Archives for posts with tag: camping

01 North Truchas PeakOverview:

This two-day backpack begins with a riparian ramble through forests of Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce, meanders through stands of tall aspen, ascends across a series of narrow riverside meadows and segues to a series of switchbacks that rise swiftly to a beautiful tarn-side camp. This same tread leads onward to a col separating the north-flowing Rio Santa Barbara from the south-flowing Pecos River. From the col it’s an off-trail scramble up the wide-open slopes of North Truchas Peak – home to mountain goats and an eagle’s view of the Santa Fe Mountains. Allot all the time you can (it still won’t be enough).

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25, going north, take exit 276 for NM-599 north, signed for Espanola.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-599 north.
  • After 13.2 miles take the left-hand fork for the ramp onto US-84 West/US-285 North
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-84 W/US-285 N
  • After 19.3 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn right onto La Puebla Rd./ CR 88
  • After 2.7 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-76 N.
    • NM-76 goes into Truchas, NM where it makes a sharp 90-degree turn to the left at 12.5 mile from the CR-88 junction. Watch for a sign for “Taos High Road” with an arrow pointing left and another sign for “Oja Sarco / Penasco / Taos”
    • The junction with CR-88 can be hard to spot from NM-76 when returning in the dark. Watch for signs for “County Road 88”, I did not see any signs for “La Puebla Road”.
  • After 29.5 miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-75.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a fork where NM-75 veers strongly to the left, veer slightly right onto NM-73.
  • After 1.7 miles turn left onto Santa Barbara Road (there is a small sign naming the road, but the junction is otherwise unremarkable).
    • After 2.9 miles on the Santa Barbara Road the road becomes gravel and is currently in excellent shape.
  • After 4.8 miles, after crossing a bridge, the road becomes signed for Forest Road 116. Continue straight ahead
  • After 1.2 miles past the bridge the road ends at the trailhead.

Google’s algorithms currently report that the Santa Barbara Road rejoins with NM-73. That is not correct.

Trailhead:

02 the mighty Camry

The mighty Camry the Rio Santa Barbara Campground

There is a campground immediately past the trailhead, but on this date the campground was gated closed. I was told that the it closes soon after Labor Day. The trailhead consists of a gravel parking lot just before the gate. There is a vault toilet. The Rio Santa Barbara runs past the trailhead and there is a hand pump for potable water, but it is currently wrapped in plastic (much tattered) and duck tape (in better shape). It appears that the forest service closes down the pumps at the trailhead and in the campgrounds once the temperatures fall to near-freezing. Currently, there are no trash receptacles.

The USDA/Forest Service website indicates that usage can be very heavy in the early summer so you will want to arrive early during July.  The Camry was the only car at the trailhead on a Wednesday morning in October. The website mentions a trailhead parking fee of $3.00 per vehicle. A sign just before the trailhead also demands payment, but there were no envelopes at the self-service post nor did the signage at the trailhead make any mention of the dollar amount. It looks as if it may not be worthwhile for the Park Service to collect payments as winter nears.

Data:

  • Start Elevation: 8840 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 13,020 feet
  • Net Elevation: 4180 feet
  • Distance: 11.4 miles (one way!)
  • Maps: USGS Truchas PeakPecos Falls (2017) and Jicarita Peak quadrangles. Surprisingly, the 2017 version of Pecos Falls quadrangle shows the trails. I used the 1995 versions of the other maps that I had downloaded earlier, when the 2017 versions did not display any trails at all.

Hike Description:

Day 1:

03 First Santa Barbara crossing

Western cliffs in morning sunshine

From the trailhead follow the road as it loops across the campground and at the far end of the loop find trail #24, the East Fork Trail. This is a very well maintained tread, perhaps a reflection of the horse-riding community (who can be better organized than us hikers for tasks such as arranging trail work and getting funding for the national trails). The tread bumps along the Rio Santa Barbara in thick conifer forests, starting elevation of just over 8800 feet. On a cool autumn morning you may want to keep a jacket on for the first mile or two – much of the morning will pass before the sun reaches all the way to the river.

