Archives for posts with tag: scrambling in new mexico

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

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

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

In Santa Fe, New Mexico:

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

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

Trailhead:

03 trailhead

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

03a fence at National Forest border

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

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

04 view into Nambe Canyon

First View of Upper Reaches of Nambe Canyon

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

Deception and Lake Peaks

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

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

Notch below Deception Peak

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

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

IMAG0132

Narrow ridge looking back to Deception

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

..

09 Penitente Peak from point near col

Penitente Peak from col

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

10 view down the tabletop on Penitente

View northeast (towards distant Truchas) from Penitente summit.

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

12 Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

Campers in Nambe Meadows below Santa Fe Baldy

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

Recommendations:

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

Author on flanks of Lake Peak

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

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Overview:

View of Vicks Peak from Forest Road 225

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

This scramble takes you into the wild and lonely sky-islands of the San Mateo Mountains in Socorro County, New Mexico. It begins on the mellow bottomlands of Rock Springs Canyon, springs onto steep boulder fields near the San Mateo ridge line and finishes with a pathless ascent of the forested summit on Vick’s Peak. Don’t bring novice hikers. The route is short, strenuous and spectacular.

Driving Directions:

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

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

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate 25 (I-25) heading north.
  • After 99.7 miles take exit 100 for Red Rock
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn west (left) on an unsigned road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at a T-interesection with NM-1. Turn north (right) onto NM-1.
  • After 4.7 miles arrive at the junction where Forest Road-225 meets NM-1. The junction is well signed. Turn west (left) onto FR-225, which is a gravel road.
  • After 15.9 miles arrive at the trailhead. The road is rough in places. In a family sedan it may take longer to travel this 16 mile stretch than the entire rest of the trip. Here are a few landmarks to look for:
    • After 13.5 miles on FR-225 come to a junction where 225A continues straight ahead to Springtime Campground and FR-225 makes a sharp left. The junction is well signed. Go left. Soon the road begins to climb and is steep in places.
    • After 15.3 miles on FR-225 come to cattle guard on a height of land.  Two rough side roads come in on your left –  one before the cattle guard and one just past the cattle guard. Stay on FR-225.
    • After 15.9 miles on FR-225, after a long and remarkably straight descent from the height of land, the road makes a gentle rightward curve and then a sharp leftward bend. An old mining road comes in from the driver’s right. Park just past the intersection.

FR-225 is drivable but in places it will be pretty hard on your suspension. In several places it crosses canyon beds – bad places to be stuck if a heavy rainstorm is drenching the mountains above.

Trailhead:

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

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

The trailhead is just a small and rough parking spot beside Forest Road 225. There are no services. Folks driving high clearance vehicles may be able to drive the old mining road 150 feet to a wide and safe parking area

Data:

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

Hike Description:

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

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

From the car, head up the mining road for 150 feet. You will find an opening in the trees with lots of parking space and a rock fire-ring on the left side of the road. A gate bars the road just a little further along. Turn uphill (right) and enter the open and frequently grass-covered bed of Rock Springs Canyon. There is no trail and no navigation problem. Simply probe uphill near the canyon bed, skirting around debris piles and pushing past occasional thickets. The open nature of the terrain is due to the big ponderosa pine that shade the canyon. You could hardly ask for a nicer way to warm up for a scramble. If you stay a bit high on the south side of the canyon (the left side going uphill) you may find yourself on an old mining road crisscrossed with deadfall. The road is faster, but the canyon bottom is more attractive.

View to South Gatepost from the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon

View to South Gatepost from the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon

After hiking 0.9 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself walking between matched cliffs on the south and north sides of the canyon. These I’ve termed The Gateposts, since they separate the lower portion of the canyon from the upper reaches. They are worth noting, since they act as navigation beacons when viewed from the main San Mateo ridge line.

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

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

Past the gateposts the terrain steepens. Ponderosa and pinyon pines dominate the bottom of the canyon, while Gambel Oak thickets hold the walls. There is less room to navigate around debris piles. As you ascend watch for waterways coming in from the north (from your right, looking uphill) as some are quite prominent. A moment’s inattention could send you on an unexpected journey. A big cliff dominates the canyon above you and it can make an explorer uneasy – what sort of tricky maneuvering might be needed to get past such a wall? At 1.3 miles you will find your answer. There is a pinch point where the cliff wall lunges towards Vicks peak. Thwarted, it leaves a canyon narrows for you to ascend in safety and comfort. Even the debris piles thin out here, presumably carried off by storms past.

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

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

Enjoy the shade while it lasts. The footing on the canyon bottom becomes increasingly rubbly. On your left you will see breaks in the woods where piles of shattered rock hold the forest’s encroachment at bay. On your right the canyon wall becomes a palisade of dizzying rock spires. Eventually, those spires will force you out of the forest and onto the rock piles. This is not pebble-size scree nor fist-sized talus, but a rather a slope containing small boulders – on average about the size of a basketball. Continue your westerly ascent along the shallowest gradient available. The footing is not bad, but your pace will probably slow considerably.

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

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

The boulder field broadens dramatically as you ascend. After a steeper pitch the terrain benches and you will be able to see to the main San Mateo ridge. Above you, about mid-way up the remaining boulder field, you will see a tree that has lost all of its upper branches but retains a dense green “skirt” of living lower branches. Reach this tree having hiked 1.7 miles from the trailhead. On this date I turned directly for Vicks Peak to the south, a steep ascent up a loosely piled boulder field. There are alternatives. Consider staying on the lowest incline to reach a saddle on the main San Mateo ridge. The footing will probably be better and you should be able to follow the ridge to the peak.

