The name of the mountains may refer to the occasional reddish hues observed during sunrise and sunset, and when alpenglow occurs, especially when the mountains are covered with snow. Although the particular origin of the name is unclear, it has been in use since the early 19th century. Before that time the terms "La Sierra Nevada", "La Sierra Madre", "La Sierra", and "The Snowies" (used by English speakers) were used. Sometimes the archaic Spanish spelling "Christo" is used.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are divided into various subranges, described here from north to south. Use of the terms "Sangre de Cristo Range" and "Sangre de Cristo Mountains" is inconsistent and either may refer to either the northernmost subrange, the southernmost subrange, or the mountains as a whole.
The Sangre de Cristo Range, the largest and most northerly subrange of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, runs directly along the east side of the Rio Grande Rift, extending southeast from Poncha Pass for about 75 miles (120 km) through south-central Colorado to La Veta Pass, approximately 20 miles (32 km) west of Walsenburg. They form a high ridge separating the San Luis Valley on the west from the watershed of the Arkansas River on the east.
The Culebra Range runs almost due north and south, with its northern limit at La Veta Pass in Colorado, and its southern limit at Costilla Creek, just south of Big Costilla Peak in New Mexico. Its highest point is Culebra Peak (14,047 feet/4,282 m), which is notable for being the only fourteener in Colorado which is on private land. Climbers wishing to ascend Culebra must pay a fee (currently US$100 per person), and the number of climbers per year is limited. Standing to the east of the main crest are the two prominent Spanish Peaks (West: 13,626 feet/4,153 m; East: 12,860 feet/3,920 m). Unlike the rest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, these are volcanic, with conical shapes and prominent dikes radiating outward. These peaks were important landmarks on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
The Taos Mountains span the western lobe of the range from Costilla Creek in the north, to Tres Ritos in the south. They include the highest point in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak 13,161 feet (4,011 m), which is part of the small Wheeler Peak Wilderness. Other notable peaks include Pueblo Peak 12,305 feet (3,751 m), which rises dramatically above Taos Pueblo, and Latir Peak 12,708 feet (3,873 m). Williams Lake is located below Wheeler Peak in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness.
Taos Ski Valley lies just to the west of Wheeler Peak. Much of the central portion of the Taos Mountains are on Taos Pueblo land. As viewed from Taos, they are locally called "Taos Mountain."
The southern portion of the Taos Mountains, between Palo Flechado Pass and Tres Ritos (US Route 64 and NM Route 518), is lower and less dramatic than the northern section, with its high point being Cerro Vista, 11,939 ft (3,639 m). The Fernando Mountains are a small subrange lying in this section, just south of US Route 64.
The Cimarron Range lies across the Moreno Valley to the east of the Taos Mountains. It is a lower range, with its highest point being Baldy Mountain (12,441 feet/3,792 m). The Philmont Scout Ranch lies on the east side of the Cimarron Range.
This is a minor subrange, significantly lower than the rest of the Sangre de Cristos; it lies east of the southernmost portion of the Taos Mountains.
Santa Fe Mountains
Rounding out the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the Santa Fe Mountains, which include all peaks south of NM Route 518. This group lies near Santa Fe and surrounds the Pecos Wilderness, which protects the source watershed of the Pecos River. The peaks include Truchas Peak (13,102 feet/3,994 m) as their highest point. Other notable peaks are Santa Fe Baldy (12,622 feet/3,847 m) and Jicarita Peak (12,835 feet/3,912 m). The Pecos Wilderness is crossed by many trails and is popular for backpacking and for fishing in its high alpine lakes.
Wheeler Peak, of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, is the highest peak in New Mexico. Taos Ski Valley lies just to the west of Wheeler Peak. Much of the central portion of the Taos Mountains are on Taos Pueblo land. As viewed from Taos, they are locally called "Taos Mountain."
East Spanish Peak is the lower of the two Spanish Peaks, two large igneous stocks which form an eastern outlier of the Culebra Range, a subrange of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. (Image: Spanish Peaks as seen from I25, Huerfano county, Colorado)
Mount Phillips, formerly called Clear Creek Mountain, is located in Colfax County about 11 mi (17 km) south of Baldy Mountain in the Cimarron Range, a subrange of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. The peak was renamed in 1960 in honor of Waite Phillips, who donated the area to the Boy Scouts of America. (Image: Mount Phillips (tallest mountain, at center) seen from Baldy Mountain)
Robert Julyan, The Place Names of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Chronic, Halka (1998). Roadside Geology of Colorado. Mountain Press Publishing Company. p. 36. ISBN 0-87842-105-X.
"National Registry of Natural Landmarks". National Park Service. June 2009.
^ Butterfield, Mike, and Greene, Peter, Mike Butterfield's Guide to the Mountains of New Mexico, New Mexico Magazine Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-937206-88-1
Some sources only include the region north of Palo Flechado Pass in the Taos Mountains; however they do not give a specific subrange name to the entire southern portion. See for example the 1:250,000 scale USGS maps.