The fin on the right side of Organ needle makes up the "Retaining Wall" of Dark Canyon

View of Square Top (left) and Organ Needle (right) from the low saddle

The Organ Needle is the highest summit in Doña Ana County, New Mexico. The approach is not very long but it gains a great deal of altitude. In some places the approach is steep enough to pose technical challenges.

In the above-left picture the Organ Needle is the rightmost peak. You can see a prominent fin on the right side of the Needle that is called the “Retaining Wall”. The huge cleft between the Retaining Wall and the summit block is Dark Canyon. The peak to the left of Organ Needle is Square Top.

Driving Directions:

  • From I25 take Exit 1 to University Drive.
  • Turn east on University Road (away from town, toward Mt A and and the Organ Mountains). This road becomes the Dripping Springs Road as you leave the developed portion of town. Past Mt A, the roadbed turns to a gravel road.
  • After 7.8 miles, turn left (north) onto Baylor Canyon Drive.
  • After 1.4 miles, turn right on Baylor Canyon Road.  This road was unsigned when I was there. This is a fairly bumpy and rock strewn road, particularly when it descends into waterways.  Although it starts off headed east towards the mountains it soon turns directly north.
  • In just over 0.3 miles, turn right onto an unsigned back road. I believe this is the Modoc Mine road. It is rough. After driving about another 0.3 miles I lost my nerve and parked the Camry off to the side. A vehicle with higher clearance could go considerably further. There were tire tracks in the road all the way to the low saddle, although they may have been ATV tracks.


Camry at trailhead. Organ Needle is first bump on the right side.

There are at least two possible trailheads. One option is the Dripping Springs Natural Area (BLM, currently $5.00 day use fee). This park lies at the end of Dripping Springs Road. From a distance it looks like a well developed trailhead. Keep in mind that DSNA is a day-use site.  It opens at 8:00 am.  It closes at various times, depending on the time of year.  Click the link above to get the park’s hours.  Don’t get stuck behind a locked gate!

This trip report describes a start from the second trailhead.  There are no amenities, but neither are there gates on the Modoc Mine road. Effectively, any clear spot off to the side of the road will do.


On this approach the trail is 3.6 miles (one way). It gains 4700 feet if you park at 4300 feet as I did. The summit rises to 8980 feet. Although most of the approach is on obvious trails, there are some navigational problems and some of the climbing moves above the Dark Canyon col are exposed (that is, you must not fall).


02 Green Gate

Green gate at 0.6 miles from trailhead.

05 Yellow Rocks

Yellow rocks at 2.4 miles from trailhead.

Follow the mine road towards the mountains. At 0.6 miles pass a green gate in the road (chained, but easy to open and close). This will be a welcome sight on return!  Continue on the road to the top of a low saddle (visible from the trailhead) at 1.9 miles. The road then contours down into a fairly deep gully and splits, stay left. The road ascends very steeply and then ends at 2.1 miles. On the little ridge at the road end you will find a prominent cairn and a well defined trail heading towards the peaks. Don’t use it! Instead, stay on the lower trail and drop into a small series of gullies. You’re getting close when you descend into a gully walled by an expanse of dark grey rock, then pop up on the far side below the famous Yellow Rocks, shown on the left.

06 Right Canyon and Grey Eminence

View up the approach canyon. The summit is the dim-grey peak on the right side, while the dark grey rock in the forground is The Grey Eminence.

Just past the Yellow Rocks, drop into a canyon bed that is thickly populated with trees at 2.5 miles. This is the approach canyon. The trail continues a short way past the canyon bed, then abruptly turns uphill and heads across a grassy expanse towards a large rock buttress known as The Grey Eminence. The canyon is pictured to the right, with the dark grey rock high on the right hand wall of the canyon forming the buttress.

The trail goes right up against the base of the Grey Eminence and follows it up into the canyon. Up and up and up. Eventually it begins making a shallow right hand curve and deposits you in the col between the buttress and a steep cliff descending from above. This is Juniper Col, and a wonderful spot to stop for some water and to contemplate the 1400 feet of rock above your head (shown below on the left).

