Archives for posts with tag: trails

Avalanche fans and cornices on Jicarita ridgeline

Overview:

Serpent Lake is a gorgeous mountain tarn sheltered below the massive ridge leading to Jicarta Peak. Currently Serpent Lake is not frozen, even though the trail is under snow. The trail is well blazed, but navigation will be remain a challenge as long as the snow lasts.  The view to the ridge suggests that there remains numerous glissade lines for adventurous springtime hikers to enjoy. Get your favorite adventurers together and get up there!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25, in Santa Fe, take exit 276 for the NM-599 Santa Fe Bypass.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left onto NM-599.
  • After 13.2 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-285/US-84 North
  • After 0.5 miles, at the end of the ramp, merge onto US-285/US-84 North
  • After 14.5 miles, at a light, go right onto NM-503 (Nambe Road)
  • After 7.5 miles go left onto Juan Medina Road (County Road 98). There are no stop lights, but signs before the junction indictate that the turn is for the “High Road to Taos Scenic Byway” and the way to “Santuario de Chimaya / Chimaya”
  • After 3.5 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-76. After 8.2 miles NM-76 makes a 90-degree left-hand turn, while a different road goes straight ahead into Truchas, NM. Just before the turn watch for signs for the “High Road to Taos Scenic Byway” with an arrow pointing left, and a sign for “Ojo Sarco / Penasco / Taos”
  • After 21.6 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-75
  • After 6.9 miles, at a T-intersection, go right onto NM-518.
  • After 13.7 miles go right onto Forest Service Road 161. There is a sign on NM-518 before the junction. This road turns to gravel immediately after the cattle guard.
  • After 4.2 miles arrive at the trailhead at the end of the road.

If you plan on returning along the same route then be aware that the turn from NM-76 onto Juan Medina is a little obscure. On your return along NM-76 watch for a signed intersection for NM-503 then, 1.8 miles further, come to the junction with Juan Medina. This junction is signed for “Santuario de Chimaya”

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead is simply a broad gravel pad with a Forest Service trailhead board. The service has put posts into the pad to mark out parking for trucks pulling horse trailers. Please give these spots as much space as possible as it takes some room to maneuver the trailers into position.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 10,400 feet
  • highest elevation: 11,840 feet
  • net elevation: 1,440 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: 4.1 miles

Hike Description:

A snow-free start to Serpent Lake

Currently the Serpent Lake Trail is about 90 percent under snow. Most of the time the trail makes an obvious corridor through the trees, but care is needed least you stray from the corridor. From the trailhead follow a broad, snow-free two-track to the west. In about 400 feet come to a signed junction. The Angostura Trail #493 goes to your right, while the Serpent Lake Trail #19 and the Santa Barbara Trail both go to the left. Turn left and head into the trees. On this date the snow began almost immediately.  In about 200 more feet the Santa Barbara Trail departs to the left, although it isn’t easy to discern exactly where. Fortunately you need only stay on the broad two-track as it heads to Serpent Lake. It soon swings to the right, crossing the bottom of an unnamed drainage.

Junction with Angostura Cutoff

At 0.6 miles from the trailhead, come to a junction where the Angostura cutoff trail trail departs to the north (to your right on ascent). Stay left as the Serpent Lake trail begins a long, slow, ascending traverse across the southern wall of the Rito Angostura drainage. At 0.8 miles from the trailhead the trail rises to a remarkable flow of water that insists on gushing across the slopes rather than down. This is the La Sierra Ditch, which brings water to farms and gardens in the Holman Valley. The flow of water can be pretty strong. On the left side of the crossing there may be a log that bridges the ditch. Some generous soul had left a long aspen pole for hikers to brace themselves while making the crossing – very useful. If there is no log then you will probably get your feet wet. Not that it matters – warm temperatures convert the top couple inches of snow to a slushy consistency and this will wet your boots soon enough.

Blaze with ax-edge lines in the sapwood

Study the blazes on the trees alongside the trail. They will be an important part of navigating your way back down the mountain. Most of the blazes are single, ax-hewn slices that peel away the bark and leave the underlying sapwood exposed. It can be easy to confuse these deliberate markings with ordinary bark-damage, so it pays to train your eye to look for the lines that the ax-edge leaves in the sapwood. At about 1.9 miles from the trailhead the traverse ends. The trail turns sharply south (to your left on ascent) and begins a short series of small switchbacks that soon turns into a straight-uphill climb. Study this right-angle turn – it can be easy to miss on descent.

