Los Alamos County is unique in that it's possible to hike from the county's low point at the Rio Grande River to the high point of the county on Caballo Mountain nearly entirely on trail. This is a demanding, grueling outing but offers one the opportunity to travel through many different ecosystems from low-land cactus and juniper to high elevation ponderosa forests.
The Pajarito Mountain ski lodge may be open in summer for water refills and food purchases. Otherwise, you may want to stash food/water along the route or arrange to have a friend meet you along the route.
From the low point of Los Alamos county at the junction of Frijoles Canyon and the Rio Grande River at 5,385' to the high point of Los Alamos County just shy of the summit of Caballo Mountain at 10,479', the distance is roughly 28 miles with about 9,000' of elevation gain. However, one must first hike down to the low point and then hike home from the highpoint so count on the entire hike being just shy of 40 miles and 10,500' of elevation gain. Variations are, of course, abundant so your actual route statistics may vary. This description covers how we did this hike minimizing pavement use as much as possible, going over Pajarito Mountain (as opposed to going around it) and finishing at the Mitchell Trail #69
First, you must get to the Rio Grande at Frijoles Canyon. When we first did this hike in 2005, there was a trail, the Falls Trail
, in Frijoles Canyon that allowed one easy travel down Frijoles Canyon Trail #154
to the Rio Grande. However, flooding after the 2011 Las Conchas fire destroyed that trail. Therefore, the best route now is an overland, loose and non-trail descent to the river from the Burro Trail
. Starting at the Bandelier visitor center, take the Long Trail up to the mesa top to the Burro Trail
. Head south (left) on the Burro Trail
for roughly a mile. As the Burro Trail
turns more southwesterly, leave the trail and follow a faint, intermittent trail along the rim of the mesa for about a mile to a gash in the rim rock. From here, descend loose, not-very-fun-but-reasonable-enough dirt and rock down to the river. There are intermittent game trails to use along this section but best to consult the GPX file for the route.
Once at the river, retrace your steps back up the loose rocks to the rim and follow the Burro Trail
to its junction with the Frijoles Rim Trail
. Cruise the Frijoles Rim Trail
for roughly six miles to the Upper Frijoles Crossing. Good, reliable water can be found at this crossing. From the stream crossing at the Upper Frijoles Crossing, take the Ponderosa Trail
up out of the canyon to the Ponderosa Campground.
At the Ponderosa Campground, hike the route's only mandatory pavement section to the Water Canyon
trailhead, crossing Highway 4 and descending the pavement on NM501 to the Water Canyon
trailhead. From the Water Canyon
trailhead, catch the South Perimeter Trail
that parallels NM501 for a short bit to the intersection with Forest Road 181
. At FR181, cross the NM501 road to catch the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Wellness Center trail and head north to the Lower / Upper Pajarito Canyon Trail
From the Lower / Upper Pajarito Canyon Trail
, head up canyon on the trail. There is water available in the lower section of this canyon year-round. Fill up as it's a long stretch to more water. Crank up the entire Lower / Upper Pajarito Canyon Trail
to reach the high shoulder of Pajarito Mountain. Continue east along the crest of Pajarito Mountain to the summit marker above the blue bench before picking your favorite way down the mountain to the ski lodge. If you're lucky, the lodge will be open allowing you to refill water and maybe even buy some chile cheese fries!
From the Pajarito Mountain ski lodge, take the Guaje Canyon Trail #282
(also known as the Cañada Bonita trail) through the beautiful Cañada Bonita meadow past the Pipeline Road
junction and into Guaje Canyon. Continue down the canyon for about a mile to a cairned turn up Caballo Mountain's SW ridge. Head up off-trail following cairns up steep terrain to Caballo's open south face to the county's highpoint.
Once you reach the summit of Caballo Mountain, you'll still need to hike about seven miles to get back to civilization. From the summit of Caballo Mountain, retrace your steps back down into Guaje Canyon. Then, take the Guaje Canyon Trail #282
either west and back to Pajarito Mountain ski area or east (down canyon) to the Mitchell Trail junction at the old Guaje Reservoir (concrete-walled area in the canyon.) From the old Guaje Reservoir, take the "North Mitchell Trail
" uphill to the junction with the Mitchell Trail #69
. Take the Mitchell Trail #69
back to town. No matter how you return to civilization from the summit of Caballo Mountain, it's about seven miles.
There used to be a great trail up Caballo Mountain but the Las Conchas fire of 2011, and subsequent flooding, have completely obliterated that route. The standard route up Caballo Mountain now is a roughed in, steep and direct line up the mountain's SW ridge. It's not really a trail but animals and ambitious humans have roughed in a decent yet steep route to the summit.