Section 4: Santa Barbara Campground to FR 442

  • Santa Barbara to Los Estrellos 6.3 miles
  • Los Estrellos to Agua Piedra Campground entrance/bridge 6 miles
  • Agua Piedra Campground entrance to Trail 492 1 mile
  • Trail 492 / La Cueva Canyon to FR 442 5 miles

18 miles section 4

Gaia maps (digitized step-by-step tracks) of this section are here.
Or click the Gaia map screenshot below and it will expand to full browser window. You can then zoom to different parts of the image.

Or check out my new map for section 4:

Santa Barbara Campground to FR 442

You can download this map for printing. It’s available in legal size (8.5″ x 14″, 21 MB) and in tabloid size (11″ x 17″, 29 MB).

Note that the campsites shown on the map above are not official campsites. But they are good places to put up a tent.

Overview of Section 4

Do follow the Gaia maps on your phone while you’re on the trail (Gaia works without cell reception) but here’s the text version of the walk just for extra information.

  • Start at Santa Barbara campground, near the hikers’ parking lots. You’ll see Rio Santa Barbara flowing by. Indian Canyon trail – trail #27 – has a marker on the far side of the creek. See the photo below in the slideshow for the exact spot.
  • You will probably want river shoes to cross Rio Santa Barbara, unless it’s really, really low. Even in the dry season of 2018, just after the forests were closed during drought, I used river shoes to get across this. You could possibly just walk across in your bare feet, but there’s fishing done in this creek, and the rocks are not smooth. You’ll risk tearing up your feet right at the beginning of this section. I suppose if you had trail assistance (a really good friend) you could use river shoes to get across the creek, then toss the river shoes back to them across the creek so you wouldn’t have to carry them the whole way. Seems unlikely, though.
  • However you get across it, once you’re across Rio Santa Barbara, you’ll go through tall forest until you get to a gate. Usually I’ve had to climb over or under this gate. Also expect to see cows (again) as you begin your climb up to “Bull Field” which I named simply because – can you guess? – Riley and I saw a very large but very chill bull here once.
  • As you pass Bull Field and go back into the woods again, you’ll cross a very small creek (a rill, really). This is your last reliable water until you get to Los Esteros, so make the most of it. It’s about 3.5 miles or so away. I would be carrying at least three liters of water from this point, but everybody has their way of doing things.
  • From here you will climb up a long way. You’re making your way to the top of Ripley Point, where you’ll join the Continential Divide Trail for a little bit. There’s also a nice view of Jicarita Peak.
  • The trail is very lightly traveled through here. As you can see in the slideshow below, there are bear around. There are mountain lions around. It’s mostly shaded, and while it doesn’t see much traffic, there arent too many fallen trees. Trail conditions are decent. You may see some strange markers along the way, but just enjoy them as points of interest and follow your gps and the Gaia maps.
  • You’ll eventually get to trail 22A, the “Comales Trail” where you’ll start to go down. Fairly soon you’ll walk by Los Esteros, which is boggy, but very reliable water. I’ve camped here. It’s nice.
  • As you continue down 22A you’ll come by water every few miles, then you’ll cross several creeks as you come into Agua Piedra campground, and pick up Trail 19A into the campground. This is a large campground, so expect to see horses tied up and don’t be surprised if you run into a few on your way down. It’s nice trail though – good shade, and water frequently enough to have no worries. There are many nice fields you could put up a tent in if you want to stop for the night before you get close to Agua Piedra and Tres Ritos.
  • If you want, you might also be able to snag a ride or even walk along 518 to the nearby Sipapu Ski complex. They rent cabins and rooms year round and have a restaurant and other facilities. If you wanted to take a “zero day” or rest for a few days, Sipapu is your best, nearest option, though there are also cabins for rent near Tres Ritos.
  • You will come down into Agua Piedra on trail 19A, and then walk down to the entrance of the campground. There’s a bridge that runs over a wide, strong creek – Rio Pueblo. You’ll be looking at Route 518. Sipapu is 2.4 miles to your left along 518. Tres Ritos, and La Cueva Canyon – where you’re headed, is 0.5 miles on 518 on your right.