04 continue on Trail 25

Depart to #25

The trail initially follows the west bank of the river. Eventually that side of the drainage steepens and the opposite bank beckons. Cross on a broad bridge meant to sustain horse traffic. At 2.4 miles come to a signed junction. The East Fork Trail #24 rises to your left to follow along side the Middle Branch – eventually Trail #24 will reach a second fork where it finally strikes the banks of the East Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara. You, however, should bear right onto the West Fork on Trail #25. The trail goes another 0.3 miles (2.7 miles from the trailhead) before crossing the actual Middle Fork on a sturdy log bridge.

05 Meadow views to Santa Barbara Divide

Chimayosos from river meadows

This is an unbeatable place for an autumn exercise in serene backcountry hiking. The tread is in excellent shape, the grade is mellow, there are occasional glades of tall aspen (which have already lost their fall foliage) and gorgeous meadows. The trail passes through a single gate, suggesting that grazing rights are contracted out or that there is a private in-holding that contains the upper valley.  The surrounding cliff faces are spectacular. Somewhere above those heights to the west lies Trampas Peak.

06 Chimayosos Peak

Chimayosos closeup

At 5.7 miles from the trailhead come to the only crossing of the West Branch. In autumn it is an easy crossing, made easier by a bundle of branches laid across the stones. It would doubtlessly be far more challenging during the spring melt-off. After the crossing the tread takes on a moderately steeper angle. You will find yourself hiking well above the valley bottom, checking out the huge stands of enormously tall aspen on the far side of the valley (perhaps arising from old burns). At 7.3 miles come to the first switchback on the trail – a hint that you’ll need to up your game as the valley ups its gain.

07 lahar

Lahar on steep hillside

The trail remains beautifully maintained, but it crosses odd rocky stretches where the forested hillside displays a dense scattering of gray metamorphic rock on the surface of the forest floor. These are thumb-sized (scree) to fist sized (talus) bits of stone of the sort that splits along planar faces. These flattish stones tend to accumulate on the trail and makes footing a bit awkward. In places where transient streams have descended these rocks are heaped into tall banks, similar to the shape of a wake behind a powerboat. As you get higher you will find yourself crossing deep gouges in the hillside. These look like lahars – stretches of soil and loose rock that (presumably) got water saturated and broke free, ripping four or five foot deep trenches straight down the mountain.

08 junction to No Fish Lake

Hollow stump and cairn at path to No Fish Lake

After rounding the 6th turn on these switchbacks you will begin another steady climb along the much-diminished West Branch. At 8.9 miles enter a gully that contains the highest reaches of the West Branch. The trail leaves the gully and immediately traverses a swale-like water-way. If you want to camp at No Fish Lake then it is time to watch carefully. You may notice a boot-path going up onto the rim of the swale on your right –  if you check, you will find the boot-path descends to a possible campsite with an established fire ring on a bench in the swale. About 100 feet further you will find another campsite about 20 feet off the trail on your left. Within a quarter mile of these initial sites you will come upon the unsigned trail that leads down to No Fish Lake. On this date there was a smallish cairn marking this trail. The tread contained some ancient deadfall, which makes it seem like an unlikely campground trail. Follow it for about 50 feet over a forested spur, however, and you should see No Fish Lake peeking through the trees below you. There are several very pleasant camping sites near the lake’s outflow.

8a Chimayosos Peak from col

Chimayosos Peak from Santa Barbara Divide

Day 2:

From No Fish Lake return to Trail 25 and continue ascending. The forest starts to thin and at 10.1 miles from the trailhead the tread emerges onto a broad slope covered with tussock and talus. Two mellow switchbacks later and you will stride out of the Santa Barbara Drainage and look into the Pecos drainage. Don’t descend! To the east (left on ascent) is the broad and grassy face of Chimayosos Peak. To the west is the broad, but cliff-scarred face of North Truchas. Turn west.

