Hike your way to physical and mental health

Hiking_Cindy Brown Photo
(Photo by Cindy Brown)

Both newcomers and those who grew up in the area value the incredible natural beauty that surrounds Taos. There are recreational opportunities near the Río Grande and on the nearby mesas, as well as in the higher-altitude Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Hiking is one way to get into the natural landscape and enjoy the solitude, as well as to spend time with family and friends. New studies show that hiking provides multiple benefits to the body and mind.

Mike Staab, a cardiologist in the Denver area, recently visited Taos with his family. When asked about the health benefits of hiking, he said: “Regular aerobic exercise, such as hiking, can lower the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke and can improve cardiorespiratory fitness. In addition, when combining cardiovascular exercise, like hiking, with a well-balanced diet, it can lead to improved overall fitness and weight control. Regular exercise is also shown to lead to better-quality sleep – a real bonus when your kids are young and full of energy.”

Time spent in nature also increases attention span and improves the ability to creatively solve problems, according to a study published by the Public Library of Science. Unplugging from technology, along with the presence of nature, boosts brain power. In addition, a recent Stanford University study showed that creativity flows better when we are moving — rather than sitting.

These benefits extend to kids as well as adults. And hiking as a family brings everyone together and can help everyone get healthier.

Family time

While the Staab family was in town, Brenda Staab commented that their family has been hiking together since the kids were small.

“It gave us the chance to have the kids all to ourselves for a while and to connect as a family,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to exercise together. Now that the kids are 16 and 20, my husband and I find ourselves hiking without them more often than not. However, when we do get the opportunity for the four of us to go on a hike, we are grateful to have that uninterrupted time together when we all put away our phones to enjoy the outdoors and, more importantly, one another’s company.”

Tavita Valdez grew up in Taos. Her family includes three girls aged 4 to 10.

“The Valdez girls love hiking the Big Arsenic Trail at Wild Rivers,” Valdez said. “Their favorite part is getting to the spring at the bottom and wetting their hats. Hiking as a family brings us closer together and helps our girls appreciate nature. Every time we go hiking, we can see the girls’ confidence and endurance grow.”

Therapeutic qualities

Because it is lower impact than some other forms of exercise, hiking can be part of recovery from injury. Carol Terry had hip replacement surgery in August of last year. She had a goal of being able to go to Utah for a strenuous hike the following October. She worked with a physical therapist and incorporated hiking into her recovery plan.

And being in nature can help people find peace amid a stressful world.

“Every time I go into the woods, something shifts,” said Rick Haltermann, author of the forthcoming book “Curriculum of the Soul” and DJ for the Sunday morning KTAOS jazz show. He says the soul loves movement and loves being part of the “cooperation of chaos” that happens in nature.

Haltermann quotes writer Joseph Campbell, who said: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning in life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Over my many years of hiking in Taos, I, too, have gone to nature for quiet, solitude and the vastness of spirit that is there. For the sounds of the water that calms jangled nerves and for the big sky that allows a broader perspective on my worries and problems. After hiking, I feel soothed, more hopeful, stronger and more confident that I can take on the challenges that life throws my way.

Getting started

The most important thing you need to get started is a pair of sturdy hiking boots, preferably waterproof ones. The second most important thing is a rain jacket. With the coming of summer, there are often thunderstorms in the afternoon skies. So it is important to be prepared by checking the weather, starting your hike early in the day and getting off high peaks before storms develop.

Bring more water than you think you will need and plenty of high-energy snacks, like trail mix or energy bars. Remember sunscreen and sunglasses for everyone in your group. Consider a hat, long-sleeved shirt and lightweight long pants for protection from the elements. If you are hiking in a new place, be sure to bring a map or trail guide, along with a compass and global positioning system (GPS) if you have one.

If you haven’t been active or have any known health conditions, you may want to consult with your health care practitioner before you start hiking. In order to prevent injury, it makes sense to build strength and endurance slowly.

Places to go

The best way to begin hiking is to start out with a few short walks close to home. As you grow stronger, you can try some of the lower-elevation trails near the Río Grande. As the summer progresses, these areas can be hot, so it is best to start early in the day or go in the evening.

Whenever possible, go with more experienced hikers to learn from them. And always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Be on the lookout for signs of altitude sickness, which can occur starting at 6,500 feet in elevation. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, upset stomach and dizziness. The best remedy is to return to lower elevations and drink lots of water.

You can investigate the trails southeast of Taos accessed from State Road 518 as it heads toward Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, including Amole and Comales Canyon. By midsummer, the snow melts and higher peaks beckon, such as Bull-of-the-Woods to Long Canyon and Gold Hill. In mid-to-late summer, huge blue and white columbine bloom along the rivers and streams near Taos Ski Valley, along with fields of other wildflowers.

For mountain lakes, consider Heart Lake near Questa or Serpent Lake southeast of Taos. The trail to Heart Lake is about 9 miles long round-trip and gains near 2,300 feet in elevation. Serpent Lake Trail is just more than 7 miles long and gains 2,500 feet.

There are few things more satisfying than having your lunch near a high mountain lake or next to a flowing stream in a meadow filled with wildflowers. In the mountains, you may see bighorn sheep, elk or deer.

Wheeler Peak is the tallest point in the state at 13,161 feet and can be the ultimate goal after a summer spent getting in shape. The shortest trail to the peak begins near the Bavarian Lodge & Restaurant and skirts by Williams Lake before climbing a series of switchbacks to the top. From here, there are dramatic views in all directions and a sense of having accomplished something truly challenging.

Petroglyphs at Wild Rivers. (Photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)

For more information

Contact the Carson National Forest at 575-758-6200 or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at 575-758-8851. The BLM offers a series of guided hikes led by rangers during the summer months. These hikes are a great way to learn about our local plants and wildlife and have the chance to see hidden petroglyphs.

Editor’s Note: Cindy Brown is the hiking columnist for The Taos News and author of the “Taos Hiking Guide” (Nighthawk 2015).

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