The Magdalena Mountains form a small range close to the town of Socorro, New Mexico. This hike ascends up Copper Canyon, which is beautifully forested and in some stretches carries surface water, reaches the main ridge line and then ascends the summit block for South Baldy. This summit is the highest point in the range. It is also center for research – just below the summit is the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. On this date I descended north along the ridge line towards North Baldy, which is slightly less lofty but more lonesome (although a private road runs close to the summit). I ran out of time before I ran out of mountain, so the North Baldy portion of the route report is only exploratory. The ridge ramble lies above 9300 feet and the thin air adds substantially to the challenge. This route is a much under-rated ascent in mid-state New Mexico.
- From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going north
- After 146 miles, take exit 147 for US 60/West 25/Socorro/Magdalena. The exit ramp simply becomes California Street/Interstate 25 Business Loop going north.
- After 1.0 miles, go left onto Spring Street/US-60 West. Follow signs to stay on US-60 West
- After 15.5 miles, go left onto Water Canyon Road.
- After 4.6 miles, where the pavement stops and gravel road begins, go right onto Forest Road 406
- After 0.2 miles, go right into the Water Canyon Campground (signed) and park.
Drivers with high clearance vehicles can continue on FR 406 for another 0.6 miles and park where a sign says “Dead End”. Sedan drivers will take a look at the deep gullies and rocky protrusions in the road and park at the camp ground.
The Water Canyon Campground has family and group camp sites. There are pit toilets. I did not see any evidence of water.
- Starting Elevation: 6840 feet
- Highest Elevation: 10,783 feet
- Net Elevation: 3943 (warning: the gross elevation gain is greater due to saddles and knolls on the ridge line)
- Distance: 18.6 miles (round trip)
- Maps: The USGS Magdalena quadrangle has roughly 90% of the hike, but the summit block for South Baldy is on the South Baldy quadrangle. It was very useful to have both maps.
From the trailhead, ascend the gullied dirt road for about 0.6 miles to where it serves as the stem in a T-intersection with a second dirt road. A sign on the embankment across the road directs you onto trail 10, the Copper Canyon trail. Ascend the trail as it passes a large open field on the outflow from Copper Canyon. There are several buildings along the trail in advancing states of disrepair, a few visible cattle, and fencing along side the trail. Initially the fencing is wire grid, but eventually changes over to standard barbed wire. A downed sign indicates where you enter the National Forest. Shortly past that point the barbed wire ends and you enter into the bed of Copper Canyon.
In the lower reaches of the canyon trail T10 is a tunnel through the trees. Other hikers have amused themselves by creating tall stone cairns, often top-heavy in appearance and some are none-too stable. The trees include some alligator juniper, a second juniper species with bark in slender exfoliating strips (Rocky Mountain juniper, perhaps), pinyon pine, ponderosa, and Douglas fir. On this date, water was flowing in places. It wasn’t clear if this flow is the result of a recent storm or if Copper Canyon is an unusually reliable source of water (the US Drought Monitor indicates that this area of New Mexico is currently under severe drought conditions). Later in the day the canyon becomes a markedly humid spot.
The trail stays near the bed of the canyon, crossing whenever flatter or more open terrain becomes available. Be extra careful with the map shown in this post – tree coverage made it impossible to get a high quality trail data from satellite imagery. You won’t go wrong if you stick close to the waterway up the canyon as far as the ruined log cabin, which is reached at 3.8 miles from the trailhead. The front wall of the ruin is gone and little remains of the other three sides. Some iron sheets still occupy space on the forest floor, but the occupants are clearly long gone. In less than 100 more feet, come to a fork in the trail. The branch to the left rises to the Magdalena ridge line at 10,300 feet. The branch to the right is the northern branch of the Copper Canyon Trail. The 1995 USGS map shows it heading towards the main ridge line where you could continue to North Baldy. See comments below on the degraded nature of the northerly tread.
