Picacho is Spanish for “peak”. You might think that something called Peak Peak would be pretty intimidating. Indeed, newcomers to Las Cruces sometimes get their first glimpse of Picacho as a dark and dauntingly perfect purple cone silhouetted against a blazing orange-and-gold sunset. It is a vision of pinnacles like Fuji or Popocatepetl. Picacho is a an elderly volcano. Alas, it rises no more than 800 feet from the low points of the surrounding terrain. This hill offers a nice morning’s stroll through classic North Chihuahuan terrain; incredibly open, prickly, sometimes green, always cattle browsed and on occasion rattle-ly. It can be windy and chill at the top, even on days when the desert is earning its reputation at the base. The surrounding canyons invite exploration.
I followed the instructions in Day Hikes and Nature Walks In The Las Cruces – El Paso Area, which was written in 2004. New roads, however, have entered this area and the Bureau of Land Management has added a new trailhead. For completeness my driving route is described here. Check below, however, for an alternative.
- From Main Street in Las Cruces, enter I-10 going west.
- After 6.8 miles get off at Exit 135. This exit ramp snaps around and deposits you on US 70 going back east in one of the most dangerous intersections I’ve ever seen. Your task, upon hitting US 70 will be to leap into the passing lane and turn immediately left onto the median strip (paved). You will have about 20 feet to get this done. If you are facing any traffic on US 70 it is probably safest to go past this left turn and wait for a better spot (in a quarter mile) in which to do a U-turn and return west.
- After 20 feet on US 70 East, turn across a paved section of the median strip and go directly across the west-bound lanes of US 70, entering Frontage Road 1031.
- After 0.4 miles on Frontage Road 1031, go right onto an unsigned gravel road. This may be Box Canyon Drive. Stay on the road as it heads northeast towards the airport and then directly north along the eastern edge of the airport.
- After 3.0 miles (from Frontage Road 1031) turn right onto a wide gravel pad with prominent gravel berms at the far end. This is the west trailhead. Picacho Peak can be seen nearby, over the tops of the berms.
Box Canyon road is washed out in places. Be careful if you are approaching before daylight. There are at least two places where deep gullies have formed in or near the road. Incautious tire placement would leave you stopped and might leave you stuck.
Picacho Peak is now a part of BLM’s Picacho Peak Recreation Area. They have introduced a new trailhead. The new trailhead will place you directly south of Picacho Peak and closer to the mountain than the west trailhead (described above). To get there they advise using US 70 as it goes through Las Cruces. In its northeastern reaches US 70 is also called North Main Street. When it nears downtown, however, US 70 takes a hard right and becomes West Picacho Ave.
- Turn right onto West Picacho Ave from North Main.
- After 4 miles on West Picacho Ave, turn north (right) on Picacho Hills Drive.
- After 1.0 miles Picacho Hills forks, stay to the left and the road becomes Barcelona Ridge Road.
- After 1.0 miles turn north (right) from Barcelona Ridge Road onto Anthem Road.
- After 1.0 mile Anthem Road ends at a T-intersection with Loop Road. Go north (right) for 1.5 miles to the trailhead.
That is what the instructions say at the BLM website. Looking at Google Maps, I think you may have to turn right off of the Loop Road and onto an unimproved road that continues to the trailhead. I suspect that the south trailhead is easily visible from Loop Road. The unimproved road is not recommended for vehicles pulling trailers.
The west trailhead (described here) is unsigned and has no amenities. If you should drive past the trailhead then you will soon begin a steep descent into Box Canyon – turn about! Judging from the litter on the trailhead, this is a popular place to fire shotguns.
- Starting Elevation (trailhead): 4440 feet
- Ending Elevation: 4959
- Net Gain: 519 feet
- Distance: 5.4 miles (round trip)
- Maps: USGS quadrangle Picacho Mountain
From the outermost berm on the west trailhead pause and study Picacho Peak to the east. This will be a useful memory to retain, as the last part of the return is off-trail and your perspective on the hill is a clue as to how near you are to your car. Then, find a faint old road that heads down from the berm along a rib pointed at Picacho Peak. In about half a mile strike a new dirt road. This is the “unimproved road” mentioned in the alternative driving directions. If you were to turn left and follow it you would come to the south trailhead. Not knowing this I crossed it to see if I could pick up the trail in the desert. Just past the road, however, there is a new barbed wire fence that forces hikers back to the road at 0.6 miles from the trailhead. Follow the road briefly and come to a gap in the roadside fencing that is signed for the trail. Turn left and follow the trail into an arroyo bed at three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead.
Follow the arroyo downstream. At one mile you will see a trail coming down from the right (south) bank. This is the trail from the south trailhead (the BLM’s new trailhead). When it reaches the arroyo bottom, turn left onto the trail and follow as it sticks to the left arroyo wall. (It is a good idea to keep trails out of waterways, they disappear fast when it rains). After much turning, some rising and rather more falling, the trail comes to a confluence of arroyos at 1.2 miles. In this broad space you have renewed vistas to the top of Picacho. Also at this point, intersect a jeep trail that traverses the waterway and heads directly at the hill. Go left on the jeep trail and begin to ascend.
When viewed from the southwest the peak no longer appears as a perfect cone. Instead, there is a ridge descending from the summit to the north-west. The jeep trail climbs a rib leading to the northwest end of the ridge. A deep gulch descends from the ridge line. In its steeper sections all the surface soil has been scrubbed away leaving a bed of rhyolite to shine in the sun. The trail stays to the left (north) of this gulch, reaching a small rock wall at 1.7 miles from the trailhead.
