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Courtesy Photo: Happy hikers Don and Jennifer Mooney (author).

The Real Wilderness: Latir Peak and the RCCLA

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The Latir Peak Wilderness was designated by Congress in 1980 and spans a total of 80,000 acres, much of which is owned and managed by the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association (RC- CLA.) This remote area contains deep forest cover, meadows, alpine tundra, and alpine lakes at higher elevations.

Latir Peak’s top elevation is 12,708. Get- ting there is a moderate, 9-mile day hike that includes rolling hills culminating in a short but steep climb. The tundra is forgiving on the feet and the trail is reasonably well-marked. With nine mountain lakes in succession, and the scramble above the tree-line, it is tough to get lost. Time on the trail depends upon overall physical condition and a number of rest breaks. For those who are reasonably fit, plan on six hours round trip.

Our hiking team of three, ages 58-70, generally exercise daily and are acclimated to higher altitudes. We arrived at the trailhead by 9 am. Early start time is essential as it is likely (and sometimes guaranteed) you’ll encounter rain and lightning in the early afternoon. And since the days are getting shorter, it’s best not to push start times; go even earlier than 9 am, as we reach November.


We packed for the day with possible weather changes in mind. For the summerfall, this includes a (packed) long- sleeved shirt and rain jacket. Our friend, famed climber, ski patrol and mountain guide Taoseño Dave Hahn, recommends to “start cool,” meaning to save those extra layers for rest stops and breaks. I also recommend hiking boots with ankle sup- port, walking poles (a.k.a trekking poles), a first aid kit, generous water supply, and snacks. My personal favorites are cheese, nuts, fruit, and food bars.


Some advice: I am a stickler for NEVER scrimping on water. At the higher altitude and dry air, it is important to constantly hydrate. Plan enough water for a long day that could possibly get longer. DO NOT HIKE ALONE. There are too many instances of healthy, physically fit people having unforeseen accidents.
It’s good to know, however, that there is adequate cell service in this area.


The Latir Lakes-Peak trail is one of the most scenic in the region. Shortly after beginning the hike, one encounters the initial lake, an attraction for fishing. The day of our recent hike, we encountered five fishermen and women and no other hikers. The first lake is one of nine—each picturesque and appearing adequate for swimming (though we did not test the water).


Climb at a slow and steady pace, giving the body and mind time to take in Mother Nature. Our hiking team takes short breaks every hour-and-a-half or so of about five minutes. Our morning hours were sunny, warm, and breezy.


The trail follows the tiered lakes and meanders through tree-covered terrain. Passing lake #9 (the lakes are marked) the trail turns into an open, steeper slope. From this point to the Latir Peak saddle is steep and requires a scramble chosen by each hiker. There is not one “right” way to the top. While the rocky scree is loose, it is more tame than on other local peaks (think Wheeler Peak). It takes only about 30 minutes to the summit above the last lake.


The climb to the summit is on the easier end of “difficult” and a reasonable uphill for individuals in decent physical condition. Our summit came with stunning views of the lakes, southern Colorado, and northern New Mexico. There are both summit markers and Department of the Interior plaques. We quickly encountered rolling clouds, get- ting darker, and began the descent after photographs and a brief lunch break. The rain started about 15 minutes later, and was a pleasant and cooling change.


Again, the rule of western hiking is to prepare for variable weather. Our trip was in mushroom season, but we had not planned to collect any. Upon noticing abundant mushrooms—some the size of apple pies—we added “collecting” to our agenda. Hearing the word porcini* from our hiking mate (Craig Dirgo, who knows the edible species) meant foraging for some good at-home cooking. Note: Yes, there are absolutely some toxic mushrooms that look similar to the edible varieties. Do not plan to collect, cook, or eat wild mushrooms without the knowledge of an expert.


The descent (while steep near the top) is not a knee killer or blistering on the feet. It is a slow, steady, and a
moderate walk. Remember that the most important steps in hiking are the first and the last. Have a wonderful wilderness experience!

*Boletusedulis–known as porcini, cep, Steinpilz, or penny bun mushrooms, is an edible mushroom that can be found fresh or dried. Porcini mushrooms are used for their earthy, meaty flavor. This was a great wet summer for mushrooms.

Author

  • Jennifer Mooney and her husband Don are Arroyo Seco residents. She is the author of Hope, Interrupted (Orange Fraser Press, May 2021.) She is a long-time writer with articles/columns published in numerous newspapers. She is the founder of a communications consultancy, after decades as a senior corporate executive. Her BA is in Journalism and Geology (Albion College) and MA in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (The Union Institute and University.) She is the mother of two grown daughters and the step-mom of two daughters. She is an active outdoor-woman and relishes her time on the trail — preferably in Northern New Mexico. She is a board member for the Taos Center for the Arts.

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