10 opening in fir thicket & North Truchas summit

Fairway through the firs below North Truchas

The west end of the col has a fir thicket on it. The initial wall of these firs, which are closely interwoven, can be difficult to penetrate but inside that wall the trees are well spaced. About half-way through the thicket you will find a ski-trail-like opening that will take you a bit south. That positions you on the upper edge of the thicket with open views to the summit. From here just about any path up will do. My path initially headed straight at the summit, but stiff winds made it advisable to steer from one lonesome fir to the next just for temporary shelter from the breeze. Watch for raptors and big horned sheep. The ground is steep and the air is thin. You may want to practice your rest-step.

10 (S) Truchas, Medios, Middle and the North Truchas cairn

South Truchas (distant-left), Medio and Middle Truchas (ridge in middle ground) and summit cairn in foreground.

There is a cairn at the summit and a small summit log in a plastic container. To the south you will see the span of the Truchas massif, including South Truchas (the high point), “Medios Truchas” (not an official name) and Middle Truchas. Look north to see the Sangre de Cristo mountains ranging all the way into Colorado. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains. You will see the broad profile of Redondo Peak (the high point of the Jemez Mountains) and at the north end of the the Jemez you can pick out Cerro Pedernal in its narrow profile. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

13 summit pose

Author, blocking view to Chimayosos Peak

I heard a couple rifle shots on the first day I was on the trail. Hikers will want to flaunt their orange attire this time of year. The New Mexico Department of Game & Fish website has data on the various hunting seasons, but it seems to be “siloed” in various Department publications that are broken out by target species. This makes sense if, for example, you want to know if you can hunt for grouse in a given area. But it doesn’t help if you simply want to know if hunters are active in a particular spot. It would be great if they could provide a map-based interface for the non-hunting public. For the record, this hike is entirely enclosed by Game Management Unit number 45 (abbreviated as GMU 45) in the department’s publications. The department’s (non-interactive) map of GMU 45 can be found here.

October is a chilly month for campers at 11,000 feet. Bring good sleeping gear and keep an eye on the weather. Much of the summit block on Truchas is an open grassland, but there are adjacent cliffs that would make this a poor place to practice white-out navigation.

This is a high altitude hike. You’ll want your party to be familiar with the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. An excellent discussion can be found at altitude.org.

Links:

Phil Robinson reports a similar approach in a PeakBagger report, but he and his son used the opportunity to climb Medios Truchas, Middle Truchas, Barbara Peak, Chimayosos as well as North Truchas Peak. Very impressive backpacking and an excellent writeup.

The SummitPost overview is very brief, but it has links along the left side to numerous reports and suggestions about alternative approaches.

A 2007 report from the Los Alamos Mountaineers also makes note of how high the water can get and the difficulty that can cause. (The two bridges on the current route may be newer than that, so at least some of the difficulties may have been addressed).

A writeup on the SantaFe.com website reports that Truchas, the Spanish word for “trout”, is also slang for “knife”. The author speculates that the main ridgeline may have looked knife-like to the conquistadors.

 

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11 pretty view of tower through treesOverview

When people speak of canyon hiking in tones of hushed reverence, this must be the sort of place they have in mind. Here there are swift flowing waters, towering rock walls, Mogollon ruins, tall pines, scrub oak, hot springs, vultures, trout, humming birds, deer and on rare occasions there are even other campers. The hike described here ascends a few miles along the West Fork of the Gila River, then goes over a height of land on trail signed for “Meadows” (but mapped as T28) and returns down the impressive Middle Fork.

