The head of Marble Canyon South arises close to the summit of Hershberger Peak and descends the west face towards Alamogordo, NM. The ascent of Marble Canyon South is entirely off-trail and physically demanding, markedly more so than last week’s description of routes off of the main canyon. Beginning hikers, the strongly acrophobic and those who dread feeling lost should look elsewhere for an enjoyable outdoors stroll. That said, there is much to induce a curious canyoneer to venture up onto the deeply carved westerly face in the Sacramento Mountains. There is a brief section of slot canyon, steep stretches of scrubbed bedrock, overhanging canyon walls, dry waterfalls and an ascent to a sky-island forest of pinyon pine, alligator juniper and rocky mountain juniper. There is an option to ascend to Hershberger summit (and possibly descend by the “A Trail“), but on this date we opted to descend by way of the The Mesa and the Goat Springs Trail. On the descent you have great views south to the promising terrain dominated by The Roundup Grounds mesa, Alamo Canyon and Caballero Canyon.
The drive to Marble Canyon South is exactly the same as the drive to Marble Canyon N3-N4 and N2.
The trailhead is a parking lot for a playground/park in Alamogordo. Some of our group parked a little further along Marble Estates Road, which seems advisable. Drive 250 feet on Marble Estates and turn right onto a large, level gravel pad with room for many cars. Looking south you will see a dirt road leading from the gravel pad to a second gravel pad at the mouth of Marble Canyon. Note that the second gravel pad is signed for Alamogordo City vehicles only.
- Starting Elevation: 4800 feet
- Highest Elevation: 7300 feet
- Net Elevation Gain: 2500 feet
- Distance: 8.1 miles
- Maps: Most of the hike is shown near the bottom edge of the USGS Alamogordo North quadrangle. A small part of the descent along rib descending from Hershberger Peak to The Mesa lies on the top edge of the Alamogordo South quadrangle (which is also very handy for identifying southerly features like Alamo Canyon). If you are going to summit Hershberger and try to descend by way of the A-Trail then you will also want the map to the east, the High Rolls quadrangle.
From the playground parking lot follow Marble Estates Road as it goes briefly south and swings east. In about 250 feet from the trailhead there will be a large gravel pad to your right (south). Cross the pad and pick up a dirt road at the far end. The road will take you to a second gravel pad less than a quarter mile from the trailhead. (This is the site signed for official Alamogordo vehicles only). At the south end of the pad, about a quarter mile from the trailhead, is a large concrete flume set into the stream bed of Marble Canyon. Ascend along the edge of the flume and then drop into the bed of Marble Canyon.
Follow Marble Canyon into the mountains, crossing a dirt driveway that crosses the canyon above the flume and then upper Marble Canyon Road at three-quarters of a mile. Take special note of the canyon walls above your head to the south (to your right, headed up hill) as sticking too close to the northern wall might cause you to miss the mouth of Marble Canyon South. The floor of the canyon is nearly level here and composed of loose gravel and occasional piles of boulders. It is easy going (for now). At 0.9 miles pass the last house on Marble Canyon Road and begin traversing below the old marble mine. Large blocks of cut stone are scattered all the way to the canyon bed. At 1.0 miles, reach the mouth of South Marble Canyon.
Head south (right) into Marble Canyon South following the canyon bed as it traverses below tall canyon walls. The footing remains gravelly, although there are a few steps that require a climbing move or two. Often there are paths around these blockages, most often to the bank on the west side (right hand) of the canyon bed. At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, pass the mouth of a side canyon (I don’t know its name). It gets little attention since the mouth of the brief slot canyon is only 200 feet further upstream. There was a trifle of water running in the bottom of the slots, surprising in so dry a set of years. Clamber through this terrain – all too quickly, maybe 150 feet – and resume the upward tread on loose gravel.
At 1.9 miles the canyon turns sharply to the east, aimed more directly uphill. At 2.0 miles come to a confluence of canyons. The one of the left (to the north of the other) is called “North Spur, Marble Canyon South”. It also climbs steeply up the west face of Hershberger Peak. Stay right, taking the more southerly of the branches to remain in South Marble Canyon. The canyon acquires a tighter feel, partly due to the smaller flow of water above the other mouths, partly due to the increasing incline of the bed and much due to the increasingly close canyon walls.
As you climb higher the floor of the canyon tends to become scrubbed bedrock and the climbing problems become more demanding. As before, each of these can be skirted by retreating down-canyon for a dozen (or so) feet and looking for faint treads that climb the debris slopes at the base of the canyon walls. Rock in the canyon can be rotten. That is, it shows a tendency to break away under pressure. Test your hand holds and foot holds. Most of the climbing problems arise where the canyon walls have pinched together and trapped boulders or where abrasion-resistant strata have produced waterfalls.