Boulder field on Vick's Peak, looking toward

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

To follow the route used on this date, depart from the “skirted” tree towards the largest cliff to the south. The footing is tricky since many of the boulders are only loosely held in place. There is a scattering of trees at the base of the cliff (shown in the photo above). The trees provide detritus for moss to grow in, and the moss plus soil helps to stablize the slope. High above the boulder field you will see a dense forest. A “finger” of this forest extends down the slope. When you rise high enough, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, leave the base of the cliff and contour southeast to reach this narrow strip of forest. It is much easier to ascend on the duff that carpets this forested segment. Stay to the left side of this narrow strip of forest, looking southeast over the upper end of the boulder field. You will want to avoid the false summit that lies north-north-west of Vick’s Peak, so you need to work your way a little further southeast.  About 200 feet below the upper end of the boulder field leave the narrow strip of forest and cross 100 – 200 feet of boulder field to enter the main forest.

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

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

The high flanks of Vick’s Peak are covered with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and occasional aspen groves. Performing a rising traverse through this forest is tricky. Pathfinders often fail to climb enough on such traverses. You will want a compass and experience navigating with it. True north is 12-degrees west of magnetic north in this area. Set your compass’s declination and follow a bearing of 184 degrees from true north. Familiarize yourself with the local landmarks so you can descend the same route. At 2.1 miles from the trailhead come to the ridge that joins Vick’s Peak to its false summit. Pause to make certain that you will recognize this point on descent, where you will exit the ridge. Then turn south (to your left as you get onto the ridge) and follow the ridge as it ascends gently through open forest. There is a faint path, but in places the tread fans out into game trails and in other places it briefly disappears. Simply staying on the ridge will get you to the summit.

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

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

At 2.4 miles from the trailhead the forest gives way to summit meadow. A tall cairn stands at the summit. I did not find a summit register. There are at least two brass plaques marking where the Geodesic Survey has surveyed the peak. You can pick out the Caballo Cone on the north end of the Caballo Range, the long sweep of the Black Range, high South Baldy in the Magdalena Range, the Manzano Mountains, the San Andreas Mountains and the Fra Cristobal Range. Close up, there are terrific views to the false summit on Vick’s Peak and nearby San Mateo Mountain. A vigorous party could descend north-north-west to the saddle holding Myer’s Cabin (being wary of mine shafts) and ascend San Mateo Peak before returning. Are you feeling oppressed by rapidly developing cumulus clouds? Snap some quick photos, grab a bite to eat and scamper back the way you came.

Recommendations:

The author, blocking your views to the Magdalena Mountains.

The author, blocking your views to the Magdalena Mountains.

Last week I visited this same area and made a few recommendations that can be found here.

The upper boulder field used on ascent for this route is steep and the rocks are not well consolidated. If you ascended to the “skirted tree” but continued upward on the low-angle portion of the field to the San Mateo ridge line, then you may find better footing. From the saddle you should be able to follow the ridge as it arcs southwest and then south (over Vick’s false summit) to attain the true summit.

This hike averages about 1000 feet per mile. The gentle grade in the first mile assures you of harsher grades in the last mile. You will need to expend considerable effort at altitudes that reach 10,256-feet. Altitude sickness is a real possibility. A good summary of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness can be found here.

The wind over Vick’s Peak was more than merely cool. At noon on a day in late May the wind was positively chilly. That, plus the discovery of a micro-snowfield lingering between boulder-field rocks, tells you that an emergency bivouac would be icy. Pack fleece.

There are two San Mateo Ranges in New Mexico. If you are looking for maps or other guides to this region, make certain that you are getting data on the San Mateo Range in Socorro County, not the range in Cibola County!

Links:

As mentioned last week, there isn’t much data on hiking into Rock Springs Canyon. This week I extended the search into hunting or rock-hounding web sites. No luck! You will be entirely on your own once you drive FR-225 past the fork to Springtime Campground.

Overview:

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

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

This scramble takes you into the high, cool and extraordinarily beautiful San Mateo Mountains of Socorro County. (There is a second “San Mateo Range” up north in Cibolo County, NM). Vick’s Peak climbs to over 10,000-feet at the southern end of the range. Rock Springs Canyon begins up on Vick’s northern flank, descends to the east and then wraps to the south at the base of the peak. The south wall of the canyon is formed by the spectacular cliff faces of Vick’s Peak. The north wall of Rock Springs Canyon is made of an ancillary ridge that begins on the north-south ridgeline of the San Mateo Mountains and juts out to the east. This ridge is an unnamed wonderland of cliffs and hoodoos, separating Corn Canyon to the north from Rock Springs Canyon to the south. Questionable navigation choices took me up its steep and oak-entangled flanks. I starting thinking of this ridge as “Pestle Ridge” because it ground down my scrambling ambitions the way a rock pestle grinds down corn.  As an alternative, future explorers may want to try following the canyon bottom all the way to the main ridge line.

Driving Directions:

  • Sobering overcast at Exit 100 off of Interstate-25

    Worrisome overcast at Exit 100 off of Interstate-25

    From Lohman Drive in Las Cruces, enter Interstate 25 (I-25) heading north.

  • After 98.0 miles take exit 100 for Red Rock
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn west (left) on an unsigned road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at a T-interesection (stop sign) with NM-1. Turn north (right) onto NM-1.
  • After 4.7 miles arrive at the junction where Forest Road-225 meets NM-1. The junction is well signed. Turn west (left) onto FR-225, which is a gravel road.
  • After 15.9 miles arrive at the trailhead. The road is rough in places. In a family sedan it may take longer to travel this 16 mile stretch than the entire rest of the trip. Here are a few landmarks to look for:
    • After 13.5 miles on FR-225 come to a junction where 225A continues straight ahead to Springtime Campground and FR-225 makes a sharp left. The junction is well signed. Go left. Soon the road begins to climb and is steep in places.
    • After 15.3 miles on FR-225 come to a cattle guard on a height of land.  Two rough side roads come in on your left, one before the cattle guard and the other just after. Stay on FR-225.
    • After 15.9 miles on FR-225, after a long and remarkably straight descent from the height of land, FR-225 makes a gentle curve to the right and then a sharp leftward bend. An old mining road comes in from the right. Park just past the intersection.

FR-225 is drivable but in places it will be pretty hard on your suspension. There are aged tracks from road-grading machinery, so it has received reasonably recent attention. In several places it dives into canyon beds – bad places to be caught if a heavy rainstorm is drenching the mountains above.

