Day 6 – Santa Barbara Campground to Los Estrellos

This is the first day of the second leg of the through hike (from Santa Barbara Campground to Taos Plaza), if you do the hike in two segments of five and six days each.

Here’s the view of the Santa Barbara campground.

Santa Barbara Campground.
This can be your halfway mark for the through hike – it was my halfway mark the first time I did the through hike. Another possible half-way mark is either at Angostura or Agua Piedra – both of which are along Route 518.

There is free parking near the entrance. In this photo, you can see the smaller free parking lot (which fits about six cars and is where the silver vehicle – my truck – is). There’s also another larger free parking lot just to the left and down a very slight slope. It’s not visible in this photo, but one of the arrows points to where it is. It’s less than 200 feet from where the silver vehicle is in this photo.

If you want to pay for parking, you can park closer to the bathrooms.

The trailhead for the second half of the through hike is between the two free parking lots, just across the creek. You can just see the sign at the trail head in this photo:

The creek is deep enough (even in late summer, with historically low precipitation) that most boots won’t be able to handle it. I carried river shoes through the entire second half of the hike, though I only used them twice, including for this one crossing.

I suppose if you had a base crew, you could wear river shoes, cross the creek (aka Rio Santa Barbara), then toss them back. Given how crazy-heavy my pack was (over 40 lbs), I would have loved to have not carried an unnecessary 17.6 ounces (!). I suppose flip flops would have been lighter, but my river shoes are good back up hiking shoes, and they’re excellent camp shoes, too.

Could you just cross in your bare feet? Maybe. But people fish here, so there are hooks around. And people drink around here – mind your dog’s feet with the broken glass. It’s not everywhere, but there are enough sharp objects around that I opted to not go barefoot.

This is what the crossing looks like:

Crossing Rio Santa Barbara to begin the second leg of the through hike.

When I did the though hike, I parked my truck at Santa Barbara (in the lower parking lot) and left it there for a week. Nothing happened – no tickets, no vandalism. I had a humbling experience leaving, too. We had just FINALLY gotten everything together and were walking towards the creek when I realized I didn’t have my glasses. Looked for them on the ground, went back to the car. Even took the backpack partially apart… when I found them hooked to the front of my shirt. Feeling like an official old person (and realizing how stressed out I was about being ready for this, and not forgetting anything), we finally left.

After you cross the creek, you’ll be on a very small but nice flat area to put your boots back on. The trail goes into the hills, under high trees, and you’ll cross two more much smaller creeks before you hit the livestock gate.

If someone has bungling the heavy chain lock, you’ll have to take your pack off and climb over the fence. It’s not a big deal. From the gate, you’ll begin a very long, sometimes gradual, climb that will go on for about the next 90 minutes or more, depending on your speed.

About 20 minutes in, you’ll cross this rather lovely field. The first time Riley and I went on this trail, there was a black bull here. Fortunately, he was mellow. But keep it in mind if you’ve got a dog with you.

This is what the field looks like as you come up to it:

And this is what it looks like when you’re in it:

You continue along, with a very gradual up, until you cross a wee stream. This is the last water you’ll have for about an hour to an hour and a half, and possibly longer.

There was a trickle of water about 90 minutes from here when we went up, but it was really shallow – and that’s the last water you’ll get until you reach Los Estrellos, which is a long way off.

I left here with a full 100-oz water bladder and a full backup Nalgene. It absolutely made the rest of the way up harder, but I’m a cautious person, and running out of water in the wilderness is not cool.

The last reliable water you’ll have until you reach Los Estrellos. Drink up, and carry at *least* enough for 3-4 hours of hiking.

From the creek you’ll walk up for about 10 minutes, then reach a nice field. It looks like this if you’re looking back toward the stream, down the hill you just came up.

Now… about this field. I took a sharp left from here (almost directly west for about 10 mins, then swung around and continued north/northest), and went up the fairly steep side of the mountain until I reached trail #28 and took a right.

But according to some maps, I could have saved myself some distance and just gone almost due east.

Here are two maps from the Gaia app.

This is the USFS 2016 map, which doesn’t show the cut through:

And here is the USFS Classic map, which does show it:

The purple line (which follows the shortcut) was my planned route. (Ha.) That’s part of why it was a lucky and smart decision that I planned this through hike out so that we’d be walking about six miles per day. Because we ended up walking about 10 miles per day, thanks to the actually bendiness of trails.

You may also notice that even when we did follow a trail that was there, we often did not go where the map said the trail was. This happened a lot through the through hike. Again, I’m glad I blocked out really easy days for us, because some of those “easy” days ended up being pretty grueling.

