Archives for posts with tag: hiking in new mexico
01 Cabezon Peak

Basaltic columns on south face of Cabezon Peak


The trail – the only trail – on Cabezon Peak is a scramble on a massive volcanic plug out in the desert. The plug is one of scores of volcano relics that dot the terrain in the vast Mt Taylor volcanic field, with vistas so broad and exotic that the notion of aliens feeling at home here seems almost reasonable.  Go when the weather is great, go when the day is cool, go when there is time to soak up the views.

This route is one of the most exposed scrambles that has so far appeared in this blog – in places a fall would be costly or fatal. On a per-mile basis it is certainly strenuous. It is usually evaluated as a class 3 route, meaning that most people will not feel the need to be roped in. Acrophobes will not be at all happy here. Very young hikers should not be brought here. On this date a boy scout troop was on the route with experienced leaders. The 11 and 12 year olds seemed to be doing fine.

Driving Directions:

  • Informational sign on BLM 1114 at turn for trailhead road

    Take exit 242 on Interstate-25 (just north of Albuquerque) and go west on US-550. Cabezon Peak comes into view from US-550 a few miles before you turn off for NM-279

  • After 41.6 miles, just past a sign for San Luis, Cabezon and Torreon, take a left onto NM-279 going west. There are a couple things to note about this road:
    • At 8.5 miles the paved road takes an abrupt turn right. Keep going straight ahead onto a gravel road. You’ll come across several signs warning that bad weather can render the dirt road impassable. Judging from the huge ruts in the road, this is entirely believable.
    • At 11.7 miles the road reaches a small rise and swings to your right. Make note as you go by since there is a fork here that is otherwise easy to miss. On return you do not want to go straight, but instead take the more prominent left-hand fork.
  • After 12.3 miles come to a fork and go left onto BLM 1114. I didn’t see a sign, but this will be obvious as the right-fork would take you away from the huge volcanic plug on your left.  Here are some landmarks for this road.
    • At about 0.9 miles past the fork the road pitches over an embankment and descends to the Rio Puerco bottom where it crosses on a bridge. It then winds along the bottom eventually coming out on a steep rise.
    • At 1.9 miles past the fork come to a second fork and, again, go left. As before, this will be obvious since this fork keeps you closest to the mountain.
  • After 2.9 miles, at a minor crest, turn left onto a dirt road. There is a park interpretive sign at the junction. The sign is in the shape of a trapezoid with its shorter base on the bottom. It is nearly illegible. Apparently it has been out in the desert sun for a long time.  You can still make out the words Cabezon Peak if you look closely. The road is not named, but let’s call it Cabezon Trailhead Road.
  • After 1.0 mile, at the end of Cabezon Trailhead Road, come to the trailhead. NOTE: This road is not maintained. If you have a high clearance vehicle you should have no problem here. A family sedan, however, is another matter entirely.  The Camry crawled the length of this road and, later, crawled back out. If the roadbed is even slightly muddy then consider walking the mile to the trailhead.


There is a trailhead sign and a sturdy, raised, metal platform containing a sign-in sheet. Otherwise there are no trailside services. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.


  • Starting Elevation: 6480 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7785 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1305 feet
  • Distance: 1.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Cabezon Peak quadrangle


Trailhead sign and view to the peak

From the trailhead, look east at the soaring basaltic wall that is Cabezon Peak. At its base is a steep-sided debris field making a “skirt” around the plug. A little to the south you will see a small hillock that the debris field extends towards, but does not bury. Between the hillock and the peak is a small draw. As the trail leaves the trailhead it will be rising on the debris field skirt, ascending along the draw in the direction of the saddle between the peak and the hillock.

View of peak, southern hillock and the draw between them

The initial part of the trail is fairly mellow. The tread is strewn with rock, so it pays to watch your footing. You are, unquestionably, deep into desert terrain. Prickly pear lunges into into the tread at its lowest level and cane cholla does its best to occupy the upper reaches. Tough juniper trees do show up here and there, but there is no protection from the sun. This would be a very hot trek in mid-summer.

The top of a rock fin peeks out from behind the main volcanic plug

Instead of heading to the saddle the trail increases the angle of attack across the debris skirt. It rises much higher than the saddle until it reaches the rib that extends down to the saddle. Here it turns almost directly uphill. Gravel underfoot makes contact with the tread wonderfully uncertain until, at about 0.8 miles, the tread pulls onto a flat spot, drops into a broad declivity dense with junipers and then rises yet a few feet more. As you reach this area you will begin to see a tall fin of rock peeking out from behind the main plug. The gully between the main plug and that fin is your approach to the summit.

Rock arrow screened in the grasses below the talus trail

The trail contours just below the talus field at the foot of the plug. Dropping slightly, trail comes to broad shelf populated with cairns. On your right will be a large arrow constructed of rocks with the arrow pointing uphill. You may have to look closely as the grasses can obscure it. (Which is odd, since this arrow is visible in satellite photos). If you examine the talus uphill from the arrow you will see a faint, boot-beaten track ascending toward the fin. Following it is hard work as steeply piled talus tends to roll under your boot.

View of the crux move in the gully behind the rock fin

The tread soon pulls between two tall rocky knobs and hits a cul-de-sac. The upper end provides the first of your climbing exercises on solid, whitish rock. Flex your fingers and go to work. Above this first exercise is a stretch of steep boot-beaten path and then, voila!, you are in the gully between fin and plug. The problem immediately in front of you is the crux. This might be a good time to check your party and make certain that all are ready, willing and able to ascend and descend the next 10 or 12 vertical feet. All OK? Have fun.

The juniper snag (just jutting above the horizon) that appears above the gully

It isn’t exactly mellow above the crux, even though the angle eases. There is quite a bit of toe-and finger work to pull you up to a shelf high on the southeast side of the plug. From there look ahead for an old snag of a juniper, about 100 feet distant. Follow the tread towards this tree but you don’t want to go below it. About 20 feet before the snag look for an ascent on large, rounded lumps of pillow basalt. It is steep, but it will get you up to the level of the snag and the continuance of the trail.

Rounded boulders leading to the uppermost wall

Here the tread rises and falls less than 100 feet before turning uphill on rounded boulders for another pitch of finger and toe work. Cross beneath a thriving juniper and come to what appears to be a fork. Above you is a climbable route going up on an steep wall. To your right is an array of flattish rocks that might be more trail to the north. Alas, the latter is just feint. You will want to ascend the steep wall. The holds are a bit sparse on the lowest eight feet and, for some scramblers, may be just as challenging as the crux move below. Above, however the rock takes on a gnarled aspect with many welcome protrusions.