Trailhead:

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

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

Immediately below the intersection of the old mining road and FR-225 there is a parking spot large enough for one car. The surface is uneven – I had to jack up the Camry to free it from a protrusion – but it gets your car off the narrow confines of FR-225. The mining road itself is very rough, but drivers with high clearance vehicles can ascend the steep initial 50 feet to find a broad and safe parking area. The trailhead is informal and no services are provided.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 7800 feet
  • Ending elevation: 9600 feet
  • Net elevation gain: 1800 feet
  • Distance: 1.9 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Vicks Peak, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

A stack of cliff faces high on Vick's Peak

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

The original plan for this post was to describe a route to the main ridge line of the Magdalena Mountains via Rock Springs Canyon. It was hoped that it might become a guide to summiting Vick’s Peak as well. As Mr. Burns gleefully notes, plans “gang aft agley“. In fact, the experience did not produce very much in terms of a scramble guide. Treat this post, instead, as a summary of how to spend a splendid day lost in one of New Mexico’s grandest sky islands. If it encourages you to explore this part of the San Mateos then that would be great.

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

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

There are two ways to start the scramble. You can walk up FR-225 for about 50 feet and enter directly into the main bed of the canyon. However, it is a bit more pleasant to hike up the old mining road for 150 feet to a point where you can see the sign on a gate blocking further motor vehicle travel. (Look for a stone fire-ring on your left). Turn off the road on the uphill side and enter the canyon bottom. The terrain is open, shaded and grassy. There is no trail, but here in the canyon bottom there are no navigation difficulties. You will encounter some thickets and occasional deadfall, but there is plenty of room to move around such barriers.

Initial view to the

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

This is the domain of ponderosa pine interspersed with alligator juniper and the occasional pinyon pine. The initial slope is very mellow. If a formal trail were to be introduced here it would be considered family friendly. After a half a mile you will begin to get glimpses into the upper canyon. This terrain is distinguished by a pair of cliffs that pinch in on both the north and south sides of Rock Springs Canyon – naturally occurring gateposts separating the high country. The rock is spectacular. Up close you can see that the northern gatepost is well on its way to being carved into hoodoos.

A portion of the

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

Just past the gateposts, about 0.9 miles from the trailhead, encounter an opening in the trees. For unclear reasons a grove of ponderosa is dying – many trees are plainly dead snags and others in the last stages of losing their brown needles. This sad opening does give you a glimpse into the canyon’s highest reaches. As you would expect, there are numerous cliff faces on the famously rocky flanks of Vick’s Peak. It was unsettling to note the many towering outcrops that appear on the “Pestle Ridge” side of the canyon as well. Worried about getting trapped in the bottom of a box canyon, I took a look at the terrain leading directly up hill towards the top of Pestle Ridge. In the low part of the canyon the terrain was open and the walls were not especially steep. Turning directly uphill, I started wandering towards a prominent fin of rock. For the record, this is not a recommended route.

08 fin and rockfall on flanks of Pestle Ridge

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

My naive hopes for an easy approach to the main San Mateo ridgeline were crushed as the pines gave way to steep and dry terrain on which Gambel Oak intertwined with mountain mahogany, punctuated with “shin dagger” agave. This kind of bush-bashing is a way of life in the Organ Mountains, where you expect to encounter long reaches of importunate vegetation. But this was the San Mateo Range, home to fine wandering terrain like San Mateo Peak and the trail to Myers Cabin!  A more experienced New Mexico explorer would have turned around after penetrating just 20 feet into this vegetative miasma. After all, there would have been nothing wrong with following the bed of Rock Springs Canyon into a high (and possibly impassable) box end. Instead, lured by glimpses of pine high above, a kind of mindless, “straight at em” mantra took over my navigational thinking. It took an hour and a quarter to gain the 800 feet to the ridge top. This at considerable cost to pants, shirt, hat, bootlaces and hands. This is not how experienced scramblers navigate a wonderland.

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

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

In contrast, the top of Pestle Ridge is just about everything a scrambler could ask for. It is a rise-and-fall ramble in a ponderosa and Doug fir forest with outstanding views across Rock Spring Canyon to the summit of Vicks Peak. There are equally inspiring views north-north-east, across Mulligan trough to the bold prominences of South Baldy Peak and North Baldy Peak in the Magdelana Mountains. Beautiful terrain. The hours had gone by, however, and my turn-around time arrived at a point just a few hundred feet below the the main San Mateo ridgeline. This area is calling out for further exploration.

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

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

Return to the low point on Pestle Ridge and take note of a gently sloping draw that looks like a better route for returning to the canyon bottom. In fact, it proves to be an excellent alternative. There were short steep pitches, but these were never long and don’t require any climbing moves. The chief difficulty is that the bottom of the draw is occasionally debris-chocked. You have to move around or over these piles of log and brush. If the upper end of the main canyon proves impassable then this draw would be a very handy alternative. The draw segues almost imperceptibly into the main bed of Rock Springs Canyon. (Future explorers who wish to remain in the main canyon on their ascent should stay close to the north side – the left hand side looking uphill). Return to the trailhead via the canyon bottom.

Recommendations:

The author at the turn-back point.

The author at the turn-back point.

♦This is a beautiful spot. I doubt that I’ve seen anything more attractive anywhere in New Mexico. Scramblers who are in good shape ought to put this high in the to-do list. Bring a camera, a sense of adventure and a couple strong friends.

♦I can’t think of any reason why anyone, anywhere or at any time might want to follow my track up the wall of “Pestle Ridge”. Instead, try exploring the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon all the way to the main San Mateo ridge line. Alternatively, ascend the draw that was used on this day’s descent. Edit: see this post for a route description that takes you up Rock Springs canyon to the summit of Vicks Peak.

♦Rock Springs Canyon was entirely dry on this date. Bring all the water that you might need.

