In summer this, the shortest trail to the highest point in New Mexico, is as graced with hikers as it is with superlatives. In springtime, the trail sees fewer footprints. This is understandable since the flanks of Wheeler Peak form open and obvious avalanche terrain. The glissading potential, however, is fantastic. You sit on the snow and glide down 1200 feet in a matter of a minutes – pure exhilaration. Striking a risk/reward balance is a matter of personal taste and responsibility. The air is thin and the demands are strenuous. You need to have an ice axe, to have practice using your ice axe, to have experience hiking off-trail and to have tracked the weather carefully. You cannot have bigger fun in the mountains.
From Interstate-25 (I-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 where US 84/285 turns left, continue straight onto NM Rt 68 North.
- After 49.9 miles, at a light about three miles north of Taos, go right onto Route 150. (This is a slight oversimplification. Route 68 turns into Route 64 in downtown Taos but the change is not well signed. At the northern edge of Taos, at 46.4 miles from the start of Route 68, there is a fork with a sign indicating “Taos Pueblo” to the right and Route 64 to the left. This is the first notice that I saw, northbound, indicating you’ve switched to Route 64. It is easier to think of Route 68/Route 64 as a single road.)
- After 14.5 miles on Route 150 come to a large sign for the Taos Ski Valley. The left hand turn into the parking lot is currently forbidden (a sign indicates that it is one-way). Instead go straight for another 0.3 mile. The road bends past the ski area lodges, climbs a bit and begins to turn back into the parking lot.
- At the high end of the parking area find a gravel road on your right with signs for Twinning Road. Turn right on Twinning road. This road is steep If it is icy then four-wheel drive will be essential. (It was dry on this date and no problem for a two-wheel drive Camry).
- After 1.8 miles on Twinning Road (which becomes Kachina Road at some point) come to an signed intersection with Deer Lane. Turn right onto Deer and immediately left onto the trailhead signed “hiker parking”.
There are port-a-potties and trash receptacles at the trailhead. There was no fee for parking. Bring water – there wasn’t any available at the trailhead. There was parking for about twenty cars but it was nearly full by early afternoon. You want to arrive early, anyway, to catch the best glissading conditions.
(Note on the track: on ascent I left the Williams Lake trail and headed uphill, bearing too far to the south. That put me onto sketchy terrain. I did not want to lead casual readers into that terrain, so it has been deleted out of the track shown above.)
- Starting Elevation: 10,200
- Ending Elevation: 13,161 feet
- Net Elevation: 2960 feet
- Distance: 3.1 miles (one way)
- Maps: National Geographic “Taos Wheeler Peak”. The ascent from the Williams Lake trail to the peak (as described here) is not shown in the usual 7.5 minute maps. The 1995 USGS Wheeler Peak map does show the trail to Williams Lake, while the 7.5 minute map from 2013 does not show any trails at all.
From the trailhead, follow Deer Lane as it passes through woods, drops slightly to a pond-laced meadow, turns sharply left around a restaurant and then bends back to the right to get around ski area buildings and the bottom of a ski lift. On this date the road was clear of snow. However, past the lift you will find the foot of a steep private driveway where the trail departs to the right. Look for the sign shown in the photo above. Here the snow became continuous and visual contact with the trail ended.
Fortunately, you are in the bottom of a long canyon and can hardly go wrong as you parallel the canyon wall. Initially the tread follows a ski trail. Williams Lake draws many hikers, so the lower tread is packed down and quite obvious. The main trail stays to the east of the main stream bed, so when in doubt keep to the left as you ascend. In the early morning the packed snow is hard, icy and pocked with yesterday’s footprints. You’ll be glad you have traction device on your boots.
At about 0.7 miles from the trailhead the ski run departs to the west, traversing the canyon bottom. The Williams Lake Trail dives into the trees and continues uphill. As you enter the woods you may see the sign shown at the left. Of course, if you come earlier in the season or in a year with more snow the sign could be buried. The tread generally stays close to the east wall of the canyon, although ribs on the wall or debris from old avalanches will periodically force you into the canyon’s center for short stretches.
Small meadows appear from time to time. Sometimes they happen at the foot of avalanche chutes coming down from your left, offering recognizable landmarks for your return trip. It is easy to mistake yesterday’s snowboard tracks for the trail. Look for circular blue blazes (about four inches across) painted on the trees, knowing that there are a few stretches where the blazes are widely separated (or possibly under snow). As you hike along the east side, monitor the opposing (west) rim as it peeks through the trees. As you get higher those views become more numerous. Skiers descending from that rim have left dramatic tracks across the wall. Climbing further, the box-end of the canyon begins to pull into sight. The terrain takes on a rolling quality as the tread rises to the highpoint of the Williams Lake Trail.
In the summer a signpost would let you know where to depart from the Williams Lake trail – a short distance before the highpoint. If snow has buried the signpost then you might go past the turn-off and arrive at that high point, about 1.7 miles from the trailhead. Here you get a panoramic view of the cirque that contains Williams Lake (photo to the left). Rather than descending to the lake, turn left and begin ascending the wall. Your next task is to gain 500 feet through the trees to gain the open slopes below Wheeler Peak. You could ascend directly uphill, but as you climb you will re-encounter the blue blazes and you can follow these instead. Scout carefully. At the end of a long southerly course the blue-blazes turned directly uphill and then switch back to the north. If you were to continue south (as I did) you will enter onto steep headwalls. This is not recommended.
