Friday, July 13, 2012

Scouting New Mexico Running Trails by Plane

New Mexico Sport Aviation
Trail scoutin' time
One of my trail-running friends is a pilot and flight instructor who happens to own a plane. Recently Mike had this genius idea that we'd motor the plane above the foothills and scout some of the running trails from the air. Sounded pretty good to me but it was much better than good. Certainly one of the finer ideas I've been a part of in awhile, and the following is what we saw.

We got out on a perfect New Mexico summer evening for sight seeing and watching the sun chase the horizon. Fired up our little rocket and shot into the sky Chuck Yeager style - albeit with a propeller in place of sonic jet engines. Our initial flight path took us over Casa Dirt and the new trail underpass at St Francis Dr., then we headed out and over Museum Hill, then east toward Thompson Peak and the city reservoirs. This is a restricted area of the Santa Fe Watershed, restricted to hikers and what-not, but not to planes - suckas! Pretty phenomenal back there, the reservoirs were looking a bit low but the rains are now doing their best to fill them back up.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The Sangre de Cristos viewed from the McClure reservoir

Big Tesuque Winsor Trail
Big Tesuque Creek and the Winsor Trail

The Pacheco Fire burn-scar and Santa Fe Baldy. Borrego Trail follows the drainage along the backside of the burned ridgeline at mid-photo. Upslope is green but the other half of the trail drainage is black. Erosion is undoubtedly a problem over that section of trail.

Close up of the Pacheco Fire damage. SF Baldy towers above.

Puerto Nambe
Nambe Creek amid a charcoal forest. The Puerto Nambe saddle is clearly visible up canyon, SF Baldy (l), Lake Peak (r)

Nambe Creek - A close-up of the silting and flooding damage. That's all ash, silt, and debris.

From there, we headed north to gaze down on the Dale Ball and Winsor Trails. We sort of circled around trying to get a good look at the Piedra connector. We ventured higher and east-er to investigate the Pacheco Fire burn scar from last year's fire season. A lot was burned crispy, a lot was singed a little, and strangely there was some large areas that just seemed to have been left alone. Flooding damage (from ash and erosion) in the upper Nambe drainage there was pretty extensive. The section of Borrego Trail that runs from Aspen Ranch to Nambe Creek was torched on one side but untouched and green on the other. If I remember correctly this is where land managers believe the fire touched off. I need to get up there and check things out on foot.

The flight's true highlight (there were actually a lot of highlights) was investigating a five-year old timber blowdown way up in a remote section of the Pecos Wilderness. We found it up around 10,000ft just west of East Pecos Baldy, which is the second peak north from Santa Fe Baldy, south of the Truchas white-caps.

The forest blowdown, East Pecos Baldy in background

View from above the ridge
Finer detail - note the trees are just laid down whole

Finer detail. Note that those are mature 40-60ft tall ponderosa pine trees.

I had heard about the blowdown from an SFNF ranger (Miles Standish) but was not expecting to witness several square miles of giant ponderosas neatly fanned out on the ground like some odd Twilight Zone event. We circled around a bit to sort of absorb the scale of this madness, particularly in relation to the burn scars we'd just seen. We quickly concluded that had someone been on the ground when it happened there would have been no hope of survival - either you'd be dashed against a tree or rock, or crushed moments later, or perhaps both. Forest managers estimate a 100mph microburst of wind created this mess around the month of August, 2007. Capulin Trail 158 used to pass through the area but is now obliterated and will be abandoned.

Click through the map below to see detail of the blowdown event on Google satellite images. 

View Santa Fe National Forest Blowdown - Pecos Wilderness in a larger map

Mike carts folks out and above town nearly every day via hourly flying lessons. Skip the next obligatory gift of a tie for Father's Day or the birthday tool set or whatever and opt for something way more awesome like a few hours in the skies instead. Highly recommended. 

New Mexico Sport Aviation
Mike's flight shop

Mike Szczepanski Sport Aviation
Mike pilots through a banked turn - we removed the plane's doors for better viewing

New Mexico Sport Aviation
Yours truly at the controls (note the sweat-seasoned running hat). I appear tense because I'm trying not to land my friend's plane in a juniper tree

New Mexico Sport Aviation
Coming in low over Las Campanas. Sandia and Tetilla Peaks in the background


  1. Awesome. That blowdown is nuts. I got to fly from LAM (los alamos municiple) to TX with a co-worker a few years back. It is really cool seeing what you can see from a small plane.

  2. Nice, but bummer on all the fire destruction.

  3. That's really cool. I'm a tad jealous.

  4. Awesome, Kevin! I certainly hope to fly one day above the trails.

  5. Agreed, exploring by plane is awesome. Pretty much fact. It was also cool, motoring around at 11000-12000ft without doors cooled things off a great bit.

    Tarik, you need to get up to that timber blowdown with your hoss-bike and cart some of that wood outta there. That would make for some killer photos. Blaec, you ought to make a trip down to NM one of these days and we'll go explore some of this stuff. Max, you ought to give Mike a call and setup your own tour then show me the photos of what you saw. I think it would be pretty sweet to tour up the canyons of the Rio and check out what's hiding in some of those remote areas.

    Matt - The fire up there last summer was a bummer, but seeing as there were no homes or buildings up there it didn't seem overly destructive to finally burn through the years of fuel lying about all over the forest floor. A shame of course that it was human caused. Other parts of the Pecos Wilderness - like the backside of Penitente - are littered with downed trees and snags. I'm always hoping it doesn't catch a lightning strike but it will some day.

    Hope everyone is getting after it this summer. Cheers. KB



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