♦This is a scramble in wild terrain! A map, compass and navigation skills are essential. A GPS is a great tool – I had mine with me – but be careful of leaving your navigation needs to something that can break or run out of battery power. Vick’s Peak is heavily forested above the main ridge line and has distinct navigation challenges.

♦As mentioned in the driving directions, Forest Road 225 crosses several canyon bottoms and even follows along the canyon beds for short sections. A drenching rainstorm in the San Mateos could make your exit drive far more exciting that anyone could hope for. Bring lots of patience, at least one shovel and a pick if you come to the San Mateos with rain in the forecast.

♦Also, FR-225 gets bumpy where rocky shelves appear in the road. These were blasted out to make the original road, but they can be very rough on your car’s springs and shocks. Ditto for those places where previous drivers have churned up a muddy road bed and then left it to harden into contorted gullies. Oil pans are fragile things, go slow and careful. Where FR-225 makes long descents, consider shifting your vehicle into first gear.

Links:

Searches for “Rock Springs Canyon” AND “San Mateo” turns up a list  sites where they offer geological place names or location data (or “nearby” hotels!). This scramble seems to be missing from all of the usual sources for hike information including Trail.Com and SummitPost.Com. There are more hits with “Vicks Peak”, but all the ones I read suggest approaching either from the Springtime Campground to the north or from Burma Road to the south. Evidently, Rock Springs Canyon is a little too lonesome even for the internet.

Overview:

View over foothill to Sugarloaf Mountain

View over foothill to Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain is a striking tower of pale granite embedded in a massive rib descending from the Organ Mountain’s ridge line. The mountain’s smooth and steep face make it a playground for those with technical climbing skills and climbing gear. These mountaineers sometimes descend from the peak using a canyon on the south side of Sugarloaf. The canyon has a scrubbed bed of pale granite and offers scramblers a way to approach the range’s high country.

The ascent is steep in places and the smooth canyon bed leaves little in the way of handholds. The approach offers scramblers an opportunity to practice “smearing” technique (see below), but exposure may make it daunting for new scramblers. In fact, on this date it was just plain daunting. High winds made smearing impractical. I turned back before attaining the ridge, so this guide will only take you to within 400 feet of the ridge line.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 going north
  • After 4.8 miles take exit 6 for US-70 East. The exit ramp splits into three lanes, stay in the middle for US-70E
  • After 14.8 miles make a right turn onto Aguirre Springs Road.
  • After 6.2 miles, make a right turn onto the road for the Aguirre Springs Group Campground.
  • After about 100 feet, park in the parking lot for the Group Campground.
Sign on Aguirre Springs Road for the Group Campground

Sign on Aguirre Springs Road for the Group Campground

US-70E is a highway and the turn onto Aguirre Springs Road from the highway is rather abrupt. Look for an intersection that lies a little more than a mile after crossing San Agustin Pass. Also, there is a small sign on the highway that warns of the intersection a quarter mile before the turn.

Water is not usually available in the campground, but you can get some at the Campground’s host site. The site is on Aguirre Springs Road about 1.6 miles from US-70. There is a self-service fee center as you enter the campground. The fee center is on Aguirre Springs road, 5.8 miles from US-70.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, poised by the yellow sign that marks the start of the trail

The mighty Camry, poised by the yellow sign that marks the start of the trail

The Aguirre Springs Campground is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM charges for either day-use or camping. The day-use fee is currently $5.00, although you should check their website for the most up-to-date charges. There are some complications, such as occasional fee-free days or discounts for those with various passes. You will want to arrive early on fee-free days.

The trailhead itself is a paved area with room for about 25 cars. The Group Camp Site has covered picnic tables, vault toilets and waste bins, but no potable water. On this date there was a considerable flow of water in Sotol Creek and some of the drainages in Indian Hollow. This is not typical of the last few years, plan on bringing water from home. If you find water you will want to filter it (or use some other sterilization method).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5480 feet
  • Ending Elevation:  7600 feet
  • Net Gain: 2120 feet
  • Distance: 2.5 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Water flowing in Sotol Creek

Water flowing in Sotol Creek

Find the start of the trail beside a yellow BLM sign that asks, very reasonably, that you leave the rattlesnakes alone. Ascend briefly uphill and then turn southeast (left) as the trail takes you towards Sotol Creek. In less than 100 feet you will arrive at a barbed wire fence. Turn uphill and follow the fence closely until you arrive at a “needle’s eye” (a maze-shaped opening in the fence designed to allow hikers through but keep cattle out). Descend into Sotol Creek and rise towards the foothill on the south side. The trail will contour north to the outermost face of the foothill, then ascend gently east to enter a bowl that that opens into Indian Hollow.

View to Sugarloaf Mountain. The granite gulch can be seen as a white scar running diagonally upwards for the right-bottom corner.

View to Sugarloaf Mountain. Granite Canyon can be seen as a white scar running diagonally upwards from the bottom-right corner.

The first order of business is to cross this westside bowl. It is a pleasant task in open terrain broken by small stands of juniper and pinyon pine. The drainage out of this westside bowl is braided into numerous parallel streams. The trail slogs steeply up one creek bank only to drop precipitously into the next creek bed. During the last few years these streams have been dry, but on this date there was a heartening flow of water in each one. This has attracted cattle, so make certain that you sterilized any water before drinking it.

Close up of a conical prominence in Indian Hollow with a distinctive white spire.

Close up of a conical prominence in Indian Hollow with a distinctive white spire.

At 1.4 miles from the trailhead round a second rib and get a close-up view of the main bowl of Indian Hollow. The first thing you will notice is that a recent storm has plowed a huge number of boulders into the bottom of the main creek. The trail is nearly obliterated. Eventually the trail will be reconstructed, but for the moment follow cairns that take you almost 100 yards upstream, clambering over log jams and sidling around boulders as you go. If you look uphill you will see a low rib descending along the far side of the creek. You will cross the creek to find a clear tread adjacent to a rocky face on the low-point of this rib. From there the tread switchbacks, gains the top of this rib and then begins climbing much more steeply. Look between Sugarloaf (on your left) and the Organ Needle (on your right) for Pine Pass. Below the pass, in the main bowl of Indian Hollow, is a conical prominence topped with a distinctive white spire. The tread will continue up the rib and take you as high as the front face of this prominence.

