Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Rio Santa Barbara( FT 25 and FT 36)- Carson National Forest
This hike begins at the Santa Barbara Campground, which despite being tucked away in a remote area of the Carson National Forest is quite popular. Southeast of the small town of Penasco, NM, it's about an 8 mile drive using NM 73 and then FR 116 to get there. The wonderfully rustic campground is similar to the Holy Ghost Campground on the other side of the Pecos Wilderness. It has a long unpaved loop with shade providing conifers, of water only, tent style camp sites, only a few ofwhich can accommodate the large trailers everyone is so fond of nowadays. I hope it doesn't ever change.
If you're there only for the day or backpacking, and not camping in the campground, the hike actually begins at the parking lot set aside for hikers, fisherman and backpackers just outside of the campground. As with many popular National Forest areas in New Mexico there is a fee. Here it is 3 dollars. Although I believe it can be as much as five in other places. Don't expect to park in the campground( where the fee is 16 dollars) and please pay.
We did, pay that is and then we were off. The trail head is at the very back end of the loop. Almost immediately there was choice of directions. We stayed to the right on FT 36. After passing through an aspen bordered meadow, we had to climb a bit,but really the climbing on this hike is pretty insignificant, making it a good choice for children, or anyone who's seeking something less than epic. At times we were walking very close to the rushing torrent that was the Middle Fork Rio Santa Barbara. At other times the trail took us up and out of sight, but the sound of the fast water was a nearly constant companion. Further in, great craggy cliffs of gray and orange metamorphic rock towered above us. On the ground it was mix of large and small, brilliant white trunked aspens- some budding , some bare, and some leafed out in electric yellow green, and the darker firs, spruces and pines. Shortly after crossing a bridge, the trail forks near one of the many flowing rills that we crossed along the way. We stayed to the right and now continued on the West Fork Trail (FT 25). We quickly encountered a huge green meadow spotted yellow with thousands of dandelions. Despite the overcast conditions we took our chances and lunched on a long log right out in the open. Just as we were finishing, we heard our first thunder and decided to turn around and left exploring the west fork of the rio for another day.
I was quite surprised by amount and the speed of the water in the river. I guess if I would've read those fishing guide books a little more closely, instead of daydreaming about gold and red cutthroats at the end of my line, I might have realized before hand that I was arriving at the time of the run off. I had imagined something more along the lines of the nearby Rio Trampas, which I had fished three years ago perhaps a week or two later in June. That stream is much smaller and although it was a torrent along the trail, it was fishable in the campground and along the road. The Rio Santa Barbara seems to slow down a bit below the Hodges campground in some meadows with beaver ponds. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to check this area out. I did try a few casts in one of the few areas that had some relatively slack water. It was a slight bend( of which there are very few) with a deep pool. It wasn't much fun as first I had to cast while perched precariously on a giant log in the middle of the wild creek, and then did a log walk across the water to patch of land accumulating in a debris jam to try different approach to the same pool. I though I had one nibble but in the end it was all for naught. Later, I tried a few casts in the slightly slower water of a side channel in the campground with no action there either.
The fishing aside, this was beautiful hike. It reminded me of the South Fork Bonito Trail( Lincoln National Forest) but on a significantly larger scale. As for the fishing, while it may be that this is always a swift stream, later in the summer and perhaps into early fall may be a better time to try and to bring one of those cutts to hand. Note: We didn't make it to the second crossing which in the past was one of those logjam type bridges, which would not be safe during high flows. It may have an actual bridge now. Check with the Forest Service for more information.