Fall hike: Trek to Horseshoe Lake offers gold aspens, waterfalls, wildlife

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Horseshoe Lake sits just beyond the fringe of the forest and right below the windswept ridge that leads to Wheeler Peak. It is a shimmering blue-green lake, surrounded by high alpine tundra and ancient bristlecone pines.

Although this is a long hike at almost 7 miles and the elevation gain is more than 2,300 feet, the climb is mostly moderate. Horseshoe Lake makes an excellent destination for a day hike or overnight stay. Along the route, there are waterfalls, aspens turning gold and rocky cliffs. On a recent hike, there were dusky grouse that rose up and took flight through the forest and on the alpine slopes, marmots and pikas scurried among the rocks.

The hike

The hike begins outside of Red River at the trailhead for East Fork Trail (Carson National Forest No. 56) at an elevation of about 9,600 feet. A gentle climb of a half-mile through the pine and aspen forest brings you to a stream crossing of the eastern fork of the Red River. On a recent fall morning, it was cool in the canyon and the breeze through the trees and the rush of the river were the only sounds to be heard. The Carson National Forest crews spent four days clearing the trail this year and it is in excellent condition.

After about a mile, there is a sign at the site of the historic Big Ditch. The ditch was built in 1868 to bring water from the upper lakes in this area approximately 41 miles away to Elizabethtown to help mine the placer deposits of ore on the west side of Baldy Mountain.

Remnants of the ditch are visible along with the site of the Big Ditch cabin. This is the location of one of two cabins used by those who maintained the ditch in the last 1800s. Nothing remains of the cabin today. Not too far away is the site of a water wheel-powered sawmill, according to Carrie Leven, archaeologist for the Questa District of the Carson National Forest. "Pieces of the old pipe from the Big Ditch are on display in the back of the Red River Library and Mining Museum. Much of the ditch was an actual excavated ditch. Other parts were pipe or flume," said Leven.

Beyond the intersection with the Big Ditch, the trail continues its moderate uphill climb to the junction with the Sawmill Trail (CNF No. 55) at about 1.5 miles. The next major river crossing is just before the 3-mile mark on a sturdy wooden bridge. At this point, the trail becomes a bit steeper, climbing through the forest and crossing rock slide areas.

After 5 miles of hiking, there is an overlook with spectacular views west to the junction of the trail with Lost Lake Trail and south toward Red River. Here, aspens were visible turning gold and quaking in the breeze against the gray cliff walls.

At the next water crossing, look downstream for the spectacular waterfall. Shortly thereafter, the trail reaches the junction with Lost Lake Trail No. 91. Turn left toward Horseshoe Lake and climb up the hill past rocky outcroppings and into the high alpine meadows. On a recent hike, there were still wildflowers blooming along the way, including lavender-colored asters and deep-purple mountain harebell and one lone blue columbine at the base of a rocky slope.

After a series of switchbacks through the alpine meadows, the rock wall of the lake outlet appears and then Horseshoe Lake: deep and blue. The cool breeze ripples across the water and carries the smell of fall with it. Beyond the lake, which is located at an elevation of 11,950 feet, the trail that climbs to Mount Walter and the Wheeler Peak ridge is visible.

That day, the cool wind blowing at the lake shortened my stay. I returned down the trail to a sunny spot in the shelter of the forest for lunch.

The total round-trip distance was almost 14 miles. Although it was a long hike, the gradual climb, the cool fall temperatures and the spectacular scenery made it a pleasant one.

A note on distances

Before attempting this hike or any others that are new to you, it makes sense to pick up a map and read descriptions of the trail online. You will notice that there is a wide variety of mileage estimates across different maps and sources. The CNF website estimates the East Fork Trail at 4.9 miles and the trailhead sign says 5 miles. Two different maps I consulted had ranges from 5.2 to 6.2 miles. An online description posted a distance of 6.8 miles and a question about how their GPS showed such a different mileage than the CNF. My GPS showed a total of 6.9 miles.

Although the difference varies from trail to trail, I generally find that walking the trail with all its switchbacks and curves produces a mileage reading that is 10-20 percent longer than those you see on maps. You may wish to allow time for longer distances than you see noted on maps and don't get discouraged if your GPS is showing more distance than the maps you have in hand.

Staying safe and what to wear

No matter what the season, some basic safety precautions should be taken. As the weather grows cooler and snow becomes a possibility, be sure to wear an inner layer that wicks away the moisture and bring layers for warmth and wind and precipitation protection. On the recent trip to Horseshoe Lake, it was cold enough for a headband and gloves at the top. Be sure to bring all the water you will need or some way to filter the water available on the trail, along with high-energy snacks.

Taos Search and Rescue reminds us to tell someone where we are going and when we will be back. The organization suggests that the whole hiking group stay together and that you stay on the trail. Taos Search and Rescue also recommends bringing a fully charged cellphone and texting if you get lost and have reception, as texting uses less battery power than calling.

For more tips on staying safe outside, pick up the flyer from Taos Search and Rescue at Taos Mountain Outfitters and other local businesses.

Brown is the author of the "Taos Hiking Guide," available at local retailers and nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at cindybrowntaos2010@yahoo.com.

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