Twin blazes

The ascent is not particularly steep – Jicarita Peak has massive cliffs in its highest reaches but down here the grade is quite gentle.  Even under snow the trail has a distinctive, gully-like shape accented by the fact that the east-facing side of the trail (on your right going uphill) melts out quite a lot faster than the west-facing side. It offers a fairly bold corridor through the trees but take care to track the blazes. There are several spots where I thought I was on the obvious corridor but, “blazes!”, decided I had to scout downhill for a more useful tread.

Well signed wilderness

At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, at about 11,600 feet, come to a sign for Carson National Forest. It was about here that I noticed that the single-blaze that characterized the start of the trail was now a double-blaze, usually a small cut above a larger cut into the bark. I can’t say for certain, but this change may be due to an intersection with the Santa Barbara Trail. On descent, make certain you stay on the Serpent Lake trail.  The Santa Barbara leads back to the same trailhead but it is considerably more difficult to follow.  You are now in high terrain – signaled by an abundance of corkbark fir and Englemann spruce.

View into Serpent Lake basin

Shortly after the sign, at about 3.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail briefly levels as it contours below the top of Point 10899 (as denoted on the USGS quadrangle) and then descends to a saddle. At the saddle find two signs, one indicating that you’re about midway between the Santa Barbara campground and the Agua Piedra campground. The second, a few feet away, points to the branch trail leading to Serpent Lake.  On this date I poked a bit further along the main trail, hoping to get above the trees to photograph the ridge. That was neither successful nor necessary – the short side trip down to Serpent Lake opens spectacular views. Have a bite to eat and watch for marmots. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author at Serpent Lake

The deep snowpack makes it pretty easy to get misplaced in the woods. You will want a map, compass, and GPS. Wands could be helpful if you are heading into open snowfields below Jicarita summit.

A liter of water met my immediate needs on this cool spring day.

I was fortunate to be on Jicarita on a calm day. Others, however, have commented on how extraordinarily windy this hike can be (see below). If the weather forecast is for strong winds then it might be a good idea to pick another hike. FS-161 is a long trip through a badly stressed forest. Your return could be livened-up by deadfall. It may be a good idea to have an ax and saw in your vehicle. If you are going earlier in the year (or on a snowier year) then you may need chains for your car as well.

The sun reflects off of the snow’s surface with remarkable efficiency. Protect the bottom of your nose and ears. If you’re hiking in shorts then give consideration to the back of your knees as well.

This is high terrain. If members of your party are not well acclimated then you might want to review the altitude sickness symptoms described here.

Links:

Cindy Brown, at the Taos News, has a write-up of the trail as you might expect to find it later in the season. She mentions the possibility of seeing marmots and big-horn sheep.

The New Mexico Backpackers Meetup group has posted some nice photos here. These are from an October trip and are snow-free, but they suggest that spectacular views awake hikers who get to the summit.

A similar trip report, from an August trip, can be found at the Los Alamos Mountaineers site.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a June post, which has a good trail description and makes note of the extreme winds that can be encountered even below the ridgeline.

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 Cañon La Cueva upper wall in morning

Northern wall of Cañon La Cueva in its upper reaches. A narrow view of the limestone cliffbands just below the Sandia Crest can be seen at the extreme right.

Overview:

There are several trails that lead from the urban borders of Albuquerque all the way to the crest of the Sandia Mountains. Of these, the La Luz trail (“the light” in Spanish) appears to be the most popular. There is little wonder why. Unlike the other treads, such as the Domingo Baca trail, this trail enjoys several civilizing influences including switchbacks and an easy-to-follow trailbed. The trail can be hiked “one way” by substituting a tramway ride for either the descent or the ascent. The latter could be especially useful alternative for hikers who are not acclimatized to altitude (that route is slightly different from the route described here – see the “Links” section below). Despite its civilized nature, the hike is puts real demands on the hiker. This is not the place to introduce young hikers to the backcountry. The La Luz trail takes you into outstanding terrain and is strongly recommended.

Driving Directions:

02 La Luz Trailhead fee sign

  • Take Interstate-25 north through Albuquerque and take Exit 234 for NM 556/Tramway Road NE. The ramp is very short and merges almost immediately into the leftmost lane of the Pan American Frontage Road. Get over into the two rightmost lanes as quickly as safety permits.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of Pan American Frontage Road, come to an intersection with NM 556/Tramway Road NE. Turn right onto NM 556.
  • After 4.0 miles turn left onto Forest Service Road 333 (paved).
  • After 1.8 miles, turn right onto Pinon Place.
  • After 0.4 miles, at the end of Pinon Place, arrive at the trailhead

Trailhead:

03 Might Camry at La Luz trailhead

The mighty Camry at La Luz Trailhead

The trailhead is paved and has vault toilets and trash receptacles. There is no water. There is a $3.00 per day fee, but that is waived if you have one of the numerous passes available (a military pass or a national parks pass, for example). There isn’t a huge amount of parking here. I got onto the trail at 7 a.m. with only nine or ten open parking spots remaining and more cars arriving every few minutes.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7000 feet
  • ending elevation: 10,378 feet
  • elevation gain: 3,378 feet
  • distance: 7.6 miles
  • maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle (both the 1990 and the 2006 editions show La Luz trail, the 2013 edition does not show any trails).

