With the coming of the monsoon season, there is a feeling of abundance in the high country. The rivers are running high and the wildflowers are gloriously blooming. On a recent hike to Gold Hill, there were cascades of blue columbine on hillsides near the trail, pink shooting stars, deep purple monkshood and lavender-colored asters.

Throughout the summer, I've been getting in shape to hike longer trails like Gold Hill. It's worth mentioning that I had both hips replaced last year. My hips are working well and I can hike with almost no discomfort, compared with the intense pain I experienced before the two surgeries last year: one in June and one in November.

Gold Hill was one of my goals because of the wildflowers that bloom there in the height of summer and the views of mountain tops all around, including Wheeler Peak. Although the hike gains more than 3,000 feet and covers in excess of 9 miles, the climb is mostly moderate, through sheltered woods and along rivers.

It had been more than two years since my last long high-altitude hike. My training plan consisted of daily short walks with the dog of about half a mile at 8,000 feet in altitude and then hikes at increasing elevations and difficulties. To improve my strength and endurance, I completed each of the four trails on the way to the Taos Ski Valley.

Training trails

Yerba Canyon (Carson National Forest #61): Yerba is a moderately steep trail starting near mile marker 10 on the way to Taos Ski Valley (State Road 150). It begins at 8,200 feet and crosses a stream numerous times. I hiked the trail more than 2 miles in early May. This trail eventually reaches Lobo Ridge at 11,800 feet, becoming increasingly steep and goes on to Lobo Peak at 12,115 feet.

Manzanita (#58): Later in May, I hiked Manzanita, which is located 1 mile farther up the road near mile marker 11. This trail has one stream crossing near the beginning and several more farther up the trail. It also reaches Lobo Ridge and Lobo Peak. For this hike, I went 3 miles, starting at 8,300 feet and gaining 814.

Italianos (#59): The next trail up the road is Italianos Canyon, near mile marker 12. The trail starts at 8,600 feet and also goes to the ridge. For this hike, I went 4 miles, gaining 1,133 feet in mid-June. This is a particularly beautiful trail with wildflowers blooming and the water in the stream falling across rock shelves. In the higher sections, past most of the creek crossings, there were areas of deadfall on the trail.

Gavilan (#60): Near mile marker 13, Gavilan is the shortest, steepest way to the ridge. Gaining almost 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles, there is one stream crossing early in the hike. For this hike in mid-July, I went a total of 2.5 miles roundtrip and gained 1,000 feet. The stream is visible to the left of the trail and forms a dramatic waterfall just over a mile up the trail. There used to be a sign to the waterfall, but if you listen carefully and look for a trail off to the left, you may be lucky enough to find it. Resist the temptation to get too close to the edge, as the hillside is not stable here.

Gold Hill CNF (#90/63): After the Gavilan hike, I began checking the weather forecasts in search of a day without afternoon thunderstorms predicted at high altitude. There was only one day over the next week that had clouds but not rain. Although I always anticipate that there may be rain and bring rain gear, I thought it made sense to aim for the day with the best weather predicted.

Early the morning on Monday (July 19), I met a friend at the trail head for Bull-of-the-Woods/Wheeler Peak (#90). It was our plan to reach Gold Hill via Bull-of-the-Woods to Long Canyon and then the peak. My map showed a hike of about 9 miles.

The trail starts out on a moderately steep slope along the east fork of the Río Hondo on Wheeler Peak Trail. After just under a mile and one river crossing, there is a sign for the left turn at Long Canyon #63. As the name indicates, this is a long section along a stream of almost 3 miles. The trail climbs steadily through the forest. With the recent rains, little springs are running across the trail and all description of wildflowers and mushrooms are flourishing.

Towards the end of the canyon, there are several meadows near the stream that make good places to stop and rest. After resuming the uphill climb, turn right for a short traverse across side of hill with gnarled trees. You will emerge into an open meadow; turn left up the hill. Here the trail meets with the Gold Hill Trail #64 and climbs up almost another mile to the summit at 12,711. As often happens, my GPS showed that the total hike one way is longer than shown on most maps at close to 5 miles with a gain of 3,300 feet.

On the day of our ascent, there were clouds gathering, but the sun broke through when we reached the top and we were able to have lunch on the peak. We needed the extra layers of wind breakers and fleece we brought, but were able to eat lunch on top, without the usual strong wind and threat of an impending thunderstorm. The views all around include the Ski Valley, Wheeler Peak to the south and Lobo Peak to the southwest. I used an app on my phone called PeakFinder to identify the mountains that lie full circle around Gold Hill. Although a long and challenging hike, it was satisfying to spend the day in nature and beauty, with our minds focused on a single goal.

In addition to a chipmunk on top, we saw several bighorn sheep and a marmot in the distance. On the way down, there are views of Goose Lake to our left. Being a weekday, the trail was lightly-traveled, especially at higher elevations. We spoke to a couple of people who had been to the peak that day and others who were gathering mushrooms or doing a loop, ascending on Gold Hill Trail #64, and returning down Long Canyon.

At almost 10 miles with so much elevation gain, this hike was significantly longer than my training hikes. Although we made it to the top, our pace was fairly slow, and I'd wished that I had done another one or two hikes of 5 to 8 miles to prepare for this one. The next day, my muscles were tired and a bit achy, but I was happy that I wasn't in more pain.

I plan to do more long hikes this summer, including getting to the top of Wheeler Peak. I'm also hoping to hike to Serpent Lake and Trampas Lakes southeast of town.

Directions to Gold Hill trailhead:

From Taos Plaza, go north on Paseo del Pueblo (US 64) approximately 4 miles. Turn right at the Ski Valley Road (State Road 150). Take this road through Arroyo Seco and bear left at the old school. Continue up to Taos Ski Valley, stay left and drive into the upper parking lot. Look for the trailhead on the left (northeast) side of the lot. It is a total of 20 miles from the center of town and about 20 minutes/10 miles from the Arroyo Seco post office.

The story behind the trail

Gold Hill is thought to be named for its mining past. In Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico (1975), it is recounted that the nearby town of Amizette experienced a brief population boom due to mining at Gold Hill. Authors James and Barbara Sherman say, "In the year 1897, a population of 200 was reported, as well as 10 producing mines with an estimated daily output of 600 tons of gold, silver, copper and lead ore ..." The authors say, "The gold was there - it was found and extracted." However, the cost of transporting the ore from the mountain was so expensive it caused many prospectors to go broke.

At the very top of Gold Hill, a mining pit is visible near the rock shelter. Today it protects hikers from the strong wind that often blows on top. Other remnants of old mines are found on the Gold Hill Trail.

The peak also served as a fire lookout in the 1920s. A still-visible rock pile supported a telephone pole that was used by national park rangers to call in reports of fires on a line that ran down Deer Creek and Columbine Canyon to the Moly Mine on the Questa side.

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