There are two non-obvious concerns for us newcomers to the New Mexican heights. The first is the potential for flooding, especially flash flooding, in the canyons. A big rainstorm could make either Gila fork excessively exciting. In years where the Forest receives large amounts of snow the springtime runoff can make the canyons impassible. The second concern is with a hotspring-loving protist called Naegleria fowleri. This beast produces a form of meningitis. The good news is that this form of meningitis is rare. The bad news is that when the disease occurs is usually fatal. Since the protist attacks via nerves exposed in the human nasal cavity, the advice is for hot spring users to always keep their heads above water.

Driving Directions

  • Leave Las Cruces (I used the Motel Blvd ramp) heading west on I10 towards Deming.

    17 view from ridge drive out.

    View of Gila National Forest from ridge top-running Rt 15

  • After roughly 52 miles, take exit 82A
  • At end of ramp, merge onto I10 Frontage Rd.
  • After 0.1 miles, turn left onto US 180 W (a.k.a N. Gold Blvd).
  • After 49.3 (more) miles, turn right onto 32nd Street Bypass in Silver City.
  • After 1.4 miles, turn right onto NM Rt 15.
  • After 45.7 (more) miles NM 15 makes a 90° left-hand turn to reach the Gila Cliff Dwelling trailhead. Instead of turning go straight ahead on the access road for the Visitors Center (the Center is visible from the turn).
  • After 0.5 (more) miles (passing the Visitor’s center) turn left onto the gravel parking lot for the Middle Fork Gila River trailhead.

The last 47 miles are extraordinarily “twisty”. Budget some extra time. The trip took more than four hours for me, although that includes stopping in Silver City for dinner and to get maps at the ranger station.

The trailhead is just past the Gila Visitor’s Center parking lot, perhaps by two-tenths of a mile.

Trailhead.

The Middle Fork trailhead described here is just a gravel parking lot. It is very close to the visitor’s center, which has bathrooms and running water. The visitor center does not have trash removal. We not only “pack it out” but we also “drive it out”. The West Fork trailhead, which is adjacent to the Cliff Dwellings, seemed pretty well developed (there are buildings at the trailhead). I was running late and didn’t notice what facilities they have there.

West Fork hoodoo

West Fork hoodoo

You may have noted that the plans called for pushing up past the West Fork trailhead, but that the car was parked at the Middle Fork trailhead. The two trailheads are joined by a relatively dreary 2.1 miles of paved roads. I chose to get that part of the hike over right at the beginning and spare feet destined to be wet and weary by trail’s end.

Data

USGS 7.5 Minute Maps:

  • Gila Hotsprings
  • Little Turkey Park
  • Woodland Park
  • Burnt Corral Canyon

The trip described here is a loop. It began on a Friday evening for 3.5 miles, continued Saturday for 10 miles, and finished Sunday for another 12.5 miles. All together, about 26 miles for the loop. The USGS maps refer to the trails as T151 along the West Fork of the Gila, T28 going across the height of land between the forks, and T157 descending the Middle Fork. However, these numbers are not used on Park signs. The low point was 5600 feet and the high point was 7200, so the net gain was only 1600 feet. In this low-snowpack year the water rose to just above my knee (I’m six feet tall). In the warm part of the day the water temperatures were very enjoyable. The air temperature got quite low at night (I didn’t check the thermometer on my pack at 3:00 am, but it must have been into the low 20s), and became pleasantly warm in the afternoons. It reached 74°F in upper Bear Canyon on Saturday.

Hike

Broad meadows near West Fork trailhead

Broad meadows near West Fork trailhead

Leave the Middle Fork trailhead walking away from the trail and follow the paved road past the Visitor’s Center, over the West Fork bridge, then turn right onto the tail-end of NM 15 and follow it to where it ends at the Cliff Dwellings trailhead on the West Fork. There! Done with the paved roads.

