This scramble takes you from canyon to mesa and from mesa to mountain top. Two features might be born in mind. First, in his description of this hike Greg Magee (author of Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area) calls this hike “extremely strenuous”. He is right. Don’t be fooled by the short distance or the limited amount of altitude gained. Second, for us newcomers there is a route finding hazard to this seemingly easy hike. Navigating across a mesa can be tricky, especially if you are trying to find the point where you had previously exited a canyon. Quite a few canyons are born in the debris fields flanking the Robledo Mountains. It is hard to know which one to take, and once inside a canyon your view to distant landmarks becomes extremely limited. Dust storms or heavy rains could make it even more difficult to find your way back to the car.
- From Las Cruces, head north on I-25 to Exit 19 for Radium Springs.
- At the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) on New Mexico 157.
- After 1.5 miles come to a T-intersection with New Mexico 185. Turn right (north, bending to west)
- After 1.8 miles you will find Faulkner Canyon Road on the left (unpaved). Turn left (south).
- After 0.7 miles you will encounter a gate across the road. As usual, you will have to unchain the gate and push it aside (it is a little on the heavy side), drive through, then close and re-chain the gate.
- After an additional 1.1 miles you will come to the trailhead. See trailhead description below.
The Faulkner Canyon Road follows the bottom of the canyon. It has been a desperately dry year this year, but I suspect that there are wetter times when you don’t want your car to be parked anywhere along the wash floor. Keep an eye on the weather. This year the chief hazard seems to be soft places in the road bed. My low-slung Camry sedan negotiated the road, but there were nervous moments when the surface went soft beneath the tires and the steering column took on a life of it’s own. Carry a jack!
There isn’t much to identify the point in the road where you park your car. The canyon that makes up the start of the hike comes in from the south (on the left as you are driving in). Unfortunately that canyon is not immediately apparent from the road. Instead, outwash from the canyon has created a large flat area on the left that has a high density of small trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, the exact same description can be made of the canyon immediately north. If you drive to a point where the road comes close to brushing against a water-carved dirt-and-rock wall on your passenger’s side, then you’ve probably just missed the parking area – back up 50 feet. The best advice is to watch your odometer.
Although the roadbed was soft in places it looked as though the road had been recently graded. The grader left large banks of sand on either side of the roadbed. There was no way that my sedan was going to push over these sandbanks so I had to shovel an opening in the bank before I could get my car off the road. Some portions of the wash are made up of loose sand and it would be easy to get a car stuck there – chekc your chosen parking spot carefully. This stretch of road was oriented in a WSW direction, so by departing to the left hand side you will be heading SSE. Once you penetrate into the thicket of brush you should find numerous cattle trails all heading for the mouth of the canyon. Important hint: the brush will hide your car from you on your return, so it pays to take note of high landmarks around your car!
Magee puts the hike at about 12.5 miles. My navigation mis-steps put the total closer to 14 or 15. The climb up to Robledo Peak ascends about 1800 feet. The Lookout ascent adds an additional 800 feet of gain. The only cover comes from the canyon walls. In the middle of the day that is the same thing as no cover at all. There was no sign of water anywhere. From the summits even the Rio Grande looked parched.
Negotiate the brush south of the trail until you hit the cattle trails, and then follow the most SSE-ly of those until canyon walls surround you. In a half a mile, you’ll come to the first of two rock ledges that would be impressive waterfalls in the event of rain. The first fall is about 15 feet high and steeply overhung. Unless you are a competitive rock climber ascend either flank of the canyon until you can find a way past the falls. After another 0.6 miles you will come to the second falls. It is much smaller and a manageable climb for most people. Above this waterfall you will find a hodge-podge of small drainages joining together, presumably funneled by the same rocks that make up the waterfall. It is time to leave the topological certainty of the canyon bottom. Ascend to your left in a westerly direction and meet the mesa at the canyon rim. If you want to follow the canyon on your way back out, make special note of the landmarks around this exit point. To the north is a small hillock on the mesa, which I termed The Nubbin. It makes for one good landmark. (Note that there is a separate gully between you and The Nubbin. This gully includes an impressive cliff/waterfall and is probably not a good way to get back to the trailhead).
To the southwest you will get your first clear view to both Lookout (nearer) and Robledo (further south). Between them are a couple drainages, the second of which has a jeep track. Go south, skirting past the debris fields from Lookout, find the jeep track, and follow it up the major drainage between Lookout and Robledo. About a quarter mile up the road you will see an obvious jeep track coming in from your right, semi-blocked by a rusty metal pole of about 6 foot length. Ascend the new jeep track to the end. At the end you will get views up into three canyons. Take the left-hand canyon. The terrain immediately becomes steeper and there is much rock hopping and small climbing moves to make. In a quarter mile there is a second confluence of drainages, again take the (steep) left hand route. That only goes for a few hundred feet to the third confluence marked by three juniper trees (shade!) in the waterway. This time, go right and follow the bed to the col that marks the head of the canyon.
