The trail – the only trail – on Cabezon Peak is a scramble on a massive volcanic plug out in the desert. The plug is one of scores of volcano relics that dot the terrain in the vast Mt Taylor volcanic field, with vistas so broad and exotic that the notion of aliens feeling at home here seems almost reasonable. Go when the weather is great, go when the day is cool, go when there is time to soak up the views.
This route is one of the most exposed scrambles that has so far appeared in this blog – in places a fall would be costly or fatal. On a per-mile basis it is certainly strenuous. It is usually evaluated as a class 3 route, meaning that most people will not feel the need to be roped in. Acrophobes will not be at all happy here. Very young hikers should not be brought here. On this date a boy scout troop was on the route with experienced leaders. The 11 and 12 year olds seemed to be doing fine.
Take exit 242 on Interstate-25 (just north of Albuquerque) and go west on US-550. Cabezon Peak comes into view from US-550 a few miles before you turn off for NM-279
- After 41.6 miles, just past a sign for San Luis, Cabezon and Torreon, take a left onto NM-279 going west. There are a couple things to note about this road:
- At 8.5 miles the paved road takes an abrupt turn right. Keep going straight ahead onto a gravel road. You’ll come across several signs warning that bad weather can render the dirt road impassable. Judging from the huge ruts in the road, this is entirely believable.
- At 11.7 miles the road reaches a small rise and swings to your right. Make note as you go by since there is a fork here that is otherwise easy to miss. On return you do not want to go straight, but instead take the more prominent left-hand fork.
- After 12.3 miles come to a fork and go left onto BLM 1114. I didn’t see a sign, but this will be obvious as the right-fork would take you away from the huge volcanic plug on your left. Here are some landmarks for this road.
- At about 0.9 miles past the fork the road pitches over an embankment and descends to the Rio Puerco bottom where it crosses on a bridge. It then winds along the bottom eventually coming out on a steep rise.
- At 1.9 miles past the fork come to a second fork and, again, go left. As before, this will be obvious since this fork keeps you closest to the mountain.
- After 2.9 miles, at a minor crest, turn left onto a dirt road. There is a park interpretive sign at the junction. The sign is in the shape of a trapezoid with its shorter base on the bottom. It is nearly illegible. Apparently it has been out in the desert sun for a long time. You can still make out the words Cabezon Peak if you look closely. The road is not named, but let’s call it Cabezon Trailhead Road.
- After 1.0 mile, at the end of Cabezon Trailhead Road, come to the trailhead. NOTE: This road is not maintained. If you have a high clearance vehicle you should have no problem here. A family sedan, however, is another matter entirely. The Camry crawled the length of this road and, later, crawled back out. If the roadbed is even slightly muddy then consider walking the mile to the trailhead.
- Starting Elevation: 6480 feet
- Ending Elevation: 7785 feet
- Net Elevation: 1305 feet
- Distance: 1.4 miles (one way)
- Maps: USGS Cabezon Peak quadrangle
From the trailhead, look east at the soaring basaltic wall that is Cabezon Peak. At its base is a steep-sided debris field making a “skirt” around the plug. A little to the south you will see a small hillock that the debris field extends towards, but does not bury. Between the hillock and the peak is a small draw. As the trail leaves the trailhead it will be rising on the debris field skirt, ascending along the draw in the direction of the saddle between the peak and the hillock.
The initial part of the trail is fairly mellow. The tread is strewn with rock, so it pays to watch your footing. You are, unquestionably, deep into desert terrain. Prickly pear lunges into into the tread at its lowest level and cane cholla does its best to occupy the upper reaches. Tough juniper trees do show up here and there, but there is no protection from the sun. This would be a very hot trek in mid-summer.
Instead of heading to the saddle the trail increases the angle of attack across the debris skirt. It rises much higher than the saddle until it reaches the rib that extends down to the saddle. Here it turns almost directly uphill. Gravel underfoot makes contact with the tread wonderfully uncertain until, at about 0.8 miles, the tread pulls onto a flat spot, drops into a broad declivity dense with junipers and then rises yet a few feet more. As you reach this area you will begin to see a tall fin of rock peeking out from behind the main plug. The gully between the main plug and that fin is your approach to the summit.
