Wilderness Areas on the Santa Fe National Forest
The Wilderness Act of 1964 recognized the value of preserving “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Congressionally designated wilderness areas are places where natural biological processes are allowed to occur unhindered by human interference.
The Santa Fe National Forest administers over 300,000 acres of wilderness across four designated areas in Northern New Mexico.
1. PECOS WILDERNESS
Congress designated more than 168,000 acres as the Pecos Wilderness in 1964. An additional 55,000 acres were added in 1980, bringing the total to 223,333 acres across two forests: 198,597 acres on the Santa Fe National Forest and 24,736 acres on the Carson National Forest.
Deep and narrow canyons, broad ridges, forested slopes and rugged peaks characterize the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Pecos Wilderness at the southern end of the Rocky Mountain chain.
On the west front, steep canyons drain toward the Rio Grande. In contrast, the eastern side of the Sangres is characterized by the broad mesas and grassy meadows of the upper Pecos River Valley, including the 20.5 miles of the Pecos River that received National Wild and Scenic River designation in 1990.
High-country elevations range from 8,400 feet to 13,103 feet at the top of Truchas Peak, the state’s second highest summit (behind Wheeler Peak at 13,159 feet). The landscape features everything from 100-foot waterfalls and crumbled talus slopes to dramatic rock cliffs, towering peaks and wildflower meadows. Engelmann spruce, corkbark fir, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, white fir, limber pine, bristlecone pine and aspen are the predominant tree species.
Wildlife is equally diverse, including elk, deer, bear, turkey and one of America’s healthiest herds of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Fifteen lakes and 150-plus miles of sparkling streams offer first-rate fishing, including rainbow trout, brown trout and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, New Mexico’s state fish.
Weather in the Pecos Wilderness
The average annual precipitation is 34-40 inches, half of which comes from summer rains and half from winter snows. Temperatures range between a daytime high of 80° in the summer to winter temperatures below zero. July and August are usually rainy months with daily “monsoon” showers in the afternoon. Daytime temperatures can drop dramatically when monsoonal storms move in. Nights can be cold year-round, and snowfall can begin as early as October.
2. SAN PEDRO PARKS WILDERNESS
San Pedro Parks was first protected by the Forest Service as a “primitive area” in 1931. That term, rendered obsolete by later conservation efforts, recognized lands set aside for preservation and valued for recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing and hiking. In 1941, the Secretary of Agriculture classified it as a “wild area” and set its acreage at 41,132 acres. It became the San Pedro Parks Wilderness in September 1964 as part of the original Wilderness Act.
Although the average elevation is more than 10,000 feet, the heart of the San Pedro Parks Wilderness is a high plateau that consists of grassy meadows, known as “parks,” interspersed with stands of Engelmann spruce, mixed conifer and aspen. The meadows flourish with bluegrass, oat grass, sedge, rush and Rocky Mountain iris.
San Gregorio Reservoir, a small irrigation reservoir pre-dating the wilderness designation, is the largest body of water. Several small streams that wander through the forest openings support strong trout populations, including the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. A large herd of elk summers in the wilderness.
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) crosses through the San Pedro Parks Wilderness from the nearby community of Cuba to the Rio Chama, the Carson National Forest and beyond. Its route follows the Las Vacas, Peñas Negras and Rio Capulin trail corridors.
Nine major trails and campsites with abundant water appeal to backpackers. Of the 100 miles of trails crisscrossing San Pedro Parks, the most popular are the CDT (Vacas Trail) to San Pedro Park (10.69 miles) and the Palomas Trail (3.63 miles), which joins the CDT.
In the fall, hunters come for elk, deer, bear and grouse. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing are popular during the winter.
Weather in San Pedro Parks
The San Pedro Parks Wilderness receives about 35 inches of precipitation annually, making it one of the wettest spots in Northern New Mexico. July and August bring monsoonal weather patterns with afternoon rainfall, and the meadows can become boggy. Snowfall is heavy in winter, persisting into June.
3. CHAMA RIVER CANYON WILDERNESS
Designated by Congress in 1978, the Chama River Canyon Wilderness covers 50,300 acres, most of which is on the Coyote Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. (About 2,900 acres of the wilderness are on the Carson National Forest.)