Hike Description:

04 view into T'uf Shur Bien bowl

View north from La Luz trail into the bowl containing Juan Tabo Canyon

From the trailhead, take a short and steep set of stairs to pull you up and eastward towards the crest. This trail enjoys a relaxed attitude towards gaining elevation, so it almost immediately laterals south over a slight rib. (This rib will hide the trailhead from you on descent). Cross the unmarked border between Sandoval and Bernalillo counties and continue south on a gently rising traverse into a small basin at the foot of the Sandias. This is a classic Sonoran life zone with plenty of sage brush, cane cholla and prickly pear cacti, plus the occassional juniper.

04 lower La Luz trail with peek at The Thumb

Lower La Luz with initial view of The Thumb

You are heading towards a small stream that drains the basin. Just before your feet can get wet the trail makes a short series of switchbacks and, at 0.9 miles, hits an intersection with the Tramway Trail. (If you rode the Tramway up then you will want to take the Tramway Trail to get back to the Tramway parking lot). Continue upwards, lacing the switchbacks and marveling at the sweat and concrete that has been poured into this tread. At 2.2 miles, after making a long lunge to the south, the trail hits the markedly flat rib-top.  This feature separates the trailhead’s small basin from the deeply gouged hydraulic slash that is Cañon La Cueva.

06 Sun-touched south rim of Canon La Cueva, Mt Taylor on horizon

View west to Rio Grande valley and distant Mt Taylor

The upper reaches of this canyon are divided into a northern fork and a southern fork. The trail ascends easterly, swiftly crossing the northern fork, then switches west  and then east-again to contour around a massive knob of rock. At 2.8 miles and at about 8200 feet the trail hits a second markedly flat spot. Here, between the forks, the trail begins a series of long and lazy switchbacks almost innocent of altitude gain. Enjoy it!

07 Canyon La Cueva closeup from second flat rib

Lower Cañon La Cueva and Albuquerque

Enjoy the vistas as well. There are terrific views west over Albuquerque, the Rio Grande and the distant swell of the Mount Taylor volcanic field.  Above you, to the south, rises an enormous fin of rock called The Thumb. It looks like a climber’s dream, and the tread you are on will take you up past its base.

08 taking off into upper Canyon La Cueva

Taking off into the upper canyon

At 4.3 miles and about 9100 feet elevation come to a third flat patch, a place to study the the startling gash below you that is Cañon La Cueva and above you where the southern fork of that self-same canyon will be your route. Is there snow in those heights? (There was on this date). If so, did you bring a hiking pole and microspikes?  You might need ’em.  Those dark conifers in the canyon bottom indicates that you’ve gotten into the transition zone where the prickly pear and juniper are tapering off and the Ponderosa Pine makes an appearance.

09 Descent to Upper Canyon and Thumb

South Fork of Upper Cañon La Cueva

From the level spot the trail descends gently towards the canyon bottom, losing about 300 feet. After crossing the waterway it begins to pull above the bed. Broad canyon walls tower above you to the north, the immense Thumb screams skyward to the south, and straight ahead is bedlam of cliff bands, spires, rockfall and hoodoos. A pair of fang-like spires seems to be directly in your path. However, just before you get to these fangs the trail runs into a vertical wall. You might catch a glimpse of a cave opening about 50 to 75 feet above your head. You have arrived back at 9100 feet and the start of innumerable short switchbacks that ascend up the buttress between The Thumb and the Crest. A sign warns that winter conditions can render the trail impassable. People descending from the Tramway rapidly pack down the snow, making it slippery. Moreover, much of remaining ascent is over boulder fields, which can be tricky when covered with snow. Good to go?  One-two-three, switchback!

