Backpacking to Stewart Lake

Our backpacking trip to Stewart Lake in the Pecos Wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico begins with carefully packing our backpacks, doing what we can to keep the weight down.   We have been to Stewart Lake before and I remember it being a strenuous hike.  We are older now, but hopefully wiser, with better gear and more experience under our belts.

Creek Crossing

There are at least three ways to get to Stewart Lake.  On this trip we start at the trailhead at Holy Ghost Campground and hike the Holy Ghost Trail which will eventually leave the Holy Ghost drainage as it winds upward to the ridge-top where it meets the Winsor Trail before going on to the lake.   The first part of the trail is fairly level with a variety of vegetation:  aspen, pine, spruce, a variety of shrubs and grasses,

2012-06_Stewart_G 028
Gradually Ascending

and an assortment of wild flowers provide much for the eye to behold as the trail follows the meandering creek.

Wild Rose
Home for the Night
Home for the Night

About a mile in, after crossing Holy Ghost Creek, we find a level spot a little ways off the trail and here we spend the night.   We sleep in, as steep mountain slopes on both sides of the Holy Ghost drainage block the sun; there is no direct sunlight to get us up and going.   We have our breakfast, pack up, and then head out on the more challenging leg of our journey.

Aspen and Ferns
Aspen and Ferns

It is a beautiful hike, sometimes through aspen forests with fern undergrowth, ponderosa pine old spruce forests with little undergrowth, but with a wonderful spruce-forest smell.  Generally, north slopes have a thick carpet-like undergrowth of small shrubs, grasses, and flowers, while south slopes are more barren except for the tall mature trees that grow there.   We trek uphill a ways and then back down to cross the creek; then uphill and down with another creek crossing –  several times, each time with some elevation gain.   Then we leave the drainage and it is up and up and up.

Ferns and Flowers
Ferns and Flowers
Lady Slipper Orchid
Clifford Delighted to Reach the Ridge

It is with much relief that we reach the top of the ridge where we take off our packs to rest while we enjoy a lunch of sardines, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, and dried fruit.   Although the hardest section is now behind us, we still have a couple more miles to go.

Wild Flower at the Ridge

About another mile in, we are pleased to see Winsor Creek.  There is a trail that forks off to the west to even higher elevations where the real troopers hike or backpack up to Spirit Lake or Lake Katherine.   We are quite happy to reach Stewart Lake and after hiking part way around the lake, we find a camping spot that is not in the lake basin, but is near an absolutely delightful little creek that tumbles over rocks, creating miniature waterfalls, until in runs into Stewart Lake.

Stewart Lake - Pecos Wilderness
Stewart Lake – Pecos Wilderness
Miniature Waterfall
Flowing into Stewart Lake
Flowing into Stewart Lake
Good-bye to Stewart Lake
Good-bye to Stewart Lake

Soon the sun will set, so we make our dinner, enjoy a cup of tea, delight in the cool mountain air, and soon head to bed for a good night’s sleep.  Although we’d love to have a couple more days to hang out here in this wonderful wilderness, we have obligations that will take us back down the mountain tomorrow.  Different muscles will be taxed and we will be sore for a few days, but we have the satisfaction of having accomplished what we set out to do – a back-packing journey to Stewart Lake.

Nambe Lake

Nambe Lake Backpacking Trip –  1,800 foot elevation gain, about 3 ½ miles each way.

Friday, September 21, 2012 – We arrive at the Santa Fe ski basin and are on the trail to Nambe Lake a little after 3:00.  Uphill to the wilderness boundary – about 800 foot gain – then slightly downhill, descending 400 feet, to the Nambe Lake trail junction.  At the junction, the trail climbs steeply upward over rocks and exposed tree roots, hardly a trail in many spots, steep and challenging.

The Rocky Trail to Nambe Lake

Alongside the trail, a wonderful little creek tumbles downhill over boulders, making little waterfalls here and there, quite magical in its descent.

