01 Deception (right) and ridge leading to Lake Peak (left)

Deception Peak (right) and narrow ridge to Lake Peak (left)

Overview:

This is a beautiful, lasso-style loop into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is more lonely than the tread to Santa Fe Baldy, although the trail gains almost the same altitude and offers a chance to explore three named peaks. It is not recommended if your party has  just flown in from Boston or San Diego, but for those who’ve acclimated this is a fantastic entrance to the Pecos WildernessPecos WildernessPecos Wilderness.

Driving Directions:

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

  • Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
  • After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
  • After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
  • After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
  • After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
  • After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.

All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.

Trailhead:

03 trailhead

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead has vault toilets and is paved. There is a piece of equipment that looks like a water outlet, but it was not working. The Rio Medio runs past the parking lot, but it is strongly advised that you treat that water before using. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and can get crowded. On this weekend REI was in the ski area parking lot offering Clif bars and introductory classes on map-and-compass work.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,409 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,160 feet
  • Distance: 10.8 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe). The portion of the hike from Raven’s Ridge to Lake Peak is not shown as a trail on the USGS map.

Hike Description:

03a fence at National Forest border

Fence at National Forest border, go right (along the fence)

From the trailhead, cross the Rio Medio (here, a small stream) on a plank bridge and intersect Trail 254, the Winsor Trail. Turn right and follow the Winsor Trail along the stream for about 100 yards where it  switchbacks and pulls away from the river. The trail is very popular and beautifully maintained. It gains about 600 feet in the first 0.8 miles, where it comes to an attractive wooden fence atop Raven Ridge.  Trail 254 worms through a needles eye in the fence and drops the Rio Nambe basin. Instead, turn right and begin following trail 251, the Raven’s Ridge Route, eastward as the tread surges into the sky.

04 view into Nambe Canyon

First View of Upper Reaches of Nambe Canyon

Enter a fir, spruce and aspen wood where the fence becomes a very business-like barbed wire assembly. it can’t be easy to haul fencing material up this way, yet the fence is being carefully maintained. Hikers should maintain awareness of the barbs, since the trail can brush quite close to the wires. The tread rises pretty steadily, with agreeable terrain benches occasionally breaking the monotony. Patches of aspen alternate with patches of spruce and fir, although by the time you arrive at 11,000 feet the aspens have almost completely disappeared. At just over 11,300 feet (about 1.5 miles from the trailhead) the trail hits a canyon rim above Nambe Lake, the headwaters of the Rio Nambe. Stroll a bit off-trail, to the rim, and look up to your right for initial views to the toothy precipice that is Lake Peak.

Deception and Lake Peaks

Santa Fe Baldy on left, Deception summit in foreground, Truchas Peak in background and Lake Peak on right.

Turn left and follow the trail as it ascends, just a little west of south and braids out in open conifer forest. Stick close to the rib that overlooks Nambe Lake. On this date the reason for that carefully maintained fenced became evident, as it was necessary to pick a path between somewhat skittish cattle (at 11,500 feet, by far that highest herd I’ve ever encountered). Cattletude! The trail bumps along here, sometimes losing but more often gaining against the pull of gravity. At about 2.1 miles the trail hits a major bump and views begin to open to the grassy summit block of Deception Peak. The trail drops a surprising way to a saddle, then pushes boldly into the open terrain and on to gain the summit at 12,240 feet and 2.8 miles from the trailhead. Even in late July the winds can be very chilly! The views are great, but there is this deceptive, just-barely-higher, chunk-o-granite that blocks the full 360-degree panorama. So, grab a bite to eat, take a swig of water, and drop down a little as you head southeast towards Lake Peak.

Notch below Deception Peak

View to notch (upper left) and lower trail (lower right). Double-click to enlarge.

The drop into the first notch is quick and neither exposed nor challenging. However, at this first notch you must make a decision. You can take a high route that involves scrambling up from the notch and over boulders on a narrow ridge. This route is reported to involve exposed, class 3 climbing moves. Alternatively,  you can descend to the south on open, steep and crumbly terrain to gain a foot trail that is visible about 15 feet below the notch. The guys in front of me seemed to be unaware of the difficulty of the upper passage and had to turn around. I took the lower route on this day and enjoyed the mildly exposed and steep terrain in sub-alpine woodlands very much.

