Week 4, Day 4: Trails

Craig Martin enjoys the view from the Blue Dot Trail. (Photo by Craig Martin)

In today’s Take It Outside post we are celebrating our wonderful local trails! New Mexico is home to incredible and diverse outdoor spaces and our state has many great trails you can use to explore them.

What are your favorite trails in New Mexico? Tell us about them today!

If you haven’t already, read PEEC’s recommendations on responsibly getting outside and using our trails during COVID-19.

Blog Post:

Craig Martin shares some of the behind-the-scenes planning and work that goes into building sustainable trails. Craig is a PEEC volunteer, former board member, and local author. He was Los Alamos County’s Open Space Specialist from 2003 – 2015. Read today’s blog post here.

Craig is also hosting a livestreamed talk for PEEC on Tuesday, April 21 on our forest’s vegetative recovery after the Cerro Grande Fire. Learn more and register for this virtual event here.


The Passport to the Pajarito Plateau is a great way to explore our local trails. (Photo by Heather Marancenbaum)

A good, strong, hiking stick is always a cherished treasure. Keep an eye out for big sticks when you go hiking! Please use deadfall for this project — don’t cut your hiking stick from a live tree unless you have permission to do so. Bring home your found hiking stick and personalize it with your story this spring. 

Use Sharpie or whittle to add pictures and decorations to represent your life. Then, save your stick for many hikes to come. You can also use paint, ribbon, or other materials to decorate your hiking stick! You can decorate it all at once or add to it gradually as you have more adventures to add.

For more ideas, read how one family personalized a “story stick” here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Erosion, a process where things like water or wind break down and carry away pieces of the landscape, is a major challenge in trail maintenance. You can see erosion in action if you make a pile of sand and dirt, and then spray or pour water onto it. What happens? If you use a little water, what sizes of rocks move? If you use a lot of water, what rocks move? Can you add anything to your pile (plants, sticks, etc.) to help protect it from erosion?

Go on a walk and look for signs of erosion. You might see:

  • Channels where water has run
  • Rocks worn smooth 
  • Exposed roots where soil has been washed away
  • Holes worn into the rocks by wind
  • Fallen rocks

What other signs of erosion do you see? Let us know!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Volunteers work on Cabra Loop Trail during a trail workday. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

Read today’s blog post, and then look for some of the signs of active trail maintenance on your next hike. Can you find:

  • Cut treefall
  • Switchbacks
  • Trails descending gently, almost along contours
  • Grade dips: small trenches that carry water off the trail
  • Grade reversals: small uphill sections between downhill sections
  • Waterbars that conduct water off the trail
  • Wide, mountain bike-friendly turns
  • Steps down steep sections
  • Retaining walls holding the trail in place

There’s a lot of work that goes into trail design and maintenance! Thank a trail worker or volunteer the next time you run into one!

Other Resources:

  • Need some hiking inspiration? Check out Craig Martin’s blog post on his 20 favorite trails in and around Los Alamos.
  • Access maps and trailhead guides for the Los Alamos County Trail Network here.
  • Have you started your Passports to the Pajarito Plateau? If not, now is a great time to do so. This program helps you explore our local trails and earn some prizes along the way. If you don’t have a booklet, you can print these versions on PEEC’s website: Passport 1, Passport 2, and Passport 3. When we reopen the nature center, we’ll catch you up on prizes! No printer? No problem. Just use a piece of scrap paper or take pictures with the rubbings.
  • Unfortunately, the Los Alamos Trails App is still down. While we work on updating it, we recommend trying out AllTrails as a substitute. Not all of our local trails are on this app, but many are! PEEC also has an online trail guide linking to various resources.
  • If you were inspired by Craig’s post today and would like to dive deeper into sustainable trail design, check out this post from American Trails.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us how you like to enjoy nature! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll share some ideas for picnics!

