Cruces Basin Wilderness Beaver Creek/CDT/FR 87 Loop Overview:
The Cruces Basin Wilderness, just a few miles from the Colorado border, has no official trails and sees relatively little visitation past the main creek bed at the bottom of the well-worn social trail in Osha Canyon. With all the real peaks of the range either north of the border in the Rio Grande National Forest or on private land in the Tusas Mountains to the south, this is not a peakbagging wilderness, but this means that the land is relatively navigable despite the lack of trails. Few trip reports exist for this wilderness, and since it is somewhat small, it begs for a few days of exploration.
This 3-Day backpack takes you to one of the most famous features of the wilderness, the Beaver Creek Cascades, for Day 1, then has you cut west across game and stock trails to the western rim of the basin on Day 2, where you pick up with the CDT headed south to camp at the Lagunitas Campground. Finally, on Day 3, if you've had your fill of off-trail hiking, you can road walk on FR 87 back to your car, or take my proposed route into Escondido Valley until it meets with Diablo Creek and on to its confluence with Beaver and Cruces Creeks, where the social trail in Osha Canyon carries you out of the bowl to your car. Be prepared to see elk, deer, and cows.
Cruces Basin Wilderness Maps:
I recommend two maps for the trip: the Cruces Basin Wilderness topo map and the Carson National Forest road map (both of these can be purchased through the cumbersome USFS online ordering system, but you may want to try the Santa Fe BLM Field Office if you can go there in person). My approximate route can be found here.
Mileage is a little low in my approximate route, and total distance according to my phone (minus getting separated) is around 21 miles. Note that I have not battle-tested my proposed Day 3 route, but eye-balling the terrain from FR 87 suggested that it was more than doable.
Coming from Santa Fe, NM, the fastest route was taking FR 87 west from Hwy 285 about halfway between the nano-towns of Tres Piedras, NM, and Antonito, CO. This scenic drive takes you across the Taos Plateau south of San Antonio Mountain, its highest peak, and into the gradually greener forests that make up the western end of the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. This drive is generally easy, and any 2WD vehicle with moderate clearance would be just fine in normal weather. There are plenty of places to camp alongside the road. FR 572 to get to the trailhead, though, requires high clearance 4WD. Though it seems possible to approach from the west via Cumbres Pass, I believe this would take even longer.
The social trail descending into Osha Canyon is very obvious. We veered right (east) to make things interesting, but this is unnecessary. Keep your eyes on a large rock outcropping to the southeast to mark location (pt. 9725).
The Beaver Creek Cascades are beautiful and just keep going and going, but it becomes increasingly harder bushwhacking to get to them. Some nice pools would make good fishing or swimming later in the summer.
Overlooking the cascades is another rock outcropping that improves the vantage and gives a view across the canyon cut by the Rio de los Piños, where the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad chugs along (due to COVID, the train was not running). If the light is right, the sun will reflect off the tracks.
When you're ready to go west, follow Beaver Creek past Osha Canyon until you reach the confluence of the three major creeks in the wilderness in a giant meadow with stunning views in all directions, especially if you climb up the small hill in the middle of the meadow. Looking WSW up-canyon will show you your eventual destination, the Brazos Ridge Overlook, which makes up the western rim of the wilderness. We were able to find well-worn game and stock trails almost the entire way, but at a certain point the terrain requires you to shoot straight up. Before doing this, make sure you have all necessary water, as there are no reliable sources until you reach Lagunitas. We bushwhacked up loose dirt, startling a few elk, and finally hit a level-off where we continued west toward the (dry) pond below the Overlook.
The Brazos Ridge Overlook can be accessed by vehicle, but don't expect to see too many people. Take time to appreciate the view, especially to the east, where the span of New Mexico's northern mountains, many over 12k' and 13k', line up like a regiment behind the dome-shaped San Antonio Mountain you passed on your way to the trailhead.
Ride the CDT south, enjoying the stunning view into the scenic East Fork Rio Brazos valley and at the highest peaks in the Tusas Range, Brazos Peak and Grouse Mesa. Eventually you hit the Lagunitas Campground, which while technically closed due to COVID, was teeming with people, so I imagine it gets popular on normal summer weekends. You may run into CDT thru-hikers here, as it is a common stopping point in the region.
Finally, we followed FR 87 back to the car, doing a bit of off-trail shortcutting, since my friend's dog's paws were pretty cut up from the off-trail hiking. However, following Escondido Creek back to the Beaver Creek confluence and back up Osha Canyon seemed quite manageable from our vantage on the southern rim of the wilderness.