View to North Baldy (second from left) from the North Baldy Trail

Introduction:

Topping out at 10,673 feet the Magdalena Range offers a variety of life zones, cool canyon bottoms, a sunny crest, views across the immensity of mid-state New Mexico and even an astronomical observatory – providing much to contemplate. All of this (except for the observatory) is on display in this long, lasso-shaped trek.

The word “long” is the operational superlative. The hike covers 20 miles with a summed-ascent of 6,800 feet. Through-hikers may not be impressed, but most folks will want some training-up before making the attempt.

Driving Directions:

  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
    • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
      • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
      • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at a stop light, go straight ahead onto California Street.
      • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
    • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
      • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
      • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer at the first gas station.
      • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring Street, at the first stop sign, turn left onto US-60 West (signed).
  • After 14.9 miles on US-60, immediately past a sign saying “Water Canyon 4 1/2 miles”, turn left onto Water Canyon Road. (There is a prominent historical marker at this junction).
  • After 4.6 miles, just past a sign saying “235”, go straight ahead onto Forest Road 406 (the road turns to gravel and quickly turns rocky, although an ordinary sedan can be taken here as long as you drive with some care).
  • After 0.2 miles, just before a cattle guard, turn right into the Water Canyon Campground and park.

Folks who arrive in a high clearance vehicle could cross the cattle guard and continue another 0.6 miles on FR 406. That road is deeply rutted and plentifully studded with oil-pan killing boulders. Care is needed.

Trailhead:

On this date I parked in the Water Canyon Campground and walked FR 406 to the formal start of the Copper Canyon Trail. The campground is equipped with vault toilets and trash recepticals, although it offers no water. If you have a high clearance vehicle you could drive to the end of the Copper Canyon Road and leave your vehicle in the turn-about at the end, where there are signs reading “Dead End” and “Copper Canyon”. There are no services in the turn-about.

Note for 2021: For the past several weekends the Water Canyon Campground has been packed solid. Could this be a reaction to COVID claustophobia? Hikers should arrive early in order to get a reasonable parking spot. (Or arrive on a weekday, when the campground is nearly empty).

Data:

  • Distance: 20.3 miles
  • Elevation at Copper Canyon Campground: 6,920 feet
  • Elevation at Hop Canyon: 6,750 feet
  • High Point Elevation: 9,965 feet
  • Net Gain Copper Canyon Campground to high point: 3045 feet
  • Net Gain Hop Canyon to high point: 3215 feet
  • Gross altituded gain (from GPS): 6740 feet

Hike Description:

Pasture near start of Copper Canyon Trail

Exit from Water Canyon Campground, walking back to Forest Road 406. Turn right onto FR0-406, cross the cattle guard and follow the road into Copper Canyon. Go past the signs at the turn-about and find a two-track that swings broadly to the left and before arriving at the start of the Copper Canyon Trail #10 (signed), at 0.7 miles from the campground.

Busted up signage at the junction of Copper Canyon Trail and the North Spur Trail

Here the juniper and pinyon give way to ponderosa. The trail goes around a private inholding by rising onto the canyon wall. The private property looks to be abandoned and you will find shreds of metal roofing scattered alongside the trail. Once the tread gets to the side of the property’s the angle eases. An open, mellow trail takes you up the the broad canyon bottom. Currently there is surface water at 2.8 miles and 3.2 miles, although this source of water has been dwindling steadily for some weeks. (The canyon is often dry in the summer months). Past the second water crossing the terrain begins to get steeper and the trail occasionally makes short switchbacks to get around obstacles. At 3.9 miles from the trailhead come to the first trail junction. The Copper Canyon Trail continues to the left, towards South Baldy. You will want to ascend to the right on the North Baldy Spur Trail.

Cairn and curved rock berm where the North Spur Trail meets the mining road

The Spur Trail ascends northerly, with occasional switchbacks to keep you on your navigation toes. Occasional instances of dead-fall may literally bring you to your knees. The track is above 9000 feet and most folks will want to take it easy. The trail is generally obvious, although segments of it are “rolling” back into alignment with the hillside. When it crosses open meadows the trail does get a little obscure, but never for more than 30 feet at a time. Scout and ye shall find. At 4.7 miles the Spur Trail intersects an old mining road. You will want to recognize this junction on the way back, so take note of the cairn and berm-curve that marks this intersection. For now, turn right onto the mining road and continue ascending. After a mellow tenth of a mile come (finally!) to the crest. At the crest the mining road intersects with the North Baldy Trail #8. This is signed although the signs have collapsed. This is the least-well-marked intersection on the trip, so take a hard look around to be sure you can find the mining road on the return leg.

