Cerro Pedernal (“flint hill“) arises on the northern flank of the Jemez Mountains, northwest of Santa Fe. The top is a ridge that seems bowstring straight. From the ridge ends (southeast or the northwest) Pedernal’s profile is horn-shaped. From the ridge sides (northeast or the southwest) Pedernal’s profile is flat-topped. The hike described here begins with a road ramble up to high meadows, scrambles the ridge’s debris cone, climbs a short class-4 break in the cliff face and finishes with a stroll to the high point. If you have a high clearance vehicle you can shorten the road ramble considerably. Tracks in the road prove that drivers with very high clearance vehicles and steady nerves can drive all the way to the meadows (at the cost of making the hike absurdly short). This is a beautiful place.
- From I-25 going north from Albuquerque, take exit 276 for NM-599 (Madrid/Los Alamos/Espanola)
- At the end of the ramp, go left onto NM-599
- After about 13 miles NM-599 forks at an intersection with with US 84/US 285. Take the long left fork to merge onto US 84-N.
- After 52.7 more miles, go left onto NM 96.
- After 10.9 miles (just past a cattle guard), go left onto Forest Road 100.
- After 5.3 miles, go left onto Forest Road 160
- Drive on FR-160 until you no longer comfortable with the road. In a soft-suspended car that point may arrive in just 0.5 miles. Find a place to pull off the road and park.
It is easy to miss the turn to FR-160. A very small sign has been posted, just after the turn. This sign consists of a two-inch wide slat, brown, and about three feet tall. “160” is written out in small (inch-and-half or so) numerals. A bush is growing around the sign. Give the photo on the right a close look and watch your odometer.
Google Maps suggest that you should go 5.8 miles on FR-100. This will take you to another canyon further south. It is broad and grassy, with a truck-track ascending the canyon floor. It is a splendidly pleasant spot, but current experience does not recommend this southerly canyon as a launch point for Cerro Pedernal. Find FR-160!.
The trailhead is going to be a wide spot along FR 160. There will be no services. The photo on the left shows the mighty Camry parked about a half mile up FR-160, just below a short stretch where the road surface carries an uncomfortable number of football-sized rocks. High clearance vehicles will be able to go much, much further.
- Starting Elevation: 8120 feet
- Ending Elevation: 9862 feet
- Net Gain: 1740 feet
- Distance: 7.2 miles round trip
- Map: Cerro Pedernal spans the east edge of the Youngsville quadrangle and the west edge of the Canones quadrangle. Most of the hike is on the Youngsville map, including all the scrambling. Both maps are recommended if you want to identify some of the surrounding mountains.
Walk up Temolime Canyon on Forest Road 160. On this date there were fading Catepillar tracks in the road bed, suggesting that this portion of the road has been recently maintained. Even so, there are many sharp little crests and protruding rocks that decorate the road. Poor terrain for soft-suspended family sedans. Truck owners and four wheelers will wonder how anyone could complain. The walk up the canyon is easy and the deep shade provided by tall Ponderosa is very enjoyable.
After 0.8 miles from the car (about 1.3 miles from the FR-100/FR-160 junction) the road turns left, crosses the canyon bed and deep-gouged mud holes (now dry). Stay on the road as it ascends to Cerro Pedernal. Bulldozer tracks are still visible and the road bed is still fairly good. Small gullies are forming and there are occasional stretches of loose rock on the steeper stretches of road. Those on foot (or bike) won’t notice. Instead, peer through the trees at a remarkable view of the south face of Cerro Pedernal. Close to the middle of the cliff face there is a dark cave. You are aiming for a break in the curtain wall that lies to the left (west) of this cave. You will surmount the wall by way of that “weakness”.
At about 1.1 miles from the canyon crossing you will come to the construction project that may have been the rationale for bringing heavy equipment up FR 160. On your left you will pass a number of earth embankments thrown across a broad waterway to create tanks. On this date the tanks held no water (despite a good monsoon and remnants of Hurricane Odile). Perhaps the tanks are intended to soften the flow of snow melt or to offer cattle a high-country watering hole in the spring.
Just past these newly built tanks the road makes a hard right, leaving the waterway. The road becomes steep, washed out and covered with a “pavement” of fist-sized stones. A small side road comes in from the drainage and most drivers will want to leave their high-clearance vehicles on the side road. Tire tracks on the road prove that some drivers do bring their vehicles up higher. Even if you have the vehicle to do the job, you will want to question the value of further driving. It could leave you feeling cheated of the hike. The forest – mostly Ponderosa pines in this region – is too pretty to simply drive past.