10 packed and sometimes icy switchbacks

Packed snow on trail heading towards fang-like spires

You will gain 1000 more feet to find the last switchback, but it goes pretty quickly. Do not wait for a sun break – on a December day it stays dark in this canyon until the sun is straight overhead. Instead, marvel again at the labor that went into building this passage to the Crest and keep ploddin’ along. Eventually the trail moves hard against the Crest side of the canyon, makes about a half-dozen small switchbacks in an aspen grove (a signature species of the Canadian life zone) and arrives at a small col at 6.3 miles and 10,150 feet. Here the trail branches. To your left is a trail that will take you to the Crest House (a restaurant/gift shop concession). On this date, however, I wanted to check out the conditions at the Sandia Ski Area, so I went straight ahead.

11 sign at fork of La Luz and Crest House

Sign at trail fork

For the remainder of the trip the trail skirts below the Sandia’s uppermost cliff bands. As soon as you leave the intersection you depart Cañon La Cueva and arrive at the headwaters of  Cañon Domingo Baca. On your left is solid rock. On your right is the promise of good hang-gliding. Be careful on any icy spots. Portions of the southern Sandias pull into view, along with views along the Manzanita Mountains and the Manzanos (home to Manzano Mountain).

12 Domingo Baca Spires and view south

Upper Domingo Baca Cañon, Manzanita and distant Manzano Mountains

The top of Cañon Domingo Baca is enormously scalloped. The trail whips back and forth along  convoluted horizontal path even as it strives mightily to minimize the vertical change. The cables of the Tramway come into sight, but you still will have a mile or more to go. Finally, having arrived at 10,378 feet and traveled 7.6 miles, top out at the Tramway station on the Crest of the Sandias. Trees block the hard-earned views to the east, so follow a path down to the Sandia Ski Area (just a hundred feet) for views north to Santa Fe Baldy and southeast to the Pecos Basin. Return the way you came.

Recommendations

13 Author on Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia Crest

Winter conditions and summer conditions are going to be very different. So when I say that three liters of water was more than plenty, make a note that it is plenty for chilly December day. In summer this trail is going to be hot and, as the sun swings westerly, possibly unbearable.  An REI rep told me that it is a good idea to climb the west-facing Sandia slopes in the winter and then swing over to the east-facing slopes in the summer. That seems sound to me.

If you are hiking here in the winter then it would be an excellent idea to bring along some sort of traction device (such as Yaktraks or Microspikes). In many places the snowmelt puddles up during the afternoon and freezes during the night. Creeping over long stretches of gray ice can get sketchy.

This trail is high and sometimes cold. I doubt that it is ever lonesome. Three trail runners blasted by me first thing in the morning and two separate pulses of tramway riders went by in the other direction. At the Crest House fork there is a sign dispensing advice to horsemen! This is an excellent place to exercise your trail courtesies. Safety is the first concern, but otherwise please give the runners some room, step off the trail on the downhill side for the horses (if you can) and offer right-of-way to hikers on ascent. For a popular trail the La Lux was blissfully trash-free, let’s keep it that way and pack out everything.

Conditions at the Sandia Ski Area (for those who are curious) were poor. The ski trails leading to the top chairlift were largely bare of snow.

My GPS unit went a little crazy in the deeper sections of canyon. Presumably the satellite signals were convoluted by reflections off of the canyon walls.  When mapped the uphill and downhill tracks crisscrossed each other so badly that in places it became hard to interpret. (For this blog I removed the up-hill track, which had the most obvious departures from the trail).  The downhill track does, at least, stay in its proper canyons. Still, this presentation does not have the expected degree of accuracy.

The La Luz Trail is shown and labeled on Google Maps. Unfortunately, the trail from the La Luz trailhead to the intersection with the Tramway Trail is labeled “Tramway Trail” rather than “La Luz”. Don’t worry, as the paths themselves are properly signed as you hike along the trails.

Links:

Unlike any other trail I’ve encountered in New Mexico, the La Luz seems to have it’s own website. It’s mostly pretty pictures, a few links and some static trail data. At the bottom is a sobering reminder that three hikers lost their lives on the mountain in 2015. (Side note, apparently the website is not completely up-to-date, as the Albuquerque Journal recounts the passing of a fourth hiker in 2015).

Additionally, there is a detailed description of La Luz in Wikipedia. If only more New Mexico trails had such acclaim!

There is an excellent description of this hike at CloudHiking. It is very detailed and offers numerous photos. There are links for GPS data and for a map. Additionally, instead of going to the tramway top (as described here), the CloudHiking guide chooses to go left at the top fork to ascend to the Crest House. That’s an attractive option as it leads to the highest point on the Sandia Crest.

There is an annual run up this trail, which appears to be run on the first Sunday in August (although I’m not completely certain of that). The run is organized by the Albuquerque Road Runners Club, which has a website describing the run here. Most hikers will want to choose another date for using this trail.

