Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hyde Memorial State Park: Circle Trail (Blog Hike #482)

Trail: Circle Trail
Hike Location: Hyde Memorial State Park
Geographic Location: east of Santa Fe, NM
Length: 3.2 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2014
Overview: A steep climb to several impressive viewpoints.

Directions to the trailhead: On the northeast side of Santa Fe, take Paseo de Peralta to Bishops Lodge Road.  Turn north (outbound) on Bishops Lodge Rd.  Drive Bishops Lodge Rd. 0.2 miles to Artist Road and turn right on Artist Rd.  Artist Rd. becomes SR 475 and Hyde Park Road when you leave the City of Santa Fe.  Drive SR 475 7.1 miles from its junction with Bishops Lodge Rd. to the Hyde Memorial State Park Visitor Center, which sits on the right just after entering the park.  Park in the lot beside the Visitor Center.  Note that there is a mandatory $5 state park fee that must be paid before you begin the hike; the self-pay station is located on the south side of the Visitor Center.

The hike: With a base elevation of 8500 feet, tiny 350-acre Hyde Memorial State Park is the highest state park in New Mexico.  The additional 1200 feet of elevation compared to Santa Fe 8 miles to the southwest creates a slightly moister environment.  Thus, while the area around Santa Fe sports a true desert appearance, tall pine trees cover the park’s hillsides.  The park is named for Benjamin Talbot Babbit Hyde, a late 1800’s and early 1900’s naturalist and nature educator who financed some of the pueblo excavations in this area.
            The park offers a 50-site campground, a small lodge, and three picnic shelters.  The park also offers several hiking trails, the most famous of which is the Circle Trail described here.  This trail gains 1000 feet over 1 mile, and therefore it presents some level of difficulty.  Nevertheless, most people in decent physical condition can do this hike with adequate preparation.  If you are hiking in the summer, make sure you allow enough time to complete the hike before the almost daily afternoon thunderstorms build.  I needed just over 3 hours to complete this loop.
West Circle Trail trailhead
             To do the big climb first, I recommend starting at the park’s Visitor Center and hiking the loop clockwise.  To accomplish such a route, walk out the front door of the Visitor Center, cross SR 475, and pick up the West Circle Trail at the signed trailhead.  The park divides the Circle Trail into two semicircular parts.  The 2.2 mile section of trail west of SR 475 is called the West Circle Trail, while the 1 mile section east of SR 475 is called the East Circle Trail.
            The trail crosses Little Tesuque Creek on a nice stone bridge before turning left to begin the climb.  The climb is steep with an almost uncountable number of switchbacks.  On the bright side, the trail is well-graded, well-designed, and well-maintained with no particularly rocky sections. 
At 0.3 miles, you reach the crest of a finger ridge that projects out from the main mountain.  The first of two benches is located here.  This bench faces southeast and offers a view of the old Santa Fe Ski Area.  Some of the structures and tow ropes can still be seen across the canyon.  This ski area served Santa Fe from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, at which time the current one was constructed further up the canyon.
View from first bench
            The trail stays near the crest of the finger ridge as it continues climbing.  Only a couple of short flat areas are encountered during this long climb.  Tall ponderosa pine trees line the trail for most of the hike.  When I got near 9000 feet of elevation, the pine cones popping open in the warm sunshine sounded like Rice Krispies in milk.
At 0.8 miles, you pass the second bench.  This bench looks up the canyon toward Ski Santa Fe, the city’s current ski area.  Back on the climb, an old trail exits left near 1 mile into the hike where the rerouted trail switches back to the right.
Just shy of 1.1 miles, you top a false summit and descend for a short distance before starting the final steep climb to the actual summit, which is reached at 1.2 miles.  A sign greets you at the summit, but the pine trees growing here preclude any real views.  To find the view, continue another 0.25 miles through a high saddle to reach another false summit, this one with a couple of picnic tables.  Now you get to reap the fruits of your labor: views can be had off both sides of the ridge.  The view east looks up the canyon toward Ski Santa Fe, while the view west extends across the desert north of Santa Fe to the Jemez Mountains.
View east up canyon

View west across desert
            Past the picnic tables, the trail curves right and begins its steep descent.  As hard as it is to believe, the descent is actually steeper than the climb.  Although it goes faster, the descent presents the opposite set of problems compared to the climb.  Watch your footing, and use a staff or hiking poles to save your knees.
The sound of vehicles zooming on SR 475 tells you that you are near the bottom of the steep hill.  2.1 miles into the hike, the signed Girl Scout Trail exits to the right.  The Girl Scout Trail forms a 0.5 mile loop and features some nice interpretive signs.  If you stay on the Circle Trail, the Girl Scout Trail’s other end is reached only a couple hundred feet later, so you can decide if you want to extend your hike by tacking on the Girl Scout Trail.
Starting the East Circle Trail
            At 2.2 miles, you reach the west shoulder of SR 475 and the end of the West Circle Trail.  Cross the road and angle right to find the trailhead for the East Circle Trail.  After crossing Little Tesuque Creek on a wooden footbridge, you reach a junction with the Piggyback Trail, which exits to the right.  The Piggyback and Circle Trails come back together in 0.5 miles, so you could go either way here.  Being the purist that I am, I chose to turn left and hike the Circle Trail in its entirety.
The Circle Trail climbs using one (but only one) switchback to reach the campground road, which it angles right to cross.  Note that the vault toilet to your left here is the only restroom facility on this hike.  The trail climbs gradually (but only gradually) to pass around a secluded sub-region of the campground that appears downhill to the right.  Now at the East Circle Trail’s highest point, a gradual to moderate descent comes next.
East Circle Trail
            2.7 miles into the hike, you reach two trail junctions in rapid order, one with the south end of the Piggyback Trail and the other with the Waterfall Trail.  Turn left and then right to stay on the Circle Trail. Note that a 0.5 mile detour on the Waterfall Trail would take you to a small rocky waterfall, but the creek that forms the waterfall was dry on my visit.
The trail crosses the waterfall creek on a pair of wooden planks before heading into an area that treads along the steep hillside.  At 3 miles, you descend some switchbacks on a recent trail reroute.  A final moderate to steep descent over wooden waterbars deposits you at the lodge behind the Visitor Center, thus closing the loop and completing the hike.

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