Day 2: Lake Katherine to the near side of East Pecos Baldy
Note: *Don’t* do what I did here. We should have stopped at Horsethief Meadow and stayed there for the night. Instead we pressed on because I was trying to shorten the trip by a day.
We woke up a little late the next morning at Lake Katherine. One of the larger groups – about 13 people – headed out of camp just as I was heating up water for breakfast.
It was clear, as you can see from the blue sky in the photo above. Riley and I ate our breakfasts and were cleaning up when a man and his son came over and said hello. They were from Texas. Very friendly, with lots of suggestions about where to camp. I let the man talk and didn’t say anything about us going through to Santa Barbara. The man and his son continued past us, to the far side of the lake. Riley and I could see their progress while we packed up the tent.
They talked with another fellow for a bit while they were over there, so somebody stayed on the far side of the lake. Next time I’m back, that’s where I’ll probably camp.
My drawing of this view of Katherine:
I took about half an hour to draw this, even though it meant we were leaving even later the in the day. Didn’t care – if I was going to carry my drawing supplies, I was going to use them.
It would have been nice to have stayed even longer, to do better drawings and more of them. You could make a reasonable argument for doing this thru-hike in twice the time. Just stay put every other day. Or make the first leg of it into a 8-day trek instead of 5 days and add a rest day at Katherine, East Pecos Baldy, and Truchas Lakes.
Finally, around 10am, we packed up and left Lake Katherine.
It’s a long down, but the footing isn’t bad and the trail is extremely clear. You’ll see another small shallow pond right below the lake as you come down. I once saw two massive fish in the this smaller pond. You look down on it as you come down, so I got a good look at the fish.
If you out here yourself are worried about weather, or there aren’t any good campsites left, try going down from the lake area. There are several good campsites only about five minutes down the trail.
About 20 minutes after you’ve left Katherine, you’ll cross a wee stream. This is the last water you’ll have until you come down to the intersection of Winsor Trail. It’s not a long way, but you’d be smart to have at least a liter of water on you after you cross this little stream just past Katherine.
After a fairly long walk down through evergreen forest, you will eventually see the view below – the sign marking your intersection with Winsor Trail. As with every other part of these woods, be mindful of bears. They are around. I heard a funny story about a group of hikers tiptoeing past a sleeping bear on the trail up the backside of Katherine. Apparently the bear stayed asleep.
If you have a GPS (and you *really* should have one… at least get the Gaia app for $20) you’ll also probably notice that the trail down Katherine does not go where the maps say it goes. Get used to this.
We took a left from this view and headed toward Stewart Lake. Someone kindly marked the sign up to show which direction the different lakes are.
It’s not a long walk to Stewart from that trial intersection – maybe 20-30 minutes. There’s obviously good water here if you want to fill up your containers. It’s also a nice place to stop and rest. Stewart tends to have a fair number of people around, too. There are quite a few campsites around Stewart Lake, but they’re spread out and sheltered.
Riley and I did our second gear test up at Stewart Lake. It was nice to walk by it on the thru-hike. It’s super-familiar territory for me.
After you leave Stewart, there will be a bog with some open water on your left for about a mile. There are several good campsites through here, including one that’s right near the bog as you cross over a small footbridge. Look in the open water for axolotls, which are a type of salamander. The ones here are mud-colored and about 4-5 inches long. You can also see them in Nambe Lake, and I saw a few in Spirit Lake once. Just don’t go for a swim in this particular bog near Stewart Lake – there are some sizable leeches swimming around with the axolotls.
After you pass the bog/second pond, you’ll cross a stream in about .25 miles. Take a left at the trail intersection, still following the Skyline Trail. You’ll be heading toward Lake Johnson and Cave Creek further on.
In the photo below, the gold arrow points to the trail you’re taking (Skyline Trail, toward Lake Johnson, Cave Creek, and eventually Horsethief Meadow).
Here’s a closer look at that sign:
Head toward Lake Johnson, away from Stewart Lake along the Skyline Trail (Trail 251).
This part of the trail is far less traveled. I used to walk it several times a year when Rufus and I would go up to Lake Johnson. It’s mostly pretty, but I did notice the stress on the trees when we walked through in 2018. We got precious little snow that prior winter, and the trees really showed it. I was concerned to see so many areas with so many dead trees all through the Pecos and on the south slopes of Truchas.
After you’ve taken the left away from Stewart Lake, you’ll be walking along the Skyline Trail. After about 45 minutes or so, you’ll see this left (in the photo below). The left goes up to Lake Johnson, which is one of the least-visited and most beautiful lakes around. It has fish, too. The trail up to it is about a mile and a half long.
If you need to camp but don’t want to haul all the way up to Johnson, there’s also a nice flat place for a tent just before (and I do mean *just* before) this left. It’s just past a fairly wide and deep stream (for New Mexico) – off the trail about 50 feet or so. It’s not a big space, but it’s been used enough that someone circled a few stones for a fire.
