Archives for posts with tag: scrambling

Overview:

This is a strenuous hike in some of New Mexico’s most dazzling terrain. Warning: the region’s beauty makes an imperious claim on the hiker – slink away after only one day and you could suffer a harsh sense of lamentable misjudgment! Make this a backpacking trip if you can.

On this date the tread of the Skyline Trail disappeared under deep snow and the hike up the summit block suddenly became a scramble. It was steep and taxing enough to require an ice axe and microspikes. In just a few weeks the snow will be gone and the trip should be a simple hike from end to end.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) heading north, take exit 299 for Glorieta/Pecos.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left over the overpass bridge.
  • After 0.1 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto New Mexico route 50 (NM-50).
  • After 5.9 miles, at a stop sign, go left onto NM-63.
  • After 19.1 miles arrive at a junction signed Cowles. Go straight ahead on the road signed “Jack’s Creek Campground”. According to the USGS map this is NM-555, but I don’t recall seeing that signed at the junction.
  • After 2.3 miles go right, through a gate, on a narrow road signed “Trailhead”.
  • After 0.25 miles come to the trailhead.

All roads are paved.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at Jack’s Creek campground

This is a full service trailhead with vault toilets, water and bear-proof trash receptacles. There is a fee, day use hikers ordinarily pay $2.00 although there are discounts for the various passes. On a Monday there was no difficulty parking, but this seems to be a very popular trailhead and weekend hikers may want to arrive early.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 8840 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 12,258 feet
  • Net Elevation: 3420
  • Distance: 8.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Cowles Quadrangle and Truchas Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Gate to Pecos Wilderness

Leave the trailhead on the Beatty Trail #25. The tread swings north to begin a long ascending traverse up the eastern wall of Jack Creek. In one mile the trail begins a series of leisurely switchbacks, rising toward top of the north-south running rib that divides Jack Creek from the Pecos River.  At 1.5 miles, very near the rib crest, you will come to a gate through which you could contour into the Pecos Wilderness.

Signed junction of Beatty Trail and Jack’s Creek Trail

Turn your back to the gate, doggedly sticking to those switchbacks. Light pours in from above, making it obvious that large meadows lie over head. Pull onto the rib crest and enter the anticipated meadows. The tread wanders through montane grasslands until, at 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you come to a signed junction with Jack’s Creek Trail #257. Turn west (left on ascent) onto Jack’s Creek Trail. The tread enters a spacious, glowing aspen grove, winds about and (establishing a pattern) returns to meadowlands.

View from meadows to Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy

This is high country rambling at its very finest. To the east are views of Santa Fe Baldy and its neighbors Lake Peak (rather pointed, to the south) and Redondo Peak (broad and rounded, to the north). To the east lies a deep drainage where runs the wild Pecos. To the north lies the snow-patterned ridge connecting Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy. But the big surprise is your immediate surroundings: the snaking, brown tread beneath your boots and the wildflowers that brush against your knees, the aspen-filtered morning sunshine that reaches your eyes. It is green. It is open. It is high. It is cool. You might feel the need to avert your eyes while you run a checklist against possible Pixar-esque delusions. It is not a snare. You are here!

Deadfall across Jack’s Creek Trail

Of course, tired legs, dark cumulus or a wind sharp of tooth can affect the situation. On this date the main issue was with downed trees. A decadal drought and bark beetles conspired with a fierce winter to keep you high-stepping. Looking around you will see the grim lessons learned by firs with shallow root systems. Other hikers have beaten boot paths around most of these obstacles. The first clump of deadfall appears as you hit 10,000 feet of elevation. That is pretty high for our rattle-y friends, but it helps to keep you in practice if you first place your hiking pole before planting a foot beyond a log.

Green understory in burned area

Reach the bed of Jack’s Creek having hiked 4.3 miles. If you are toting a water filter then this is a great place to refill and you’ll have lots of options for either shade or sunshine. The trail braids out here, but if you stay close to the creek you will start out on track. At 4.9 miles pass a signed junction for the Dockweiler Trail. Stay on the Jack’s Creek Trail. A few hundred yards pass this junction the trail starts to parallel a burned region. A vividly green understory is showing, but seedlings are still very scarce – the fire must have been quite recent. The tread begins to cross into the burned forest at about 5.3 miles and re-enters unburned forest at 6.2 miles.

View on the south shore of Pecos Baldy Lake

The tread ascends at a mellow angle. On this date patches of snow starting showing up here, beneath the densest stands of trees. At 7.1 miles come to a signed intersection with the Skyline Trail #251. Continue past and almost immediately enter the Pecos Baldy Lake basin. This is a magnificent place to give tired feet a break, pull a couple plums out of your pack, or take photos of the high summit block you are about to approach. Study those thin lines of snow that decorate the summit. It can be hard to see past the dazzle, but some of them may have tell-tale shadows cast by cornices.

