I authored this piece on Lake Powell. pessimism, optimism and the age of climate change…
Over the years, I’ve hiked almost every inch of this 30,500 acre Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and can’t get enough. Located just northeast of Taos, New Mexico, the Columbine-Hondo is a dramatic and ecologically significant area with 11,000 plus foot peaks, clear mountain streams, spruce-fir forests, alpine meadows and expansive high-altitude grasslands….AND wonderful alpine ecosystems as well as outstanding opportunities for non-motorized outdoor recreation. It boasts one of the healthiest mountain watersheds in the region and is a top candidate for Wilderness designation. Not to mention that is is the largest unprotected roadless area in the Southern Rockies Ecosystem. More below on how you can help get it protected.
The Columbine-Hondo boasts a 75-mile trail system that is well-developed and diverse enough to offer a spectacular hiking experience for any fitness level. My two favorite hikes, Gold Hill and Lobo Peak, dominate the ridgeline at over 12,000′.
At 12,115 ft, Lobo Peak is New Mexico’s 33rd highest peak…but you might think you were on top of the world thanks to the view. Lobo provides a stunning view of Wheeler Peak (our highest) and the surrounding mountains as well as the Rio Grande rift valley below.
To get that view, you’ll take Manzanita Trail, located on Highway 150 on the road to Taos Ski Valley. Manzanita is a 4.2 mile trail that gains 3,600 feet as it travels up the bottom of the canyon on the south facing slope of Rio Hondo Canyon. The trail is extremely steep. Manzanita also provides access to Flag Mountain, Gold Hill and the rest of the WSA. Be forwarned tho….this is an awsome hike. Short and steep, it will kick your ass. I’ve met people on that trail training to climb Everest and Kilimanjaro.
Another way up is the Yerba Buena trail located just west of the Manzanita Trailhead on Highway 150, the road to Taos Ski Valley. Yerba Buena is 3.9 miles one way to Lobo Peak. It seems to me less steep…although there are parts where your calves are going to burn.
Both trails are characterized by an abundance of aspen and willows in the lower elevation and spruce and fir toward the ridge. I’ve snow-shoed both trails and advise you to keep an eye out for avalanche during the winter and early spring. Water is available for the entire length of the canyon, but is not recommended for drinking without proper treatment.
As one of the highest peaks in New Mexico, Gold Hill is far from a hill and thanks to it being separated by dozens of miles from other high peaks, the view from the top is astounding – and it is a great place to catch of glimpse of bighorn sheep.
The shortest route up Gold Hill is the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail that begins in the Taos Ski Valley. Long Canyon, beginning from the same trailhead is also a wonderful, albeit slightly longer, route. Neither of these routes are technical and both pass through fabulous pine groves, stands of aspen and into expansive alpine meadows above tree line. It can easily be hiked in half a day, but there are also excellent camp sites along the route.
If you run into any mountain bikers on the trail, kindly inform them that they are breaking the law. Mountain bikes are not allowed in Wilderness or WSAs.
The trailhead for the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail (as well as Long Canyon) is located at the parking lot of Taos Ski Valley. Gold Hill can be climbed year round, but the best time is between May and October. Late June, July, and August is the monsoon season and early afternoon thunderstorms are to be kept in mind. Heavy lightening can occur on Gold Hill. Be sure to summit by 10am during this time period so you can be down in time to avoid the worst of the thunderstorms. Winter climbing required skis or snowshoes. Avalanches are known to occur.
Be sure to also check out San Cristobal Canyon where a pure strain of the endangered Rio GrandeCutthroat Trout thrives. Instead of fishing this creek, just sneek up the trail and peer into the fresh pools to see these gorgeous fish.
Still another wonderful hike starts at Colombine Canyon on the north side of the WSA on the road between Quest and Red River.
This is the perfect place for solitude. This is the perfect place to recalibrate and get back to your wilderness roots. All I ask in sharing this place with you is that…if you do come…please respect this land, this water and these wilds. This is a place to be visited on foot or horse only. Please show respect.
This place is awesome. Enjoy.
Colombine Hondo Wilderness Study Area New Mexico