Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the most important mountain range in New Mexico, United States, and contain most of the state's high peaks. The range extends from 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 article will cover features of the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico that are of interest but are too dispersed to be covered in the articles on Taos, Santa Fe, or the two national forests (Santa Fe National Forest, Carson National Forest) that include sections of the Sangre de Cristos.
Santa Fe, Taos, Española, and 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.)
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 entries for 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; Sapello and nearby areas are reached from Las Vegas on New Mexico state road 518; and Pecos, Cowles and many southeast-side trailheads are reached via state road 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. 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: the ridges are steep enough to pose serious avalanche hazard.
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:
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.
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 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. 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 1 p.m., 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.