Stewart Lake Attempt

Friday was Bryan’s last day off before we take off for home. He really wanted to hike to Lake Katherine, but I wasn’t sure my back was up for it, so we chose Stewart Lake out of Pecos Canyon instead. It is an 11 mile loop rather than 16 miles. We headed that way, once again marveling at how beautiful that canyon is and how different it looks from so much else in the region.
We parked our car at the Cowles Trailhead, next to one of a dozen or so National Forest campgrounds in the area. We hiked up the road for a mile to the Winsor Creek Trailhead, passing by nearly 30 cabins which appear to be owned by the Forest Service (FS). They are all along the Winsor Creek, which feeds into the Pecos River, are of a variety of sizes and styles, and I want to stay at one. I wonder if at one time there was a summer community that rented them out each year, like the Borsch Belt in Upstate New York.
We hit the trail with our tiny map photocopied out of the park’s guidebook. We were headed for 261, which on the trailhead map, did not exist. We figured it was closed by the FS for some reason, but decided to see if we could find it anyway. If not, our loop was about to get significantly longer because we’d have to take the Winsor Trail which takes a circuitous route to the lake.
When we got to a Winsor Trail to the Left sign, we saw a trail headed uphill slightly to the right. We took that, thinking it was 261, the trail that had evidently been closed. We figured the book, which we borrowed from the visitor’s center, was outdated and hiked on. It followed the creek, much like 261 does on our map. It appeared to be used very rarely, but cut logs, definite matting of weeds, etc. all told us that this was definitely a trail. We hiked on, keeping an eye our for the place where the trail ought to cross the creek, but finding none. We kept checking the map against the terrain, noting the place where the map shows a sign. Surely that was the Winsor Trail to the Left Sign. After an hour or so, the trail broke into a meadow, with the creek on our side. It was beautiful, but we decided we must have missed where the trail crossed. We were following a creek the whole way, so we couldn’t get lost, but we realized we were definitely not on 261.. At this point, we didn’t want to head back the couple miles, since it looked like the creek would hit the Winsor Trail soon anyway. We set time limits: “We’ll hike 10 more minutes on the creek and then reassess.” We hiked on, seeing that the creek ended in a lovely waterfall. We caught glimpses through the trees of Baldy and tried to orient ourselves. Several times on the hike I had wondered if maybe we never did hit that signage marked on the map and maybe that was where we got turned around. If that was true, we were not following the Winsor Creek, but another unnamed creek. THAT creek would also eventually hit the Winsor, so we weren’t in any danger of moving past that loop and getting actually lost. We hiked on, hitting a big ravine across from the waterfall. There were many old fire pits, cut logs, and other human-made impacts. We decided to give ourselves the time to hike up the ravine before reassessing and turning around and bushwhacking our way back down the “trail” and back to the trailhead.
On our way up the ravine, we saw carved into an Aspen’s bark, “Michael 7/26/50.” Then we noticed a very clear trail headed up the hillside. We decided to inspect that. For that trail to have been used, it had to connect to the Winsor, so we tried to follow it. Up we went on what was very clearly a trail for many years. We came up one steep switchback to find “Al 1938” carved into another Aspen. I found it reassuring that even in 1938 people were stupid enough to carve their names into trees. Finally, nearing the top of the hill, the trail petered out. We made the decision to turn back and follow the creek back to our car, especially as we started saying things that we’ve definitely heard on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” and it’s Bryan’s deepest, darkest, imbecilic wish to be lost in the woods for real.
As we turned around, I finally spoke what I had been wondering about, but dismissing: couldn’t we not have made it to that signage on the map that we’d been using to decipher where we were? With that, Bryan realized that we were really following the first creek jutting to the left which ends on the map (that’s the waterfall). Had we gone on up that hillside, we would have hit the Winsor in less than a quarter mile. Frustrated, we headed back, feeling defeated that we wouldn’t get to see Stewart Lake.
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As we took that trail back, Bryan stopped and pointed across the creek to the hillside above it. Something black and white went by. A cow? They’re all over up here, but no! It was a dog. THAT must be the trail we were shooting for. Off went a slew of backpackers up the steep climb. A quick jaunt up the hill showed a steep path coming up from the creek bed and two logs laid out for benches. It looks like we weren’t the only ones to miss the crossing, but I guess others must have realized it in time to take that shortcut.
When we hit the signage that made us think we needed to shoot right, we decided to cross the creek and see what we found. Not a 100 feet up that trail was the actual signage marked on the map. Of course the FS wouldn’t just leave a trail unmarked like that, even if it’s closed, otherwise people could get seriously lost. We snapped a picture and made our way back down off the trail.
While I would say we got lost yesterday, I have exactly no doubt that Bryan would say, “We.were.not.lost.” While we weren’t in danger, except I suppose if BOTH of us fell and broke a bone and couldn’t drag ourselves out: then people would not likely know to look for us on that old trail, we thought we were one place on the map and were in another place on the map. Eventually we figured out where we were, but in the interim, I’d call that lost. Kudos to us, we left early and had about 8 or 9 hours of daylight left. When we turned back, it was only 12:30 and we had probably hiked 3 miles.
At any rate, it was good that we had the creek to constantly reassure us that we could not miss making our way back to the car. I appreciated the fact that I only once felt the hot whips of panic that getting lost can make you feel, and that was only after I left myself forget that by following the creek back, we WOULD, without a doubt, hit the trail again.
We hit the car at 330 and headed back to the park to get cleaned up. Then off to Maria’s we went to have our last night out in Santa Fe. It was delicious as usual and a nice way to end the day, despite not having made it to Stewart Lake.

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