Looking for an accessible wilderness adventure? Hitch up and head to Pecos Wilderness, a 223,667-acre designated wilderness area located within the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests in northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the southern end of the vast Rocky Mountains.
Designated wilderness is the highest level of conservation protection for federal lands; these areas allow us to experience nature in its original essence.
The Pecos rambles over high country: Elevation ranges from 7,000 to 13,000 feet. This is also a remote, rugged area—
a land of high valleys, mountain peaks, sapphire mountain lakes, rushing streams, quaking aspen, pine forests, and glorious panoramic views.
Nestled in this wilderness paradise, awaiting your and your horse’s arrival, is Jack’s Creek Horse Camp; from here, you can ride from your horse camp into the wilderness. If you’d rather leave your horse at home, head to Los Pinos Guest Ranch, located on private property nearby; for information, turn to page 90. You’ll also find vital know-before-you-go tips on page 90.
Jack’s Creek Horse Camp, 21 miles north of the town of Pecos, is a perfect jumping-off point to the area’s scenic wilderness trails. The road is paved, but some sections are narrow with blind corners. Keep track of wide spots in case you have to back up your trailer to let someone by. There are also some steep stretches. With our heavy load, our transmission oil overheated; we had to stop and wait for the engine to cool. → The drive is well-worth the effort. The campground sits on a delightful high plain with views of the valley below and is sheltered by mountain peaks from above. Amenities include potable water (seasonal) and room for large living-quarters trailers. However, there are no electrical hookups or showers.
Your horse can overnight in a roomy corral. Most sites have tables and fire rings. Be alert for roaming cattle; keep your hay secured. Nights can be cool here; the elevation is close to 9,000 feet. The most comfortable seasons are summer and fall.
Serene Guest Ranch
If you’d rather leave your horse at home and be pampered, book a room at Los Pinos Guest Ranch (lospinosranch.com), located in Terrero, just a short distance from Jack’s Creek Horse Camp. This is a place for reflection, the simple life, and immersing in nature. Riding trails wander through pine and aspen forests and across high mountain meadows.
Built as a private residence in the early 1900s, the ranch began accepting guests in 1923. We spoke with the current owners, the brother-sister team of Bill and Alice McSweeney. Their parents bought the place in 1965. Bill and Alice grew up here, helping their parents run the ranch.
With room for just 12 guests, you’ll feel as though you’re staying at the original private country house. Gather on the ranch’s front porch. Relax by a cozy fire after a mountain ride. Curl up with a book on local history from the family library. “This is the place to get away from it all and go back in time,” says Alice.
You’ll stay in one of four aspen-log cabins. Each cabin has a private bath, front porch, and wood-burning stove. Breakfast and dinner are served in the lodge dining room. Lunches are packed daily for trail or streamside picnics. Each week’s menu offers flavorful dishes featuring freshly baked breads and New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables.
Camp host Tammy Hein—riding one horse and ponying another in training—told us she loves the Pecos for its variety of challenging trails that help young horses gain their confidence. This area is also treasured by adventurers escaping sticky humidity and flatland riding. We visited with Jimmy and Becky Smith and Tyrone Koon from Mississippi. They love riding in the mountain wilderness and enjoy the peace and quiet of the camp setting.
The area’s forests and wildflowers are also a big attraction. Gates Billette and Roch Richer brought their mules from Texas to ride the Pecos. In addition to enjoying the vibrant flora, they revel in the area wildlife, especially the elk bugling in the fall. On one fall visit they woke up to a silent blanket of unexpected mountain snow.
There are several good rides out of Jack’s Creek Horse Camp. For our first adventure, we rode to Cave Creek in search of caves. To get to Cave Creek, ride past Campsites 7 and 8, and pick up an unmarked trail through the meadow. This trail crosses New Mexico Highway 63 and goes down into a valley. When it crosses the road again, turn right, and follow the road about a quarter-mile to a trail sign. Take this trail to Panchuela Creek Campground. Follow the horse signs through the campground, and you’ll arrive at Trail #228.