Windbreak on the summit of Cabezon

At the top of this pitch come to steep grass-and-cactus terrain. Follow it to the summit where you will find an elaborate windbreak. In the windbreak is a metal box containing the summit log. All about you, for many many miles, lies desert, the escarpments above the Rio Puerco, and innumerable smaller volcanic necks. To the north east lie the Naciamento Mountains (source the river), and the Jemez Mountains. To the southeast lies Mount Taylor. The high ridge to the distant west may be the Chuksa Mountains.


Author at the foot of the talus tread leading to the fin

This is a cool-weather hike. It would be brutal in summer.

In cool weather this scramble can be very popular. In addition to the Boy Scouts I passed two other parties on the route and met another party on return to the trailhead. Bring a helmet because rockfall is a big concern. The shout of “Rock!” formed most of the conversation between people ascending the crack formed by the fin.

There isn’t much sense in picking Cabezon Peak if the weather is foul. Just traversing the roads could become a memorably demanding occupation. Pick your day and make your day!

I had a pretty heavy bag and that was a mistake. It was my usual bag for solo hiking and carried about four liters of water and full-on winter gear in case of a bivouac. It made for pretty sketchy scrambling. I poured out all but a half liter for the descent and put on much of the heavy fleece. That made things much easier to handle.

Bring friends. Today’s scramble was fun but it would have been great to pick out more distant peaks with folks who really know the area.


14 Cerro Cuarte from summit

Summit view west to (left to right): Cerro Santa Clara, Cerro Chafo, the trailhead road, Rio Puerco and Cerro Cuarte. Mesa Chivato forms the left horizon.

There are lots of good resources for Cabezon Peak. These are the ones I happened across when preparing for the hike:

There is terrific photography at Mary Caperton Morton’s site, Travels With The Blonde Coyote. She rates the last pitch as a class 4 and I’m inclined to agree.

SummitPost also has a very good route description, including a much better photo of the “the old snag” which is described by them as a “gnarled tree”. Additionally, there is a photo of the ascent up the talus slope with the route helpfully drawn in.

D’Ellis Photographic Art provides numerous great photos of the Peak and the surrounding terrain. The photo of the Cabezon interpretive sign, from a time at which the sign was still legible, may be of particular interest to your vehicle’s navigator.

A short description can be found at ClimbMountains.Com that is notable for offering difficulty ratings for individual phases of the climb. It also has a photo of a scrambler looking down the last pitch. The photo is a little grainy, but of all the pictures I’ve seen this is the best for giving a clear idea of what the pitch looks like.

Cabezon Peak is on BLM land. The BLM website (with driving directions) is found here.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has a terrific geology writeup and a useful map if you want to identify the other volcanic plugs nearby.




Sandia Crest From Three Guns Spring Trail


This is a “lasso-style” loop hike in the Sandias. The stem portion is a half-mile trek amidst the cacti and juniper of Three Guns Spring Canyon. The loop portion begins with a sharp ascent along the Hawk Watch Trail, followed by a mellow sojourn on the Crest Trail to the summit block of South Sandia Peak. Return by descending the Embudito trail to Oso Pass where you rejoin the ever-popular Three Guns Spring Trail. Are you bringing a novice scrambler into the mountains? Be certain to put them out in front and have them pick their way across a short, untracked segment on the crest. It’s beautiful.

Driving Directions:

  • In Albuquerque, at the junction with Interstate-25 (I-25), go east onto I-40.
  • After approximately 9.5 miles, take exit 170 for Carnuel.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left (east) on old Route 66.
  • After 1.7 miles, turn left to cross the meridian of 66 on a paved pad and then onto Monticello Dr.
  • Immediately turn right on Montecello  (it closely parallels old Route 66 for a short distance before swinging north into the canyon).
  • After 0.5 miles turn left onto Alegre Dr. NE. Opposite the turn there is one sign saying “Trail” (with a left pointing arrow) and a second sign saying just “522”.
  • After 0.1 miles turn right onto Siempre Verde Dr. NE (there are similar signs), which turns into a well-maintained gravel road
  • After 0.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of the road.


The mighty Camry at the  Trailhead

The trailhead is just a wide graveled pad at the end of the road. I didn’t notice any trash, water or toilet services. There were no fees for parking in this area.

This is a very popular spot with dog walkers, trail runners, mountain bikers and other outdoor folk. I was the first one there at about 7:00 am on a very nice Saturday, but it was getting jammed by the time I returned that afternoon. You will probably want to arrive early.


  • Starting Elevation: 6320 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9563 feet
  • Net Elevation: 3243 feet
  • Distance: 10.6 miles (round trip)

Hike Description:

Broad tread on lower Three Guns Spring Trail

There seem to be several trails departing from the trailhead. I took the large track (an old road) heading straight north out of the northwest corner of the trailhead. This is the Three Guns Spring Trail. It is a pure pleasure to walk as it crosses the flattish terrain of the lower canyon. The sun takes its time rising over the crest, so it can be brisk on a late-January morning. I had on a heavy fleece coat with a light fleece vest and was very glad that the winds weren’t blowing.

Fence and signs at junction with Hawk Watch Trail

After 0.5 miles come to a fence and, immediately past it, a signed junction. The Three Guns Trail continues north, while the Hawk Watch trail departs towards the east. Follow the Hawk Watch (which, despite the magic of this environment, is not “the Hogwarts”). Initially this tread, too, bounces along the canyon bottom and begins a gentle rise until, at 0.9 miles from the trailhead, it reaches the top of a rib. At this point the tread turns north and follows the rib-top while the grade steepens markedly. This is clearly a much-loved trail and navigation is not a problem.

Trail post and saddle where engineering of the Hawk Watch Trail begins to degrade

At 1.7 miles the rib sags to form a minor saddle. Here a trail post marks the end of the official Hawk Watch trail. The trail becomes less formal but is easily traced. It has a tendency to head straight uphill, which puts your quadriceps on notice. Gullies form on trails like this, leaving walls to the left of you and walls to the right of you. Beneath your boots are pea-sized pebbles that have, inexplicably, resisted the forces of gravity. Now they serve to make your contact with the bedrock frictionless. Slipping is not that much of a problem, although it may rehearse earlier lessons regarding the use of cacti as belay points.

View from the crest to Three Guns Canyon outwash and Ladron Peak

At 2.1 miles the tread pulls over the crest, makes a tentative turn or two and disappears. (There was some snow at this level, but not enough to bury all signs of a trail). Hmmph. Pull up just a bit further to cliffside and look out to the Manzanitos and Manzanos to the South, the Ladron Mountains south and west, and the distant spire of South Baldy (currently snow capped) in the Magdelanas Mountains. Far below your toes lies Three Spring Canyon and its intersection with Canon De Carnue (containing the broad white slash of I-40). Mt Taylor dominates the views west and the broad, broad shoulder of the Sandias lie north.  Majestic. Now, what to do about that lack of trail?

