I'D COME TO THE PECOS WILDERNESS for the caves—the reward for a moderate five-mile hike along Cave Creek Trail. It was mid-August, and despite the narrow, winding road leading to Panchuela Campground, the parking area was nearly full.
It didn’t take long to see why. A burbling serenade from the nearby stream greeted me and set the soundtrack for much of the journey. I didn’t get very far before the droopy yellow leaves of cutleaf coneflowers along the water’s edge motivated me to pull out my cellphone for a few pictures.
Just past the first trail sign, bees buzzed from bloom to bloom of purple showy daisies. Monkshood, wild bee balm, and red elderberry dotted the landscape with pops of color. At times, so many butterflies flitted about that it felt like I was swimming in them.
Eventually, I crossed over Cave Creek and ended up venturing about a half mile past the caves (which are not well marked), then turning back to find the two nostril-like openings in the limestone cliff. I rooted around inside the shallow cavities and explored where the flowing water dipped out of sight, before returning along the same splendid route back to my car.
When I asked Christina Selby, the writer behind this month’s “Where the Wildflowers Grow," for help identifying a few of the specimens I’d photographed, she told me Cave Creek Trail is one of her favorites for wildflowers. In fact, she’s one species short of making it a “centennial trail,” a designation for identifying 100 wildflowers on a single trail during a bloom season. A naturalist, photographer, and author of Best Wildflower Hikes New Mexico (Falcon Guides), Selby counts a few northern New Mexico trails among her centennials.
For this issue’s cover story, she uses the Winsor Trail, in the Santa Fe National Forest, as a living lab to examine the five unique life zones found from the trailhead to the summit. Her 13.6-mile journey, undertaken from spring to late summer, suggests what might be in store for our landscape in the face of climate change. “The forest moves in very long, slow cycles,” says Toby Gass, a former wilderness manager in the Pecos Wilderness.
Gass’s words are a good reminder that the forest’s timeline often differs from ours, but also serve as an important lesson to relish the moments encountered along the way.