Archives for posts with tag: scramble

Overview:

The Domingo Baca Canyon Trail, the La Luz Trail and the Crest Spur Trail form the uphill section of a loop that begins in Albuquerque and leaps to the highest point in the Sandia Mountains. The Crest Trail and the Pino Canyon Trail form the downhill portion of the loop from the summit back to Albuquerque. This is a seriously strenuous scramble. Readers who have just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail will find it mildly diverting. Ordinary mortals, however, must use caution. The route up Domingo Baca is a steep and protracted scramble – retreat due to bad weather or under icy conditions is not desirable. The Crest Trail can be a mellow experience, but snow can stress your navigation skills and lightning can spoil your ridge ramble. The final descent through west-facing Pino Canyon will test your water logistics, particularly if it’s warm. The hike is time consuming and the road into the Elana Gallagos Open Space is gated shut (bang!) at 7:00 pm.

That said, this is a hike through the vertiginous dreams of a spaghetti-western director. Go on a day when you’re feeling strong, when the sky is blue, the temperatures are mild, the days have lengthened and the Crest Trail is free of snow.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 heading north in Albuquerque, take exit 232 for El Paso Del Norte (NM 423). Stay to the right.
  • After 0.1 miles veer right at a secondary off-ramp signed for El Paso Del Norte East. This puts you in the left-hand lane of a 3-lane frontage road. It will help if you can get into either of the right-hand lanes.
  • After another 0.4 miles the frontage road arrives at the intersection with El Paso Del Norte East (NM 423) where it forks around a traffic island. Stay to the right of the island and turn right (east) onto NM 423.
  • After 4.8 more miles arrive at a T-intersection with Tramway Blvd (NM 556). Turn right (south) onto NM 556.
  • After 1.2 miles, after a very slight bend to the right, look for Sims Park on your left. Just before the intersection there is a roadside sign for Elena Gallegos Park Road on the right side of the road. The Sims Park intersection does not have a traffic light. Go left (east) onto Sims Park Road.
  • After 1.3 miles arrive at the guard station for the park. On the south side of the station is a self-service pay station. After paying, follow the road as it curves tightly behind the guard station and then starts back towards the west. Immediately on the right will be a road headed north. Currently the only road sign says “Kiwanas”. Go right (north) onto this road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at the Cottonwood trailhead and park.

Trailhead:

The entry fee is currently $2.00 on weekends and $1.00 on weekdays. Put the envelope stub close to the windshield. The park has covered picnic tables and there are vault toilets just before the trailhead (on the right, screened by junipers). I did not see any water. The park is popular and on weekends parking can be scarce. The park is gated after hours (currently it is open until 7:00, check with the park’s website). There are several online reports of car break-ins. It may be wise to keep your gear out of sight.

Data:

loop profile

  • Starting Elevation: 6400 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,670 feet
  • Net Gain: 4270 feet
  • Distance: 15.4 miles (round trip).
  • Maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle

Hike Description:

Proto-hoodoos above Domingo Baca Trail

From the trailhead follow trail 230A (signed) about 100 feet to where it merges with another trail going right (uphill). At 0.5 miles from the trailhead pass an intersection with Trail 342. At 0.7 miles pass a second intersection, this time with Trail 341. Both of the intersecting trails come in from the right, simply keep going straight ahead. At 0.8 miles the trail comes to a third intersection, also signed. Trail 230 goes straight ahead, but go right, past the “Domingo Baca Trail” sign, and onto USFS property. This tread takes aim at a large knoll of tough rock that is being weathered into hoodoos, contours around the base of the knoll, and then drops into the bed of Domingo Baca Canyon.

Stone shelter

Follow the path as it turns up-canyon and dives between canyon walls north and south. As you ascend the walls begin to pull together. Nearing the pinch point you will find the remains of a rough stone shelter, about 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Push through the narrows and into a bowl with good views of the high terrain that is your destination. Looking about you will see pinyon pines, an indication that you’re transitioning out of the Upper Sonoran life zone. On this date there was water to be found in the canyon bed.

