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The Butterfly Meadow

Santa Fe National Forest: The Aspen Vista Trail

The Aspen Vista Trail is probably the most popular trail in the Santa Fe area. The trailhead, with abundant parking, is around 14 miles from downtown Santa Fe, right along Hyde Park Road (NM 475) and the trail itself is a 5.7 mile doubletrack with a wide grade and wonderful views, especially in the autumn. The elevation of the trailhead is at 10,000 feet, and if you make it to the crest of Tesuque Ridge, you’ll find yourself on the lip of a cirque at nearly 12,000 feet, well above tree line.

The hike I’ll be describing is a much shorter excursion of about a mile, with a steep side trip along upper Tesuque Creek to a unique meadow. While the Aspen Vista Trail is open to dogs on leashes, livestock, and mountain bikers, the unmaintained path to the meadow is steep and littered with downed aspen, making it impassible for livestock and bikes. This is definitely a summer and autumn hike. Be prepared for thunderstorms from June through September.

The Butterfly Meadow from my rain shelter under a spruce tree

Several years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a butterfly census around the Fourth of July weekend, led by a local lepidopterist (the oddest things happen in Santa Fe) and the high point of the walk – literally – was a tiny meadow along upper Tesuque Creek, just off the Aspen Vista Trail. Full of flowers – and butterflies – this little rift in the forest has been a favorite place to visit over and over again, to enjoy the changing palate of wildflowers that it offers over half the year. Although it has no formal name, for me it will always be the Butterfly Meadow. It’s a remarkable spot.

I still haven’t learned the names of all the flowers that live there. I learned three new ones this weekend alone, among which was a showy member of the mustard family that grows with its feet in the water:

Bittercress in Tesuque Creek

Who would have guessed that a hot-tempered plant like a mustard would like a frigid mountain stream?

The first of the seductive (and poisonous) Monkshoods are unsheathing their jewel-toned cowls:

Monkshood flowers

At this time the meadow is full of pale lavender Richardson geranium, bright yellow Mountain parsley, intensely red Scarlet Indian paintbrush, pink and blue Franciscan bluebells, and twinkly-white Cowbane. Deep carmine King’s crown is blooming along the creek, and there is plenty of magenta Shooting star along the walk up the path. Nature journalists have to bring all their colored pencils this time of year!

Franciscan bluebells and ferns in the meadow

Rock-lovers will enjoy the boulders of high-grade gneiss that fill the meadow:

Twinberry blooming in front of a beautifully banded gneiss

And of course – once the sun breaks out of those ominous thunderheads that have already gathered over Tesuque Ridge – the butterflies appear as if by magic:

Variegated Fritillary enjoying the sun

Butterflies aren’t the only creatures that enjoy this meadow:

Some nice ladies enjoying a picnic. This could be you!

Having disregarded my own advice about bringing rain gear, and tempting the summer rain gods thereby, I was of course caught in shower that came up with remarkable speed. Pellets of stinging ice were soon added, although I was spared the thrill of lightning. I crept under the dense skirts of a short Engelmann spruce that swept the ground and was immediately snug and dry in a fragrant cave where I could sit quietly and wait out the rain. And in that way that nature has of offering you a treasure if you will only be quiet and receptive, toward the end of my wait I spotted a carefully hidden nest among the boughs – the work of a Hermit thrush – with a perfect jewel lovingly set within:

A hidden jewel

I wouldn’t have spotted this in a hundred chattering hikes among the spruce and aspen. It took a time of enforced quietude for me to receive this gift.

Every weekend brings a new wave of blooms and butterflies to the mountains above Santa Fe, now that summer is here. You could do no better than to take John Muir’s advice:

“Keep close to nature’s heart . . . and break clear away once in a while, climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. . . Go to the mountains and get their glad tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Getting there: The Aspen Vista trailhead is clearly accessible at the eastern end of the extensive parking area along Hyde Park Road. From the Inn on the Alameda, you turn north on Paseo de Peralta, and then turn right at the light at the intersection of Paseo with Bishops Lodge Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way.

The path to the Butterfly Meadow is about 0.8 miles along the Aspen Vista walk, just after you see the sign that says “Tesuque Creek Trail” (which heads off downhill to your right). A few steps further along, you’ll see the creek flowing under the road, with the informal trail up the mountain just in front. You’ll be making a left turn and heading uphill. It’s a steep hike of about 0.2 miles, with lots – and I mean lots, after our hard winter – of downed aspen to step over, under, and around.

Tesuque Creek

fireplace