Informal sign at the fork in the Indian Hollow Trail.

Informal sign at the fork in the Indian Hollow Trail.

The trail forks at 1.9 miles from the trailhead. Climbers assaulting the front face of Sugarloaf are directed to go left. You, however, should go right as if you were headed towards Pine Pass. Here you are getting onto the debris field below Sugarloaf and the trail steepens further. The junipers give way to Ponderosa Pines.

A convenient crack in the scrubbed bottom of granite gulch.

A convenient crack in the scrubbed bottom of Granite Canyon.

At 2.1 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses a deeply cut gulch (the first since the signed trail fork). Look uphill and you should see a long stretch of whitish granite in the bottom of this canyon. This is your  path to the ridgeline south of Sugarloaf. On descent you will want to be able to recognize the intersection of the canyon with the trail – memorize the local landmarks carefully. Turn uphill and go a dozen yards on small boulders to reach the scrubbed bedrock. From here up the stream bed will have much in common with a sidewalk, albeit a very steep sidewalk. Study the rock for foot placements that will stick. Small hollows and shallow protrusions can offer effective assists.  It usually helps to keep you feet flat against the rock with your weight “smeared” across the entire surface of your boot sole. Avoid resting your weight on your hands as that may release your boots from the rock. On this date there was a steady flow of water down Granite Canyon, which left wet dirt on many of the ledges. That can complicate the ascent. Fortunately, the flow was very narrow so it was almost always possible to find a foothold further away.

Slabs below the south saddle of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Slabs below the south saddle of Sugarloaf Mountain.

In 0.1 miles, come to a spot where the canyon tumbles over a steep headwall. I was unable to ascend this part of the canyon bottom, but found very good footing on the southern wall (to your right, looking uphill). Climb in loose gravel and singularly thorny terrain until you pass the top of the headwall, less than 50 feet, and then work you way back into the gulch. Ascend for another 0.2 miles to a second steep section. At the foot of this section there is a singularly battered Ponderosa Pine on the left edge of the canyon bottom. Uphill of this pine, indeed, stacked against it, is a pile of loosely arrayed boulders. There is no lichen on these rocks, no grass growing between them and only the thinnest scattering of brush about them. They look as if they were piled there yesterday. Ascend the boulder pile, gingerly avoiding spots where the stones look like they are about to surf down the slopes. At the top of this rubble enter the bowl below the south saddle on Sugarloaf. This is steep and weather-blasted terrain. The bottom of the bowl seems to be all exfoliating granite. It is not inherently impassible, but the winds on this date were blasting too hard for comfort. Here I turned about to return the way I entered.

Recommendations:

Author at turn-back point.

Author at turn-back point.

There are spots on this scramble where a fall would be very bruising (at best). If you have a large party then a light climbing rope might be appreciated by the least experienced members. On this date the flow of water was a small (but real) complication. Boot soles that are wet and dirty don’t grip the rock very well. Against that, it has to be said that the recent rains have left little particulate on this smooth rock. Long dry spells often leave sand on the canyon bed and could make the scramble much harder.

Of all the scrambles that I’ve been on in the Organs, this is the one that feels most sensitive to weather. It would be a mistake, I think, to get caught up high in any kind of rainstorm. Just a tiny amount of snow could make make the descent a long and slow process. As described above, merely windy conditions can raise the risk level. If you can find a “bluebird sky” on a calm day late in the fall or early winter then you might have the perfect situation for this hike.

Much of this hike was shaded, but the bowl below the ridge looked entirely open. It could get pretty toasty on a summer’s day. Some hikes on this side of the Organ Mountains are real thorn fests. You have to love the clear trail and the open bedrock in the Canyon for it’s freedom from aggressive vegetation.

Links:

Carol Brown has great photos from a hike into Granite Canyon.

Yubao has posted more photos at the Jornada Hiking Meetup site, including shots that appear to have been taken very near the ridge top.

Samat has a complete GPS track for this hike on GPSies.com. It shows a route complete to the ridgeline and an estimate of 7.8 miles (round trip) involving 2725 feet of gain.

Overview:

Dry Falls in Beeman Canyon  (the turn-around point) from Spectacle Trail

Dry Falls in Beeman Canyon (the turn-around point) from Sentinel Trail

Are you yearning for a morning in the mountains complete with canyon scenery, numerous small bouldering problems, blue sky, variegated rock and a desert-dominated biome? This is the hike for you! Nestled into the corner where US-82 departs west from US-70, this small canyon brings you into some lonesome terrain. The highlight of this off-trail scramble is a bouldery segment of canyon known as the Jumble. Wending your way up, over and around this boulder barrier is a fun and mildly athletic challenge. At the upper end of the Jumble is a dry waterfall, which might be climbable but is characterized by seriously rotten rock. A better alternative is to ascend the steep canyon wall and discover an unlikely horse path called the Sentinel Trail. On this date we turned west and headed back towards the basin on the trail. A longer day could be made by following the canyon as it reaches towards the sky on the flanks of Horse Ridge.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 going north
  • After 4.3 miles, take exit 6 for US-70E to Alamogordo (the exit splits into three roads, stay in the center for US-70E)
  • After 63.6 miles, immediately after the third stoplight entering Alamogordo, take the exit ramp for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route (CLMRR).
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto the CLMRR (going north).
  • After 5.0 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn right onto US-70.
  • After 0.4 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn left onto Scenic Drive.
  • After 1.5 miles turn left into the parking lot for the Christ Community Church.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry and Mike (in front of his truck) in the Christ Community Church parking lot.

The mighty Camry and Mike (in front of his truck) in the Christ Community Church parking lot.

As you enter the grounds for the Christ Community Church there is a small gravel pad immediately on your right (east of the entry lane). Park in the gravel lot.