A 24.6-mile section of the Rio Chama received National Wild and Scenic River designation in 1988, a portion of which runs through the Chama River Canyon Wilderness. Relatively easy road access makes the Rio Chama popular among river rafters, canoeists and kayakers. Water levels are often dependent on releases from the El Vado Dam upstream.
Colorful sandstone bluffs and impressive rock formations that rise to high rims on both riverbanks make trail access to the river difficult. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) traverses the wilderness and crosses the river on Scull Bridge. Backpackers hike along portions of the Rio Chama, then pitch their tents in secluded, wooded campsites above the canyon's high-water beaches.
Water in the Rio Chama brings the canyon to life. Trout flourish in the river, and onshore residents include mule deer, black bears, elk, coyote and mountain lions. Between 70 and 80 different bird species, including raptors, hawks and owls, can be found in the Chama River Canyon. Varying canyon elevations also provide a wide range of vegetation, from low-lying piñon-juniper woodlands to ponderosa pine and fir.
4. DOME WILDERNESS
The 5,280-acre Dome Wilderness was designated by Congress in 1980. One of the smallest wilderness areas in the United States, the Dome Wilderness is bordered to the east by the larger Bandelier Wilderness on the National Park Service’s Bandelier National Monument. In spite of its relatively small acreage, the Dome Wilderness is a key part of an impressive wilderness complex and delivers rugged terrain, habitat for wildlife, diverse vegetation that includes wildflowers and wild strawberries, and numerous archaeological sites, including ruins similar to the ones found at Bandelier. Please respect the cultural significance of archaeological sites by leaving them undisturbed.
In 1996, the human-caused Dome Fire burned 16,500 acres, including large portions of the Dome Wilderness and Bandelier National Monument. In 2011, a downed power line started the 150,000-acre Las Conchas Fire which swept through the wilderness. Much of the Dome Wilderness is still recovering from these devastating wildfires.
Elevations peak at 8,200 feet, then drop to 5,800 feet at Sanchez Canyon. High points near Saint Peter’s Dome (which is actually not within the wilderness boundaries) provide sweeping vistas to the Caja del Rio Plateau and Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the Sandia Mountains to the south.
The Dome Wilderness has miles of hiking trails, including the Saint Peter’s Dome Trail, the Capulin Trail and the Turkey Springs Trail. The Saint Peter’s Dome Trail (6.1 miles) starting on the north end near the Dome Fire Lookout is a good access point to the wilderness. It drops in elevation as it runs south past canyon walls and above sweeping vistas, then across Sanchez Creek, a fishless stream that often has very low or no water at all.
Provided by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics
Bring the “10 Essentials” for day hikes and prepare for a variety of weather conditions and hazards. Visit in small groups (no more than 15) and familiarize yourself with the area by looking at a map of where you’ll be visiting. It’s always important to revisit wilderness ethics and regulations as well.
Durable surfaces include official trails, rock, dry grasses and snow. When traveling off-trail, minimize impacts by NOT moving in single file. Great campsites are found, not made, and altering a site is unnecessary. Camping closer than 200 feet from lakes and 50 feet from streams and trails is prohibited to protect sensitive riparian environments. Keep campsites small and avoid places that appear pristine.
Pack it in, pack it out. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter. To poop, dig a hole 6-to-8 inches deep, at least 200 feet away from water, campsites and trails. Pack out all toilet paper and hygiene products. To wash yourself or dishes, use small amounts of biodegradable soap at least 200 feet away from water.
View but do not touch cultural or historic structures, and leave artifacts in place. Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them since they will only die or gather dust on a shelf if you remove them from their environment.
Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry, at the least by damaging trees and plants and at the worst causing catastrophic wildfires. Use a lightweight stove for cooking, and never feel entitled to a campfire. A campfire is a luxury and a privilege. Keep fires small, only using sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. NEVER fell a standing tree for firewood. It won’t burn and you’re damaging resources in the area. Never attempt to burn trash. Burn all wood to ash and put out fires completely. Scatter cold ashes to leave a useable fire ring for the next visitors.
Always be familiar with applicable New Mexico state regulations for hunting and fishing. Observe animals from a distance and never feed them, whether intentionally or by leaving out unsecured food. Always have pets under control, and leave them at home if they are aggressive or may harass wildlife.
Protect other visitors’ quality of experience by being welcoming and friendly when on-trail. Take breaks and make camp away from other visitors. Let nature’s sounds prevail by not yelling or making other loud noises.