View from point 8620 to the broad Sandia shoulders

From your airy perch overlooking Three Guns Spring Canyon turn uphill and follow the crest itself. You will encounter some thickets but do not hesitate to probe downhill to the east to find easier going. It is always possible to climb back to the crest once the vegetation thins. In just a few hundred yards come to a minor summit (about 8620 feet) and look north. From here the crest drops slightly to a saddle and then begins climbing on a narrow ridge. Descend to the saddle and discover the broad Sandia Crest Trail there.

Signed junction where the Embudito Trail terminates at the Crest Trail

Abandoning the arduous task of sticking with the crest, the trail now opts for a leisurely ascending roll across the gently sloping east Sandias. This is forested terrain, but views do open from time to time. Peek to the southeast across the immense Pecos basin, due east across the Ortega Range, and northeast to the snow-capped splendor of Santa Fe Baldy in the Pecos Mountains. The trail eventually passes South Sandia Spring (currently frozen hard), hits a short bit of steeper tread and then levels into a broad swale choked with Gambel Oak. At the swale’s upper end, four miles from the trailhead, you will find a signed intersection with the Embudito Trail. Is the weather beginning to thicken? Is the deepening snow threatening to obscure the trail? If so then you could either go back the way you came (down those steep gullys!) or you could descend the Embudito, a much better trail. Are you enjoying New Mexico’s famous sunshine? Push north to go a little past the South Sandia summit.

White snow and blue sky at the crest, visible through an aspen curtain

Continue on the Crest Trail, monitoring the height of land to your left. That is the summit block. I did not find a formal path that would take you to the summit (there may have one been buried under snow), but the Crest Trail enters into a series of broad meadows, curtained by aspen and Ponderosa growing along the crest. The curtain is not so very dense that you can’t see where the terrain is starting to descend from the summit. Pick a spot, turn left (west) to get to the crest, then turn left to follow the crest to the summit.

Albuquerque, Taylor and Cabezon from South Sandia

The snow got noticeably deeper on the summit block. Gaiters were very useful pieces of attire, although I might have made better use of snake-proof gaiters since the woods were full of small, yet doughty, thorn bushes.  Eventually the bigger trees give way to Gambel oaks and, after a little exploring, the rocky summit of South Sandia. You’ve come five miles from the trailhead. Westerly views  open, encompassing the Ladron Mountains, Mt Taylor, Cabezon Peak and much of the northern Sandias. To the northeast find the nearby Ortega Range and the distant Pecos Range.

Junction where the meadow-crossing trail meets cliffside trail

If the winds are behaving themselves then you can drop from the summit on a steep west-side tread, pick up a boot-beaten cliff-side path and begin working your way south towards Embudito. On this day, at noon, the westerly winds were brisk. Under those conditions, leave the summit to the east, crossing a small declivity, and follow another boot beaten path into an aspen woods protected from those westerlies. The trail runs straight at a high wall of rock, turns south (to your right) and follows the wall to where it peters out in about 100 yards. The trail can be a little hard to follow, especially if the snow is deep. Be prepared to return to the summit and face those chilly breezes if you have to.

Unsigned junction where the cliffside trail terminates at the Embudito Trail

The trail hops over the end of the wall and then descends steeply, furrowing through Gambel oak thickets. These thickets end where the terrain levels out and the trail deposits you on a broad meadow. Keeping the crest on your right, cross the meadow and pick up a side trail at the meadow’s south side. Turn west (right) and follow the trail to an unsigned intersection with the cliff-side path. Turn south (left) and take in the vistas from the crest.  The trail will bring you into a large, open and steep-sided bowl. The tread drops into this bowl and terminates  at an unsigned junction with the Embudito Trail at 5.5 miles from the trailhead. Turn right onto the Embudito, going downhill, and follow it to a broad wooded rib that marks the northern extremity of this bowl.

View from the second forested rib back into the lower bowl.

The Embudito is a popular track and, in winter time, the snow gets packed down hard. On this date all the southwest faces were clear of snow and even muddy in spots. However, each small runnel and larger ravine will have it’s northerly faces and those can be icy. Wend your way over the first forested rib and creep carefully past such obstacles into a second bowl. Keep your eyes raised, however, for nice views of distant Cabezon. At the far end of this bowl the trail reaches a thickly forested rib and descends it to the west. There are plenty of switchbacks. If you are hiking during the warmer months you will be grateful for the dense array of ponderosa pine and fir.

Descending to Oso Pass from Embudito Trail, the trail sign is on the extreme right.

At the end of the rib, 6.7 miles from the trailhead, you come to a flat spot that is Oso Pass. There are three descent options. Embudito Trail makes a hard right-turn next to a trail sign and descends into Embudito Canyon. The informal Whitewash trail goes straight ahead, initially rising, to attain the top of the rib between Embudito and Embudo canyons. You, however, will want to turn left onto the Three Guns Spring Trail, #194.

Three Guns Spring Trail below, Crest cliffs above

The high end of the Three Guns Spring Trail is a long lateral across the west face of the Sandia. The trail yaws into and rolls out of minor canyons but descends very gently. On Oso Pass it is thickly populated with Ponderosa pines, but these start to thin as the trail drops to a junction (signed) with Embudo Trail. There are occasional glimpses of the Sandia Crest and, on those darker north-facing slopes, winter can deposit patches of firm ice. It was also the most populated portion of this loop. On this date I saw no-one on the way up to the summit, but passed about a half-dozen parties on the Three Guns.

View to lower Three Guns Spring Canyon

The Embudo tail departs the junction atop the ridge separating Embudo Canyon and Three Guns Spring Canyon. You will want to stay on the Three Guns Spring trail as it drops due south into an upper-Sonoran life zone, with  junipers steadily displacing the pinyon pine and with prickly pear replacing thorn bush. Below the junction the trail offers a short side trip to an outlook that you should take. Look east over the rise that took you Crest-ward only a few hours ago, west over Post Pass and into Embudo Canyon, and straight south over the enormous bowl that is the lower canyon. Return to the trail as it steepens and then dives (on numerous switchbacks) into the lower bowl. Having hiked 9.0 miles from the start the last switchback ends and a side-trail will take you back up canyon. I think that the sidetrail goes the the well armed spring that gives the canyon its name. From here it is an easy 1.6 miles down the canyon and back to the car.


This was a terrific hike on a mild January day. The turn-back options are slightly sketchy once you’re atop the crest because the steep, pebble-filled gullies offer uncertain footing. If weather threatens then it might be better to find a hike with better options. Similarly, on hot summer days much of the mid-hike is shaded. Still, be aware that the last two miles is not protected from the sun.

As always, if you hike the Crest in wintertime bring winter clothing, real fire making gear and have extra food and extra clothing. Any protracted waiting would make you cold and then much colder.