For a description of the Tramway-up, Boots-Down approach you can find an excellent writeup here.

Good directions for navigating the trail all the way from the Tramway parking lot can be found at SummitPost.

A post describing La Luz in considerable detail can be found at Around 505. It includes some input from a Forest Service Volunteer, David Hammack, who has been using this trail (and putting up other routes) since 1959. Good authority!

Overview:

Vicks Peak from FR 225

Vicks Peak from FR 225

This route takes you into the San Mateo Mountains of Socorro County (there is another range named for Saint Matthew in Cibolo County, quite a ways further north). In the Socorro range you will find a network of trails that brings you in to high, cool and striking terrain. The Apache Kid Trail (#43) takes you from the Springtime Campground up a canyon to a high ridge line. Pause to enjoy the gendarme-laced terrain as well as the complete absence of mesquite bush and prickly pear. Turn south onto Shipman Trail (#50) as it bobs down into forested canyons and hops back to the ridge line for new vistas. Views are mostly to the west, taking in the Tularosa Mountains and the Plains of San Augustin (sometimes written “Agustin”). On return you will have a chance to study San Mateo Peak and portions of the northern San Mateo mountains. The col containing Myers cabin is a wide, grassy meadow framed by stately ponderosa. The original destination for this hike was Vick’s Peak, which lies above and south of Myers cabin. Recent years have not been kind to the climber’s tread that once lead to the peak, so this route description only goes as far as the first prominence (point 10100) south of the col.

Driving Directions:

This list of driving instructions was used on March 22, 2014. For those who are driving south on I-25, e.g. from Albuquerque, getting off at Exit 115 makes perfect sense. For those who are driving north on I-25, e.g from Las Cruces, getting off at Exit 115 means having to double back. An alternative route is suggested below.

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruses, enter I-25 going north.
  • After 112.8 miles, take Exit 115 for Route 107.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn east (right) onto NM Route 107.
  • After 200 ft (at a T-intersection), go south (right) on Old US Highway 1. (There is no road sign for US 1 at the intersection, but a sign appears a short distance to the south)
  • After 11.7 miles, go west (right) onto Forest Road 225. This is a gravel road.
  • After 13.3 miles come to a fork (signed), go right onto 225A for Springtime Campground
  • After 0.4 miles, enter the campground.

A look at Google Maps suggests that those coming north on I-25 might want to get off I-25 a little earlier.

  • At exit 100 on I-25, signed for Red Rock, go right.
  • After 200 feet, at the end of the exit ramp, go west (left) onto a road that is not named on my maps. This will lead immediately to an overpass over I-25.
  • After 0.3 miles, at a T-intersection, go north (right) onto Old US Highway 1.
  • After 4.6 miles. Turn east (left )onto FS 225. Then continue as above. This alternative route has not yet been tested.

Forest Road 225 is in generally good shape, but there are important points of exception. Each time that the road dips into an arroyo bed the road quality drops dramatically. For drivers of high suspended trucks it will not be a problem. Drivers of family sedans, however, will have to make case-by-case decisions. It takes a long, long time for soft-suspended cars to travel those 13.9 miles – but slow and patient driving will do the front end of your vehicle many favors. Stormy weather could produce brisk alterations to the road bed so it might be a good idea to keep a shovel in the vehicle.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, resting for a moment beside one of the lean-tos.

The mighty Camry, resting for a moment beside one of the lean-tos.

The trailhead lies within the Springtime campground and is signed. I did not see any trash receptacles or water. An older article in the Taos News suggests that the campground has an outhouse, but I didn’t see it while strolling by. There is quite a long stretch of PVC pipe along side the trail, so there may be a faucet somewhere among the campground lean-tos (do not count on it). You can drive up the canyon, going past the trailhead for a short ways, by turning left over a cattle guard and driving among the lean-tos. The road is poor however, and the drive just raises dust among the campers. It is better to park near the cattle guard, which is near the Apache Kid Trail sign.

Oddly, the Springtime Campground does not lie in Springtime Canyon, but in Nogal Canyon. Springtime Canyon is the next big drainage to the north.

