Last September I got confused by the array of barbed wire fences near the mouth of Ortega Canyon, thinking that they meant to keep me out. I wound up taking the “A-Trail” up to Ortega Peak instead. This time, hiking with local experts, we threaded our way past the fences, ascended a beautiful canyon, exited near the canyon top and used the A-Trail for the short distance remaining to get to the summit. From the summit of Ortega the views are great: north to Sierra Blanca, east to the Sacramento crest, south over Marble Canyon to Hurshburger Peak, and west to the Tularosa Basin. Looking west we could see sand being wind-blasted into a thick haze above White Sands National Monument. The trail described here is a loop, ascending the canyon and returning by way of the A-Trail.
- From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I25 North
- After 4.3 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East
- After 62.3 more miles (and after the 3rd traffic light as you enter Alamogordo) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route
- After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, go left onto the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route
- After 2.0 miles (at a light) go right onto E 10th Street.
- After 3.1 miles E 10th Street ends. The road makes a sharp left and becomes Paiute Trail. Despite its name, Paiute Trail is a paved road.
- After 0.2 miles, pull over to the (high) curb on the right and park car.
There is no trailhead in the normal sense. You park at the curbside of a paved road that has suburban-style housing on the downhill side and open terrain rising towards the Sacramento Mountains crest on the uphill side. We parked close to the intersection of Sunny Circle Ave and Paiute Drive.
- Start Elevation: 4600 feet
- End Elevation: 7700 (Ortega Peak summit)
- Net Gain: 3100 feet
- Distance: 7.4 miles round trip
- Maps: the canyons described here lie entirely within the Alamogordo North quadrangle. However, the summit block of Ortega Peak is on quadrangle just to the east, the High Rolls quadrangle. The latter may be useful since it identifies many of the peaks you’ll see just to the east of the summit.
Head north along the (paved) Paiute Trail until you see a regular trail paralleling the road on the uphill side, about 10 feet away from the road. Follow this trail north for about 1500 feet until it intersects Thunder Road (also paved). Go right and follow the road westward. At half a mile from the trailhead the road passes beneath a big cylindrical tank (a city water tank, presumably). Just past the tank, depart the road uphill and enter what appears to be a stream bed. This is the mouth of Ortega Canyon. Soon you will encounter a barbed wire fence across the canyon bed. On this date the fence had been flattened to the ground and was trivial to step over. (Last year it was better suspended, however). The next barbed wire fence, less than 100 feet up from the first, was still erect. Fortunately, there were openings cut into the fence to admit passage of canyoneers. The land is not “signed”, meaning there aren’t any “No Trespassing” or “Posted” signs. This is generous of the homeowners whose homes are immediately above the canyon bed. Please help keep the terrain open to the public by respecting their privacy.
The lower part of the canyon is comprised of boulder hopping and occasional passages over a few feet of bed rock. The terrain on either side modulates from sloping ravine sides to vertical rock walls. The bed bobs and weaves, presumably threading between the harder rock formations, and ascends at a moderate rate. Occasional rock walls and bedrock staircases appear, giving hints of things to come. On this outing an interesting feature was the number of tarantulas frozen to the canyon floor. We must have passed half a dozen, including one stuck to a small ice puddle.
At 1.2 miles from the trailhead you will come to a confluence of canyons, take the one on the left. This starts a northerly swing and then changes its mind, trending easterly towards the crest. At about 1.4 miles from the trailhead arrive at the lower waterfall, perhaps 25 feet tall. It seems climbable, and in fact a couple of our party scrambled to a ledge half way up the rock face. With a large party unequipped for climbing we turned back down the canyon for a few hundred feet.
Note on the map – I did not get a GPS reading for the waterfall. The location mapped for this lower waterfall is merely guesswork. You’ll know when you get there when you hit the first feature of the canyon that involves climbing moves with real exposure.
Go back down-canyon from the base of the waterfall for about 200 feet. Reach a spot where the canyon is curving to your left and a shallow cut comes in on the northern side (right). Look carefully at the north wall for a steep and faint path leading up to the canyon rim. On the rim there isn’t any tread to follow. Just stay close to the rim and ascend 300 to 500 feet. You are looking for a break in the rim wall that will let you descend back into the canyon once you have ascended past the lower waterfall. The descent we chose was opened on the rim by a narrow, 6-foot tall, chute (almost a chimney) in the rocky rim-top. That leaves you on dirt and talus at a fairly high angle, but a careful descent will take you to a more gently sloped, almost shelf-like feature that descends towards the east (up canyon). After less than 100 feet, find a slight gully and descend to the canyon bed.