Some advice: DO NOT LIGHT A CAMPFIRE. They’re totally unnecessary and you’re surrounded by miles of tinder. It’s just stupid. But if you skipped the fire, that spot just off the trail might be a good place to crash if you didn’t want to go another mile plus up to Johnson.
The thru-hike trail continues on the Skyline Trail on towards Cave Creek. It’s a good walk; mostly down on a very well-defined trail. There’s shade, and some small water trickles now and then if you need water. But if you want really nice, tasty water, wait for Cave Creek. There aren’t too many opportunities for really flat, nice camping spaces along the way, but you’ll have that in abundance at Horsethief Meadow and about 20 minutes after you take the left from Cave Creek.
About 45 minutes to an hour after you’ve passed the left for Lake Johnson, you’ll reach Cave Creek:
A good out and an emergency phone if you need it
If you needed to, you could take the right here and head down towards Panchuela Campground. You’d reach it in a couple of hours. If things aren’t going well, this is your last good “out” for the first half of the thru hike.
Panchuela Campground is attached to a parking lot, and a paved road that would get you to Cowles. Cowles is marked like it’s a destination on most maps, but it’s really hardly more than an intersection, a parking lot, a fishing spot, and a trailhead. But it has something special and important: An emergency police phone.
Given that there is no reception, even at Cowles, if you were in trouble, the right from here is your best bet. You could reach help from Cowles. There is also a ranch along the road between Panchuela Campground and Cowles (the road is barely 2 miles between them), but… it’s not their job to help you.
You could also bail on the thru-hike from East Pecos Baldy if things weren’t going well, but it would be a much longer way out. Also, if you had to split the thru hike into smaller chunks, you could take this right and get picked up at Panchuela. It’d be a one-night, two day trip, but you’d have covered a lot of ground.
Here’s a map for some clarity:
Okay – back to the thru hike trail, and what we did..
After going up for a bit towards Horsethief Meadow… and then down for a bit, through some very nice open fields in places (there are many flat spots for tents), you’ll get to the very lovely Horsethief Meadow. That creek you see running alongside the meadow is the actual Horsethief Creek.
Here’s another view of it:
The next time I do the thru-hike, we’ll stop here for the night. I saw one established camp site, and I am sure there are others. Even without an established campsite, this field has everything you need – water (nice water; the stream moves well and runs clear), and wide, ample areas of flat ground. There’s even nice soft grass to sleep on.
Riley and I should have stopped here, but I wanted to continue on to try to shave a day off the trip (so Rob could play golf…). Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, that meant we were heading into one of the hardest parts of the hike near dark, with not enough water and a very sketchy trail.
Here’s the view if you take the right and continue on, like Riley and I did. Horsethief Meadow actually goes on for several meadows. It looks like it ends, but you just go through a brief screen of trees, and then there’s another meadow further on. And then another further on. And then another. This is probably how it got it’s name – if you didn’t look closely, you’d think the meadow ended. It doesn’t. It goes on for quite a long time, then the trail veers left and up the side of the hill.
Word to the wise about continuing on: Once you leave Horsethief Meadow, there is no water until you cross Panchuela Creek about 2 hours later. As you go up the hill to the left, toward Panchuela Creek, you’ll also hit less-traveled, and less-maintained trail. You’ll be going through a burn that happened a few years ago, and while it is heartening to see the forest coming back (little aspens pushing up, the wildflowers are doing well), it’s also a reminder of how much damage fires do… just to trails. If you know the trail from Jack’s Creek to Easy Pecos Baldy, the land will feel familiar here – it’s the same gradually sloping hills and fire recovery fauna you’ll see if you walk to East Pecos Baldy Lake from Jack’s Creek.
Just be rested; even when you get to water at Panchuela Creek, there really aren’t any good places to camp. It’s boggy through there, heavily forested and grown up. I was looking for a place to put a tent but didn’t see any good options. Like an idiot, I didn’t get water at Panchuela Creek, either. I was expecting to find water at Rito Perro (because two maps said it was a year-round stream).
After you cross Panchuela Creek, you’ll go through forest for about 90 minutes. This is also through the old burn. Because of that, trees have fallen all over. A lot of trees. Nobody’s gone through and cleared the trail, so you’ll be going over fallen trees, around them, even under them (I had to take my backpack off and crawl under several of them). If you’re already tired, and losing light (like we were), it makes for a hard slog.
You will probably also lose the trail. It completely disintegrates near the end, before you finally find Trail #256, which goes up the back of East Pecos Baldy. I was following Trail 251 (the Skyline Trail) exactly – down to the foot – on my GPS, so we never got “lost”, but there was no sign of a path on the ground. Even when there was, it was so faint I coudn’t tell whether it was a deer path or a very lightly traveled trail.
Just keep going, you’ll eventually walk right into the nice, well-traveled trail #256 as you go down a gently sloping hill.
I was delighted to finally hit traveled trail. I tend to get a little anxious when we’re not on established trail. It doesn’t stop me, but it always worries me a bit. If anything happens, nobody is going just happen to walk by.
