Valle Vidal, Carson National Forest, New Mexico
The Valle Vidal (pronounced VA-yay vee-DAL) Unit of the Carson National Forest has been called the Yellowstone of the Southwest for it’s abundance of wildlife and the broad open meadows. This hike was a 28.2 mile loop that combined designated trails, old ranch roads and relatively easy bushwhacks.
The Map: This map is based on a GPS track taken May 23-26, 2008 using a WAAS enabled GPS. The map is true 1:24,000 scale and is available as a free download. The official trails displayed on the forest service’s Valle Vidal map are red. Major ranch roads restricted from vehicular traffic are in blue. Our bushwhacks are shown in purple. Some of the creek crossings are shown with a red “x” and our camp sites are green “^”. The map covers the southeast quadrant of the Valle Vidal Unit. Click here for mileage table.
Background. The recent history of the Valle Vidal Unit begins in 1841 when it was included in the 2 million acre Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant from the Mexican government. This is the largest land grant in American history. Later called the Maxwell Grant, it was embroiled in the Colfax County War in the 1880s. In 1982, Pennzoil, the then current owners, donated 101,794 acres of its 492,000 acre Vermejo Ranch to the federal government.
The elevation of the Valle Vidal ranges from 7,400 feet at the south end of North Ponil Creek to 12,554 at the top of Little Costilla Peak. Whereas much of the land east of the Rock Wall is below 8,500 feet, higher elevation are found to the west. The Valle Vidal proper, a huge meadow/park on the west side, is about 9,500 feet.
The vegetation, as a function of elevation, ranges from mid-elevation forest to sub-alpine to a small alpine section on the top of Little Costilla Peak. A full suite of Ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, Colorado (blue) spruce, juniper, Engleman spruce and sub-alpine fir can be found in the Unit. Of special note is the bristlecone pine. Ranger Jack mentioned a bristlecone pine near Little Costilla Peak that must be well over 3 feet in diameter.
One of the dominant features of the Valle Vidal are the grasslands. Following the major drainages and covering most of the flat lands are grassy meadows that allow for excellent open views. According to the ranger, due to the lack of any stumps in the soil horizons, these are thought to be natural meadows and not the result of clearing for grazing. The result is the Unit is teaming with wild life. The elk herd is the most famous as the Vermejo Ranch was a high profile hunting and fishing ranch where Hollywood notables would trophy hunt for $5000 a pop. The elk are so plentiful, the west side of Valle Vidal is closed from spring to early July for calving. In our four days on the eastern side, we probably saw 50 head. We also saw bear, coyote, dear, hare and hundreds of birds. Occasionally you can see buffalo when some of Ted Turners herd stray into the Unit.
Geologically, the Valle Vidal lies on the western edge of the Raton Basin. It is underlain by the Paleocene Poison Canyon Formation, a coarse arkosic sandstone and conglomerate formed as detritus from the Laramide orogeny weathered off the rising Rocky Mountains. Cutting across the basin and serving as distinct topographic features are a series of Oligocene igneous dikes, 33 to 28 million years old. The most prominent one is the Rock Wall that separates the Unit into the east and west side.
There are two campgrounds along FR 1950, the main road that crosses the Units. The Cimarron Campground is just west of Shuree Lodge and Shuree Pond and may have water by 2009. The McCrystal Campground is east of the Rock Wall and has no potable water.
The Hike: Our hike was a clockwise loop of the southeast quadrant of the Unit that took place over a long Memorial Day weekend in 2008. It began at the North Ponil Creek Trailhead, went south on the North Ponil Trail, cut across to the Middle Ponil Trail and looped back to the North Ponil Creek on the Seally Canyon Trail.
The North Ponil Trailhead (waypoint V-01) is a small unmarked parking lot on the north side of FR 1950 just east of the creek. It is right in the middle of the North Ponil meadow so you can’t miss it. When we arrived in late afternoon, it was cold and just starting to rain so we put on our rain gear and headed south on the trail.
The trail to the south border of the Unit is 4.5 miles. As with all the trails in the Unit, it is formerly a ranch road and, therefore, double track. The trail is very level and drops less than 300 feet over the entire length. Because the trail stays in the meadow the entire trip, there is very little tree cover to ward off the New Mexico sun. Though not the case for us in our rain gear, it would not be a place to be without a hat and sun screen in July. There was one creek crossing that was accomplished with a jump. Waypoint V-02 (2.7 miles) is the intersection o the Seally Canyon trail, where the loop completes itself.
The trail ends at a fence line (V-03, 4.5 miles) where a small but open valley comes in from the west. We camped there expecting to find water in the tributary, but it was dry. Due to the rain, North Ponil Creek was running pretty fast and, because the creek passes through the soil of the meadow, it was very muddy. We tried to use a coffee filter as a pre-filter, but it really didn’t help so we clogged our filter after about 6 liter. According to Ranger Jack, the North Ponil is perennial and is a reliable water source, though is might be just a trickle in mid summer.
The next day we hiked from North Ponil to the Middle Ponil Trail. We found no water between V-03 and V-12 so plan accordingly. If you have the forest services Valle Vidal map, it will look like a total bushwhack. We researched the aerial photo when we came up with this hike and it looked like there were some old ranch roads we could follow. We started out at V-03 and followed a fence line road to V-04 (5.6 miles). Between the fence on you left and the broad track below you, no navigation skills are required in this section. At V-04 the road basically ends. Keep the fence to your left and work your way down the bluff to the creek bed. From here it is a bushwhack to the top of the hill to the southwest. The fence line will remain to the left and the forest is open. Cross the top of the rise, start down hill and intersect a forest road at V-05 (6.1 miles). Turn right and head west on the road. Pass a dry lake bed (V-06) at mile 6.7 and reach the ranch road south of Beatty Lakes (V-07) at mile 7.5.
