Santa Fe National Forest
Santa Fe National Forest  is a unit of the United States Forest Service in northern New Mexico. It consists of five administrative units divided into two main areas, one north of Santa Fe and one near Los Alamos, and includes the Pecos Wilderness and San Pedro Parks Wilderness, wild, roadless areas popular with hikers.
The national forest includes many of New Mexico's highest mountains, although the very highest are in Carson National Forest immediately to the north. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are in the eastern (Santa Fe) part of the forest, while the western (Los Alamos) part includes much of the Jemez Mountains. Elevations range from about 5300' (1600 meters) up to 13,102' (3993 meters) at the summit of Truchas Peak.
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 forest. The eastern unit contains bighorn sheep (some of which have become so used to human presence as to constitute a camp pest), and a substantial elk population splits time between the western unit (and the Valles Caldera National Preserve) in summer and Bandelier National Monument in winter. 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 Pajarito Ski Area near Los Alamos, elevation 9500' (2900 m). Watercourses tend to be small and seasonal, so that 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 1 p.m. 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.
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 and San Pedro Parks Wildernesses 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 web site above generally does a good job of staying current on fire-related restrictions.
The many trails in the forest are generally accessible to hikers, horses, and mountain bikes. Motorized travel is forbidden in the two wilderness areas, 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 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. Although most of the mountains have relatively gentle slopes, there is some potential for avalanche hazard, particularly along the main ridge line of the Sangre de Cristos but also to some extent in the Jemez.
A national forest is more of a "Do" place than a "See" place. However, there are attractive views of the forest 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. State route 4 between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs also offers attractive vistas.
Autumn color in Santa Fe National 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 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
Both wilderness areas offer 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 1 p.m. during summer months, as the Pecos is notoriously lightning-prone.
By far the most important trailheads into San Pedro Parks are near San Gregorio Lake on the south side, reached by a gravel road off rough State Road 126 between La Cueva and Cuba. To avoid the crowds, consider instead going in from the north side, but it's way out in the boonies and help will be slow in arriving if something goes wrong. The countryside at San Pedro Parks is very different from the Pecos, featuring open meadows and low, rolling hills rather than the peaks and valleys of the western Pecos and the high mesas of the eastern part. A consequence is that the trails can be soft and boggy pretty much year-round. Hiking boots are a good idea, simply to help keep your feet dry.
Most of the mountain lakes in both wildernesses (including man-made San Gregorio Lake), 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.
Probably the best fishing in the forest is at popular San Gregorio Lake, reached by a short walk from the trailheads that continue on into San Pedro Parks. (Don't expect to have it to yourself.) There is also satisfactory fishing along the Pecos River near 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.
The towns of Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Jemez Springs and Española all have hotels and motels; see the WikiTravel sites for those places for more. Few of the smaller towns in the area have much in the way of lodging.
There are a total of 29 campgrounds in the forest. 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 official forest web site 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 Coyote and 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 and San Pedro Parks Wilderness are both superb backpacking destinations. 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 safety issues in the forest are a matter of weather and terrain. Lightning can be a hazard in the summer, avalanches in the winter, and hypothermia-inducing snowstorms practically year-round in the high country of the Pecos. The respective antidotes are early departures from exposed ridges; awareness of avalanche conditions; and good equipment, particularly when backpacking. 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. Use something that will retain its loft. Be on guard for altitude sickness as well; much of the forest, particularly the Pecos, is high enough to cause altitude sickness in the visitor just up from sea level.
As already mentioned, petty crime can be a problem at some of the campgrounds. Incidents seem most common at the beginning and end of the school year, and also during the big-game hunting season, mainly in October. Sensible precautions help (lock your car, don't leave valuables in plain sight, etc.), but some of the break-ins seem purely random in nature and appear to be rooted in ethnic frictions. Some of these frictions extend into the small mountain towns around the forest; the tourist will definitely feel unwelcome in some of the small-town bars (which is one reason why none are recommended here under "Drink"). Keep a low profile.
Most of the activities possible in Santa Fe National Forest are equally possible in Carson National Forest, which adjoins it on the north. Carson contains the state's highest mountain (Wheeler Peak, 13,161') and additional wilderness areas as well as jeep roads, campgrounds, fishing streams, etc. Bandelier National Monument is adjacent to the southwest corner of Santa Fe National Forest and also offers hiking, camping and fishing; motorized off-road travel, however, is forbidden there.