Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are a significant mountain range in New Mexico, United States that contains most of the state's highest peaks. The range extends from near Santa Fe in the south past Taos to the Colorado state line, and beyond into South Central Colorado, where it is known as the Sangre de Cristo Range. This guide covers features of the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico that are of interest but are too dispersed to be covered in the guides for individual towns in the region. Two national forests, the Santa Fe National Forest and the Carson National Forest, mostly cover the southern and northern halves of the Sangre de Cristos, respectively.
Santa Fe, Taos, and Española in North Central New Mexico, as well as Las Vegas in Northeast New Mexico, while not in the mountain range itself, are key starting points into the mountains, and most services in the area can be found in these communities.
The Sangre de Cristos are generally considered the southernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, although some authorities consider the Rockies to include some of the lesser ranges of New Mexico (Sandias, Capitans, etc.). They rise nearly 8000 feet (2400 meters) above the Great Plains to the east and the Española Valley to the west, with a nearly uninterrupted ridge line that runs from the Colorado state line to near Santa Fe. This topographical barrier had important impacts on the settling of the Southwest by "Anglos" arriving from the eastern United States, as it forced pioneers southward and thus into contact -- and sometimes conflict -- with both American Indian communities along the Rio Grande and Spanish colonial settlements at Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other places. The mixing, and sometimes clash, of the three cultures continues to exert an influence on the region long after the settlers passed.
The highest summit in the Sangres in New Mexico is Wheeler Peak, elevation 13,161', a comparatively undistinguished bump on a ridge line above Taos. (Summits in the extension of the range into Colorado exceed 14,000' in elevation.) Several other summits rise above the 13,000' level. Timberline in these mountains is unusually high, approaching 12,000' in some places, and there are no permanent snowfields; recreational opportunities in the Sangres are consequently highly diverse and seasonal, so that many fine hiking and backpacking areas in the summer turn into downhill ski resorts in the winter. When planning a trip to the Sangres and deciding in what season to visit, keep the changing seasons in mind.
Towns on the eastern slopes of the Sangres tend to have cultural ties to the Great Plains, while the ones on the west side are more closely tied to the Hispanic and Native American settlements along the Rio Grande. The latter being important tourist destinations in their own right, the west-side towns usually have somewhat more well-developed resources for tourism than the ones on the east. However, a unifying feature of the high mountain towns is that, apart from the ones intentionally developed for tourism, they tend to be relatively poor, whether on the east or the west. This results from the difficulty in extracting a living from the mountains: their height and resulting short growing season preclude most agriculture, and most of the range is of little interest for mining. Tourist accommodations outside the major tourist centers (Taos, Santa Fe, ski resorts) or towns on major roads (Las Vegas) can therefore be somewhat spartan, at least by United States standards, although you don't have to worry about potable water, utilities, etc. (The rugged terrain does produce spotty coverage for cellular phones.)
Flora and fauna
The forest is predominantly coniferous, with piñon/juniper "scrub" at the lowest elevations that gives way to ponderosa pines mid-range and spruce/fir forest higher up. Aspens are intermixed with the conifers above about 8000' (2400 meters) and provide additional color, particularly in fall. Timberline is unusually high at 11,500'/3500 meters or even higher. Many of the higher peaks are veritable gardens of alpine wildflowers once the snow has melted.
Black bear and deer are common throughout the mountains. The Sangres also contain bighorn sheep, some of which have become so used to human presence as to constitute a camp pest. Mountain lions live in the forest but are rarely encountered. Birds are plentiful and diverse, including eagles, wild turkeys, and several species of hummingbirds. Most of the terrain is too high for snakes to be abundant, although rattlesnakes are occasionally seen as high as elevations of 9500' (2900 m). Watercourses tend to be small and seasonal, so there are few large fish, although some lakes and streams are able to sustain a population of trout.
The large elevation variations in the forest preclude universal, concise statements about climate. Snow and freezing temperatures (at least at night) are possible year-round on the high summits; shirtsleeve weather is common in the winter at the lower elevations. About the only common denominator is that springtime is windy and relatively dry.
Broadly, the higher elevations (say above 8000 feet, or 2400 meters) have conditions typical of continental mountain ranges, generally somewhat warmer and drier than the similar ranges of Colorado. Snowfall during winter is wildly variable, but normally covers the high peaks above timberline and persists through spring, commonly closing many campgrounds until May or so. Many hiking trails in the high country still have snow on them in June. Spring is warm and dry, with a gradual onset of thunderstorms starting in June and building to a "monsoon" condition in August. The high peaks are notoriously prone to lightning strikes; if you're hiking, make sure you're off the summits by 1PM during the summer. Fall is clear, crisp and delightful, with the first significant snow usually in October and the first snow that "sticks" frequently occurring around Thanksgiving.