Delightful Little Creek

Being as late as it is, we don’t have time to stop for photos or even for the break that I am needing.  This steep uphill is challenging for me, especially with the pack being heavier – warmer clothes for the cooler temps.  We finally, gratefully, reach Nambe Lake about 6:00 after 1,000 foot elevation gain.  Nambe Lake sits in a mountain bowl with rock-faced cliffs on the east and south and with steep treed slopes on the north and west.

Nambe Lake – View to the South

Then we look for a campsite.  We find one on a bench on the west side of the lake.   The fire-ring is surrounded by fallen longs and we find a spot just barely big enough to set up the tent just outside the ring of logs.  Clifford gets a little cook-fire going right away so we can heat water for tea.  He is feeling a little dizzy and we figure having hot tea will be relaxing and refreshing.

Our Camp at Nambe Lake

Just before the sun goes down, there is a wonderful golden color on the cliff-face to the east.  I get a few photos before the color fades.

Golden Cliff
Golden Reflections on Still Waters

We make raman for dinner with dried spinach, peas, and salmon added – much tastier and more nutritious than plain raman.  After dinner and clean-up by lantern-light, we hang the food bag and then head to bed.  I am sleeping in my bathrobe, warmer, but heavy to pack in.

Woke up in the night with painful cramps in my thigh.  Happened several times.

Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Daylight and I wake up having no idea what time it is, so doze off and on several times before finally getting up.  Gather some small twigs to start the cook fire. Clifford is soon up, so he takes the twigs and gets the little fire started.  We heat water for hot drinks and have enough hot water left for our oatmeal for breakfast.

Heating Water for Hot Chocolate on the Cook-Fire

After breakfast, we hike around the lake.  There is a really pretty campsite at the end of the lake, but someone was there when we arrived yesterday.  They are gone now and we didn’t even hear them leave.  This is where I’d like to camp if we make another trip up here.  As we hike around this small lake, I take photos here and there of the reflections on the calm water and of the autumn colors.

Nambe Lake – View Southwest
Across the Lake

When we get back to camp we have hot tea, do crosswords puzzles, Clifford reads and I write in my small backpacking journal.   While Clifford naps after lunch, I do some editing – about 50 small-print pages of the novel “Emperors and Exiles.”  Along with taking photos of the lake, the editing keeps me busy until dinner.

We go down to the lake outlet for more water as the sun is setting.

End of Daylight

The wind comes up, but we have a cheery campfire and a hot dinner.

Cheery Campfire

After dinner and cleanup, as soon as the fire burns down, we head to bed.

A wonderful Autumn Equinox day.

Slept better – warm in tent even though it is windy all night.

Sunday September 23, 2012 – I am up before Clifford and start collecting twigs to start a fire.  He is up by time I get back from my wanderings.  We get a fire started and heat water for hot chocolate.  Blue sky is becoming obscured by hazy clouds.  Still windy off and on.  Oatmeal for breakfast and then wash up – head to toe for me after dishes are done.  Start packing.   Do another crossword puzzle and thought I would start reading the new Backpacker, but it is later than we thought, so we finish packing and head on down the trail.

Steep going down, but a lot easier than the going up.   Part way down, the women ahead of us have taken a wrong trail.  We continue on a ways, but Clifford is concerned, so we take off our packs and he goes back to see if he can find out if they are okay.  He isn’t gone very long, as he as figured what they had to do to get back onto the main path along the creek.  It is no wonder hikers get lost up here every year; the trail just isn’t obvious much of the time.  On down we go.

Once we reach the junction, it is uphill to the boundary and then the last steep downhill to the ski basin, taking photos along the way.   It is so pretty  – I love the rocks and the golden-leaved aspen.

Trail of Gold
Colors of Autumn

Back in Santa Fe, we run a couple of errands and then Harry’s for dinner, sitting in the garden with all the strings of lights on.  Very charming.    So ends the successful outing to Nambe Lake.