Traction devices like microspikes are strongly recommended for wintertime hikes. I was very glad to have them through the upper bowls and descending Embudito to Oso Pass. In fact, it was a mistake to take them off just below the pass because of the numerous small icy patches in the ravines.

I went through two liters of water and had another liter and a half reserve. That is plenty.  The morning was cold enough to cause ice to start forming in the tube leading from the water bag. I was over-consuming just to prevent it from  freezing solid.

I mentioned this above, but if you have a young navigator-in-training then the untracked section at the top of Hawk Watch would make for a nice challenge. Looking back, it was a little funny how few under-20 folks were out on the trail. You could not possibly ask for more scenic terrain or better training.

If you have a visitor with hiking experience, but not very much time, then this is probably the Sandia trail I’d recommend. It has a lot in common with the Pino Trail, but this hike gains a summit and offers grand views.  The Pino lacks that glamour.


I first heard about the Hawk Watch trail from the Albuquerque Hiking and Outdoor Meetup group. They plotted out a strenuous figure-8 pattern back and forth across the southern end of the Sandia Mountains. Clearly I’ve opted for a more mellow trek.

Hawk Watch International used to do raptor banding along the Hawk Watch Trail in the springtime. You may find some sites advising hikers to stay away during that time of year. I asked, however, and was told that they no longer working there. Feel free to make that fine April sojourn.

The Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide offers separate descriptions for the Hawk Watch, Three Guns Spring, and Embudito trails. You have to do your own mix-and-match to come up with this hike, but there are excellent trail descriptions and links to printable maps.

This hike links up several different trails and can be a little confusing. A clear map that simply lays out the location of most of these trails can be found here.  The only thing missing is the connection between the end of the Hawk Watch and the summit of South Sandia Peak.

Much of this route lies within the Cibola National Forest. If you have questions about the trail status there is some data available from the Forest Service here.


View from Crest into West Railroad Canyon

View from Crest into West Railroad Canyon

West Railroad Canyon (Trail 128) is a wonderful hike. Numbered among its attractions are easy access to the trailhead, running water, eye-catching terrain and a clear trail of very reasonable length and steady gains. Long-time hikers may point to the neighboring Gallinas Canyon or East Railroad Canyon, both of which share the running water (in its lowest reaches) and can claim many of the same attractions. This is true, but West Railroad Canyon remains a standout because the 2013 Silver Fire did minimal damage along this waterway. Regrettably, the same can not be said for its neighbors.

Evening view from NM-152 from Emory Pass to Caballo Range

Evening view from Emory Pass on NM-152 to the Caballo Range

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.


The mighty Camry in front of a sign for Railroad Campground

The mighty Camry in front of a sign for Railroad Campground

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).


  • Starting Elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9120
  • Net Gain: 2020 feet
  • Length: 4.8 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Hillsboro, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

Cow in the Railroad Campground.

Cow in the Railroad Campground.

The first 1.5 miles on Trail 129 ascends north along Gallinus Creek in a beautiful canyon setting. You will find it described in detail on the Gallinas Canyon route description. Rather than repeat the description, this route description will add a few minor points. First, the water level has risen since the Gallinas Canyon hike was described – a rise of just an inch or two that almost eliminated the promised “dry footed crossings”. There are one or two places where you can cross on logs. Alternatively, brief searches up- or down- stream may reveal stepping stones. A “mostly dry footed” ascent was possible but those stepping stones are unstable. You risk getting drenched in snow melt. Second, as the photo on the right shows, you may encounter cattle in the canyon. This one was startled awake by my approach and seemed regretful of company. Give them a wide berth.

Sign at the junction of East and West Railroad Canyon

Sign at the junction of East and West Railroad Canyon

At 1.5 miles come to the signed junction where Trail 129 departs left and ascends into Gallinas Canyon. Go straight ahead on Trail 128 as it begins a sweeping bend towards the northeast and ascends into the lower reaches of Railroad Canyon. Stream crossings become markedly easier, which is fortunate since the trail skittishly leaps the water at each bend. Scorched tree trunks and some blackened deadfall provide mute testimony to the fire of 2013, although most trees appear to be healthy. At about 2 miles from the trailhead the tread pulls away from the stream to the left and crosses a piney flat. The tread becomes fainter and grasses may obscure the trail during growing season. Returning to the stream the trail becomes fainter still. A half mile further you will find a small stream comes in from the west (left, looking uphill) and the trail becomes especially obscure. Stay on the west bank (left) so as to avoid missing the trail junction. If you were to stay on the east bank you could easily pass the junction and find yourself heading into East Railroad Canyon. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead a sign marks the junction. Go left to enter West Railroad Canyon.

Tall trees, sunlit hoodoos and steep sided canyons in the entrance to West Railroad Canyon.

Tall trees, sunlit hoodoos and steep sided canyons in the entrance to West Railroad Canyon.

The trail becomes more obvious as you enter this steep sided canyon. The music of water falling into deep pools echoes from the canyon walls. The trail pulls away from the rough and tumble of the stream bed and clings to the canyon side. There is considerable evidence of trail work in the form of sawed deadfall. Overall this trail is in great shape, with only one spot where four trees lie in a tangle across the trail. Drop down a bit and skirt the tops of the fallen trees.


Waterfall in West Railroad Canyon

Waterfall in West Railroad Canyon

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead the path returns to the stream bed where a major tributary comes in from the west. Stay on the east bank (right side, looking uphill) and work your way past the debris deposited in the canyon bottom. Above this confluence the canyon walls gentle and the grade eases. Stream crossings are a minor issue. Ponderosa pines still dominate, but there are increasing numbers of firs as well.

First view of the Black Range crest from the trail

First view of the Black Range crest from the trail

Follow the trail due north as the forest thins and meadows begin to open up. In warm weather keep an eye open for poison ivy. I saw one instance of ivy and it was an eye-catching shade of green – in February! On this date small patches of snow began to appear at about the 8000 foot level. It never blanketed the ground, but obviously that could change quickly. At 3.4 miles from the trail head you will find a brief series of switchbacks that pulls you away from the stream. Look through the tree tops for a first peek at the Black Range crest.

Gated fence in deep forest near the crest.

Gated fence in deep forest near the crest.

The tread returns to the creek, now a tiny stream and almost certain to be dry in the warmer months. Stay to the west side (left, looking uphill) because at 3.6 miles the main path makes a distinct turn, to just-west of north, and begins switchbacking along side what appears to be a minor rivulet. The terrain becomes steeper as you approach the high ground near the crest. Very near the crest, at about 4.3 miles from the trailhead, pass through a carefully maintained gate in a barbed wire fence. Just above the fence you will enter the only serious burned patch on the entire trip. Forest recycling is evident as more and more of the charred snags show signs of fungal colonization. Fortunately this burned patch is small (nothing compared to the devastation at the top of Gallinas Canyon) and is quickly traversed.