Sandy tread and arrowhead boulder at junction where you leave the gully

The first navigation challenge comes at about 1.8 miles from the trailhead where you must leave the waterway. Watch for a section where you pull out from under dense canopy, passing a table-like rock about 10-foot long and 3-foot high on your right and then onto a 15-foot stretch of sandy tread. Here you might find that the path upstream is blocked with a pile of branches (although any floodwater is likely to make short work of that). A better indicator is a blocky, whitish boulder that presents an arrowhead silhouette to hikers coming up the trail. To your left there will be an obvious path up the north wall of the gully. Don’t take that! Instead, look to your right for an obscure, rough, rock-strewn tread up the south wall of the gully. Take that.

Stony path up and out of the gully

Above the gully the tread heads out on pleasant, nearly level terrain. The path goes almost due east until it begins to run up against the walls of the bowl, then swings a bit more northerly. Somehow, unnoticed, a rocky wall 20-feet high has crept up on your left side. A stream bed (with running water on this date) has formed beside the trail. Growth in this portion of the canyon is exuberant. Even the scrub oak and the juniper bushes have formed serious boles and are jostling for skyshare. The terrain begins to steepen. Waterfalls form in the stream bed.

Enormous pines and soaring rocky spires

At 2.7 miles the trail takes a turn to the north, seeming to pull away from the main flow of the canyon. The path now takes dead aim at an immense pair of rocky spires that tower above your head. Strange sounds penetrate the forest that soon resolve as coming from the high wires of the Tramway. You may see the tram itself pause overhead and hear amplified guide-patter coming from above. Wild, yes. Untrammeled? Not so much. As you ascend higher into the canyon the trail goes directly below the Tramway then slowly pulls away.

Boulder scramble near the TWA site

At about 3.4 miles from the trailhead come to a boulder pile obstructing the canyon bed. Most people will find this an easy challenge, provided that your boots are dry and rock is free of ice or snow. A log braced against the lower rock gives you access to a shelf about half way up, then it is a matter of creeping carefully past the uppermost boulder to regain the trail. If you have party members who are not comfortable with this level of exposure there is an alternative route. You can find the junction just a short distance down-stream, adjacent to a thick, 20-foot tall snag in the middle of the trail. (A detailed discussion and a GPS track can be found in the Ondafringe link, below).

View down-canyon over the memorial site

A short distance above, at the foot of a cliff, come to the site where TWA flight 260 met its end. The trail jogs to your left and tracks a sobering story expressed in shredded aluminum and smashed engine blocks. In an otherwise spectacular canyon – soaring rock walls spaced only 20 or 30 feet apart – this sad tail of lost lives and concentrated wreckage seems to never end. Scramblers take heed, experts attribute this disaster to a failure of the aircraft’s compass. This is a memorial site, please leave the debris where it fell.

Cliff face above navigation problem – go to the right of the cliff

Few hikers climb above the crash site so it is not surprising that the tread becomes much fainter above the narrows. Keep to the canyon bottom which trends just a little east of north. At 3.8 miles, about 9000 feet of altitude, come to another potential navigation problem. A huge cliff face drops right to your boots. There is one opening to its left and one opening to its right. Which to choose? The map will show that I explored the left-hand option first (see the little stub going off to the northeast). Most navigators, however, will point to the obvious tread tucked up against the eastern wall of the “above-right” canyon and ascend in that direction.

Tunnel through the oak thickets

It now gets steep and you enter a scrub oak thicket. If it were completely untouched then passage would be impossible. Fortunately, kind and unbelievably strong volunteers have lugged saws and brush clippers into this high realm. Take advantage of their handiwork. This might be a good place to stop for a bite to eat and careful consideration of your next move. Is the weather still good? Is the party OK with the altitude? Great! If not, then a return from this point will be a great deal easier than retreat from the ever-steeper bowl above.

Down canyon view from grassy shelf

Clamber the slopes, side hilling where the soil shows signs of releasing from under your boots. The tread ascends straight up the hill without pause or apology. Practice you rest-step and remember to look over your shoulders for intense views through the narrow canyons and out onto the Albuquerque basin. At 4.4 miles come to a pleasant surprise. The thickets give way to a narrow grassy shelf and the terrain above, while still steep, is open. You may hear voices from hikers above you. There does not seem to be any obvious tread off of the shelf. For the sake of keeping the grasses (and soil) in place it is best to make your own careful zig-zags up the slope. At 4.5 miles make a glad entrance onto La Luz Trail.