IMAG0132

Narrow ridge looking back to Deception

Keep an eye on that ridge above you, it doesn’t take long to traverse below the worst of it. At about 3.1 miles from the trailhead (or about a quarter mile from the summit of Deception) scramble up a set of rocky gullies to regain the ridge and an easy amble to the top of Lake Peak. To the south is the broad canyon that forms the headwaters of the Santa Fe River. To the west (if you backtrack a few yards) are views to the rocky ridge that leads back to Deception. To the north is Santa Fe Baldy. Just a little east of Santa Fe Baldy are views to East Pecos Baldy, West Pecos Baldy, Chimayosos Peak and Truchas (“trout”) Peak. Immediately to the west is the grassy table-top of Penitente Peak. Beyond Penitente lies the heart of the Pecos Wilderness.

..

09 Penitente Peak from point near col

Penitente Peak from col

Is the sky threatening? Then hurry back the way you came. If the skies are clear then plot a course east, following a steep path in the direction of Penitente Peak. This part of the tread descends briskly in subalpine forest to a col immediately below the summit block of Penitente and 3.6 miles from the trailhead. Strangely, the trail does not go to the summit, but rather contours around to the south. (This may be welcome if the weather is degrading). Leave the trail at the col and strike out directly for the summit on open and grassy terrain. You will gain 200 feet and arrive at 12,249 feet where there is a well-constructed  summit wind-break (but no summit register that I could find). Celebrate the last summit of the day! Then note that there are no obvious trails on the summit, despite all the work that went into that wind break. Strike off north east, descending the long axis of this near-plateau. Where the table-top begins to fall off steeply you will regain Trail 251, the SkyLine trail.

10 view down the tabletop on Penitente

View northeast (towards distant Truchas) from Penitente summit.

This trail takes you into the hanging valley between Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak. The descent is on switchbacks so broad that sometimes they seem to be taking you away from the valley. Don’t panic. It is all part of the game plan. At 6 miles from the trailhead reach a saddle where terrain descending from Penitente Peak collides with terrain descending from Santa Fe Baldy. This gap, called Puerto Nambe, separates the Rio Nambe drainage flowing west into the Rio Grande and the Windsor Creek/Holy Ghost Creek drainages that flow east into the Pecos River. At Puerto Nambe the Sky Line Trail intersects with Trail 254, the Winsor Trail.

12 Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Turn west (left) onto the Winsor Trail and follow it into the open terrain of Nambe Meadows at 6.4 miles. The trail is broad, sometimes stony, but carefully engineered and signed. In the meadows the Sky Line Trail will depart to the northeast (for Lake Katherine), but stay on the Winsor Trail if you wish to return to the trailhead. The trail descends a few hundred feet from Nambe Meadows, crosses several small drainages that feed into Rio Nambe, and then begins a miles-long ramble below the faces of Penitente, Lake and Deception peaks. At 10 miles from the trailhead return to the fence atop Raven’s Ridge. You’ve completed the loop portion of this hike. Go through the fence opening and take off downhill. Return to the trailhead having hiked about 10.8 miles.

Recommendations:

14 Author on flank of Lake Peak, Santa Fe baldy in background

Author on flanks of Lake Peak

I had four liters of water and still had a liter left at the end of the hike. Unless you’re hiking on a very hot day that should be enough.

During monsoon season get an early start. That way you going in the cool of the morning and it will help get you off very exposed ridge lines before the afternoon storms appear. I haven’t done much hiking in this area myself, but all the guidance I’ve seen suggests that it’s best to be below treeline before 1:oo p.m., although that is just the most general kind of guidance.

Due to the presence of cattle and the sketchy nature of the trail in some places you may want to leave your pets at home. If you do take Rover along, then I’d strongly recommend against trying the upper route from the notch below Deception Peak.

This is a route that begs for zoom lenses. (Which I did not have, alas). If you’ve got an old point-and-shoot at home you should dig it out rather than rely on cellphone cameras.

Like all loops you can hike it either counterclockwise (as described here) or clockwise. The counterclockwise route gets the heavy climbing in early, when hikers are still fresh. This is going to be the more enjoyable direction for most parties.

Links:

The OutBound blog has some nice photos, check out the images of the narrow ridge between Deception and Lake Peak.

This post on the Hiking Project has a description of this hike, a map, and evidently managed to get a dog across the narrow ridge!

Summit Post has detailed trailhead directions and some spectacular images of Lake and Deception in winter time.