View west into the Gila National Forest

View west into the Gila National Forest

Reach a saddle on the crest at 4.3 miles from the trailhead. There are excellent views to the west where the mountains of the Gila National Forest crowd the skyline. The views east are limited, but at least it is a healthy, unburned swath of forest that crowns the ridge above Holden’s Prong.

Point 9335 seen from a height of land north of the saddle.

Point 9335 seen from a height of land north of the saddle.

In the saddle you will find an intersection with the Crest Trail, #79. There are several possible loops you could make, but on a short winter’s day it seemed best to head west on the Crest Trail to a nearby height of land with views east. Follow trail #79 for an additional 0.3 miles, where it sharply rounds a prominent rib. Go off-trail and follow the rib to a small prominence crowded with scrub oak. A bit of bulling through the oak will bring you to vistas into Holden’s Prong and out across the basin to the Caballo Range in the east. Return the way you came.


14 author

Author, near point 9217

Folks who live in El Paso, Las Cruces, Deming, Silver City, Truth-Or-Consequences (or any nearby community) all share recreational gold in this resource. If getting out of the house sounds good, then pull on those hiking boots and give West Railroad Canyon a shot. You could hardly ask for a more beautiful spot in which to stretch your legs. Want to impress your hiking friends (or trying to recruit someone who hikes)? Send them here.

The season will matter. On this date the morning was cold enough to merit three layers (polypro undershirt, flannel midlayer and a fleece vest). However, the moment the sun’s rays penetrated to the canyon bottom both the polypro and the fleece came off. Even on the ridge it was warm enough to make the flannel a little too much. In the warm months this west-facing terrain probably bakes – you’d have real reason to celebrate the shade offered by those Ponderosa pines. This is just a guess, but the best time of year might be early spring. In late March, April or early May the days would be long enough to permit exploration without the sweltering or the lightening risk that comes with summer days.

I got through three liters of water – despite the February date it was warm after mid-morning. On a hot day you’ll want at least two or three more liters.

The risks are pretty standard for hiking in New Mexico. Snow patches were found along the trail but on this date they offered no serious barrier to hiking . There was no evidence that I could find of avalanche risk. That said, deep snow has been reported here, hikers should have a clear idea of the limits to their risk-tolerance.  In warm weather the terrain probably rattles. There was enough evidence of the Silver Fire that strong winds would be a concern. The fire has reduced the fuel-load on these slopes so future fire risk is probably diminished – but certainly not eliminated. In drought conditions the entire waterway may be dry so bring your water from home.


Desert Lavender describes a camping trip up West Railroad Canyon then across the Black Range crest to Emory Pass.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a report on hiking in West Railroad Canyon (and the neighboring canyons). He visited before the fire and captured some very nice photos of aspen in their fall colors.

The Gila Back County Horsemen of New Mexico were here in April and described their efforts in opening this trail. Many thanks to those folks!

The Forest Service has a page for Railroad Canyon. It mentions that a loop could be formed by ascending Railroad Canyon (Trail 128), traversing the Black Range Crest (Trail 79) and descending Gallinas Canyon (Trail 129). That could be done by hikers who are faster than me or who chose to explore on a day with longer daylight hours. Curiously, they make no mention of East Railroad Canyon, which would also make a great loop. There are important navigation challenges for these loops. The junction between the Crest Trail and Gallinas Canyon Trail is in a stand of badly burned aspen and there was no sign marking the junction when I was last there. I assume that the sign was lost in the fire. In contrast, the junction between the Crest Trail and East Railroad Canyon is clearly signed. Some stretches of the tread into East Railroad Canyon, however, have been obliterated by wholesale rearrangement of forest soils. It would require good path-finding skills to follow it into East Railroad Canyon.


Open and rolling terrain (if badly burned) near the saddle on the Black Range Crest

Open and rolling terrain (badly burned) near the saddle on the Black Range Crest

The Black Range in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was severely burned in 2013. The Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 (gallinas is Spanish for “hens”) gives you a tour along the western edge of the disaster. There are stretches where little is left but grass and standing char, but don’t despair. The fire burned mosaic fashion, leaving patches of still-green trees threaded by a beautiful stream in a remarkably mellow alpine environment. This is relatively open terrain and it is laced by numerous side canyons that invite further exploration. Moreover, this trail has received careful attention from trail builders since the fire. It is in much better condition than the trail up the neighboring East Railroad Canyon. Most of the improvements seem to end at the new corral in the upper canyon, so it seems reasonable to guess that the horse-riding community has been active here along with the Forest Service. They deserve our thanks. Gallinas Canyon might make an excellent doorstep for those seeking entrance to the unburned northwest corner of the Wilderness.

Driving Directions:

Evening view from Emory Pass on the drive back from Gallinas Canyon

Evening view from Emory Pass on the drive back from Gallinas Canyon

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.


The mighty Camry, parked alongside NM-152 near the Railroad Canyon trailhead. The snow at this altitude only remained where it had been plowed.

The mighty Camry, parked alongside NM-152 near the Railroad Canyon trailhead.

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).


  • Starting Elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 8975 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1875 feet
  • Distance: 5.75 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Hillsboro, NM quadrangle

My copy of the 2013 edition of the Hillsboro quadrangle does not show the trails in the Wilderness. In contrast, my copy of the 1999 edition does show the trails. This may be due to an error on my part in downloading the 2013 map, but check your maps before going out into the hills.

Hike Description:

04 signs in quarry

Cautionary signs in the rock quarry (double click to enlarge images).

From the turnout beside NM-152, walk uphill to the entrance to Railroad Campground and descend into the camping area. Cross to a berm of rocks at the far end and follow a two-track into the woods and then into a rock quarry. The trail leaves the quarry below a sign warning you of elevated risk due to fire damage. Very true. The tread immediately makes the first of its numerous stream crossings in the lower stretches of Gallinas Creek. A sign on the far side of the creek informs you that you are on Gallinas Trail #128. Trail 128 is very well maintained and leaps back and forth across the creekbed. In periods of high water flow this may be a bit sketchy, but at this time of year the crossings could all be made dry-footed. After about 0.6 miles, cross a wide shelf that has a decaying corral to the left of the trail and then follow the tread back to the stream as it pursues a course north into the mountains. At 0.8 miles the trail pulls away from the stream again and climbs about 50 feet above the stream bed. This is a good spot to look around and get a feel for the lower canyon.

A rock fin near to the point where Gallinas Canyon joins Railroad Canyon.

A rock fin near to the point where Gallinas Canyon joins Railroad Canyon.

The canyon twists through large, oxbow-like bends and then presents a prominent rock fin high atop the canyon’s west bank. In the early morning it can reflect a spectacular amount of light into the dim canyon bottom. At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, come to a signed fork in the trail. Going straight ahead would take you to the Railroad Canyons (East and West).

