Two Nights in the Sabinoso Wilderness
Explore one of the most spectacular and remote wilderness in New Mexico, the Sabinoso. This wild area is the perfect place to leave civilization for a moment and find pure solitude away from the hustle and bustle. There is no shortage of stunning geography, pitch black skies, and deafening quietness in this 20,000 acre parcel of land. Follow along on this journey to one of the lesser explored areas in the state.
An hour West of the original Las Vegas (founded in 1835, Las Vegas NV was founded in 1905), lies the stunning and remote Sabinoso Wilderness. This land is named after the gnarled Pinion and Juniper that thrive near the mesa walls, colloquially known as "Sabinoso" in New Mexican old Spanish. These Sabinoso have a similar appearance to a well manicured Bonsai tree, albeit more rugged and forlorn. This 19,625 acre parcel of pristine canyon lands and woodlands remains overlooked and underutilized. In general, the people of central NM tend to visit the high mountains or weekend at one of the dams such as Conchas and Cochiti Dam. I believe this is because access to these types of places are much more straight forward to explore by being well signed and with actual paved roads leading into them. The mountains are always a favorite because who doesn't like a good trip into the forest. Not everyone is looking for true remoteness. In fact, very remote places tend to scare some people away because there is no help if something happens.
I happen to be of the persuasion that the more remote and wild a place is, the more I need to go and visit it. Well traveled places just don't have much of an appeal to me. Being a photographer, I don't want to take pictures that everyone has already shot and documented. What inspires me is uncovering spectacular vistas that most people have never laid eyes upon. The mystery of untraveled places is my bat signal. Remote places sing a song that appeals heavily to my soul, much like a siren luring a nearby sailor. My goal has always been to get lost far away from civilization, and if I never see another individual while trekking, it's all for the better. I have an addiction to these kind of lonely places, which is what the Sabinoso Wilderness excels at.
Before I set off on a new location I have never visited before, I always do as much research about the place as possible. One thing that really struck me as interesting about the Sabinoso is that it has just recently opened up to the public just several years ago. This wilderness was officially designated in 2008, however it was completely surrounded by private property, effectively preventing the public from accessing their land. This was one of the few wildernesses in the country that was impossible to access without trespassing on private property. What a shame considering this is a hidden gem in a otherwise unproductive area of the state. It was an example of cows (ranchers) having more land access rights than the general public, which is something that has always left a bitter taste in my mouth.
It took until late 2017 for Ryan Zinke, the then United States Secretary of the Interior under Donald J. Trump, to state "the Sabinoso Wilderness Area is finally open and accessible to hunters and all members of the public for the first time ever." This was a surprising move by an otherwise anti-public property focused administration to allow. This administration was focused of delegitimizing National Monuments and Wilderness Study Areas, such as the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in NM and Bear Ears National Monument in Utah. Their focus was to open these protected land for the gas and oil industry to exploit. Even with their focus on denying the public of their protected lands, the Sabinoso Wilderness would prevails and become open to the general public for the first time. Furthermore, in 2021, Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland accepted a donation of 9,855 acres, which effectively doubled the land of this amazing wilderness. Now they are currently working on creating another access point on the North end of the territory in the Canyon Ciruela area.
Aside from the weird politics of this area, the Sabinoso Wilderness has been used by Paleo-Indians, the oldest known inhabitants of the Americas. There is evidence that these people had major settlements in this unique canyon, such as a prehistoric trail in the Canyon Largo area. This ancient trail would become the road which travelers would use to travel inside the wilderness. In the 19th century, homesteaders and ranchers used this land for grazing and other productive uses. Some of these old homesteads can be found around the Canyon del Muerto area (pictures included in this article). The United States Army even used this land to connect Fort Union and Fort Bascom. It seemed everyone who knew of this place wanted a slice of it for themselves. In our modern times, this area is still used by cattle ranchers, albeit infrequently due to the limited water access. The primary users are now hunters and outdoorsman.
The landscape can be described as deep canyons surrounded by high mesa walls. The mesa walls have a particular band of sandstone that is present around the entirety of the perimeter. The vegetation is Pinion and Juniper forest with Ponderosa groves found deep in the more remote canyons. This particular forest has some of the healthiest examples of Pinion and Juniper I have ever came across in New Mexico (not a single brown tree out there). Water access is surprisingly plentiful. There are semi-deep pools that can be found with minnows, tadpoles, and algae dwelling inside. This water definitely needs to be treated, however it is somewhat present. This constant supply of water effectively creates an oasis deep in the desert. Another thing worth mentioning is how completely silent this entire area is! During the two nights I stayed there, the only artificial sound I heard was an occasional plane flying overhead. This is a place abundant with serenity and solitude. A true outdoorsman's paradise.
During the two nights I stayed in this wilderness, I was completely blown away by the beauty of this land. Every square mile I walked I was constantly greeted with monumental rock faces always watching over me. If someone is into remote rock climbing, I could imagine this place could be a mecca for stunning ascents. The hiking itself was very pleasant without anything being overly technical (aside from that final steep climb back to my car from the canyon floor!). The camping opportunities were abundant with nearby water access and and plenty of firewood. I didn't see any animals other than cows (my specialty is finding cows anywhere I go). If you or a friend is looking for an amazing and straight forward backcountry camping experience, I can't recommend this place enough. The only thing that could have made this trip more excellent is if there was no trail or road whatsoever inside the canyon (I'm a masochist, what can I say). However the redeeming quality is that the road you will traverse is prehistoric, which is kind of badass in my opinion.