View back to lake from part way up the snow covered rib

To ascend to the summit return to the junction with the Skyline Trail #251 and turn right (west). This will take to you a rib that descends on the west side of Pecos Baldy Lake. The north slope of this rib is heavily forested, which can protect a depth of snow late into the season. After seven miles of wondering “who carries an ice axe in June?” you may get a splendid answer. This snowy challenge won’t last long, but for the moment an ice axe and microspikes are almost essential. It would not be out of line to have full-on crampons instead of microspikes. (Crampons make plunge stepping much more reliable). Although the trail disappears beneath the snow navigation is not difficult. Steer by occasional glimpses of the lake through the trees and, much more often, peeks to the summit.

View (over a cornice) down to Pecos Baldy Lake

There is a prominent knoll atop this ridge and you want to find the saddle uphill of the knoll. The saddle is graced by a meadow (currently snow free) where the Skyline Trail surfaces at a signed intersection with the East Pecos Baldy Summit Trail #275. Cross the meadow and being a long series of switchbacks up the summit trail. This exposed slope is covered with short but extremely sturdy pines, possibly Rocky Mountain Bristlecone growing into krumholz. Near the summit there may be a wall of wind-deposited snow. You’ll have reason anew to be thankful for the ice axe and microspikes. Once past the wall stay away from the snow – there is risk of cornices still. Reach the summit cairn having hiked 8.8 miles from the trailhead. The views are amazing. The wind will probably howl.  Get those summit shots and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author atop East Pecos Baldy

I believe that dogs are allowed on these trails (although a Google search failed to come up with clear support). There are cattle, horses and, reportedly, big horn sheep in this area. Pets should be leashed.

Weather is a key consideration for this hike. Winds could become a problem during the traverse of the burned area. Lightning, as always, is a huge threat for anyone stuck on these high and unprotected ridge lines. Pick a clear, cool and calm day for this hike. UV exposure at these altitudes is going to be pretty high – pack along sunscreen and reapply periodically.

I brought just one liter of water and a filter. In June of a relatively wet year there was no issue with getting adequate resupplies.

Links:

Summit Post has a useful and succinct route description that includes the traverse from East Pecos Baldy to Pecos Baldy.

There are some nice photos and an extended description of a camping trip that went to East Pecos Baldy and then beyond (to Truchas Peak) at http://www.landscapeimagery.com/truchas.html

A great description of the hike and numerous photos (including fall aspen) for this hike at the Hike Arizona site (a really terrific resource, and despite its name it covers hikes all over the west).

I’ve been using the weather forecasts found at www.mountain-forecast.com and was impressed with it on this trip. They promised afternoon winds of 30 mile-per-hour at the top. Despite long periods of near-calm on the inward leg of this hike the wind was howling on the summit. Good call!

The USDA site offers up-to-date information on the trailhead including closures and fees. The site currently says that the day-use for picnicking is $10.00 but I think that only applies to the campground area. At the trailhead it is definitely signed for $2.00 per day.

 

Jicarita Peak from NM-76

Overview:

Jicarita Peak is a prominent, rounded mountain reaching to 12,835 feet. It forms part of the Santa Fe Mountains, a sub-range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which themselves are a subrange of the Rocky Mountains. In Spanish, “jícara” means a container made from clay or the gourd-like bark encasing the jicaro’s fruit. Sometimes Jicarita is translated as “little basket”, but perhaps “little bowl” is a better fit.  There are open slopes on the highest reaches that seem to promise good glissading. This post was originally meant to explore that option. The lower mountain is still deep in snow, however, which made route finding considerably more difficult than expected. Consequently, this post describes one of many different options for tunneling through the trees on the lower slopes and then finding your way back. Spring conditions pose some extra challenges. First, it is turkey hunting season so orange attire would be a good idea. Second, Forest Service Road 161 can be blocked by trees or snow. Have a bow saw, axe and chains handy.

Driving Directions:

Driving to Jicarita Peak

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) near Santa Fe take exit 276 for NM-599, the Santa Fe Bypass
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go right onto NM- 599
  • After 13.1 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-285/US-84 North, (towards Espanola)
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-285/US-84 North
  • After 19.1 miles, at a traffic light, go right onto La Puebla Rd
  • After 2.7 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-76 (not signed). If you plan on returning the same route then take careful note of this intersection – there isn’t much to see and it is easy to go blasting past on NM-76.
  • After 26.0 miles, at T-intersection, go right onto NM-75. NM-76 makes a long, steep climb into the town of Truchas where it makes an abrupt, 90-degree turn to the left. This turn is signed, but it is so uncharacteristic that it would be easy to miss.
  • After 7.0 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-518.
  • After 13.8 miles go right onto Forest Service Road 161 (FS-161, signed). The road turns to gravel immediately after the cattle-guard.
  • After 2.5 miles, at the end of the road, arrive at the trailhead.

