Tips for summiting the Santa Fe twelvers: Lake, Deception, Penitente and Baldy

A view of Santa Fe Baldy. Courtesy

Colorado has its fourteeners, but Santa Fe has a quartet of twelver summits: Lake (12,409 feet), Deception (12,308 feet), Penitente (12,249 feet) and Baldy (12,622 feet) all starting from the ski basin trailhead (10,307 feet) and within a 30 minute drive from downtown. June, before the monsoons, is a perfect time to get away from higher temperatures, see the wildflowers and savor the achievement of climbing a mountain’s summit.

Before summiting, always, always use a guidebook. Some peaks lack clear trails, summits fog up early and often, and all manner of things go wrong. Hikers need to heed safety tips strictly. The Sierra Club guidebooks called Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, sold in bookstores all over town, are critical and excellent. A web search of peaks yields important information about routes and degrees of difficulty.

A longtime local climber, Carol Brown, has done them all and has found each to be distinctive in its own way, with their own challenges. “Baldy, one of Santa Fe’s premier hikes, is probably the most challenging because of distance and elevation,” she said. Most hikers take about eight hours to the summit and back to the parking lot.

Carol’s take on climbing the other three of the quartet: “Deception, more of a prominent mound than a distinctive peak, is often the culmination of a Raven’s Ridge hike, but is also on the approach to scaling Lake Peak, which is the high point of a narrow, rocky ridge. Good balance and surefootedness is required to scramble to its crest.

“Penitente Peak can be accessed via a connecting ridgeline. Summiting these three peaks in one day should only be attempted if one is thoroughly prepared and has the time and stamina to make it a pleasurable high country experience,” she said.

Of course, good weather is a necessity, she cautions. “It is not uncommon for storms to move in rapidly, and when hiking above tree line one must be especially vigilant,” she said. “A good rule of thumb is to start early and calculate your hiking time in order to be descending by noon. If you decide to climb all three of these peaks, I recommend returning to the ski area via the Skyline (251) and Winsor (254) trails, towards Puerto Nambe, rather than retracing one’s steps, because you will have less ‘exposure’ on open ridges, if lightning becomes a factor. Being prepared with maps, appropriate gear, food and water are crucial, but you also must use good judgment and be prepared to retreat if conditions warrant. Summiting or attempting to summit anyone of these four peaks is exhilarating.”

What’s in a name like Penitente Peak? Does it refer to the root for “penance,” which might hint at how difficult it was for the namer who climbed it? Or is it honoring a deep New Mexican religious tradition?

Lake Peak looks down on Nambe Lake which has its own trail off of the Winsor.

Santa Fe Baldy’s smooth, rounded side seen from Santa Fe (with its distinctive band of trees below the summit) contrasts with the steep cliff down to Lake Katherine on its eastern side. It is one of a trio of local baldies: Glorieta and Pecos each have one too.

Deception’s summit is rounded and is so named because it hides Lake and Penitente behind it. From Deception, the view is of Santa Fe Lake, the headwaters of the Santa Fe River.

The quartet is located in the Pecos Wilderness and, therefore, no mountain bikes or mechanized vehicles are allowed.

In June, dozens of alpine wildflowers are in bloom, including violets, orchids and clematis.

The best guide to high altitude wildflowers is Jane Jefford’s Wildflowers of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and is sold by the Upper Pecos Watershed Association (

Carol’s warning bears repeating: “Be where you want to be by noon and then head back.”

Because summit hikes take many hours on the trail, it’s great to go with a small, carefully selected group. Fitness-level compatibility is key; sticking together is crucial (leave out loner buddies who don’t like groups); make sure everyone is an early riser; negativity saps stamina, so leave those folks at home; and read climbing guides carefully.

Margaret Alexander is a founding member of Trails Alliance of Santa Fe.

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