Making Healthy Connections with Nature

Enjoying the views on Bandelier National Monument’s Tsankawi loop trail. (Photo by Bob Walker)

By Sue Watts

“I come into the peace of wild things … the presence of still water.

For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”

Wendell Berry

I experienced that grace when, with my husband sleeping in the ICU, I sat outside and watched the snow-filled canyon, listened to the wind in the ponderosas, and inhaled the scent of fresh air. Peace settled around me like a blanket.

Physically, mentally, and emotionally, the outside world of nature has so much to offer us in terms of health, particularly in this time of social distancing. Beginning in the early 1980’s, the Japanese introduced the idea of Shinrin Yoku. The idea is to immerse yourself into nature with no purpose other than to experience whatever nature you encounter. Since then, the interest in the health effects of being in nature has grown, and research has followed. Today, connections with nature are considered to be a part of preventative medicine. Globally, researchers have documented physical, emotional, and mental gains from a close encounter with nature.

On the physical front, walking, hiking, and biking are active pursuits that strengthen muscles, the heart, and lungs and can lead to weight loss. Research into the inner, often immediate, physiological effects of being in nature has shown that blood pressure numbers lower, heart rate slows, immune function improves, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to help us “rest and digest.”

Responses from nearly 20,000 participants from the UK in survey data collected in 2014 to 2016 helped an English group discover that spending at least two hours in nature per week was strongly correlated with positive, healthy results. Four half hours, several hour-long excursions, or a two-hour stroll produced similar results.

The author, Sue Watts (second from right), leads PEEC’s Gentle Walkers group. This group is not meeting now, but focuses on noticing the parts of nature described in today’s blog post.

If you are not able to walk or get to a trail, explore your yard for signs of spring or find a “sit spot” where you can view the world. It will improve your mood. You can meditate, do deep breathing, or just sit there letting nature slowly reveal itself. For this exercise, it is not a question of how many things you can capture, but of what comes to you. Twenty minutes several times a week is often a suggested time frame for mood improvement.

For those of you interested in mental stimulation, research has shown that if we remain unconnected to technology while taking time to be outside, our creative problem solving abilities increase by 50 percent. Cognitively, being outside helps us to focus more intently. Time outdoors has shown a positive effect on children with ADHD.

How do we reap the benefits of being outside responsibly during this time of social distancing?

Atlas Obscura spoke with a few experts who have been studying the behavior of COVID-19 in the outdoors. Here are a few excerpts:

  • The virus “dissipates quickly outside, both becoming less dense in the outside air volume and more easily destroyed by UV light,” says Ellen Jo Baron, professor emerita of pathology at the Stanford University Medical Center. In other words, the coronavirus has a harder time spreading en plein air, perhaps even more so in sunny places.
  •  Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor and member of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UCLA adds, ““The concentration of virus drops off very quickly as you get farther away from a person”

PEEC recently released some tips on how to safely use our trails during COVID-19. Please keep them in mind while you are out on your journey. Observe the usual pandemic-related caveats: maintain at least ten feet of distance or hike separately, keep your hands away from your face, wash or sterilize your hands when you come home or before you dig into snacks. Avoid finding yourself in a long line of people snaking their way down a trail like one giant organism.

Hikers should also take the following safety measures:

  • Let someone know where and for how long you plan to walk.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and the way back to the trailhead (walk within a known set of boundaries like a road, canyon rims, the downward slope of a drainage). 
  • Take plenty of water.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Stay off trails if the wind is blowing the hat from your head.
  • Keep the bears socially distant. Apparently, the most effective bear deterrent is the sound of the human voice, so belt out a song or two as you walk.

“Deeply encoded in our psyche is the awareness that comfort, peace, and healing can be found in a forest. … It resets our nervous systems … so quickly and effectively, it is as if we have come home.”

M. Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides

If you like, share some of the times you have experienced a lift from nature … physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Want to investigate further?