Cliff bands above the La Luz Trail

Turn west (to your left, looking uphill) and follow the La Luz as it contours around a ships-bow buttress and heads north towards a small saddle. In the saddle find a signed junction with the Crest Spur Trail. That is your path to the Crest House on Sandia Summit.

Summit view of south Sandia Crest

Reach the summit having hiked 5.7 miles from the trailhead. There is a cafe in the Crest House and it is a rare luxury to sit atop a summit with hot coffee paired to your chips and salsa. There ought to be great views all around, although on this day the haze made it hard to pick out even Mt Taylor. Cast your eye over the parking lot and sympathize with those overheated engines.

Summit view down onto La Luz switchbacks

After refueling, find the Crest Trail going south from the Crest House and towards the tramway. This portion of the hike sees very heavy use and the tread is initially paved. The trail soon departs from the crest top and drops a short distance to the east. Numerous trailside signs identify Corkbark Fir and Englemann Spruce, conifers from high in the Canadian Zone. On this date there was as much as two feet of snow remaining on the ground. Put on your gaiters and don the microspikes. The trail is obvious and icy for long stretches. Then, for no clear reason, the beaten track will braid out into individual boot prints. Pick a line that parallels the crest and continue south. The tread skirts below a stone building called the Kiwanis Cabin, reaches an overlook and then descends westerly along a large field called Kiwanis meadow. At the low end of the meadow return to the Crest trail and continue south, reaching the Tramway at 7.1 miles from the trailhead.

View from tramway back towards the summit

Thread through the tramway/ski area complex (this involves staircases) and at the forest’s edge find a signed return to the Crest Trail. There is a marked reduction in trail usage here. Post-holing through deep and/or rotten snow can be tiring and slow. That 7:00 pm gate time can begin to seem worrisome. You can’t be certain of being on the trail when it is snow covered. When in doubt, return to the edge of the crest and push south. At 8.1 miles come to an overlook with great views of the crest to the south, marked as Point 9835 on the map. Looking ahead you will see, below you, a buttress on the crest bulging out to the west and, beyond the buttress, a higher stretch of ridgeline with a large bump on its southmost extremity. That bump is very close to the Pino Canyon Trail junction.

View across the saddle that contains the Pino Canyon Trail junction

The terrain forces you west from Point 9835. At about 9600 feet altitude you may find yourself returning to the tracks on the Crest Trail. On this date it was quite distinctive – leaves and needles seem to accumulate in the trough beaten into the snow. Follow it south as it contours around the east side of big bump to reach the signed intersection with the Tree Spring Trail and the 10K Trail (8.7 miles from the trailhead). Stay on the Crest trail as it gradually swings to due south. Here you depart from the comfort of hugging the crest and are tracking the ridge you saw from point 9835. This is easy hiking on a tread that rarely departs from the 9400 foot contour line. Eventually it swings a bit more westerly, descending to 9200 feet and at 10.5 miles reaches a saddle and the signed junction with the Pino Trail.

Icy tread on the upper reaches of Pino Canyon

This is a popular trail and just about all navigation issues end at the saddle. Gaiters may no longer be needed. The top of Pino Canyon Trail, however, descends a north-facing canyon wall on closely woven switchbacks. It can be extremely icy. Your weary legs will be happy that you kept those traction devices on! Down and down and down it goes until reaching 8600 feet. From there it takes dead aim at the setting sun and stretches out for Duke City. Pino Canyon has its own somber aspects. A once-magnificent forest occupied this canyon but drought and bark beetle have decimated the middle reaches. The standing deadwood is also something of a threat; be careful if the winds are strong. Look north for views into the spectacular terrain you’ve been traipsing through.

Pino Canyon: green above, dead below.