Data:

  • trailhead elevation: 7480 feet
  • high point: 10,210 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2730
  • distance: 5.8 miles to point 10100 (one way)
  • maps: USGS Vicks Peak

Hike Description:

Gendarme guarding the headwaters of Nogal Canyon

Gendarme guarding the headwaters of Nogal Canyon

From the campground follow the Apache Kid Trail up canyon, passing lean-tos and tracking a considerable stretch of PVC piping (perhaps water for the campground).  In about 1400 feet come to a sign proclaiming the boundary of the Apache Kid Wilderness. At about a half mile from the trail head the trail swings left to contour around a rib and begins ascending in a north-trending canyon. From the map it appears that this canyon is the uppermost extension of Nogal Canyon, known to I-25 travelers as that point where I-25 leaps off a cliff and goes soaring into an abyss – accompanied by dire signs warning of gusty winds. Here the traffic is much less pressing, although the rock spires on either side of canyon are dramatic in their own way. At 1.3 miles the tread leaves the canyon bottom and switchbacks up a side cut coming in from the west. This part of the hike is open and quite warm later in the day. Re-entering a coniferous forest the trail follows a rib up to the ridge line at 2.1 miles. There are several camp spots which are dry but are likely to offer spectacular sunrises.

Bald knob on ridge above Nogal Canyon

Bald knob on ridge above Nogal Canyon

Go past the ridge top meadow and arrive at the junction of the Apache Kid Trail with the Shipman Trail (#50) at 2.2 miles. The intersection is signed. Turn south (left) on the Shipman Trail. The tread on the Shipman Trail is not as obvious as the Apache Kid Trail, but where the tread becomes puzzling stop and look for sawed logs and water bars. The trail heads south, initially at ridge top but then making a swing into a waterway that descends gently below the ridge top at 2.6 miles. Follow the trail as it follows the stream bed into confluence of small stream beds and a sheltered spot for a campsite amidst big ponderosa pines. Amidst those trees, at 2.9 miles from the trailhead, find another trail junction with trail 49A, which head north (right) down Milo Canyon. There were trail signs, but they had fallen to the ground and are easy to miss. Go south (left) on Shipman Trail and begin ascending back towards the ridge.

*09 bald bump at head of Nave Canyon

Second bald knob on ridge, at top of Nave Canyon

At 3.4 miles reach a col between the main north-to-south ridge  and a huge rib descending from the ridge to the northwest. This rib separates Milo Canyon, from which you have just ascended, from Nave Canyon, into which you will descend. The trail bumps along here, making little leaps and short falls as it traces the ridge line. At 3.7 miles reach a low point in the ridge and a look southeast into Corn Canyon. After reaching an open, possibly fire-cleared face the trail turns downhill and follows the course of Nave Canyon. Down and down, then down some more. Ask your thoughts to stay away from the prospect of ascending this passage on return. Be grateful when at last the trail crosses the bed of Nave Canyon and returns to a southerly course. Contouring out of the canyon, the trail goes past Nave Spring at 4.4 miles. The spring is about 30 feet below the trail, look for a metal barrel used to wall the spring.

Aspen reflection on surface of Nave spring

Aspen reflection on surface of Nave spring

Peering around just past the spring you may find the remnants of old trail signs lying on the forest floor. The Nave Trail (#86) will take you north (right) down Nave Canyon. Stay to the left on a faint tread as the Shipman trail pokes gingerly into an area of deadfall. The tread pretty much disappears here. An informal boot path going straight up hill and regrettably open to erosion can be found. I gave up on trying to find the formal trail and took the boot path. In no more than 20 feet it joined the old tread and resumed the march to Myers Cabin.

Stately firs and open meadows on Myers cabin col.

Graceful pines and open meadows on Myers cabin col.

Rounding a bend, the tread becomes a gentle, straight, southerly ascent along the bed of a wide waterway. There were lots of pinyon pine, Douglas fir, and still a good representation of ponderosa. There was also a fir with very compact cones, perhaps a white fir. At 5.3 miles the trees begin to thin and a broad meadow opens before you. The tread almost immediately disappears, but the open terrain invites rambling. Ascend to the high point of the col and discover that a circle of trees gracing the center of the meadow is actually growing on the tailings of an old mine shaft. Beyond that, on the far side of the col, find Myers cabin. Marvel at how much labor went into bringing a big wood stove up to into these mountains. I don’t know if hantavirus is much of a threat above 9000 feet, but rather than poking around inside it seemed best to take photos from a judicious distance.

view through two window and two doors of the (roofless) Myers cabin

view through two windows and two doors of the (roofless) Myers cabin

Myers Cabin col stands at the head of Shipman Canyon, into which Shipman Trail descends. The objective for this hike was Vicks Peak, still 750 feet higher than the col. In the 100 Hikes in New Mexico guidebook, Craig Martin says that a faint and unmaintained path should take you southeast towards the Peak. That guide was first published in 1995 (although updated in 2010), so it might be that the description is out of date. I could not find any trace of a trail out of the meadows.

