into the Santa Fe National Forest. Eventually you will reach a large, open meadow area. This is Walker Flats. Here, you will reach a three way split in the road. Go left on a small road and follow it for about a mile. Just before it takes a final downhill turn to a small parking area along the North Fork Rio de la Casa, another road will come in from the right and there will be a few parking spots at this junction. I parked here, but you could also continue to the official trailhead just 100 yards downhill.
A four-wheel drive vehicle with some clearance is recommended.
Nothing much but a small parking area remains of this trailhead. The sign has been beaten through and has been devoid of any useful information for many years. Cross the cree and pick up the Middle Fork Trail – Trail #266, which follows an old road bed for the first 3/4 miles.
Another roadbed will fork to the left to follow the stream downhill. Ignore this and continue on the road that contours, climbing slightly away from the North Fork and towards the Middle Fork. You will climb slightly for 10-15 minutes before reaching a crest and starting to descend. Shortly after this, the trail will leave the roadbed, turning right onto single track. Pay attention here because it’s easy to miss despite there being a couple small cairns.
Once on single track, the trail is in relatively good condition at first, but devolves as you get closer to the river. In a couple places, the trail branches, but for the most part comes back together quickly. There are also some downed trees in this section. For the most part, bypassing them is easy, but in a couple places, the route bypassing the obstruction is circuitous enough to make finding the trail again slightly difficult. For this section, especially, a GPS can come in handy, but as long as you are paying attention, you should be able to find the way.
The trail drops towards the water at first, but does not actually get close to the Middle Fork a few miles, so it eventually finds a small bench high above the water and follows the creek upstream, climbing steadily.
Throughout this section, the trail, which has been dug into the hillside, is easy to find even though the grass and other vegetation have grown up into it. There continue to be downed trees as well, but they should be easy to navigate. Also, watch out for the occasional switchback, which can throw you for a loop if not aware.
The trail will eventually reach the Middle Fork Rio de la Casa. There are numerous small cascades throughout this section so enjoy the views as you continue to trudge uphill. After about a mile or so following close to the creek, the trail takes a final switchback away from the water and begins its climb out of the canyon.
The trail tops out in a series of lovely meadows. Be sure to look behind you at the views of the steep canyon walls giving way to high plains of northeast New Mexico.
Once the trail enters the meadow, it can be more difficult to find due to the lush, grassy meadow out competing the relatively few foot prints it sees. However, the trail steadily contours in mostly the same direction, climbing slightly, so even if you do lose it, remain on course and you should be able to find the trail again. The trail comes in and out of the threes for this last mile before the junction with the North Fork Trail – Trail #269. The sections in the trees are in slightly better condition, but the grassy under story remains strong, so paying attention is a must.
Eventually, you will reach the junction with the North Fork Trail. To visit Middle Fork Lake, turn left and follow the trail for about .4 miles. It’s easy walking and except for some downed trees, the trail condition improves immensely. The trail will crest a small rise before reaching the lake.
The North Fork Trail continues past the outlet of the lake, but for the purposes of this trip, turn around and trace your steps back to the trail junction. From here, remain on the North Fork Trail, which climbs gently from the junction to contour around the large ridge that separates the two lake basins from one another.
Again, except for a few downed trees, this section of trail is in very good condition. Also, the trail slowly levels off, making for a very pleasant hiking, and reaches North Fork Lake somewhat suddenly.
Amazingly, from here, the trip will be a breeze. Past the lake, the trail remains in very good condition. Almost all the climbing is behind you as the trail makes its way to the ridge north of the lake. From there, the trail descends slowly along the ridge. There continue to be downed trees, but from here on out, there are well-defined trails bypassing these barriers that make it easy to cruise along.
About 2.5 miles past the lake, you will reach a junction with the Agua Fria Trail – Trail #233.
NOTE: This trip can either be treated as a true loop or you can do a short car shuttle to eliminate a brief road walk at the end of the trip, where you are unlikely to see anyone on the road.
To do the loop, turn right onto the Agua Fria Trail. Again, this trail is in very good condition with the exception of a few downed trees with well worn paths bypassing them.
The only tricky part on this 1.9 mile section comes just after Pink Spring, which empties into a small stock tank. The trail continues to the other side of the small meadow before making a couple switchbacks through the trees and crossing the bottom of that same small meadow/clearing. The trail is somewhat faint here, but picks up again at the bottom of the clearing.
Eventually the trail pops out onto a small two track. Go right, heading downhill. After a short while, you will reach a junction with another road. Go right again. Stay on this road for two more switchbacks. At the second switchback, another, smaller road will go off to the right. Follow this and after a couples, this road will fork as well. The more established fork goes to the right, but you will turn left.
If you parked at the same spot I did, your vehicle should come into view shortly.
NOTE: This loop could be done in either direction but for a number of reasons, I like the one I chose. Most of my mental energy making sure I remained on the trail was expended at the beginning, and by the second half of the hike, I was able to just cruise along. Also, I don’t mind ending my hike with a downhill road walk, but having to start the trail that way or ending with an uphill road walk can be much less enjoyable.