This is a bittersweet hike, combining a closeup look at the aftereffects of a fire (probably the “Peppin Fire” of 2004) with great views, abundant wildlife and a trail that has seen a great deal of care in its design and execution. The trail could use some new TLC because brush, grass, logs and rockfall are beginning to obscure the tread.
- From I25 in Las Cruces, take Exit 6 east towards Alamogordo on US 70. (As US 70 enters Alamogordo you will begin to encounter stoplights on the road. You want to go past the first three stoplights).
- After 62.3 miles, immediately past the third stoplight, to right onto the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, turn left (north) onto the Relief Route.
- After 4.9 miles, turn left onto US 54/70
- After 9.6 (more) miles, turn left (north) onto US 54.
- After 44.6 (more) miles, turn right (east) onto US 380.
- After 19.7 miles, in the town of Capitan NM, turn left onto NM 246. This road takes a sharp right hand turn at 8.9 miles, stay on NM 246.
- After 32.0 miles, about 100 feet past a pair of signs reading “Roswell 53” and “Boy Scout Mountain ->”, turn right onto road 130. There will be a sign reading “130” about 50 feet down the road.
- After 3.9 miles, come to the signed trailhead. There is a gate at this point in the road, usually locked, indicating that the road beyond this point is on private property. There is quite a lot of parking space off the main road on some woods roads coming in on your right.
Road 130 was in pretty good shape for the first 1.9 miles – there is some washboarding and a few small gullies developing. After a ranch gate at 1.9 miles the quality of the surface degrades markedly. Especially, there are numerous fist-sized rocks on the road surface. Family sedans, such as the mighty Camry, can make the drive but only slowly.
- Starting Elevation: 6280 feet
- Highest Point: 10,083 feet
- Net Elevation Gain: 3800 feet
- Distance: 5.9 miles one way
- Maps: USGS Arroyo Serrano West, USGS Arabella, NM and USGS Capitan Peak.
The map above represents my best efforts to detect the trail from satellite imagery on Google Maps. The lower reaches of the trail are accurately mapped, but the switchbacks just below the summit are not – there is some creative cartography going on there (be warned). Although the trail was sometimes difficult to find in satellite images, it was generally easy to follow on the ground.
While hiking I tried to compare the trail depicted on the USGS maps against the reality on the ground. The task was a unusually challenging since the trail goes directly south right along the edges of the maps for Capitan Peak and Arabella NM. USGS maps are often very good, but in this case there were several large switchbacks that are not well represented on the map.
The trail parallels Road 130 as it gently rises into a pretty hanging valley where there are a number of private homes. Trending south, it rises to a rib above the last home (roofless, apparently victim to the fire) in a half mile. The trail crosses the signed border with the Capitan Mountains Wilderness at 0.8 miles. The first of many switchbacks appears and views to a solitary spire named Chimney Rock begin.
At a little over a mile the trail comes to the confluence of two canyons and chooses the steeper and narrower chute on the right. Switchbacking athletically, the tread again encounters a confluence and again chooses the right-hand chute at 1.3 miles. The path rises close to the top of the canyon’s rocky western wall, over which you will see an isolated and symmetric bell-shaped peak. This fire denuded mountain is not Capitan Peak, in spite of its apparent solitude. (It may be the 7880 foot peak due west of the trail). The trail then turns east for a series of switchbacks that, at 2.4 miles, will deliver you to the top of the ridge that forms the eastern wall.
The trail ascends on the ridge top. As the tread contours around around a small rise you will see your first view of Capitan Peak. The ridge rises towards the visible col between Capitan Peak and its eastern neighbor Sunset Peak, although the trail departs the ridge before getting to this col.
At 3.5 miles, enter a dense pocket forest of Douglas firs and begin to pull away from the ridge. At the end of this stretch of fire-protected evergreens enter a forest of silver deadwood. At the base of the snags is a dense undergrowth of young aspen trees, each about an inch in diameter and almost 10 feet tall.
At 4.2 miles begin a series of long switchbacks on the north face of Captain Peak. Short stretches of the tread are becoming obscured by brush, rockfall and grass, you may have to do a little scouting. The trail crosses talus fields, burned regions and pockets of healthy trees. If you come to a boulder field and there is no obvious tread, then look for a steep switchback corner and a tread rising above and behind you.
The trail doesn’t reach to the summit of Capitan Peak. Instead, at 5.2 miles (roughly at 9800 feet), the trail performs a final traverse across the north face and then continues to follow the contour across the northwest face. There is a great deal of deadfall on this stretch. At the end of the northwest face the trail nears a ridge descending from the summit towards the southwest. The tread follows this new ridge away from the summit. Take matters into your own hands and leave the trail, ascending steeply to the height of the ridge where you will find a barbed wire fence. Follow the fence uphill towards the summit. Where the fence ends (near a wooden structure with a metal roof) continue in open terrain to the summit. There is a cairn and an unusual rock structure that has a fire-pit surrounded by a rock wall. I didn’t find a summit register.
Return the way you came.
Road 130 crosses the Lowe property with cattle guards at each end (there is no need to open or close gates). It is generous of the Lowes to provide a right-of-way, please respect their posted request to avoid leaving trash or taking wood.
Similarly, the low end of the trail passes quite close to several homes in the upper valley. It seems certain that they would prefer not to be awoken by the chatter and clatter of hikers getting an early start. Judging from the fire damage in the valley, these folks have enough to worry about.
On this trail I heard coyotes, saw a doe and fawn, and inadvertently spooked a black bear within 200 feet of the summit. The bear took off, making a huge racket as it ran through the woods. Bruins are impressively speedy. It caused me to make a little more noise as I finished up the hike.
More troubling, on this first weekend of July (monsoon season) I found a small line of cumulus clouds waiting for me on the south side of the Capitan Mountains. One was releasing a lot of rain and it was getting bigger and bigger. It didn’t seem fair that the storm should aim for me, especially since there was no wind to speak of at the summit. So I took a fast set of photos and ran, hoping to get off of the ridge-lines before the storm struck. Those storms are almost as fast as black bears. Large, cold drops started striking as I returned to the small forest of Douglas firs. I dropped off the ridge-line and entered the forest, tying my tarp to a burned stump and a small sapling. It was pouring before I finished, but the tarp kept the rain off during the next 15 minutes as the storm passed. The interval between seeing a lightening strike and hearing the thunder shortened to much less than a second – lightening was hitting the ridge above me. On the whole, I would recommend not getting caught by thunderstorms in these mountains. It was good to have rain gear in the pack as the shrubs along the trail were all soaking wet and the temperatures fell substantially.
This trail rises 3800 feet in six miles. If you want to introduce newcomers to the joys of hiking, this one may be too demanding.
- Summit Post
- Current Stage II Fire Restrictions (hopefully, out of date soon).
- Backpacker Magazine
- Breadcrumbs site (slightly different route, doesn’t go to top)