Overview:

San Mateo Mountains ridge line (roughly where San Mateo Peak is) as seen from Forest Road 225

San Mateo Mountains ridge line (roughly where San Mateo Peak is) as seen from Forest Road 225

Many trails in central New Mexico suffer (if that is the word) from a lack of attention. The Apache Kid Trail No. 43 is a spectacular exception. A well engineered tread takes you from the Springtime Campground up the headwaters of Nogal Canyon and then along the ridge line of the San Mateo Mountains. The tread is obvious and trail junctions are well signed. Water was (on this occasion) abundantly available at the San Mateo spring. There is a short stretch of downed trees as you leave the Apache Kid Trail for the San Mateo Peak Lookout Trail, but that stretch is easily passed. Folks who aren’t acclimated should know that the summit elevation is just over 10-thousand feet. The ridge and summit are heavily forested, so you will need to climb the fire tower to get 360-degree views. That tower is not in full repair.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, get onto I-25 North
  • After 97.3 miles, take the exit ramp for Exit 100, Red Rocks.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left (west) on an unsigned road. This road will take you over the highway.
  • After 0.3 more miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-1 (north)
  • After 4.6 more miles, just past a sign for Forest Road-225, turn left (west) onto FR-225
  • After 13.2 more stony and bumpy miles, come to a junction where FR-225 makes a hard left and FR-225A continues straight. Go straight ahead on FR-225A.
  • After 0.4 miles come to the Springtime Campground, your trailhead. Park just before a cattle-guard in the campground. If you look just uphill of the cattle-guard you will see a Forest Service sign for the Apache Kid Trail (the sign is small).

If you are driving south on I-25, say from Albuquerque, then it may be useful to use a slightly different route described in the Myer’s Cabin report.

FR-225 is a gravel road that crosses several arroyos. It can be driven in a family sedan, but at low speed if you value your alignment. Running water could make your exit a little more exciting than hoped, so keep an eye on the weather and perhaps carry a shovel in the vehicle.

The mighty Camry parked below dawn-illuminated cliffs at the campground.

The mighty Camry parked below dawn-illuminated cliffs at the campground.

Trailhead:

The Springtime Campground has three-sided shelters, vault toilets, picnic benches and grills. Reports say that water in the campground is not reliable. A pipe descending from a spring to the campsite was making promising gurgling sounds, but it was not easy to find the outlet. It’s best to bring your own water.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7,560 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,139 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,580 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles, one way
  • maps: USGS Vick’s Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Apache Kid Trail sign just uphill of the cattle-guard in the Springtime Campground

Apache Kid Trail sign just uphill of the cattle-guard in the Springtime Campground

From the trailhead, head up-canyon on the Apache Kid Trail. The headwaters of Nogal Canyon is a complex of converging stream beds. After 0.4 miles the trail makes a feint into a drainage coming in from the east, abruptly switchbacks west, crosses over a small rib and places you along a second waterway descending from the north. The canyon walls are generally eroded, but every now and then a sharp needle of tougher rock leaps for the sky – spectacular in the light of the rising sun.

Spires of stubborn stone and views east to the headwaters of Springtime Canyon.

Spires of stubborn stone and a peek east towards the headwaters of Springtime Canyon.

At 1.1 miles come to the point of departure from the canyon bottom. Switchbacks come hard and fast as the trail strives for altitude. This is the sun drenched domain of pinyon pine and alligator juniper. It is sufficiently open that good views open to the surrounding canyon walls and down-canyon to the graben holding the Rio Grande. Eventually the switchbacks themselves give up and the trail contours south and west to reach a rib descending from the main ridge line. Rising north on this ridge the tread passes several possible campsites.

Ridge-top junction between the Apache Kid Trail and the Shipman Trail.

Ridge-top junction between the Apache Kid Trail and the Shipman Trail.

Having journeyed 2.1 miles, arrive at the main ridge line. A grassy meadow occupies the saddle where the trail crosses the ridge – the perfect spot for a break. Passing over the ridge top you re-enter the forest and arrive at the junction of the Apache Kid Trail and the Shipman Trail #50. The latter would take you south towards Vick’s Peak and San Mateo Mountain. Here, however, stay on the Apache Kid trail and ramble north towards San Mateo Peak.

Interior canyons of the Apache Kid Wilderness.

Interior canyons of the Apache Kid Wilderness.

The interior of the Apache Kid Wilderness is a fantastic jumble of water carved volcanic rock. This portion of the trail provides soaring views over terrain cut by Mateo, Smith, Milo and Nave Canyons, along with their innumerable tributaries. You will have left the pinyon pine and the alligator junipers behind by the time you arrive at the junction with the Milo Canyon Trail #49 at 2.5 miles.

Full trough of water at the San Mateo Spring

Full trough of water at the San Mateo Spring

The Apache Kid Trail continues north, passing a crumbling log cabin and arriving at the San Mateo Spring at 2.7 miles. An immense amount of effort has gone into protecting the spring. A trough placed along the trail has been set into concrete. Pipes connect the trough to the spring. The spring is also encased in concrete and has a heavy metal cover. The spring is reportedly unreliable, but on this date the trough was brimming full and the water was perfectly clear. Reflect on the job of carrying the trough, pipes, spring cover, signage and all that cement up this trail and continue ascending on the Trail.