14 pocket canyon hanging above Gallinas

“Pocket Canyon” on flanks of Gallinas Canyon

Instead, go left and begin a short ascent to get into Gallinas Canyon. Although it is only 0.2 miles, the ascent is one of the steepest stretches of the entire trail. It will remove any remaining chill you may have experienced on the way in. At the top of this ascent you will enter a curiously shallow canyon, with a particularly low wall on its west side. Go briefly off-trail and ascend this wall and you will find yourself staring into the much deeper drainage of the main Gallinas Canyon. Apparently the trail is taking you into a canyon within a canyon. Cool!  Return to the trail and follow the pocket canyon as it gently climbs. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will encounter an old barbed wire fence with a wide gap. There are several boot beaten tracks at this point, but the main tread goes through the gap and follows the rusty fence as it contours gently into the bed of the main canyon.

A bit of trail (extreme left of picture) and typical view of the gently ascending terrain of Gallinas Canyon

A bit of trail (extreme left of picture) and typical view of the gently ascending terrain of Gallinas Canyon

The trail is quite obvious here (although a season of heavy grass growth could obscure things). The canyon bottom is fairly broad and the stream is at such a shallow gradient that water falls and pools are fairly rare. At mile 2.3 you will find the confluence where Turkey Run Canyon joins the Gallinas Creek bed. It isn’t immediately obvious which of the two streams is largest, but Gallinas is the stream coming in from the north (on your right looking uphill). The trail pulls a brief disappearing act beneath deposits left by the colliding streams. To recover the tread, cross to the wedge of land between the two streams and ascend as if you were trying to stay equally distant from both creeks. In just 40 or 50 feet you should find an obvious track.

Footprints in a trail identifiable only as a depression in the surrounding field of snow

Footprints in a trail identifiable only as a depression in the surrounding field of snow

The fire did burn in mosaic fashion, but it has to be admitted that the green and thriving patches are small compared to some of the roasted and grim patches. Sharpen your awareness of wind speeds and watch for  semi-fallen trees hung up on the charred limb stumps of still-vertical snags. At the same time, note the conifer saplings growing in the wetter spots and in those places where the fire did intermediate levels of damage. The forest is struggling back. One particularly green stretch arises about 3.1 miles from the trailhead, where another tributary, unnamed, flows in from the west. Once again the debris deposit obscures the tread. Simply cross the tributary and then cross to the east bank (right side, looking uphill) of Gallinas Canyon. The tread is immediately obvious. On this date snow banks often obscured the trail. More or less constant snow began at about 3.6 miles from the trailhead (about 8200 feet altitude). From that point on this “trail description” becomes more of a “canyon description”.

Corral on shelving terrain near the Black Range crest

Corral on shelving terrain near the Black Range crest

At 4.3 miles the terrain starts to shelve and you will encounter a new corral adjacent to the trail. Surprisingly, the deer seem to love this structure – the snow was positively crushed by deer tracks around and within the corral. The trail up to this point was in terrific condition, with much hard work going into clearing the downed trees and pushing rockfall out of the tread. The trail continues to be obvious above the corral, although the quality drops somewhat and there are stretches where even light snow would obscure it completely. Where the path is not obvious stay close to the creek bed. Generally the trail stays to the west side (left, looking uphill) in this area.

Artifacts of the west - a coil of wire abandoned on the crest of the Black Range.

Artifacts of the west – a coil of wire abandoned on the crest of the Black Range.

You approach the crest in surprisingly open terrain where Black Range “peaklets” create a sense of rolling hills. Despite that quality the tread is steadily upwards. In the last quarter mile (starting about 5.2 miles from the trailhead) the terrain steepens again. Watch through the trees to your right for evidence of the saddle between Gallinas Canyon and a waterway on the far side of the range called Sid’s Prong. When the saddle becomes obvious, depart from the creek bed and climb through aspen trees directly to the saddle. The saddle is densely loaded with burned trees and it could be windy. Caution is needed here. On this date the intersection of the Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 with the Crest Trail #79 was under snow and not especially obvious. If it had been signed then those signs are now gone. A large roll of plain wire (perhaps abandoned by long-ago fencers) was the only clear sign that others had ever visited here.


12 author on saddle

Author on the Black Range Crest

♦Despite the fire this is very attractive terrain. It deserves a longer day than what you get in January, so a late spring day might be ideal. The usual weather risk is compounded by the stands of burned trees. Be especially careful if there are new snow loads or when high winds arise that might collapse a “widow maker”.

♦Much hard work has already gone into opening the lower portions of this trail. Much more needs to be done on this trail and in this Wilderness. Support funding for the Forest Service!

♦Please bear in mind that this route description arises from a trip when the grasses have died back and trail finding is at its easiest. Even though the trail stays in (or very near) a canyon bottom it would not be too hard to get confused. People have gotten lost here. See the links below.

♦Before diverting into Gallinas Canyon the trail is almost untouched by fire, has easy hiking and is extraordinarily beautiful. It would be a great place to bring the youngest of hikers. The trail up Gallinas Canyon is mellow, although somewhat long. Careful mentors might want to bring slightly older hikers into this scorched but attractive terrain.

♦In warmer weather it is likely that you will need to watch for snakes and carry quite a bit of water. In midwinter conditions I consumed just over a liter of water. In the winter gaiters are very advisable. The deeper snow on the crest could easily get into your boots. I saw little evidence of avalanche terrain, but a heavy snow year could alter that quickly.

♦Judging from the available maps of the Silver Fire, the northern end of Gallinas Canyon isn’t very far from the western edge of burned area. It might be possible to take a pack up to the intersection with the Crest Trail #79  and then work into the unburned regions of the Aldo Leopold Area. I haven’t tried it, but the upper reaches of East Canyon or Bear Trap Canyon might be within reasonable range.


♦Southern New Mexico Explorer (recording trips made before the Silver Fire) compares the hikes in Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon. He reports the mysterious (if unmistakable) allure of the terrain leading down into Sid’s Prong and into the interior of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. If you are going in warm weather, then you will want to make note of his observations regarding poison ivy as well.

Patrick Alexander has some great landscape photos of this terrain before the fire. It certainly makes me wish that I had been more industrious about getting there when the getting was best.

♦The Las Cruces Sun-Times has a story about one hiker who came into this area to do a loop and got lost. (Suffering severe frostbite and pneumonia as a consequence). That hiker’s conclusion was that his decision to push into an unplanned scramble was a mistake. It can be.

♦A select list of hikes in the Gila/Aldo Leopold Wilderness, which includes milage and recommendations for seasons, can be found here.

♦The speculations about helpful horse-folks clearing the trail (above) has some bearing in fact. A report from the Gila Back Country Horsemen indicates that they worked on the trail this past April. Many thanks for their efforts!