If you have time you can cross the river on an actual bridge and explore Mogollon cliff dwellings. I’m still looking forward to that experience, since my schedule was pretty well exploded by the time the West Fork trailhead came into sight. Trail T151 starts on the north bank but quickly begins to career across the water with each river bend. Gravel shingles tend to form on the inside of each bend and the trail typically leaps from shingle to shingle. The tread is sometimes washed away from the gravel, but you can usually see where the trail enters grassy terrain away from the water. Canyoneering involves wet feet.

Nice campsite on shelf just past EE Canyon

Nice campsite on shelf just past EE Canyon

My USGS map had last been updated in 1999 (USGS Little Turkey Park). That map shows the trail arriving at a wide meadow, hugging the north canyon wall, and then making a sharp left to cross the meadow back to the river and following the banks closely thereafter. In the Google map (above, click to change the scale and move it about) you’ll see that I took that advice and soon lost the tread near the water. It turns out that a very clear trail does exist on the south side of the river, but not immediately beside the water (where floods would routinely erase it). Perhaps the Park Service moved the trail onto a slightly higher shelf where it would resist being washed away. The “new” tread is visible on Google satellite imagery, so it is something of a wonder to me that it should have been so elusive on the ground. In any event, it was easy to push up stream, but a little uneasy since the junction with trail T28 was something I wanted to find. The mouth to EE Canyon provided flat terrain for setting up camp. The trees there are fire blackened and presumed to be weakened – uneasy camping if the wind comes up. There are better camping spots on a higher shelf about 200 feet upstream.

Murky waters: soot in the flow of the Middle Fork

Murky waters: soot in the flow of the Middle Fork

The waters looked pretty dark this year. According to the rangers at Silver City, this is mostly due to last year’s fires. Soot is not only darkening the water it is also clogging water filters. They recommend that you allow river water to settle in a spare jug before using filters. It seemed like good advice, although that meant having a gallon of river water, the butane container from my stove and two soaked hiking boots under the sleeping bag with me to avoid freezing during the night. Lumpy.  But my wet socks (which I had wrung and left to dry outside on a tripod of sticks) were rock solid the next morning. A small container of Nutella hung in the food bag that night and was still frozen when hauled out at noon. It would have been an uncomfortable night, save for a pair of heavy fleece pants and a fleece jacket.

There is an unmistakable trail just 100 feet or so up EE Canyon. It rapidly rises and pulls away from the river.  Rather than risk missing the intersection with T28 I tried to push up along the riverbank. It proved to be an exceptionally wet and slow way to hike, and eventually it seemed worth turning back and “risking” the obvious trail. That worked just fine, and in a little more than a mile I made the last crossing of the West Fork to find the intersection of T151 and T28 (the wooden sign actually says “Meadows 6 1/4 mile”).

View back towards the West Fork

View back towards the West Fork

The trail to the Meadows on the Middle Fork ascends gently along a side-canyon and then follows a rib extending from a prominent spine that runs east-to-west. Past that spine the trail descends slightly into Big Bear Canyon. The trail is obvious for most of it’s length, save where large pines in the upper reachers of Big Bear Canyon obscure it with needles. Clearly, not many people hike into this country. Thats a shame, because it isn’t often that you see big timber in New Mexico.  There are three trail  junctions.  The first is with T164 coming in from the east. The sign at the junction keeps you on track by pointing to “The Meadows”.  The second is when T164 leaves to the west, again follow arrows to “The Meadows”.  The third is with T156 right on the rim of the Middle Fork.  Since you want to get to the river, follow T28 as it descends from the rim.  The miles along T28 were completely dry this year, Big Bear Canyon had no running water.  It would be a magical place with just a small stream. Any small disappointment can be obviated with a bagel lightly seasoned with spork-scraped frozen Nutella chips  and a mug of water. Along with a brief nap, that’s great dining.

View forward (and down!) into the Middle Fork of the Gila River

View forward (and down!) into the Middle Fork of the Gila River

The trail down to the Middle Fork is on steep terrain. The Google map, above, only gives a mild impression of how severely switchbacked it becomes. The park has done a great job of trail engineering, so that what could have been a hugely jarring experience was merely  protracted. (Going the other direction is probably something of a thigh burning experience). No complaining! The views to the adjacent canyonland, bird life, forest and hoodoos are inspiring.

