Day 1: Santa Fe Ski Basin to Lake Katherine

Day 1: After an awful lot of preparation, we were finally ready to go.

“We” being me and Riley, pictured below.

Santa Fe Ski Basin, Pecos Wilderness Gate, Winsor Ridge Trail
Riley at the Pecos Wilderness Gate. This is about a 20-minute walk from the Santa Fe Ski Basin parking lot and the Winsor Trail (Trail #254) trailhead.
I signed in at the trail log just to make it official.

 

My boyfriend drove us up to the basin and dropped us off around 10am. There wasn’t a whole lot of ceremony to it – we wanted to get going.

The trail starts off like so many others: Up. It’s a steepish up in places, with switchbacks through the trees, looking down on the Santa Fe Ski Basin as you climb up from the parking lot.

After about 20 minutes the trail flattens out. You’ll pass through the Wilderness Gate, pictured above with the dog running at you. If you took a right just in front of this gate, you’d head up towards Raven’s Ridge. Don’t do that – go straight through the Wilderness Gate.

From the gate it’s a long, fairly flat walk that looks a lot like this trail. In about thirty to forty minutes you’ll cross into aspen forest.

This is what most of the beginning of the Winsor Trail looks like. There are a few aspens among the evergreens, but not many for the first 45 minutes or so. This picture is about 10 minutes past the wilderness gate. The sign is for “the elevator shaft”. Don’t take that trail – go straight on for the thru-hike, towards Nambe Lake, Lake Katherine, and Baldy.

Expect A LOT of traffic on Winsor Trail. On weekends in the high season it’s almost a constant stream of people. Expect a lot of dogs, too – if yours isn’t friendly, this is not a good place to be. Sometimes there isn’t much of a shoulder if you needed to pull a dog out of the way.

After about an hour you’ll come to “The Y.” This is where the trail splits. You go left. Everyone going up to Nambe Lake will be headed right. Just keep walking on the left fork and you’ll come to this river crossing (Nambe River) in about a minute.

Nambe River, just past the “Y” and about an hour from the Ski Basin parking lot.

It’s a good place to rest if you want, and a good place to get water. The “bridge” is still good, though it is definitely due for repair. If it isn’t repaired by the time you get to it, don’t worry – the water isn’t deep. You could make your way carefully over the rocks, especially if you had a walking pole to steady yourself. (I recommend taking at least one walking pole on the thru-hike. They’re handy.)

It’ll be mostly flat as you keep walking for the next 30-40 minutes. You’ll pass the left for La Vega, which is a big lovely field with a water source and a nice view up the southeast side of Baldy. Unfortunately, the cows also think it’s lovely. Mind the bulls at La Vega – and the cow patties if you have a dog who likes to roll in them.

If you continue straight past the left for La Vega, staying on the Winsor Trail, it’s a mellow walk. There are several little fields to rest in along the way, and you could probably find a flat enough place to put a tent down if you didn’t want to keep going.

The flora is really nice along the way, too. We have these cool magic-looking mushrooms. I believe the blue flower on the right is Parry’s Mountain Gentian. It shows up a lot along the trail, especially as you come into Puerto Nambe.

The trail goes up a bit before you get to Puerto Nambe. It’s not too steep or too long, but it’s enough to make you a little tired if you’ve got a big pack and you aren’t, um… fit enough to be a trail runner.

Puerto Nambe. This is a large flat area about 45 minutes or so past the Y and Nambe River, and a bit less than two hours from the Ski Basin parking lot.

The split you see here is where you run into the Skyline Trail, aka Trail 251. You’ll be on the Skyline Trail for much of the thru-hike to Taos.

You have a decision to make here; you can go either way: to Lake Katherine via the left or to Spirit Lake via the right. You’ll be on the Skyline Trail whether you go left or right.

Here’s a close-up of that sign:

The Skyline Trail at Puerto Nambe
The Skyline Trail at Puerto Nambe. Go left for Baldy and Lake Katherine. Go right for Spirit Lake.

And here’s a map from the excellent book, “Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area: Eighth Edition” by the Northern New Mexico Group of the Sierra Club. This is the map for the “Spirit Lake from the Santa Fe Ski Area” hike on page 305.

map of Santa Fe Ski Basin to Spirit Lake or Lake Katherine
Map of Santa Fe Ski Basin to Spirit Lake or Lake Katherine, from the book Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, 8th Edition. I recommend you buy this book. They have great maps, and several of their hikes crisscross the Santa Fe to Taos thru-hike. It might even be worth taking a few photos of some of those maps on your phone – or tear out some key pages – so you can reference them while you’re on the trail. Having print backups of key maps can be mighty helpful backup in case your phone or GPS device dies.

If you go the Lake Katherine way, you’ll do about 500 feet more elevation. You’ll also need to get over the ridge safely. If the weather is bad or there are thunderclouds around, it might be smart to go right to Spirit Lake instead.