At 12.7 miles the trail significantly flattens and re-enters the domain of juniper trees and cacti. The tread becomes sandy. At 14.2 miles leave the Cibola National Forest through a gate and return to the foothill trails of the Elena Gallegos Open Space. Almost immediately you will want to go right, through a gate, to stay on the Pino Canyon Trail, #140. This is a long, level, nearly straight-line shot across the open space towards the Pino Canyon Trailhead. Unfortunately, this is not the same trailhead where you left your car. Turn right and continue slogging down the road (paved) to where it returns to the guard house. There, turn north (to your right) past the “Kiwanis” sign and return to your car having hiked 15.4 miles.

Recommendations:

21 Author, summit, Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia summit

If you’re a little worried about the shape you’re in, if you’re hiking with people fresh from sea-level, or if your navigation skills are a little rusty, then why not hike one of the lower legs of this loop? The tread up to the TWA site is challenging and solemn, but it is filled with running streams, attended by soaring canyon walls and populated with tall Ponderosa and thick Douglas fir. The Pino Canyon Trail can’t quite match that solemnity and grandeur, but it is a terrific hike through high terrain on a carefully tended tread.

On a cool, sunny March day I went through about 2.5 liters of water. I would have gone through a lot more but I was in such a hurry at the end that it never came out of my pack. It seems certain that this west-facing hike gets baked during the summer. In those conditions 5 liters might not be sufficient.

Watch the weather. You don’t want to be on the crest when a line of thunderstorms strike. Pick a different hike if it is monsoon season. Similarly, in winter and early spring you can be confident of encountering long icy stretches on the trail. Traction devices are essential. I had a single hiking pole but it would have been helpful to have had a second, especially while punching through snow-crust along the Crest.

It is important to have confidence in your navigation skills. It is even more important to have reason to be confident in your navigation skills. If you are not practiced at working your way through the mountains with a map and compass then this is probably not the place to begin learning. In the same light, pay attention to the members of your party and their experience with off-route situations. If it makes them uncomfortable then you can do everyone a huge favor by picking a different hike.

In a pinch you might have the option of descending either on the Tramway or on La Luz Trail. Just remember that those options terminate quite a long ways north of the trailhead. Alternatively, you might be able to beg a ride from folks who have driven to the summit. It won’t do much for your pride but it might be preferable to an unscheduled “bivy” on the Crest.

On this hike I parked at the trailhead nearest Domingo Baca Canyon. That was a poor choice. It would have been better psychology to park at the Pino Canyon trailhead and get the trudge down the paved roads over with first thing. This map suggests that you could connect to trail 230A from the Pino Canyon trailhead using the “nature trail”, thereby saving some milage and skipping the road trudge entirely!

In good weather the Crest Trail is open for horse riders. If you meet horses on the trail then please step off the trail to the downhill side.

Links:

The TrimbleOutdoors site names this loop the “TWA Canyon Challenge” and provides a brief description and a GPS track. Note that the GPS track doubles-back on itself in several places. This is typical of GPS tracks in narrow canyons. The canyon walls reflect the satellite signals, which renders the tracks (including those shown here) approximate at best. The site describes the tread above the TWA site as “faint”, “little used” and “steep”. All true.

An excellent description of the hike up Domingo Baca Trail to the TWA crash site, which includes some history, numerous photos and instructions for going around the boulder problem, can be found at the ondafringe website. That same site has separate pages here and here describing the Pino Canyon trail along with maps and video.

A short but very detailed description of the Domingo Baca Trail to the TWA site can be found at Cibola Search and Rescue. It’s an older report, from 1997, and some of the details may no longer hold. Neverless, it does emphasize the importance of getting out of the gully in the early part of the trip. It describes the stony exit as a waterfall, which may be the case in wetter years. Better, it tells you what to expect if you happened to stay in the gully and ascend past the exit.

At least one report mentions poison ivy on the trail up to the TWA site. Watch for it as the weather grows warmer. Not certain about ivy spotting? Here is a helpful guide.

A useful description of the lower Domingo Baca trail, along with a table of waypoints, can be found here in the Sandia Mountains Hiking Guide. That same site also has a useful description and maps for a crest-top loop. This loop overlaps with the sections of the La Luz, Crest Spur, and Crest Trail to the Tramway that are described here. (The chief difference is that the crest-top loop goes north from the Tramway to return to the summit, whereas the route described here goes south from the Tramway to descend to Pino Canyon).

