Marble Canyon is in the Sacramento Mountains above the town of Alamogordo. It divides Ortega Peak to the north from Hershberger Peak to the south. The head of the main canyon begins high on the east face of Hershberger Peak, swiftly wraps to the north face and then tumbles a long ways straight west towards the Tularosa Basin. There are many side canyons that drain into the main canyon. This scramble begins at the mouth of the main canyon but diverts north, leaving the main canyon and ascending side canyons that descend from Ortega Peak. These northerly cuts are designated N1, N2, N3 and N4. (The first three join together and share a single drainage into the main canyon, while N4 connects directly to the main canyon). This report describes a combination of two distinct ascents. The first ascent goes up cut N4 (also called Slab Canyon), climbs over a ridge top and then descends in cut N3. The second ascent is in cut N2. It climbs to a waterfall high in N2 and then descends N2 all the way back to the main canyon.
You can hardly get lost since Alamogordo is often in sight and always directly below you. Still, this is not a beginner’s trip into the mountains. It is off-trail, poking through gnarled terrain, brushy, boulder-blocked, strenuous and steep. Occasional rock climbing moves are needed although the exposure is never very high.
Follow the driving directions for Ortega Canyon South until you are almost at end of East 10th Street in Alamogordo. Just before the fire station at the upper end of East 10th, turn right onto Marble Estates Road. (Marble Estates road turns into Marble Canyon Road, but the road sign on upper end of East 10th Street just says Marble Estates). There is parking on your left just after you turn.
The trailhead we used is a playground parking lot. There is no trail sign and I did not see a water fountain. There are trash cans but no other amenities.
It should possible to drive on Marble Estates Road a few hundred more feet and park in a large, flat, open area south of the paved road. That would leave the playground parking open and also trim off a little of the least interesting part of the hike.
- Start Elevation: 4800 feet
- Top of N4: 6640 feet
- Elevation Gained to top of N4: 1840 feet
- Elevation Gained in N2: 700 feet
- Total Elevation Gained: 2540 feet
- Distance: 5.5 miles round trip
- Maps: The Alamogordo North quadrangle shows the trailhead and canyons described in this report. The local summits (Ortega Peak and Hersherberger Peak) are on the quadrangle to the east, High Rolls.
A note on nomenclature. The main Marble Canyon drainage descends from a peak called Hershberger on Google Maps and Alamo/Hershberger Peak on both USGS and Acme Mapper 2.1 maps. Since this report uses Google Maps to show the route it will stick with Hershberger. The side-canyon designations (N1, N2 etc) are those used by the folks at the Alamogordo Trails meetup group.
Ascend along Marble Estates/Marble Canyon road for about 250 feet and turn right onto a flat, open gravel pad. Cross the pad south and enter a dirt road that will take you, at about 1200 feet from the trailhead, to an enormously wide concrete flume. Ascend along the north edge of the flume and then enter the stream bed above it. Stay in the canyon bed, crossing Marble Canyon Road at three quarters of a mile and enter the mouth of the canyon in under one mile (just past the uppermost home built in the canyon).
At one mile from the trailhead note a major side canyon coming in from the south (called South Marble Canyon). Reportedly, South Canyon is a strenuous and more technical ascent than the N4-N3-N2 outing described here. Staying in the main canyon, the bed begins to incline more steeply and the way becomes occasionally clotted with boulders and tree branches. At 1.3 miles from the trailhead come to the mouth of the drainage on your left that includes cuts N1, N2 and N3. Your descent route will return to this point. There is a prominent cliff band above this mouth called Marble Bluff. It is a useful landmark for taking your position at various points along the scramble.
Go past the mouth of N1, continue boulder hopping and pushing past occasional thickets until you reach the mouth of N4 (Slab Canyon) on your left at 1.6 miles. The entrance is somewhat obscured by a berm-like pile of rock and gravel so keep your eyes open for a cut breaking open the north wall (your left, ascending). It is very easy to walk past it. The N4 entrance is steep, piled with boulders and rather heavily vegetated. Heavy gloves are recommended. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead N4 opens up and the canyon floor becomes a smoothly rounded gully carved into bedrock. Steep in places, the canyon is a pleasure to ascend. The canyon walls are sometimes vertical, there is abundant (often prickly) vegetation. It was our good fortunate that Mike, who lead the scramble, had been up earlier in the week and cleared openings in the thickest brush.