As mentioned, there is also no water, aside from a big muddy puddle a bit before you hit the traveled trail. That puddle was wet in mid-August (as in you could technically drink from it – I would treat it *at least* twice), so it’s probably reliable most of the year. We spooked two deer from it, which is why Riley had been yanking like a maniac on his leash (and my already-tired hips) for the prior 20 minutes. The ditch is near a cleared area that I suspect was a staging area during the fire here. It looks like a lot of very heavy machinery was moved in and then cleared out.
That muddy puddle is the only water you’ll have for another ninety minutes to two hours. You’ll have to find the established trial – Trail #256 – take a left, and then begin the long gradual climb up the back of East Pecos Baldy.
As you approach the back steep side of E Pecos Baldy (about 60-90 minutes after you’ve taken the left when you come out of the woods and hit the established trail), there’s an excellent little stream. There’s also a little pond there, up and to the left of the trail. But for now, forget about that… we didn’t get to that until the next day.
We made Rito Perro just as it was getting dark. It killed me to find no water there. We had to go down a somewhat steep slope in the gathering dark and light rain, only to find a dry stream bed. There were a couple of spaces that would have been flat enough to put a tent down, but instead I turned around and headed back up in the direction of East Pecos Baldy. I really wanted to find water, and I assumed that the higher up, towards the source of the creek we got, the more likely the stream would still be flowing. That was true, but the stream wasn’t wet until another mile up the trail… and we never made it that far.
At that point it started raining much harder. This was one of the two moments of the whole thru hike where part of me just wanting to collapse in a heap and cry. I was so exhausted and frustrated with crappy, barely-there trail, and so frustrated that there was no water where the map said there would be water. And so pissed at myself for not filling up with water at Panchuela Creek.
But despite part of me wanting to collapse right there, the rest of me responded to the idea of collapsing with “HELL NO”. And so we kept pushing on. We climbed back up the steep slope, me barely able to see through my steamy glasses. We found the intersection where we had come out of the woods, and we took the right fork up the trail towards the back of East Pecos Baldy.
We made this field/area just as it was getting full dark and the rain was picking up. This is the view of it in the morning – I definitely did not have either the time or the light to take this photo the night before.
I had just enough time to get the tent up before it started *pouring*. I even broke my bear bag rule and put the food outside of the tent, about 30 feet away. Then I heard some creature – it sounded like a marmot – call out about 20 minutes later. I decided that bear or not, the food bag was staying in the tent. I would fight for my food if I had to. Some marmot was not going to haul it off or chew through the bag. So I brought the food bag in the tent (first time I’ve ever done that), smeared it with Purell to cover the smell.
We had a bit more than half a liter of water left. Riley got first drink, then me. I kept the last third of the Nalgene of water for overnight and the morning. I did sip it twice over the course of the night, and offered Riley a drink in the morning.
We didn’t even have dinner; we got into the tent as the sky opened up, and I was so tired all I did was get the bedding set up and then went to sleep. It poured like the devil for much of the night, but we did stay fairly dry (minus all the humidity in the tent).
I’ve been through several downpours in that tent, so I knew it could handle a deluge. I just tried to keep Riley lying down – I didn’t want a toe to puncture the bottom of the tent. But the tent held. Actually, it rained so much, I probably could have filled a nalgene with water running off the rainfly if I had thought about it. But that was the problem – I was too exhausted to think.
I slept hard for about 3-4 hours, then was up on and off for most of the night. Partially from the relief of just being in the tent, warm and dry while it poured outside. I probably also couldn’t sleep because my body was so revved up from getting through that far – from hauling the pack and managing Riley and being terrified of where the hell the trail was and why the f*ck there was no water where the map said there would be water, and just the overwhelming rush of pushing through to be there at all. To be attempting this at all.
Honestly, I cried almost every night in the tent, just from gratitude for being able to do this thru-hike. Not crying from fear or exhaustion (at least not entirely), but from gratitude. For being able to fight through all the crap and demands and obligations of life to get out to try this at all. To fight through all the fear and exhaustion and lack of faith just make it out there, and make it through. To do this.
To finally be able to will myself out of house and into the woods and across a mountain range, to find a way all the way from the Ski Basin to Taos Plaza. To prove what the maps suggested was possible: that there was a way to make it all the way through.
It’s exhilarating, but also exhausting, to want something as ferociously as I wanted this. It took an enormous amount of will to keep going, even through crappy trail with no water, even when I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was just grateful to have made it even that far. To have gotten to that little patch of flat field in the middle of nowhere.
I knew East Pecos Baldy really well (I had hiked to it and camped there many times) so I knew we could get to that. But after having dealt with such rough trail – and unpredictable trail – I didn’t know whether there would be well-marked trail ahead, or if we were going to end up basically bushwhacking it all the way to East Pecos Baldy Lake.
And while the map said there were several streams ahead, I wasn’t totally sure about them, either. The map had made it look like Rito Perro would be wet. Two maps had made it look that way, actually. What if the other streams weren’t wet either? The snowpack had been so light, what if some of the streams had gone dry?