I picked this trail simply because I knew it to be visible from space, hoping it would be within my range of competence after getting quite confused in the neighboring canyons. It proved to be easy to follow and a great workout. It also showcases the transition from the Chihuanuan desert floor to the forested terrain that lies above 6500 feet.
- From Las Cruces, get onto I-25 and take exit #6 (US Route 70) East towards Alamogordo.
- After 62.6 miles (100.7 km), go right onto Rt 54 West.
- After 0.2 miles (0.32 km), go left onto Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
- After 2.3 miles (3.7 km), turn right onto W 10th Street.
- After 3.1 miles (5.0 km), W. 10th Street makes a hard left-hand turn and becomes Paiute Trail.
- After 0.2 miles (0.32 km), look for an excavated wash that goes under Paiute Trail. The uphill wash is the start of the trail. Park by the side of the road.
Comment on directions: On my approach I actually took a slightly different route through town. It was characterized by frequent turns, missing road signs, and several strikingly blind intersections. When heading back, I followed the directions given above (but in reverse, of course). The given directions above are much easier to follow. Regrettably, I didn’t track the mileage values on return, so these values are taken directly from Google. Be a little wary of the exact mileage figures. They will be updated after the next visit to the Lincoln National Forest.
The trailhead is located where an excavated wash comes into Paiute Trail (a paved road). The photo at the right shows the view from the trailhead, looking up the wash. There is quite a lot of open space on the uphill side of Paiute Trail, but it is fronted by a curb that is too high for my sedan. Since the road is quite wide, most people will simply park next to the curb.
Note the cliffband at the top of the photo – the trail swings to the right of this cliff.
The jeep track rises 3200 feet (975 m) in 3.6 miles (5.8 km), hitting the highest point just before my turn-around in the open meadows facing the interior of Lincoln National Forest. The actual jeep track continues on – on Google it looks like it enters a forest service road in less than half a mile. To get to the summit of Ortega Peak hikers would need to ascend off-trail from the pass for another 300 feet (90 m) of gain.
The trail starts out following an excavated wash (nicely squared off) for about 100 feet (30 m) before climbing out onto a jeep track. There are several side-branches to the jeep track, simply stay on the most-used road. From the trailhead you can see a prominent cliffband directly uphill. The jeep trail goes to the right of that cliffband and then turns back to follow along the top of the cliff, then turns uphill and goes through quite a few switchbacks to gain the top of the large “A” painted on the hillside. From the top of the “A” there are great views of the basin and a glimpse of White Sands National Monument. (The view of White Sands improves constantly during the hike).
From the painted “A” the terrain has a pronounce cycle of rise-and-bench. On the steep rises the jeep track is often quite rocky and it is hard to get a good rhythm going. Fortunately the rocks can be quite colorful and for certain stretches the gleam of mica is a common roadbed distraction. At about 6800 feet (2070 m) the terrain benches for the last time before hitting the meadows of the pass. Trees start to appear, and the road becomes more like a dirt road than a stream bed. As the road draws near the summit block it contours through alpine forest (short firs and something that resembles cedar trees) with occasional meadows and even a tarn bed (although the tarn was dry when I was there). The road skirts a bowl and reaches a pass at about 7400 feet (2255 m). Just over the pass there is an open meadow with good views to the terrain east of Ortega Peak. That’s were I turned around.
My original intention for today was to get a look at Ortega Canyon South. The instructions for that hike said to park your car at the lower of two water tanks on Thunder Road, then follow the road to the upper tanks and find the canyon departing from there. From up high on T119 I could see my mistake. I stayed on Thunder Road to the upper water tank, but I walked past the tank because the road drops immediately into a canyon along the north side of the tank. Mistake! Ortega Canyon South looks like it should be reached by following Thunder Road until you just reach the nearest edge of this fenced property, then immediately ascend on the tank’s southern side (to the right, looking uphill). Keep going uphill and trending a little towards the right until you reach the mouth of a Ortega Canyon South. (The canyon comes down between the water tower and a house with a red roof.)
The canyon that I entered (a.k.a. “the wrong canyon”) contains a surprising amount of rusted metal junk, but even more striking is it’s collection of barb wire fences that cling grimly to the canyon floor. That didn’t seem right. Still anxious to get going, I walked further to the north on Thunder Road to see if there would be a track leading to another large canyon up there, but it was suburbia city and I didn’t want to trespass. That was fortunate, since that would have been an even “wronger” canyon from the point of view of getting to Ortega Canyon South.
CAVEAT: I didn’t actually get into the right canyon, this is just a report of what looked like the “right canyon” from high on T119. I recommend finding someone with actual experience in hiking Ortega Canyon South, if you can! The internet reports are like this one – very confusing.
“A” Trail has a fair amount of gain on a track that is completely open. This is probably not he best place to be on the hottest day of the year. Still, I envy hikers in Alamogordo. A couple hikes up this highly accessible trail would be a great way to get into shape and stay there.
White Sands National Monument is on the road from Las Cruces to Alamogordo. They say that it is a pretty spectacular spot, although my energy levels were too low to do much on the return trip other than take a few photos from the edge of the sands. According to the signs, the sand is actually gypsum that has drained out of the surrounding mountain ranges.