Editor's note: The Carson National Forest has closed all districts in the forest except the Jicarilla Ranger District to public entry and use Wednesday (June 27) until weather conditions change.
The high country is bursting with color as summer wildflowers come into bloom. The trails along the Taos Ski Valley Road follow streams and make their way through cool canyons in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness.
If you are looking for a challenging hike, you can put together a loop with two of the trails that lead to Lobo Ridge: heading up one trail, traversing the ridge, and returning on a different trail.
On a recent sunny summer day, I headed up the Italianos Canyon Trail (Carson National Forest No. 59) and followed the ridge west to Lobo Peak, returning down Manzanita Canyon (CNF No. 58). The total distance was more than 11 miles with an elevation gain of over 3,500 feet. This is a challenging loop due to distance and elevation gain, so allow extra time to catch your breath and enjoy the beauty of the flowers and views along the way.
The hike to Lobo Ridge
For this loop, begin at the Italianos Canyon Trailhead along the Taos Ski Valley Road at mile marker 12. You may wish to leave a car at the Manzanita Trailhead (mile market 11) so that you don't have to walk the mile between the two after the hike is done.
The sign at the Italianos Trailhead says Lobo Peak six miles, which matched my GPS calculations closely. The trail climbs gradually at first, crossing the stream a total of 11 times. The water cascading over rock shelves fills the canyon with moisture and makes it very pleasant, especially in the early morning. Many flowers are found here, including hillsides of lavender, wild geranium, red Indian paintbrush and deep pink wild roses.
After the creek crossings, the trail climbs up to the left of the stream more steeply and through a series of switchbacks. The trail rolls through the mixed evergreen forest, before emerging into the first small meadow, which is sprinkled with flowers, including the delicate light blue Jacob's ladder.
Continue the climb through the woods until you emerge into a larger meadow. From here you can begin to see the destination of the ridge above. A bear was recently sighted here peacefully eating in the meadow.
The trail again enters the woods and climbs toward the ridge in a series of steep switchbacks. Several downed trees crossed in this section although the Forest Service is at work this week on removing some of the deadfall, so the situation may be improved soon.
A sign welcomes you to the ridge, which is at an elevation of 11,500 feet. By this point you have gained a bit under 3,000 feet. Expect the climb up to take two to three hours or more, depending on how often you stop. Most maps estimate distance at 3.7 miles. As often happens, my GPS showed a longer distance of over four miles.
Across the ridge to Lobo Peak
At the top of the ridge turn to your left to follow the trail to Lobo Peak. Along the trail, look for over viewpoints off to the left. There are spectacular views toward the Taos Ski Valley and Wheeler Peak and several good spots to rest and eat something before continuing the hike.
The traverse across the ridge has some fairly steep up and downhill sections, passing by rocky outcroppings. As you approach Lobo Peak, the views open up towards the whole range of mountains to the south, including Lake Fork Peak. At a trail intersection, turn right for the short climb up to Lobo Peak. When you reach the peak at 12,115 feet, there is a 360-degree panoramic view in all directions that includes the mountains to the south and all the way out to the Río Grande to the west.
Along the ridge and near the peak, look for dramatic groupings of blue columbine growing among boulders and the deep purple sky pilot and red king's crown blooming near the peak.
In the canyons and along the ridge, signs of deer and big cat activity were evident. Big cats, such as bobcat and mountain lion, are usually nocturnal, so you are not likely to see them, but be on the lookout for wildlife in the area. Always give any wild animal a chance to escape as they are likely to be alarmed by your presence.
Distance across the ridge was more than a mile and half, with total distance from the trailhead of about six miles.
Return down Manzanita Canyon
After reaching Lobo Peak, return down the trail to the intersection on the ridge, bear slightly left to catch the Manzanita Canyon Trail. Follow the path as it descends through the woods. Eventually, you will hear the creek off to your right and arrive at the first of multiple creek crossings. Total distance back to the trailhead is about five miles.
This is an ambitious loop and best-suited for people who have been hiking this summer at altitude. It makes a great goal to work toward if you are new to town or starting to get into good hiking shape.
Weather and safety
Although we have been experiencing hot, dry weather, the time for the monsoons is coming, so be aware there is always a possibility of an afternoon thunderstorm at high elevations. Return to lower elevations if you hear the rumbling of thunder or see approaching storm clouds to avoid being above tree line during lightning and hail storms.
For a long hike like this one, be sure to bring plenty of water or some way to purify the water found in streams at the early parts of the trail. Lunch and high energy snacks are important to maintain energy and strength. You may find it helpful to have a least one hiking pole for assistance with stream crossings and the steep up and downhill sections of the trail.
Note on maps and distances
I recommend bringing a map and compass as well as GPS if you have it. As you may already know from experience, the readings on your GPS may show a slightly different mileage than is shown on maps, but a map will give you some idea of the trails' direction and length. This hike is estimated to be about nine miles long on most maps, but my GPS measured it at over 11 miles. It is good to anticipate that the trails may be longer than what is shown on a map and leave extra time to complete the hikes.
To find the Italianos Canyon Trailhead, drive north from Taos Plaza on Paseo del Pueblo about four miles to the intersection with the Taos Ski Valley Road (State Road 150), the old blinking light intersection. Turn right onto the Ski Valley Road, go through Arroyo Seco and continue up toward Taos Ski Valley for a total of 12 miles. Look for the trailhead to the left at mile marker 12.
Cindy Brown is the author of the Taos Hiking Guide available at local retailers and at nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at email@example.com. For previous hiking columns, search by trail name at taosnews.com.