♦The New Mexico Herpetological Society has a report indicating that Gallinas Canyon can rattle. In particular, they mention the banded rock rattler.


Mt Riley. Approach is from the left side and descent is down the rib to the right.

Mt Riley. The approach is on a ridge coming in from the left side and the descent is down the rib to the right.

This route is an off-trail journey in the Potrillo Volcanic Field (potrillo is Spanish for “foal”) within the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eruption risk is minimal, but there are risks due to temperature extremes, steep and difficult footing, the lack of any trails, the near-total absence of other visitors, and potential navigational hazards such as dust or thunder storms. All of which is made manageable by hiking in the cool season, bringing friends, carrying the requisite navigational aids and keeping an eye on the weather. You get a great hike in stark, other-worldly terrain that is an easy drive from Las Cruces.

Mt Riley is part of a ridge that extends for two miles west to east. For ease of reference it is called the Riley Ridge in this guide. Mount Riley proper, at 5905 feet, anchors the east end of Riley Ridge. “Point 5782” (named after the altitude label on the USGS quadrangle) anchors the west end. South of Point 5782 is the summit of Cox Peak. In this scramble you will traverse the Riley Ridge and return via the Cox-Riley valley.

Driving Directions:

This shallow waterway is also the jeep track.

This shallow waterway is also the jeep track.

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going south.
  • After 3.0 miles I-25 merges with I-10 going east.
  • After 29.1 miles (having crossed into Texas) take Exit 8 for Texas Highway 178, also known as Aircraft Road. The exit will first merge onto a frontage road called South Desert Road.
  • After 0.6 miles on South Desert Road, at a traffic light, go right onto Texas Highway 178.
  • After 2.9 miles, at the state border, the road is renamed to NM 136 (also known as the Peter V. Domenici Highway). Reset your mileage meter here.
  • After 6.1 miles on NM 136 turn right onto NM 9. There is a small road sign, but there is no traffic light (this may seem odd as there are traffic lights at earlier junctions on NM 136). If you miss this turn then you will come to the Santa Teresa Port of Entry border station in less than 2 miles.
  • After 23.8 more miles, go right onto County Road Ao05. There is the usual road sign as well as a second sign saying “Mt Riley”. CR-Ao05 is a gravel road.
  • After 8.5 miles turn right onto a jeep track and park on the grassy area to the side. The jeep track can be a little hard to identify so the following navigation clues may be useful
    • After 1.2 miles on CR-Ao05 come to the Mt Riley Ranch, where there are two gates across the road. You will have to open the gates, drive through, close and re-latch them (unless the ranch has left them open).
    • After 4.5 miles on CR-Ao05 come to an intersection where County Road Ao07 departs to your right. (CR Ao07 is used for the Cox Peak trailhead, but here it is just used to check navigation).
    • After 8.0 miles on CR-Ao05 (approximately) the mesquite and chaparral bushes that line the sides of the road start falling away, and there are larger and larger stretches of grassland beside the road. You can see into the valley between Cox Peak and Riley Ridge. You are getting close.
    • After 8.5 miles on CR-Ao05, while crossing a broad and only barely noticeable height of land, you will find a shallow, two-foot wide waterway coming in on your right. Although it doesn’t look much like a jeep track, that’s what it is.

If you go past the jeep track then CR-Ao05 will take on a slight downhill pitch. Turn back. Drivers of low clearance vehicles will want to park immediately beside CR-Ao05. Drivers of high clearance vehicles can drive a mile further on the jeep track to the campsite described below.


03 trailhead

The mighty Camry, parked below Point 5782 on the west end of Riley Ridge.

The trailhead is just a grassy spot beside CR Ao05. There are no services. When pulling off the road watch for the small mesquite bushes hidden in the grasses. Their thorns are not good for your tire’s sidewalls. Also, if a road grader has recently passed this spot then there may be a small berm on the roadside. High-suspended vehicles would have no problem, but sedan drivers may want to have a shovel handy.


  • Starting Elevation: 4440 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5905 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1465 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Mt Riley quadrangle

Hiking Description

View from second campsite on jeep road to Point 5782. The feeder arroyo that takes yo to the ascent rib is on the left side of the photo.

View from second campsite on jeep track to Point 5782. The feeder arroyo is the green swath on the lower right side of the photo.

Follow the jeep track as it makes a shallow climb to the east along the Cox/Riley valley floor. This valley is saddle-shaped rather than spoon-shaped. That is, the high point for a traveler going west to east along the valley floor would be the low point for a traveler going south-to-north from Cox Peak to Point 5782. Study that saddle point as you ascend the jeep track. It is important to navigation on return. After one mile on the track come to a campsite with a rock fire ring. Look closely and you will find a much fainter jeep track ascending for another two-tenths of a mile on the Mt Cox side of the valley. The faint jeep track ends at a second campsite. Peruse the prominent rib that descends from Point 5728 almost straight at you. That rib is your path to the ridge. Descend north-east to the central arroyo in the valley floor, cross, and ascend along side a feeder arroyo that takes you toward the rib.

View along "Open Ocotillo Avenue" to a false summit ascending to Point 5782

View along the “open ridge avenue” to a false summit on ascent to Point 5782

After leaving the jeep track you will be entirely off trail. As you cross the valley floor watch for dense accumulations of prickly pear cactus, thorny mesquite and saw-like sotol. This is no place for sneakers or shorts. At about 1.4 miles from the trailhead the terrain begins to steepen. Leave the feeder arroyo and stick to the rib as it becomes increasingly steep. Initially the rib is rather broad and open, making it easy to throw in a few switchbacks. At about 1.7 miles from the trailhead come to a shoulder on the rib. The gradient eases and the rib-top becomes more sharply defined. Ocotillo plants appear, but oddly they don’t seem to grow well on the very top of the rib (perhaps due to wind-damage). An open ridge-top avenue takes you skyward. The terrain rises and shelves several times, but you eventually arrive at the summit of Point 5782 having walked 2 miles from the trailhead.

View from Point 5782 along the ridge to Mt Riley.

View from Point 5782 along the ridge to Mt Riley. The western-most peaklet is visible in front of Mt Riley.

The views are terrific. The blocky mass of Cox Peak dominates the south. Immediately to the west are the cinder cones of the Potrillo Volcanic Field. Beyond lie the Florida Mountains. To the north are the Las Uvas and Robledo Mountains, while the Organ Mountains dominate the north-east. Eventually, however, you must turn your attention south of east and focus on the long ridge that will take you to Mt Riley. Descend on easy terrain to reach a pleasant col and then gird yourself for the climb to the first of three peaklets along Riley Ridge. The climb is easy. At the top you get your first view of the middle peaklet, which is topped with a pair of small knolls separated by a little pass. Drop down on steep terrain with lots of loose rocks, cross a minor saddle and rise to “Middle Peaklet Pass” 2.4 miles from the trailhead.