Now your adventure begins. There are several trail junctions; continue on the trail closest to the creek bottom. The trail meanders up Cave Creek Valley through a variety of trees. You’ll see aspen leaves fluttering like butterflies.
As we climbed, the forest gave way to large, stately ponderosa trees intermixed with scrub oak. We never found the caves, and neither did the riders from Mississippi, but it wasn’t for lack of looking. Maybe you’ll
Another good ride is to Beatty’s Flats. Take Trail #25 out of the south end of the campground. Almost immediately the trail forks with Trail #249 to the right. Take #25 to the left, which turns and travels north, giving good views of the campground.
After about 2 miles, the trail intersects with Trail #257. Keep right and continue on Trail #25. This trail section follows the side of Round Mountain. Note that there are a number of seeps in this area that can make the trail muddy.
About 6 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses the head of Beatty Creek. From here, you go down to the Pecos River and Beatty’s Flats; this is a good lunch spot. The original settler’s cabin no longer exists, but there are newer Forest Service cabins in the flats.
The premier ride from Jack’s Creek Horse Camp is to Pecos Baldy Lake. You’ll ride 7 miles and gain almost 2,700 feet elevation. Leave from the campground’s south side, as you did before, but continue on Trail #25 until it reaches Trail #257. From here you can soak in magnificent views of the Pecos River Valley and majestic mountains beyond.
Continue on Trail #257. Shortly you’ll come to a sprawling, high-mountain meadow filled with abundant wildflowers, such as Indian paintbrush, harebells, and fleabane, as well as native grasses.
Cross Jack’s Creek, and ride until you see the junction with Trail #259; turn right. In less than a mile, turn left on Trail #257. The lake lies 2.5 miles and 900 feet in elevation gain after this junction.
We went on this ride in September. After the last turn, we passed through a small burn area where the brush was dressed in a fall-color scheme of gold and red. It appeared that nature had painted us a beautiful mosaic with burn patterns on the trees framed by colorful vegetation.
At 11,430 feet in elevation, we came to Pecos Baldy Lake, nestled under Pecos Baldy, 12,529 feet above sea level. We rode to a grassy area, hobbled the horses, found a good sitting log, and had a picnic. We kept an eye out for bighorn sheep, which inhabit this area and are often seen near the lake.
As we ate, we contemplated the value of the wilderness scene that lay before us. Noted writer Wallace Stegner said it best: “We simply need that wild country available to us… For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
Know Before You Go
Here are our top tips for camping and riding in the Pecos Wilderness Area.
• Reduce fire risk. Be aware of campfire restrictions or fire closures. Leave the area immediately if a forest fire develops. There’s only one way in and out of Jack’s Creek Horse Camp.
• Stay hydrated. Dehydration symptoms include dry mouth, headache, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness. To stay properly hydrated, carry water on the trail, and begin to consume liquids before you actually feel thirsty.
• Avoid hypothermia. You can get chilled in high winds and rain, even at temperatures up to 50 degrees. Pack a slicker, and dress in layers. Also pack clothing that will insulate even if wet, such as wool or synthetic fleece.
• Avoid altitude sickness. Altitude-sickness symptoms include severe headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, sleeplessness, and chest pain. To avoid altitude sickness, spend several days acclimating at moderate elevations of 6,000 to 8,000 feet.
• Avoid lightning. Lightning is common here, especially in the summer rainy season; from late June through August, it rains almost every afternoon. Ride early in the day. If caught in a lightning storm, move off high ground and into a forested area, thicket of trees, or even a boulder field.
• Avoid giardiasis. Giardiasis, a diarrheal illness caused by the parasite Girardia lamblia, can be contracted by drinking untreated water. Drink only potable water; treat all other water with a filter or chemical treatment.