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The Magic of the Rayado

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

August 1, 2022 — The magic of Philmont is a tale told by time and memory: time marked by countless footsteps along our trails and the memory marked by how the footsteps linger. It is the many footsteps through our lands that matter. The land is the cup that holds the ocean of growth found in the hiking, the people and the history. The land is what is beheld in awe. This land holds the power to change lives, and perhaps that is the most magical aspect of Philmont Scout Ranch.

That magic can be found in the grandeur of a sunset over the Tooth of Time or in fields of grass playing gently with the wind. It is a magic found in everything from the summits of our tallest peaks to the caterpillars found at the bottom of our deepest canyons.

Philmont is a land that has been lived on and loved by humans for thousands of years. That connection is easily recognized when visiting the petroglyphs at Indian Writings or the mines at Baldy Town. The story of Philmont is tied to connections to the land. And, that story can be found everywhere on the Ranch but can especially be encountered along the Rayado Creek.

Running from Clear Creek to Rayado, the Rayado Creek forms an important watershed and thoroughfare through Philmont’s South Country. In search of some of that magic, I traversed the length of the Rayado within Philmont’s bounds. Beginning at Clear Creek, I hiked along trails, the creekside and backcountry roads until Rayado. When it was all said and done, the journey brought me along the path of crews with hearty hellos, the hospitality of staff camps and the majesty of our land. But, as most journeys do, this walk began much simpler than that.

At Clear Creek, a fur trapping interpretive staff camp, the Rayado enters through Philmont’s property line in a small trickle. Not insignificant but not yet to the roaring power one finds at Fish Camp or Rayado. Surrounding that trickle is vibrant, verdant life. Ferns and grasses bask in golden rays, while ponderosas stand guard over the lifeblood of so much life down the valley.

The Rayado River runs through the south country at Philmont Scout Ranch on July 14, 2022 in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Marielle Scott.

To begin my hike, I held a handful of creek soil in my hands. Rolling it between my palms, I brought it to my nose. The powerful aromas of the earth filled my nostrils, a way to center myself into the journey ahead. The smell of butterscotch wafting from the ponderosas and the sight of the sun playing across the water brought me into the moment and readied me for the walk.

As one heads down the valley from Clear Creek, you continue to find bountiful life. Valleys painted by lush grasses and vaulted by tree crowns, aspens and ponderosas.

A common reminder along the valley is of the power of nature. Walking under the shade of strong, living trees, you sometimes suddenly come into the light as you stumble upon hundreds of blowdowns. Behemoths weighing thousands of pounds thrown carelessly by the wind across the hillside. It is a sobering moment, bringing the give and take of the wilderness to the top of mind.

As you drop into Phillips Junction, a commissary staff camp, you find the valley closing in. Heading into Fish Camp you are treated to the beauty of a high-country canyon filled with life. The sunset made it especially beautiful as I hiked it. As the sun dipped below the ridgelines, the canyon took on an otherworldly glow, a sublime entrance into an evening at Fish Camp.

Once Waite Phillips’ fishing lodge, Fish Camp is now a fly-fishing interpretive staff camp with historic buildings restored to the time of Phillips and his friends.

The culture of the backcountry is driven by the hospitality of the staff, and Fish Camp was no exception. In fact, they were a shining example.

Upon my arrival, I was graciously invited to sleep in one of their cabins and offered nachos and pecan pie for dinner. Surrounded by like-minded people, with good food to eat and a storied cabin to sleep in, my evening at Fish Camp reminded me why the summer backcountry at Philmont is so magnificent.

The magnificence was reinforced by an early morning wakeup to a nearly full moon, soon transforming into specks of sunlight peeking over ridgelines. The moon and the sun kept me company as I headed downstream. Following social trails for fly fishing, I kept close to the creekside.