If you face this sign then your back is to the Hop Canyon Trail

Go north (right) on the North Baldy Trail, which immediately dives off the crest towards the east. Don’t despair. After descending 30 feet it makes a sharp northerly turn and tracks along the foot of a cliff face. The forest here is dense, but there are occasional “peak-a-boo” views to the east, with neighboring Socorro Peak, Polvadaro Peak and Strawberry Peak very prominent. To the south-east lie the Oscura Mountains and to the north-east lies Ladron Peak, Manzano Peak in the Manzano Range and (on clear days) the Sandia Mountains. The trail briefly returns to the crest where a meadow opens westerly views. Look across the Plains of San Agustin to Withington Peak in the Withington Wilderness (at the north end of the San Mateo Mountains). At 6.8 miles come to the first intersection(of two) between the North Baldy Trail #8 and the Hop Canyon Trail #25. This intersection is well signed, but a trifle confusing. The North Baldy Trail starts a descent slightly off to your right (north), while the Hop Canyon Trail makes a hard turn to the your left (to the west). Go west on the Hop Canyon Trail.

Ponderosa Excellence

Ancient ponderosa pines stand aloof in open meadowland along the Hop Canyon Trail. Lonesome oracles must surely lurk here. Views open to South Baldy. Alas, the easy hiking ends as you stroll over a small rise and begin the plummet down to the Plains of San Agustin. And what a plummet it is! Switchbacks ensue. You will find huge old pines (some fallen across the trail), negotiate cattle gates (at miles 7.1, 7.6 and 9.0), and trek a long traverse on a giant’s bench. On this date there was also a seep flowing across the trail at mile 7.8 but, again, it would be unwise to count on this as a water source. Don’t let the “big bench” make you think you’ve reached the Plains, because at 8.5 miles you stroll out on the flat top of a very high rib. From that top it is another long drop down onto the floor of Hop Canyon. Switchbacks ensue.

The trail enters (and continues through) a broad, primitive camp ground on the bed of Hop Canyon at mile 9.7. Find a shady tree and have lunch. Hopefully you will find the water you need for the return journey. In some years the creek in Hop Canyon flows nicely, but not this year. A water cache might be very desirable (see recommendations, below). Down for a nap? Don’t oversleep! The miles beckon. Get started by crossing the Hop Canyon Road (gravel) and scout for a sign saying only “25A”. This denotes the northern half of the Hop Canyon Trail and will take you back up onto the crest near North Baldy.

“Lollipop” trees on the dry west side

After clambering up out of the bed of Hop Canyon the angle of attack eases markedly. A relief for legs that got a little too relaxed during lunch! Lollipop-shaped juniper and pinyon adjoin the trail. A close look shows that some hard working souls have trimmed these trees. Dead branches have been sawed off and carpet the ground. My guess is that this was done to eliminate “ladder fuels”. The tread ascends up a drainage, then pops north over a gentle rib to enter a second drainage. It is beautiful but in summer the tread would be hot and entirely dry. Two abandoned mines distinguish a third rib top as the trail regains ponderosa altitudes. An old burn, entirely dominated by Gamble oak, attracts the trail, where the terrain becomes steep. Switchbacks ensue. At mile 12.1 the trail reaches a saddle, but not the crest. Fortunately the angle eases here and you are treated to another wonderland wander through widely spaced ponderosa.

Sign at second junction of Hop Canyon Trail and North Baldy Trail #8

At mile 12.6 return to the crest and a signed junction with the North Baldy Trail #8. If you are feeling ambitious after this second long climb then turn north (left on ascent) and tag North Baldy, about 0.4 miles away. Most folks, I suspect, will be content to turn south. But, where to go? The tread disappears on open, ledge-y, moderately steep terrain. If you look further south (and if visibility is good) you will see a saddle several hundred feet below, cradling a visible path. That is your destination. Look for cairns, very useful guides in this trackless domain, and descend. Down at the saddle the trail regains it’s familiar rut-in-the-woods character and begins another long ascent. Fortunately the trail has been engineered beautifully and the gain comes (mostly) in slow steady increments. The crest is an array of small peaklets, with saddles between each that often offer great views both east and west. At mile 14.5 you return to the first junction of North Baldy Trail #8 and the south end of the Hop Canyon Trail. Stay on the North Baldy Trail and return the way you came (6.8 more miles) to Water Canyon Campground.