On a mid-winter day the canyon bottom held numerous small pots of water but we saw no wildlife. The presence of a neighboring Airforce Base (Holloman) was advertised by occasional sonic booms. Look over your shoulder because there are great views to the distant San Andreas, the White Sands National Monument, and the gnarled terrain of the Marble Canyon drainage. At 2.2 miles the canyon seems to top out like a box canyon. A gully in the cliff line, slightly obscured by an evergreen tree, offers a way out of the box. N4 actually continues up above this point, but instead of following it we contoured north, crossing a gentle depression and gathering to look down into cut N2. There is a view to the top of a waterfall that will be the end point of the (later) N2 ascent.
Turn down hill and descend east-south-east into the “gentle depression” mentioned above. It slowly acquires walls and firms up as a very small canyon – N3. (You could argue for ravine status – you would have to hike hunched over if you wanted to keep your head below the canyon rim). At about 2.6 miles from the trailhead there is an 10 foot drop that marks the “crux” move for this canyon. Don’t worry as there are abundant foot and hand holds. The terrain is again quite bushy and very prickly. Even with leather gloves on you will want to place your gloves carefully.
At 2.9 miles you will come to the mouth of N3 as it enters into the larger bed of canyon N2. You could continue your descent in the common drainage of N1, N2 and N3 to get back to the main canyon. Or, you can head upwards in cut N2. We chose the latter.
Push upwards in bushy and boulder-strewn terrain. In 100 yards find a much more open canyon bottom. There are numerous places where the bottom is made up by ledge systems (staircases) or smoothly scoured bedrock. One boulder problem had an overhang that made me regret my thick day pack. There is a second problem at a two-step waterfall. The lower step is an 8-ft wall that is conveniently solved by stemming off of a tree growing from the base of the step. The upper step is undercut, so we went to the right (looking uphill) and ascended on loose scree to get around the upper step.
At 3.3 miles from the trailhead the canyon bottom becomes unexpectedly forested (the canyon rim must be shading the trees) and at 3.4 miles you come to a point where a large rock slab leans against the canyon wall. The opening between the wall and slab is large enough to walk through, and you will find yourself in a cool grotto with hanging plants growing on the face of the waterfall that you had previously viewed above N4. The waterfall seems climbable (John in our group did some exploration) but we turned back down canyon at this point. The canyon is a pleasure to descend, as the staircases and scrubbed canyon bed make footing very easy. Enjoy the odd feeling of being able to look about on descent – the views into the Tularosa Basin are grand.
Return to the mouth of N3 at 3.9 miles and descend in the N1/N2/N3 bed. Watch for Marble Bluff to signal the distance to the main canyon. The angle lowers but the amount of debris under foot becomes greater as you return to the main drainage in Marble Canyon at 4.2 miles. Return down the main canyon and remain in the stream bed until striking the concrete flume. At the bottom of the flume turn north (right looking downhill) to return to Marble Estate Road. Reach the trailhead after traveling a total of just 5.5 incredible miles.
The route is short but gains a great deal of altitude. I would not bring young children, out of shape hikers or new hikers on this trip. The waterfall and boulder problems could be hard on dogs.
We enjoyed a surprisingly warm winter’s day (it was expected to hit 61 degrees). I went through a 2 liter Platypus bag and would have finished the 1 liter bottle in my pack had it not been so inconvenient to get out.
The footing is “unnaturally good” in parts of the canyons and the downhill vistas are wide. It would have been useful to have along pair of binoculars on this hike. I could have used a larger zoom on my camera as well.
It would be easy to get misplaced in this jumbled terrain. There is no trail. View lines are often short. Nothing is signed. It can be difficult to know which cut is “N1”. If, for example, you accidentally wandered into South Marble Canyon it would be a while before the error was obvious. A GPS could be handy. Keep an eye out for Marble Bluff. At least the return route is always obvious. My thanks to Mike who both lead the group and who has previously spent a lot of time clearing small passages through the most impenetrable brush.
Interested in getting out into the Sacramento Mountains (or beyond)? Check out the Alamogordo Trails Meetup site.
Mike has detail descriptions of his hikes at ArizonaHiking.com (now a central source for hiking in all the states). Check out his N4 description.
Here is the Usual Internet Caveat: there are several trip reports for “Marble Canyon” that only describe the easiest and lowest section of the main canyon. E.g. MapMyHike. Don’t be fooled! The hike described here gains a great deal more than 150 feet.