This hike is a dry country classic. There are several possible starting points, but all wind up on an old ranch road that is now deeply gullied and rife with sharp ledges. This tread takes you from the bottom of Cookes Canyon, up through the juniper and pine of a high canyon microclimate, onto a brushy ridge and from there to the summit block, defended by a class 2 rock scramble. It is a gain of 3000 feet in five miles. Reward yourself for this great day with a pizza – very good pizza – on the road back into Deming.
The past few years have seen exceptionally harsh drought conditions, which limits plant growth and serves to make the treads more obvious. In places on this hike there were so many tread options that it was hard to know which one to take. Wet years might not be any better as growing vegetation obscures all trails. Bring route finding skills, map and compass. This is not a tread for novice hikers.
I had the luxury, on this trip, of sitting back and letting others do the driving. Unfortunately this means I didn’t take any notes on mileage or road conditions. What follows is chiefly from Google Maps, with a few comments of my own.
- From Mesilla (immediately west of Las Cruces, on Avenida de Mesilla) enter I-10 at exit 14o heading west, towards Deming.
- At 57.3 miles take exit 82A for Silver City/Hatch/US 180. The exit ramp pushes you onto the I10 Frontage Road. Move to the right side as quickly as possible because the turn comes up immediately.
- After 0.1 miles, turn right onto US 180, heading north towards Silver City.
- After 1.4 miles, turn right onto Hatch Highway/NM 26, going northwest towards Hatch.
- After 14.4 miles, turn left onto County Road A019, signed Cookes Canyon Road.
- After 10.7 miles, on very good gravel road, find the junction where the road becomes much rougher and park near the junction. (Beyond this point the road quality degrades considerably).
Alternative: drivers with high clearance vehicles could continue along the Canyon Road for another 2.4 miles. Magee says that you should not continue straight past the trailhead since that will quickly bring you onto private land. Instead, turn left and follow the “rough lower road” described here as the first part of the hike.
There is an immigration checkpoint on I-10 and a second checkpoint on NM26. Both were active when we took this trip.
I didn’t get a photo of this trailhead, my apologies. Watch your odometer and when you get beyond 10 miles on Cookes Canyon Road watch for a road coming in from the left (from the west). There should be a slight rise of land on the right hand (east) side of the road, but enough space on that side of the road for easy parking. There is also a small brown sign with white lettering that says something like “Entering Public Lands”. This sign is on the far corner of the junction, but somewhat obscured by shrubs.
The trailhead has no amenities. The creature pictured to the left was there on the road to greet us as we left the trailhead for the hike. From what Wikipedia says, the narrow black tail rings and the relatively wide white tail rings identify it as a Mohave Rattlesnake.
- Starting Elevation: 5360
- Highest Elevation: 8408
- Net Elevation Gain: 3050 ft
- Distance: 5.0 miles
- Map: USGS OK Canyon
From the trailhead, follow the rough lower road heading WSW towards the mountains and ascend the debris field at the base of Cookes Range. At 0.7 miles the road turns sharply right (north), crosses a wash and begins a mild ascent in the direction of the head of Cookes Canyon. The footing is good, although the road has enough 10-inch thick boulders and jutting rock ledges that only high-clearance vehicles can be recommended. At 1.1 miles from the trailhead, come into a T intersection. Go uphill, to the left. Rule One for this road is to stick with road most taken, Robert Frost not withstanding. Where that rule leaves any ambiguity then Rule Two is to take the road going uphill. Views of Cookes Peak over the nearby foothills are frequent.
After 2.6 miles you will come to a junction where an old ranch road departs from the main road to your left and heads WSW towards the visible summit of Cookes Peak. This junction is marked by a white sign, very much bleached, on which an arrow has been drawn with a magic marker. Also, there are cairns along the left side of the road where the old ranch road diverges. You will have a good view of the east facing cliffs on Cookes Peak from this junction. Immediately below these cliffs lies the canyon you will be following. I haven’t found a formal name for this canyon so this description will just refer to it as Approach Canyon.
