This scramble takes you into the high, cool and extraordinarily beautiful San Mateo Mountains of Socorro County. (There is a second “San Mateo Range” up north in Cibolo County, NM). Vick’s Peak climbs to over 10,000-feet at the southern end of the range. Rock Springs Canyon begins up on Vick’s northern flank, descends to the east and then wraps to the south at the base of the peak. The south wall of the canyon is formed by the spectacular cliff faces of Vick’s Peak. The north wall of Rock Springs Canyon is made of an ancillary ridge that begins on the north-south ridgeline of the San Mateo Mountains and juts out to the east. This ridge is an unnamed wonderland of cliffs and hoodoos, separating Corn Canyon to the north from Rock Springs Canyon to the south. Questionable navigation choices took me up its steep and oak-entangled flanks. I starting thinking of this ridge as “Pestle Ridge” because it ground down my scrambling ambitions the way a rock pestle grinds down corn. As an alternative, future explorers may want to try following the canyon bottom all the way to the main ridge line.
From Lohman Drive in Las Cruces, enter Interstate 25 (I-25) heading north.
- After 98.0 miles take exit 100 for Red Rock
- After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn west (left) on an unsigned road.
- After 0.3 miles arrive at a T-interesection (stop sign) with NM-1. Turn north (right) onto NM-1.
- After 4.7 miles arrive at the junction where Forest Road-225 meets NM-1. The junction is well signed. Turn west (left) onto FR-225, which is a gravel road.
- After 15.9 miles arrive at the trailhead. The road is rough in places. In a family sedan it may take longer to travel this 16 mile stretch than the entire rest of the trip. Here are a few landmarks to look for:
- After 13.5 miles on FR-225 come to a junction where 225A continues straight ahead to Springtime Campground and FR-225 makes a sharp left. The junction is well signed. Go left. Soon the road begins to climb and is steep in places.
- After 15.3 miles on FR-225 come to a cattle guard on a height of land. Two rough side roads come in on your left, one before the cattle guard and the other just after. Stay on FR-225.
- After 15.9 miles on FR-225, after a long and remarkably straight descent from the height of land, FR-225 makes a gentle curve to the right and then a sharp leftward bend. An old mining road comes in from the right. Park just past the intersection.
FR-225 is drivable but in places it will be pretty hard on your suspension. There are aged tracks from road-grading machinery, so it has received reasonably recent attention. In several places it dives into canyon beds – bad places to be caught if a heavy rainstorm is drenching the mountains above.
Immediately below the intersection of the old mining road and FR-225 there is a parking spot large enough for one car. The surface is uneven – I had to jack up the Camry to free it from a protrusion – but it gets your car off the narrow confines of FR-225. The mining road itself is very rough, but drivers with high clearance vehicles can ascend the steep initial 50 feet to find a broad and safe parking area. The trailhead is informal and no services are provided.
- Starting elevation: 7800 feet
- Ending elevation: 9600 feet
- Net elevation gain: 1800 feet
- Distance: 1.9 miles one way
- Maps: USGS Vicks Peak, NM quadrangle
The original plan for this post was to describe a route to the main ridge line of the Magdalena Mountains via Rock Springs Canyon. It was hoped that it might become a guide to summiting Vick’s Peak as well. As Mr. Burns gleefully notes, plans “gang aft agley“. In fact, the experience did not produce very much in terms of a scramble guide. Treat this post, instead, as a summary of how to spend a splendid day lost in one of New Mexico’s grandest sky islands. If it encourages you to explore this part of the San Mateos then that would be great.
There are two ways to start the scramble. You can walk up FR-225 for about 50 feet and enter directly into the main bed of the canyon. However, it is a bit more pleasant to hike up the old mining road for 150 feet to a point where you can see the sign on a gate blocking further motor vehicle travel. (Look for a stone fire-ring on your left). Turn off the road on the uphill side and enter the canyon bottom. The terrain is open, shaded and grassy. There is no trail, but here in the canyon bottom there are no navigation difficulties. You will encounter some thickets and occasional deadfall, but there is plenty of room to move around such barriers.
This is the domain of ponderosa pine interspersed with alligator juniper and the occasional pinyon pine. The initial slope is very mellow. If a formal trail were to be introduced here it would be considered family friendly. After a half a mile you will begin to get glimpses into the upper canyon. This terrain is distinguished by a pair of cliffs that pinch in on both the north and south sides of Rock Springs Canyon – naturally occurring gateposts separating the high country. The rock is spectacular. Up close you can see that the northern gatepost is well on its way to being carved into hoodoos.
