Long weekend in the Columbine-Hondo

Joe and I experienced expansive views in the Columbine-Hondo.

After getting back from my Wisconsin vacation last week, I was itching to get back into the mountains. So I dragged my friend Jon along for a two-night trip into the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area.

The 45,000-acre area, located North of Taos, has been proposed as a full-fledged wilderness. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, introduced the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act in the Senate earlier this year.

The Columbine-Hondo is conveniently located for many in Taos County, as it can be accessed easily from the communities of Red River, Questa and Taos Ski Valley. Jon and I headed up Long Canyon by way of the Bull-of-the-Woods trailhead at the base of the Ski Valley.

A Taos Ski Valley police officer nervously asked us if we planned on hiking in tonight. Indeed, we did. He reminded us that he would be the one called on to rescue us if something went wrong. I assured him we would be careful, and we were on our way.

After a little less than a mile, a left turn up Long Canyon goes to a meadow at the base of Gold Hill, at about 12,700 feet. Jon and I hiked in Friday night (Aug. 3), using the light of the moon and, later, headlamps as we hiked several miles to an excellent campsite not much below tree line, arriving at about 11:30 p.m. Saturday morning, we hit the trail at about 7:30 a.m. and climbed Gold Hill, leaving our packs at the base. When we came back down, we picked up the backpacks again and headed up the ridge toward Gavilan Canyon.

We enjoyed several miles of spectacular hiking along the ridge, taking in the views and keeping our eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, though we didn't see any this time. The mild weather was perfect for hiking, and a cool breeze blew, keeping our water consumption down despite the sun exposure.

Around noon, we scrambled down an embankment before we hit the Gavilan trailhead and camped in the meadows below, among aspen stands and a seeping spring. We threw the Frisbee around, cooked sausages and rested up for the last leg of our hike.

For a few hours, we napped in my tent as rain fell and distant thunder rumbled. The next morning, we headed down the East Gavilan Trail, with some difficulty arising from fallen trees. It wasn't until we were halfway down East Gavilan that we encountered the first person we had seen since we started hiking in Friday night. We reached the road, dropped our packs and walked the rest of the way to my car at the Ski Valley on pavement.

We didn't have any great wildlife sightings — just some chipmunks and crows — but the spruce and aspen forest made for nice surroundings, and we found some wild raspberries along the way. The camping was superb, with a great view of the sky on clear Friday night and a warm, cloud-covered (but dry) night Saturday.

For easy access, expansive views and a solitary wilderness experience (if you hike far enough in), the Columbine-Hondo is hard to beat. I had done our route as a day hike before, but these were the first nights I spent in the Wilderness Study Area. Given the quality of our camping experience, they will not be the last.