There is a cool discussion of the area’s geology at Geological Joy New Mexico. It uses Google Earth to position a view into the cirque that holds Nambe Lake, giving you a fine chance to pick out the arrangement of Deception, Lake and Penitente peaks.

The Santa Fe New Mexican (local newspaper) has an article on hiking in the area. It is notable for covering nearly all the basic concerns about hiking around Santa Fe.

Bringing unacclimated guests? Altitude sickness symptoms are succinctly described here for people and here for dogs.

 

 

 

 

01 Summit view into Pecos

View from Wheeler Summit

Overview:

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!

02 Hiker Parking

Sign at trailhead

Driving Directions:

  • 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.
O3 Mighty Camry in "Hiker Parking"

The mighty Camry

Trailhead:

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.

 

Data:

  • 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.

Hike Description:

04 Deer Lane

Start down Deer Lane

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.

05 view west over boulder field

View across boulder field to western ridge

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.

06 Wheeler signThe 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.

07 Big Horn terrain

Switchback in bighorn terrain

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.

08 Cairn marking ridgeline departure

Cairn where trail strikes ridge

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.

09 Summiteers

Summiteers on Wheeler

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.

Recommendations:

10 Author

Author on Wheeler Peak

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.

Links:

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.

You can get an idea of the current conditions by looking at the Taos Ski Valley’s High Line Ridge webcam or the Kachina Peak webcam.

The Forest Service description, along with current fire conditions, is available.

 

 

01 Santa Fe Baldy from Winsor Trail

Santa Fe Baldy summit from Winsor Trail

Overview:

This is a much-loved hike in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just outside the city of Santa Fe. The trail is obvious and very well maintained. At 14-miles (round trip) it is a workout, especially since it starts off at 10,250 feet and winds its way up over 12,640 ft. This is a wonderful training hike, but crowded. Both thunderstorms and altitude sickness can set in quickly, be watchful.

Driving Directions:

07 High altitude flower show

High Altitude Flower Show

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

  • Take exit 276 from I-25 for Route 599 North
  • After 13.2 miles, stay right at the fork to go south on St. Francis (as if headed into Santa Fe)
  • After 1.4 miles, at a light, make a left onto Paseo Peralta (signed for New Mexico Route 475)
  • After 1.0 miles, at a light, make a left onto Bishops Lodge Road (also signed for NM Route 475)
  • After 0.1 miles, at a light, go right onto Artists Road (also signed for NM 475)
  • After 14.8 miles arrive at the Ski Santa Fe resort. Stay left and park in the lower parking lot.

All roads are paved. As Artist’s Road leaves the city limits it becomes Hyde Park Road. This road attracts many bicyclists, keep an eye out for them on the trip up to the ski resort and on the trip back down. Portions of the road are fairly steep and on return it pays to use low gear to spare your brakes.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry, with friendsThe trailhead has vault toilets, appeared to have a water faucet (I did not test it) and is paved. This trailhead is used for several hiking destinations and the parking lot can be packed on nice weekends.

 

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 10,250 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,640 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,390 feet
  • Distance: 6.7 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Aspen Basin or “Santa Fe Explorer” by Dharma Maps (The Dharma Maps edition can be obtained at the BLM office on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe).

Hike Description:

03 Plank Bridge over Rio Medio

The stream that runs along the edge of the parking lot is the Rio Medio. Cross it on a plank bridge and turn right to ascend on the broad and remarkably smooth Winsor Trail, trail #254. In about 100 yards it will pull away from the waterway and begin switchbacking its way up to Ravens Ridge and the start of the National Forest. At the ridge, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead, you will have gained about 600 feet. There is a “needles eye” opening in the fence that marks the edge of the national forest. Push through it and begin to lose some of the altitude you just acquired.

 

04 Well signed trail junctinos

Signage on trail

There are four side trails. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead you will pass trail #403, the Lower Rio Nambe Trail, departing on your left.  (Nambé is said to be a Spanish rendition of a Tewa word meaning ’rounded earth’, evidently a reference to pueblo architecture). According to the Sierra Club’s Day Hikes In The Santa Fe Area this trail is known informally as “the elevator shaft”.  Trail #400, signed for Nambe Lake, departs to your right at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead. The Upper Nambe Trail, #101, departs to your left at 2.5 miles.  The Rio Nambe Trail (which descends along side the Rio Nambe) departs to your left at 3.3 miles. Soon thereafter the trails crosses the upper reaches of Rio Nambe (which had running water on this date) and begins to switchback, arriving at Nambe Meadows having gone 4.1 miles from the trailhead. All intersections are well signed.

