I jumped at the chance to do a free all-day hike in Taos Ski Valley, June 15, with the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society New Mexico’s Co-Chair and guest trail guide Dr. John Ubelaker — but then, so did about 26 other people. Only the ticks outnumbered the hikers on our guided tour of Italianos Trail.
Italianos is located off State Road 150, more commonly known as The Ski
Valley Road. It’s easily one of the most scenic and perhaps the most easy-going of all the trails located in and around Taos Ski Valley.
Others include Manzanita Canyon Trail, Yerba Canon Trail, the ever-popular Wheeler Peak-Williams Lake Trail and not to forget, the favored Gavilan Trail that is great in the summer and even better in the fall.
Italianos trail is not very steep, but it will still get your heart rate up with its numerous river crossings and varied terrain, climbing from 8,704 feet to 11,387 feet in just 3.6 miles.
It is broken up by a series of small meadows and an aspen grove located all within the first mile of the hike.
This diverse trail also touts several rocky draws, a cathedral-sized quaking aspen grove and spruce trees, all common to the Canadian Zone, says Uebelaker, who is also a professor of biological sciences at Southern Methodist University and SMU-in-Taos Summer Session.
Besides the impressive outcroppings and trees, more importantly perhaps, is the fact that the area is home to 200 species of plants.
It’s definitely a good thing I didn’t stop to pick and chew on a stem of inviting Monkshood while meandering long switchbacks — like so many unknowing hikers do when enjoying a day on the trail.
Monkshood, as one of Ubelaker summer session students on the hike pointed out, is an extremely poisonous plant for humans and animals. Apart from potentially toxic species, there are a host of plants in arm’s reach that have medicinal qualities, some have even hallucinogenic properties. And then there are those species of plants with deadly look-alikes especially in the fungi family.
It is too early in the season for mushrooms, but there are plenty of flowers in full bloom to stop and ponder.
Some of those noted on the hike were columbines, wild fern, Canadian thistle, mountain parsley, wild sweet pea, the hardy yarrow plant (with its antiseptic qualities), and the group favorite, Mountain Lover (Oregon Box Leaf, paxistima myrsinites) — all flourish in abundance alongside the trail.
“There are distinct life zones in Taos County,” said local naturalist David Witt, making Taos “one of the most botanically diverse in the country.” The earth has seven life zones, of which New Mexico is blessed with six, lacking only the “tropical” zone.
Less than a mile into the hike we stopped to witness the awe-inspiring aspen grove. Aspens grow three times as fast underground, Ubelaker explained, sharing a common root system that spreads and sprouts up as clones, like fingers coming out of the ground.
The soil underfoot is level, nutrient rich and nearly 30 feet deep, due to the contributions of the aspens. The difference becomes apparent when Ubelaker directed our attention to the opposite side of the river where there are none. The bark of the aspen tree contains a substance similar to turpentine, which is highly flammable, the good doctor added. I know where I won’t be heading next time there is a lightning storm.
If fire weren’t enough of a deterrent from this wondrous better-half of the cottonwood family, then bears should be. Where there are aspens there are likely to be bears our guide cautioned us, as he began leading us back down the trail, stopping one last time to point out a bear marking, high up on the thin, smooth, chalky white bark of an aspen.
Out came the cameras to have a picture taken with the claw marks, with some folks assuming the pose of an angry bear — all part of a fun hike along TSV’s Italianos Trail.