You will need to find alternative parking on Sundays or whenever there is any sign that the church has need of these parking spaces. We did not test this, but a possible alternative might be found immediately uphill of the church. On Scenic Drive, go past the church to the next opening in the concrete center-strip. There turn left and enter onto a dirt road. This dirt road takes you about 0.1 miles east, turns 90-degrees to due north and travels towards Beeman Canyon. After driving past four houses on your right (and just past the church on your left) you should be able to find a suitable parking space on the side of the road. There are no trailhead amenities at either trailhead. There are no fees.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 4560 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5600 feet
  • Net Gain: 1040 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles (round trip)
  • Maps: USGS Alamogordo North

Hike Description:

Mike on the limestone floor of lower Beeman Canyon

Mike on the limestone floor of lower Beeman Canyon

From the trailhead, head north and walk past the church towards a water tank at the rear of the property. Just past the water tank is a small dirt berm that blocks vehicular traffic. Cross the berm and join up with a dirt road headed north. (This is the same dirt road that is suggested as an alternative trailhead).

At 0.5 miles the road crosses a broad and stoney wash that is the outflow of Beeman Canyon. Past the wash (actually, teetering on the edge of its far bank) a second dirt road departs to the right. Go right as this road swings northeast towards the mountains and then shyly turns back to a northerly course. In little over 0.1 miles from the first turn come to a four-way intersection of dirt roads and go right. On this new road you will be heading directly east. Go boldly into the mountains. A plethora of possible roads come in on your left, but ignore them. As long as you keep the wash on your right you can’t miss the canyon. At about 0.9 miles from the trailhead the wash makes a sharp S-bend and rock walls arise on the outside curves. Welcome to Beeman Canyon.

Twin, trailer-sized boulders announce the approach of the Jumble.

Twin, trailer-sized boulders announce the approach of the Jumble.

The hike into the lower canyon is a very mellow stroll. The bottom switches between scrubbed bedrock and stretches of sand and small rock. Layered limestone lines the walls. The available soils are so thin that you might expect to the canyon to be completely barren, yet cacti cling to crevices and both yucca and sotol will sprout where-ever a cup of earth has been deposited. There are no navigation problems – you simply stay in the canyon bottom. At about 1.7 miles from the trailhead, come to a pair of trailer-sized boulders that serve notice that the Jumble is nearby. The hike immediately above this portal is fairly open. There may be a few isolated, easy boulder blocks in the canyon bed, but it will be another 0.4 miles to get to the continuous heap-o-boulders that characterizes the Jumble.

Mike bouldering above the gateway to the Jumble

Mike bouldering above the gateway to the Jumble

At about 2.1 miles from the trailhead the bed of the canyon becomes thick with person-sized, roughly egg-shaped boulders. It is a puzzle to explain how the huge, angular rocks that protrude from the canyon walls become so markedly rounded on the canyon floor. Wind and water doubtlessly have central roles. Both factors, however, are at play in nearby places like Ortega Canyon, North Marble Canyon and South Marble Canyon. None of these nearby canyons present similar boulder playgrounds. Is the rock softer in Beeman? Does the lower angle of the grade allow for longer weathering? Regardless, the playground is there in front of you. Enjoy the challenge.

Mike on an exposed spot in mid-Jumble

Mike on an exposed spot in mid-Jumble

In most places the climbing moves are straightforward and scramblers will have little problem getting past them. There are a few spots, however, where boulder has piled upon boulder and climbing brings exposure. Scramblers who are not comfortable with these moves need only look around. There is almost always a side trail that will take you up the canyon wall and around the climbing problem, although with new challenges in the form of “shin stabbers” and prickly pear. You can’t avoid those problematic plants by climbing. Several of the hardest moves in the canyon are complicated by vegetation that is every bit as prickly as it is inconveniently placed.

This dry waterfall is where we turned around. The waterfall looks climbable, but some of its shelves are supported by exceptionally friable stone.

This dry waterfall is where we turned around. The waterfall looks climbable, but some of its shelves are supported by exceptionally friable stone.

The canyon ascent ends at a tall waterfall at about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. Be careful around this waterfall as the rock is notably rotten and there are huge boulders hanging overhead. You will find freshly fallen rock right at the base of the falls. Unlike their rounded downstream relatives, each new-fallen rock looks as though it had been had been squared by quarrymen. This dry waterfall is an outstanding place for a break. Have a snack and take in views across the Tularosa Basin to the San Andreas Mountains or scope out the high canyon walls above you.

Sample of the faint track on the steep side of Beeman Canyon.

Sample of the faint track on the steep side of Beeman Canyon.

Although it seems improbable, there is an old horse trail on the steep southern wall of Beeman Canyon (looking up-canyon it will be the right wall). Ascend on loose gravel, past sotol and yucca, in the direction of the cliff that forms the canyon top. Less than 50 feet above the floor of the waterfall you should encounter a faint old track. (Keep checking over your shoulder since it is easier to see the trail from above than from below). You could turn uphill and follow the track as it climbs into the upper end of Beeman Canyon. On this date, however, we turned right to gain the ridge and then begin a descent.

Sloping shelf below the cliff line above Beeman Canyon.

Sloping shelf below the cliffs above Beeman Canyon.

This trail, called the Sentinel Trail, makes a brief and gentle climb to just above 5600 feet. There it contours below the cliffs on a sloping shelf.  The cliffs are being slowly worn into hoodoos – several free-standing stone towers become apparent as you near them. The shelf itself is a desert wonderland of brown grasses, chaparral and stuff that prickles or stabs. If the grasses have grown over the trail then walk along at mid-shelf until you regain the tread. Great views open to the northern ridge above Beeman (Horse Ridge) and beyond to the northern Tularosa Basin. Don’t forget to look down into the canyon bottom, the view of the waterfall and the top of the Jumble is extraordinary.

One of the taller hoodoos in the Spectacle.

One of the taller hoodoos in the Sentinels.