The road from V-07 to V-08 is double track and flat. (As an aside, though theses trails are old roads, there are barriers limiting most of them to official forest use. We didn’t see any vehicles off the designated roads.) Just before V-08 you will see some major down cutting where Bonita Creek exhibits extensive erosion. This is just the first of many examples of what I believe is the results of recent (geologically speaking) uplifting in the area.
As you come into view of the hills surrounding V-08 (8.9 miles) you will see part of the burn from the Ponil fire where a total of 90,000 acres of public and private land were scorched in 2002. We were hoping to find an old jeep road at V-08 and, while we occasionally saw remnants of one between there and V-09, you are basically on your own. It is a burned area so you will have to skirt downed trees but it is very open so you can see where you are going. V-09 (9.9 miles) is an old windmill and dry stock tank in a little valley. From there, continue the bushwhack up a small draw heading southwest and then up on the hillside heading south and then southeast. You are still in and out of burn so your visibility is very good. When you get to the section heading southwest there is a trail that follows the north side of a small creek bed that will get you to with in a few hundred feet of V-10 (11.1 miles).
V-10 overlooks the Middle Ponil Valley about 530 feet below and if you look carefully you can see a barn and cabin of a homestead. You’ll be down there in a few minutes. If you nailed V-10 you should see a rocky trail to your left (south) heading down the side of the hill. It is steep and rocky in many places but not too difficult. We were, however, thankful we were going downhill. We lost the trail just before V-11 and had to push through some juniper bushes until we hit a short but steep straight drainage. V-11 (11.4 miles) is where the drainage hits another trail. Turn right. The trail will drop you out onto the flats of Middle Ponil Creek. Find a place to cross and meet up with the Middle Ponil Trail at V-12 (12.1 miles). We were low on water and topped off from the little clear water stream just west of V-12.
The trail up the Middle Ponil is double track, level and has 8 creek crossings. We had 2 on Saturday, the one at V-12 and one at 13.9 miles. On Sunday we had six more, including Greenwood Creek, between mile 15.3 and V-14 mile(16.0 miles). There was a pretty decent flow when we were there so if we couldn’t find a log or something, it was a wet crossing. I’ll have to admit that I had a colossal wipe out trying to jump across to a rock on the other side. The bushes pushed me back into the creek and I ended up wet to the waist. I was glad it was warm that day. We also saw our first bear at one of the crossings. It was a cinnamon color black bear.
At V-14 (17.9 miles), the Middle Fork Trail ends. Turn right and follow FR 1914 up the hill (about a 300 foot climb). At V-15 (18.9 miles), look for a trail going off to the right. This is a short cut that will cut about 0.6 miles off your travel on the active forest road. While we saw no vehicles, FR 1914 is part of a loop that connects FR 1910 back to FR 1950. As a disclaimer, we were unaware of this shortcut and stayed on the FR 1914. We saw where it comes out at V-16 (19.3 miles) and can see it on aerial photos so I think it is a safe bet.
Stay on FR 1914. At V-17 there is a road coming in from the east. Turn left, staying on FR 1914 and cross the dam. You will pass many small impoundments with varying water quality but there were none that we wanted to pull water from. The Beatty Lakes did not look much better. From a distance they look very shallow and with what appeared to be a white crust around them, are likely playa.
At V-18 (21.2) is the Seally Canyon Trailhead. Seally Canyon is a broad meadow between to forest covered hills. The “canyon” refers to the narrow incised channel formed by the creek. It looks like it ranges from 12 to 20 feet in depth and has steep sides showing the unconsolidated sediments of the meadow. To me, this looks like new erosion caused by recent uplifting. The creek had water in it but it was very slow and intermittent. It is not a reliable source of water in the dry season. V-19 (22.4 miles) is a water gap through one of the igneous dikes in the areas. V-20 (23.8 miles) is a large scout camp complete with stage and a huge bon-fire area. No water, though. They must haul it in. We finally found some water in Seally Creek that met our standards and made camp on a shelf on the other side of the canyon. Great views up and down the valley and of Little Costilla Peak.
The loop ends at the junction at the North Ponil Trail (V-01, 25.5 miles) and the trip ends back at the North Ponil Trailhead (V-01, 28.2 miles). All in all, everyone in my party thought the area was beautiful and would go back. It does not have the high alpine valleys and crystal clear water of many of the other places we hike, but it was a nice change. It was a perfect place to go in May when the Rockies are still snowed in and it is too hot to hike in the Central Highlands (e.g. the Ouachitas and Ozarks). Oh yeah, we had two more bears scurry across the road right in front of us on the drive back to Cimarron. Great way to top off a trip.
Directions: From Cimarron NM, go east on US 64 for 4.5 miles. Turn north on Cerrososo Road/FR 1950, a gravel road that has a Valle Vidal sign. The Unit boundary is 21 miles and the North Ponil Trailhead is about 28 miles.
Info: USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic maps: Van Bremmer Park, Abrue Canyon and Baldy Mountain. Contact the Questa Ranger District at (505) 586-0520 or the Carson National Forest at (505) 758-6300 in Taos. A 1999 map of the entire Unit is available from the forest service (1:63,360 scale, 1inch = 1 mile). It only shows the red trails and designated forest roads.
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