The green highlands of the Lincoln Nation Forest provide some contrast to the severe drought that is everywhere evident in New Mexico. Bonito Lake (a reservoir for Ruidoso) is low but still has water. Bonito Creek is flowing pleasantly. This hike takes you from a meadow area alongside Bonito Creek, up the gentle drainage of Argentina Creek, bumps along a ridge overlooking the Tularosa, and summits on a notable height of land called Nogal Peak. Return by way of Turkey Creek.
That said, last year’s Little Bear Fire is everywhere evident. Entire mountains within the Forest were crisped, although an abundance of fuel for future fires remains. Stage II fire restrictions have been announced for the Smokey Bear, Sacramento and Guadalupe Ranger Districts (those are all the districts that are listed in the Lincoln National Forest website). For backpackers this means no open camp fires until things get a little damper. Petroleum fueled stoves are still being allowed. As you’d expect, fire works, off-roading, use of chainsaws, welding or out-of-doors smoking are also prohibited. There is talk of increasing the threat level to “III”, where stoves would not be permitted. Check the current threat level on the Forest Services website, here.
No complaints, please! You can’t avoid seeing the damage that wildfire has already done. As much as we all enjoy a morning cup of coffee, the stage is set for us to cold-camp in the Lincoln National Forest.
- From I-25, take exit 6 for US Route 70 east towards Alamogordo. As you near Alamogordo you will see the first stoplights that you’ve seen on Rt 70. Go though the first three stoplights.
- At 62.3 miles (immediately past the 3rd stoplight) go right onto exit for Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Road.
- At 4.9 miles turn left onto US 54/US70/Whitesands Blvd
- At 9.6 miles turn left onto US54/St. Francis Drive.
- At 44.6 (more) miles turn right onto US 380-E
- At 7.9 miles turn right onto NM-37-S signed for Ruidoso/Nogal
- At 12.8 miles turn right onto Forest Service Road 107/Bonito Lake Rd
- At 8.8 miles arrive at the Argentina Canyon trailhead at end of road.
There is road work being done on FS road 107. It is paved in portions, but other stretches are dirt. Where the dirt road crosses stream beds it can be very rutted. At one point there is a Y in the road, next to a horse stable signed “Runnels”. Go right to stay on road 107. (Going left will take you to Big Bear Canyon).
The drive up 107 takes you in and out of areas with substantial fire damage. A strong wind could put trees across the road.
Road 107 ends by making a long, narrow loop in a meadow. Park along the loop. There are pit toilets. The trails attract numerous backpackers and horse riders, many of whom camp on the loop. Bonito Creek flows past the loop. Due to low flow rates and heavy usage you will want to filter the water before using it.
The Argentina Canyon Trail (T39) and the Bonita Creek Trail (T37) both leave from the upper end of the loop. There is a prominent sign for the Bonita Creek trail. There may be an equivalent sign for Argentina Creek but if so then I missed it. Instead, stand in front of the Bonita Creek sign and then look to your right for an obvious trail leading up a steep embankment. If you take that trail then you will encounter a sign saying you are on the Argentina Canyon Trail T39 in about 50 yards.
- Start Elevation: 7800 feet
- End Elevation: 9957 feet
- Net Gain: 2157 feet
- Distance: 11.1 miles round trip
- Maps: USGS Nogal
There are numerous possible loops that could be made in this region. This particular hike describes an ascent up Argentina Canyon (T37), then along the Crest Trail (T25), and reaching the high point with a traverse across Nogal Peak (portions off-trail) before returning by way of Turkey Canyon (T40). The Little Bear burn did not seem to reach this part of the Crest Trail, but there are some dismal views of dead forests to the south. The Turkey Canyon descent was the leg of this trip with the most fire-killed trees.
Argentina Canyon ascends a very shallow grade and is a good way to warm up car-stiffened legs. Argentina Creek itself seemed dry. The terrain benches-and-shelves, with grassy meadows appearing on the shelves. About 1.6 miles from the trailhead you will encounter a crossover trail, T38. Apparently that would let you return to the trailhead by way of Bonita Creek.
At 2.3 miles trail T37 struggles over a rock ledge just below a corral to a junction with the Clear Water Trail. Argentina Spring is between the ledge and the corral. Currently the spring is a shallow hole containing a small amount of greenish-brown water. This is the only water that I saw near the crest and from its appearance I can’t recommend it. Bring your own!
At this point you could turn right and follow the Clear Water Trail on the south side of the ridge or you could turn left to climb above the corral and intersect the Crest Trail (T25) in a nearby grassy col. I chose the latter. Turn right onto the Crest Trail and follow as it winds into gullies and contours around the crest’s high points. There are enormous views out into the northern Tularosa Basin. There must be nearby water sources since I encountered two herds of elk along the crest. Watch for horned toads in the shadow of trailside rocks.
Just before the Crest Trail rejoins the Clear Water Trail you will get your first view of Nogal Peak. From a distance it looks open and accessible. There is supposed to be a spring at the junction with Clear Water Trail, but the spring was either dry or hidden by the vegetation on this visit. The Crest Trail drops down into Turkey Canyon at 4 miles where there is another corral and three horse troughs. In other years water might be expected at Turkey Spring. This year there was only dust. Climb steeply out of Turkey Canyon and regain views of Nogal Peak. Note that the open summit is surrounded by a dense haze of grey vegetation.
