Distance: 13 miles
Season: Summer, Fall
Trail Conditions: Good
Much less crowded than at the San Gregorio trailhead, this route, which can be done either as a day hike or an overnight trip, offers a pleasant way to see the southeast corner of the San Pedro Parks Wilderness. Unlike most of New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas, San Pedro Parks does not feature much relief. This makes for easy walking but little in the way of dramatic scenery. However, if you’re a meadow dweller who finds beauty in deep, dark forests and complex meadowy wetlands, this may be the hike for you.
There are a handful of ways to reach the Palomas Trailhead, so here’s one route. Follow NM-4 past the Valles Caldera to the junction with NM-126. Turn right to follow NM-126. The road will climb at first then descend to Fenton Lake State Park after which it will turn to dirt. A vehicle with some clearance is recommended. The next section of dirt road should be the roughest of the trip.
Continue to follow NM-126 until it eventually turns back into a paved road (a novelty). A few miles after it becomes paved again, turn right onto FR 103. Follow 103 for a couple miles until you reach a fork in the road. Go straight (left) to follow FR 69. After a few miles, FR 69 will T into FR 70. Turn left again and after about 2.5 miles, the trailhead will be on the right. There are about 8 parking spots along the small parking lot loop.
From the trailhead, start up the Palomas Trail – Trail #50. The first quarter mile of the trail is the steepest of the entire route so feel free to give it your all. The trail will follow a narrow ridge through an old growth forest for about one mile before descending towards the Rito de las Perchas.
Cross the stream and turn right. In about 50 yards, you’ll reach a signed junction. Note this point because it is where you will complete your loop. You can do the loop in either direction, but I happened to go counterclockwise, which seemed like a fine way to do it.
Turn left at this junction to stay on the Palomas Trail. In 100 yards you’ll reach another junction. Stay on the Palomas Trail – this time turning right and following the trail into a small, narrow canyon. In between stands of thick spruce and fir, the trail will pass through a series of small meadows. I did this hike a few days after an early season snow and despite there still being plenty of snow on the ground, the trail was easy to follow.
The trail climbs slightly at first, but never steeply and eventually levels off until it drops into the Rio de las Vacas. Soon afterwards you will reach a trail junction with Las Vacas Trail – Trail #51. Stay right, following the Las Vacas Trail upstream. As an added bonus, you are now on the Continental Divide Trail! Shortly afterwards, you will reach another junction, this time with the Anastacio Trail – Trail #435. Again, stay right to continue to follow the Rio de las Vacas upstream along the low, grassy canyon.
The route follows the Rio de las Vacas for about 1.5 miles staying on the left (west) side of the small valley the entire way. This section of trail perfectly encapsulates San Pedro’s understated beauty. Not nearly as gaudy as many other areas even compared to the Caldera or Cruces Basin, but there is plenty to fall in love with here as long as you take the time to appreciate this unique landscape.
You will reach another signed junction – this time with the Penas Negras Trail – Trail #32. Turn right onto the Penas Negras, cross the meadow, and climb back up into the dark, mature forest. As with much of this route, you will cross through a few small meadows and open areas before reaching another trail junction in about 1/2 mile.
From here, the CDT turns north, but you will turn south (right) to continue to follow the Penas Negras Trail. This next section of trail is probably the most consistently forested section of the entire route. There are a handful of downed trees here and there, but everything is easily passable.
Eventually the trail does cross through some larger meadows, and although rare, the tread through these sections is in good condition and should be easy to follow.
After 2.5 miles you will reach another signed junction. Stay right (straight) to cross through the large meadow in front of you. In addition to the trail, there should be a handful of wooden posts to help mark the way.
Soon after this junction, you will come to another and finally leave the Penas Negras Trail to turn right and follow the Perchas Trail – Trail #418. At first, there won’t be any discernible trail to follow, but the route should be obvious. Simply follow the Rito de las Perchas downstream through the wide valley as it slowly narrows. The trail will emerge on the northwest side of the creek just before crossing a small tributary. Shortly after this, the trail will enter the trees and you will come to the signed junction with the Palomas Trail where you started.
Continue another 50 yards downstream, cross the creek and follow the Palomas Trail for the final mile back to the trailhead.