It is springtime and FS-161 has patches of snow on it. If you drive a four-wheel-drive truck or Jeep then that snow won’t pose much of a problem, but some of the patches were a challenge for the low-slung Camry. In the morning the patches were frozen solid and chains were needed. In the afternoon the patches were soft enough to drive over.

Trailhead:

The mighty, if somewhat battered, Camry finally at the trailhead.

The trailhead is a wide gravel parking area with posts demarking parking spots for trucks dragging horse trailers. Leave as much space as possible for the trailers since it takes a lot of room to swing them into position. There are no fees, no vault toilets and no water services. There is a signboard to the left of the departing trail.

Data:

Starburst icons in the map indicate points where I turned back, (see the description, below).

  • Starting Elevation: 10,380 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 11,840 feet (arbitrary turn-around point)
  • Net Elevation: 1460 feet
  • Maps: USGS Jicarita Peak quadrangle. (Use the 1995 version as it shows trails that are missing from new editions. Declination has shifted from the legend’s 10-degrees to 8.2-degrees.).
  • Distance: 2.8 miles (one way to the turn-around point, without the side trips)

Hike Description:

A sign that you’ve passed the Santa Barbara junction, go back!

From the parking lot head west along a broad two-track for about 400 feet to come to an intersection (signed). The Angostura Trail #493 goes to your right and the Serpent Lake Trail and the Santa Barbara trail go left. Go left on the Serpent Lake Trail/Santa Barbara Trail. These two trails diverge in just a short distance, but the junction is not signed and snow can mask the intersection. In fact, it is easy to go past this junction. The other trail, to Serpent Lake, follows a two-track that is much more obvious than the light tread of the Santa Barbara trail. The map shows that I followed the “obvious” two-track all the way to the intersection with Agnostura Cutoff #19A (signed, fortunately, see photo above) before returning to scout the Santa Barbara junction. If you think you’ve gone too far on the Serpent Lake trail then return to the sign for Santa Barbara/Serpent Lake/Angostura and re-ascend for 200 feet (a bit more than 100 single-steps). On your left you should see the steep end of a rib dropping to the trail, creating an amphitheater-like opening in the woods. Ascend into the amphitheater.

View straight downhill across the La Sierra ditch

Rising up through the amphitheater, come to a bench in the terrain and find an astonishing flow of water called the La Sierra Ditch (sometimes “Holman Ditch”). This is an acequia, a community water project with recognized legal rights that in this case date back to 1717. Natural streams flow mostly down hill. This aqueduct takes water from Rito Angostura and traverses laterally across the broad slopes of Jicarita Peak, delivering water to farms in the Holman Valley. The water flow is brisk at this time of year and it takes a leap to cross.

View, to your right as you ascend, into the drainage

Above the ditch you will find yourself on a steep-sided rib where the sun can penetrate. There may be patches of bare ground with stretches of trail sign. To your right is a fall-off into a small, unnamed drainage. You should be close to, but (oddly) not on, the rib-top. You might think of rib-tops as the preferred locale for trail builders, but much bush whacking failed to find any evidence that that the trail was up there. Instead, ascend the rib staying close to where the terrain falls off sharply into the drainage. The route heads south initially but soon bends towards the west (i.e. curving to your right on ascent). This sharp-sided drainage is a surprisingly reliable guide for the lower half of the trip. You can ascend with confidence to about 11,200 feet where the waterway becomes a mere gully. Even under snow the gully is still evident and can be followed for another few hundred feet. Here, however, the snow masks the waterway amidst the “pit and mound” microterrain that is characteristic of conifer forests. There certainly are a lot of conifer, Corkbark fir and Engelmann spruce testify to your location in the Hudsonian life zone. At this elevation the slope of the mountainside is so gentle that it is an open question as to which direction is “directly uphill”.

Typical view: shallow slope, much snow and many conifers

When the gully disappears you will will have few obvious markers for your path. A look at the map will show that you’re not far from the large bowl that contains Serpent Lake, which should be easily recognizable. To get there you will need to contour north of a knoll denoted as Point 10899 on the USGS map. Pull out a compass, check for a declination of 8.2-degrees East  and begin heading straight west, keeping a sharp eye for any landmarks you might use on descent. You may run into a large and steep sided hummock at 11,500 feet (there are many hummocks, but this one is prominent enough to work as a landmark on descent). For the sake of having a landmark, stay at the bottom of the hummock and allow it to guide you for about 100 yards south of west. When the terrain returns to pit-and-mound, take a bearing of 315 degrees (to the northwest) to correct your course.

Yet more exciting views of snow and conifer.

On this bearing from the high end of the hummock (at about 2.4 miles from the trailhead and 11,600 feet elevation) I came across the Santa Barbara trail. At this unplanned junction the trail is sufficiently wide and boldly-enough blazed to be recognized. You may not have the same luck! My GPS track indicates that I either crossed the Santa Barbara trail or ascended along it four or five times earlier and never picked up on that fact. Trails lose their obvious qualities when snow-shrouded. Still, it is still worth knowing that the slopes just northwest of Point 10899 have trail-beds so prominent that they can be scouted.

