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Eyes on the ground: Hiking the Dale Ball Trails in Santa Fe

 

Trail name: Dale Ball Trails South: map  link here and here.

Recommended seasons: These are all-seasons hikes. The trails can be snowy in winter but they are unsuitable for snowshoes. The Dale Ball Trail system ranges in elevation from 7000′ to 9000′ above sea level.

Dogs (on leashes) and mountain bikes are permitted. No horses. These trails are maintained by the City of Santa Fe and are very well marked.

 
A natural abstract painting of lichen and gneiss along the trail

I didn’t have as much time to spend up in the mountains as I usually do, this past weekend, and so on Sunday afternoon I made a short drive to the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Fe Canyon Preserve and had a walk along the Dale Ball Trail network up toward Picacho Peak – a hike I have described before. This is one of my favorite “I don’t have much time” hikes, one which I like to recommend to guests here at the Inn on the Alameda. My original intention was to follow the trail almost to the top of Picacho Peak, but then turn south and make a traverse that follows the ridge line over to Atalaya Mountain, another favorite destination for local hikers. But what with my late start, and a leisurely pace, I abandoned this plan when I got to the junction and turned back to make an equally leisurely walk back.

All of the Dale Ball Trails wind around in what can be considered the “foothills” of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which form Santa Fe’s dramatic backdrop. You’ll find quite a few local folks on these walks, many of them giving their dogs an outing. And while most of the trails stay in the “sun forest” of pinon pine that surrounds Santa Fe, green and fragrant all through the year, an observant hiker will find all kinds of signs of the changing seasons on the forest floor: 

First flowers of "Perky Sue", an early-blooming composite in the aster family

 

New Mexico is favored by more flowering varieties of the penstemon clan than any other state. One of the first to bloom is the graceful little Sidebells penstemon. They need another week, but the pretty grey-green spikes, nodding as they do right before pulling themselves erect and flowering, are everywhere in the hills:

Sidebells penstemons about to bloom. Penstemon are in the snapdragon family.

Soon these will be holding up a spike of violet-pink trumpets, with a tiny little “beardstongue” sticking out of each one.

Cactuses bloom in May regardless of the weather. The southern exposures of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo are home to all kinds of winter hardy cacti. Here’s a cluster of hedgehog cactus aching to bloom:

Flower buds on a hedgehog cactus

Already you can hear hummingbirds whirring through the forest, twittering with anticipation. And there are frisky lizards all over the rocks. I even saw a tiny little horned toad in the stony litter along the trail. I always consider this a blessing, since for years these odd creatures seemed to have vanished. 

Everywhere you turn on these hikes, you seem to find  peaceful, natural rock alcoves as serenely disciplined as a Japanese garden. This twisting pinon lacks nothing except a statue of the Buddha to complete the picture:

A pinon pine along the trail

And – you know me – you can never disregard the rocks. Everywhere you walk in the Santa Fe Range, you will find the ground littered with fragments of very coarse granites in striking colors of red, pink, and white:

A boulder of red granite pegmaite shot through with quartz

Many of these fragments of pegmatite shine with silvery plates of white mica, and very occasionally you will find even more exotic minerals within, like these crystals of black tourmaline sulking darkly in the heart of the granite:

Black tourmaline, or "schorl" exposed in a pegmatite dike

Too bad they’re not gem quality! Or maybe not. The general metallic barrenness of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains spared them from the ravages of mining seen, say, up in Colorado, or south of us, in the Ortiz Mountains.

I’ll have more to say about the origin and significance of pegmatites in some future entry, but for now, I’ll just mention that these exotic rocks add a great deal of spice to your walks above Santa Fe. They fill fractures everywhere in the crystalline rocks, giving all sorts of interest to the outcroppings:

Pegmatite dike cutting across a ledge of gneiss

You probably noticed all these photographs were taken looking down. There are plenty of wonderful views along the Dale Ball Trail, believe me. But some of the subtlest signs of Spring – and the not so subtle evidences of ancient igneous activity – can only be seen with an attentive spirit – and eyes on the ground. 

Go have a walk.

How to get there: the trailhead for the Dale Ball Trails South is in the parking area of the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Fe Canyon Preserve. From the Inn on the Alameda, follow Alameda Street east approximately one mile to where it ends in a 3-way stop. Turn left onto Upper Canyon Road and continue east approximately one mile, until the road makes a sharp left and becomes Cerro Gordo Road. Immediately after making this left turn, you will see the parking area for the Nature Conservancy to the right. The trailhead is marked at the far end of the parking area.

 

 

 

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