Overview:

White Horse Hill and headwaters of Bonito Creek

White Horse Hill and headwaters of Bonito Creek

This is a mellow hike into spectacular high country near Sierra Blanca (southern New Mexico’s highest peak). The trail follows a creek up the gentle easterly slopes of the Sierra Blanca Range to the crest. On you way, you tread through forests of pine and fir that that transition to aspen and oak and then abruptly opens onto montane grassland. A productive monsoon season and rain from Hurricane Odile have left this corner of New Mexico implausibly green; the streams are brimming. Enjoy the photos but recognize that the forests are rarely so lush.

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohman Drive in Las Cruces, turn onto I-25 North.
  • After 2.5 miles, take the exit for US 70-East.
  • After  62.5 miles, immediately after the third traffic light on US 70 in Alamagordo, go right on the ramp for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left (north) on the CLMR Route.
  • After  4.9 miles, at a stoplight, go left (north) on US 54-N/US 70-E.
  • After  43.2 miles, at a stoplight, go left (west, initially) onto NM 48.
  • After 12.8 miles go left (west, initially) onto NM 37 (signed)
  • After 1.2 miles, go left (west) onto Forest Road 107. This is a gravel road with occassional stretches of pavement and in good enough shape for a sedan. Watch for quite large potholes even in those stretches that are paved. The road wends it way through the Bonito Stables at about the 5 mile point. There the buildings, horses and dogs are situated very close to, and sometimes within, the extremely rocky roadbed. It pays to go very, very slowly for that 200 yard stretch.
  • After 8.3 miles, at the end of FR 107, park your car at the trailhead.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, parked beneath signs for Trail 36 Big Bonito Creek

The mighty Camry, parked beneath signs for Trail 36 Big Bonito Creek

The trailhead is found at the end of a loop that terminates FR 107. It is an active spot, with much car camping along Bonito Creek. Several trails leave from this loop, look for a sign for Big Bonito Trail No 36 at the far end of the loop. There are pit toilets and at least one corral (the area is a favorite for riders). Water is available from Bonito Creek, but given the heavy horse and human usage you will want to sterilize it. Also, the river is running a dark brown these days. Presumably, that the color comes from trees burned in the Little Bear Fire of 2012. Consider bringing a bucket to the trailhead and allowing some time for the murk to settle out before trying to use a filter.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7850 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Net Gain: 2400 feet
  • Distance: 11.2 miles
  • Map: USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Brown and energetic water at one of the many stream crossings. (Note hiking pole, for perspective).

Brown and energetic water at one of the many stream crossings. (Note hiking pole, for perspective).

From the trailhead, follow trail 36 as it crosses a tributary stream and enters the Wilderness Area (signed). The hike starts along the right side of Bonito Creek (looking uphill), but canyon walls soon force a crossing. In the post-monsoon season the waters were fast, brown and broad. You will get your feet wet. For most of the rest of the year the stream is probably too small to be much of a barrier. The terrain is very gently inclined, limiting the power of the water. There are, however, eight or nine creek crossings. In between the crossings the trail tends to make small upward leaps and then levels off again to return to the creek bank. The forest is dense and shows considerable sign of recovering from the Little Bear fire. A lot of nice work has gone into cutting up the deadfall and keeping the trail open.

Sign at confluence of Aspen and Bonito Creek.

Sign at confluence of Aspen and Bonito Creek.

A trail junction is reached at about 1 mile, where Little Bonito Creek Trail 37 departs to the right. Stay left and follow trail 36 as it continues along Big Bonito Creek. In another mile come to a second trail junction where Aspen Creek joins Big Bonito Creek. This is the start of the loop. Craig Martin, in “100 Hikes In New Mexico” describes the clockwise loop going up Aspen Creek Trail Number 35. This guide describes the counterclockwise option, selected so as to get creek crossings out of the way. (As it turns out, the crossing over Big Bonito Creek to get to Aspen Creek No 35 is almost the last of the creek crossings). To go counterclockwise, stay to the right on Trail 36 as the cliffy aspect of the terrain falls away. The hike becomes a stroll in high mountain valley, deep in Ponderosa and Douglas firs, with only occasional glimpses of rolling hills on either side and above you. The comparison between this lush forest and the desert biome of the Tularosa Basin defies belief. It could be a contrast between continents rather than adjacent landforms.

Path through forest in the  hanging valley that contains Big Bonito Creek

Path through forest in the hanging valley that contains Big Bonito Creek

The grade remains very mild as you rise through the forest and enter a domain of aspen and scrub oak The reason for the shallow incline is that Bonito Creek does not descend straight from the Crest to the east. Instead, the stream begins by descending from White Horse Hill to the west, soon changes it’s course to the north and, tentatively, begins a commitment to a easterly course towards the Pecos basin. The long, looping nature of the stream gentles it greatly. The terrain is home to much wild life. The trail presented several garter snakes and innumerable young horn toad, elk tracks were everywhere and the sound of elk bugling was common. If you watch carefully you may find cougar prints as well. Oddly for a New Mexico hike the grasses were very wet. Boots, gaiters and pants, already be soaked by the creek crossings, may remain soaked for as long as the tread stays within the forest.