  • Fortunately, there is a lovely walk along Rio Pueblo for most of the way. The Gaia maps show the walks I did (back and forth) from the Agua Piedra bridge over to the entrance of La Cueva Canyon, and where you’ll pick up trail 492, la Cueva Trail. (Look for “S4-4 – Aqua Piedra bridge/entrance to La Cueva Canyon/Trail 492” on the Gaia maps. The slideshow below also shows photos of what this very short little walk looks like.
  • Note that this mostly-along-Rio-Pueblo-walk also goes right by the parking for La Cueva Canyon and trail 492. You can’t actually park at the entrance of La Cueva Canyon – you have to drive towards Agua Piedra campground about one-quarterish of a mile and park at a small, paved paving lot. It’s mostly in the shade.
  • From the entrance to La Cueva Canyon, you’ll go up a well-worn, very clear trail. There is a small creek that runs along it for the first 15 minutes or so. This is your last access to water until you get to either the Flechado Trick Tank or to La Cueva Lake. La Cueva Lake is 2.4 miles away.
  • Here’s where there’s a problem – at least as of this writing (January 15th, 2024). It’s also, depending on how you see things, where it gets interesting.
  • In the inset map above, note the “Ojito Maes Trail”, aka Trail 182. This trail does not exist on a lot of maps – aka “overlays”. The inset above is from the “USGS Topo” overlay in Gaia maps (Gaia GPS, USGS Current (Other Vendor Before 1/22/2021)) which was proportedly updated in 2021. Having been out in the woods in this part of the world, though, I know that what’s on the map does NOT mean it’s actually out in the woods. Let me qualify that: I am sure La Cueva Lake is there. It’s shown on satellite photos. But the trail to it does not exist on all maps, and the trail may or may not exactly follow what you’re seeing in that inset. However, I am quite sure trail 492 and possibly the trail to La Cueva lake is extremely passable, because when I was walking up 492 this fall I was passed by three guys on motorcycles coming down 492 towards 518. There’s no way they could be coming down 492 unless there’s a clear trail. (Is there a sign at the entrance of 492 that says ” no motorized vehicles”? Why, yes, there is. I did not ticket them, obviously. But I was pretty annoyed, because that same day, about a mile down 518, a few acres on the other side of 492 was smoldering – and there was a helicopter near the entrance of Agua Piedra – while wildland firefighters were monitoring the small burning section of woods. And yet, with woods that dry, here we have guys with motorcycles tearing through the woods. But I digress.)
  • From La Cueva Lake to Forest Road 442 (and where it would intersect with the La Cueva Trail, #492) is just 2 miles. So even if this is rough trail, there’s only two miles of it. There are also several documentations of trail 182 as a mountain biking trail. This is the best one. It describes the trail as “A 2-mile trail with several small stream crossings,” which is promising.
  • Trail 182 also comes close to “The Pea Clam Zoological Area”. Apparently there is a “Sangre de Cristo Pea Clam,” and it has its own zoological area. I cannot make this stuff up. What’s strange is that handout, and the NM Wildlife site says the pea clam only exists in Middlefork Lake, near Wheeler Peak. This zoological area is nowhere near Wheeler, which is near the Taos Ski Basin, which is on the north side of Taos. Clearly, more research on the pea clam is required. If you find one, get excited, because apparently their last-reported siting was in 1991.
  • Back to the route. So if you went up 492, you would pass the Flechado Trick Tank, which should be basically a large metal tub that’s set up to collect water for wildlife. I have come across these – namely when I did the 2018 thru-hike. They’re helpful. Hopefully the one here is still operable, though it looks like you may have to go off trail to get to it. You could go either way, but it looks like 182 – Ojito Maes – might be the best choice.
  • I am going to recommend Trail 182 until I can get out there myself. Given La Cueva Lake, and “several small stream crossings” and enough water for a zoological area for a tiny clam, I’m pretty sure there’s enough water here. Always carry extra water, of course. Also, if Trail 182 is used by mountain bikers, that means it’s fairly clear, because they can’t handle treefall or excessive rocks. Mountain bikers need something akin to decent trail conditions.
  • You will come out from either trail (492 or 182) at a gate, with Forest Road 442 just in sight. You have completed Section 4 of the Santa fe to Taos Thru-Hike.

Santa Barbara Campground

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This is on the side of the campground where the hikers' parking lot is. The trailhead where you would go into the woods towards Truchas Lakes and the Santa Barbara Divide is on the far side of the campground (to the right in this photo).