Thank you for supporting New Mexico Backroads. I hope you find adventure this Holiday Season whether it’s navigating the crowded streets in pursuit of Christmas lights or summiting a lonely snow-covered peak. May your travels be safe and the road rough. Merry Christmas.
-"He took a long and disappointed look at the 4Runner then spit in the snow. “You ain't gonna make it through to Cumbres Pass in that; the snow up there is as deep as your waist and the road is lost—maybe with a good packhorse and supplies you’d get through.”The original plan involved driving from Taos, New Mexico to Cumbres Pass, Colorado, all by dirt, on a route I had mapped months in advance. The route would lead us into the depths of the Rio Grande Gorge, across the Taos Plateau and into the vast backcountry flanking the Cruces Basin Wilderness. Needless to say, it would be an epic adventure, all packed in a single day. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I monitored the fall foliage maps and weather forecasts for Northern New Mexico. I called the various Forest Service offices of Taos and Rio Arriba Counties to verify leaf reports and check road conditions. Our adventure started on a crisp Saturday morning in Arroyo Hondo, a small community north of Taos. After fueling we set off, coffee and breakfast burritos in hand. From Arroyo Hondo, we paralleled the Rio Hondo downstream on a washboard road that led to the Rio Grande Gorge. There we crossed the Rio Grande on the aged John Dunn Bridge; we stopped to watch the local fly fisherman work the frigid fall waters of the river. From the Rio Grande our route continued west, snaking up the sheer canyon walls of the gorge, passing Cerro Montoso and the lonely San Antonio Mountain (the single highest freestanding mountain in the Lower 48 States). On the heels of a snowstorm that had blanketed the highlands, we entered the backcountry of the Carson National Forest north of Banco de Julian and Olguin Mesa. Soon the landscape turned from snow dusted to snow covered. The turning leaves paired with a fresh white background provided spectacular scenery along Forest Road 87. The road serves as the gateway and southern boundary to the 18,000-acre Cruces Basin Wilderness. While the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway wind through sections of the wilderness, the area is largely inaccessible. No roads or hiking trails exist in the Cruces Basin Wilderness itself. With each passing mile the snow grew deeper; we still had elevation to gain before Toltec Mesa and Cumbres Pass. As the sun cast long shadows on the snow, our hopes of making the Colorado line before dark faded. Although the sound of crunching snow under the tires beckoned us to press on, we decided to drive only few more minutes and cut our adventure short. Around the next bend we came upon an old Ford truck, it had had seemingly slid off the road. The truck was haphazardly situated halfway on the road and halfway down the embankment; a set of crooked tracks led to its resting place. A steady cloud of smoke wafted from the rusted tailpipe. Although the windows were fogged up, I could make out a figure wearing a cowboy hat behind the wheel. We slowed as we rolled alongside the weathered truck; possibly the occupant needed assistance getting back on the road. The window slowly went down exposing an old man, as tired looking as the truck. As he cranked the window down he grimaced in discomfort, bringing alive the wrinkles in his face. It was clear that we had disturbed his slumber. Old country music crackled from his radio. “You need help?”, I asked. He turned the radio volume down and opened the door exposing the truck’s worn interior. “Help? Hell no, I’m just watin for my meat delivery to arrive. I’ve been coming to this spot for three days; don’t really feel like gettin out and hiking. I’ve got a bull tag; all I’ve seen is a few coyotes and a doe. What are you folks doing out here in this weather?” His stone-faced demeanor nearly masked his humor. His expression didn’t seem to change while I explained that I was photographing the area looking for gold aspen stands. I cut myself short realizing I sounded like a tourist. The old man coughed a few times and cleared his throat. He boomed with authority, “Why don’t you take my picture then?” We were a bit taken back by his request given his character. He repositioned himself in the truck to face us. Again his movement was labored. Further down the tattered bench seat was a rifle stock peeking out from under a blanket. As if suddenly the sun had come out, he broke a smile exposing tobacco stained teeth. At his request, I started photographing him. “I live about a mile from here; I’ve lived up here for most of my life. I don’t leave for the winter, I just hunker down. Sometimes hunters get stuck or lost and I help em and send em on their way”. He went to say something else but fell silent instead; for a seemingly long moment he stared off into the distance. Again he looked our way, this time with a sparkle in his eyes, as if he had warmed to our company. He took a long and disappointed look at the 4Runner then spit in the snow. “You ain't gonna make it through to Cumbres Pass in that; the snow up there is as deep as your waist and the road is lost—maybe with a good packhorse and supplies you’d get through in a day or two. I’d tiptoe on outta of here the same way you came in. You had better mind your tracks too; there are a couple of iced ponds down the way that are covered by snow. Wander out on one of those and I’ll be seeing you in the spring thaw.” He turned back into the truck and raised the volume on the radio. “I’ll probably fall asleep before the sun goes down and miss my bull. It’s easier to drive in this mess once it hardens up after dark anyways.” The mountain man tipped his hat and slammed his door shut before we could thank him. We turned around and retraced our route along Forest Road 87 back to the base of San Antonio Mountain where we caught Highway 285. It’s funny how the unplanned parts of the adventure often provide the most memorable. Crossing paths with the old man provided my favorite image from the trip—the portrait of a grizzled man mountain man and his faithful truck.
Situated against the Colorado border in the Carson National Forest, the 18,000-plus acre Cruces Basin Wilderness is located in the high altitude grasslands and aspen stands of Northern New Mexico. Notable features in the Cruces Basin Wilderness include the Brazos Ridge, Toltec Mesa and Los Pinos River. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway wind through the sections of the wilderness between Cumbres Pass and Toltec Mesa. While the area is accessible by Forest Road 87, there are no designated trails in the Cruces Basin Wilderness; hikers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the area through use of paper maps and GPS—carrying a quality compass is always advised. Wildlife in the area includes mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, elk, mule deer, turkey and grouse. Streams support populations of Brook, Rainbow, and Brown Trout.