The deep forest starts to thin and the road forks at 1.6 miles from the canyon crossing. One fork goes straight uphill. The other bends to the left and is the course described here. As the grade gentles, come to the first of a series of meadows. There are great views of the summit block. Continue on the road through greater and lesser meadows with views of the mountains to the south and west. The road nears to within 30 feet of a rib on the debris field. Leave the road and begin an ascent of the rib.
There are no official trails to the summit. Instead, scramble up the debris field in a forest of piñon pines. These are much shorter than the Ponderosa below and views open to the ridge from time to time. Just a short way above the meadows a broad thicket of scrub oak forms a determined barrier. Use this thicket as a convenient excuse for lateraling eastward (right, looking uphill) across the face of the debris cone. Eventually the thicket thins and a renewed upward assault becomes possible. For some reason the trees above you always seem thinner to the west and there is relentless Pacific-ward temptation. Try to resist. The footing on this approach is not bad and the task of dodging piñon branches and tap-dancing around around exposed juniper roots is just the price of admission.
Eventually the trees end. Arrive at the boulder strewn domain below the foot of the cliff. Have you traversed too far east, or did you rise too quickly in the west? Where is that cave? The only way to tell is explore. Try climbing to the foot of the cliff. Along much of the wall there is a discernible tread where earlier explorers have searched for a route. If you are moving eastward on this path, watch for a point where the path squeezes between a juniper and the wall. Just beyond this point is a cairn and a stout old pole (maybe three inches thick) leaning against the wall. Regrettably, an old spray-painted arrow remains on the wall as well. Spray paint is not necessary in this place. You have arrived at the crux.
The way up is purely vertical for the first 10 or 12 feet. There are “bombproof” hand holds and foot placements. Still, a 12 foot fall would be a nasty thing to receive. Folks who are not familiar with basic climbing moves and those who are acrophobic may want to mark this the high point of the ascent. There are great views and, to the east, a cave to explore. Others may want to make a trial run without the nuisance of a pack.
Above the climb the grade eases, but the tread is narrow and steep. The hand-holds provided by the wall remain welcome. The tread switchbacks continuously up to the ridge top. There is a cairn where you reach the ridge line (and marking your departure point on descent). The top is a knife-edge ridge – a few feet to either side there is a steep falloff. Turn left at the cairn and ascend the short distance to the top.
The summit is open. To the north lies the Chama Basin, host to Lake Abiquiu and the Ghost Ranch. The view extends beyond the basin to Colorado. To the south and southwest are the Jemez Mountains. The northwest is dominated by two large table lands: Mesa Prieta and Mesa de Los Viejos flank the Rio Chama. Sign the summit register (inside the small summit cairn). Take note of the three separate USGS summit markers, and ready yourself for the descent.
After down-climbing the wall, you might turn west and follow the tread at the foot of the wall. In less than 100 feet you will come to a point where the tread drops sharply and hits something that might be a gully or that might be a trail. In fact, it is a boot-beaten trail, but not one that can be regarded with any affection. It descends with a just a few scant switchbacks on steep terrain. The footing is loose and rubble strewn. The “trail” itself is turning into an unwelcome scar on the side of the mountain. Consider, instead, a return that essentially follows the ascent path. It would be much more fun. On return to the meadows, find your way back to the road and follow it back to the trailhead.
♦It is not quite yet “the season when thunder sleeps”, at least not Northern New Mexico. It has been a productive monsoon season and perhaps that should have warned me to take greater care with regard to weather. On descent I met two hard-charging young women who were taking mountain bikes all the way to the meadows and had an eye on summiting. It was then that we heard the first, and still distant, grumble of “weather”. Although they still had a couple hours before the heavy rains began, I hope they didn’t push to the top. As the photos show, the storms closed in quickly that afternoon.
♦Two liters of water were plenty for this date. I did not see any running water on this trip.
♦Consider staying off the “gully trail” that rises straight up the debris cone towards the cave. As described above, the gully trail is unpleasant on descent and others report that it is disagreeable and exhausting on ascent (see links below). Just by spreading out we might be able to minimize the damage to the wilderness.
♦Mary Caperton Morton, writing on her site TheBlondeCoyote.com, has several photos of a winter ascent together with a rave review for the climb up Cerro Pedernal. I’m indebted to her for launching an interest in this mountain.
♦Edd F, on SummitPost.Org, has an overview and a route description, both of which are very useful. I have to agree with his assertion that the climbing moves are daunting enough to merit a class 4 rating.
♦For those interested in the geology, Shari Kelly writing for the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resource has a great “tour” writeup.
♦Gerry Roach has a very detailed writeup of the climb at Summit Sight. In that description the climb through the cliffs is assessed as class 3 (people will disagree on ratings). The photography is great. In particular, check out a useful photo of a climber on the crux pitch.