09 View from far side Juniper Col

Canyon above Juniper Col. The path ascends along the base of the cliff on the left.

From the col the trail ascends to the base of the cliff and follows it for a short distance before turning out towards the middle of the canyon. The middle is composed of a big slab of rock, water stained in places, that in dry conditions is easy to cross. Follow the cairns upward into a brushy gully. This waterway follows the low side of the Retaining Wall (that is, on the opposite side of the Wall from Dark Canyon), so it is important to exit this waterway before it rises to the base of the Retaining Wall.

10 Spire-like view of Retaining Wall

View from canyon (above Juniper Col) towards the Retaining Wall (right, looking like a spire) and the summit (immediately left of the Retaining Wall). Dark Canyon lies between the Retaining Wall and the summit.

The exit point out of this gully is marked by a small cairn on top of several large boulders. A small waterway, looking just like a trail, comes down from the righthand side, but that is not the correct path. Instead, climb up onto the boulders and find the tread to the left of the cairn. (I went up the waterway, but fortunately other climbers were there to correct my mistake. My thanks to Youbow and Beth!).

The trail then skirts below the narrow front edge of the fin that makes up the Retaining wall. Once below the mouth of Dark Canyon it turns right and begins to ascend steeply. At this point the the trail crosses another waterway that looks just like a climber’s tread. There is a good sized pine (a pinyon, I believe) that serves as a nice flag, on descent, that you are to pull away from the water course.

13 View from Dark Canyon Col

View east from the Dark Canyon col

Up and up and up! Dark Canyon winds to a col about 3.4 miles away from the trailhead, and your first view out towards the Tularosa Basin on the east side of the Organ Mountains. This is another good spot for getting out the water and snacks. After a pause, drop about 50 to 100 feet below the col on the east side, staying close to the summit block. Eventually you come to a boulder in front of a rock fin, both of which obstruct movement. It is possible to go around the downhill side of both obstructions. For the long-of-leg you can go over the top of the upper fin, since the uphill side of the fin has a set of small ledges ideally suited for boot placement.

16 crux crack, looking in

Closeup view of the crack system used to surmount the side of the rock bowl near the summit. Above the obvious crack, note the rough rock that offers the key holds for the climb.

18 crux crack at angle

A slightly more distant view of the crack system.

Scramble upwards into a tight rock bowl. The well known “crux move” for this hike entails getting out of the bowl using a six-inch wide crack. This crack is on the bowl’s righthand side (looking uphill). The crack rises quite steeply for about six or seven feet,then levels out. If you have 6 inch wide shoulders and hips then this will be very easy.  Otherwise it will depend on how much rock climbing experience you bring into the bowl.

Above the crack is a much wider ledge that takes you to the summit ridge.  It is just a short walk along the ridge to the summit proper at about 3.6 miles from the trailhead.

20 Youbow at summit

Youbow near the summit

Youbow and Jean were enjoying an elaborate picnic dinner, complete with a bouquet of flowers. I was hugely impressed.

Return the way you came. Climbing down the crack is harder than the climb up. Getting over the fin and boulder seemed a little easier.  Stay close to the summit block as you ascend back to Dark Canyon col. Don’t forget to watch for the traverse across the front edge of the Retaining Wall when you exit the mouth of Dark Canyon.


14 me on peak

Your author poised atop Organ Needle, before the arc of the world.

I started at 6:45 a.m. and returned at about 4:30 p.m. I move slowly, but even so that’s a long day for a 7.2 mile round trip. I’m happy to have left at nominal sunrise. Those early hours crossing the desert in the shade of the mountains was a great advantage. I took about five quarts of water and returned with about two, but this was a cool April day and we enjoyed breezes for much of it.  A hotter day would be quite different.

Others have reported that snow can persist in Dark Canyon for long periods (not that there was any snow to speak of this particular year), and a heavy rainfall could make this trek quite miserable. I’d reserve one this for nice, cool weather.

The crux move is listed as class 3 in most trip reviews.  I’m inclined to agree with the 3+ to 4 rating given in Wikipedia. It is easy to imagine a non-climber wanting to be roped up for the descent.