View to Vicks Peak from the top of Point 10100

View to Vicks Peak from the top of Point 10100

What follows is an off-trail scramble in a forest, which is a navigation challenge. At the edge of the meadow opposite the cabin and beside a cross made of two big, fallen logs, head uphill. Dodge the thicker growths and downed trees. At roughly 300 feet from the meadow, encounter a faint tread rising towards the northeast, which seems like the wrong direction even if it could be a switchback. Following that tread brings you to a small bench on mountain-side. Drilled down into the bench is a deep mine shaft. The tread stops here. From the shaft, turn again to the steepest uphill direction and continue ascending on a broad mountain flank. The next three hundred feet are in rather featureless terrain – problematic for route finding. Soon however a relatively well defined rib forms. Stay on the top of the rib until the open boulder field appears – about 1600 feet after leaving the col. Clamber over boulders directly to the top of the false summit at 10,100 feet above sea level and 5.8 miles from the trailhead. Only half mile away, over what appears to be accessible terrain, is Vicks Peak. It was past my turn-around time, so with real regret I started back.

Return to the trailhead the same way as you came in.

Recommendations:

Author on Point 10100

Author on Point 10100

The term “lean-to” is used here as it is used on the Appalachian Trail. These are structures with floor, roof and three walls, open to the weather on the unwalled side. The Springtime Campground structures looked inviting from the trail, but they are packed pretty close together. As with most campgrounds, you will not find much privacy here.

In addition to the Nave Spring, the San Mateo spring is reported to be usually reliable. That spring can be found if you continue north on the Apache Kid Trail about a half mile past the junction with the Shipman Trail. Myer’s spring, below Myer’s col in Shipman Canyon, is characterized as “often running”. All spring water needs to be filtered or treated before consuming.

This route description makes mention of hantavirus, which is regarded as a health threat in New Mexico. There are several animal reservoirs for hantavirus, including deer mice. The issue arises because deer mice often occupy abandoned buildings like Myers cabin. Apparently, deer mice are found above elevations of 5000 feet and in Douglas fir forests.

Remember that in March the broad-leaf trees were all still bare. If you come later in the year, then those deciduous trees could make route finding more difficult.

Consider taking the opportunity to get out of the house and into the mountains. Drought conditions are not conducive to backcountry camping and 95% of New Mexico is already experiencing moderate drought or worse. The winter began well, but the final snow accumulation was far below normal. That was abundantly evident in this stroll to 10,000 feet. The biggest patch of remaining snow I saw was perhaps 20 feet long and about 5 feet at the widest, appearing to be just an inch or two in depth. It was a monster reserve compared to the dinner-plate sized snow patches elsewhere. Snowmelt is not going to save us from a dry summer. A great deal is riding on getting decent rainfall. While waiting to see how that turns out, take advantage of the today’s friendly conditions.

Links:

A PDF document from magdalena-nm.com includes succinct descriptions of he hiking opportunities in the San Madreo Mountains.

The Apache Kid Wilderness Area is part of the Cibola National Forest. The Forest Service website has good information on road conditions, active fires and fire hazard levels.

A brief report by Rob Anthony on Peak Bagger describes an all-scramble route up the southeast face to Vicks Peak. Notably, he was able to summit with his dog, suggesting that the climbing moves are probably not extreme.

Trimble Outdoors shows a map with an approach to Vicks Peak from the south, apparently getting onto Shipman Trail from Burma Road and ascending the trail up Shipman Canyon. This is a much shorter route than the one described here.

This peak is a 10-thousand footer, yet it has very few route descriptions on the internet. No wonder that it was so quiet up there.

 

 

Overview

Autumn view, with a streak of yellow near the summit from a broad-leafed tree. Could it be aspen?

This hike is a terrific introduction to the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The car does the hard work and leaves you at an elevation of 8149 feet (2480 m) at Emory Pass. From there, follow a brilliantly maintained trail as it craftily navigates along ridge-tops and around hillocks to maintain an even strain and bring you to Hillsboro Peak at 10,011 feet (3050 m).

UPDATE  2/1/2014 – The Silver Fire has greatly altered the nature of this hike. See the Railroad Canyon post for a description of the effects of the fire. Greg, at Greg’s Running Adventures, has a post indicating that trail 79 to Hillsboro Peak is open.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, take I25 North from Lohmann Av.
  • After 59.9 miles (96 km), get off I25 at Exit 63.
  • At end of exit, turn left onto NM 152.
  • After 33.4 miles (54 km), turn right onto Emory Pass Vista Rd.
  • After 800 feet (245 m), the road ends at the trailhead

All the roads leading to the trailhead are paved. The last few miles of NM-152 are heavily switch-backed and likely to be hard on folks who are susceptible to motion sickness.