The Albuquerque Journal makes mention of the Pino Trail. They rate an up-and-back hike on this trail as difficult. On this loop you would only be doing the “back” portion, but it is worth noting that your one-way leg involves 4.5 miles of hiking and 2800 feet of altitude loss. That could be significant if the exit road is about to be gated.

The Forest Service has a simplified map (not topological) showing most of the route described here. It only shows trails, however, so the off-trail scramble at the top of Domingo Baca Canyon is not depicted.

The Forest service also has a simplified map of the many trails surrounding the Crest House. Give it a glance so you’ll know what kind of snarl you’re going to navigate through.

22 boot trail through woods near summit

Boot trail through the woods near the summit

Weather conditions in the Albuquerque basin can be very different from weather conditions on the Sandia summit, even though they seem adjacent on Google maps. There is, after all, a mile’s difference in altitude between them. The Crest Trail, #130, is within the Cibola National Forest. The Forest Service describes this trail here, and provides contact data. The best way that I know to get information on the state of the Crest Trail is to call the contact number. Currently the phone number for the Sandia Ranger Station is listed as: 505-281-3304.

01 Cabezon Peak

Basaltic columns on south face of Cabezon Peak

Overview:

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.

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.

Data:

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

Description:

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.

Recommendations:

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.

Links:

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.

 

 

Overview

Lower Needles (left) Windy Gap (middle) and Rabbit Ear spires (right)

Low Horns (left) Windy Gap (middle) and Rabbit Ear spires (right)

The route begins with a hike along Anvil Creek on the Pine Tree Trail, departs into an arroyo, climbs out on the flanks of a tall rib, and finishes with a rib ramble to Windy Gap. Smart hikers will then return the way they came. This route   description pauses to reflect on the perils of poor situational awareness. Then it describes the horror (“the horror”) of a traverse from Windy Gap south to Sotol Creek via impenetrable mountain-mahogany thickets.

The portion of the route that is a mild scramble to Windy Gap is strongly recommended for those hikers who are in good shape. The portion of the route that is a thicket traverse comes recommended only for those people who may have done you irreparable harm.

Driving Directions (and study guide):

Close up of Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif, north of Windy Gap

Close up of Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif, north of Windy Gap

The driving directions are the same as for the Pine Tree Trail in the Aguirre Springs Campground. Park at the trailhead for Pine Tree Trail. On Aguirre Springs Road, look for the Rabbit Ear spires that dominate the northern Organ Mountains. South of the Rabbit Ears look for a wide pass that is Windy Gap. South of Windy Gap watch the terrain make a brisk climb up Gretch’s Folly to the Lower Horns. Make particular note of a prominent rib (alternatively called a “hogback”, “buttress” or “welt”) that descends from Windy Gap towards you in the Tularosa Basin. You will be parking your car on the fall line of that rib and then hiking an arroyo that descends from Windy Gap along the far side of the rib. I haven’t seen a formal designation for this buttress, so here it will be called Aguirre Springs Rib.

Trailhead:

04 The Mighty Camry at foot of Aguirre Springs Rib

The mighty Camry parked below Aguirre Springs Rib (slanting down from upper right) and the Lower Horns (in the distance).

The Pine Tree Trail trailhead is in Aguirre Springs Campground and is signed. There is a trash receptacle, picnic tables and nearby pit toilets. It costs $5.00 per car to park for the day, 2.50 if you have one of the Federal passes. If your plans are more complex than just a day hike, see the trailhead section in the Pine Tree Trail post.

Data:

The map shows the ascent route in blue. The descent route, going south into Sotol Creek Bowl, is shown in black. The portion of the Pine Tree Trail that was not used on this route is shown in purple.

  • Starting Elevation: 5680 feet
  • High Point: 7450 feet (at Pass)
  • Net Gain: 1770 feet
  • Distance to Windy Gap: 1.9 miles (one way)
  • Distance from Windy Gap to Sotol Creek and back by Pine Tree Trail: 3.8 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

View directly up the spine of Aguirre Springs Rib, into Windy Gap

View directly up the fall line of Aguirre Springs Rib and into Windy Gap

From the trailhead, ascend the stem of this lollipop route and arrive at the loop portion in less than 1000 feet. At this point you have left the fall line of Aguirre Springs Rib and are almost in the bed of Anvil Creek. The joys of this well maintained trail are described in the Pine Tree Trail post, so here it should be enough to say “go right (counterclockwise)”.