I have looked for this cut-through twice, and not seen anything I trusted enough to take. There is a cairn (like the ones in the field) that’s placed in the right direction, but I just didn’t see anything that looks like a human path. Maybe a cow path, or an elk path, but nothing distinct. And because I didn’t want to get lost any of the three times I’ve been up in this area, I’ve left it alone. If I had a day to get lost (very modestly “lost”, with two gps devices and battery backup and a light pack), I might try bushwhacking through to get to 28.

But on the thru hike, I just took the trail to the right. It’s very clearly a trail, and while it’s steep, you won’t get lost.

I did run into a young couple along this trail earlier in the summer. It was during the window when the Santa Fe Forest and Pecos Wilderness were closed for fire restrictions, but Carson was still open. The couple was amazed to see me – they said they had never, ever seen another person on this trail. So know that it’s very quiet out here. If you get into trouble, it’s unlikely that some rescuer will just happen along.

Here’s some more evidence of how undisturbed it is.

I don’t see how anything besides a bear could have done this:

This is not a problem, of course. I like bears. And I carry bear mace – within reach at all times. But it’s a good reason to keep your dog on a leash.

So we reached trail #28 and turned right. It’s a long way down this trail until you take the next left to go up the mountain towards Ripley Point. But it’s a really nice walk. The trail is wide, and though there is some treefall (it’s everywhere), it’s nothing you can swing a leg over.

When you take the left up to Ripley Point, you’ll be getting on trail 27 (I know, you were on that at the beginning). It is a long, sometimes very steep way up (even a scramble in some places). It’s boggy in several spots, but there aren’t really any great water spots. Still, if you’re willing to drink from puddle water, I guess you’ll be fine.

We saw a lone elk up in this area. Riley flipped. We also saw several blue arrows, which very conveniently, traced exactly the way I wanted to go.

As you approach the top of Ripley Point, there are a couple of nice flattish-looking small fields/open areas. They looked like they could be potential campsites, at least for one night. You’d have to do with the boggy water, but that’s what water treatment is for. Also, at that elevation, the water should be relatively “clean” in terms of viruses and whatnot.

As you reach the “top”, or at least the top of the ridge, it looks like this.

I believe that the segment of trail where you cross the top of Ripley Point is also the Continental Divide trail. Gaia showed the trail I followed over the top of Ripley Point (trail 22, you take a left when you get to the top) as the “Divide Trail”.

For the next 15-20 minutes or so, you’ll cross the top of Ripley Point. The views are terrific.

You’ll come to a wire fence about halfway across. Just pass through.

And you’ll get a great view of Jicarta Peak if you look back the way you came.

As you come off the highest part of Ripley Point, and into the trees, the trail gets a little faint in places. There are one or two markers like this. Just keep your GPS handy and follow the trail as closely as you can.

You’ll go down for another 20 minutes or so, and then you’ll come to a fairly significant trail intersection.

Go in the direction of Agua Piedra.

This immediate area seems more heavily travelled than what you’ve just crossed. One of the metal Carson Forest signs for “no motorized vehicles” is up there, plus another wire fence (complete with a wooden cattle guard). There are a couple of spots that look like they could serve as campsites, but there’s no water here. You’d do better to continue on for another 20 minutes or so toward Agua Piedre, and stop for the night at Los Estrellos.

Los Estrellos is a somewhat boggy and shallow pond, but it is water.

Because it’s boggy, and there are no hard sides to it (just marsh), your best bet for water is to walk out along a log that sticks out. Bring a trail pole to steady yourself, and try not to fall in. I got water three times this way. Definitely tied riley up to a tree while I did it – he would have tugged me off that slippery log within two steps.

We got into this campsite area with enough time to put up the tent, get water, treat water and eat before it got dark.

There are plenty of nice, flat areas for a tent. And there’s a decent cooking area kind of directly across from the pond.

Here’s my bear bag hung for the night:

If I had to do it again, I might have put the tent a bit more under the trees for protection. Just after sunset, the rain started, and then the rumbling started. Wild rumbling. It poured and poured, and the lightening and thunder were actually a whiff terrifying at some points. There was one strike quite close to us – we heard that loud “pop” and heard a tree crash.

But ultimately, we were fine. The tent held. No lightening struck us or the trees around us. I had a good chuckle wrapped up in my sleeping bag, though. Here I try so hard to stay off ridges so I don’t get struck by lightning, and now here I am about to die in the tent from a lightning strike.

But what are you going to do? It’s not like we could move. And the storms did pass. Just – if you didn’t know already – be ready for really wild weather even if you’re below some of these ridgelines. Make a serious evaluation of the trees you’re putting your tent near.

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