Trailhead

N 32 54.596′
W 107 45.839

Classic Forest Service trailhead. To following text, note the pit toilet at the top right of the picture.

The trailhead has a pit toilet and trash receptacles. I didn’t see any source of water. It is a large parking lot, but even at this time of year it was pretty busy by mid-day, the views are outstanding. To find the trail, walk back towards NM 152 (as if you were leaving). The trail departs from the road just past the toilet.

Hike

View east from trailhead. Looks like a great day ahead.

The hike is approximately 5 miles (8 km) long, one way. It begins at an elevation of 8140 feet (2480 m), and provides a net gain of 1,870 feet (570 m). This is reported to be a popular trail so an early start is worthwhile. The photo shows a dawn view from the trailhead.

The map of the hike, shown above, shows the trailhead in the south and the summit to the north. The trail depicted is somewhat speculative. Much of the hike is through forest and hard to spot from Google satellite photos. In particular the switch-backs depicted near the summit are creatures of creative cartography. However, the total distance is about correct and, be assured, you do encounter switchbacks near the summit. The two blue markers along the trail show where reliable GPS co-ordinates were taken.

An example of the large investment of labor hours on the Emory Pass to Hillsboro Peak trail.

A few notes on the trail. Most of the trail is maintained to a level rarely found outside of National Parks. The stone wall construction shown in the photo on the right attests to quite a few back-breaking hours.

As you leave the trailhead you take a normal track for a short distance – perhaps 0.2 miles (0.3 km) – before intersecting with a road. Remember this intersection!  Go right (uphill) past a heliport to follow the road to its end.  Again, study the intersection. There is a sneaky little trail coming in from behind you that might lure a weary but unwary hiker to an unplanned bivouac.

Point on trail at which the trail divides, to the left of the tree is the trail leading to the summit.

There are a couple other trail intersections, but these are almost all well-marked. The single exception is a fork in the trail encountered as the tread nears the summit. Common sense works, take the branch that goes most steeply uphill. That uphill tread, however, is not so obvious that you couldn’t walk past it in a trail-trance. The picture on the left shows a tree with a blaze. The summit trail goes to the left of the tree and the lower trail goes to its right.

The sign says GO BACK! (Actually, if you were to turn left (uphill) at this point, the trail will take you to the ranger station).

If you miss this junction and continue on the lower trail, then in just a few hundred feet you’ll come across signs for another intersection, shown on the right. Not to be discouraged!  It means you are very close.

Photo from tower: view of cabin and mountains to the east of Hillsboro Peak.

At the summit there are two cabins and a fire watch tower. The highest level of the watch tower was locked, but from penultimate level you can still get outstanding views.  The picture on the left shows one of the ranger cabins taken from the tower.

Descent is by the same route. The only navigational puzzle comes as you near the trailhead.  There, you will find a fork marked by a helpful (“HEY, WAKE UP”) cairn placed ambiguously between the two prongs. Go right, onto what is clearly the road that goes past the heliport. That will take you a short distance before you have to depart the road (to the left) for the trail leading back to the trailhead.

Recommendations

The trailhead at dawn.

Although an early start is recommended, you can over-do it (see photo to the right). In particular, a cool morning stroll is preferred since there was no hint of water along these ridgelines until you get to the summit. Other trip reports state that the ranger will often allow hikers to replenish from the summit cisterns. It appears, however, that the summit cabin is not manned at this time of year and two of the three cisterns were locked. The remaining cistern looked like it had dried out at about the same time that the dinosaurs perished. Just below the summit there is a sign saying “spring”, but my scouting efforts failed to turn up any flowing water. I had a little under a gallon in my pack, which was fine for this time of year.

View from where the trail first hits the dirt road leading to the helipad.

Aside from water issues, an early departure from the trailhead may reveal the sort of lurid-pastel landscapes that New Mexico is famous for. The morning sunlight penetrating into the forest and lighting up the surrounding hills was really amazing. It was so photogenic on this weekend that my progress through the woods was heavily compromised.

The skies were clear on the drive in, so it was chilly up at 8000 feet. It was nice to have a heavy shirt to wear over my normal hiking attire.

Possibly the best lunch spot in New Mexico.

Even in October, however, the need for extra layers faded by 10:00 a.m. Having lunch on the summit was pretty great. There probably isn’t much wisdom, however, in gambling that the winds will always be so still and the sun so much in evidence.