While you walk west on a nearly level path, the rocky rim above you is descending. The top of the ridge approaches the level of the trail at about 3.8 miles from the trailhead. Here you will find a cluster of house-tall hoodoos known as the Sentinels. There are views past these towering rocks and across the basin to White Sands National Monument. We had an exceptionally clear day for this hike and the individual sand dunes in the Monument were clearly visible. The tread becomes more obvious beyond this spot as it eases out onto the broad top of Beeman Ridge. The trail is rubbly and in places rather deeply cut into ridge-top soils. From the ridge you can look south across the Sacramento Mountains as they tower above Alamogordo.

View of the knoll where the main trail departs north, but a useful side trail trends east back to the trailhead.

View of the knoll where the main trail departs north (right), but a useful side trail trends east back to the trailhead. Double click for larger image.

As you get close to the basin watch for a junction where the main trail diverts north to skirt around a knoll. You will want to find a secondary trail that goes east (left, looking downhill) and descends a rib in the direction of the trailhead. In ordinary weather the large building of Christ Community Church will be in sight. While descending the rib you may spot an old well on a flanking arroyo wall. The well appears to have been dug into a seep above the arroyo, years ago. Since that time the walls of the arroyo have worn down and opened the well like a cut-away diagram.

Return to the trailhead having hiked 6.1 miles.

Recommendations:

Half cut-away view into an old well on the side of the arroyo below the

Half cut-away view into an old well on the side of the arroyo below the knoll

♦This is a great hike for folks who are comfortable being off trail and in good enough shape to do small bouldering problems. Beeman Canyon is probably too difficult for young children, risk-adverse parents or the strongly acrophobic. Just about anyone, however, may find that the road and the broad canyon bed in the lower part of the canyon makes for a very enjoyable stroll. An easy hike can be had by turning back at the “gates” for the Jumble.

♦This was a terrific mid-winter scramble. On this date the weather was very mild, so I only went through a liter of water. Under warmer conditions this west-facing canyon would get toasty. Adjust your water load accordingly.

♦The Sacramento Mountains do rattle and they are home to various stinging insects. Especially in warmer weather, be careful about where you place your hands. Even the plants can sting, so gloves are strongly recommended.

♦This hike crosses private land. Please keep these kind folks happy by treating their property respectfully.

Links:

View of cliff-tops above the dry falls in Beeman Canyon.

View of cliff-tops above the dry falls in Beeman Canyon.

♦Mike, who led this hike, has a description on the Hike Arizona site that takes you all the way into the upper part of Beeman Canyon and its North Fork.

♦That’s about it! This fun little scramble seems to be almost unknown on the web.

Overview:

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The  burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green trees.

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green stands.

This is a beautiful venture in the too-rarely-visited Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Before the Silver Fire it may have been a normal hike of twelve miles and 2000 feet gain. Post fire, we are left with a mosaic of “barely touched” evergreen stands that alternate with grimmer swatches of standing char. The high canyon walls, the “barely touched” stands and the flowing water make for a beautiful adventure in southern New Mexico. The patches of blackened trees are freighted with awkward footing (due to fire-induced, slow-motion rockfall into the canyon) and carries a tread that disappears into the grasses for long stretches. This is the price of admission. Do this scramble! Pick a day with little wind (snags) and long hours (uncertain footing) and gain access to spectacular terrain.

Driving Directions:

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass - on short days you'll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass – on short days you’ll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

  • 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 drive is entirely on paved roads.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

The mighty Camry seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon 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).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7070 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9260 feet
  • Elevation gain: 2190 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Hillsboro Peak quadrangle.

Hike Description:

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Cross the campground, pass a berm of rocks, then follow a two-track into the woods where it leads to a quarry. A sign at the far end of the quarry shows where the trail begins. The sign notes that the recent fire has raised the risk level for trail users, which is certainly true. On USGS maps this trail is labeled as #129, although some descriptions seem to call it #128. Either way, follow the trail as it leads immediately to the waters of Gallinas Creek and the first of innumerable crossings. This portion of the canyon is spectacular and easy hiking. Rock pinnacles atop the canyon walls dazzle in the morning light while you strain to pick out the tread along the dim canyon bottom. The canyon twists and turns as it furrows north, parallel to the crest, for 1.3 miles. At this point Trail #129 departs northwest (to your left, looking uphill), into Gallinas Canyon. Trail #128 goes straight ahead, then begins a broad swing to the east and brings you to the confluence of East  and West Railroad Canyon.

East meets West at the Railroad Canyons confluence.

East meets West at the confluence of Railroad Canyons.

The trail continues its frenetic creek hopping for another half mile, but then hits a basin and surprises with the decision to pull away from the running water. The path crosses a flat expanse of grass and forest (perhaps the remains of an old beaver pond). Eventually the trail rejoins the water and here the trail fades out a little. Continue probing upstream and watch for hints of trail on the north bank (on your left going uphill). At 2.1 miles from the trailhead you should find a junction where the trail up West Railroad Canyon goes off to your left and the trail up East Railroad Canyon goes off to your right. The junction is signed, as shown in the photo above. Go right.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before trail above waterfalls.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before a stretch of trail that takes you above waterfalls.

Here the trail begins a serious disappearing act. Find the main stream bed for East Railroad Canyon, cross it and continue upstream on the south bank. In a few hundred feet the walls of the canyon pinch the stream bed very closely and the waters have scoured a U-shaped indentation in hard rock. Just past this pinch-point watch the north bank for a faint tread that leaves the stream bed and rises about 50 feet above the stream. The path’s start is marked by a cairn. This tread will take you above a waterfall that might otherwise be difficult to surmount. Just past the waterfall the tread descends steeply back to the canyon bed.

08 cairn

A cairn in an otherwise untracked meadow.

This is large mammal country. On this date there were numerous deer tracks and several cat tracks. A bear with two cubs was roaming this area on the return portion of the hike.