Go left, toward South Baldy. Here the canyon swings towards the southwest and rises directly towards the summit of South Baldy. This is the realm of large firs and a surprisingly large number of aspen – it must be quite a sight when the aspen turns autumn gold. Even on a springtime day, however, there are memorable views to the ridge line with its large meadows alternating with forested slopes. If you aspire to use the northern branch of the Copper Canyon Trail you might want to work on committing this view to memory, as it will guide your exploration of the degraded trail. At 4.6 miles, after a very steep 0.8 miles, arrive at the ridge line in open meadows. Strangely, the tread disappears just before the crest, simply head over the top and drop down the back side for a loss of about 20 feet to intersect the main ridge line. (A sign marks the crest, and unlike all the other trail signs this one is still standing).
To get to South Baldy, go left (south) on Trail 8, the North Baldy Trail. It winds through smaller meadows and a stand or two of ponderosa and Douglas fir, coming to an intersection immediately below the summit block at 5.0 miles. The main trail trail goes straight across the meadows, but the fainter branch trail to your right is a more direct approach to the summit. Go right through a narrow block of trees and enter the open west face of the summit block. The faint trail you are on stays below the summit, apparently headed toward the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. Leave the trail as the summit comes into sight and ascend to the high point at 5.3 miles. The top is forested on the northern side, but there are fine views southwest towards the San Mateo Mountains and Vick’s Peak, due south to the Caballo Range and Turtleback Peak, and a glimpse through the haze east to Sierra Blanca. You are standing on terrain used by the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research to study lightening strikes. There may be no worse place in the country to greet new acquaintances of the cumulonimbus persuasion.
This part of the hike is, all by itself, a great day. If you’ve done enough damage to your boots then return the way you came and enjoy a really wonderful outing. On the other hand, those Vibram soles might need greater contact with this hard world. If so, then make a mini-loop by continuing east along the forest-meadow border and drop down the summit block. In 1000 feet from the summit encounter the main ridge trail, T08, just above the Water Canyon Road. Go left, into the trees. The trail is very easy to follow and returns to the summit block intersection having traveled 6.0 miles from the car. (Again, the map depicts a series of guesses where the trail disappears into the trees).
Once back to the ridge, head north as the trail rises and falls on the knolls and saddles of the North Baldy Trail. The tread drops off on the western side of the ridge and stays there (with brief glimpses over the ridge) until mile 7.5. In a particularly wide and grassy saddle, look for a gully (actually an old mining road) ascending from the west. This road rises all the way to the ridge line and goes over to the east side of the Magdalena Mountains. The 1995 USGS Map indicates that this is the point at which the north branch of the Copper Canyon Trail comes in, but see the comments below. For now, follow the trail, here handsomely lined by rock guides, as it continues north, now on the east side of the ridge line.
The trail crosses several meadows and a strikingly pleasant col (potentially a great campsite) at 7.7 miles, then arrives at an intersection with a trail rising from Hop Canyon at 8.3 miles. The Hop Canyon Trail is not shown on either the 1995 or 2013 USGS maps. Follow the sign for North Baldy, taking the right-hand path and descending. The tread still bounces up over each knoll, but the subsequent fall is always longer and steeper as the ridge line falls from 9800 feet to 9300 feet. North Baldy comes into view, with a large and unforested wall of smooth white rock extending to the west. Reach the low point on the ridge at 10 miles, facing into a canyon leading to North Baldy Summit. It is here that I ran out of time and had to turn back. From the looks of the trail ahead, the path to the summit should be pretty clear.