The split at Puerto Nambe. Go right for Spirit lake, left for Lake Katherine.
The split at Puerto Nambe. Go right for Spirit lake, left for Lake Katherine.

Spirit Lake is not as dramatically gorgeous as Lake Katherine is, but it is more sheltered. It also takes a bit less effort to get to. You’ll be walking on a mostly flat, shaded trail with a steep slope going down on your right. It’s almost entirely forest the whole way to Spirit Lake. There are several good established campsites close (probably too close) to the lake.

Here’s a photo of it:

Spirit Lake
Spirit Lake

Returning to the topic of Puerto Nambe… It’s nice. It’s flat and open, so while there isn’t any water there, it’s an ideal place to camp or rest (and there’s water just down the hill from where you came from, maybe 30 minutes away, max).

You’ll see some great views at Puerto Nambe – both of Baldy and the saddle to the north, and of Nambe Lake basin and Santa Fe to the East and South. It’s probably not a great place to be in really bad weather, but there are enough sheltered areas under the trees to be okay. Just please – respect mountain weather. It can get kinda wild at high elevations.

Another view of Puerto Nambe
Another view of Puerto Nambe

You will probably see a few people at Puerto Nambe. Maybe lots of people. This is a resting area for people coming down from Baldy and Lake Katherine, but it’s also a resting area for people who did the loop and went over Raven’s Ridge and Penitente Peak.

Riley at Puerto Nambe, watching a cow on the far side of the field.

While we were at Puerto Nambe, Riley made his first really big faux pas. He rolled in a cow patty. You can just barely see the black cow in the photo above. You can see the cow patty quite easily, though: it’s the brown thing just to the right of Riley’s back right foot.

Almost immediately after I took this picture, he just dropped down into the cow patty.

I yelled out “NOOOO!” loud enough for most of the basin to hear, but of course it was too late. He was persona non grata for at least the next hour, especially after he walked too close to me and got me smeared with cow poo, too. The first thing we did at Lake Katherine was to wash him and his pack off – twice. He’s lucky I let him in the tent.

From Puerto Nambe you’ll go up a series of switchbacks as you climb towards Baldy and the saddle. This is the view, looking back, once you’re up on the saddle.

Your reward for climbing up the switchbacks from Puerto Nambe is to see great views in many directions. This photo shows the view of Baldy. If you’re just bursting with energy, you could drop your pack and summit Baldy, then come back down and continue on to Lake Katherine.

This is from the same spot as the photo above, just looking the other direction.

This is the way you’ll go to get to Lake Katherine. There are a series of tight switchbacks right under the ridge. The footing is decent, but the views of the Pecos Wilderness (and Truchas Peak beyond) are hard to look away from.

Here’s the view as you start to go down the switchbacks just over the saddle:

One view from the other side of the ridge, going down the switchbacks towards Lake Katherine

After you’ve gone down the switchbacks, you’ll go through covered forest pretty much the whole way to Lake Katherine. It’s a good bit of up, with some down. If your sense of direction is good, you’ll have the sense of coming around the bend of the mountain, towards a large basin that’s somewhat hidden through the trees. That basin is Lake Katherine.

Here’s how it looks as you come up towards the Lake itself:

The trail gets a little rough and rocky in places as you approach Katherine, and in a couple of places you’ll want to be careful about not losing the trail entirely. If you do lose the trail, don’t panic. Keep your GPS at hand and follow what should be the trail as best you can. Just keep heading toward Lake Katherine.

It will probably only be hard because you’ll be tired by then. Hang in there – the views are worth it. And you’ll be able to see how the basin opens up as you approach.

Lake Katherine, at last:

Lake Katherine late in the day
Lake Katherine late in the day. Notice the glass-like water surface. It didn’t stay that way for long.

By the time Riley and I hauled into Katherine, I was totally exhausted. I pulled off the big pack and took Riley’s nasty cow poo pack off, too. We went down to the lakeside to wash him off – twice – and to wash the pack off. Then we took a walk around about a quarter of one side of the lake, looking for a good place to put up the tent.

We were late enough in the day that several groups had gotten the nicer spots. There were quite a few people there – at least 20. Lake Katherine and East Pecos Baldy Lake were the most crowded places we stayed at.

After some wandering, I settled on a nice flat area that was at least somewhat protected by trees. It was a little closer to the lake than I’d usually get, but I didn’t want to be too close to the other groups (they probably wouldn’t have appreciated it either), and I was way too tired to walk to the other side of the lake.

That ended up being a good call. I had *just* enough time to bring the packs over and set up the tent. I was putting the rain fly on when the wind kicked up (way up) and the rain started – hard.

We scrambled in, still mostly dry, to our sweet little tent. I’ve been in quite a few downpours and wind storms in this tent, and it’s held up beautifully every time. I was especially pleased with myself for giving the rainfly two water repellent treatments while I was prepping my gear.

The treatments worked. It’s nice to see beaded raindrops.

