At 13,161 feet Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in New Mexico. The trail gains almost 3000 feet in four miles, provides views to forever, offers considerable wildlife and has options to link up with other hikes. This all makes for a terrific day in the high country. Make it happen!
- From Interstate-25 in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for NM Route 599 North.
- After 13.2 miles take the left fork for a ramp to US Rt 84/US Rt 285 North
- After 0.7 miles merge onto Rt 84/Rt 285 North.
- After 21.9 miles, at a light in Espanola New Mexico, continue straight (where US 84/285 turns left) onto NM Rt 68 North.
- After 49.9 miles, at a light about two miles north of Taos, go right onto Route 150. (Note that this is a slight oversimplification. Route 68 turns into Route 64 in downtown Taos but the change is not well signed and it is probably easier just to think of Route 68/Route 64 as a single road. Note, too, that there is an ambiguous fork in the road just as you leave the downtown region of Taos, stay to the left at the fork).
- After 14.5 miles on Route 150 come to a large sign for the Taos Ski Resort. Turn left onto a long and wide parking area and ascend.
- At the top of the parking area (about a half mile), just as you near the resort buildings, find a gravel road signed Twinning Road on your left. Ascend on Twinning road.
- After 1.8 miles on Twinning Road (which becomes Kachina Road at some point) come to an intersection with Deer Lane, signed for “Hiker Parking”. Park your car here. Twinning’s gravel roadbed is quite steep in places. If there is any ice then you will need a four wheeler and perhaps chains.
The parking area is large and provides port-a-potties. I did not see any signs of drinkable water, although the Lake Fork of the Rio Hondo runs along the roadbed that serves as the start of the trail. Filter that water before drinking.
- Starting Elevation: 10,200
- Ending Elevation: 13,161 feet
- Net Elevation: 2960 feet
- Distance: 4.2 miles
- Maps: National Geographic “Taos Wheeler Peak” (available in Santa Fe at the BLM office 301 Dinosaur Trail, just off of Cerrillos Road near I-25). The trail described here was put in by the National Forest Service in 2011, so it is missing from the usual 7.5 minute maps. The 1995 map does show the older Bull of the Woods trail, while the 7.5 minute map from 2013 does not show any trails at all.
From the parking area, head along the gravel bed of Deer Lane as it winds its way among the facilities of Taos Ski Valley. It can be confusing, but watch for signs directing you along the Williams Lake Trail and follow these. In about half a mile you will pass the last of the buildings and continue ascending on a wide, rubble-strewn bed (the Bluejay Ridge ski trail) as it ascends along Lake Fork stream. The ridge formed by Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, Walker Mountain and Wheeler Peak is to your left.
As you pass a sign for the National Forest the forest closes in and the tread immediately improves. There is considerable sign of stress in these trees, presumably the effects of prolonged drought and perhaps bark beetles. All those dying firs must make the Taos Ski Valley operators a bit nervous. The trail trends a bit east of south as it rises along the valley bottom, winding through forest stands that seem to get healthier with altitude. At 1.5 miles from the trailhead the tread takes dead aim at an enormous pile of boulders, falters and then ducks to the right to go around. The boulders may have been deposited by a huge landslide, or perhaps are the slow-eroding remains of some tough intrusion into the country rock. A second prominent pile of rock arises at about 1.7 miles from the trailhead, this time the trail bends to the left. A third pile appears a few hundred yards later. Above the third pile the forest to the right of the trail pulls away leaving an exposed field of scattered boulders. Excellent views open up to the western ridgeline, the highest point being Lake Fork Peak.
The forest closes back in at a small height of land, marking the end of the open boulder field. On this knob, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, find a sign for Wheeler Peak. This is your cue to turn left and lateral out of the valley bottom. Rising gently at first, the trail encounters a steeper segment of the ridge wall and begins a long, long, long series of switchbacks. In the low, forested segment this is a pleasantly shaded challenge.
Soon, however, wide spaces grow between the trees and subalpine meadows appear. Avalanche chutes open views towards the summit. Try and tear your eyes away from the trail as this is the domain of bighorn sheep. They seem to like the bottom of the wide swales that hollow the ridge side. Presumably, this is where the grasses are at their densest. If you haven’t yet put on sunscreen then this would be a good time to slather some on. You are about to hit the timber line, after which shade becomes a rare commodity.
Popping above the tree line, begin an enormously long, beautifully engineered switchback takes you up and up and up to the north east. At its end arrive at small flat 3.2 miles from the trailhead. Raise you eyes higher and higher to contemplate the massive wall of grass covered rock and boulder that lies between you and Wheeler summit. Take note, too, that there will be a complete absence of any privacy from here on.
Time then, to lower you eyes to the trail and begin the long talus-tango that takes you to the top. It is well worth your while to stop every now and then to look out on the confines of valley hanging below you, to check out the crowds at Williams Lake in the cirque at the end of the valley, and to study the fall lines at the ski area. The switchbacks come quickly as the trail strives for a purchase on the slope. Breath deeply because that air is not getting any denser. Finally, at four miles from the trailhead, reach the ridgeline and an intersection with the Bull of the Woods trail. Note the cairn so you’ll know where to turn off on descent, then turn south (to your right). The trail bumps along the ridge to Wheeler summit, 4.2 miles from the trailhead and 13,161 feet above sea level. There are lakes, ridges, canyons, mountains and views to the Rio Grande Valley. Keep an eye out for storms, snap some photos and return the way you came.
This is a great hike. Check with your hiking companions to see if a midweek ascent to Wheeler is possible. The weekend summit gets crowded.
I spoke to several return summiteers who mentioned that, once the snow is well consolidated, a springtime glissade down the grassy slopes can be unbelievable. I believe.
This hike is high enough and long enough that its not a good candidate for bringing new hikers into the mountains. At least, I doubt that they’d have a very good time on it. A better option would be to bring youngsters to Williams Lake, a far easier and very attractive destination.
During the monsoon season, pick a day with a good forecast, start your hike at 7:00 am and get off the ridgeline early. Looking back from NM Rt 68, at around 2:00 pm, it sure looked like these mountains were wrapped in storm.
People have enormously variable responses to altitude. For a brief review of acute mountain sickness symptoms check out this link. There’s no need to put up with nausea or headache on a mere day hike. Turn your party around if someone becomes sick.
On Walkabout has an intriguing description of a loop trip up Wheeler. For a party in good shape this seems like a fantastic idea.
An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, from April of 2015, suggests that the trail up to Bull of the Woods may be under repairs. You might want to check the trail’s status before trying the above loop.
The Forest Service description, along with current fire conditions, is available.