The Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico is a gigantic 1.6 million-acre playground that offers hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers more than 1000 miles of trails.
With so many hiking choices, we decided upon one of the local favorites, a destination known as La Vega, or “The Meadow”. The hike starts from the Winsor Trail (254) trailhead near the Santa Fe Ski Basin, roughly 15 miles east of downtown Santa Fe.
After climbing a relatively steep 550 feet over the course of the first 0.75 miles, there’s a slight downhill all the way to La Vega - making the rest of the trail a very easy and pleasant hike.
Upon reaching the top of the climb we passed through a gate and entered the 224,000-acre Pecos Wilderness Area. The first sections of our hike passed through a predominantly spruce-fir forest, which was also characterized by an abundance of Old Man's Beard hanging from the branches. This is always a welcome sign because it usually indicates that you’re in the midst of some very clean air. Old Man's Beard, a type of lichen, tends to not grow in polluted air, especially if sulfur dioxide is present.
About a third of the way into our hike we meet a professor from a local community college who was out inspecting this years’ mushroom crop with a couple of students. He described mushrooms to us as falling into three different categories: illin’, killin’ and thrillin’ (nothing about edibles though.…grillin??).
Roughly half-way to our destination the conifers gave way to the largest and thickest aspen forest I’ve ever walked through. Although popular in the summer, this would also make for an excellent hike in the fall when the aspen leaves turn to brilliant shades of orange and yellow.
One interesting factoid about aspens is that they grow in colonies. One large grove of aspens could be the result of just one single seedling that spreads by means of its root system. Each individual tree within a colony can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony can live for extended periods. One such example is the aspen colony in Utah known as “Pando”, which covers more than 100 acres and is thought is to be 80,000 years old!
Roughly 2.5 miles into the hike we turned left (northbound) onto the Upper Nambe Trail (101), and hiked another half-mile. Immediately after crossing the Rio Nambe River we then turned westbound (left) on the Rio Nambe Trail (160). La Vega was just another quarter-mile away.
La Vega, as you might suspect from its’ name, is a large grassy meadow. It offers views of 12,622-foot Santa Fe Baldy. During the summer, from mid-June until mid-August, the meadow is filled with wildflowers, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful meadows in the region.
La Vega can be incorporated into a variety of day loop hikes and backpacking trips. In fact, there’s a very nice backcountry campsite on the far end of the meadow under a copse of trees and a very small stream running nearby.
I’d like to tell you about the rest of our adventure at “The Meadow”, but, what happens in La Vega, stays in La Vega....
Trails: Winsor 254 / Upper Nambe 101/ Rio Nambe 160
RT Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation Gain: Roughly 1400 feet
Max Elevation: Roughly 10,850 feet
TH Location: Near Santa Fe Ski Basin
Map: Santa Fe National Forest
Santa Fe - Taos Hiking Guide: - The Santa Fe - Taos area contains a wide selection of easily accessible trails throughout its mountains and high desert places - where outdoor enthusiasts can explore the diverse topography and ecosystems of northern New Mexico year-round. Now for the first time in one convenient volume, veteran local guidebook author Bob D'Antonio introduces you to 52 great hikes within an hour of these two towns. From alpine peaks to sage-covered mesas, northern New Mexico offers incredible hiking opportunities - and this guide leads you to the best.