Sierra Blanca rises to 12,003 feet (3660 m) and is one of the highest peaks in southern New Mexico. Next to it is Lookout Peak, home to the Ski Apache resort. Portions of the hike go through terrain burned in the Little Bear fire (2012). Due to this burn, both the Forest Service and the Mescalero Apache Travel Office have closed the trail at least until Spring of 2013.
Sierra Blanca forms part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. In normal years a permit is required for the summit portion of this trip. This year both the Mescalero Tribe and the Forest Service have closed the terrain to hikers due to fire damage. Both the Mescalero Apache Travel Office (575-464-4494) and the Smokey Bear Ranger Station (575-257-4095) state in the strongest possible terms that the danger to hikers from dead fall and the even greater danger to the region from fire make it imperative to keep people out until the winter has come and gone. They were very polite, but state unambiguously that hikers should wait until spring of 2013, then check back to see if the trails have been re-opened and permitting re-established.
- Take Exit #6 from I-25 in Las Cruces, heading east on US 70 (towards Alamogordo).
- After 62.0 miles (100 km) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. (US 70 in Alamogordo can be slow since it is lined by businesses. The “Relief Route” takes you around the busy stretch. The exit is just past the third stoplight you encounter in Alamogordo, signalling for the junction of US 70 with US 54 South).
- After 4.8 miles (7.7 km), go left at the stoplight back onto US 70 East.
- After 42.4 miles (68.2 km), turn left onto Sudderth Dr. (on the outskirts of Ruidoso).
- After 3.4 miles (5.5 km), turn right onto Mechem Dr. (in the center of Ruidoso).
- After 5.3 miles (8.5 km), turn left onto County Road 532.
- After 11.0 miles (17.7 km) this year you will encounter a sign saying Road Closed. (See the warnings under “permits”, above). Once the road re-opens it should be possible to go a bit further than a mile to get to the normal trailhead. According to other reports the trailhead is found at a sharp, left-hand switchback near the ski area.
I stopped off at the All American Diner in Ruidoso (390 Sudderth Dr.) for a bite to eat. Its sign indicated American/Mexican cuisine, and the staff were speaking Spanish. My server was very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the combo plate. The chile rellenos tasted about the same as the refried beans. In place of cream they serve a vastly regrettable food-like substance in the “coffee whitener” clade. For future reference, across the street from the All American there is a promising sign for the Cornerstone Bakery. Further down the road Farley’s Pub had the fullest parking lot on both Saturday and Sunday. The sign on that building says “Ribs, Burgers, Dogs”.
Map of actual trail (not the dirt road route through burned forest):
County Road 530 follows a gently inclined stream bed to reach an altitude of 8000 feet (2440 m), then explodes upward in a series of switchbacks to reach the 10,000 ft (3050 m) contour. At the 11 mile marker it reaches a pass. Normally you would drive down to the ski area from the pass. This year the road is closed at the pass. As reviewed in the “permits” section, travel is not permitted while the region recovers from the near-term effects of fire.
By spring of 2013 it may be possible to continue about another mile on CR 532 to a left-hand hairpin turn and park there. Internet reports say that the trailhead is located near a gate for the ski area. Also, the gate is closed after dark so hikers will want park outside the ski area.
The legitimate trail goes from a trailhead at 9840 feet (3000 m) to the summit at 12,000 feet (3660 m) for a gain of 2160 feet (660 m) in 4.3 miles, one way. It appears that the trails used are T15 to an intersection with T25, then T25 to an intersection with T78, then T78 to the summit.
The route taken began at the pass at 10,100 feet for a net gain of just 1900 feet (580 m) in 6.3 miles (10.1 km) one way.
Hike: (not open at least until spring 2013, see “Permits” above)
The dirt road at the pass stays close to the 10,000-foot contour for a about 1.3 miles (2.1 km). Views to Lookout Mt show the wildfire damage done to Ski Apache (see newspaper images). The forest that the road traverses is entirely burned. The trail departs from the road about 100 feet (30 m) before a sharp right-hand switchback on a forested saddle. The departure is marked by twin ax-blazes on a pair of burned trees on the down-hill side of the road, shown on the photo to the left. Beyond the trees is a steep meadow. Trail T25 traverses this hillside close to the low end of the meadow.