05 Entry to Nambe Meadows

Nambe Meadows

The three-plus miles of trail between Raven Ridge and Nambe Meadows mostly follows the 10,400 foot contour and winds through patches of fir (possibly alpine fir) and strikingly homogenous aspen groves. As mentioned in the introduction, this is a much-visited trail and you will likely find trail runners, horse folk, backpackers and fishermen sharing the trail with you.  This part of the trail has more roots and rocks than the first mile, but it is still very well maintained.

06 View from col, Pecos Baldies to distant left

Saddle on Sky Line Trail

In Nambe Meadows, depart trail 254 to your left on the Sky Line Trail, #251 (signed). This is another broad and well maintained tread that takes you through spacious subalpine terrain towards Lake Katherine. After several long switchbacks arrive at a saddle at 5.7 miles from the trailhead. There are terrific views into the Pecos Wilderness from here. To the north (left as you arrive at the saddle) there are distant views of Pecos Baldy East and Pecos Baldy West. From this point the Sky Line Trail drops down to Lake Katherine.

08 Ridge at top of Santa Fe Baldy

Nearing the top ridge with view to Santa Fe Baldy summit

Don’t go to Lake Katherine. Instead, at the top of the saddle depart trail #251 to the left at an unsigned intersection on a much rougher trail that heads directly towards the open summit. This trail is a bit more apt to disappear into the trees or become braided out in the open terrain, but there is really no navigation problem. It simply follows a ridge from the saddle to the summit. The air begins to get a little thin – light-headedness was a common complaint as you get to the shoulder of the broad summit. Spectacular views open up to the tall Truchas Mountains (Spanish for “trout”).

09 Santa Fe Baldy Summit

Summit from ridge traverse

Reach the shoulder, panting, and follow a much gentler tread as it traverses the broad ridge to the summit of Santa Fe Baldy 6.8 miles from the trailhead and 12,640 feet above sea level. On this date there were small remnants of snow banks still clinging to protected areas below the summit. There are views south to nearby Lake and Penitente Peaks, east into the Pecos, southwest to the Sandias and northwest to the Jemez Mountains; they are spectacular. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

12 Rain threat, about 2:00 pm

Storm threat on descent

This is a wonderful training hike and a great place to introduce strong new hikers to the high terrain in northern New Mexico.

Almost every discussion of this hike makes mention of lightning strikes on the summit ridge. This was certainly borne out on this day – the entire ridge was shrouded with cumulus by the time I got back to Santa Fe in late afternoon. Turn around if the weather gets iffy. It pays to start the hike early and to depart from the summit early.

I had three liters of water and it was not enough. I would have been much happier with four.

Links:

10 Lake Katherine from Summit

View to Lake Katherine from Santa Fe Baldy

There is an excellent overview of this trail on SummitPost, including mention of the desirability of getting off the ridge lines by early afternoon during thunder season.

A brief account of a wintertime hike, with some terrific photos, can be found at The Blonde Coyote.

Many people include Lake Katherine in their Santa Fe Baldy excursion. For an account of a warm-weather camping trip (including a scramble up the north ridge of Baldy) and some more great photos, click through to My Life Outdoors.

A Guide To Hikes and Scrambles in New Mexico


Update: July 24, 2016:

Hey, I’m back for a while. Currently I’m in Santa Fe and hope to have the opportunity to post some new hikes in that area. (It is beautiful, by the way). I already have drafts for the hikes to Santa Fe Baldy and for Wheeler Peak. Hopefully, there will be more to come.

Marty


 

In the last three years I’ve been meandering around New Mexico and posting route descriptions for the various hikes. My meandering now takes me to New England, well outside the coverage area for this blog. The New England states have their own charm but I will miss New Mexico’s enormous vistas and the incredible joys of the region’s sky islands.

Author on Baker Peak, via Lake Trail, in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Author on Baker Peak, via Lake Trail, in the Green Mountains of Vermont

My thanks to those readers who have frequented these posts! If this is your first visit then I suggest you use the navigation aids at the top of each page. Those who are hiking from a fixed location in New Mexico should check out the “Map of Trailheads” link to find nearby hikes. Those who are looking for a particular hike should check out the “Hikes By Name” link to find specific trails or to find hikes in a specific mountain range. Those who are concerned about the effects of the seasons should check out the “Hikes by Date” link to get easy links to hikes in contrasting seasons.

