Serpent Lake is a beautiful, blue, high alpine lake surrounded by wildflowers and woods. It is located beneath treeless Jicarita Peak. Although not an easy hike, it is worth the moderate 3.5 mile climb to reach it.
The early summer rains have made this area south of Taos green and the trails wet. On an early June hike, there was still some snow at higher elevations. This time of year, the trail is usually lightly traveled and you may be able to enjoy the lake in solitude.
The Serpent Lake Trailhead is located at 10,600 feet and is reached by following State Road 518 south of Taos to Forest Road 161. Serpent Lake Trail (Carson National Forest No. 19) is part of a system called the Jicarita Peak Trail and is one of only three near Taos to be designated as a National Recreation Trail, which recognizes its local and regional significance. The other two trails are Columbine-Twining near Taos Ski Valley and the South Boundary Trail in Taos Canyon.
The Serpent Lake Trail begins with a gently rolling section of double track, going across a creek and some berms. It enters the woods and follows a series of switchbacks, crossing a ditch and several small streams. The aspen are a glossy new green and a variety of birds can be heard singing.
Francisco Cortez, wildlife, fish, and rare plants manager with the Carson National Forest; says the small gray pygmy nuthatch and the larger bluish Clark’s nutcracker are among the most common birds to be seen in the fir and spruce forests. Cortez points out that larger birds such as the dusky grouse and ptarmigan are also present here.
As the trail continues into the woods, there is a stream to the left. It is running full, creating a cascading waterfall. Look here for flowers such as blue columbine in late June and into July. After the crossing of Holman Ditch, there is a steeper rocky section up the hill through the woods. This part of the path has water from melting snow and is muddy in places. Hikers should proceed slowly, watching their footing on the wet rocks.
As the trail climbs higher, some areas of snow remained early in the month. Although there were occasional drifts on the trail, there were no sections that were impassable. After more than two miles, the path crosses from the Carson National Forest into the Pecos Wilderness, which is indicated by a sign.
The trail reaches a level section with larger rocks that leads to the turn for Serpent Lake, marked by a sign to the right. Turn here and go down the hill. The trail may be hard to follow in places, if the snow drifts from early summer still remain. Stay left and above the marshy area at the base of the boulder field. Go an additional .3 miles to reach the gorgeous Serpent Lake area. Wildflowers are beginning to bloom, including the white marsh marigold and yellow buttercup.
Cross a series of stone steps that lead to the lake, located at 11,650 feet. Snowy Jicarita Peak, above the treeline at 12,835 feet, looms overhead. Although it can be windy at times, the lake is a beautiful, cool place to have lunch. There is a smaller lake nearby and there are some campsites available. Watch for big horn sheep and the yellow-bellied marmot, which are commonly seen in high alpine environments.
Summer hiking: Early summer conditions can include snow on the trail, wind, and afternoon thunderstorms. Sturdy hiking boots will help to navigate some of the wet, rocky sections. Dress in layers and bring a waterproof shell, as well as a warm layer, like a fleece vest. Carry plenty of water, along with high energy snacks, such as trail mix and a lunch to eat at the lake. It is also time to add bug repellant and sunscreen to your backpack and to consider a hat for protection from the sun. A hiking pole is helpful for the steeper sections and the descent to the lake.
Directions: From Taos Plaza, drive 3.5 miles south on Paseo del Pueblo to the intersection with State Road 518. Turn left and continue southeast about 29 miles. From State Road 518, turn right onto Forest Road 161. Go an additional four miles to trailhead. The forest road is dirt and there are some ruts on portions of the road, but it is generally passable by most vehicles. The trailhead, also known as Alamitos Trailhead, was improved in 2011 to better accommodate those bringing horses to the trail.