This scramble takes you into the wild and lonely sky-islands of the San Mateo Mountains in Socorro County, New Mexico. It begins on the mellow bottomlands of Rock Springs Canyon, springs onto steep boulder fields near the San Mateo ridge line and finishes with a pathless ascent of the forested summit on Vick’s Peak. Don’t bring novice hikers. The route is short, strenuous and spectacular.
- From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate 25 (I-25) heading north.
- After 99.7 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 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 cattle guard on a height of land. Two rough side roads come in on your left – one before the cattle guard and one just past the cattle guard. Stay on FR-225.
- After 15.9 miles on FR-225, after a long and remarkably straight descent from the height of land, the road makes a gentle rightward curve and then a sharp leftward bend. An old mining road comes in from the driver’s right. Park just past the intersection.
FR-225 is drivable but in places it will be pretty hard on your suspension. In several places it crosses canyon beds – bad places to be stuck if a heavy rainstorm is drenching the mountains above.
The trailhead is just a small and rough parking spot beside Forest Road 225. There are no services. Folks driving high clearance vehicles may be able to drive the old mining road 150 feet to a wide and safe parking area
- Starting Elevation: 7760 feet
- Ending Elevation: 10,256 feet
- Net Elevation: 2500 feet
- Distance: 2.4 miles (one way)
- Maps: USGS Vicks Peak quadrangle
From the car, head up the mining road for 150 feet. You will find an opening in the trees with lots of parking space and a rock fire-ring on the left side of the road. A gate bars the road just a little further along. Turn uphill (right) and enter the open and frequently grass-covered bed of Rock Springs Canyon. There is no trail and no navigation problem. Simply probe uphill near the canyon bed, skirting around debris piles and pushing past occasional thickets. The open nature of the terrain is due to the big ponderosa pine that shade the canyon. You could hardly ask for a nicer way to warm up for a scramble. If you stay a bit high on the south side of the canyon (the left side going uphill) you may find yourself on an old mining road crisscrossed with deadfall. The road is faster, but the canyon bottom is more attractive.
After hiking 0.9 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself walking between matched cliffs on the south and north sides of the canyon. These I’ve termed The Gateposts, since they separate the lower portion of the canyon from the upper reaches. They are worth noting, since they act as navigation beacons when viewed from the main San Mateo ridge line.
Past the gateposts the terrain steepens. Ponderosa and pinyon pines dominate the bottom of the canyon, while Gambel Oak thickets hold the walls. There is less room to navigate around debris piles. As you ascend watch for waterways coming in from the north (from your right, looking uphill) as some are quite prominent. A moment’s inattention could send you on an unexpected journey. A big cliff dominates the canyon above you and it can make an explorer uneasy – what sort of tricky maneuvering might be needed to get past such a wall? At 1.3 miles you will find your answer. There is a pinch point where the cliff wall lunges towards Vicks peak. Thwarted, it leaves a canyon narrows for you to ascend in safety and comfort. Even the debris piles thin out here, presumably carried off by storms past.
Enjoy the shade while it lasts. The footing on the canyon bottom becomes increasingly rubbly. On your left you will see breaks in the woods where piles of shattered rock hold the forest’s encroachment at bay. On your right the canyon wall becomes a palisade of dizzying rock spires. Eventually, those spires will force you out of the forest and onto the rock piles. This is not pebble-size scree nor fist-sized talus, but a rather a slope containing small boulders – on average about the size of a basketball. Continue your westerly ascent along the shallowest gradient available. The footing is not bad, but your pace will probably slow considerably.
The boulder field broadens dramatically as you ascend. After a steeper pitch the terrain benches and you will be able to see to the main San Mateo ridge. Above you, about mid-way up the remaining boulder field, you will see a tree that has lost all of its upper branches but retains a dense green “skirt” of living lower branches. Reach this tree having hiked 1.7 miles from the trailhead. On this date I turned directly for Vicks Peak to the south, a steep ascent up a loosely piled boulder field. There are alternatives. Consider staying on the lowest incline to reach a saddle on the main San Mateo ridge. The footing will probably be better and you should be able to follow the ridge to the peak.