Contour to the left to go around the small rock face. The road disappears, but a carefully constructed trail switchbacks up the rib. Ocotillo tends to lean over the trail and battles with barrel cactus for every drop of water that might be recovered from this parched terrain. Shortly you will reach the small prominence that marks the northern end of the ridge. At 1.9 miles from the trailhead, turn southeast and follow the trail across the ridge and up toward the peak.
The trail comes to a trail junction at 2.0 miles and rises to the summit at 2.1 miles. There are good views north to Robledo Peak, the Dona Anna Mountains east of that, the Organ Needle is due east (somewhat hazy on this day), with the Franklins and the Three Sisters (including Cox) to the southeast and south west, respectively. The last time I was up here I shared the summit with three or four cattle. It takes a long series of drought years to drive cattle up to summits in the quest for fodder. This time it was more lonesome. This summit is great spot for a bit of trail mix and studying approaches into the surrounding ranges. The white gleam on the highest summit in the Sierra de las Uvas may be the old Blue Mesa Observatory (now an FAA radar installation). If so then that very prominent peak is Magdelana Peak. Is there a sense of frustration in the NMSU Department of Astronomy? There are ex-observatories on Organ Peak, Magdelana Peak and Tortuga Mountain.
From here it would make sense to simply return the way you came. This terrain is so open, however, that it constitutes an open invitation to roaming. The following describes a different route back to trailhead.
Descend off of the summit to where the approach trail joins with another trail coming in from the east. Start east (i.e. depart from the approach trail), but in less than a 10th of a mile come to an intersection with another trail coming in from the north. The north trail is a little faint, but keep the faith and head down into the northern canyons.
This faint trail switchbacks in a mannerly fashion, descending towards and eventually beside a large rocky outcrop. At this point, 2.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail intersects a much larger road. This road descends to the east, which is not the direction of choice here. Leave both road and tread, swing below the rocky outcrop and descend along a gently inclined rib. If you look down into the canyon bed you will see a distinctive pillar of rock. This rock, due north, is the destination.
Judging from the patties scattered about, this part of Picacho is very popular with bovines of alpine intent. Their trails mark out an easy route of descent. Coming off of the flattest section you are presented with an opportunity to enter one of the drainages. These cattle are impressively adventurous because the footing into the canyon is not all that secure, yet cow paths lead there. It is worth checking out. A waterfall composed of pillow lava is quite a sight to see.
Best of all, the mouth of this drainage opens up almost at the foot of the rock that was the north landmark. Actually, if you divert just slightly to the east (right) you will find an huge old circular water tank. To my amazement it was still functioning – about half full of water and nearly choked with the first swamp vegetation I’ve seen since hiking Dog Canyon. Indeed, there was a customer for tank services, a single black cow. The only other mammal that I saw on this hike.
Walk into the bed of Box Canyon, turn left (to the west) and at 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to the base of the rock pillar. The canyon is a fun hike – easy footing in soft sand (sometimes too soft for convenience), lots of rock formations, side cuts coming in off of Picacho and longer drainages coming in from the Robledo Range. In particular, you want to note a set of cliffs with sandy colored capstone and darker supporting rock, along with a couple large canyons coming in from the north. This is a sign that you have gotten well to the west of Picacho. You don’t have many views of Peak Peak because the canyon walls are rather high here. On the left side you will pass another open, circular water tank and later, a huge old enclosed cylinder that I suppose was also a tank.
Pass under the multi-colored cliffs at 3.3 miles and look on your left for a very prominent cow path (it appears to be a regular path) at 3.5 miles heading into the arroyos above you. If you miss it there should be no problem. An obvious road departs from the canyon bottom in less than half a mile, so by following the first road left (south) out of the canyon you would be returned to the car. If you take the prominent path however, you will be delivered into a wonderland of small canyon cuts, sedimentary rocks intermingled with volcanic scoria, and easy open roaming in an archetype desert environment. You will also get glimpses of Box Canyon Road as it tops small rises to the south. Watch Picacho Peak as it returns to the perspective you had when you first got out of the car. That tells you you’re nearing the trailhead. As the perspective becomes familiar, start edging west towards the highlands. Watch especially for the faint road you took down from the trailhead and use it to return to the car at about 5.4 miles, round trip.
Out of shape, but ready to get back into those mountains? You could hardly ask for a kinder re-introduction to the joys of gaining altitude.
This route description includes some fairly demanding navigation at the end of the route. If you don’t have experience with off-trail hiking then consider returning from the summit the same way you arrived. With just a little experience (and a map!) it should not be difficult to take the roads back to the trailhead.
I suspect that the road to the BLM’s trailhead is in much better shape and kinder to your car. There isn’t much advantage to using the western trailhead. Next time I’m going to the south trailhead.
Southern New Mexico Explorer mentions the gun play that occurs in the vicinity of Picacho Peak. That report is fairly recent and is consistent with the shells found scattered at the trailhead. It looks as though the firearms community has not yet gotten word about the regs against firing inside the park. Given the housing that has sprung up along the south side of Picacho, this is no longer a good spot for target practice.
Wendi Hammond, on Trailrunner.com has a brief discussion of the training opportunities. The new trailhead is discussed and mention is made of shaded picnic tables.