Quemazon Nature Trail 20 Years After Cerro Grande Fire

Fallen Trees on Quemazon Nature Trail. Photo by Nina Thayer

Pajarito Rambler

This old rambler hiked up the Quemazon Nature Trail last week and decided to come out of retirement to tell its story 20 years after the Cerro Grande wildfire. Many of us remember the day 20 years ago when the sky turned black with a sickening red-orange glow and we packed children and pets and fled our homes on the hill.

When we returned, we were confronted with burned homes, charred forests and an unnerving sense of insecurity. My first ramble through the Quemazon Trail area one year later was heart rending, black ash, black stumps and trunks everywhere and a wide-open field where a ponderosa forest had stood.

Let me share with you the Quemazon Nature Trail as I saw it this past week, with dozens of new ponderosa pines, lots of spring green color and enough wildflowers to delight. You can access the Nature Trail by taking Trinity Dr. to 48th St. Immediately turn left onto a short, paved section and park in the small lot by the trailhead marker.

There are two gated dirt roads. Take the uphill one heading directly west and immediately enter a field of wildflowers, including yellow Perky Sue and Golden Pea, the earliest of the many yellow wildflowers yet to come.

Contrasting with the yellow, there are a few dark red Indian Paintbrush and the petite Trailing Fleabane Daisy.

The Nature Trail is a quarter mile up the road, just past the second locked gate and to the left of the sign.

With Hummingbirds screeching and bird chattering one follows the trail leading across the mountain. In 2001 and 2002 Mountain School 6th grade students replanted and recreated the much-damaged trail. A few of the pre-burn wooden markers remain; the new ones are 3’ high, flexible green plastic.

Notice the Ponderosa Pines in all sizes from 2’ – 25’. There are even a few places where the proximity and height of the trees gives a fleeting reminder of the forest that thrived here. But largely it is sunny and open.

Along this section of the trail this rambler discovered delicate pale blue-violet penstemon, 10-16” tall. As of this writing the weather has been dry and the wildflowers are neither plentiful nor tall, and therefore all the more appreciated.

Shortly after marker #5 one crosses a dirt utility road. The trail continues south through several drainages filled with the burned trunks, rocks and remains of fire and flood.

As one approaches Los Alamos Canyon, there are more tall pre-fire pines and an open forest feel. The trail merges with the newly named Satch Cowen Trail for the next hundred feet before turning sharply right (north) and heading toward marker #16. At this point the trail becomes much steep as it switchbacks up the mountain. Take it slowly.

Perhaps you have noticed a few lovely Wild Blue Flax, a very delicate multi-stemmed plant with blue five-petaled flowers. Bees and butterflies buzz and flit and a small lizard dashes across the rocks.

The trail continues to gain altitude until it straightens out, again merges with the Satch Cowen Trail and you reach the end of the markers (#28 for the wooden ones, #31 for the newer ones.) It is decision time.

You may choose to continue on climbing slowly, veering right across the mesa until reaching a dirt road. Turn right to continue down the mountain to regain the parking lot in a mile and a half.

OR you may back track ~100 feet to the Satch Cowen Trail sign. Bear right and this trail follows the canyon very closely down the mountain. It is stepper and more rugged than the Nature Trail, however the reward is spectacular views of Omega Bridge, LANL and the entire Rio Grande Valley.

This rambler certainly had no idea what 20 years would bring. Im here to tell you, the Quemazon Nature Trail is rehabilitated, restored and feeds the quarantine-weary soul. It refreshes the senses, renews the spirit, and some would say, is better than before!

A copy of the Quemazon Nature Trail Guide written by Mountain School 6th graders with descriptions for each marker is available to download at the Los Alamos County, Open Space and Trails website.


Top of the Nature Trail with Pajarito Mountain in the Background. Photo by Nina Thayer

Pre-Fire and Post-Fire Markers. Photo by Nina Thayer

Field of Perky Sue. Photo by Nina Thayer

Pale Blue Penstamon. Photo by Nina Thayer

Post-fire ponderosa pines in all sizes. Photo by Nina Thayer 

Quemazon Nature Trail Sign. Photo by Nina Thayer

Red Indian Paintbrush. Photo by Nina Thayer

Trailing Fleabane Daisy. Photo by Nina Thayer

Wild Blue Flax. Photo by Nina Thayer

Nina Thayer, aka Pajarito Rambler. Courtesy photo


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