Trail sign found above the ascent-line’s junction with the Santa Barbara trail

If you find the trail then follow it as it rises southwest. (Otherwise, you could continue north of Point 10899 and enter the basin). Trail-finding here demands that you follow blazes. Blazes can be unambiguous, especially when the trail-makers put blazes on both sides of the tree. These are a great reassurance for the navigator. In many cases, however, blazes are found on just one side of the tree. These blazes are old and the thick ring of bark surrounding each blaze looks little different than ordinary bark damage. In some cases the blazes have been painted a much-faded red but in at least one case there was a blue-painted blaze. Most blazes, however, are a shade of anonymous “tree-injury brown”. Trail finding is faster than forest-navigation, but it is not fast. If you arrive at point 10899 and you’ve reached your turn-around time then take heed. On this date I tried following the blazed trail back to the car (as the map shows) but wound up losing the blazes. I had to turn back to the junction and return along the ascent route. Keep your eyes and options open, keep your map handy and have fun!

Recommendations:

Two-track as it leaves the trailhead for the woods

The potential for getting lost on this sojourn is unusually high. I brought a GPS, a cellphone with a GPS app, an altimeter watch, and a map and a compass. The watch, compass and map were kept ready-to-hand for about 90-percent of the hike. The main concern is how to find your way down through the trees once you’ve summited. There aren’t many distinctive landmarks in that forest. Also, don’t discount the possibility of white-out conditions above tree line. If that happens then the return back to the trailhead will be even more demanding. If you have any weather concerns then consider bringing wands to mark your route above tree line.

Don’t count on being able to follow your tracks down the hill. In direct sun the melt-out of your tracks can happen in a matter of hours. As they melt out they lose contrast. Moving from bright sunlight into dark shadow confuses the eye and makes tracking harder. When you do find stretches of footprints you will want to be able to distinguish your boot tread from the tread of other hikers and hunters.

As mentioned in the hike description, there were many stretches on the trail where the axe-blazes were difficult to follow. Delusions of adequacy can be painfully spotlighted in this exercise. The decision to turn around on descent and find my way back via the ascent route was both correct and unsettling.

This has been mentioned twice already, but in the spirit of having a good checklist let me repeat that it pays to have chains, shovel, axe and a bow-saw in your vehicle. I sawed through two small trees and was surprised at what it cost me (having forgotten that this exercise occurred at well above the 9000-foot level). The forest has been hammered by drought and beetles, snow and wind. It would not be out of line to bring a chainsaw, if you have one.

Sun exposure was not bad in the forest, but UV radiation is often intense above tree line. You will want high-SPF sunscreen and lip balm, a broad-rim hat and possibly a bandana if you climb into the high tundra.

I got through one liter of water on this hike and was happy to have brought along just two. More is better in the warmer seasons.

Links:

Sign at junction where the two-track meets the trail system.

Station KRQE has images of a late-May storm including one of abundant new snowfall on Jicarita Peak.

Summit Post has a page with driving directions and seasonal suggestions. The Climber’s Log link has comments about early season snowfall, late season snowfall, mid season thunderstorms and comments on the shallow slope angle on this high peak.

The Albuquerque Hiking & Outdoor Meetup organized a hike in September, 2012.  The photos show this hike as it appears at the end of monsoon season.

There is a detail trail description in a trip report from the Los Alamos Mountaineers. The photo of the open terrain surrounding Serpent Lake (in warm weather) might be useful for navigation.

SummitPost also has a useful description is of a spring-time ski down Jicarita. There are good photos showing conditions comparable to those encountered on this hike. The authors describe getting a little misplaced, needing to follow GPS instructions to get back to the car. GPS are wonderful and lifesaving devices. Use them. Part of the mission at Meanders, however, is to encourage all hikers to explore as if they batteries had already expired in these delicate electronic items. Situational awareness matters.

Bighorn at Wheeler Summit (photo credit: John Vitagliano)

Overview:

In summer this, the shortest trail to the highest point in New Mexico, is as graced with hikers as it is with superlatives. In springtime, the trail sees fewer footprints. This is understandable since the flanks of Wheeler Peak form open and obvious avalanche terrain. The glissading potential, however, is fantastic. You sit on the snow and glide down 1200 feet in a matter of a minutes – pure exhilaration. Striking a risk/reward balance is a matter of personal taste and responsibility. The air is thin and the demands are strenuous. You need to have an ice axe, to have practice using your ice axe, to have experience hiking off-trail and to have tracked the weather carefully. You cannot have bigger fun in the mountains.

Driving Directions:

  • Sangre de Cristo Mountains from NM 150

    From Interstate-25 (I-25) in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for NM Route 599 North.