The lower elevations are semi-arid, and winter snowfall is even more variable than at higher elevations. Some winters have seen individual storms that deposit over 40 inches (1 meter) of snow, while in other years, winter passes without this much snow falling in the entire season. Low temperatures can drop below zero (Fahrenheit). Spring is warm and dry, sometimes downright hot -- high temperatures can reach 90 °F (38 °C) or higher -- and dry conditions persist deeper into the summer than in the higher elevations. The monsoonal thunderstorms begin to drift off the mountains in July to cool (and soak) the lower elevations, until the warm, dry fall conditions begin soon after Labor Day.
English really is the usual language in this area, despite rumors to the contrary. However, it's not necessarily an inhabitant's first language. Many residents speak Spanish not just at home but in public, in a dialect that has significant ties to seventeenth-century Spain as well as a number of distinctive regional quirks. The Spanish-speaking visitor may find it interesting to listen and learn, but no knowledge of Spanish is required to get around.
For access information covering the west side of the range, see the guides on Taos and Santa Fe. Road access to towns and locations on the eastern slopes is via highways leading from Interstate 25 south of Raton. US highway 64 provides the most direct access to the small towns of Eagle Nest, Red River and Angel Fire on the northeast side of the mountains; Sapello, Mora, and nearby areas are reached from Las Vegas on NM State Road 518; and Pecos, Cowles and many southeast-side trailheads are reached via NM 63 between Las Vegas and Santa Fe. The east-side roads can be difficult or impassable during winter storms.
Most numbered state and US highways in and near the mountains are on good paved road, although a few on the east side are gravel. Few passes cross the range that support highways. Palo Flechado Pass and Bobcat Pass are near Taos, Glorieta Pass skirts the southern end of the range near Santa Fe, and an unnamed pass connects Mora and Peñasco near the middle of the range. All of these can be closed for periods during the winter following snowstorms. Snow tires and either chains (have them available but don't use them routinely) or 4 wheel drive are a good idea when driving in the mountains between Thanksgiving and mid-March, and on occasion can be needed earlier or later. 4 wheel drive is definitely desirable year-round on some of the minor forest roads, particularly on the west side.
There are a number of roadless areas in the mountains that are accessible to hikers, mountain bikers, etc, particularly the Pecos Wilderness north of Cowles. The many trails in the forest are generally accessible to hikers, horses, and mountain bikes. Motorized travel is forbidden in the Pecos Wilderness, but there are a number of abandoned logging roads outside the wildernesses that are suitable for ORVs and dirt bikes. (Please operate responsibly; damage in this terrain and climate takes a long time to heal.) Trails and, to a lesser extent, logging roads in the high country tend to be soggy until June or even July due to snowmelt.
In addition to the wilderness areas that are parts of the national forests, Taos Pueblo occupies considerable territory between the town of Taos and the ridge line. In contrast to most roadless areas in the range, the Taos Pueblo lands are closed to visitors without a permit from the tribe (which can be difficult to get). There are other private in-holdings at the northern end of the range that may also be closed; check locally.
Most areas that are suitable for hiking in the summer are also suitable for cross-country skiing in the winter, but be careful: although most of the mountains have relatively gentle slopes, the ridges are steep enough to pose serious avalanche hazard. In much of the area, snowshoes are more satisfactory for winter travel than skis or snowmobiles, because of the steepness and narrowness of the trails. Sparse snow makes all of these means of travel marginal at elevations below 8000' or so.
Blood on the Mountains
There are several possible explanations for the name of this range, which translates as "Blood of Christ," but the most commonly heard one (although possibly apocryphal) pertains to a Spanish priest who was thought to have been martyred during the Pueblo Revolt of the 17th century. The dying priest saw alpenglow on the high peaks above timberline at sunset, and exclaimed "Sangre de Cristo!" believing it was a miraculous sign of his impending temporal doom and eternal redemption. In today's secular world, you can still see the alpenglow from some locations, miracle or no miracle; good viewpoints for sunset viewing at a distance are across the valley near Los Alamos, while the intrepid backpacker who hikes the Winsor Trail (trailhead near the Santa Fe Ski Basin) to a campsite at Puerto Nambe can get a fine, up-close-and-personal look at the phenomenon on 12,600-foot Santa Fe Baldy.
The Sangres are more of a "Do" place than a "See" place. However, there are attractive views of the forest and mountains from a number of viewpoints in the Española Valley and along the "High Road to Taos," a network of back roads connecting Taos and Santa Fe. More details on this route can be found on the North Central New Mexico page.
Autumn color in the forest mainly takes the form of a band of gold at elevations above about 8000 feet (2500 meters), where the leaves in the aspen groves turn en masse. A drive to the Santa Fe Ski Basin or the Taos Ski Valley at this time is scenically rewarding. Peak period varies from year to year and locale to locale, but is commonly during the last week in September.