Dining al fresco along the the Middle Fork campsite

Dining al fresco along the the Middle Fork campsite

The meadow is an exceptionally beautiful spot and I was tempted to stop there. There was flowing water in Indian Creek, almost the only side canyon with water that I recall seeing. It looks as though the beaver population has been living up to its reputation for busyness. But, the day was not so terribly elderly and the canyon narrows were beckoning. Movement downstream was initially slow, there are shrub thickets on the banks near the Meadows. Eventually the trail picked up the old shingle-hopping tactics and I moved along.  Night comes early in the canyons. I picked an extra-wide shingle with a reasonable escape route in case the waters should come up (this year, we should be so lucky). It was a pleasant site, although the walls reflect the sound of rushing water enough so that this could be called Loud Canyon. It is hard to believe that anyone could be so avid for chicken flavored ramen noodles or even a mug full of hot chocolate.

08 morning light on canyon

Morning sunshine still high above the canyon bed

The next morning I ran out of fuel for the Jetboil. It is only barely possible to regard tepid tea and a granola bar as replacement for a repast of double-strength instant oatmeal with raisins and dates. Epic tragedy. I may even have grumbled as my boots entered that chilly first river crossing. But sunshine comes even to the canyon beds. Hoodoos abound, spires leap to the sky and at one point a hawk grabbed a fishy meal out of the river right beside me.

It is almost impossible to get lost when you only need to follow a canyon downstream, but my training is such that knowing where I am seems needful. That can be hard in often-anonymous canyon bottoms. One trick that became evident was too look for places where the river flowed in unusual directions. For example, the Middle Fork only has a few places where it flows to the southwest or flows directly north. By comparing the maps against these flow patterns it isn’t hard to monitor location.

hot spring near the trailhead

hot spring near the trailhead

It is a long drive from the Middle Fork trailhead back to Las Cruces. It is weary work to clean up a tent and get the ground cloth hung to dry after arriving back home. But, the one real complaint about this hike isn’t the end, but that it had to end.

Recommendations

Floods and protists are unlikely but real threats, just keep ’em in mind while enjoying the Gila.

A weekend is a miserly thing to expend for a trip like this. It is easily worth setting up for a four day venture.

Me, enjoying a pack-down moment on a shelf above the Middle Fork

Me, enjoying a pack-down moment on a shelf above the Middle Fork

One complaint that I can sympathize with came from a guy who had traveled a long way to sample the fishing in the Gila Wilderness. It may be that the low and warm water conditions, coupled with the soot in the streams, have wrecked the fishing for a little while. There were some small fish in the waters near the meadows, but this might not be the best year for your fishing friends.

Next time I will have a backup fuel canister.

Overview:

Outlook Mt/Ski Apache (behind a forested rise) and Sierra Blanca

Sierra Blanca rises to 12,003 feet (3660 m) and is one of the highest peaks in southern New Mexico. Next to it is Lookout Peak, home to the Ski Apache resort. Portions of the hike go through terrain burned in the Little Bear fire (2012). Due to this burn, both the Forest Service and the Mescalero Apache Travel Office have closed the trail at least until Spring of 2013.