The weather at Katherine can get a little woolly. One time I came up here with Rob and we got pelted by a fairly intense hailstorm. It hailed and rained just after Riley and I got in, too.

 

Riley bundled up in his binkie while we waited out the rain. He used this pretty much every night. It’s a down ultralight blanket from Montbelle. Weighs about 12 ounces.

After about 45 minutes got a brief break from the rain… until some thunderstorms moved in. I started making dinner (heating water and setting up my “kitchen”) a good way away from the tent, as is my habit to minimize any interest from bears.

After two lightning strikes really close to the lake basin, I decided to move my “kitchen” – my stove and gear – under the trees. That meant it would be closer to camp than I usually like, but I didn’t want to be out in the open while the lightning was striking all around. There was an established fire ring near our tent; about 200 feet away. Again, usually I’d cook and eat at least twice as far from the tent, but the weather prevented that from happening.

We ate quickly, but with gratitude. Riley inhaled his bowl of freeze-dried beef, rehydrated with warm but not too warm water. He got half a pig’s ear for dessert.

I don’t remember what I ate, but I did manage to get in two large servings (2 tea bags each) of Nighty-Nite tea. I’m a night person, so I’m always a little worried about not sleeping… though after that much trail with that much pack weight, it’s rarely a problem.

It rained on and off during dinner, but thanks to the tree shelter and a great rain shell, I wasn’t too wet.

We cleaned up after dinner. I washed and smeared Purell over my pants and front a bit to get the food smell off. Then we went back into the dry, quiet tent.

——

This is my journal entry from the first night at Lake Katherine. It was voice recorded/automatically transcribed into my phone because that is much easier than typing, especially when you’re so tired you can barely sit up:

Monday night

So we’re here. We made it to Katherine. Stunning as it is up here, it was a bit of a pain – it took me an unbelievably long time to heat up my dinner. The weather is a bit robust because we’re so high, and so it’s windy and there are a lot of thunderstorms and it rained on us and I had to move my kitchen area because I was worried that I was going to get struck by lightning.

There are several groups here. Probably about 20 or more other people. I was worried that they would be loud, so I moved us off aways away from them. But so far everything is very quiet.

Because of the lightning we ended up eating dinner much closer to the tent than I usually would. I’ll just hope for the best.

The bear hang did come off beautifully though, and it’s good because we have a huge bag of food. But I got it on the first shot. Found a beautiful white chunk of crystal that looked like a piece of ice and wrapped that up with the carabiner and found a good limb and threw it up and it hung on the first try up. So dinner was unbelievably difficult but the bear hang was easy.

Never really do know it’s going to be easy and that’s gonna be hard, do you?

I was really tired by the time we got up here. Part of my plan was to continue on to Stewart like, but the weather kicked in and we had no choice – we had to stay here. I was not going to trudge down the trail in the rain and the lightning and the wind.

Now that this is all underway, part of me is like “Why we doing this?” “Why is this important?”

It’s important because I want to do something meaningful. And this is meaningful.

I’m also glad that I’m doing it before the weather shifts. Really this is my one real window to pull this off this year.

And I think will be safe, I think will be fine. I will certainly be a lot more fit by the time we’re done.

So it’s nine right now. Normally this would be the beginning of evening instead of the end of it. But it’s OK. There’s a breeze and that’s fine, keeps the air in the tent fresh. I probably need to go out again and go to the bathroom very briefly. After that it’s really just passing time.

The mornings are better than the evenings. I am a little jumpy in the dark.

We’ll see how far we get tomorrow. Rob apparently wants to play golf on Saturday and apparently coming to get me means he won’t be able to play golf.

I’m tired. But I am grateful that my dinner finally got warmed up and I got to eat it. I was hungry and cold and I burned a ton of calories today.

Pack was 40 pounds approximately when I left today. It actually didn’t bother me too terribly, but like I said by the time I got here I was really tired. It’ll be lighter tomorrow of course, and it’ll keep getting lighter. Which is great because it would really help to be lighter – smaller too. I had to put the tent on the outside of the backpack because there simply was no room for it inside the pack.

We did run into a slew of people today. A couple from Texas and a dog named Bear and his owner Anne who needed directions to Nambe Lake. A fellow who had lost his yellow lab – it was running up and down Winsor trail. A very nice man who was photographing mushrooms and who recognized my tent (he has the same one), and that’s everyone I can remember right now.

After we past the bridge near the Y near Nambe, everybody disappeared basically. There was a couple, but they didn’t say too much.

Oh speaking of which things that happened today. Riley rolled in cow manure. Wanted to f***ing kill him.

Was really angry at him. He got it all over the backpack on his ear and then he walked by me a couple times and got it on my pants. So the very first thing we did when we got here was to give him a bath in the lake.

Probably still has some on him. At least he smells better, and I smell better and there’s no visible evidence of it. He may get another bath in the morning, actually.

Need to be really careful with him around cow patties. He just loves roll in them, and it’s really disgusting.

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