Hiking and backpacking
The Pecos Wilderness offers excellent hiking once the snow has melted. Key trailheads into the Pecos are at the Santa Fe Ski Basin on the west side and near Cowles on the southeast. Both can be crowded during mid-summer. Trailheads near the town of Truchas on the northwest side are somewhat less crowded, but there have been problems with vandalism of vehicles parked there. Trails lead not only to good campsites but also to most of the high peaks, which are generally hands-in-the-pockets walk-ups under good conditions. (Lake Peak, just outside the wilderness, requires a little scrambling near the summit, with some exposure.) If peak-bagging, make sure you're off the summits by 1PM during summer months, as the Pecos is notoriously lightning-prone.
Most of the mountain lakes in the Pecos Wilderness, as well as the Beatty's Cabin area of the Pecos, are off limits to camping owing to environmental stresses. Campsites along the streams, however, are abundant and generally satisfactory for the backpacker or horsepacker, as long as you camp at least 1/4 mile from the closed lakes (and 200 feet from the stream itself). Puerto Nambé, a broad pass between Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak where the Winsor Trail reaches the ridgeline, can resemble a tent city on summer weekends.
Most lakes and streams in the mountains are too small and cold to support many fish, but fishing along the Pecos River, which has its headwaters in the range, can be OK. Try various locations between Pecos and Cowles, but be careful of private property restrictions. Many of the smaller lakes and streams support small populations of trout that can make it worthwhile for a backpacker to carry in a collapsible rod, although you're not odds-on to catch much. Some of the lakes have been stocked with trout.
Skiing and snowboarding are popular activities in the winter months, with several developed ski resorts in the region. Ski conditions can vary considerably year-to-year, but the ski areas in the vicinity of Taos are at generally high enough elevations to ensure decent ski conditions. Slopes usually open on Thanksgiving weekend and close in late March/early April, although early season snow can be sparse and spring conditions slushy. From north to south, the ski resorts are as follows:
- Red River is perched on the side of a narrow canyon above the town of the same name, and has fairly extensive offerings.
- Taos Ski Valley is far and away the most famed of New Mexico's ski resorts, as well as its highest, located at the end of NM 150 above Taos. This can be a challenging hill for beginners, but the expert skier can have a fantastic time here.
- Angel Fire has a large resort and is arguably the most "commercialized" of the resorts, with extensive offerings and facilities catering to families, including terrain parks and a sledding and tubing hill.
- Sipapu is a small ski area south of Taos along NM 518, and is a much more modest affair that bills itself as more family-oriented, with a cozy lodge and much more inexpensive lift tickets, although it's also less reliable for ski conditions given its lower elevation and has fewer offerings.
- Ski Santa Fe, at the end of NM 475 above Santa Fe, is a major resort at a comfortably high elevation for good snow conditions.
Away from the developed resorts, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling is also a possibility in the mountains after a decent snowfall. Good trails can be found throughout the mountains, with Red River having some excellent groomed trails. Some cross-country trails can be found near the downhill slopes of Taos Ski Valley, but be wary of avalanche dangers in this area.
Like the rest of northern New Mexico, the Sangres are a good place to look for folk art. The arts and crafts of this region generally have a character more Hispanic in nature than the American Indian work done at the pueblos in the valley. (Exception for Picuris Pueblo, which produces micaceous pottery similar to that from the better-known potters at Taos Pueblo.) Three of the characteristic forms, most of which can be found in regional shops, are:
- Chimayo blankets, textiles superficially similar to Navajo rugs but woven by descendants of Spanish settlers and much less complex; $50 will buy a good example. Weavers of the Cordova family are considered particularly proficient, and their work can be a little more expensive, but you get what you pay for.
- Metalwork, particularly tinwork
- Wood carvings. Notable among the latter are the uniquely New Mexican figurines known as santos -- representations of saints of the Catholic church, which dominates religious practice in the small towns of the area. A good santo can cost $500 or more. There are several other styles of woodwork, with "Ortega" and "Lopez" carvings having a good reputation.
A few of the small towns also have galleries with "Anglo" art of various types, while Taos and Santa Fe are world-famous for their shopping opportunities in this genre.
Most of the communities around the mountains have restaurants, notably Santa Fe with many prime dining opportunities. However, you can also find excellent options, particularly for New Mexican cuisine, in the communities of Española, Chimayó, and Taos on the western side of the range.
If you're planning on doing your own cooking, two things to be aware of: First, open campfires are frequently restricted during spring and sometimes summer in the national forests due to forest-fire hazard. Second, it's wise to provision up in Santa Fe, Taos, Las Vegas or Española, as inventories in the small-town stores can be limited.