Passport to the Pajarito Plateau:

If you plan to hit the trails, be sure to bring along your Passport to the Pajarito Plateau. Once the nature center re-opens, we can catch you up on the prizes you earned! If you don’t have the passports at home, you can download and print these two-sided versions: Passport 1, Passport 2, and Passport 3.

No printer? No problem. Just use a sheet of scrap paper or take pictures with the rubbings.

Craig Martin’s 20 Favorite Hikes on the Pajarito Plateau

In honor of our 20th anniversary, PEEC is asking local experts and enthusiasts to share lists of 20 nature-related highlights of the Pajarito Plateau. We hope that this project teaches our community something they didn’t know about our outdoors and encourages them to get out and try something new.

To kick things off, we asked Craig Martin to share a list of his 20 favorite hikes on the Pajarito Plateau. Craig is a Los Alamos Living Treasure, former Los Alamos County open-space specialist, past PEEC board member, author, and all around local outdoor expert.

Explore Craig’s favorite hikes on the Pajarito Plateau, in no particular order, below. Learn more about our local trail system here.

Read more Craig Martin’s 20 Favorite Hikes on the Pajarito Plateau

The Science of Slowing Down Outside

By Sue Watts

The Gentle Walkers were perched on rocks and logs in a grove of trees. The shade and a soft breeze cooled us. Nearby, the East Fork of the Jemez River gurgled on its way to the canyon. Butterflies danced over wildflowers in a sunny nearby meadow. Birds sang or called from the trees, coming ever closer the longer we sat in silence.  The peace settling over us was palpable.

Experience has shown that quiet moments like these, unattached to the World Wide Web, can settle us and ease the stress in our lives. Science has been catching up with this idea, which was given focus by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which is defined as “the practice of walking slowly through the woods, in no hurry, for a morning, an afternoon, or a day.” It is quite similar to the definition of sauntering: walking in a slow, relaxed manner, without hurry or effort.

In attempting to cope with the stress of modern life, some people in Japan started the practice of shinrin-yoku. Since it began to be noticed in the late 1990s, more and more people have practiced it because instinct and experience told them they felt calmer and more collected after a walk in the woods. While it began as an “intuition based therapy, it has now become an evidence-based therapy and can now be considered to be preventative medicine.”

Over the past 20 years, research in Japan, South Korea, Scandinavian countries, and the United States have documented the health benefits: a lowering of action in the sympathetic system, which is the source of our flight or fight response to stress, and more action in the parasympathetic system, which relaxes the body by putting it in a healthier rest and digest mode and restoring us to a state of peacefulness. In addition, a person’s blood pressure, pulse rate, blood glucose level, adrenaline, and cortisol can drop after time in the woods. The number of killer cells in the blood rises, strengthening our immunity. We sleep better. All this can stem from a stroll in the woods. People being people, they have capitalized on these finding, forming elaborate rituals and forming national and international organizations to standardize the practice. Still, it all comes down to a simple walk in nature without cell phones with the possible addition of a few simple exercises to increase one’s skill in observation. 

On Friday, July 12, PEEC will have a special edition of our weekly Gentle Walks to celebrate Los Alamos ScienceFest. This outing will be centered on the idea of shinrin-yoku, which is meant to reduce stress by enhancing one’s observational skills and bringing you closer to the peace of the forest. We will have several short exercises focused on seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and contemplating the place that surrounds us. We will meander along, taking in the world around us, celebrating its peace and beauty. We will not be trying to reach the end of the trail, which, we have found, changes the atmosphere and the peace of the experience. 

In short, we will heed John Muir’s advice: “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!”

Meet at the Los Alamos Nature Center at 8:30 AM for Friday’s outing. You can pre-register for this walk here and request to join the Gentle Walkers email group for updates on upcoming walks by emailing publicity@peecnature.org.

Source of quotes: Yoshifumi Miyazaki Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, Portland, Oregon:  Timber Press, Inc., 2018