Just past the gateposts, about 0.9 miles from the trailhead, encounter an opening in the trees. For unclear reasons a grove of ponderosa is dying – many trees are plainly dead snags and others in the last stages of losing their brown needles. This sad opening does give you a glimpse into the canyon’s highest reaches. As you would expect, there are numerous cliff faces on the famously rocky flanks of Vick’s Peak. It was unsettling to note the many towering outcrops that appear on the “Pestle Ridge” side of the canyon as well. Worried about getting trapped in the bottom of a box canyon, I took a look at the terrain leading directly up hill towards the top of Pestle Ridge. In the low part of the canyon the terrain was open and the walls were not especially steep. Turning directly uphill, I started wandering towards a prominent fin of rock. For the record, this is not a recommended route.
My naive hopes for an easy approach to the main San Mateo ridgeline were crushed as the pines gave way to steep and dry terrain on which Gambel Oak intertwined with mountain mahogany, punctuated with “shin dagger” agave. This kind of bush-bashing is a way of life in the Organ Mountains, where you expect to encounter long reaches of importunate vegetation. But this was the San Mateo Range, home to fine wandering terrain like San Mateo Peak and the trail to Myers Cabin! A more experienced New Mexico explorer would have turned around after penetrating just 20 feet into this vegetative miasma. After all, there would have been nothing wrong with following the bed of Rock Springs Canyon into a high (and possibly impassable) box end. Instead, lured by glimpses of pine high above, a kind of mindless, “straight at em” mantra took over my navigational thinking. It took an hour and a quarter to gain the 800 feet to the ridge top. This at considerable cost to pants, shirt, hat, bootlaces and hands. This is not how experienced scramblers navigate a wonderland.
In contrast, the top of Pestle Ridge is just about everything a scrambler could ask for. It is a rise-and-fall ramble in a ponderosa and Doug fir forest with outstanding views across Rock Spring Canyon to the summit of Vicks Peak. There are equally inspiring views north-north-east, across Mulligan trough to the bold prominences of South Baldy Peak and North Baldy Peak in the Magdelana Mountains. Beautiful terrain. The hours had gone by, however, and my turn-around time arrived at a point just a few hundred feet below the the main San Mateo ridgeline. This area is calling out for further exploration.
Return to the low point on Pestle Ridge and take note of a gently sloping draw that looks like a better route for returning to the canyon bottom. In fact, it proves to be an excellent alternative. There were short steep pitches, but these were never long and don’t require any climbing moves. The chief difficulty is that the bottom of the draw is occasionally debris-chocked. You have to move around or over these piles of log and brush. If the upper end of the main canyon proves impassable then this draw would be a very handy alternative. The draw segues almost imperceptibly into the main bed of Rock Springs Canyon. (Future explorers who wish to remain in the main canyon on their ascent should stay close to the north side – the left hand side looking uphill). Return to the trailhead via the canyon bottom.
♦This is a beautiful spot. I doubt that I’ve seen anything more attractive anywhere in New Mexico. Scramblers who are in good shape ought to put this high in the to-do list. Bring a camera, a sense of adventure and a couple strong friends.
♦I can’t think of any reason why anyone, anywhere or at any time might want to follow my track up the wall of “Pestle Ridge”. Instead, try exploring the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon all the way to the main San Mateo ridge line. Alternatively, ascend the draw that was used on this day’s descent. Edit: see this post for a route description that takes you up Rock Springs canyon to the summit of Vicks Peak.
♦Rock Springs Canyon was entirely dry on this date. Bring all the water that you might need.
♦This is a scramble in wild terrain! A map, compass and navigation skills are essential. A GPS is a great tool – I had mine with me – but be careful of leaving your navigation needs to something that can break or run out of battery power. Vick’s Peak is heavily forested above the main ridge line and has distinct navigation challenges.
♦As mentioned in the driving directions, Forest Road 225 crosses several canyon bottoms and even follows along the canyon beds for short sections. A drenching rainstorm in the San Mateos could make your exit drive far more exciting that anyone could hope for. Bring lots of patience, at least one shovel and a pick if you come to the San Mateos with rain in the forecast.
♦Also, FR-225 gets bumpy where rocky shelves appear in the road. These were blasted out to make the original road, but they can be very rough on your car’s springs and shocks. Ditto for those places where previous drivers have churned up a muddy road bed and then left it to harden into contorted gullies. Oil pans are fragile things, go slow and careful. Where FR-225 makes long descents, consider shifting your vehicle into first gear.
Searches for “Rock Springs Canyon” AND “San Mateo” turns up a list sites where they offer geological place names or location data (or “nearby” hotels!). This scramble seems to be missing from all of the usual sources for hike information including Trail.Com and SummitPost.Com. There are more hits with “Vicks Peak”, but all the ones I read suggest approaching either from the Springtime Campground to the north or from Burma Road to the south. Evidently, Rock Springs Canyon is a little too lonesome even for the internet.