"Omigod, that's an American pipit!" The tiny, tan-colored bird buzzing him in curious circles has ornithologist Lawry Sager gripping his binoculars with glee. "I'm going to have to write this one up."
The rare sighting is an unexpected zoological reward for topping out on 8,897-foot Placer Peak - the highest point in the recently established Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve, a small, isolated range about 30 miles southwest of Santa Fe.
The preserve, which opened to regular public tours for the first time in summer 2003, is a northern New Mexico treasure for naturalists and adventure seekers. The hills are forested with junipers, piñons, ponderosa pines, and stands of white firs. Bears and at least one mountain lion call these mountains home, and though they stay hidden during our visit, along the trail we see ample evidence - scat, rubbings, and tracks - of their passing.
Humans have left their mark here too. Historians believe pioneers dug the first gold mines west of the Mississippi in these hills around 1821, and today the terrain is pocked with abandoned 19th-century shafts.
Though most Ortiz Mountains prospecting ended in the mid-1800s, one large-scale gold-mining operation continued until recent decades - in a less than environmentally sensitive manner. When a minerals conglomerate bought that inactive mine and made plans to resume operations, a grassroots coalition of locals and green groups sued to stop the company. As part of an out-of-court settlement in the late 1990s, both parties agreed to create the 1,300-acre Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve.
"We're really proud of the preserve," says Sager, who is in his early 60s and is one of about 20 volunteer guides. "To have something off-limits for so long and now open like this - it's really satisfying."
As he picks his way back down to the trailhead - spotting, along the way, a four-foot bull snake lounging against a rock, a pair of mule deer, and several sharp-shinned hawks - Sager pauses to take in a seldom-seen panorama of the Galisteo Basin, stretching out 50 miles to the east.
"I love these mountains," Sager says. "They're not giants, but they've sure got a lot of character."
The Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve is located about 30 miles southwest of Santa Fe, off State 14. The nonprofit Santa Fe Botanical Garden administers the lands as a diverse biological time capsule. In an effort to protect this vulnerable ecosystem set amid the high desert, the Ortiz Mountains can be visited only by appointment, and all visitors must be accompanied by a docent. Fall is the best time to visit for the temperate weather.
GUIDED-HIKE OPTIONS: At present, choices are an easy 1 1/2-mile lower-elevation loop trail that takes about an hour or the 5-mile round-trip Placer Peak climb. The Placer option is strenuous, with some off-trail scrambling - allow about three to four hours for the round-trip. There is no water available on-site, and dogs are not allowed.
INFO: For tour schedules (available through Nov; $5 donation suggested), reservations, and directions to the preserve, contact the Santa Fe Botanical Garden (www.santafebotanicalgarden.org or 505/428-1684).