Caballo Peak Loop

There are miles of trails right out of Los Alamos that I haven’t touched yet. Most of the town is surrounded by burn areas from the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which gives it a unique flavor. Burn areas are often pretty, but horrendous to hike through due to piles of deadfall and thorny new undergrowth. The large collection of wealthy athletes in Los Alamos makes this one burn area where there are some good maintained trails. I sally forth at 9:50am from the Mitchell Trailhead, a small two-car parking area and sign across the street from a row of large houses, thinking I should easily be able to make a 20-mile loop and be back before dark on good trails. Of course my boundless optimism will prevent that, ensuring that I crawl through a few miles of thickets, brambles, and deadfall before the day is done, and arrive back at the trailhead shortly after dark. Slides:

My first optimistic decision is to add an extra mile and a few hundred feet of climbing to see the natural arch near the Mitchell trail. I don’t regret it. Rock formations are appealing to me even when I’m not climbing them.

The burn area has a few stands of aspen left that are bright orange and yellow, some darker orange Gambel oak, and lots of stark snags to provide contrast. Because most of the new growth is low, there are plentiful views. It reminds me of the large burn area on the Continental Divide Trail in the Scapegoat Wilderness in Montana.

Up higher I return to unburned forest, a totally different world. The trail tunnels through Engelman Spruce and Aspen, clearing only occasionally for a view. Those views are now green and gold, the forest providing a totally different complement to the fall colors.

I labor up the steep climb to Caballo peak by 2pm, and feel I have time to attempt an extended loop. There’s a “route” marked on my map with a dotted line that descends Vallecito de los Caballos. I think I remember ascending it in February 1996 through snow and shaggy elk. I’ve been in the forest long enough to hope that it escaped the 2000 fire, but that is not the case. I start clambering over a few fallen trees, then more, then I’m in full-fledged thorny burn thickets. Resigned, I pick my way through. It takes so much focus, always trying to pick out the least painful route for the next twenty feet, that the time goes quickly. I even enjoy parts of it. After at least four miles of it though, I’m happy to emerge onto a road in lower Guaje Canyon.

The hiking is easy road and trail to the outskirts of Los Alamos, then it gets confusing. The town is on a mesa, and the surrounding canyons are full of ad-hoc trails. I’m fortunate to take only one wrong branch on my way back to the trailhead. The last half mile is lit by a nice half moon.

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