  • After 13.2 miles take the left fork for a ramp to US Rt 84/US Rt 285 North
  • After 0.7 miles merge onto Rt 84/Rt 285 North.
  • After 21.9 miles, at a light in Espanola New Mexico where US 84/285 turns left, continue straight onto NM Rt 68 North.
  • After 49.9 miles, at a light about three miles north of Taos, go right onto Route 150. (This is a slight oversimplification. Route 68 turns into Route 64 in downtown Taos but the change is not well signed. At the northern edge of Taos, at 46.4 miles from the start of Route 68, there is a fork with a sign indicating “Taos Pueblo” to the right and Route 64 to the left. This is the first notice that I saw, northbound, indicating you’ve switched to Route 64. It is easier to think of Route 68/Route 64 as a single road.)
  • After 14.5 miles on Route 150 come to a large sign for the Taos Ski Valley. The left hand turn into the parking lot is currently forbidden (a sign indicates that it is one-way). Instead go straight for another 0.3 mile. The road bends past the ski area lodges, climbs a bit and begins to turn back into the parking lot.
  • At the high end of the parking area find a gravel road on your right with signs for Twinning Road. Turn right on Twinning road. This road is steep If it is icy then four-wheel drive will be essential. (It was dry on this date and no problem for a two-wheel drive Camry).
  • After 1.8 miles on Twinning Road (which becomes Kachina Road at some point) come to an signed intersection with Deer Lane. Turn right onto Deer and immediately left onto the trailhead signed “hiker parking”.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at Williams Lake Trail #62 trailhead.

There are port-a-potties and trash receptacles at the trailhead. There was no fee for parking. Bring water – there wasn’t any available at the trailhead. There was parking for about twenty cars but it was nearly full by early afternoon. You want to arrive early, anyway, to catch the best glissading conditions.

Data:

(Note on the track: on ascent I left the Williams Lake trail and headed uphill, bearing too far to the south. That put me onto sketchy terrain. I did not want to lead casual readers into that terrain, so it has been deleted out of the track shown above.)

  • Starting Elevation: 10,200
  • Ending Elevation: 13,161 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2960 feet
  • Distance: 3.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: National Geographic “Taos Wheeler Peak”. The ascent from the Williams Lake trail to the peak (as  described here) is not shown in the usual 7.5 minute maps. The 1995 USGS Wheeler Peak map does show the trail to Williams Lake, while the 7.5 minute map from 2013 does not show any  trails at all.

Hike Description:

Junction between steep driveway and trail to Williams Lake

From the trailhead, follow Deer Lane as it passes through woods, drops slightly to a pond-laced meadow, turns sharply left around a restaurant and then bends back to the right to get around ski area buildings and the bottom of a ski lift. On this date the road was clear of snow. However, past the lift you will find the foot of a steep private driveway where the trail departs to the right. Look for the sign shown in the photo above. Here the snow became continuous and visual contact with the trail ended.

This is a trail, with the eastern rim showing above the trees.

Fortunately, you are in the bottom of a long canyon and can hardly go wrong as you parallel the canyon wall. Initially the tread follows a ski trail. Williams Lake draws many hikers, so the lower tread is packed down and quite obvious. The main trail stays to the east of the main stream bed, so when in doubt keep to the left as you ascend. In the early morning the packed snow is hard, icy and pocked with yesterday’s footprints. You’ll be glad you have traction device on your boots.

Nearly buried Lake Williams Lake Trail sign

At about 0.7 miles from the trailhead the ski run departs to the west, traversing the canyon bottom. The Williams Lake Trail dives into the trees and continues uphill. As you enter the woods you may see the sign shown at the left. Of course, if you come earlier in the season or in a year with more snow the sign could be buried. The tread generally stays close to the east wall of the canyon, although ribs on the wall or debris from old avalanches will periodically force you into the canyon’s center for short stretches.

This is not a trail, although it may look like it.

Small meadows appear from time to time. Sometimes they happen at the foot of avalanche chutes coming down from your left, offering recognizable landmarks for your return trip. It is easy to mistake yesterday’s snowboard tracks for the trail. Look for circular blue blazes (about four inches across) painted on the trees, knowing that there are a few stretches where the blazes are widely separated (or possibly under snow). As you hike along the east side, monitor the opposing (west) rim as it peeks through the trees. As you get higher those views become more numerous. Skiers descending from that rim have left dramatic tracks across the wall. Climbing further, the box-end of the canyon begins to pull into sight. The terrain takes on a rolling quality as the tread rises to the highpoint of the Williams Lake Trail.

View from the high point on the Williams Lake trail to the box-end of the canyon

In the summer a signpost would let you know where to depart from the Williams Lake trail – a short distance before the highpoint. If snow has buried the signpost then you might go past the turn-off and arrive at that high point, about 1.7 miles from the trailhead. Here you get a panoramic view of the cirque that contains Williams Lake (photo to the left). Rather than descending to the lake, turn left and begin ascending the wall. Your next task is to gain 500 feet through the trees to gain the open slopes below Wheeler Peak. You could ascend directly uphill, but as you climb you will re-encounter the blue blazes and you can follow these instead. Scout carefully. At the end of a long southerly course the blue-blazes  turned directly uphill and then switch back to the north. If you were to continue south (as I did) you will enter onto steep headwalls. This is not recommended.