The “About” link asserts that the summits of New Mexico are usually high, often cold and frequently lonely. Also, they are very beautiful.

Marty

July 2015

 

Overview:

View of Vicks Peak from Forest Road 225

View of Vicks Peak from Forest Road 225. Doubleclick to enlarge.

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.

Driving Directions:

Nearing the Springtime Campground on the upper reaches of Nogal Canyon. Vicks Peak at top center.

Nearing the Springtime Campground on the upper reaches of Nogal Canyon. Vicks Peak at top center.

  • 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.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the trailhead. The old mining road coming down from above/right of the car.

Cliffs on Vick’s Peak tower over the Mighty Camry at the trailhead.  The mining road can be glimpsed coming down to the right of the car.

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

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7760 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,256 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2500 feet
  • Distance: 2.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Vicks Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Game trail on grassy canyon bottom at the start of the scramble.

Game trail on grassy canyon bottom near the start of the scramble.

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.

View to South Gatepost from the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon

View to South Gatepost from the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon

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.

A drift of bleached logs, four to six inches in diameter, tangled on the canyon bottom.

A drift of bleached logs, four to six inches in diameter, tangled on the canyon bottom.

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.

A rock spire lofts towards the sky (left) while on the right is an opening to a boulder field.

A rock spire lofts towards the sky (left) while on the right is an opening to a boulder field.

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.

Cliff above boulder field, descending to the right. At the end of this decent is a snag, dead at its to but  retaining a green skirt of living branches at its base.

The main cliff above the boulder field, descending to the right. At the end of this descent is a snag, dead at its top but retaining a green skirt of living branches at its base.

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.

Boulder field on Vick's Peak, looking toward

Boulder field on Vick’s Peak, looking out toward “Pestle Ridge”. The Gatepost cliffs are prominent in the center of the photo.

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.

Climber's tread on the ridge to Vick's Peak

Climber’s tread on the ridge to Vick’s Peak

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.

San Mateo Mountain (left), false summit on Vick's Peak (right) and beyond to the San Agustin Plains

San Mateo Mountain (left), false summit on Vick’s Peak (right) and beyond to the San Agustin Plains

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.

Recommendations:

The author, blocking your views to the Magdalena Mountains.

The author, blocking your views to the Magdalena Mountains.

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!

Links:

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.

Overview:

Vicks Peak seen from FR-225. Rock Springs Canyon  is the darkly shadowed canyon coming in from the right side.

Vicks Peak seen from FR-225. Rock Springs Canyon is the darkly shadowed canyon coming in from low on the right side.

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.

Driving Directions:

  • Sobering overcast at Exit 100 off of Interstate-25

    Worrisome overcast at Exit 100 off of Interstate-25

    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.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry, parked at the sharp turn on FR225 (going left) with an old road coming in from the right.

The Mighty Camry, parked at the sharp turn on FR225 (going left) with an old road coming in from the right.

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.

Data:

  • 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

Hike Description:

A stack of cliff faces high on Vick's Peak

Stacks of cliff faces high on Vick’s Peak (double-click to enlarge).

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.

Grassy, open terrain in the lowest stretches of Rock Springs Canyon.

Grassy, open terrain in the lowest stretches of Rock Springs Canyon.

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.

Initial view to the

Initial view to the “northern gatepost” at the start of the upper canyon.

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.

A portion of the

A view down-canyon to the topmost portion of the “southern gatepost” on the sides of Pestle Ridge.

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.

08 fin and rockfall on flanks of Pestle Ridge

The fin of rock (and open rockfall) that lured me onto the steep flanks of Pestle Ridge.

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.

South Baldy (right) and North Baldy (left) in the Magdalena Range.

View to what I now think is Carrizo Peak (right) and perhaps Lone Mountain (left). The original post mis-identified the mountains as North Baldy and South Baldy, but these peaks are too far away and too far south to be in the Magdalenas.

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.

View to false summit on Vick's Peak from the turn-back point.

View to false summit on Vick’s Peak from the turn-back point.

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.

Recommendations:

The author at the turn-back point.

The author at the turn-back point.

♦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.

Links:

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.