As a rule of thumb, it seems best to ascend towards the inside of canyon curves, where the terrain usually shelves. Don’t commit to crossing the stream, however, until you can see into the flattened area. These shelves sometimes carry log jams that are severe impediments to travel. My impression is that the old trail stayed mostly along the north bank, making frequent but short jumps to the south whenever the north bank becomes uncomfortably steep. Here and there you will find lichen-coated cairns poking up through the dying grasses and looking sadly misplaced in stretches where all signs of a trail have disappeared.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

As you ascend further into East Railroad Canyon the severity of the burn increases. In places the burn extends all the way to the canyon bottom. Abundant grasses grow in these patches (helping to explain the numerous deer prints found in the sand beds). At about 4.1 miles from the trailhead, in a badly burned patch, come to another spot where the canyon walls pinch closely together. Rock spires tower over a pretty 6-foot waterfall. Despite the devastation it is a great spot to have a snack, a drink of water and to soak up some sun. The walk continues above the falls, but it is about to get steeper.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

Above the waterfall the forest remains burned for about a quarter mile, slowly regaining a green hue thereafter. There are many tributaries in the upper canyon. At each confluence, choose the stream that has the largest flow of water. Where it gets dry, choose the stream bed with the gentlest incline. Eventually you will encounter terrain in which the stream disappears below the stream bed, making only brief appearances where rock shelves force water to the surface. Above, you will begin to see hints of the Black Range crest. Try to stay on the north bank (left, looking uphill) to find a path that pulls you away from the east-trending canyon and into a steep-sided ravine coming in from the north. There is a scattering of log-ends sawed flat by trail teams before the fire. These sawn surfaces are now fire-blackened. The trail falls into the ravine and pops steeply up the far side several times.

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock and contours around the end of the rib

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock outcropping and contours around the rib to the right.

The trail crosses the steep-sided ravine for a final time and then switchbacks steeply to the top of a minor rib. The rib-top is part grassy meadow and part rock ledges. Looking uphill, the steep-sided ravine will be on your left and a much shallower, swale-like drainage will be on your right. The tread runs through the grasses towards a pile of three or four burned logs in the swale. Here the trail seems to stop. Better pathfinders might discern a possible tread that comes out of the logs, traverses below a big rock outcropping and swings around the next rib (I didn’t see it until I was on descent). For the track followed on this date, look across the swale to it’s far bank and raise your eyes to a minor saddle about 200 feet above. Climb to the saddle, which is grassy and holds widely spaced trees. In earlier eras it must have been a terrific camp site. The mountains along the Black Range crest come clearly into view.

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Turn uphill (almost due north) and climb, huffing and puffing, on steeply inclined meadows. The rib top is punctuated with rocky outcrops. Initially, stay to the east (right) of these outcrops. After ascending about 300 feet you will find yourself on a sandy shelf with further progress on the east side blocked. Cross the rib on the shelf, pushing past pinyon pines and ascend along the base of cliff-like outcroppings until you strike a very obvious, but unsigned, trail. Make very certain you will recognize this spot on return! Turn to the east (right) on the trail and follow it as it traverses the upper end of East Railroad Canyon. The trail is generally in good shape, save in a few short sections where the forest soil has been plowed up by new waterways. After less than half a mile, come to a signed intersection with the Hillsboro Bypass Trail. Hillsboro Peak lies to the north. Go a few yards south along the trail for great views to the west and the mountains of the Gila National Forest. The views to the east are screened by severely injured forest. It is a sobering way to view the huge cliffs on Timber Mountain and Bushy Peak in the Caballo Mountains. If you have time, consider a hike up to Hillsboro. Those who are short on daylight hours will want to return the way that they came.

Recommendations:

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

♦The stem of the canyon, before it branches into east and west canyons, is a great short hike in magical terrain. The path up to the junction is obvious and the incline is very mild. This would be a wonderful place to take a youngster old enough to handle the distance and do the stream crossings.

♦Consider turning around if the winds come up strongly. On a nearly windless day I heard far more rockfall than tree fall, but those big, black snags are not going to stand forever.

♦The rock-strewn trail in East Railroad Canyon demands vigorous attention. I was surprised by the drain this put on my sense of reserve strength. If you’ve hiked the trail before the fire, then you might want to nudge its difficulty rating up a notch.

♦At this time of year the grasses are dying back and making it much easier to pick out the trail. Expect trail finding to be considerably more difficult during the growing season.

♦On the December hike described here all crossings were dry-footed. The trip is likely to be much wetter after a late-monsoon storm. Springtime snow melts typically accelerate in the afternoon, especially on west facing terrain. Your morning’s ultra-chilly crossings might turn daunting as the sun deploys to its full afternoon power.

♦At 9200 feet some folks are going to feel the altitude. Check on your party’s experience with altitude sickness. If you need a refresher, here is a succinct description of the symptoms.

♦Many pre-fire online reports mention the poison ivy in East Railroad Canyon (see links below). On this December hike I did not see any (as you might expect). Those who are not familiar with the plant can find exceptionally clear photos here.

♦ I started hiking just as it got light enough to see the tread and got back just as it was getting dark, feeling pressed for daylight. The longer days of late spring might have been a better choice. The morning portion of this December hike was very chilly. Watch for ice on the rocks where you cross the creek. Gloves and a fleece vest came in very handy.

♦(There will be a brief hiatus in posts until after New Years. Happy holidays!)

Links:

♦The plant-friendly blog explorenm.com has a description of the first 2.5 miles of the canyon (up to the junction of East and West Railroad Canyons).

♦Southern New Mexico Explorer compares and contrasts the hikes in both East Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon, and comments about the plants and wildlife found along the trail. The trail up Gallinus branches off at about 1.3 miles into the hike. The Gallinas trip sounds terrific.

♦The Silver City Sun-News has a story of someone who was lost for three and a half weeks in this area. (She may have wanted to be lost, the story is not clear). I’m going to quarrel with their list of emergency items to carry. The Seattle Mountaineers have given this a great deal of thought and their 10 essentials is excellent advice.

♦Desert Lavender describes a shuttle trip that begins in the Railroad Canyon Campground, but diverts into the West Railroad Canyon trail to gain the crest, then follows the crest back to Emory Pass. Like the Gallinas trail (above), this sounds like great trip.