At the end of the meadow T25 winds through a burned wood, then joins with another trail in a second meadow and goes sharply right. I think the other trail might be T15, the connector to the normal trailhead (but I didn’t explore it). T25 becomes mostly level at this point, passing a small stream flowing in a deep V-notch, swinging around a broad rib and reaching a meadow below another saddle. Here the trail turns sharply left and begins to ascend via several switchbacks towards Icy Spring. There were numerous elk around the meadow, and their bugling was tremendous. In places grass is growing in the trailbed just as densely as in the adjacent forest floor. An enormous amount of work has been put into clearing burned logs from the trail and leaving twin ax-blazes for navigation.
Icy Spring was flowing, and one offshoot of the trail crosses the deep stream bed. For this venture I stayed on trail T25 (there are signs at the Icy Spring crossing) to ascend to the ridge crest. On the crest there is a signed junction with T78. To get to Lookout Mt and thence to Sierra Blanca follow T78 south. There are several saddles on the crest that provide good camping spots.
Leaving the car at 4:30 p.m. proved unwise, since it led to a hasty camp setup. At 11,200 feet (3410 m) in New Mexico you get an eyeful of nighttime sky. The light from a half-moon was bright enough to cast vivid shadows. The ridge could be a severely windy spot, but on this evening it was peaceful. Sleep was elusive since I’m not acclimated to the altitude. The down-insulated hood on my sleeping bag was a deeply appreciated design feature.
From the intersection the trail bumps southerly along the ridge, with views out to Tularosa Basin and its White Sands Monument in the west. It drops slightly to intersect a ski trail signed “Ambush” and then ascends the ski trail to Lookout Peak. On the highest point (above the lifts) there is a circular concrete bench. The views from this bench were not any better than from the ridge, and there is a ski-road that avoids most of the gratuitous gain if you prefer. From the south side of the summit block you have a fine view of the grassy rise that precedes the knife-edge ridge to Sierra Blanca summit.
Drop from Lookout Mt straight towards Sierra Blanca and ascend the grassy rise. Between the altitude and the steepness of the rise, expect a vigorous cardio workout. The rise hits a prominent shoulder with a good view of the knife-edge. There are faint climber’s treads along that ridge, but it is advisable to look for steep stream bed that drops away towards the west (right side, looking uphill), Just past this proto-canyon, find a tread that drops down a short distance on the western side. It offers a way of getting around the tricky little rise in the middle of the ridge and provides good footing for the ascent. Near the summit the terrain becomes entirely rock, the tread disappears and it becomes a scramble to the summit proper.
It was a mistake to head into such damaged terrain. It would have been perfectly possible to find other hikes in this region that were robust and open to hikers. That said, don’t stay away next spring! Call the numbers for the Tribe and for the Forest Service to see if this beautiful trail has been re-opened. There were trucks going back and forth on the closed section, presumably to re-open the road for the 2012-2013 ski season.
This scramble took place at the end of New Mexico’s “monsoon” season. Admittedly, it has been a terribly dry monsoon this year, but be cautious in planning for water on this trail. I have no idea if any of the described streams would be flowing before the monsoon begins. Six liters in my bag were enough. In fact, two liters survived the trip out and back, but it’s reassuring to have extra.
County Road 532 is home to miles of savagely abused roadside cable-barriers as it climbs to 10,000 feet (3050 m). Apparently it pays to keep your wheels on the tarmac. I kept my car in second gear during descent to take some stress off of the brake pads.
The summit of Sierra Blanca is wide and surprisingly grassy. It’s a great place for a nap or watching the many raptors. It would have been a good place for a self-portrait, if only I had remembered to bring my camera along. The other photos shown here are from my cell phone. It’s an aged Android app and does not seem to have a timer feature.
The night was cold – there was frost on the broad-leaf ground cover when the sun rose. I was otherwise very lucky with the weather. The ascent took advantage of cool temperatures and experienced just enough sunshine to make writing in the summit register a joy. In contrast, a wet and windy descent would make for a memorably bleak experience. This is not a good place for acrophobes. Let’s be careful up there.