Permits:

Sierra Blanca forms part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. In normal years a permit is required for the summit portion of this trip. This year both the Mescalero Tribe and the Forest Service have closed the terrain to hikers due to fire damage. Both the Mescalero Apache Travel Office (575-464-4494) and the Smokey Bear Ranger Station (575-257-4095) state in the strongest possible terms that the danger to hikers from dead fall and the even greater danger to the region from fire make it imperative to keep people out until the winter has come and gone. They were very polite, but state unambiguously that hikers should wait until spring of 2013, then check back to see if the trails have been re-opened and permitting re-established.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Exit #6 from I-25 in Las Cruces, heading east on US 70 (towards Alamogordo).
  • After 62.0 miles (100 km) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. (US 70 in Alamogordo can be slow since it is lined by businesses. The “Relief Route” takes you around the busy stretch. The exit is just past the third stoplight you encounter in Alamogordo, signalling for the junction of US 70 with US 54 South).
  • After 4.8 miles (7.7 km), go left at the stoplight back onto US 70 East.
  • After 42.4 miles (68.2 km), turn left onto Sudderth Dr. (on the outskirts of Ruidoso).
  • After 3.4 miles (5.5 km), turn right onto Mechem Dr. (in the center of Ruidoso).
  • After 5.3 miles (8.5 km), turn left onto County Road 532.
  • After 11.0 miles (17.7 km) this year you will encounter a sign saying Road Closed. (See the warnings under “permits”, above). Once the road re-opens it should be possible to go a bit further than a mile to get to the normal trailhead. According to other reports the trailhead is found at a sharp, left-hand switchback near the ski area.

I stopped off at the All American Diner in Ruidoso (390 Sudderth Dr.) for a bite to eat. Its sign indicated American/Mexican cuisine, and the staff were speaking Spanish. My server was very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the combo plate. The chile rellenos tasted about the same as the refried beans. In place of cream they serve a vastly regrettable food-like substance in the “coffee whitener” clade. For future reference, across the street from the All American there is a promising sign for the Cornerstone Bakery. Further down the road Farley’s Pub had the fullest parking lot on both Saturday and Sunday. The sign on that building says “Ribs, Burgers, Dogs”.

Trailhead:

Map of actual trail (not the dirt road route through burned forest):

CR 532 is closed here at mile marker 11. 

County Road 530 follows a gently inclined stream bed to reach an altitude of 8000 feet (2440 m), then explodes upward in a series of switchbacks to reach the 10,000 ft (3050 m) contour. At the 11 mile marker it reaches a pass. Normally you would drive down to the ski area from the pass. This year the road is closed at the pass. As reviewed in the “permits” section, travel is not permitted while the region recovers from the near-term effects of fire.

By spring of 2013 it may be possible to continue about another mile on CR 532 to a left-hand hairpin turn and park there. Internet reports say that the trailhead is located near a gate for the ski area. Also, the gate is closed after dark so hikers will want park outside the ski area.

Data

The legitimate trail goes from a trailhead at 9840 feet (3000 m) to the summit at 12,000 feet (3660 m) for a gain of 2160 feet (660 m) in 4.3 miles, one way. It appears that the trails used are T15 to an intersection with T25, then T25 to an intersection with T78, then T78 to the summit.

The route taken began at the pass at 10,100 feet for a net gain of just 1900 feet (580 m) in 6.3 miles (10.1 km) one way.

Hike: (not open at least until spring 2013, see “Permits” above)

Two burned trees (at either edge of photo) carry twin blazes to mark the point where the trail departs the road.

The dirt road at the pass stays close to the 10,000-foot contour for a about 1.3 miles (2.1 km). Views to Lookout Mt show the wildfire damage done to Ski Apache (see newspaper images). The forest that the road traverses is entirely burned. The trail departs from the road about 100 feet (30 m) before a sharp right-hand switchback on a forested saddle. The departure is marked by twin ax-blazes on a pair of burned trees on the down-hill side of the road, shown on the photo to the left. Beyond the trees is a steep meadow. Trail T25 traverses this hillside close to the low end of the meadow.

At the end of the meadow T25 winds through a burned wood, then joins with another trail in a second meadow and goes sharply right. I think the other trail might be T15, the connector to the normal trailhead (but I didn’t explore it). T25 becomes mostly level at this point, passing a small stream flowing in a deep V-notch, swinging around a broad rib and reaching a meadow below another saddle. Here the trail turns sharply left and begins to ascend via several switchbacks towards Icy Spring. There were numerous elk around the meadow, and their bugling was tremendous. In places grass is growing in the trailbed just as densely as in the adjacent forest floor. An enormous amount of work has been put into clearing burned logs from the trail and leaving twin ax-blazes for navigation.