The Crest Trail goes past a rapid succession of junctions (Skull Canyon Trail to the south and T33 to the north at 4.7 miles and then T54 leading off to the northern drainages at 4.8 miles). I followed the T54 trail because it rose into the col immediately west of Nogal. From the col the lower reaches of the summit seemed grassy. Unexpectedly, there was no clear trail to the summit from the col. Spotting a lone pine about half way up, I left the col and headed across the grassland towards that pine.
Above the pine, however, a peculiar and untracked forest of small scrub oak appears. Still without leaves, these trees form the “grey haze” seen from distant vantages. These oaks typically rise to about chest-height, although there are stands that are eight to ten feet tall and numerous knee-high saplings as well. All sizes are well contrived for preventing movement. It isn’t as bad as climbing past slide alder, but the going is very slow. The border of each oak thicket tends to be populated with thorn bushes. Trying to stay in the grassy areas I wound up traversing towards the southern side of Nogal (shown on the map as an orange line). There you do get good views of the ski trails on Lookout Peak and Sierra Blanca’s summit. Dense thickets eventually forced me back towards the col. The only alternative was to try ascending straight up from the pine above the col, toward a prominent rock outcrop at 5.2 miles from the trailhead (the mileage omits the traverse into the southern thickets). Climbing to the outcrop entailed bushwhacking past oak and thorn on animal trails that inevitably disappeared into steep rock or impenetrable vegetation. The complete absence of a trail was a surprise.
Above the rock outcropping the grasses reappear. It is an easy and brief ramble to the summit at 5.3 miles from the trailhead. There is a tall summit cairn that has attracted the eager attention of numerous flies. I could not say why. Next to the cairn is an equally mysterious golf club. Setting aside the disquiet caused by the terrible fire damage, the views are great. There is a huge ridge to the distant northeast, the Capitan Mountains, which looks challenging. Immediately surrounding Nogal Peak are regions of dark forest nested with regions of open parklands. There are no visible cacti! In the middle of the North Tularosa Basin there is a dark region that I thought might be vegetation – could there be an oasis out there? Alas, no. Apparently that region is “malpais” – terrain formed by 1500 year old lava flows.
On the eastern side of the summit there is a trail (!) that makes penetrating the thickets easy, even if the tread is directed away from the trailhead. Follow that trail as it crosses several small knobs and enters a wooded col. In the woods the trail splits, go right to descend out of the col and drop easterly until it joins the Crest Trail at 6.1 miles. Turn right onto the Crest Trail and begin hiking the extra mile or so that is the price for avoiding those thickets.
Back at Turkey Spring (8.1 miles), turn downhill and follow another gently inclined canyon as it pours southwest towards FS road 107. Although Turkey Spring is dry, other water sources begin to add up and in places water is flowing in the canyon. There are several mines along the creek and a degraded mining-road makes up the lower reaches of the trail. (Mining roads tend to be cut into the hillside well above the threatening waters of the canyon bottom. The steep hillside cut is forever dropping loose rock onto the tread). The mine entrances are open – with the attendant risks of open shafts and rockfall. At 10.6 miles you come to the intersection with FS road 107, turn right and ascend back to the trailhead.
There is little euphoria in scraping past thorn-bushes and struggling through scrub oaks. More experienced navigators will probably avoid the ascent of the western side of Nogal and use the trail on the eastern side.
Due to fire damage hikers are being encouraged to use extra caution. I spent as little time as possible on the summit because of forecasts for high winds. Given how the Camry got blown about on US 54 late that afternoon, I was happy to be away from those stands of burned timber. Consider putting a saw into your vehicle. If a small tree falls on the road you might be able to save yourself hours waiting for the road to reopen. Remember this problem when selecting a parking spot or a camping site.
Internet chatter suggests that Lincoln National Forest could be closed in the near future. If you want to do this trip in 2013 then it might help to do it soon. It helps if you take a moment to look at the US Drought Monitor for New Mexico. That link is dynamic, so what you see will depend on when you click. At this writing, 45% of the state is listed as being in “Exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe of all the ratings. It is hard to miss the evidence of stress in the forest. I think that I’ll be doing cold camping until it rains again. Let’s hope that the New Mexico monsoon delivers a lot of water and not too much lightening – soon. You may want to check the Lincoln National Forest website before setting off for the forest.
I blew through three liters of water on this late May day and was wishing for more. In the town of Carrizozo (the name is reportedly derived from the Spanish term “carrizo”, meaning reed grass) the Carrizozo Market was selling slices of watermelon. It was an exact match to a need for water and calories. The Market is just reopening after a tornado took its roof. Surprisingly it did not yet have a soda cooler. As a consequence I wound up at the Tuli Freeze in the town of Tularosa, further down US 54. Although not normally a fan of soft ice cream I do admit that it had a very distinct cooling effect – very satisfying on a warm afternoon.