My plan was to return the 2.5 miles to the saddle where the trail crossed from west of the ridge to east of the ridge, find the mining road, and return by the north branch of Copper Canyon road. To my surprise, the mining road (shown in red on the map) simply ends at a mine. There is no hint of a trail continuing from the road terminus. Backing up a few hundred feet, there is a tall cairn built by the side of the road with a hint of a trail descending steeply into the confused terrain of the Copper Canyon headwaters. (This is where it might pay to have studied the high terrain when ascending the Copper Canyon Trail). If you probe down this tread you will find trail hints, such as a stump-top cairn and a faded pink tape tied to a bush, but the trail is never very clear – it was hard to distinguish stream beds from possible trail beds. Eventually I decided to return to the ridge and head back to meadow in which south Copper Canyon Trail T10 intersects North Baldy Trail T08.
Skipping this side excursion, you might want to return directly to the intersection of the south Copper Canyon Trail and North Baldy Trails, having hiked approximately 14 miles. Return down copper canyon for a day’s total of 18.6 miles.
I went through four liters of water on this hike and could have used more. Dehydration is affected by activity, warm springtime weather, the humidity within the canyon and sweat-evaporating breezes on the ridge line. I suspect that an important factor is the thin air above 9000 feet, which certainly encouraged panting in this hiker. I was still feeling a little dehydrated more than a day after the hike, which is not the usual response. Bring lots of water.
If you are entering New Mexico from lower terrain then give yourself some time to acclimatize and also know how to recognize acute mountain sickness. Especially, if you are not feeling well then it may be a mistake to hike the North Baldy branch of this route. The return from the low point on the ridge to the upper end of Copper Canyon Trail (south branch) involves almost 1000 feet of gain – exactly the wrong thing for AMS sufferers.
The trampled terrain at and below the mine has made it truly difficult to find the northern path leading out of Copper Canyon. On ascent, once you’ve reached the the fork in the trail (above the old log cabin) you will probably want to avoid the mine by going south (left) towards South Baldy. If the north fork is necessary to your plans then I think you will want to explore the northerly path from the bottom. That is, ascend past the cabin to the fork and go right. The trail at the fork is very clear. It is only a guess, but I think the path will lead you close to the mine. If you can see the mine then you should be able to find the broad road that takes you from the mouth of the mine up to the ridge line. My efforts to find the north branch starting from the ridge top were unproductive and tiring.
The path up the canyon is well shaded. That plus the coolness arising from the altitude might make the Copper Canyon Trail a good mid-summer workout. On the other hand, there is little chance to view the surrounding skies. It would be awkward to ascend to the ridge line only to find a cell of thunderclouds sweeping toward you from the west. Get your meteorologist’s permission before heading out in monsoon season. Above the canyon the forest of tall trees reaches all the way to the summit of South Baldy, so shade is found to the high point of the range. The ridge walk is much more sun-exposed and you might want to give that path a mid-summer pass.
The Magdalena Mountains are part of the Cibola National Forest, which is huge (parts of the forest are found in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico). A more local resource is the Magdalena Ranger District, headquartered in the town of Magdalena. It is worth checking for road status and fire alerts. In fact, there is a notice that on Monday the National Forest/National Grasslands will begin Level One fire restrictions. Essentially, that means no campfires or fireworks, although you can still use camp stoves. It seems pretty reasonable, give then current drought conditions.
Sonja, at the Overly Ambitious Me site, has some interesting photos of mines along the trail in Copper Canyon and comments on how thunder storms can affect your visits to the Magdalena Mountains.
A succinct but tremendously useful descriptions of trails in the Magdalena Mountains can be found at the Magdalena-NM website (PDF). This is an unusual Chamber of Commerce site, in which the Chamber has made a very thoughtful attempt at providing good recreational information for locals and visitors alike. Kudos to the leadership! They also have descriptions of the hiking trails in the San Mateo Mountains (PDF) and a set of links to several large-scale maps of the hiking and mountain biking trails in the region.
Some of the comments on Summit Post make note of how snowy this approach can be in wintertime. You might need snow shoes in winter.
A brief trail description appeared in 1998 in the Albuequerque Journal. It is notable because as far back as 16 years ago writers were encouraging people to be careful trying the “top down” approach on the north branch of the Copper Canyon Trail.