To wake up on a sunny morning at Trampas Lakes is to start the day amid some of the most glorious natural beauty in Northern New Mexico. The two lakes sit at the base of the towering Truchas Peaks, which extend beyond 13,000 feet in elevation. The sun lights up the steep raw mountain cliffs with their avalanche shoots filled with glittering rock and patches of snow. Bird songs echo through the forest and the smell of wet pine trees fills the air.
The trail to reach the lakes is a strenuous hike of more than 6 miles with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet. This is a challenging hike and there aren't usually too many hikers on the trail or campers at the lakes during the week, although it can be more crowded during the weekend.
Trampas Trail (Carson National Forest Trail 31) begins at the end of a forest road near the town of El Valle, which is south of Taos. The hike starts off with a gentle climb up above the Río de las Trampas. Pass through a gate and continue to climb amid the wildflowers. Purple asters, delicate pink nodding onion and the red-purple fireweed are all blooming. The trail is wet in places due to the almost daily rains here since monsoon season began.
At just after the 1-mile mark, there is a sign for the Pecos Wilderness. Numerous downed trees have been cleared from the trail by Forest Service crews and the trail is generally in good condition. At near the 2-mile mark, there are two small fields of fallen rock, followed by a larger talus rock field.
After a moderate climb, the trail crosses the river at just more than 2 1/2 miles and again shortly thereafter. There are log bridges in place, but the river is still fairly high and the logs are slippery; caution is required to cross safely. The trail follows the river, which cascades over moss-covered boulders into clear pools. There are wildflowers and the mixed conifer forest is full of birds and butterflies.
Next, the trail climbs a series of switchbacks. The delicate light-blue columbine flowers are in bloom along the trail here, along with the deep-purple monkshood. Small springs join the river, making the area damp and ideal for wildflowers.
After more than a mile of switchback climbing, the trail again crosses the river and begins a moderately steep ascent up toward the lakes. After the final mile, there is a signed junction that indicates you are nearing Trampas Lakes at 11,400 feet. The left trail takes you to the eastern lake, which is surrounded by the Truchas Peaks rising treeless and jagged. The peaks still have patches of snow. The lake to the right is tranquil and still; Sheepshead Peak looms above it. The lake is fed by a stream from the south that bubbles toward the lake and can be heard into the night. The dramatic red-purple Parry's primrose is in full flower near the springs that feed the lake.
Camping and fishing
Because this is a longer hike, it makes for a great backpacking destination. The reward for carrying your gear up 2,500 feet is the chance to spend more time exploring the lakes.
From the campsites, there are views to the lakes and peaks. Camping is allowed 300 feet away from the lakes. There are numerous fire pits that indicate the sites of past campers. Carry in the water you will need or bring a filtration system to purify the water found in lakes and streams.
Be sure to pack all your trash out and move food out of your tent at night and string it up on a tree to discourage bear visits. While the risk of bears looking for food is less at higher elevations than at lower campsites that have large trash receptacles, it still makes sense to take precautions, said Carson National Forest biologist Francisco Cortez. "Bears may smell the food and become curious, so it still makes sense to be 'bear aware,'" he said.
Fishing is allowed at the lakes and during a recent visit, there were signs of fish rising to be seen. Cortez says that in the past, the lakes were stocked by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish via helicopter with Snake River Finespot cutthroat trout. More recently, the lake has been stocked by bringing in Río Grande cutthroat by horseback. A New Mexico fishing license is required and there is a limit of two fish per day.
According to Cortez, wildlife that might be seen here includes bighorn sheep and deer. Black bears may be present in the area and ptarmigans, a type of large bird, live above the tree line. The birds are almost invisible, as their plumage nearly matches the shrubs they like to eat. On the trail, I recently saw a round furry creature scurrying under a log on the trail. Cortez says that this animal was likely a yellow-bellied marmot, which can live in the talus slopes and nearby in the woods.
The trail follows the Río de las Trampas, which means "river of traps" in Spanish. Although there are many theories about the origins of the name and it may refer to trapping done by Native American peoples, there is no wide agreement about how the river and lakes in the Trampas area were named. "No one knows for sure," said author William deBuys, who wrote with Alex Harris the book "River of Traps" about the area. "The story is lost in the past. The name Trampas was well-established by the time a land grant of that name was made in the 1750s. This was well before there was trade in fine furs. The trading was done with Mexico and there was not a demand for beaver hats. Only after the Mexican Revolution that ended in 1821, was the land open to Anglo-American trappers."
DeBuys said that at one time, the Río Grande del Rancho, south of Taos, was also known as Río de las Trampas. There is the possibility that the traps were for fish or nearby game.
With the coming of the monsoon season, there are frequent rainstorms here. Be prepared for hail, thunder and lightning. Be sure to bring rain gear and a cover for your pack, especially if you are backpacking.
From Taos Plaza, drive approximately 4 miles south on Paseo del Pueblo Sur. Turn left at the traffic signal for State Road 518 and go about 16 miles. Turn right at State Road 75 toward Peñasco and drive past the Camino Real Ranger Station. After about 6 miles total, turn left onto State Road 76. Follow it for 5 miles and turn left on Forest Road 207. Pass through the town of El Valle and travel a total of 8 miles to the trailhead located at the campground where the road ends. An outhouse and a few camping sites are located here.