View of south side of Aguirre Springs Rib - note the light-colored rocky side buttress and the more distant green buttress. The latter has a white, tooth-like spire at its foot.

View of the northern-most Lower Horns (left) and the south side of Aguirre Springs Rib (right) Note the light-colored rocky side buttress on ASR and the more distant green buttress. The latter has a white, tooth-like spire at its foot.

Follow the trail as it ascends along Anvil Creek. Keep an eye on Windy Gap, which will frequently be in sight. You want to keep the Aguirre Springs Rib either under your feet or immediately on your right. The south side of Aguirre Springs Rib is cut up by several small drainages that feed into Anvil Creek. One such drainage, well above the loop, is marked by a whitish rocky outcrop that runs along its bank top. Beyond and above that is a second drainage that has more soil and is greener. Near the foot of this green bank-top is a tooth shaped spire of white rock. The ribs and the tooth-shaped spire can be useful markers later in the scramble.

View of arroyo where the scramble leaves the Pine Tree Trail and ascends this waterway.

View of arroyo where the scramble leaves the Pine Tree Trail and ascends this waterway.

The departure from the trail to the scramble is not marked. At just over a mile from the trailhead the tread crosses a minor drainage by contouring slightly right. Then, in the bed of the drainage, the trail makes a hard left. In just 30 more feet the trail bends 90 degrees to the right to go around an 8-foot tall boulder. Just past these twists the trail enters the bed of a big arroyo that feeds Anvil Creek. In another twenty or thirty feet the Trail leaves the arroyo bed and heads south (purple line in the map). Here, leave the trail for the arroyo bed. The trick is to identify this rapid sequence of a hard-left, a hard right (around boulder) and entrance into the arroyo.

Ascending canyon past the whitish, toothlike spire at the foot of the green buttress.

Ascending past the whitish, toothlike spire at the foot of the green buttress as you ascend the arroyo

At 1.25 miles from the trailhead begin ascending the arroyo and picking a way past boulders and over downed limbs. The bed is deeply shaded and cool. There was no water in it on this late-winter day. Occasionally the tree limbs accumulating in the creek bed will force you off to one bank or the other, but it is useful to stay in the bed for as long as you can. Watch the drainages coming down off of Aguirre Springs Rib. You will quickly pass two candidates that could be that drainage that was topped by a whitish rocky outcrop. At 1.5 miles from the trailhead you will pass the green-topped drainage. You will get a good view of the tooth-shaped rock spire, which up-close seems rather crooked.

Terrain on the south side of Aguirre Rib, just above the arroyo bed.

Terrain on the south side of Aguirre Rib, just above the arroyo bed.

Shortly past the spire the trees becomes densely packed on the bed of the canyon. The north-facing wall on your left becomes high-angle rock slab. Turn right and ascend the steep south-facing wall of the canyon. The angle is shallow enough to retain soil and there is some plant growth. The chief problem is that the soil is very loose and climbing the slope is like climbing a steep-sided sand dune. Switchbacking does help.

Gully that leads to the top of the bump at the crest of Aguirre Springs Rib.

Gully that leads to the top of the bump at the crest of Aguirre Springs Rib.

At 1.6 miles reach the fall line of the rib and turn uphill. This begins a long process of dodging prickly pear and cholla cacti, various forms of agave, sotol and yucca, and the occasional alligator juniper. The ascent is steep, although not generally as steep as the walls of the flanking arroyo. One exception occurs as you approach Windy Gap. Here the rising rib slightly over-shoots the saddle point of the pass, leaving a bump rising above the main col. It is a puzzle how to get around the bump since it is rather steep sided. If you go right (towards the Rabbit Ears) you will find a steep gully with convenient hand-holds that will take you to the top. At 1.9 miles, arrive at the bump-top in Windy Gap.

