Great Outdoors

Autumn hiking near Taos: San Leonardo Lakes

By Cindy Brown
For The Taos News
Posted 9/26/18

It is a glorious time to be out in the forests of Northern New Mexico. The leaves are turning gold, the air is cool and clear, and the low angle of the sun through the trees reminds us …

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Great Outdoors

Autumn hiking near Taos: San Leonardo Lakes


It is a glorious time to be out in the forests of Northern New Mexico. The leaves are turning gold, the air is cool and clear, and the low angle of the sun through the trees reminds us that the bittersweet end of warm weather is coming.

Now is the time to get out to enjoy the fall days in the mountains. South of Taos, several trails in the Carson National Forest follow rivers and lead to lakes.

One of these trails goes to San Leonardo Lakes: two high alpine water basins glittering in the sun at the foot of dramatic peaks. This is achallenging hike that covers about 9 miles round trip and climbs more than 2,400 feet from the trailhead to the lakes.

The hike

There are two ways to start the San Leonardo Trail (Carson National Forest No. 30). The first approach is to take Forest Road 639 to the trailhead. This road is often deeply rutted and can require crossing standing water. It is appropriate for four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles.

An alternative is to park at the Trampas Campground and catch the lower section of the trail that leads to the trailhead on Forest Road 639. This approach adds about a mile to the hike but works best for all other vehicles. See the complete directions below. All distances given are from the Trampas Campground.

On a mild fall day, I parked at the campground. This is also the trailhead for the Trampas Lakes, Hidden Lakes and Centennial Trails. I found the trailhead marked with a No. 30 trail sign on the south side of the parking lot near the guardrail.

The trail crosses the Ri3o San Leonardo twice and then an additional trail sign will appear. Follow this pleasant grassy trail for about a mile along the river in an easy climb. There is one more river crossing before arriving at Forest Road 639. Look up the hill to the south to spot the trailhead between two sections of guardrail.

The path climbs moderately uphill through green meadows near the river that flows over little waterfalls. Some wildflowers are still blooming, including the magenta fireweed, pink wild geranium, purple bluebell and lavender aster. After about 2 miles, a gate and a sign indicates you are entering the Pecos Wilderness.

Soon the trail steepens, climbing through the mixed conifer forest and the deep canyon of the river. Some stands of aspen are beginning to turn gold. After eight crossings of the river on logs and stones, sheer granite cliffs emerge to the south of the trail. Here the trail is steep and rocky with sections of climbing interspersed with more level portions.

After over 4.5 miles, the first small lake comes into view to the left of the trail. Ahead, the larger lake nestles beneath the craggy cliffs of the Sheepshead Peak Ridge. Just over the ridge are the Truchas Peaks, some of the tallest mountains in New Mexico, just shorter than Wheeler Peak. The lake at 11,300 feet is surrounded by rock and fallen logs and makes a scenic setting for lunch.

Wildlife and forest

On the return from the lake, I saw a small black bear making its way toward the river. I stopped until the bear had moved off the trail. If you see wildlife on the trail, it is best to back off and let them escape. Black bears are rarely aggressive and are usually looking for food.

Many red squirrels and chipmunks were in the forest busily collecting nuts for winter. Carson wildlife biologist Francisco Cortez says that you can expect to see bighorn sheep near the lake and indeed someone ahead of us on the trail had seen some that day.

Other high alpine dwellers include the yellow-bellied marmot and pika. The large pheasant-like bird known as the dusky grouse might be spotted in the forest.

On the lower moist sections of the trail, a mossy hair-like lichen grows on some of the evergreen trees. Cortez explains that the lichen doesn't harm the tree although it may be more visible on dead branches.

He observes that this lichen is often found in wet shady areas like the river basin near the San Leonardo River. Lichen is used by birds and squirrels to build their nests and helps absorb carbon to cleanse the air.

Weather and turning aspens

The early fall weather is more stable than during the summer monsoon rains, but there is always a chance for a late afternoon thunderstorm at higher elevations. The days are growing shorter and temperatures cooling, so remember to add a fleece layer to your backpack.

All along the drive to the trail, leaves are beginning to turn golden. Other trails with large stands of aspen include the nearby Santa Barbara Trail.

Maps and distances

As with any hike, bring a map, compass and GPS with you, if you have one. I try to read a variety of different descriptions of any trail before I go as distances given seem to vary widely. On the maps I consulted, estimates for the distance from the Trampas Campground to the San Leonardo Lakes ranged from 2.8 to 4.5 miles. As usual, I found the longer distance estimates to be closer to that shown on my GPS.

For more information

For more information on hiking in the Carson National Forest, contact the main office at (575) 758-6200 or visit the website at


From Taos Plaza, drive approximately four miles south on Paseo del Pueblo Sur. Turn left at the traffic signal for State Road 518 and go about 16 miles. Turn right at State Road 75 toward Peñasco and drive past the Camino Real Ranger Station. After about six miles, turn left onto State Road 76. Follow it for five miles and turn left on Forest Road 207. This section is dirt and can be rough in places. Pass through the town of El Valle and travel a total of eight miles to the trailhead located at the campground where the road ends.


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