Skiers standing on broad shelf (view is from the gully leading up to the shelf). Doubleclick to enlarge.

Instead, find the switchback and track the blazes as they ascend to the north. Watch for a stretch where you cross a broad, forested, swale-like declivity.  Just past the swale the blazes switchback again,  regaining a southerly bearing. The blazes the follow a long steady course of ascent, one that will bring you above tree line with views to the crest. Looking uphill  you should be able to pick out the broad gully that feeds into that swale. On the far side of that gully is a broad shelf, roughly two to three hundred feet above you. Find a convenient course to traverse back north, re-enter the wide swale for a third time and ascend to the shelf. This is a terrific spot in which to grab a bite and study the terrain towering overhead. Directly above the shelf is Walker Peak, a bump on the ridgeline that missed being the highest point in New Mexico by a mere 26 feet. To the south (right looking uphill) is Wheeler Peak. Work out a route that will ascend the snow covered face to the saddle between the two summits.

View from just below the col, keep note of the broad shelf (middle distance) for your descent.

This is also a good time to evaluate your objectives. Are your microspikes getting enough traction for safe climbing? Is the snow really, really well consolidated? Is your ice axe off your pack and in your hand? Then let the climbing begin. On this date the climbers and skiers at the shelf were enjoying near-perfect conditions. The sun had warmed the surface into an inch of corn snow. Microspikes provided perfectly acceptable footing. Under those conditions you can head straight towards the saddle. I climbed this section with John Vitaglione (a recent law school graduate), to whom I’m indebted for several of the photos shown here. The photo above shows John approaching the col, with the broad shelf about 1000 feet below him and the trails of the Taos Valley Ski Resort in the distance.

John and bighorn summiteers taking in the views. Cimarron Mountains in distance.

At the col watch carefully for possible cornices. Turn south (right as you’re coming onto the ridge) and follow the top of the ridge for another quarter mile to the gain the summit. Views abound. The Sangre de Cristo range extends north into Colorado and south to the Santa Fe Mountains. Below you to the east lies the headwaters for the east fork of the Red River. Beyond the far ridgeline lies the Moreno Valley and the Cimarron Range. To the west, across the Rio Grand, lies the north end of the Jemez Mountains. Still got that ice axe in hand? Return to the col, sit in the snow, point your feet at the canyon floor and push off. Be safe. Have fun.

Recommendations:

Author, glissading to Taos (photo credit: John Vitagliano)

It is tricky to get the timing right for this route. I was a little late getting to Wheeler this year, meaning that the snow did not quite reach to the ridgeline and some of the best glissade lines were obstructed by rocks. Apparently the Taos Ski Valley had its last day of the season on the weekend of April 2nd, about two weeks before this hike.  Closure of the resort might be a rough indicator that the time for this hike is near.

Glissading can be done without an ice axe, but it is vastly safer and far easier on your limbs if you have an axe with you. It takes practice to get used to controlling your descent. To practice, find a relatively gentle slope that has a safe run-out at its bottom. The large shelf on the trail (mentioned above) offers such terrain. Are you wearing shorts? Glissading gets cold and wet, and friction from the snow will rasp away at exposed flesh. Bring along a sacrificial pair of rain pants, preferably old and battered. Turn back if the walls of the canyon are icy.

The most obvious risk on this hike is the potential for avalanche. The snowpack should not be a complex of poorly bonded layers; you want a snowpack that has acquired a uniform and high degree of tensile strength. Starting in early March, keep a close eye on backcountry reports. Pick a different hike if the snow has been saturated by rain. The reports from the Taos Avalanche Center are invaluable, although the Center closes for the season just as the best glissading arrives. For this hike the weather had been almost entirely sunny and clear for the preceding two weeks. Snow consolidation seemed close to perfect.

On a sunny day you’ll get clobbered by UV radiation. Direct UV radiation increases markedly with altitude (see this abstract for a summary). The indirect exposure – reflection from the snow – is also intense. Lawyers, guns and money are no protection. Bring sunscreen, shades and lip balm. (Apologies to John). Protect the backs of your ears and the bottom of your nose. If you ascend in shorts then slather the backs of your knees generously.

I went through less than a liter of water, which seems pretty typical of a hike this short at this time of year. Bring micro spikes and an ice axe. I found my collapsable hiking pole, gaiters, broad brim hat and bandana to be very useful.

Glissade tracks get longer and better as more people use them. Bring lots of adventurous friends.

Links:

Even folks who live at altitude may find the air above 13,000 feet quite thin. Recent arrivals from Miami are likely to suffer. If you have new arrivals in your party then you’ll want to know the signs of acute mountain sickness. A good summary is found here.