View from Mid Bump Pass down to the third bump and Mt Riley.

View from Middle Peaklet Pass down to the eastern peaklet, the main saddle and the west face of Mt Riley.

From here look down to the eastern-most peaklet and beyond to the steep flank of Mt Riley. You will definitely be losing lots of hard-won elevation. But, there is much to be learned here. The top of Mt Riley is almost flat. When you eventually near the top you will be coming to a western shoulder and then strolling east in a park-like environment to the summit. This can be seen, in the photo above, where the top of Mt Riley appears slightly notched. The shoulder is on the left and the summit is on the right of this “notch”. More importantly, the climb from the main saddle directly up the mountain’s steep west face is an unattractive route. Instead, when you leave the main saddle you will want to climb the west face until ascent becomes difficult, then turn right (more southerly) and perform a rising traverse across the mountain to gain the rib that descends from the shoulder. That rib can be seen in the photo as a smooth, light-colored curve descending from the shoulder. It is still steep but the footing is better.

Steep terrain and plate-like rock flakes decorate the steep flanks of Mt Riley.

Steep terrain, cacti and plate-like rock shingles decorate the flanks of Mt Riley.

Enough theory? Descend from Middle Peaklet Pass down to the last peaklet of Riley Ridge. This terrain is moderately inclined and etched with cattle trails. As you near the eastern-most peaklet you will pick up an old barbed wire fence. Follow it along the ridge to the main saddle directly below Mt. Riley, having hiked 2.7 miles. Continue following the fence across this grassy saddle onto Mount Riley’s west face. Where the grasses give over to juniper, barrel cacti and rock turn right and begin that rising traverse across difficult terrain. As pictured above, you will encounter ledges that are flaking off large piles of broad rock shingles. Some of those piles are none-too-stable. There is a marked improvement in the footing when you gain the rib that descends from the mountain’s shoulder.

View from ascent rib south and east to the East Potrillo Mountains

View from ascent rib south and east to the East Potrillo Mountains

On the rib turn uphill and zig-zag past ledges, dodge ocotillo thickets and push by more barrel cactus. (On this date these cacti had orderly circles of vividly yellow fruit on display). The angle is pretty severe so don’t be too distracted as views open to the East Potrillo Mountains. At 3.1 miles reach the shoulder and, as promised, an effortless stroll to the summit cairn in less than 100 yards. The views are similar to those from Point 5782, but with spectacular sight lines east to Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater out in the middle of the Mesilla Basin. Beyond the craters lie the Franklin Mountains.

Riley Ridge from Mount Riley Summit

Riley Ridge from Mount Riley Summit

Also, there are absorbing views west that reveal the full extent of Riley Ridge. That’s quite a scramble you’ve just had. Take a break. Grab a bite to eat. It can be hard to beat an in-season orange consumed in the warm New Mexican sunshine while sitting on a desert peak and studying possible approaches to the East Potrillos. Eventually, though, the lure of the valley below will induce you to hoist your pack. Head south, picking your way past junipers and aiming towards the east slopes of Cox Peak. Descend a broad rib that tumbles through layers of softer rock and then shelves as it strikes the harder stuff.

Looking over the south-east projecting "claw" at the foot of Mount Riley, towards the summit of Cox Peak.

Looking over the south-east projecting “claw” at the foot of Mount Riley, towards the summit of Cox Peak.

Near its foot the mountain sends out two claw-like projections. Stay a little to the left (east) to get onto the south-projecting claw and then turn right and contour down to the top of the south-east projecting claw. Having hiked 3.5 miles, you are nearing the valley floor. You want to set a course that will return you to the valley’s saddle point. There are an infinity of choices.  On this route, stay high and contour west along the base of the mountain on easily followed animal trails. This will take you across the southern face of Mt Riley to a point below the ridge’s main saddle. Follow a rib descending from main ridge and gradually work your way into the steep-sided arroyo on the rib’s west side. From the far bank aim towards the center of the valley, but try to avoid losing so much elevation that you have a long climb back to the valley’s saddle point.

Continue west, dropping into drainages and fighting up over each far bank to regain the table-land. Some of this table-land is covered with dense, light-brown grass. The grassland looks attractive from a distance. Up close, however, those dense grasses make it hard to see the light brown rocks that lurk beneath. Walking becomes a very slow process. The juniper, cactus and mesquite terrain is actually easier to negotiate. You quickly learn to steer away from the light brown patches in favor of the dark-colored terrain. At about 4.3 miles, come to the valley’s central arroyo and cross it. Above the bank on the Cox Peak side you should find a well-defined trail heading up towards the valley’s saddle point. This is great for tired legs. Continue along the trail to the valley’s saddle point, cross over, and then head down-valley. At 5.0 miles, return to the campsite at the upper end of the faint jeep track. Follow the jeep track back to the trailhead, having hiked 6.1 miles.


The author on the summit of Mount Riley (Cox Peak in the background).

The author on the summit of Mount Riley (Cox Peak in the background).

♦This is an outstanding cold-season hike. The conditions at the start of November, for example, were perfect. It was cool, a bit windy and overcast. Hikers who are not training for the Death Valley Marathon will want to stay away during the hot months.

♦A second good reason for favoring the winter months is that I saw only two reptiles on this hike. (One lizard, one horned toad). The reports say that the terrain can rattle in warmer weather. See below.

♦Bring friends. This place is so lonely that there are yellow flowers growing in the crown of County Road Ao05 (these flowers look something like tickseed).

♦Bring a map, compass and a GPS device. Bring knowledge of how to use them. On nice days there may be some grumbling about this (“hey, I can see 100 miles from here”). On nice days that turn sour – when rain or dust blows in – you’ll be glad to have independent means for navigating.

Bring all the water that you need for rehydration plus an emergency liter or two. On this November day I used about 2.5 liters of water. It was reassuring to have carried four.


♦RayRay, on Summit Post, has a very complete report on scrambling Mt. Riley. He was able to drive the jeep track and then hiked the Cox-Riley valley to get to the base of Mt. Riley. From there he did a direct ascent and returned by the same route. That cuts the round trip distance to 4.4 miles.

♦Greg at Greg’s Running Adventures has a thoughtful post viewing Mount Riley from a runners perspective. It includes a number of great photos, including evidence that the scramble can be rattle-y.

♦There is a YouTube video of Hadley Robinson paragliding near the summit of Mount Riley. The video was made in 2009 so the images are grainy. The video includes shots of the summit and several good views of the East Potrillo Mountains. Still photographs from the event (with a great deal more resolution) can be found here.

♦This hike is located close to the Mexican border. The Federal Government advises caution in this area due to the potential for illegal border crossing activity. They also warn that the road may become impassable during wet weather.