Overview:

01 Carrizo Peak

Carrizo Peak from US 380 and O-Bar-O Road intersection

Carrizo Peak (carrizo is Spanish for “reed”) is a lonely mountain. It rises from rangeland west of the Capitan Mountains and north of the Sierra Blanca Mountains; a tall and forested peak pleated by canyons on all sides. It lies within the northwest section of Lincoln National Forest. The hike described here follows trail T074 as it rises from the bed of Benado Canyon, strikes the base of Carrizo Peak and follows Johnnie Canyon to a ridge of false summits. Joining trail T072, it contours west, below the false summits, crosses a col and ascends steeply to the true summit. This is wild terrain. Blowdown trees criss-cross the trail and grasses compete with saplings for growth in the tread. Wildlife is abundant. Most likely the trail will belong to you alone.

Driving Directions:

  • 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, go 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, in Carrizozo, turn right (east) onto US 380.
  • After 8.5 miles turn left onto a gravel road signed O-Bar-O Road. This road is labeled A010 on Google Maps. Google shows A010 as having two branches. One branch intersects US 380 at the junction between US 380 and NM 37, but I did not see it. The second branch intersects US 380 about 0.6 east of the junction. The second intersection is the only one I found on this trip. Google may have mis-labeled a ranch road.
  • After 5.2 miles (about 0.2 miles after the O-Bar-O ranch headquarters, a spectacular building) cross a cattle gate that marks the start of the Lincoln National Forest. The road continues as Forest Road 441.
  • After 0.4 miles on FR 441, having crossed the bed of Benado for the second or third time, come to steep rise in the road as it leaves the bed for the last time. The steep rise had numerous rocky protrusions that my sedan could not handle and I left the car in a turn-off near the canyon bottom. Drivers of high-suspension vehicles (not necessarily 4-wheel drive) could continue 0.8 more miles to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

Sign at the trailhead

Sign at the trailhead

The formal trailhead is signed “Johnnie Canyon Trail T074”. There is abundant parking there, but no other amenities. You may encounter a sign saying “Johnnie Canyon” earlier on FR 441, but that is not the start of T074 (see below). Alternatively, you can park near the canyon bed just before the steep rise in the road. There is a grassy turnout on the right. The turnout is unsigned, but it has several stone fire rings to mark the location.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6700 feet (6890 feet at the signed trailhead)
  • Ending Elevation: 9656 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2956 feet (2766 from the signed trailhead)
  • Distance: 5.o miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS White Oaks South quadrangle

Hike Description:

NOT the trailhead.

NOT the trailhead.

From the car, follow Forest Service Road 441 as it ascends along Benado Canyon. In a quarter mile, come to a small creek bed that is signed “Johnnie Canyon” (the sign does not say “trail”). Although you can find a trail here, it is not T74. Stay on Forest Road 441. In three-quarters mile from the car come to the formal trailhead. A trail coming up from the Benado bed traverses a meadow and intersects the road, then rises towards the peak. Here find a sign for “Johnnie Canyon Trail T74” and a second marker for T074. The uphill tread is somewhat faint, quickly twisting left and then back to the right under obscuring forest duff, then settling down to a straight forward ascent of the gently sloping terrain. At about a mile from the car the tread unexpectedly broadens. It appears to have intersected an old jeep road that is now eroding and strewn with  rock.  Take note of this spot – on return you will want to be able to find the scrub-oak camouflaged trail when the broad tread suddenly disappears.

Thick bark fireproofing on Douglas Fir

Thick bark fireproofing on Douglas Fir

Enjoy the ascent past alligator juniper, pinyon and ponderosa pine. The trail stays to the left of a gully, often steep-sided, that must be the bed of Johnnie Canyon. The trees obscure your destination, but you will occasionally see evidence of the twin hillocks that form the mouth of the canyon.  In just-under two miles enter these “gates” and watch a canyon form. The walls rise steeply above you, the bottom of the canyon is cool and the forest mixture begins to include instances of Douglas Fir. Although small at first, some of these firs are several feet in diameter in the higher terrain.

First stretch of blowdown on Johnnie Canyon trail.

First stretch of blowdown on Johnnie Canyon trail.

Long stretches of blowdown appear starting at 2.2 miles from the car. Keep an eye on the other side of the canyon bed since the terrain over there can be much more open than the nominal trail. Boulder fields appear as the canyon walls steepen. Apparently these are chunks of volcanic stone that have flaked off of the higher cliff bands under the influence of freeze-thaw cycles. At three miles, arrive at a spring. On this winter’s day water was flowing from the spring. The surrounding ground was pulped by the hooves of the animals that use this water supply – bring a filter if you want to use the water. There is no guarantee, of course, that the water flows year round.

Trail where it leaves the canyon bed and begins switchbacking

Trail where it leaves the canyon bed and begins switchbacking

At 3.3 miles from the car, come to a wide-open meadow. With such a low-use trail, it isn’t surprising that the grasses obscure your course. Watch the terrain along the north side of the meadow for evidence of the trail picking up. “Up” is the key word as the terrain tilts markedly and begins to impose a greater burden on a hiker’s thigh muscles. Ascend past small cliff bands in dense woods until, at about 4 miles from the car, the trail abruptly turns right. Here the tread crosses the canyon bed for the last time and begins switchbacking. After three or four switchbacks the trail turns straight uphill and leads you to a col at the head of the Johnnie Canyon.

11 meadow on col and summit

Meadow on col in front of summit block (double click to enlarge). The ascent takes you to the open patch near the summit.

On the col trail T74 makes an unsigned intersection with trail T72. Make note, as you will need to make the southerly (right hand) departure on return. Turn left (to the west) and follow the trail as it ascends towards (but not to) a false summit. Contouring below the false summit, the trail begins descending gently and at 4.6 miles leaves you in a wide meadow on a col below the summit block. Patchy snow was present on this visit and obscured some of the tread, but with Dark Canyon falling below you to the north and Powell Canyon falling below you to the south, your only option is to cross the col west towards the summit.

Inclement weather obscuring the Tularosa Basin from Carrizo Summit

Inclement weather obscuring the Tularosa Basin from Carrizo Summit

Here the tread was often buried in snow patches. In warmer weather the path may be easier to find, but on this date the best option was to ascend as steeply as possible. That leads, with much panting, to an open summit. The air is thin at 9656 feet. Views ought to have been outstanding, but I can’t say as the weather was not cooperating. Snap some summit photos and return 5 miles the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author on Carrizo summit

Author on Carrizo summit

This hike has a woodland beauty that contrasts markedly with the desert appeal of destinations such as Marble Canyon or Cox Peak. The overcast weather and wide Douglas Firs on this hike made it very reminiscent of hiking in the Pacific Northwest. Try it out!

Except for the last half mile on the summit block the tread is mostly mellow. I would not hesitate to recommend it for a beginner in good shape, except that the blow-down thickets are really something of a problem. If the Forest Service ever gets refunded, then this might be a great place to bring strong new hikers.

Links:

Summit Post (by streeyyr) gives some additional guidance on getting to the trailhead.

A detailed description of the trail is given at Surgent.Net. It is a slightly older post (2007) and some of the signage has changed.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a partial trail description and shows photos of the trailhead, deadfall, and rock slides.

The Forest Service briefly describes the trail here. (A good link for checking against flood or fire closures).

Jim_H has posted a trail description and great photos at HikeArizona.Com.

The Mountains of New Mexico” says that Carrizo Peak is a laccolith,  having magma-derived rock that is more weather-resistant than the surrounding sedimentary rock. Carrizo’s broad hump-shape closely resembles the example laccoliths shown on the Wikipedia site.

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