Overview:

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View from col atop Mars Canyon. Chimney rock is the volcanic throat near middle-center. Shark’s Tooth is (I think) the high point on the left.

Quite a bit of this hike is off trail, there are climbing moves to be contemplated, the trail follows a loop and there is a genuine navigation problem. This is a trail that awards situational awareness! It nicely boxes the Achenback Canyon hike. The hike begins by ascending Mars Canyon to the north of Achenback, turns south along the ridge line that forms the eastern extremity of Achenback, and returns by way of Ladera Canyon to the south of Achenback. The navigation problem lies with finding the right place to leave Ladera and traverse Achenback so as to get back to the trailhead.

Driving Instructions:

  • From I25 take Exit 1 to University Av.
  • At the end of the ramp, turn east (toward the prominent Organ Mountains and Mt A) on University Av.
  • After 4.8 miles, turn right (south) onto Soledad Canyon Road.
  • After 0.6 miles, make a 90° left turn as Soledad Road lurches east.
  • After 3.4 more miles, turn right (south) onto Ladera Road.
  • After 0.5 miles you will pass three large dumpsters on your left. Just past the dumpsters, turn left onto a primative road towards the mountains. This year this road is rocky and gullied.
  • After 0.2 miles (if your vehicle can make it) park in the broad parking area at about 0.2 miles.

As on the trip into Achenback Canyon, my soft-suspended Camry did not make it the full 0.2 miles to the trailhead. Instead, I parked alongside the approach road (about a tenth of a mile from the trailhead).

Trailhead:

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View from trailhead to Organ Mountains. Mars canyon is the deeply shaded canyon above the person in the center.

The trailhead is a flat gravel area with room for at least a dozen cars. There are no amenities.

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Data

  • Map: USGS Organ Peak
  • Starting Elevation: 5140 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 6400 feet
  • Net Gain: 1400 feet (cumulative gain from bumps on ridge line is higher)
  • Distance: 5.3 miles

Hike:

If you stand in the trailhead and look towards the mountains you will see a deeply carved canyon to your left (just a little north of east). This is Mars Canyon. Reportedly, an executive at the Mars Corporation had a kid at NMSU and visited Las Cruces. They liked the area well enough to buy some property at the foot of the canyon and have opened the approach to the canyon on the condition that it be kept up. It has, there was no litter at all. Please help keep this resource open!

Approaching the mouth of the Mars Canyon

Approaching the north wall of Mars Canyon

There is a gravel road leaving from the north side of the parking lot toward the canyon. In about a quarter mile, go through a fence and approach the northern canyon wall. As you approach look up to the ridge line above the canyon and you will see a tiny, lone tree outlined against the sky. That tree is where you are heading. Enter the canyon. At this point the road becomes a trail, the trail then becomes a boot beaten tread and the tread then becomes a web of faint hopes and aspirations. There are cairns (rock piles) to help show the way, but as you go higher it becomes obvious that the best way is simply to stick to the stream bed in Mars Canyon.

Ascending Mars Canyon streambed

Ascending Mars Canyon streambed

This stream bed is mostly a forgiving place, but there is one short pitch that would require some climbing moves up to a chockstone. It can be avoided by exiting from the canyon bed to the left (looking uphill), about 20 feet before the pitch. That will take you on a steep hike to a small horn of rock, after which you can descend back into the bed above the chockstone.

In a little more than a mile from the trailhead the grade eases and you reach a col on the ridge line. You will be near that tree. To the east of the col you can see into Soledad Canyon. There is a good view of Chimney Rock and (to the northeast) the slopes of Sharks Tooth. Looking down you can see Soledad Canyon Road. From this col, make a short but steep ascent on the south side of the col.

Hikers in col above Mars Canyon

Hikers in col above Mars Canyon

Before reaching the top of this small prominence, the trail leaves the ridge and contours below the ridge top. Soon, the trail disappears completely. Continue southwest, parallel to Soledad Canyon road below and the ridge top above. In just less than half a mile the ridge line will turn a bit north of east, effectively pushing you out in to Soledad Canyon. Rise up over the ridge and drop down to the south. That will place you on the ridge that makes up the eastern most portion of Achenback Canyon.

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Gully carved into stone on gently inclined portion of ridge line.

At this point you get a short break while walking along a nearly flat and completely open ridge line. You can see east into the military-only section of Soledad Canyon and southwest into both Achenback and Ladera canyons. All too soon the terrain rises and, at about 2.5 miles from the trailhead reaches another ridge line prominence. Again, there is no actual trail here and our group stayed below the ridge top on the Soledad canyon side.

Descending from col above Ladera Canyon

Descending from col above Ladera Canyon

At about 2.8 miles reach a col that is crossed by an honest-to-goodness trail. A sign on the col warns that eastbound hikers are about to enter an artillery range. Head back to the car, to the west. Be warned, however, that you are entering Ladera Canyon and not Achenback. The most direct route to the car requires that you eventually pop over the small rise of land that separates these two canyons.

Hikers in arroyo in Ladera Canyon

Hikers in arroyo in Ladera Canyon

Continue downhill (Ladera means “hillside” in Spanish). The trail goes across several bushy drainages, crossing grassy flats and steeps, eventually making a sharp drop of about four feet over a bank and into an arroyo. (It appears from Google Maps that a trail resumes on the south side of the wash, however we simply kept to the bed of the wash as it tends west-south-west towards Mesilla Valley). After a half mile in the wash bottom, watch carefully for a trail coming in from the right. This will take you north, over that small height of land that divides Ladera and Archenback canyon. Near the bottom of Archenback the trail traverses an old earthen dam, presumably used at one time to hold water for livestock.

The trail stays on the northern side of the streamed, and reaches the Achenback Canyon waterfall (dry this time of year) in less than 0.4 miles. Snap some photos, and continue on the trail as it descends into the lower reaches of the canyon and back to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author near the top of Mars Canyon

Author near the top of Mars Canyon

This hike was arranged through the Jornada Hiking Club (a.k.a the Las Cruces Hiking Meetup). My thanks to Carol for leading us through beautiful terrain.

As always in the Organ Mountains, you will need to bring your water. In November my 3L supply was ample. There was one small source of open water, but it was inundated with insect life. It would be easy to miss and you probably wouldn’t want to use it unless you really had no alternatives. We had a mild day, but I suspect that any sort of breeze could make a wintertime hike uncomfortably chilly on those ridge lines.

This would be a great place to bring someone to practice navigation skills.  The ascent up Mars canyon is steep and long enough to be challenging, but not out of reach even for fairly young hikers. Like the hike straight up into Achenback, this makes a great training hike.

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