To follow the route used on this date, depart from the “skirted” tree towards the largest cliff to the south. The footing is tricky since many of the boulders are only loosely held in place. There is a scattering of trees at the base of the cliff (shown in the photo above). The trees provide detritus for moss to grow in, and the moss plus soil helps to stablize the slope. High above the boulder field you will see a dense forest. A “finger” of this forest extends down the slope. When you rise high enough, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, leave the base of the cliff and contour southeast to reach this narrow strip of forest. It is much easier to ascend on the duff that carpets this forested segment. Stay to the left side of this narrow strip of forest, looking southeast over the upper end of the boulder field. You will want to avoid the false summit that lies north-north-west of Vick’s Peak, so you need to work your way a little further southeast. About 200 feet below the upper end of the boulder field leave the narrow strip of forest and cross 100 – 200 feet of boulder field to enter the main forest.
The high flanks of Vick’s Peak are covered with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and occasional aspen groves. Performing a rising traverse through this forest is tricky. Pathfinders often fail to climb enough on such traverses. You will want a compass and experience navigating with it. True north is 12-degrees west of magnetic north in this area. Set your compass’s declination and follow a bearing of 184 degrees from true north. Familiarize yourself with the local landmarks so you can descend the same route. At 2.1 miles from the trailhead come to the ridge that joins Vick’s Peak to its false summit. Pause to make certain that you will recognize this point on descent, where you will exit the ridge. Then turn south (to your left as you get onto the ridge) and follow the ridge as it ascends gently through open forest. There is a faint path, but in places the tread fans out into game trails and in other places it briefly disappears. Simply staying on the ridge will get you to the summit.
At 2.4 miles from the trailhead the forest gives way to summit meadow. A tall cairn stands at the summit. I did not find a summit register. There are at least two brass plaques marking where the Geodesic Survey has surveyed the peak. You can pick out the Caballo Cone on the north end of the Caballo Range, the long sweep of the Black Range, high South Baldy in the Magdalena Range, the Manzano Mountains, the San Andreas Mountains and the Fra Cristobal Range. Close up, there are terrific views to the false summit on Vick’s Peak and nearby San Mateo Mountain. A vigorous party could descend north-north-west to the saddle holding Myer’s Cabin (being wary of mine shafts) and ascend San Mateo Peak before returning. Are you feeling oppressed by rapidly developing cumulus clouds? Snap some quick photos, grab a bite to eat and scamper back the way you came.
Last week I visited this same area and made a few recommendations that can be found here.
The upper boulder field used on ascent for this route is steep and the rocks are not well consolidated. If you ascended to the “skirted tree” but continued upward on the low-angle portion of the field to the San Mateo ridge line, then you may find better footing. From the saddle you should be able to follow the ridge as it arcs southwest and then south (over Vick’s false summit) to attain the true summit.
This hike averages about 1000 feet per mile. The gentle grade in the first mile assures you of harsher grades in the last mile. You will need to expend considerable effort at altitudes that reach 10,256-feet. Altitude sickness is a real possibility. A good summary of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness can be found here.
The wind over Vick’s Peak was more than merely cool. At noon on a day in late May the wind was positively chilly. That, plus the discovery of a micro-snowfield lingering between boulder-field rocks, tells you that an emergency bivouac would be icy. Pack fleece.
There are two San Mateo Ranges in New Mexico. If you are looking for maps or other guides to this region, make certain that you are getting data on the San Mateo Range in Socorro County, not the range in Cibola County!
As mentioned last week, there isn’t much data on hiking into Rock Springs Canyon. This week I extended the search into hunting or rock-hounding web sites. No luck! You will be entirely on your own once you drive FR-225 past the fork to Springtime Campground.