Three Rivers Canyon is a rarity in drought-stricken southern New Mexico; there are huge trees, running water with fingerling trout in the deep pools, languorous switchbacks on a well-shaded trail and a substantial gain to a high summit. From the summit you will find wonderful views along the Sierra Mountains crest, west to the Tularosa Basin or northeast to the Pecos Valley. Are you recruiting a hiker to New Mexico? Take them here.
- From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 north.
- After 4.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East. The ramp splits three ways, remain in the center to get onto US 70 E.
- After 61.9 miles (just after the 3rd traffic light as you enter Alamogordo), take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, go left (north) on the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
- After 4.9 miles, at a traffic light, go left (north) onto US 70 E/US 54 N/N White Sands Blvd.
- After 9.8 miles, as the road makes a broad right-hand curve in the town of Tularosa, turn left onto US 54 N/Saint Francis Drive
- After 17.8 miles turn right onto Three Rivers Road. This road is tightly gated by flanking stone walls, but is easy to find due to the large Petroglyphs Picnic Ground sign that the Forest Service has installed. Three Rivers road is initially paved, but after a big, concrete-lined “dip” into a waterway the road turns to gravel. Currently the gravel part of the road is in superb shape.
- After 13.2 miles, at the end of the road, park in the Three Rivers Campground (signed)
- Starting elevation: 6400
- Ending elevation: 10,255 feet
- Net Gain: 3855 feet
- Distance: 6.0 miles (one way)
- Maps: The trailhead and a very short stretch of the hike is on the right edge USGS Godfrey Peak quadrangle. The vast majority of the hike is found on the USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle.
This is a deluxe trailhead. The Three Rivers Campground has a dozen car-camping spots, a wide parking area for hikers at the start of the trail (signed), pit toilets, bear-proof trash cans and even offers piped water. The usage fee is currently $6.00 per car, but check the Forest Service website for any updates. Although the canyon itself is pleasantly supplied with water, the larger forest (freighted with innumerable snags from the Little Bear fire) is very dry. Fire hazard was rated as “very high” on this date. The Forest Service has declared Stage One fire restrictions (no campfires until the monsoons begin to kick in).
Find the start of the Three Rivers Canyon Trail (#44) and head up-canyon on an old road. The trail soon crosses the canyon bed (running water!) and then drifts north a little ways, just far enough to give a send-off to the Barber Ridge Trail (#49) at the quarter-mile point. Turning back up-canyon trail 44 soon re-aligns with the creek. The start is a high desert affair with prickly pear on all sides, but that rapidly segues into pine and fir forest. The canyon bed ascends at a remarkably leisurely pace, and where the terrain acquires a step-and-shelf topology the the trail engineers have provided switchbacks. Within 10 minutes from the trailhead you will start noticing heights of land above the trees to the south and to the north. These evolve into sheer walls as you enter the canyon proper after about forty-five minutes. The crumbling roadbed quietly reshapes into a tread beneath the trees.
The trail crosses and re-crosses the stream bed. Currently that is no problem, but during periods of very high flows it could be a serious challenge. Reportedly the stream received extraordinary water volumes in 2008 that damaged much of the trail and flushed most of the fish population out into the Tularosa Basin (not a known haven for brook trout). At several places you will see evidence of more recent damage where side cuts have dumped vast quantities of sand, scree and talus on the sides of the main stream. The power of of the main stream itself is revealed in steeper terrain by a vast exposure of smoothly scrubbed rock. This is a geologist’s playground. The views up into Fall Creek (at two miles) and the Three Rivers South Fork (at 3.2 miles) were quite tantalizing. There does not seem to be any trail in those canyons. Be prepared for off-trail travel if you want to reach those destinations.
There is an exceptional variety of wildlife as well. The only reptiles spotted on this hike was a garter snake and innumerable lizards. Butterflies of widely varied description seemed to find the trail congenial. Several of the deeper pools had fingerling trout, never more than about four or five inches long and rather skinny (the low water levels may be stressful). I had expected to find horned toads and to see some elk, but those were the only disappointment on this day.
At 3.6 miles reach a shaded campsite. This is a great lunch spot and a perfectly reasonable turn-around point for a party with novice hikers. The trail to this point has been almost unbelievably mellow, and it steepens somewhat above.
Continuing up, you will start to notice hints of alpine meadows. The space between trees grows and the shrub layer of the forest understory gives way to grasses. Douglas fir and white pines abound, some of considerable girth. At 4.6 miles come to the first of a series of large, steep subalpine meadows. The trail engineering never flags, however, as switchbacks gentle the way up and across these pleasant spaces. Views open out to the Tularosa Basin. Pick out White Horse Hill on the crest, to the northwest.
At 5.5 miles reach a col between White Horse Hill and Elk Point on the Sierra Mountains crest. A signed junction indicates that you’ve reached the Crest trail (#25), which will take you to Lookout Mountain if you go right (east). If you go straight across the col then the Aspen Canyon trail will take you down to the north (eventually linking up with the Big Bonito Trail). If you choose to go left, as I did, then you are on the Big Bonito Trail (#36) where it overlaps with the Crest Trail. The tread is initially quite obvious and takes you past small stands of evergreens while rising towards White Horse Hill. Within a quarter mile, however, the tread disappears amid tall grasses and the hoof prints (elk, presumably). It may be that the recent fires have discouraged hikers from getting to the crest, permitting nature to reclaim the tread. Never fear, however, since White Horse Hill is directly above you.
Ascend open terrain towards the summit at 6.0 miles. There are great views west into the Tularosa and White Sands National Monument, north to Carizzo Peak, northwest to the Capitan Mountains, and due west across the enormous damage of the Little Bear to the Pecos Valley. There is even a glimpse to the summit of Sierra Blanca itself. There is a summit register hidden inside a tiny cairn. The summit was windy and strikingly cool – this on a day in which it reached the high 90s in Las Cruces! Return the way you came.
In Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area, Magee points out that this shady and high route is a good summertime destination. I could not agree more. Still, with over 3800 feet of gain you will go through a lot of water. I had 4 liters and that was only just enough.
Three Rivers Canyon is well watered, but this is an unmistakable season of drought. We can hope for a good monsoon season to ease the danger to the forests, but for the moment the National Drought Monitor indicates that over 95% of the state is under moderate drought or worse. The stage 1 fire restrictions for Lincoln National Forest (no backcountry campfires) are pretty reasonable.
The crest is completely exposed. You’ll want a good hat and sunscreen. Also, keep an eye on those fluffy monsoon-season clouds. There are worse places to be in a thunderstorm, but not by much!
For a poetic report on wintertime camping along the Three Rivers Trail (and a comment to the effect that the approach road is not always in superlative condition) check out Eugene Smith’s BackPackingLight post.
Marsha Rupe has some photos from this hike taken in 2010. Her summit shot makes a sad contrast with the 2014 vista, which is much altered by the Little Bear Fire. Her title suggests that she made a loop, ascending by Three Rivers Canyon and then descending by Dry Canyon. That sounds like an excellent alternative. However, in exploring towards White Horse Hill I noted that the connector trail was becoming difficult to follow. You might want to plan for some small navigation challenges if you want to make this loop.
Johnny Hughes has a description of this hike, and several others nearby. Good options if you have a couple days to explore this face of the range.
Southern New Mexico Explorer has photos and some comments on the Canyon as a fishing expedition. His visit was in 2010, not too long after the 2008 flood. The tread condition has improved enormously since then.