View up to Lower Needles from Windy Gap

View up Gretch’s Folly to Lower Horns as seen from Windy Gap

This is a terrific place for a tired scrambler to have lunch and admire the views. To the west lies Las Cruces, the West Potrillo Mountains and the distant Florida Range. To the east lie White Sands Missile Base, the Tularosa Basin, the Sacramento Mountains, White Sands, and even sight lines to Sierra Blanca. But the stunner views are north to Rabbit Ear Massif and the Rabbit Ears, and south to the spires of the Lower Horns. There seem to be approaches, perhaps practicable, in both directions. Smart scramblers might take notes for future reference and return the way they came. That way you could return directly to the car (about 4 miles, round trip), or continue following Pine Tree Trail for a great six-mile day.

View to Sugarloaf (distant) and the rib that separates Sotal and Anvil creek basins. Do not forget to scrutinize the close-up terrain.

View to Sugarloaf (distant) and the rib that separates Anvil and Sotal creek basins. Do not forget to scrutinize the close-in terrain. (Double click to enlarge)

Alternatively, those of us who are somewhat new to this kind of terrain might allow their gaze to ride south across the Anvil Creek Bowl. There, just below the rib that separates Anvil Creek Bowl from Sotol Creek Bowl, you might discern open parkland, lightly forested, within easy reach. If you do, then you are wrong. Study the intervening ground carefully. You will note that your line of sight extends all the way to the grass covered ground in that open park land. Closer in, however, the ground below the Lower Horns is densely covered with a haze of gray-green stuff. Also, that gray-green area has odd contrasting lines that seem to go straight down hill. What is this striated, gray-green terrain? Let’s find out, shall we?

Slabs used for descent away from notch above the descent arroyo.

Slabs used for descent below the Lower Horns cliff line.

Descend south (toward Gretch’s Folly) from the bump top to the col that forms Windy Gap. On the col, face east towards the Tularosa Basin. Here you stand at the head of the arroyo that you followed up from Pine Tree Trail. Pick your way down the arroyo, threading your way between increasingly dense gray bushes and past granite slabs.

Notch in the wall on the south side of the descent arroyo, directly below the Needles cliff line.

Notch in the wall on the south side of the descent arroyo, directly below the Lower Horns cliff line.

Gray. Hmm. Sounds familiar. The terrain is not bad initially and you may be distracted by the loose sandy footing. It’s actually quite fun. Stay to the south side until reaching a cliff-like slab traversing the arroyo. At the slab top, track back towards the Aguirre Springs Rib, never straying far from the arroyo bed. After descending about 1000 feet from the bump, however, the thick bushes in the arroyo floor became a major barrier to progress. Scan the south wall for a small notch in the rock and head for that. From this notch there is a view into a broad waterway descending from the northern-most Lower Horns. Getting there entails a descent of a granite slab in a minor gully (barely a gutter) that offers occasional hand holds. The slab is not very steep, but the lower end is lined with stout and pointy agave so exposure is unexpectedly high). Below the slab find a nice shelf, only a little brushy, and follow it into the waterway. Ascend the far side to a lonely pine sentinel. There, look south, hoping for an easy ramble through high-country parkland.

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

Never so lucky! press into more gray green brush, watching for cactus, snakes, thorn bushes, and thigh-murdering agave plants (often screened by dead vegetation). Remember those lines you saw in the gray-green area below Windy Gap? Each one of those was a small rib separating minor water courses. If you have a good memory you may recall having seen at least six of these lines. In practice, there are about ten. On each one you bash over the small rib, descend past more boulders, down slabs, around cholla, pincushion, hedgehog and prickly pear cacti, deflecting more agave, sotol and yucca, all for the simple and light hearted purpose of pushing your way deeper and deeper into oak thickets, mountain mahogany thickets, and mixed thickets leavened with rare instances of what appear to be Texas Madrone. Arriving at the bed of the next water course, prepare to do it again.

Crisp silhouette of author's index finger (blocking sun) and pretty good view of scrubbed-bedrock canyon bottom.

Crisp silhouette of author’s index finger (blocking sun) and pretty good view of scrubbed-bedrock canyon bottom.