Follow the old ranch road as it heads arrow-straight towards the mountains. This road is deeply gullied and not suited for motorized travel. At about 2.8 miles it nears two small foothills that guard the mouth of Approach Canyon. There the road begins to wind a little more. The road becomes a trail bed, but from time to time a two-track road reappears. At about 3.6 miles from the trailhead an obvious roadbed makes a hard left turn and veers away from the canyon. Find and follow a trail that departs from the road and heads directly up Approach Canyon.
The tread stays close to the canyon bottom, with a minor excursion up the right-hand wall to surmount obstacles. Approach Canyon begins to bend to the left, eventually heading SSW. Watch the right hand wall (the west-side wall) for a tall cairn at 3.9 miles that signals the start of a steeper ascent to get to the ridge. The trail climbs above a small rock prominence that arising from the canyon bed at 4.0 miles. Then the trail makes a sharp left hand turn, goes directly across the canyon bed, and climbs up the left (east) wall of Approach canyon to reach the rim.
At 4.3 miles you gain the rim – made up of a ridge descending from the summit. The trail goes across the ridge in a shallow col formed by a small “bump” on this ridgeline. This is the first of two col-and-bump ridges. Continue along the trail and reach the second col-and-bump feature on a larger ridge. It is here, at 4.4 miles, that will find a T-intersection. If you were to go straight across the col then you would be walking into a canyon that descends southwest from the ridge. Instead, take note of this intersection and turn right to ascend a steep ridge directly towards the summit. The trail meets up with and follows a barbed wire fence, generally staying to the left (west) side of the wires.
At 4.7 miles the trail seems to terminate at a large cairn adjacent to the wall of the summit block. The wall has a crack running down it, almost a dihedral. Ascend the crack and, as the slope eases, head up the rock toward what appears to be the summit. It is a false summit, however, just slightly lower than the north summit off to your right. Cross easy and open terrain to reach the true summit.
On this hike the views were obscured by a thick haze. Whether smoke, dust, or humidity, it made the summit photos rather less dramatic than you might otherwise expect. Even the Florida Mountains above nearby Deming were hard to see. However, all other reviews of this hike suggest that the views can be tremendous. Much of New Mexico and northern Mexico are reportedly in sight. On clear winter days you might be able to see into eastern Arizona.
Return the same way that you came in on.
It was a pleasure hiking with the Las Cruces Meetup Hiking Group. Ryan, who lead this hike, is better known on the Appalachian Mountain Trail as “Rayo”. His blog of AMT experiences is a great read. The list of equipment in the “gear room” tab and the videos are particularly worth checking out. After the hike we stopped on NM 26 at a cinderblock building with a rooftop sign that only said “CAFE”. Hung above the door was a banner reading “Forghedaboudit Pizza“. This provoked my skepticism, but I’m happy to admit that my skepticism was utterly misplaced. The thin crust pizza was the best I’ve had in the eleven months since moving to New Mexico. One person reported that their sub was “about as good as [subs] can be”. There was appreciation for the wings as well, with special accolades for the Super Hot offering.
For the very first time there was a “water sack” rather than water bottles in my pack. I tend to avoid opening my pack and digging for bottles when hiking, so there was good potential for improving my consumption. Nearby Deming, NM reportedly reached 101°F, yet I felt remarkably comfortable and consumed about 1 to 1.5 more liters than ordinary. Obviously the system needs to be tested in a wider array of conditions and with increasing wear and tear. Neverless, the first impression was a good one.
There were two sections of trail where navigation could be problematic. First, when rising out of Approach Canyon you arrive on a ridge in a col just above a small bump. About 2-tenths of a mile later you arrive at a T-intersection on a ridge in a col just above a small bump. It would be easy to confuse the two ridges. Just remember that there are two. Second, the summit area is almost entirely bald rock and it is easy to go past the track that leads from the false summit down to the summit block crack. We went slightly too far to the right (looking downhill) and wound up descending a gully that was perfectly navigable but slightly more challenging than the class 2 rock seen on our ascent. It is easy to say “make note of where you exit onto the south summit”, but that transition is gradual and difficult to place on the uniform rock surface. Navigation on the summit is a matter of remembering an unmarked path rather than an unmarked place.
Other bloggers have noted that the private lands surrounding this hike belong to the Hyatt family, who have been exceptionally generous in allowing backcountry users on their land. I believe that the trail described here is entirely on public land, but If you should wander off route then please be certain to close any gates and clear any litter you encounter.