The http://www.mountain-forecast.com site is unusual in that it recognizes that weather can vary by altitude. I haven’t used the site long enough to have a clear idea of how accurate this distinction can be. Never-the-less, I tracked their Wheeler reports in the weeks before going on this scramble.

The Taos Avalanche Center is a great, if seasonal, source of detail data on snow conditions in the region of the Taos Valley Ski Area.

The best trip reports that I’ve found have been on the Northern New Mexico Avalanche Exchange. The interface is somewhat old fashioned, but clicking on that link will take you to NNMAE home page. There, click on the “Forum” link. This presents a table of forums (including an excellent Education link). For trip reports click the “Northern New Mexico 2016-2017 Conditions” link. That will show you a table of regions in northern New Mexico, click “Taos Ski Valley“. Unfortunately it is listed in oldest-post-first, so use the list of pages (near the upper-right) to go to the last page and the most current reports.

There aren’t many other reports about trail conditions for this springtime route. There were a few “made it” comments at AllTrails and four terse sentences on the climber’s log at SummitPost.

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 into Horse Canyon and distant North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope on the right side of the photo) from US-26

North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope rising from the right side of the photo) as seen from NM-26. The southern draw is the shadowed bowl partially screened by a bush on the extreme right. Staircase Rib descends from the ridge line of North Las Uvas Mountain to the left of the draw.

This is an off-trail scramble that ascends to the second-highest point in the Sierra de Las Uvas. “Second highest” may sound like faint praise, but it is a terrific alternative to driving to the fenced and locked summit of Magdalena Peak (the highest point in the range). This is desert wilderness so be prepared for difficult road, waterless trekking and terrain that rattles. It is also, in the springtime, a colorful hike into rarely seen terrain with spectacular views. Find a clear-blue day and do this hike!

Driving Directions:

  • From US-70 in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 (I-25) going north.
  • After 35.3 miles take Exit 41 for NM-26/Hatch.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left on NM-26.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a T-intersection with a stop sign, go right to continue on NM-26.
  • After 8.3 miles past the T-intersection, go left onto Las Uvas Spring Road. This road is paved. (Note, “Las Uvas Spring Road” is the name on a the street sign. It will be much easier to watch for a huge sign on the left side of the road that says Las Uvas Valley Dairy).
  • After 0.8 miles, where Las Uvas Spring Road bends sharply to the right, go left onto County Road E002 (gravel). There are some things to watch for while driving E002, notably:
    • After 300 feet E002, just past a cattle guard, come to an intersection. Straight ahead is a gravel road in rough shape. Don’t go there, instead take the sharp right to stay on E002.
    • After 1.7 miles on E002 come to a fork. E002 veers slightly to the right, while the left fork is County Road E003. Go right. About 30 feet past the fork you should pass a bent metal post signed “CR E002”.
    • After 4.7 miles on E002, at the mouth of Horse Canyon, come to the stone ranch building and tall windmill. This is Horse Canyon Ranch (private property). Continue on E002 as it enters the canyon.
  • After 5.0 miles come to small rise in the road with negligible berms on either side. Park beside the road.
The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib  is about 45° above and left.

The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib is about 45° above and left. (Double-click to enlarge)

Note: County Road E002 is rough. You may see pictures of the mighty Camry parked at the trailhead, but this road can not be recommended for family sedans. On this date the tracks of a road grader were visible in the roadbed – there must have been fairly recent maintenance efforts. Despite that, long stretches of the road was made up of loosely piled, fist-sized rocks. The road is sunken below the surrounding terrain for much of its length. You can go forward and you can back up, but turning around is often out of the question. Take a high-clearance vehicle. Those with high clearance vehicles could drive another 0.4 miles and save themselves a stretch of road hiking, but be warned that the road bed degrades significantly in that stretch.

Trailhead:

The trailhead is just a patch of dirt beside County Road E002. There are no amenities. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5020 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 6601
  • Net Elevation: 1581 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Souse Springs, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of whitish, scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

From the car, head up Horse Canyon on County Road E002. Rocks the size of bowling balls litter the gullied road-bed, be glad that you left the vehicle behind. The road gets so little use that a scattering of wild flowers were growing in both tracks. In about 0.4 miles come to a fork where a faint two-track departs the main road on the right and descends into the wash coming out of the south draw. Follow the two-track for roughly 100 yards and come to the wash, then turn upstream (left). On ascent I departed from the wash in just a hundred yards, worried about going too far into the southern draw. That was a misplaced concern – it is fine to follow the wash 0.3 miles to where you arrive at the foot of Staircase Rib.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

I’ve designated this rib “Staircase” because it is composed of harder and softer layers of rock; the hard rock forms the relatively flat shelves and the soft rock forms the steep risers. As you come to the first of the shelves, look up Horse Canyon and try to pick out an old barbed wire fence on the flanks of the rib. This fence begins in the bottom of Horse Canyon and rises part way up the rib. You should hit the fence about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. Ranchers worked hard on these structures and there is an old path along the uphill side of the fence. It is easier to follow the path than to “side-hill” along the rib. That said, you shouldn’t get too far from the rib top, so at about 1.1 miles from the car depart from the fence and ascend beside basaltic outcrops until hitting a grassy stretch that grants access to the rib top. From here it is only a short distance to where the rib joins the main ridge of North Las Cruces Mountain.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw and to the Cooke Range.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw to Cookes Peak.