The map shows that I lost patience with the canyon and tried a direct ascent towards what I presumed was Robledo Peak. What I got was a false summit cloaked with an ocotillo forest. It was a shock to realize that my destination was still a quarter mile away and 100 feet higher. For future reference, go all the way to the col and then make an ascending traverse up the southwest face of Robledo to get to the col on the far side of the false summit. From there it is an easy ascent to the true summit. It is roughly five miles from the trailhead to Robledo summit. The views of Mesilla Valley and Las Cruces to the south and Lookout Mountain to the north are grand. The Rio Grande, however, puts in an awfully limited appearance. I did not see so much as a sparkle in the sunshine to suggest the presence of water.
To get to Lookout Peak return by the approach route back to the junction of jeep roads. On that descent I was surprised to find a climbers tread in the approach canyons, generally about 15 to 30 feet above the canyon floor on the southern wall. The tread is spotty, but there are occasional cairns to look for. It makes the descent far easier than rock hopping. It is about 1.3 miles from the summit back to the metal post marking the junctions between jeep roads.
Back at the junction I turned right to follow the jeep track to Lookout Mt. A more skillfull navigator would have noticed a road coming steeply down from the northern wall of the canyon in a small drainage. I blithely stepped past this landmark and continued along the canyon floor for a while before realizing that I was re-ascending Robledo Peak. Climbing to a nearby knoll I clearly saw the road for Lookout three-quarters of a mile behind me. Stupidity is its own reward.
Getting back to the road leading towards Lookout and following it was no problem. At one point the road turns and drops east into a drainage. Rather than follow the road, it is far easier to leave the road and ascend north-west to gain a gentle ridge that takes you to the microwave antennas on the summit. The road that you left rejoins you at the summit. Including my excursions to Robledo Peak, it was 8.8 miles to from the trailhead to Lookout Peak. Lookout gives you a fine view of Radium Springs and the San Andreas Mountains.
To return to the trailhead follow the road east along the summit ridge until the road departs sharply to the left. Stay on the summit ridge as it gently drops and then rises to a bump in the middle of the ridge. (Further along there is another bump that forms the eastern-most part of the ridge). After scouting, however, I thought that the easiest way down was by a rib descending NNW from the middle bump. This is the route that Magee also recommends. The surface is composed of talus and loose dirt at a steep enough angle that descent is slow.
From up high on the descent it is obvious that the mesa is cut up by a large number of gullies, washes, canyons and swales. Which of these will take you to your car is less obvious. Fortunately, the “Nubbin” is easily identified. But I was sufficiently unsure of my position that I thought I would stay up high on the mesa rather than risk descent into the “wrong” canyon. The mesa is covered with cattle trails that made for fast passage through the withered grass, innumerable cacti and rare juniper. The northernmost extension of the mesa separates into two projections, a north-pointing finger and a north-east pointing finger. I was glad to see that descending from the north finger would be easy. Dropping off of the north finger places you back in the correct canyon (as confirmed by the lower waterfall) and that takes you back to the flats. Head east through a confusion of cattle trails and peer-around to find the car.
I was extremely happy to have a topo map and compass with me on this hike. A GPS with good backup batteries would have been welcome. I packed a gallon of water but felt that it really didn’t leave me with enough surplus. This despite the fact that it probably didn’t get much above 85°F. It would have been a terribly dry night if for some reason I had needed to camp on the mesa. Note that my dawn start was very chilly and I was wearing a fleece vest for the first mile or so. Also, it was a lonesome hike. I didn’t see another bootprint or even any cattle on the entire trip. People in trucks appeared along the access road to the microwave towers as I began my descent off of Lookout, so there were a few others out in this terrain. Not many!
From Robledo Peak you get great views out toward the Cibola National Forest (containing Magdelana Peak, Valles Canyon, Broad Canyon and Pina Peak). It is bone dry, big and empty. But sometimes looks can be deceiving. On the way back to Las Cruces I stopped in Radium Springs at the Rio Grande bridge. There actually is water there. Where the stream was 10 feet across it moved with a visible current, but in those places where it broadened across the sands to 30 feet width is seemed perfectly stagnant. It didn’t look like enough volume to water your lawn, let alone central and south New Mexico.