Icy Spring was flowing, and one offshoot of the trail crosses the deep stream bed. For this venture I stayed on trail T25 (there are signs at the Icy Spring crossing) to ascend to the ridge crest. On the crest there is a signed junction with T78. To get to Lookout Mt and thence to Sierra Blanca follow T78 south. There are several saddles on the crest that provide good camping spots.

Looking into the sunset at camp near T25 and T78 junction.

Leaving the car at 4:30 p.m. proved unwise, since it led to a hasty camp setup. At 11,200 feet (3410 m) in New Mexico you get an eyeful of nighttime sky. The light from a half-moon was bright enough to cast vivid shadows. The ridge could be a severely windy spot, but on this evening it was peaceful. Sleep was elusive since I’m not acclimated to the altitude. The down-insulated hood on my sleeping bag was a deeply appreciated design feature.

View from Lookout summit to Sierra Blanca

From the intersection the trail bumps southerly along the ridge, with views out to Tularosa Basin and its White Sands Monument in the west. It drops slightly to intersect a ski trail signed “Ambush” and then ascends the ski trail to Lookout Peak. On the highest point (above the lifts) there is a circular concrete bench. The views from this bench were not any better than from the ridge, and there is a ski-road that avoids most of the gratuitous gain if you prefer. From the south side of the summit block you have a fine view of the grassy rise that precedes the knife-edge ridge to Sierra Blanca summit.

View from Sierra Blanca summit back towards Lookout Peak

Drop from Lookout Mt straight towards Sierra Blanca and ascend the grassy rise. Between the altitude and the steepness of the rise, expect a vigorous cardio workout. The rise hits a prominent shoulder with a good view of the knife-edge. There are faint climber’s treads along that ridge, but it is advisable to look for steep stream bed that drops away towards the west (right side, looking uphill), Just past this proto-canyon, find a tread that drops down a short distance on the western side. It offers a way of getting around the tricky little rise in the middle of the ridge and provides good footing for the ascent. Near the summit the terrain becomes entirely rock, the tread disappears and it becomes a scramble to the summit proper.

Recommendations:

It was a mistake to head into such damaged terrain. It would have been perfectly possible to find other hikes in this region that were robust and open to hikers. That said, don’t stay away next spring! Call the numbers for the Tribe and for the Forest Service to see if this beautiful trail has been re-opened. There were trucks going back and forth on the closed section, presumably to re-open the road for the 2012-2013 ski season.

This scramble took place at the end of New Mexico’s “monsoon” season. Admittedly, it has been a terribly dry monsoon this year, but be cautious in planning for water on this trail. I have no idea if any of the described streams would be flowing before the monsoon begins. Six liters in my bag were enough. In fact, two liters survived the trip out and back, but it’s reassuring to have extra.

County Road 532 is home to miles of savagely abused roadside cable-barriers as it climbs to 10,000 feet (3050 m). Apparently it pays to keep your wheels on the tarmac. I kept my car in second gear during descent to take some stress off of the brake pads.

The summit of Sierra Blanca is wide and surprisingly grassy. It’s a great place for a nap or watching the many raptors. It would have been a good place for a self-portrait, if only I had remembered to bring my camera along. The other photos shown here are from my cell phone. It’s an aged Android app and does not seem to have a timer feature.

The night was cold – there was frost on the broad-leaf ground cover when the sun rose. I was otherwise very lucky with the weather. The ascent took advantage of cool temperatures and experienced just enough sunshine to make writing in the summit register a joy. In contrast, a wet and windy descent would make for a memorably bleak experience. This is not a good place for acrophobes. Let’s be careful up there.