Recommendations:

Author, blocking your view of the San Mateo Mountains.
  • If your party include folks newly-arrived from sea level then it can be helpful to brush up on symptoms of altitude sickness. These are briefly but clearly explained here. It is advisable to limit this hike only to parties that are in excellent shape and have recent experience with hiking at altitude.
  • There is still some water in mid-Copper-Canyon but these sources are diminishing rapidly. There was also a single seep found on the descent from the crest down to Hop Canyon. These are not reliable sources. It is much safer to leave a cache of water in Hop Canyon. (Also, pack your container out as you leave!)
  • The days are getting longer, which is fortunate since this is a long hike. That said, the sun can be brutal up at 10,000 feet and it is a terrific idea to bring along sun screen and lip-balm.
  • Is this hike too long? There is nothing wrong with doing an up-and-back hike to the crest! Click the following links for descriptions of the hike up Copper Canyon to South Baldy, Water Canyon to Timber Peak, or Hop Canyon to North Baldy.
  • Need a greater challenge? The side trip to North Baldy is only 0.4 miles, one way. At the junction of trail 25A (up to the crest from Hop Canyon) with the North Baldy trail, go north instead of south (left on ascent). Still too soft? The extra leg south on the crest to South Baldy should do it! That will add another 1.6 miles and bring you up to 10,673 feet.
  • The hard man option is to tag North Baldy, then tag South Baldy and descend the South Baldy Trail to return to the car. This would create a giant figure-8 and I suspect raise the milage well over 27 miles! Unfortunately, there would be a 2.5 mile long road walk at the end of this route.

Links:

The StavIsLost website has a writeup of Copper Canyon and the North Baldy Trail, which you can find here. The photos are terrific and give you a feel for the terrain.

That’s about it for loop trails in the Maggies. If you find other links please leave a comment!

Cold Spring Canyon wall in morning sunshine
Typical Wall in Cold Spring Canyon

Overview:

This hike up into the wild east side of the San Mateo Mountains produces conflict. On one hand, the initial stroll up Cold Spring Canyon (Trail #87) feasts on vast canyon walls and towering pines, while the cardio-slog up to Teepee Ridge (Trail #81) buffs your fitness to a fine finish. On the other hand, the drive on Forest Road 332 could beat a sedan to death. The suspension systems of high clearance vehicles absorb a material battering. This venture encompasses the implacably harsh and the strikingly beautiful. 

This report only extends only to where Trail #81 reaches Teepee Ridge. The original goal was to follow the ridge up to Teepee Peak and see if the Vic’s Peak fire (of 2020) burned onto to the east side. Sadly, the fire damage was obvious even when seen from far below. 

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Overview

shows the highpoint of the hike
South Baldy summit block seen from the Magdalena Crest

This loop route climbs east in Copper Canyon, bops north on the Copper Canyon Spur Trail, traverses south on the crest of the Magdalena Mountains, bags South Baldy, and plummets down Water Canyon. Access is easy, the views are fantastic, the route is well shaded and the trails are in good shape.

A caveat: there is some road walking. It begins at the trailhead with a two mile stroll on FR 235 and ambulates the Water Canyon Campground roads for a mile to the Copper Canyon trailhead. This, the dullest part of the hike, is over quickly. The second road walk descends FR 235 from South Baldy for 1.3 miles to the South Baldy Trail departure. The views on the second stretch are great.

This is a terrific workout. Grab those boots and go!

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Abrigo Peak (far left) and Redondo Peak (right) seen from the road up to the rim

Overview:

The Valle Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) occupies a tremendous bowl cupped by the Jemez Mountains. One and a quarter million years ago a large volcano underwent a super-eruption and left this vast footprint behind. In subsequent years the slopes mellowed, forests cycled through fire and regrowth (fire now ascendent) while broad montane grasslands open to wide-sky vistas. 

There are some designated horse-riding trails in the caldera but few hiking trails. The rule for hikers seems to be, “pick a direction and go”. For that reason your hike will likely differ from the stroll described here. My target was to get to the high point on the Caldera rim. The plan was to cross the Caldera, hike up to the rim and camp, summit Chicoma Peak on the second day and return to the trailhead on the third. Some dry creek beds and monsoon weather rubbished this plan, but that is a trivial complaint. Being in the Valle Caldera is its own splendid reward. Go.

Edit: a reader has pointed out a recently published guide to the VCNP. Could be useful although I haven’t seen it yet. A description cab be found here: https://vcnp-trails.com. My thanks to mtngrrl!

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Approach to Chupadera Peak ridgeline

Overview:

This easily accessed, moderate, out-and-back hike propels you into the heart of the Chupadera Wilderness Area. The eye could be captured by the many surrounding mountain ranges: the Magdalena Mountains, Socorro Mountains, Manzano Mountains, Oscura Mountains and the Fra Cristobal Mountains. For most, however, the Rio Grande River will ensnare the eye – a slender green filament fluttering against New Mexico’s sere heartland. The trail traverses river bottom, winds through dramatic cliffs and summits on a windy ridge line. Tuck a few family members in the car for a sunny march and a great break from covid confinement.

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San Lorenzo

Overview:

Despite the map (below), this isn’t really an out-and-back hike. It is, instead, a network of out-and-back hikes that feathers through a small region of insanely gorgeous canyonland. Engage your inner explorer and find your own path through these formations. Pick a cool, sunny day and go. 

This patch of New Mexico is being loved to death. Your effort is needed to support the beauty of the canyon.

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