I heard the growing roar of the water as it crashed through a closing canyon. Soon, though, the canyon itself began to present a problem. As the walls became steeper and the water faster, there became less room for me to hike on the banks. As much as I wanted to tie myself to the creek, I had to move uphill.

After fits and starts, poking at different parts of the canyon’s face, I committed to an uphill space and emerged onto the trail. While the banks had been beautiful, hiking in a clear direction on a trail was a needed reprieve.

As I made my way along, cliff-faced vistas opened before me, clouds danced above me and the wind blew gently. Of all the experiences at Philmont, moments that allow gratitude to simmer over into big smiles and happy steps are some of the most powerful.

In an effort to find more of that power, I headed back into the canyon through Crags, a trail camp. Above Crags, the trail stays high up on the ridgeline to Carson Meadows, a search and rescue and star gazing staff camp. The Rayado flows through its canyon, undisturbed by trail traffic. Unless, like me, you’re trying to experience the creek and insist on hiking next to it. Well, sometimes insistence comes at a price.

The Rayado River runs through the south country at Philmont Scout Ranch on July 14, 2022 in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Marielle Scott.

There along the Rayado is a jumble of fallen trees, growing saplings and thick brush. Passage through is made even more difficult by a water system that cannot seem to make a decision on where it wants to go, splitting and twisting wildly.

After what seemed like hours of progress, I checked my map and realized I had not made it that far at all. Maybe an eighth of the total distance I needed to travel to reach Old Abreu trail camp. It was disappointing, to say the least.

However, in my determination, or stubbornness, I decided to keep pushing through the bush. As I continued, I added to my already countless crisscrossing of the Rayado and looked ahead at a closing canyon, steeper walls and faster water.

In one last ditch effort, I removed my boots, rolled up my pants and attempted to walk through the creek itself. I did not bring sandals, which made the walk was less than ideal barefoot.

After not much progress was made, I laced my boots back up, shouldered my pack and looked to the ridgeline. I had changed my plan. Instead of hiking along the creek, I would once again ascend to the ridgeline in search of the trail. However, this ascent promised to be considerably more difficult.

A grade requiring hands and feet to ascend, it was made especially challenging by fallen trees and unstable rocks. With frequent breaks, rests required leaning into the hillside so as not to fall backward with the weight of my pack.

Huffing and puffing up that canyon wall was a sobering experience. It reminded me of the difficulty of traversing this land before an extensive trail network, the work and struggle the miners and loggers must have endured. However, most of the ascent was spent in abject discomfort as opposed to reflection. Eventually, and I do mean eventually, I emerged with hands on knees onto the trail, high above the creek.

The vista provided a reprieve as I sat and recovered my energy. But soon, it was time to move on. I still had a long way to go. As the trail took me into Old Abreu trail camp, the temperatures rose, the trees became smaller and the plains opened up before me. The creek had entered a new ecosystem, and the heat lamp had been turned on.

Midday hiking in Philmont’s less than shady areas is notoriously difficult, and my experience was no different. From Abreu, a homesteading interpretive staff camp, to Rayado, I had a long, hot and slow hike. Slogging through a burning sun and little breeze, I thought often of the vastly different lands the journey had taken me on: lush, high-country valleys, historic cabins, tight canyons, oak groves and plains. Land all chained together into a common experience by the Rayado itself.

The journey even took me around the burn scar of the Cooks Peak Fire, another sobering reminder of nature’s power. When water flows through a recent burn such as this, the risk for flash flood drastically increases. It is for this reason that waterways in burn scars should be avoided and only approached out of necessity.

The power of nature was extant throughout the entire journey. As I walked into Rayado, and touched the opposing fence line to the one that had started the journey, I did so with pointed gratitude. While the difficult parts, canyon wall ascents and high temperatures, were challenging in the moment, in hindsight they form some of my favorite memories of the journey. And, that is perhaps what I realized most from my journey along the Rayado Creek: Philmont is magical because its lands hold a mirror to you and tell you, “you’re capable of more than you thought you were”.

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