The trail contours just below the talus field at the foot of the plug. Dropping slightly, trail comes to broad shelf populated with cairns. On your right will be a large arrow constructed of rocks with the arrow pointing uphill. You may have to look closely as the grasses can obscure it. (Which is odd, since this arrow is visible in satellite photos). If you examine the talus uphill from the arrow you will see a faint, boot-beaten track ascending toward the fin. Following it is hard work as steeply piled talus tends to roll under your boot.
The tread soon pulls between two tall rocky knobs and hits a cul-de-sac. The upper end provides the first of your climbing exercises on solid, whitish rock. Flex your fingers and go to work. Above this first exercise is a stretch of steep boot-beaten path and then, voila!, you are in the gully between fin and plug. The problem immediately in front of you is the crux. This might be a good time to check your party and make certain that all are ready, willing and able to ascend and descend the next 10 or 12 vertical feet. All OK? Have fun.
It isn’t exactly mellow above the crux, even though the angle eases. There is quite a bit of toe-and finger work to pull you up to a shelf high on the southeast side of the plug. From there look ahead for an old snag of a juniper, about 100 feet distant. Follow the tread towards this tree but you don’t want to go below it. About 20 feet before the snag look for an ascent on large, rounded lumps of pillow basalt. It is steep, but it will get you up to the level of the snag and the continuance of the trail.
Here the tread rises and falls less than 100 feet before turning uphill on rounded boulders for another pitch of finger and toe work. Cross beneath a thriving juniper and come to what appears to be a fork. Above you is a climbable route going up on an steep wall. To your right is an array of flattish rocks that might be more trail to the north. Alas, the latter is just feint. You will want to ascend the steep wall. The holds are a bit sparse on the lowest eight feet and, for some scramblers, may be just as challenging as the crux move below. Above, however the rock takes on a gnarled aspect with many welcome protrusions.
At the top of this pitch come to steep grass-and-cactus terrain. Follow it to the summit where you will find an elaborate windbreak. In the windbreak is a metal box containing the summit log. All about you, for many many miles, lies desert, the escarpments above the Rio Puerco, and innumerable smaller volcanic necks. To the north east lie the Naciamento Mountains (source the river), and the Jemez Mountains. To the southeast lies Mount Taylor. The high ridge to the distant west may be the Chuksa Mountains.
This is a cool-weather hike. It would be brutal in summer.
In cool weather this scramble can be very popular. In addition to the Boy Scouts I passed two other parties on the route and met another party on return to the trailhead. Bring a helmet because rockfall is a big concern. The shout of “Rock!” formed most of the conversation between people ascending the crack formed by the fin.
There isn’t much sense in picking Cabezon Peak if the weather is foul. Just traversing the roads could become a memorably demanding occupation. Pick your day and make your day!
I had a pretty heavy bag and that was a mistake. It was my usual bag for solo hiking and carried about four liters of water and full-on winter gear in case of a bivouac. It made for pretty sketchy scrambling. I poured out all but a half liter for the descent and put on much of the heavy fleece. That made things much easier to handle.
Bring friends. Today’s scramble was fun but it would have been great to pick out more distant peaks with folks who really know the area.
There are lots of good resources for Cabezon Peak. These are the ones I happened across when preparing for the hike:
There is terrific photography at Mary Caperton Morton’s site, Travels With The Blonde Coyote. She rates the last pitch as a class 4 and I’m inclined to agree.
SummitPost also has a very good route description, including a much better photo of the “the old snag” which is described by them as a “gnarled tree”. Additionally, there is a photo of the ascent up the talus slope with the route helpfully drawn in.
D’Ellis Photographic Art provides numerous great photos of the Peak and the surrounding terrain. The photo of the Cabezon interpretive sign, from a time at which the sign was still legible, may be of particular interest to your vehicle’s navigator.
A short description can be found at ClimbMountains.Com that is notable for offering difficulty ratings for individual phases of the climb. It also has a photo of a scrambler looking down the last pitch. The photo is a little grainy, but of all the pictures I’ve seen this is the best for giving a clear idea of what the pitch looks like.
Cabezon Peak is on BLM land. The BLM website (with driving directions) is found here.
The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has a terrific geology writeup and a useful map if you want to identify the other volcanic plugs nearby.