There are two places where the route becomes notably ambiguous. At 2.7 miles from the trailhead a hint of a forest appears. The alligator juniper and pinion pine are beautiful but they obscure views to the surrounding terrain. Watch that you stay left in the brush-obscured canyon bed rather than diverting upwards in a steep but relatively open side cut coming down from the south rim. At 3.0 miles, in an expanse of very steep but open bedrock, come to the reverse problem. A very appealing cut, floored with scrubbed bedrock, comes down from the north ridge and appears to be the obvious route for Marble Canyon South. It isn’t. Turn your eyes right, to what appears to be a forested cut coming down from the south canyon rim. That is the actual bed. Up there the canyon is rising aggressively.
Up and up and steeply up! There is one particular waterfall in this area that is climbable (one of our party ascended directly up the right-side of the face) but is also somewhat rotten and notably exposed. Look for a faint tread up the north (left) side to get get around the waterfall if your climbing skills are not of that caliber. At the top of the fall, turn back and enjoy the view (only feebly captured on the photo to the left). From US 70 in Alamogordo you could not have known that this canyon wonderland existed on the bland face of Hershberger Peak.
Finally, at 3.3 miles, enter an amphitheater beneath tall and overhanging rock. This is the high point in the canyon bed. Find shade beneath the evergreens that thrive in the amphitheater, have lunch and admire the distant San Andreas Mountains across the broad Tularosa Basin. The cliff band above your head extends way across the west face of Hershberger and appears to give rise to the amphitheater above the North Branch, Marble Canyon South.
Once rested, traverse below the overhanging rock towards the south wall of the canyon. (To the right, looking up hill). Climb the south wall on loose dirt amid well spaced trees in the lowest reaches of the Lincoln National Forest. Resist the temptation to descend towards The Mesa below you as there are some cliff bands between you and the mesa. Maintain a steeply rising traverse, and at 3.7 miles hit the fall line of the rib that descends from Hershberger Peak to The Mesa. Look west for a clear view of the terrain that will take you down to The Mesa. Look north into depths of Marble Canyon and marvel at the ascent you have just made. Look south into the rugged terrain of Alamo Canyon and it’s innumerable tributaries.
Descend to The Mesa at 5.3 miles and follow Goat Springs Trail above the northern cliffs to a gully that cuts the cliff bands. Follow Goat Springs Trail as it descends this gully and then turns west to traverse below the cliff bands that support The Mesa. At 6.5 miles the trail reaches upper Goat Springs (which was flowing) and then descends into the damp bed of Goat Springs Canyon. The trail makes a brief climb to the south rim of the canyon and leads to a trail junction just below a large home at 6.9 miles. Go left to descend into the spectacular lower reaches of Goat Springs Canyon or go right for a more direct return to the trailhead. We opted for Goat Springs Canyon.
At 7.25 miles strike a dirt road and go right, downhill towards the Alamogordo aqueduct. Follow the road beside the concrete aqueduct north to return to the mouth of Marble Canyon at 7.8 miles. The road will return you to the trailhead at 8.1 miles.
We had a surprising February day; the temperature would rise above 80 degrees in the Tularosa Basin and I suspect it was close to 70 degrees in the sunnier canyon locations. I went through all three liters of water in my pack. If you go summer, bring a lot of water. Consider making this a dawn hike, as the canyons will remain out of the suns rays for much of the morning.
I found it hard to retain a clear idea of my map position as we ascended. It was not always easy to know which stream bed was the main canyon and which was a “side cut”. Fortunately Mike lead this trip and he was familiar with the terrain. If your group does not have a local expert in it, then get everyone to maintain a good attitude towards exploration rather than merely covering ground.
If your party intends to climb to Hershberger Summit then you could have a long day in front of you. It would be a good excuse for getting new batteries into your headlamp, particularly for short wintertime days.
Mike has written up Marble Canyon South here and here, with a particularly useful focus on the variety of terrain you can find in this scramble. If you are interested in the North Spur of Marble Canyon South, you can read about his ascent here.
Samat has a brief writeup of the hike over at AllTrails.
A photographer identified only as “Wilkie” has posted a photo looking down the waterfall to the water pot that is almost identical to the one shown seven photos above. It was taken only week before, but Wilkie has very usefully included a subject in the photograph to give you a much clearer sense of perspective.