Summer flatlander visitors accustomed to striding along paths at low altitudes should plan on an acclimatization hike or two before they take their first mountain hike around Taos.
Here are a dozen trails 3,000 feet lower than the lowest altitude trails around Taos Ski Valley.
Rarely are any of these not hikable because of snow. Some though, are not much fun in winds. I've picked some of the more popular, scenic and easiest of them. For many more see Taos News Great Outdoors writer Cindy Brown's Taos Hiking Guide.
1. Hot Springs Trails. Since New Mexico is noted for its hot springs, let's begin with two of the most popular springs near Taos. Popularity means you probably won't be alone at either. And since clothing is optional, go as you please. Temperatures run about 97-F.
Black Rock Hot Springs
From State Road 522 north of Taos at mile 5.3 turn west at the sign to John Dunn Bridge, on County Road B-007. Follow the signs. After about 2.5 miles, the road turns hard right. Stay to the left and downhill until you reach the John Dunn Bridge, then cross the Río Grande and uphill to a sharp switchback. It's about a 5-to-10 minute easy walk in to two mud-bottomed rock pools.
Manby Hot Springs
Drive north of Taos on State Road 64 toward the Gorge Bridge. Take Thune Road about five miles to the end at the gorge rim. Thune is on the right of State Road 64, a bit less than a mile past the airport. The last stretch of Thune to the parking area is rough and best negotiated with a high-clearance vehicle. The mile-long trail is at the left of the parking area and a rocky hike to two sand-bottom pools at the riverbank.
2. West Rim Trail. One of Taos' easy, most scenic trails runs along the top of the west rim of the Río Grande Gorge from the rest area at the Gorge bridge on State Road 64 nine miles to State Road 567 at the south. You'll have spectacular views of the inner gorge and likely see bighorn sheep as well. From Taos take State Road 64 north to the Gorge bridge. From the south take State Road 68 to Pilar, then right on State Road 570. Go along beside the Río Grande, crossing over on the Taos Junction Bridge (note the state road changes at the bridge to State Road 567) and up the canyon wall to the trailhead on the rim.
3. Rift Valley Overlook Trails. This is a complex of some 20-plus miles of easy trails south of Taos on the east rim of the Río Grande gorge. There are many views of the inner gorge with a couple of viewing benches overlooking the mighty inner gorge. If you are lucky you might see an eagle. I've seen my only bald eagle soaring lazily about in this section of the gorge. Access is from two parking lots. The closest to Taos is located past the golf course at the end of County Road 110, which leaves State Road 68 about two miles south of Ranchos de Taos. The other is about six miles south of Ranchos on State Road 68 just below Stakeout Road.
4. El Nogal Nature Trail. This is an easy two-mile loop trail tucked away between two of Taos' most popular trails - the Divisadero and South Boundary trails. These are the closest trails to Taos. They are out of the El Nogal parking lot about three miles from Taos Plaza on State Road 64 eastbound. The trailhead is at the far end (east) of the parking lot, Take either end of the loop. The first turn to the left after crossing the footbridge follows alongside the stream, the other is straight up the hill to the trail divide, where you take the left fork. Both go a mile to the next parking area around back to the starting point (clockwise around from the lower branch, or counter clockwise from the upper branch) completing the loop.
5. Vista Verde Trail. This is a little jewel where you are likely to see bighorn sheep if you go early in the morning. It is an easy 1-1/4 mile trail (2-1/2 miles out and back) over relatively easy terrain. This trail has been used for over a thousand years as evidenced by petroglyphs on its rocks. There are a couple of viewing benches perched high above the river at its end. The canyon is a natural habitat for eagles. A perfect spot for meditating. While the trail is very popular, rarely will you have to share the benches with others. Access on State Road 570 from Pilar south of Taos, crossing the Taos Junction Bridge in about 5-6 miles, where the road changes to State Road 567. The trailhead is about half mile up the canyon wall.
6. Big Arsenic Spring Trail. A one-mile moderately difficult spectacular trail, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, though it drops less than one-fifth the depth of the big ditch, of course. There are lean-tos at the bottom with a fresh-water spring near-by. Hike about a quarter mile across a sagebrush meadow, up atop a flat and off trail to the left are easy to find petroglyphs. This is one of the first trails I take flatlanders on, for its moderate difficulty and a different topography to which they're usually accustomed. It's usually a good winter hike. The only time I've been turned back was after a foot of snow, which covered the trail dangerously, making it unsafe to find footing. Take State Road 522 a mile north of Questa, then left on State Road 978 through Cerro about five miles to right turn at Big Arsenic Campground where the trailhead is near a campsite. Hike down into the Río Grande gorge via many switchbacks to Big Arsenic Springs.
7. Little Arsenic Trail. Another moderate mile-long trail from rim to river in the Wild Rivers Area. Access from same State Road 968 but about a mile past Big Arsenic Campground. A nice loop hike is down either Big or Little Arsenic trail and along the River Trail to the other, up to the rim and back to the car, which gives a nice three-and-a-half mile hike.
8. La Junta Trail. Another Wild Rivers Area hike at the far end of State Road 968 in the Wild Rivers Area. It's a 1-1/2 mile difficult trail, a bit exposed, dropping down iron-rung stairs at points. Views are magnificent of the confluence of the Red and Río Grande rivers, where there is a cluster of lean-tos for camping.
9. Pescado Trail. From the Wild Rivers Area Visitor Center at the end of State Road 968 this moderately difficult trail drops two miles down to the Red River fish hatchery. It is a nice little hike through a Ponderosa forest among huge boulders. Four miles in and out.
10. Cebolla Mesa Trail. Moderate 2 1/2-mile trail, steep and rocky at the top, then moderately steep down a couple dozen switchbacks. Magnificent views of the gorge much of the way down. Bottom is among large boulders and towering ponderosa pines. Access is 15 miles north of Taos on State Road 522, turning onto Forest Service Road 9 just opposite the settlement of Lama. The Forest Service road is deeply rutted in slick caliche mud in wet weather.
11. Picuris Trail. A nice, short 1-1/2 mile round trip hike from river to rim and back. It climbs steep and rocky just under 900 feet from river to rim. It has nice open views of the gorge all the way from bottom to top. There are a few petroglyphs along the way. Part way up, a trail to the left crosses over to the Slide Trail and down around to the start of your hike. There is a $3 use fee payable at the parking area. The Picuris trailhead is at Taos Junction Bridge on State Road 570.
12. Pot Creek Cultural Site. A short, level loop through a site occupied over a thousand years ago by the ancestors of Taos and Picuris Pueblo peoples. Access six miles southeast on State Road 518 from the State Road 68 traffic light in Ranchos de Taos. Gates to the site are closed though access is permitted.
William Kemsley is the founder of Backpacker magazine, co-founder of the American Hiking Society and Member of the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame. He lives in the mountains near Taos.