Small, widely spaced trees growing on bare and gravelly ground.

Small, widely spaced trees growing on bare and gravelly ground.

Soon the tread begins a new series of long switchbacks. The nature of the woodland changes as well – small and widely spaced pines grow on steep terrain. There is almost no understory, just gravelly soil and trees. The near-complete lack of shrubs and grasses suggests that a fire may have occurred recently, but none of the older trees are blackened. Perhaps this odd niche is akin to a serpentine barren where soil toxins discourage the smaller plants.

Contrasting sky, conifer and aspen.

Contrasting sky, conifer and aspen.

Above the switchbacks the trail resumes its northerly course and at 3.2 miles comes to a junction with the trail for the San Mateo Peak Lookout. Go left onto the Lookout trail, which is not quite as obvious as the Apache Kid tread but still easily followed. In 100 yards hit an entanglement of downed trees with many more trees still propped over your head. Thread your way through the tree jam (barely more than 50 yards) and begin ascending through a near-miracle’s worth of old-growth forest. Ancient Douglas firs of huge girth (but stubby stature) intermingle with aspen and pine. Between the trees is a wealth of grasses, which remained very green on the late-October date of this report.

View through a tower platform that is missing boards

View through a tower platform that is missing boards

Pass the junction for the Cowboy Trail at 4.0 miles and, barely a tenth of a mile further, come to the summit. There is fire tower, a cabin and a decaying corral. The forest is still quite thick, although there are views to the northern reaches of the Apache Kid Widerness and beyond to the Withington Wilderness. The fire tower remains standing, but portions of the platforms are missing. Be extra cautious with any ascent.

Magdalena Range from the San Mateo Peak fire tower.

Magdalena Range from the San Mateo Peak fire tower.

The views from the upper tower are great. To the northeast lie the Magdalena Mountains, to the southeast lies the Fra Cristebol Range. Beyond them, far to the southeast you can see the San Andreas Mountains. The broad expanse of gleaming desert floor due south is actually the Elephant Butte Reservoir. South and west lie the Black Range and beyond them lie the mountains of the Gila National Forest. To the northwest lies the Plains of San Augustin (home of the Very Large Array observatory). Descend carefully and return to the trailhead the same way you came in.

Recommendations:

Author descending the San Mateo fire lookout tower

Author descending the San Mateo fire lookout tower

♦This is a beautiful trail. It is not too terribly long and has a reasonable amount of vertical gain. This would be terrific destination for newcomers to the mountains of New Mexico.

♦Know, however, that these are lonely mountains. There was no one else at the trailhead either in the morning or in the afternoon. I saw no one else while hiking.

♦There are two ranges in New Mexico named after Saint Matthew. The range described here lies to the west of I-25 in Socorro County. The “other” San Mateo range lies to the  north of I-40 in Cibola County.

♦Just to keep things interesting, there are two peaks within the Socorro range called “San Mateo”. The summit described here is “San Mateo Peak”. If you were to follow the Shipman Trail #50 south you would find a summit called “San Mateo Mountain”.

♦This is hunting season. You will probably want to wear some orange if you go into these mountains. On this trip there wasn’t a single gunfire report, but the range is touted for it’s wildlife.

♦We’ve had a pretty good monsoon season so the springs are currently reliable. The San Mateo Spring is reportedly intermittent so in drier times bring your own water. I went through about two liters.

♦Many aspen trees are nearly bare. If you want to see some of the most striking color that New Mexico has to offer then get into them-thar hills as soon as possible!

Links:

♦Bob Mitchael, at the Sierra Club, has a 1999 report with interesting comments on the geology and surprisingly lush botanical resources on San Mateo Peak.

♦A good description (pdf) of the entire Apache Kid Trail has been provided by the Magdalena Chamber of Commerce.

♦The Albuquerque Hiking meet-up group has done this hike. One report cautions to expect several inches of snow for a mid-winter trip to the summit.

♦A. Jackson Frishman at FrishmanPhotos has an image of the southern end of the San Mateo Mountains. A glance at the photo may be enough to make you grab those hiking boots and get outdoors. Do bear in mind that he is showing San Mateo Mountain (not San Mateo Peak). The neighboring prominence is sometimes called Vic’s Peak rather than Vick’s Peak. This makes sense since it is named after a Mimbreño Apache leader named Victorio. “Vick’s Peak”, however, is the USGS designation. For the sake of navigators, here we will stick with the USGS usage.

♦Matt Basham has filed a report on the cultural and natural resource in the Magdalena Ranger District. The body of the report is interesting and the appendix showing color photos of plant life in the area is also worth studying. I learned that the brush that has been referred to on this website as “scrub oak” is perhaps better called Gambel’s Oak.

♦RWStorm describes this trail and provides many useful pictures at hikearizon.com

♦If you plan on taking an unacclimatized party up over 10,000 feet, then it pays to be aware of the symptoms and treatment of acute mountain sickness. A succinct treatment is given here.

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