The towns of Santa Fe, Taos, and Española all have hotels and motels; see the guides for those places for more. Few of the smaller towns in the area have much in the way of lodging; Angel Fire and Red River have some options catering to those spending time at the local ski resorts.
There are numerous campgrounds in the Sangre administered by one of the two national forests. Several are free and available on a first-come-first-served basis (no reservations). Most of the busier campgrounds do have a fee; see the forest website for details. A few have the capability to accommodate large groups at sites that can be reserved.
Historically, there have been intermittent problems with theft from and vandalism of vehicles left at a few campgrounds, particularly around Truchas. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that this problem may have diminished in the last few years. Inquire locally and take sensible precautions.
The Pecos Wilderness is a superb backpacking destination. No permits are required. Seasonal restrictions on campfires are common; pack a stove. Most campsites are close to streams, so there is no need to pack in excessive quantities of water, but stream water should be purified as Giardia parasites are present in both wildernesses.
Hang food, etc., although bear problems are rare. An unusual problem for backpackers in the high country of the Sangre de Cristos is the presence of bighorn sheep. Their diet is salt-poor, they are not shy, and they have been known to pass through campsites simply licking anything handy that has salt on it. Of course, they don't put the utensils back where they found them after licking, so a campsite can be thrown into complete chaos when the sheep come through. Wash and secure dishes after meals, not just the foodstuffs.
Most of the campgrounds have fees for overnight stays; there may also be small ($2/night) fees for parking cars overnight at some of the more popular trailheads for backpackers, particularly around Cowles. Most other recreational use of the forest is free. Access to the Pecos Wilderness was controlled at one time by a permit system, but the permits have been discontinued and access is now free and unlimited. Seasonal closures due to fire hazard may occur in any and all of the national forest area, particularly in June and early July, and open campfires may be restricted during the spring. Inquire locally; the forest website generally does a good job of staying current on fire-related restrictions.
The main hazards in the Sangre de Cristos are altitude and weather. Altitude sickness is common among visitors from sea level who have not taken the time for some acclimatization in the valley. Two or three days spent in Santa Fe or Taos (or even the lower Albuquerque) before heading into the mountains will reduce your chances of troublesome or even serious illness. The primary weather-related issues are hypothermia and lightning. Freezing rain (or snow) can fall on the summits at any time of year; backpackers in the high country should have down or synthetic sleeping bags good for temperatures of 20 F (-7 C) in the summer. Do not take cotton sleeping bags on backpacking or horsepacking trips in the high forest; a disproportionate number of search-and-rescue operations result from visitors underestimating the weather and using cotton sleeping bags that become useless when wet. Good rainwear is a must, particularly in July and August; thunderstorms at these times make the high summits decidedly unhealthy places to be after about 1PM, and can form considerably earlier in the day.
Some care should be taken when visiting the small towns around the mountains. Several of the villages on the west side (e.g. Chimayo, Cundiyo, Truchas) lie along a major "pipeline" for narcotics coming into the United States from Mexico, and the villagers do not take kindly to outsiders poking around in places where they don't belong. There have also been ethnic tensions between the predominantly Hispanic residents of these towns and Anglo visitors. These often are manifested in trouble in bars, for which reason there is no "Drink" entry in this article; small-town bars are simply best avoided in this region. Vandalism of cars at campgrounds and trailheads has also been a problem. It's wise not to drive an ostentatious vehicle to these locations if you'll be leaving it unattended overnight; vandalism seems to increase in direct proportion to the value of the vehicle being vandalized.
One final note: northern New Mexico has an unfortunate and well-deserved reputation for problems with drunk drivers, and it's a definite problem in this area. Drive suspiciously, and if you must park along a roadside at night, get as far off the road as possible, as fatal encounters between intoxicated drivers and pedestrians are all too common.
- If the mountains fascinate you, the Sangre de Cristos continue northward into Colorado and become considerably higher and more rugged. Much of the range immediately north of the state line is on private property and not open to the public. From Alamosa north to the range's end near Salida, however, the Colorado Sangres are one of the state's most spectacular natural features, with nine of the state's "Fourteeners" -- peaks with summits above 14,000 feet -- and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation.
- The valley of the Rio Grande, also called the Española Valley in New Mexico, is on the west side of the range, and offers additional attractions: whitewater in the Rio Grande Gorge for the outdoors enthusiast, a scenic drive for the more sedentary, more folk art at the pueblos as well as Hispanic centers, and surprisingly enough, some interesting wineries.
- Across the Española Valley lies the Jemez Mountains, which are much lower than the Sangres but offer plenty of scenic and recreational opportunities, the lab city of Los Alamos, the spectacular cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument, and a vast grassland within the Valles Caldera National Preserve.