Instead, find the switchback and track the blazes as they ascend to the north. Watch for a stretch where you cross a broad, forested, swale-like declivity. Just past the swale the blazes switchback again, regaining a southerly bearing. The blazes the follow a long steady course of ascent, one that will bring you above tree line with views to the crest. Looking uphill you should be able to pick out the broad gully that feeds into that swale. On the far side of that gully is a broad shelf, roughly two to three hundred feet above you. Find a convenient course to traverse back north, re-enter the wide swale for a third time and ascend to the shelf. This is a terrific spot in which to grab a bite and study the terrain towering overhead. Directly above the shelf is Walker Peak, a bump on the ridgeline that missed being the highest point in New Mexico by a mere 26 feet. To the south (right looking uphill) is Wheeler Peak. Work out a route that will ascend the snow covered face to the saddle between the two summits.
This is also a good time to evaluate your objectives. Are your microspikes getting enough traction for safe climbing? Is the snow really, really well consolidated? Is your ice axe off your pack and in your hand? Then let the climbing begin. On this date the climbers and skiers at the shelf were enjoying near-perfect conditions. The sun had warmed the surface into an inch of corn snow. Microspikes provided perfectly acceptable footing. Under those conditions you can head straight towards the saddle. I climbed this section with John Vitaglione (a recent law school graduate), to whom I’m indebted for several of the photos shown here. The photo above shows John approaching the col, with the broad shelf about 1000 feet below him and the trails of the Taos Valley Ski Resort in the distance.
At the col watch carefully for possible cornices. Turn south (right as you’re coming onto the ridge) and follow the top of the ridge for another quarter mile to the gain the summit. Views abound. The Sangre de Cristo range extends north into Colorado and south to the Santa Fe Mountains. Below you to the east lies the headwaters for the east fork of the Red River. Beyond the far ridgeline lies the Moreno Valley and the Cimarron Range. To the west, across the Rio Grand, lies the north end of the Jemez Mountains. Still got that ice axe in hand? Return to the col, sit in the snow, point your feet at the canyon floor and push off. Be safe. Have fun.
It is tricky to get the timing right for this route. I was a little late getting to Wheeler this year, meaning that the snow did not quite reach to the ridgeline and some of the best glissade lines were obstructed by rocks. Apparently the Taos Ski Valley had its last day of the season on the weekend of April 2nd, about two weeks before this hike. Closure of the resort might be a rough indicator that the time for this hike is near.
Glissading can be done without an ice axe, but it is vastly safer and far easier on your limbs if you have an axe with you. It takes practice to get used to controlling your descent. To practice, find a relatively gentle slope that has a safe run-out at its bottom. The large shelf on the trail (mentioned above) offers such terrain. Are you wearing shorts? Glissading gets cold and wet, and friction from the snow will rasp away at exposed flesh. Bring along a sacrificial pair of rain pants, preferably old and battered. Turn back if the walls of the canyon are icy.
The most obvious risk on this hike is the potential for avalanche. The snowpack should not be a complex of poorly bonded layers; you want a snowpack that has acquired a uniform and high degree of tensile strength. Starting in early March, keep a close eye on backcountry reports. Pick a different hike if the snow has been saturated by rain. The reports from the Taos Avalanche Center are invaluable, although the Center closes for the season just as the best glissading arrives. For this hike the weather had been almost entirely sunny and clear for the preceding two weeks. Snow consolidation seemed close to perfect.
On a sunny day you’ll get clobbered by UV radiation. Direct UV radiation increases markedly with altitude (see this abstract for a summary). The indirect exposure – reflection from the snow – is also intense. Lawyers, guns and money are no protection. Bring sunscreen, shades and lip balm. (Apologies to John). Protect the backs of your ears and the bottom of your nose. If you ascend in shorts then slather the backs of your knees generously.
I went through less than a liter of water, which seems pretty typical of a hike this short at this time of year. Bring micro spikes and an ice axe. I found my collapsable hiking pole, gaiters, broad brim hat and bandana to be very useful.
Glissade tracks get longer and better as more people use them. Bring lots of adventurous friends.
Even folks who live at altitude may find the air above 13,000 feet quite thin. Recent arrivals from Miami are likely to suffer. If you have new arrivals in your party then you’ll want to know the signs of acute mountain sickness. A good summary is found here.
The http://www.mountain-forecast.com site is unusual in that it recognizes that weather can vary by altitude. I haven’t used the site long enough to have a clear idea of how accurate this distinction can be. Never-the-less, I tracked their Wheeler reports in the weeks before going on this scramble.
The Taos Avalanche Center is a great, if seasonal, source of detail data on snow conditions in the region of the Taos Valley Ski Area.
The best trip reports that I’ve found have been on the Northern New Mexico Avalanche Exchange. The interface is somewhat old fashioned, but clicking on that link will take you to NNMAE home page. There, click on the “Forum” link. This presents a table of forums (including an excellent Education link). For trip reports click the “Northern New Mexico 2016-2017 Conditions” link. That will show you a table of regions in northern New Mexico, click “Taos Ski Valley“. Unfortunately it is listed in oldest-post-first, so use the list of pages (near the upper-right) to go to the last page and the most current reports.