Overview:

View into Horse Canyon and distant North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope on the right side of the photo) from US-26

North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope rising from the right side of the photo) as seen from NM-26. The southern draw is the shadowed bowl partially screened by a bush on the extreme right. Staircase Rib descends from the ridge line of North Las Uvas Mountain to the left of the draw.

This is an off-trail scramble that ascends to the second-highest point in the Sierra de Las Uvas. “Second highest” may sound like faint praise, but it is a terrific alternative to driving to the fenced and locked summit of Magdalena Peak (the highest point in the range). This is desert wilderness so be prepared for difficult road, waterless trekking and terrain that rattles. It is also, in the springtime, a colorful hike into rarely seen terrain with spectacular views. Find a clear-blue day and do this hike!

Driving Directions:

  • From US-70 in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 (I-25) going north.
  • After 35.3 miles take Exit 41 for NM-26/Hatch.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left on NM-26.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a T-intersection with a stop sign, go right to continue on NM-26.
  • After 8.3 miles past the T-intersection, go left onto Las Uvas Spring Road. This road is paved. (Note, “Las Uvas Spring Road” is the name on a the street sign. It will be much easier to watch for a huge sign on the left side of the road that says Las Uvas Valley Dairy).
  • After 0.8 miles, where Las Uvas Spring Road bends sharply to the right, go left onto County Road E002 (gravel). There are some things to watch for while driving E002, notably:
    • After 300 feet E002, just past a cattle guard, come to an intersection. Straight ahead is a gravel road in rough shape. Don’t go there, instead take the sharp right to stay on E002.
    • After 1.7 miles on E002 come to a fork. E002 veers slightly to the right, while the left fork is County Road E003. Go right. About 30 feet past the fork you should pass a bent metal post signed “CR E002”.
    • After 4.7 miles on E002, at the mouth of Horse Canyon, come to the stone ranch building and tall windmill. This is Horse Canyon Ranch (private property). Continue on E002 as it enters the canyon.
  • After 5.0 miles come to small rise in the road with negligible berms on either side. Park beside the road.
The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib  is about 45° above and left.

The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib is about 45° above and left. (Double-click to enlarge)

Note: County Road E002 is rough. You may see pictures of the mighty Camry parked at the trailhead, but this road can not be recommended for family sedans. On this date the tracks of a road grader were visible in the roadbed – there must have been fairly recent maintenance efforts. Despite that, long stretches of the road was made up of loosely piled, fist-sized rocks. The road is sunken below the surrounding terrain for much of its length. You can go forward and you can back up, but turning around is often out of the question. Take a high-clearance vehicle. Those with high clearance vehicles could drive another 0.4 miles and save themselves a stretch of road hiking, but be warned that the road bed degrades significantly in that stretch.

Trailhead:

The trailhead is just a patch of dirt beside County Road E002. There are no amenities. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5020 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 6601
  • Net Elevation: 1581 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Souse Springs, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of whitish, scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

From the car, head up Horse Canyon on County Road E002. Rocks the size of bowling balls litter the gullied road-bed, be glad that you left the vehicle behind. The road gets so little use that a scattering of wild flowers were growing in both tracks. In about 0.4 miles come to a fork where a faint two-track departs the main road on the right and descends into the wash coming out of the south draw. Follow the two-track for roughly 100 yards and come to the wash, then turn upstream (left). On ascent I departed from the wash in just a hundred yards, worried about going too far into the southern draw. That was a misplaced concern – it is fine to follow the wash 0.3 miles to where you arrive at the foot of Staircase Rib.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

I’ve designated this rib “Staircase” because it is composed of harder and softer layers of rock; the hard rock forms the relatively flat shelves and the soft rock forms the steep risers. As you come to the first of the shelves, look up Horse Canyon and try to pick out an old barbed wire fence on the flanks of the rib. This fence begins in the bottom of Horse Canyon and rises part way up the rib. You should hit the fence about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. Ranchers worked hard on these structures and there is an old path along the uphill side of the fence. It is easier to follow the path than to “side-hill” along the rib. That said, you shouldn’t get too far from the rib top, so at about 1.1 miles from the car depart from the fence and ascend beside basaltic outcrops until hitting a grassy stretch that grants access to the rib top. From here it is only a short distance to where the rib joins the main ridge of North Las Cruces Mountain.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw and to the Cooke Range.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw to Cookes Peak.

