Tres Piedras Ranger District: Mosaic Rock

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One of the wonders of northern New Mexico is the variety of landscapes in every direction.

One day you can ski or snowshoe in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the next be walking on the desert mesa above the Rio Grande. One of the less visited areas is the Tres Piedras Ranger District of the Carson National Forest, northwest of Taos about 30 miles.

The area has stands of aspen, ponderosa pine, juniper and scrub oak and is at the southern end of the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains. Although it doesn't have as many trails as some of the other Carson National Forest ranger districts, it is a popular area for cross-country skiing, climbing and some hiking, in areas such as Mosaic Rock.

Past the small town of Tres Piedras, the ranger district office on U.S. 64 is a good jumping off point for exploring. Knowledgeable staff members and maps are available. The area is rich in history.

Archeological investigations show that hunter and gatherers lived here thousands of years ago as did the Jicarilla Apaches in the 1800s. The Forest Service plans to build on the past while adding to and improving trails in the future.

History - Aldo Leopold house

Aldo Leopold was named supervisor of the Carson National Forest in 1912. That same year he built a cabin in Tres Piedras that would be home for his new bride, Estella Luna Otero Bergere. The cabin is built up against the granite bluffs and has a porch that runs the length of the house and looks directly east to the expanse of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Leopold stayed here until 1913. According to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, "He is considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the United States' wilderness system….Among his best-known ideas is the 'land ethic,' which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature." A year after his death in 1948, his collection of essays, called "A Sand County Almanac," was published and has since sold millions of copies.

The cabin he built is still standing in Tres Piedras and can be rented from time to time. It also is home to a writer in residence program each year, sponsored by the foundation.

New and improved trails

Interpretative Trail: A quarter-mile accessible trail is being planned that will provide information about Leopold's legacy. According to the Carson National Forest "The purpose of the Leopold Interpretive Trail is to provide a recreation opportunity and learning experience for travelers and local community members…A more primitive trail will also extend approximately 2 miles off the interpretive trail to give users more of a backcountry experience." Interpretive signs will have information about Leopold as well as about the vegetation, geology, and history of the area.

Continental Divide Trail: A portion of the Continental Divide Trail is located in this ranger district. The CDT was designated in 1978 by Congress. It covers 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, following the Continental Divide.

It is the highest of the 11 designated National Scenic Trails in the U.S. Funds are earmarked to improve and mark this trail in the coming years.

Mosaic Rock

Access to the Mosaic Rock area is a bit past the ranger district office. Well-known in the climbing community as a place to boulder and scale the massive rock walls, it is also a good destination for a short hike and a scramble to the accessible shelves of the rock formation.

Tres Piedras is named for this area, but you will find at least six rock formations rather than three. At the parking area, look for the public entrance marked as TP Rocks entrance.

Head to your right and skirt around the base of the rock formations. A short hike of about a half-mile through the scrub oak and ponderosa pine brings you to the northeastern edge of the outcropping and a route to gradually climb up to a high point.

From the north side, you will enjoy dramatic views north to San Antonio Mountain towering over the plateau at more than 10,900 feet. The Sangre de Cristos with Taos Mountain in the foreground are visible to the east, with more rock formations scattered in every direction. This is a great place for lunch and a rest before descending.

If you retrace your steps back down to the ground and continue north, the path turns west and enters private property before crossing back onto forest service land. After about a half-mile, a fence indicates private property and a survey marker, a good place to turn around. The owner of the private property does allow access to some areas, so read the signs for more information. From the ground to the top of the flat shelf is a gain of about 200 feet from 8,200 to 8,400 feet.

It is an appropriate hike for older children who enjoy scrambling. On a recent visit a family was exploring here. Otherwise, it was quiet, except for the breeze and the call of the ravens circling the rocks.

On a recent visit, hoof prints and other signs of deer and elk were visible. A cottontail rabbit dashed from the bushes when I approached with my dog.

Weather

In mid-March, the temperature was in the 50s under partially cloudy skies. It can be breezy up on top of the rocks. Patches of snow were melting, especially on the north side of the rock formation. Spring is a good time to visit Mosaic Rock as the weather is mild and few other people visit.

Cindy Brown is the author of the "Taos Hiking Guide," available at local outfitters and bookstores and at nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at cindybrowntaos2010@yahoo.com.

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