Greg and Luna in the Backcountry

Hamilton Mesa - Late Fall

Date November 19, 2009 at 6:00 PM

Author Greg Lewandowski

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Outdoors & Recreation

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Hamilton Mesa Late Fall

The four mile dirt road to the Iron Gate trailhead has to be taken seriously. Lined with ruts, pot holes, boulders and vast bottomless holes it takes 30 minutes of bone jarring driving to reach the trail head. I'm drawn to the solitude of Hamilton Mesa, a vast open area at 9800 feet. The mesa offers massive mountain vistas to the east along with steep terraced hills and dark valleys to the west and south. There is a light dusting of snow as I begin my climb. The sky is a clear blue, entirely cloudless. I set my GPS and double check my equipment as Luna darts ahead watching for anything that might move.

The trail is thick on both sides with broad pines while the sunlight works hard to filter through to the ground below. The light is low in the east as I head north crossing through sunlight and shadow, brushing against the bark of old pines and stepping over their broad roots as the top of my head brushes against their pale green branches. A few bare aspen are hidden in the shadows, some of their branches silver where small beams of light brighten their faded grey bark. The trail grows steeper the last half mile. It widens and narrows, crosses over boulders and roots, skirts the edge of a cliff with views to the east. In the distance, hills join together to form a hazy ridgeline. Then Im quickly back into the forest and after little more then an hour of hiking I reach the mesa.

The mesa is flat in sections but also has a gently sloping hill to the northeast. The first thing that catches my breath as I leave the forest are the mountains of the Sangre' de Cristos. Pecos Baldy and the Truchas Peak ridge line appear to be within reach. Thick forests sloping up to meet snow capped peaks. I pass a line of aspens and stop to set up my tripod. Then I notice something else quite remarkable. Specks of winter grass sprout everywhere along the top of the mesa. Clods of dirt with wheat colored stalks bowing in the light fall breeze. Snow packed and firm the grasses are well anchored in the hard frozen soil. I sit down close enough to enjoy watching them swirl in the wind as the sunlight brightens up their pale golden color.

Hamilton mesa is also a thoroughfare to all points in the Pecos Wilderness. A few miles further up the trail there is another trail that heads east down to Betty's Flats and crosses the Pecos river on a well made wooden bridge. From there, other trails intersect and Baldy Lake is within reach as well as the skyline trail and then onward to Truchas Peaks. If you prefer you can also continue straight on and pass the trail that goes east and instead go straight another few miles to another trail. This one will take you to Pecos Falls. In the spring these falls are truly magnificent. The trail will put you at the top of the falls and another trail will take you to the bottom. From there it's a short hike to Betty's Flats. Hamilton Mesa has its own beauty but also holds a way to access some of the deeper areas of the wilderness.

For today I decide to stay around the mesa, hike up the hill, and explore the edges of the mesa. I really wanted to see if I could get down to the Pecos river. There are sections where the river flows along a deep gorge. I've seen the strength of its waters flowing heavily along its wilderness course.

From where I am on the mesa there is no trail that would lead directly to the river. I would have to walk a few more miles. So I set a waypoint on my GPS and decide to head down. From the topo map it looks to be about 800 feet of descent and about three-quarters of a mile. I like the idea of a good aerobic workout and seeing the river. Luna seems to be in agreement so down we go. The trees are dense with large amounts of deadfall. We zig-zag a course and reach the waters edge in just over an hour. The river is narrow and shallow but full of the wildness I've come to expect. Patches of ice along the edges, trees and branches laying crossing the river but barely slowing its course. Directly across from me and behind a thicket of trees is a rock face going straight up a few hundred feet, upstream in the distance I see a slight patch of blue sky. The sunlight is dim down here as I set up my tripod. Just as Im taking a shot Luna jumps onto a patch of ice and turns quickly to show off her new jacket. I click off a quick action shot then caution her to be careful as she jumps from ice patch to boulders to the rivers edge. Late autumn is feeling like early winter as we trek back to the mesa. The hike is steep and slippery, I turn my heels sideways, follow my tracks and after an hour Im back to the mesa.

I intended to get some sundown shots but the sky was still crystal clear and sundown was only a half hour away. I waited till 5 pm but no clouds or bright reflective colors that I was hoping would highlight the peaks. Instead I started back when I saw to the southeast some shades of yellow and light red over a hazy ridge. I quickly set up and started some timed shots hoping to get the outline of the aspens near the base of the hills.

I packed up then put on all my extra clothes on for the cold walk back. Darkness was settling in so I put on my headlamp then I clipped Luna's light to her collar and off we went. Luna led the way and we arrived back at the car well after sundown. I felt a bit sad knowing the gates to the mesa closed in a few weeks. As I lifted Luna into the back seat I whispered something to her. Say good bye Luna, we won't be back until spring.

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