Look around you as you reach the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. You will want to make sure you depart the ridge for Staircase Rib on descent. Having memorized this departure point, turn up hill and begin a long and surprisingly gentle ascent of the upper tablelands. There is an abundance of creosote bush and mesquite, some mountain mahogany, numerous varieties of small cacti (surprisingly few prickly pear, a few cholla), the odd ocotillo and an occasional juniper. Grasses grow in dense patches – watch for our sinuous friends during warm weather. There are numerous raptors overhead and evidence of cattle under foot. Shade is practically non-existent.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches the ridgeline.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches to the ridgeline.

There are no further route finding problems. Just stay close to where the ridge falls into Horse Canyon and continue ascending. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will come to the upper end of a canyon that drains from the ridgeline to the southwest (that is, to your right). These may be the headwaters of Pine Canyon. Surprising displays of cap rock appear in what would otherwise be a broad table of high desert. Water has gnawed all the way to the ridge, leaving minor rises and infinitesimal falls as you ascend towards the summit. Although the terrain is nearly flat, footing is tricky as the surface is covered with volcanic scoria intermixed with rounded lumps of sandstone. (Tricky and geologically confusing).  At about 2.4 miles from the trailhead you pass what seems to be the last of the canyon’s branches and might imagine that the juniper decorating the ridge above you is the summit. Oh no! It turns out that juniper trees enhance each of the innumerable  pseudo-summits on this gentle climb. Plod onward.

Cactus growing on a

Lichen and cactus growing on a “ground” of solid rock.

You will encounter the headwaters of one last canyon at 3.0 miles from the trailhead. Cross a two-track (evidently in current use) and ascend up a moderate incline to reach the broad expanse of true tableland northwest of the summit. On this date there was a considerable flower show. The columnar cacti, in particular, were putting on a massive show of red and purple flowers. Despite drought conditions the grasses were dense on the ground (although very dry).

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

As you get higher the views to the surrounding ranges become a major distraction. The Florida Mountains are prominent in the southwest, the Cooke Range to the west, the Black Range and the Caballo Range dominate the near-ground to the north, although I think I saw the distant San Mateo Range poking up between them. The east is dominated by the San Andreas Range. As you reach the summit at 4.2 miles, some very prominent peaks of the Sierra de Las Uvas appear. These include the conical form of Sugarloaf and the radar-dome topped prominence of Magdelana. Below lies the crazed terrain where White Gap Draw, Kerr Canyon, Choases Canyon and Valles Canyon converge into Broad Canyon. A bit south of east are the Robledos and Dona Ana Mountains, and beyond them lie toothy spires of the Organ Mountains. Have a bite to eat, sign the register, and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

♦Both the distance hiked and the elevation gained look very modest. Don’t be fooled. This is a 100% off-trail outing and the demands on your attention and on your legs are emphatically real. It is at least a moderately strenuous hike – less physically demanding than the ascent up Three Rivers Canyon in the Sierra Blanca Range, but far greater than the 7-mile loop around Kilbourne Hole.

♦County Road E002 crosses at least two washes. A storm could make the road impassable in a very short period of time. Keep a close eye on the weather. It would be an excellent idea to have a pick and shovel with you. As usual with desert sojourns, make certain your spare tire is inflated and bring extra water.

♦There is no protection from the sun or from lightning on this hike. Pick a nice day, preferably in the winter or early spring months. Sun screen is essential for most folks, and a broad rimmed hat is incredibly useful.

Links:

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). Protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). This rattler was protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

♦There is a mention of this peak on SummitPost. That description suggests an approach from the south rather than the north, which may be advantageous in terms of avoiding County Road E002. That approach, however, would leave you approaching North Las Uvas Mountain on its steep south/eastern faces. I haven’t tried it, but from what I could see on the summit you would want advanced scrambling skills to make that approach. It might be best to try this route in the colder weather when New Mexico’s venomous denizens are not quite so abundant.

A map provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seems to suggest that most of Horse Canyon and the lower half of the ridge up to North Las Uvas Mountain is owned by the State of New Mexico. The upper part of the ridge, to the summit, is BLM land. There is a small in-holding, the Horse Canyon Ranch, that bridges the narrow mouth of the canyon. It appears to me that you should try and drive at least a quarter mile past the abandoned ranch house and windmill in order to park on public lands. Land owners in New Mexico are usually very generous towards hikers and hunters but, absent explicit parking permission, it’s best to stay off of the ranch land.

♦That’s about it. This lack of public awareness may be why the summit log had only two previous entries in it!

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.