There is a special kind of magic in being outdoors in the winter. The woods are quiet and the sun shines off the crystalline formations of snow and ice. Tracks of wildlife are visible in the snow. A glimpse of a bighorn sheep or a bald eagle soaring above the Río Grande is not uncommon.
Downhill and cross-country skiing provide perhaps the most thrilling way to experience the outdoors in winter. But if you want to slow down from time to time and really notice the magic and the changes that winter brings to the landscape, cool weather hiking may be for you.
Jamie Ash is a longtime local who hikes and snowshoes throughout the winter months, often at high elevation. She says, “In winter, it is all about shape, the entire area becomes a sculpture. There are places where springs emerge just off the trails and in winter, the snow forms peaks and valleys, soft undulations, which change each day with new snow or new melt. I love to get to tree line and feel the wildness of the place.”
In order to stay safe and warm, winter hiking and snowshoeing require thought and preparation. Waterproof boots and layering of warm clothes help ensure that your experience outdoors will be comfortable and safe. Because the trails look different when covered with snow, it is especially important to bring a map, compass and GPS, if possible, when setting out on an unfamiliar trail.
Here are some suggestions to get you outside this winter:
Easy – West Rim in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument
When starting out hiking this winter, you might want to begin on a flat trail close to town to test out your equipment, clothing and fitness. In the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, the West Rim Trail offers an easy option over rolling hills, with views to the east of Taos Mountain and El Salto.
The West Rim Trail begins at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge and continues south for 9 miles. A winter hike over the sage-covered terrain can begin at the rest area near the bridge. If you are looking for more solitude, go past the bridge and turn left on the West Rim Road toward Ojo Caliente and Pilar. Follow the road for 8 miles until you see the sign and trailhead parking. You can access the south end of the West Rim Trail here.
The southern section begins with a dip down into a basin that can offer protection from the wind that sometimes blows here. Crossing several arroyos, the trail leads to various bluffs that overlook the Río Grande. As the river flows south, the gorge widens. The rocky cliffs are layers of earth exposed by the rift in the continent that pulled the land apart on the Taos Plateau.
The mesa is covered by low-growing piñón (pine) and sage that provide cover for cottontail rabbits and coyotes. Bighorn sheep are often spotted along the edge of the gorge. Other animals that might be seen here include mule deer, gray fox and long-tailed weasel. Most dramatic of all is the sighting of the bald eagles that make the Río Grande home from late fall to early spring.
Early in the season, the snow is likely to be light and to melt quickly. With the approach of January, the snow often begins to stick here and cover the ground, providing a perfect place to try out your snowshoes before venturing into the high country.
Moderate — Williams Lake in Wheeler Peak Wilderness
One of the most popular trails during the summer, the trail to Williams Lake takes on a quieter, more contemplative character during the winter. Although the trail does begin among the skiers at Taos Ski Valley, as you make your way toward the lake, there are fewer skiers and the quiet begins. This is a moderately challenging hike at high elevation with more intense winter weather – you may want to work up to it gradually.
This 2-mile trail begins at 10,200 feet and climbs steadily to rise just above 11,000 feet at Williams Lake. From the parking lot on Deer Lane, walk down the hill past the Bavarian Restaurant. Head past the Phoenix Grill and look for the signs around the Kachina chairlift. If the espresso shack is open, it is worth a slight detour to pick up a warm coffee drink or hot chocolate.
Walk along the Río Hondo where hikers share the road with skiers and snowboarders returning to the chairlift. Bear left to stay on the trail as it moves into the woods and follows a series of switchbacks. The forest opens to the left, revealing some slide shoots on the steep mountain side. After returning to the woods for a moderate uphill climb, views open up, exposing the boulder fields that are often buried deep in snow. After traversing a final boulder field, climb up to the crest of the hill to see Williams Lake spread out before you in its glittering and icy glory. Bighorn sheep may be grazing nearby.
The snow will accumulate here and be quite deep before the season is over. By January, plan to bring snowshoes, especially after a new snow. You can tell it is time for snowshoes when you begin to sink into the snow, called “post holing.” You may want to bring both snowshoes and some sort of traction device, like Yaktrax or microspikes, and check out the conditions when you arrive. Snowshoes require more effort, but do provide good stability. Poles can be helpful in maintaining balance and helping you move along.
The road to the hikers’ parking lot on Deer Lane is open during the winter, but requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle this time of year due to the snowy and sometimes icy conditions.
Challenging – Manzanita Canyon in the Columbine Hondo Wilderness
The road that leads to Taos Ski Valley passes through the canyon cut by the Río Hondo. Along this road, there are four trailheads that are generally accessible in the winter, except right after a big snowstorm when the plows leave a lot of snow by the roadside. The trailhead for Manzanita Canyon has the biggest parking area and is the most likely to be plowed during the winter. It is found at mile marker 11 on State Road 150 – the road to Taos Ski Valley.
Manzanita Canyon begins at 8,400 feet and climbs to Lobo Ridge at 11,800 and Lobo Peak at 12,115. The trail begins in a stand of evergreens and crosses a stream near the start of the trail. Unlike other nearby trails, Manzanita does not have numerous creek crossings early in the hike, making it easier once ice and snow cover the trail.
After a steady climb, there is an open meadow under a cliff to the right, which makes a great destination for a short hike. After this point, the trail rejoins the stream and begins to cross it with more frequency. After the ninth crossing, the trail climbs out of the canyon to the right side. There are some steep sections interspersed with flatter meadow areas. From the trailhead, it is about 4.2 miles to the ridge. Here, Manzanita meets Yerba Canyon trail and from this point, it is about a half-mile climb to Lobo Peak.
From the ridge and peak, there are expansive views in all directions. You can return down Manzanita or on Yerba. These are long, steep trails and winter conditions add additional challenges. Be prepared for wind and snow, especially as you get closer to the ridge.
Any of these trails or the others near Taos provide the opportunity to get out and enjoy the head-clearing, heart-pumping experience of being in nature during the sparkling clear or snowy days of winter.
What to bring, things to consider
• Dress in light to medium-weight layers that can be added or removed easily:
• Inside layer that will wick sweat away from your body – wool, silk or synthetic.
• Next layer with warmth, such as fleece.
• Outer layer windproof and waterproof.
• Use snowshoes or traction devices, such as Yaktrax or microspikes.
• Consider poles for stability.
• Mittens or gloves, plus hat.
• Sunglasses and sunscreen.
• Additional layers of clothing to replace wet layers or add in case of colder temperatures.
• Waterproof boots.
• Bring plenty of water and high-energy snacks.
• First-aid kit.
• Compass and map.
• Matches or lighter.
• Watch weather reports.
• Check avalanche reports at taosavalanchecenter.org.
• Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
• Know your own limits.
• Watch out for signs of hypothermia, like dizziness, nausea and disorientation – return to lower elevation.
Tips for snowshoes on slopes
“Getting up to the ridge and the big views means I have to traverse one 30-degree and one 35-degree slope,” says Jamie Ash, a longtime local who hikes and snowshoes throughout the winter months. “I always approach them carefully. I press the uphill edge of my snowshoe down into the slope so I make a solid, flat step. If I am breaking the trail, I will usually stomp down once or twice, so I make sure my footing is good before I take another step.” She uses a snowshoe that is designed to bite into the snow and hold on.