A Butterfly-filled Birthday Hike on the Borrego-Bear Wallow Trail

Santa Fe is my “go to” spot in the United States. I go there when I’m looking for artistic inspiration, a foodie fix, stress-melting, quirky fun, spiritual renewal or a little cardio trail hiking over diverse terrain. Visiting Santa Fe this weekend was my birthday gift.

So what did this birthday girl want to do first? Hike the Borrego-Bear Wallow Trail Triangle (with a little extra distance thrown in on the Winsor trail) at about the 8,500′ foot level in Hyde Memorial State Park, about 25 minutes from the center of Santa Fe.

My third time on this particular route, I was anticipating the sweetly pine-scented fresh air, the downright springy pine-needle covered trail, the auditory pleasure of bird calls and a splashing creek, and ample shade from the groves of aspen, ponderosa pine and fir.

I wasn’t expecting it would turn into “the butterfly experience.” We met a fellow hiker tricked out like a birder and asked what he’d spotted. Turned out he was actually on the hunt for butterflies, which he explained had been elusive due to the drought. Rain the two prior days had enlivened them, and we saw at least six varieties swooping in and out. This variegated fritilliry was happy to sit for his portrait:

variegated fritilliry on Winsor Trail

I wasn’t so lucky when I tried to take a photo of a Western Tiger Swallowtail. It’s gorgeous and big, similar in size to a Monarch but flashier, but we saw many flitting by. Turns out New Mexico is in the top three states nationwide for butterfly diversity, with more than 300 species.

On a first-come, first-serve basis, you can learn more about Santa Fe’s flying ambassadors from Santa Fe’s real “Butterfly Guy,” Steve Cary, on July 10 an August 14 at the Randall Davey Audobon Center and Sanctuary in Santa Fe. Call 983-4609 x 27 for times and to reserve a spot (suggested donation $5).

Oh, yeah, the hike!

The popular Borrego-Bear Wallow-Winsor Triangle is rated easy, and it is.  We hiked 6.5 miles with 760′ of cumulative uphill hiking at a pretty leisurely pace in 3 hours by adding some distance on the Winsor Trail, but most stay on the triangle route for a pleasant 4 miles. You will see plenty of people – we saw about 30 on this pretty June morning – and the dogs will outnumber the people.

It’s mostly a steady down-down-down followed (you guessed it) by up-up-up, but the cumulative 760′ rise includes only a handful of uphill switchbacks. The trail is wide, well marked and comfy on the feet, perfect for an outing with a few friends. The trick for us Flatlanders is the altitude, especially in the first 24-48 hours of arriving in the area. Drink plenty of water and don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling “cardio” on a trail that you can’t believe has your heart rate elevated.

The usual route is to head down the Borrego Trail #150 for a half mile, then take the left fork onto the well-marked Bear Wallow Trail #182 (no bears 😉 ) for another mile.


On the last bit of Bear Wallow, you’ll switch back a few times before landing at the bottom where you’ll find Big Tesuque Creek. This time of year, at least, the creek is easy to cross and helpful hikers usually have placed a few logs over the 6′ span to help you keep your feet dry:

tesuque creek stream crossing

Across the stream, you’ll see the sign for the Winsor Trail #254. To make this just a 4 mile loop on the triangle trail, head right here. We headed left to add a bit of distance and see a couple of my favorite meadows. The last of the wild irises is fading, but some of the wild primroses are coming into bloom, and there’s something about this stately rock that speaks to my inner yogi:

We walked back the Winsor Trail by the same route after we hit three stream crossings in rapid succession. The third one was closer to 12 feet across and I didn’t think I needed to dump into the creek on my birthday. We encountered the butterfly hunter soon past the intersection of Winsor Trail and Bear Wallow so be on the lookout for gorgeous specimens here.

Heading upstream on a slight incline, you’ll reach the junction of the Winsor and Borrego (#150) trails after 0.7 mile. Turn right through the small meadow and cross the creek. There are actually two places to cross; we used the second one – the old, bowed half Ponderosa Pine log upstream.

tesuque creek crossing

Cut to the right, downstream for 20-30 feet, and you’ll easily pick up the trail. You’ll pay a bit for all that down-down-down right about… now. But it’s never terribly steep or even steep for long. The switchbacks soon cease and you’re back on a steady, slow uphill climb. After topping a ridge, you’ll even be rewarded with a bit of down before the Bear Wallow Trail comes in from the right. All that’s left is the pretty 0.5 mile back to the car, through the swishing aspen (click to enlarge photos):

Trail tips:

  • Drive time from Santa Fe: 25 minutes (out Artist Road, past “10,000 Waves,” 1.2 miles past the Hyde Park Visitor Center and 0.2 miles past an RV parking location
  • Start and finish: 6.5 miles, 3 hours
  • Blister count: 0
  • Don’t miss: Watching for butterflies in meadows near Tesuque Creek
  • Watch out for: Mountain bikers and dogs! Though I didn’t have this problem this time, I previously stopped for lunch on the big rock in the meadow downstream on the Winsor Trail and was hounded by some biting flies, probably deer flies
  • Whew! No poison oak (too high), no mosquitoes
  • Head count: About 30 people, 6 mountain bikers and tons of dogs

P.S. Next Time – Chamisa Trail

As an alternative with a little more climb, next time I’m in Santa Fe I may opt for the Chamisa Trail #183, which starts a couple of miles below the Borrego-Bear Wallow-Winsor Triangle trail. The trail climbs 700′ over 1 1/4 miles and then descends 540 feet over another 1 1/4 miles to the Winsor Trail (making for 1,240′ of cumulative uphill climbing). The return trip is just the reverse. Sounds fun!

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