Here are some images I took while traversing this unique New Mexican landscape. In a location as stunning as this one, pictures hardly do justice, although I tried my best to capture the feeling of this place! Like always, if you have any question, send me a message! Enjoy!
Here's the official BLM map for the Sabinoso if you're interested:
Ah yes, I love a desolate entrance to a far off wilderness. It's simply irresistible.
Here is what my usual car camping set up looks like.
The black storage crate contains car repair gear and essential fluids (coolant, oil, tools, gloves, tarp, fix-a-flat, etc). This crate is heavy, albeit essential to prevent being stranded in the middle of nowhere. I also always have a nice selection of tools needed to fix damn near any mechanical issue I could face. I'm often miles away from cell service so being resourceful while I'm adventuring is necessary.
The smaller crate to the right is full of car camping items such as extra clothes, a puffy jacket, blanket, plates and silverware, a lantern, medical kit, and apparently climbing chalk also!
A foldable chair is pure luxury while visiting the middle of nowhere. It sucks sitting on the ground after driving for hours, especially when the ground is cold. If it is a chilly night, I'll sit on the chair with a thick blanket to keep warm.
I will then put my backpacking gear in the front seat along with my camera gear. The back of my car becomes an amazing sleeping platform. I lay down some blankets and usually sleep in a sleeping bag.
I've been doing a set up similar to this for a decade and have never felt I needed anything more luxurious than what you're seeing. I believe roughing it builds mental fortitude. I'm not out there to be comfortable as possible, I can stay in my apartment for that!
This is the first taste of the Sabinoso Wilderness. This ~200ft path leads to the edge of a mesa overlooking the canyons contained here. This is the only developed trail in the entire wilderness, so make sure to savor it!
While traversing inside of the canyon you will pass the flood zones many times. These flood zones are usually surrounded by big Willows, Ponderosa Pine, and Cottonwood trees. There is grass and burs that grow directly on the flood zones.
I find cows everywhere I go, whether I like it or not.
I would imagine this pinnacle would be an excellent rock climbing spot. It's somewhat near the parking area so it's not a logistical challenge to get everything set up there.
These huge rock faces are the defining feature of this wilderness. The entire perimeter of the mesa walls have this band of sandstone that is present anywhere you look.
I love being lost in places like this.
This is the rock wall separating Canyon Ciruela from Canyon Largo. This particular feature has no name so I shall designate it "Broken Battleship Rock". History shall remember this name for eternity.
The window of Broken Battleship Rock is razor thin. I can only imagine this window will just become larger every year from erosion.
This is what the water sources look like. Although this isn't the freshest water in the world, it is more than enough to keep you alive. This particular pond is Green Apple Gatorade flavor.
This pond is monochrome flavor.
This is the furthest I trekked. It is about 7.5 miles from the parking area. This particular location is named Canyon Silva. I ventured a little bit farther than where I took this image in hopes of finding a camping spot with water. It seemed like the flood zone past this point was mostly dry so I didn't want to risk being too far away from a water source.
Swallow nests are in my top 10 for favorite bird nest designs. Very innovative!
While walking in the flood plains by Canyon del Muerto, I spotted this large bear footprint in the mud. I hadn't realized there were bears in the area until this moment.
This is part of an old homestead that was forgotten by time. There is a very old coyote fence surrounding some stone walls. I wonder what this place was used for.
Here is why the Sabinoso Wilderness is considered an oasis in the desert. These large pools of water remain long after the canyon floor floods. The water is stagnant, albeit still water.
I found this feather around the old homestead. I feel privileged to be given this gift by a big bird.
Whoever erected this homestead sure found a stunning spot! I would have called this area home also if given the opportunity (I camped just minutes away).
I left the feather on the old homestead. It only felt appropriate.
This is Canyon del Muerto. It's quite the looker. I always wonder how these places get their names.
Pictures do no justice in capturing the scale of this mesa.
This is roughly where I set up camp. Stunning views and close proximity to water. What more do you need??
The darkness was calling for me.
Be effortless like ash drifting into the stars.
Here's one of the Junipers that inhabit this canyon. Every tree I came across while trekking appeared as healthy as possible. It was a delight to see such a healthy population of plant life.
This particular sandstone band could potentially have some great crack climbing if anyone is interested.
These three sticks appeared to be some kind of primitive property boundary. There was nothing else developed in this area.
The flood zones are filled with these burs! It's damn near the only plant that will actually grow in the ultrafine sand.
The first pond you'll encounter is the highest quality water in the canyon. There is even aquatic plants that grow inside of it.
My car is parked on that bare spot atop of the mesa!
Excellent views from my passenger seat!
This sunset was ok I guess.
I'm slowly becoming a backcountry chef. This kind of food is sooo much more tasty than eating expensive freeze dried meals. The only downside is the cleanup.
Nighttime in the Sabinoso. I used my cycling light to illuminate the canyon to capture this shot. I was the only person in the entire wilderness so I didn't feel bad shining it up.
My trusty 1997 Infinity QX4.
This is the morning glow I was gifted during the final morning I stayed there. The canyon sure looks stunning!
Just some amazing morning glow.
Finally made it back to civilization in Trujillo, NM.
This is the last image I took before driving back to Santa Fe. Thankfully it happened to be one of my favorites shots from the entire trip.