After 0.8 long miles, arrive in the scrubbed-bedrock floor of the major waterway descending from the Lower Horns into Anvil Creek. It is a sunny and wonderfully open place. Stop for water, some calories, and a chance to ponder your sanity. You have the option, I think, of descending this waterway. It should take you back to Pine Tree Trail and an easy amble to the car. If, on the other hand, you are possessed of a belligerent attitude towards your personal happiness then cork that canteen, pick up that pack, push up over the canyon wall and into the welcoming branches of the next thicket.

16 view back to Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Massif

Quick check to see that the Rabbit Ears remain directly behind you on traverse.

Fortunately it is almost impossible to get lost here. Views into the vast Tularosa Basin on your left are almost constant. The large rib that separates Anvil Creek from Sotal Creek is usually visible in front of you. You will have views beyond this rib to Sugarloaf as well. The Lower Horns loom spectacularly above and to your right. If you loose sight of Sugarloaf then a quick glance backward should show you the Rabbit Ears. Plunge on.

..

As distances begin to appear between bushes, views to the Tularosa open up.

Pine trees showing sign of old burns in front of the Tularosa Basin.

Actually, after the big drainage the brush starts to thin out a bit. Small clusters of big pines appear. Wonderful game trails start to crop up. Two of the small drainages on this date had flowing water in them. There are bushes still, never fear, but the route up to the high point on the Sotol/Anvil rib becomes clearer and clearer. Arrive at the the most prominent bump on this rib in just over a mile from Windy Gap – shaken and stirred. If you were to descend from the rib south into Sotol Creek Bowl you would hit the Pine Tree Trail in about 200 feet. Unaware of this fact, I turned downhill and followed the rib until it struck the trail, adding about a quarter mile to the total. Turning left on the trail (towards the Rabbit Ears) will get you back to the trailhead quickest, while turning right will allow you to complete the loop part of the trail. Turn right, enter Sotol Creek Bowl, and enjoy a meticulously maintained freedom from cactus spines.

The rest of the hike on this trail has been described elsewhere. After 3.8 miles from Windy Gap, return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author standing on bump in Windy Gap, Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif in background.

Author standing on bump in Windy Gap, Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif in background.

Do not bother with the traverse. Repeat as needed.

There was quite a display of small lizards on this hike, but no other reptiles. The weather is still pretty brisk up high (it was spitting snow at the trailhead on Saturday morning), but the approaching warm weather should soon bring out a few a few of our sinuous mountainside friends.

The bump atop Aguirre Springs Rib has truly exceptional views. I saw one patch where a very small tent could be pitched up there. There could be a rare display of stars on a nice April evening. The camping would be entirely dry.

Outside Links:

The inspiration for this exploration was OnWalkabout’s description of a venture to Windy Gap (although OW didn’t reach the ridge line). That post has great photos of the Horns taken right at cliff line and shots of a descent passage on scrubbed-bedrock canyon floor. Readers should consider, however, the possibility that the author of that report got slightly off of his mapped route. The ascent described here never went directly beneath the spires, nor did the ascent ever follow a bedrock waterway. Instead, those features were encountered on the southerly traverse away from Windy Gap. My guess is that OW departed from Pine Tree Trail beyond the arroyo and nearer the main bed of Anvil Creek. If so, then OW must have pushed steeply uphill through appalling thickets on lousy footing. That blog’s assertion that “the going became tough” may be the ne plus ultra in hikerly understatement.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some comments about ascending to Windy Gap from the other (i.e. western) side of the Organ Mountains. It sounds brutal!

The daily paper in Las Cruces, the LC Sun-News, has a write up concerning the names of various Organ Mountain summits and spires, as well as commentary on how obscure the background to the names can be.

That article refers to an image in The Mountain Project that labels the peaks in the Organ Mountains. That site also has a second image with labels for features near the Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Plateau (sometimes called Rabbit Ear Massif).

The “Peak Locator” in R. L. Ingraham’s “Climbing Guide to the Organ Mountains” shows much the same information. (The Guide was printed in 1965 and is clearly dated in places. Still, it is a huge resource and my thanks to R. A. Hahn for adapting it to the web and NMSU for supporting it).