This is the middle canyon, the scenic high-point of the hike. The canyon bed is flat bedrock, the walls are vertical. A brief descent will take you to the top of the waterfall for a look over its vertiginous edge. Then turn and ascend (no boulder-hopping here) watching the canyon walls rise above you. There are several places with an almost sidewalk-like feel. There is a tendency to speed along this miraculously open and thorn-free territory. Fight that tendency!
At about 2.3 miles from the trailhead reach the upper waterfall. One of our party climbed up and past it. Most of us used a low angle exit, found by ascending the waterfall about six to eight feet and then pushing through the brush on the south side (to your right on ascent). The side of the canyon is sheltered from the sun and on this day retained quite a lot of old snow. Footing can become a little tricky. Contour slowly upwards and reach the top of a ridge dividing the main canyon from a tributary canyon at 2.5 miles. Most of our party decided to descend the tributary canyon that lies just to the south of the rim (called “Jim’s Cut”). Others chose to head for Ortega Peak.
To reach the peak, ascend Jim’s Cut. At the upper reaches of the cut the terrain became brushy and swale-like. Cross the swale heading south and on the next rib-top join to the A-Trail (also known as T119) at 2.8 miles. The trail is practically a road due to ATV use. It is hard to miss. The trail ascends into upland forest at about 3.0 miles. As the slope eases it joins with another ATV trail at 3.4 miles. On descent you will want to remember to go left, on the southerly branch. Here the A-trail becomes almost level as it contours around the summit block of Ortega Peak.
Hike through open, cattle-friendly terrain, passing a water tank and watching for ATVs. The trail curves to the northeast and then swings back to a little south-of-east (a long gentle right-hand turn). Look for a climber’s tread on the uphill side of the trail. It is a little obscure, leaving the road straight into the trees on a sandy bank. This climber’s tread takes you through trees, switchbacking in places and heading straight up the hill in others until you reach a prominent rocky outcrop just below the summit. Leave the tread and ascend through the broken outcrop directly towards the summit at 3.9 miles. A summit register is contained inside an ammo box at the top.
Views are great towards Sierra Blanca (large swarths of its southern exposure were snow-free, hopefully the slopes at Apache Ski Resort have retained their cover better). It was breezy on Ortega Summit, but the winds must have been howling out on the Tularosa Basin. Gypsum granuals were being whipped into a haze extending from White Sands to the north as far as you could see. It was hard to see much of the San Andreas. There are intriguing views into the forested uplands east of the summit, leading to the true crest of the Sacramentos.
Return by way of the A-Trail, remember to take the left hand trail where the ATV tracks diverge. As you near the trailhead watch for a spot where the main tread takes a hard turn to the right (north). It is worth staying on the lesser branch trail that heads west, back towards the cars.
This hike was arranged by the folks at the Alamogordo Trails meet-up group. My thanks to Michal for sharing his considerable expertise in the canyon lands above the town of Alamogordo and to the co-organizer Jim who lead to the summit.
In the winter it can be hard to find the motivation to stay in shape. This canyon was tailor-made to give you a day with a good chunk of altitude gain and some fine canyoneering. It is markedly different from the Organ Mountains adjacent to Las Cruces.
The snow and ice (not to mention the frozen tarantulas) speak to the night-time temperatures on Ortega Peak in winter. It would seem advisable to carry some warm gear with you. It was cold enough on the peak, at mid-day, that standing in the breeze without a coat was pretty chilling.
Mike describes numerous hikes in detail on ArizonaHike.com. It sounds great. Check out the “imike” listings. In particular, there is a good description of “Jim’s Cut“, the side canyon that most of our group used as a descent route.
Nice photos of the canyon, particularly of the lower waterfall, can be found at Jim Harris photography.
The Wikipedia article on the Sacramento Mountains says that the range is “a wide east-dipping fault block, made up entirely of limestone”. I mention this because it seems to explain why fossils are relatively easy to find on this trail. A sample of what came to light is shown in the photo to the right. The array-of-disks structure in the rock is a fossilized instance of a crinoid stem.