August 13th, 2020
For Stacia and I, the 4th of July weekend was a weekend of hiking. We set off on a different hike each day of the long weekend (what’s better than that?). On Sunday, for the third hike, we decided to explore the San Pedro Parks Wilderness Area near Cuba, New Mexico.
San Pedro Parks Wilderness is this lush, green 40,000+ acre wilderness area within the Santa Fe National Forest. The wilderness is named for its stunning ‘parks,’ or these open grassy meadows of varying size that sporadically dot this high-elevation forest landscape. And as a true wilderness area, protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964, San Pedro Parks is only minimally affected and altered by humans on the ground.
Getting to San Pedro Parks
July 5th, 2020 was our first excursion to this beautiful forested wilderness area. From the northern reaches of Albuquerque, the drive is a little more than an hour and a half total, first up NM 550 to Cuba, then east on NM 126.
One of the few vehicle access points runs along the southern end of the wilderness area and requires a drive up a dirt forest road. I’m always a bit weary about dirt roads (probably since I got my mother-in-law’s vehicle stuck in foot-deep mud one spring a decade ago in Nebraska!), even with my AWD vehicle. I was relieved to find this dirt road to be very well-maintained and well-trafficked, with numerous parties of campers at what looked like highly frequented dispersed camping sites along the sides. Our destination was the San Gregorio Lake Trailhead, where we found a good-sized parking lot packed full of cars when we arrived around midday.
San Gregorio Reservoir
One of the more popular trails in this wilderness area, the San Gregorio Lake Trailhead takes you to the San Gregorio Reservoir, a little over a mile from the trailhead. The reservoir was hopping on this July Sunday, as we expected after what the parking lot looked like! Most people were hanging out reservoir-side with their camp chairs, coolers, and fishing gear. Since we arrived around midday, Stacia and I decided to find a shaded spot along the outskirts of the reservoir to sit, take in the views, and snack on some trail mix and beef jerky.
From what I can tell from our minimal explorations and research, the reservoir seems to be one of the only large sources of water around in mid-summer, which means that us human visitors shared the water with herds of cows. After several minutes of quietly enjoying the sunshine and fresh forest air, we began to hear loud, low-pitched bellowing coming from somewhere across the water. A dozen or more cows were grazing and relaxing along the grassy eastern slope of the reservoir, and nearby two bulls confronted each other with angry rumbling and some intense grappling.
Meanwhile, we watched a couple strolling leisurely around the water's edge come close enough to the pair of bulls that I was anxious for them, a sight that reminded me of people getting out of their car in Yellowstone to get closer to a herd of bison cross the road. I don’t know why people need to hear this, but animals seen roaming the outdoors, whether that be in national parks or wilderness areas or national forests, are NOT domesticated animals. It's important to a safe distance!
Trails and Forest and Forest Fires
As nice as it was to hang out in the shade and people-watch, we were also determined to get a good hike in. From the reservoir, we headed northeast along the trail and through the gorgeous alpine fir and aspen forest. Because this is a wilderness area, and not national forest land (where logging is allowed), the trail and forest floor was covered in downed trees and the resulting debris. I remember commenting on the number of downed trees to Stacia, saying that an uncontrolled fire here might move through the forest at an alarming rate.
The National Forest Service keeps New Mexico’s national forests under strict fire restrictions throughout much of the summer. These fire restrictions prohibit most types of fires, even including campfires in designated campfire rings. There strictness comes with good reason. One week after our visit to San Pedro Parks Wilderness, a forest fire broke out near this very same trail and burned 7.8 acres of land in 3 days before it was contained by firefighters!
At one point along the trail as I stopped to take some pictures (as I sometimes obsessively do), when I heard Stacia’s nervous voice behind me say ‘JeeeEEESSSSS! There’s something there.’ She was pointing to a large animal maybe ten yards in front of me. I could feel my heart rate quicken as I looked up from my phone, expecting to see a bear staring right back at me. To our relief, that big animal was only a cow walking between the trees off trail, looking as nervous as we were about the encounter.
The Parks at 10,000 Feet
We continued on, resting a few times after noticing both of our heart rates were elevated and our breathing strained. The average elevation of San Pedro Parks Wilderness is 10,000 feet, and though this trail was relatively flat without significant elevation gain, hiking at elevation means less oxygen period. Stacia and I have become somewhat accustomed to elevation living in Albuquerque and hiking in the surrounding mountains, but we’re still not often hiking at 10,000 feet above sea level. Our bodies occasionally reminded us of that detail.
About 2 ½ miles into our hike we came to a spot where the continental divide trail intersects our San Gregorio Lake Trail, and a few steps further the trail finally ran into one of the many ‘parks’ that populate this landscape. Normally, we would've turned back sooner out of cautious for my joints with Ankylosing Spondylitis, but I was so excited to set my eyes on one of these alpine meadows.
The meadow itself was beautiful. We walked part-way through the meadow, and as we did, swarms of grasshoppers leaped at our legs left and right. A stone campfire ring was assembled at a high point in the meadow right along the trail, with a few warm half-burnt logs still scattered within. Along the meadow too were these beautiful orange flowers a bit past bloom and a few rocky mountain irises.
We decided to head back, since summer storm clouds (and the threat of an AS flare-up) were looming overhead. We met up with that same black cow on the way back to the trailhead, and witnessed another bullfight, this time on the northeast side of the reservoir, as we made our way back.
Though we spent much of the day out in this wilderness area and hiked a little over 5 miles (which is longer than our usual hikes), I was a bit sad to leave. We made it back to the car, then drove down the forest road a little way and stopped to have a cheese sandwich for lunch at one of the dispersed camping spots. The rain that threatened our hike never arrived, even as we drove away. I don’t know when we’ll be back to explore more of this wilderness, but I know for sure we’ll be back!