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The Dale Ball Trails: Picacho Peak

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

The view into the Santa Fe Range from Picacho Peak

It’s finally that time of year when a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to – hiking! Or for that matter the thoughts of anybody stimulated and made restless by the first warm weather we’ve had all year. The snow hasn’t let go yet; you can still do some great spring skiing at Ski Santa Fe – and in fact the trail I chose for a walk on Sunday had some thick patches of corn snow in the shady places. Not to mention some slippery mud. But the sun was bright and warm, and the sky intensely blue, and there was no way I was going to stay inside on such a promising day.

The hiking trails closest to downtown Santa Fe are the well-maintained Dale Ball Trails. They are accessible from a variety of trailheads, none of them more than two miles from the Plaza, and they are so well marked that you would really have to work hard to get lost. It’s almost like playing a big game of connect the dots:

Typical trail marker on the Dale Ball Trails

Typical trail marker on the Dale Ball Trails

At least you don’t need to carry a map!

I chose to make the relatively easy climb to the summit of Picacho Peak, just south of the Nature Preserve parking on Upper Canyon Road. This is a trail I highly recommend to guests in moderately good shape who want to get a taste of the mountains and a splendid view of Santa Fe without taking too much time out of their day. The elevation of the small peak is 8577 feet above sea level, not very high by Rocky Mountain standards, but still about a 1250 foot gain from the trailhead near the Santa Fe River. You’ll feel the elevation – but the views are worth the exercise.

Most of the trail winds through the classic pinon-juniper forest that surrounds Santa Fe:

Along the Picacho Peak trail

Along the Picacho Peak trail

The lower part of the trail enters a short segment of a shaded canyon that supports some magnificent Ponderosa pines:

Looking up into the branches of a "Grandfather" Ponderosa

Looking up into the branches of a "Grandfather" Ponderosa

You’ll be walking over the ancient crystalline rocks of the Sangre de Cristo uplift the entire time. Most of the rocks are very high grade varieties of gneiss (pronounced “nice“):

A beautiful banded gneiss - walking stick for scale

A beautiful banded gneiss - walking stick for scale

These are shot through with plenty of coarse pink granite, and in fact much of the ground is littered with the glittering fragments of these stones. In places the trail is built right on the massive rock:

The rocky path on the way to Picacho Peak

The rocky path on the way to Picacho Peak

The view from the top is wonderful:

The summit of Picacho Peak, looking to the north

The summit of Picacho Peak, looking to the north

All of Santa Fe lies at your feet to the west, with the rounded peaks of the Jemez Mountains beyond. To the southwest you’ll be able to see the little Cerrillos Hills, the rugged Ortiz Mountains beyond them, and dominating them all, the great crest of the Sandia Mountains, with Albuquerque hidden behind. On most days you can see the distant mass of Mt. Taylor, a huge stratovolcano between Grants and Gallup – the sacred southern mountain, Tsoodzil, of the Navajo people. To the south the the Rockies die out in a series of progressively lower granitic peaks. To the north you may be able to see the distinctively mounded shape of San Antonio Mountain, on the furthest horizon – especially if there’s any snow – and will marvel to think this peak marks our distant border with Colorado. But I don’t doubt your eyes will be most strongly drawn to the ramparts of the magnificent Santa Fe Range and it’s snowy peaks north and east of your perch.

So the next time you come to visit us, ask about the Dale Ball Trails and the walk to the top of Picacho Peak. You’ll be well rewarded for the short investment of time it takes to make the climb. Bring a snack: there is a perfect outcropping of gneiss with a welcoming Ponderosa tree about half way up. You’ll know it when you find it. And wave to the ravens soaring over your head. They are waiting for you. . .

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