Pajarito and Caballo Mountains
Los Alamos, New Mexico
July 19-25, 2003

On Monday afternoon, I set off for a quick hike to the top of the Pajarito Ski Area - just west of Lost Alamos. It was refreshing to see one of the few areas that escaped the massive Cerro Grande Fire in May of 2000. Starting at the ski lodge, I made my way up to the summit via West Beginner, Lumberyard, and Aspen. The mountainside was alive with hundreds of cicadas and grasshoppers that jumped out of the way at every step. At the top of the Aspen lift, I traversed to the south side of the mountain for stunning views of the Sandia Mountains and the Valle Grande. From there, I made a quick trip up to the top of Big Mother at 10,400 ft. This summit offers the best views of the Valle Grande, complete with a custom-made park bench and picnic table.

I took a leisurely descent from the summit, first following the jeep trails to the west, and then cutting back toward the beginner lift. Despite the grumbling threat of thunderstorms all afternoon, the promised precipitation never transpired, making for a beautiful, cool day of hiking.

Abandoned rope-tow shack
View to the south from the summit of Pajarito Ski Area. Sandia Mountain in the distance.
Looking toward the southeast corner of the Valle Grande from the south side of Pajarito Ski Area.
On Wednesday, I hiked up to Caballo Mountain - one of the tallest visible peaks to the west of Los Alamos, with a large open pasture visible near the summit. I started at the Pajarito Ski Area at 10:20am. The trail begins at the entrance to Camp May where it traverses a ridge along the boundary of the Cerro Grande Fire's furthest extent. This is one of the few locations on the hike where the fire damage is evident. This trial soon opens into Caņada Bonita, a stunning meadow nestled between two hills that offers a view of Los Alamos to the east.

The trail continues along the valley to the west and then rises over the northern ridge, ultimately merging with the Quemazon Trail and Pipeline Road. Just beyond this intersection, I took Trail 282 north toward Cerro Rubio, a.k.a. Shell Mountain, noted by an outcrop of pinkish rocks near the summit. The trail eventually turns toward the east and the ridge narrows, eventually tapering to only a few feet across with a sharp drop-off at either side. Just before the ridge ends entirely, the well-maintained trail drops off the north side of the ridge, offering an easy descent from the cliff.

At the base of the canyon, the trail continued to the east past a series of quiet marshes, alive with butterflies. As I turned north onto Trail 277, the route became less maintained, but still easy to follow. Fallen trees and spurious animal trails occasionally made navigation more difficult, but it was always easy to find my way back to the right trail - marked by yellow or pink ribbons. The trail climbs the west face of the mountain, so the landmark meadow was not visible until the very summit. I emerged from the forest at 1:04pm, greeted with a spectacular 180-degree view from Espanola down to the Sandia Mountains.

The true summit isn't marked by a trail, but it's fairly easy to find through the sparse forest. It's definitely worth taking the trip to the north face of the mountain, which offers stunning views across Santa Clara Canyon and into Colorado.

After a quick hike to the top, I spent a full hour at the summit, taking photos and enjoying a light lunch. I started the descent at 2:05, sad to leave the views behind, but anxious to escape the approaching thunderstorms. By 3:30, the clouds had moved in and the thunder was all around me, so I made a quick jog back to the car, passing a number of hikers along the way. I arrived back at the parking lot at 4:35, making for a very quick 14-mile round trip. For others who may be planning the same route, it should be noted that I jogged much of the route, which should ordinarily be allotted a full 10 hours to hike.

Wildflowers in Caņada Bonita
The northeast corner of the Valle Grande
Santa Clara Canyon, as seen from the west side of Caballo Mountain
Lounging on Caballo Mountain with Pajarito Ski Area in the distance
The view toward the east from the summit pasture on Caballo Mountain

© Copyright 2003 by Rob Jagnow.