Cloud shrouded crest

Cloud shrouded crest

At 4.7 miles and 9200 feet, reach a saddle on the crest. Normally you encounter nice views west into the Tularosa Basin and the far San Andreas range. On this date rapidly thickening cumulus clouds had nestled against the western slopes and blocked views in that direction. Views north to Nogal Peak and beyond to the Capitan range were fantastic.  The clouds were kind enough to stay off White Horse Hill, but whiteout conditions could make grassland navigation a bit dicey.

Open grasslands surrounding Bonito Seep

Open grasslands surrounding Bonito Seep

The trail side-hills off of the crest and even descends a little into the upper reaches of Bonito Creek. Wet seasons produce an exuberant grassland and the vegetation frequently obscures long stretches of trail. In the photo to the left, there is a small copse of oak near the center, between a gentle depression (holding Bonito Seep) on the left and a deeper swale coming in from the right.  The trail descends toward that copse, rises briefing along the right hand swale, crosses into the copse and then across the stream from Bonito Seep. After that, it is so grass-obscured that there are only traces of trail until just above the cliff band at the top-right of the picture. Do not count on the trail bed for navigation!

Elk serenade on the Sierra Blanca crest.

Elk serenade on the Sierra Blanca crest.

From the cliff top, the trail makes a decisive turn north (left in the picture above) to rise to a rib that separates two branches of Bonito Creek. As you rise above 9,000 feet the air gets pretty thin. Take your time. This time of year the elk bulls advertise their presence by “bugling“, a loud and seemingly dismal brand of screeching that may make you wonder if a rescue operation needs commencing. Wild terrain.  After reaching the rib the tread contours to the east, directly beneath the summit of White Horse Hill. You can ascend to the summit (off trail) at any time, although there is something to be said for first regaining the crest on the east side of White Horse where the terrain is slightly less steep.

View to White Horse HIll summit from the east side.

View to White Horse Hill summit from a sign post on the east side.

Arrive at the summit at 6.5 miles. You get a glimpse of Sierra Blanca to the south, views east to the Pecos basin, north to the Capitan Mountains, and west (on a less cloudy day) down Three Rivers Canyon to the Tularosa Basin. In September at 10,000 feet the winds can make the grassy summit a chilly spot. Take some photos, sign in on the summit register (inside a small cairn), and perhaps grab a bite to eat on the lee side of the hill.  The way off of the summit is due east – look about for a broad saddle between White Horse Hill and an adjacent crest prominence that is partially blanketed with burned trees.

Horned toad alongside Trail 35

Horned toad alongside Trail 35

Descending from the summit towards the saddle you enter a patch of widely spaced pines, two of which are snags. Near one of those snags there is an old sign post (see picture above). The trail is just a few feet away from the post. If the grasses have obscured the trail, simply continue east to the saddle where a Forest Service sign advertises the intersection of the Crest Trail No 25 with Three Rivers Trail No 44 (going to the west) and Aspen Creek Trail No 35 (going east, and back to the trailhead). Take the Aspen Creek Trail as it follows the top of a rib, nearly flat, to the northwest. After short descent you will come to a second saddle that is currently covered with exceptionally short grass. It may be a preferred dining spot for elk. The trail was overgrown here, but you want to descend towards the southeast (right, looking downhill). The trail makes a high contour across the bowl and then begins switchbacking down towards the waters of Aspen Creek. Look for garter snakes, horned toads, and raptors aplenty.

After reaching the woods at the bottom of the bowl the tread gentles considerably. The remaining descent along Aspen Creek is much like the ascent – an easy tread in pine and fir forest. Eventually Aspen Creek rejoins Big Bonito Creek and you begin to reverse all the creek crossings you made earlier. Arrive back at the trailhead having gone about 11.2 miles. (Milage may vary, depending on how much switchbacking you do in the grasslands near Bonito Seep).

 Recommendations:

Author on White Horse Hill.

Author on White Horse Hill.

Do this hike!

Ordinarily, New Mexico conditions are too dry to support the extraordinary greens and the the exceptional rush of water described here. Still, hikers with small children or pets might want to remain watchful in snowmelt or monsoon conditions.

Summer is over. Two liters of water was plenty on this date. (August hikes will be different).

Whiteout conditions can be very disorienting – note the clouds in some of the photos! Bring a map up to the crest grasslands and keep it oriented to the surrounding terrain. An inadvertant westerly descent into the Tularosa Basin could rob your day of its glory.

Bow season has started and there was no shortage of hunters at the campground. One hunter reported that the area was so popular that you could only get a license through a lottery process. This is a good time of the year to own some orange clothing.

Links:

♦The folks at ruidoso.net have a good overview of the trail. They comment that Big Bonito Creek ordinarily has water, although it is not reliable in the last half mile up to Bonito Seep.

♦Pobrist at TrimbleOutdoors.com has photos and a description of a similar hike. in this variation you ascend Big Bonito Creek #36, staying close to the creek bed all the way to Bonito Seep, where you meet the Crest Trail Number 25. Rather than going north and east towards White Horse Hill, you head west on the Crest Trail towards Argentina Peak. Just below Argentina Peak, pick up and descend Little Bonito Creek Trail #37, which takes you to Big Bonito and then back to the trailhead. It is just as long, but doesn’t gain as much altitude. It sounds great.

♦SouthernNewMexicoExplorer considers Big Bonito Creek from a fisherman’s perspective. While the fishing sounded pretty good in 2007, more recent reports suggest that the fish population suffered badly in the Little Baldy fire.

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