Look around you as you reach the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. You will want to make sure you depart the ridge for Staircase Rib on descent. Having memorized this departure point, turn up hill and begin a long and surprisingly gentle ascent of the upper tablelands. There is an abundance of creosote bush and mesquite, some mountain mahogany, numerous varieties of small cacti (surprisingly few prickly pear, a few cholla), the odd ocotillo and an occasional juniper. Grasses grow in dense patches – watch for our sinuous friends during warm weather. There are numerous raptors overhead and evidence of cattle under foot. Shade is practically non-existent.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches the ridgeline.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches to the ridgeline.

There are no further route finding problems. Just stay close to where the ridge falls into Horse Canyon and continue ascending. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will come to the upper end of a canyon that drains from the ridgeline to the southwest (that is, to your right). These may be the headwaters of Pine Canyon. Surprising displays of cap rock appear in what would otherwise be a broad table of high desert. Water has gnawed all the way to the ridge, leaving minor rises and infinitesimal falls as you ascend towards the summit. Although the terrain is nearly flat, footing is tricky as the surface is covered with volcanic scoria intermixed with rounded lumps of sandstone. (Tricky and geologically confusing).  At about 2.4 miles from the trailhead you pass what seems to be the last of the canyon’s branches and might imagine that the juniper decorating the ridge above you is the summit. Oh no! It turns out that juniper trees enhance each of the innumerable  pseudo-summits on this gentle climb. Plod onward.

Cactus growing on a

Lichen and cactus growing on a “ground” of solid rock.

You will encounter the headwaters of one last canyon at 3.0 miles from the trailhead. Cross a two-track (evidently in current use) and ascend up a moderate incline to reach the broad expanse of true tableland northwest of the summit. On this date there was a considerable flower show. The columnar cacti, in particular, were putting on a massive show of red and purple flowers. Despite drought conditions the grasses were dense on the ground (although very dry).

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

As you get higher the views to the surrounding ranges become a major distraction. The Florida Mountains are prominent in the southwest, the Cooke Range to the west, the Black Range and the Caballo Range dominate the near-ground to the north, although I think I saw the distant San Mateo Range poking up between them. The east is dominated by the San Andreas Range. As you reach the summit at 4.2 miles, some very prominent peaks of the Sierra de Las Uvas appear. These include the conical form of Sugarloaf and the radar-dome topped prominence of Magdelana. Below lies the crazed terrain where White Gap Draw, Kerr Canyon, Choases Canyon and Valles Canyon converge into Broad Canyon. A bit south of east are the Robledos and Dona Ana Mountains, and beyond them lie toothy spires of the Organ Mountains. Have a bite to eat, sign the register, and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

♦Both the distance hiked and the elevation gained look very modest. Don’t be fooled. This is a 100% off-trail outing and the demands on your attention and on your legs are emphatically real. It is at least a moderately strenuous hike – less physically demanding than the ascent up Three Rivers Canyon in the Sierra Blanca Range, but far greater than the 7-mile loop around Kilbourne Hole.

♦County Road E002 crosses at least two washes. A storm could make the road impassable in a very short period of time. Keep a close eye on the weather. It would be an excellent idea to have a pick and shovel with you. As usual with desert sojourns, make certain your spare tire is inflated and bring extra water.

♦There is no protection from the sun or from lightning on this hike. Pick a nice day, preferably in the winter or early spring months. Sun screen is essential for most folks, and a broad rimmed hat is incredibly useful.

Links:

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). Protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). This rattler was protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

♦There is a mention of this peak on SummitPost. That description suggests an approach from the south rather than the north, which may be advantageous in terms of avoiding County Road E002. That approach, however, would leave you approaching North Las Uvas Mountain on its steep south/eastern faces. I haven’t tried it, but from what I could see on the summit you would want advanced scrambling skills to make that approach. It might be best to try this route in the colder weather when New Mexico’s venomous denizens are not quite so abundant.

A map provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seems to suggest that most of Horse Canyon and the lower half of the ridge up to North Las Uvas Mountain is owned by the State of New Mexico. The upper part of the ridge, to the summit, is BLM land. There is a small in-holding, the Horse Canyon Ranch, that bridges the narrow mouth of the canyon. It appears to me that you should try and drive at least a quarter mile past the abandoned ranch house and windmill in order to park on public lands. Land owners in New Mexico are usually very generous towards hikers and hunters but, absent explicit parking permission, it’s best to stay off of the ranch land.

♦That’s about it. This lack of public awareness may be why the summit log had only two previous entries in it!