View of Pelona Peak up the eastern draw


A gently rising shield volcano, Pelona Mountain borders the Plains of St. Agustin and lies within the broader Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field. This off-trail desert ramble crosses dry grassland and ascends volcanic terrain, a challenge to plainsmen and mountaineers alike. The route shown here goes only to the base of the summit block. (An earlier ankle injury forced a turn-back). The remaining 200 feet of altitude poses little difficulty for experienced navigators.

Driving Directions:

Gila Wilderness from NM-163
  • 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 the stop light on the ramp end, 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 as you go past 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 St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 West (signed).
  • After 45.8 miles on US-60, a short distance past mile-marker 93, turn left onto NM-52 South
    • The intersection is well signed and includes a sign for “National Radio Observatory”. 
    • NM-52 is paved for 2.5 miles, to the junction with NM-166 (shown as Old Highway 60 on Google maps). Past the junction it immediately turns to gravel. The gravel road is currently in excellent condition
  • After 21.4 mile on NM-52 S, past mile marker 37, turn right onto NM-163.
    • This intersection is clearly signed and includes a sign for Beaverhead / Mogollon.
    • NM-163 is less well maintained, but still family-sedan friendly. There are patches where the roadbed has suffered during wet conditions and you will need to travel slowly.
    • after 23.9 miles you will enter the Gila National Forest (signed).
  • After 31 miles on NM-163, right across the road from mile-marker 31, pull off the road and park the car.


Trailhead (“31” on far side of road)

The trailhead is a field on the south side of NM-163. You recognize it by the mile-marker “31” sign, although check your odometer carefully in case the sign gets wiped out. Along most of its length NM-163 was very well ditched. It was a pleasant surprise to find an existing set of tracks that smoothly crossed the ditch and rose onto the field. These tracks do not look permanent, however. In other years you may need to search a bit in order to find a suitable place to pull off the road. If you drive a low-slung sedan then bring a shovel. You might need to smooth-out the departure point. There are no services at this trailhead. Nor, for that matter, is there a trail.


This map has some issues. The yellow line shows the GPS track from the car up onto the mountain. At that point my GPS turned itself off (a first). Consequently, the orange line represents a “route” that I have sketched to the best of my recollection. That ends at the blue line, where I finally turned the GPS back on and recorded a real track on the way back to the car.

  • Starting elevation: 7230 feet
  • Ending elevation: 8860 feet
  • Net elevation: 1630 feet
  • Distance: 12.3 miles
  • Magnetic declination: 9˚ E

Hike Description:

X-braced power stauntion

From the trailhead ascend directly up the canyon wall, an open, moderately-inclined grassland slope. At the canyon rim look for a set of power lines in the foreground and the green-capped summit of Pelona peak dominating the horizon. Shield volcanoes have a broad and gently-sloped profile, akin to a shield that has been left flat on the ground. Head straight towards the mountain top. As you pass under the power line make note of the power line stauntion that you pass. Looking around you will see that most stauntions have X-style bracing, including the one you are next to. But, the next stauntion to to the east does not – a beacon for returning scramblers.

Stove barrel

At first the ground presents little in the way of rocky rubble to snare a foot. Soon, however, come to a barbed wire fence demarking the Continental Divide Wilderness Study Area. There are no gates, so pass over or under or between the wires, then drop into a small and steep-sided canyon. Suddenly, rocks abound. This hike irregularly cycles between good footing and awful footing, a wearying feature. Scout the bottom of the canyon and you may find a rusty oil barrel that has been cut in half. A close-up view shows that someone once used the half-barrel as a stove. Cut directly across the canyon bottom and ascend the far wall. At the rim you will regain sight of the peak.

Landmarks: boulders at end of wash, a stony “lip” on the ridge above

It is a straight shot to that peak, the straight line drops into a few side-cuts that feed the canyon and eventually rises to a broad, dry grassland. Once past the canyon there are remarkably few local navigation clues. On ascent I made careful note of a wash with a distinctive cluster of boulders at its upper end, just below a ridge surmounted by a steep and rocky “lip”. To a plainsman this should be enough. It is obvious that I’m not a plainsman; I missed this landmark on return. A whiteout would make it very difficult to navigate. If the weather is not perfect then a compass bearing on the mountain acts as navigation assurance.

Elk hiding near lone juniper

Wildlife abounds. Raptors soar, elk roam and a surprising population of field mice scuttle through the grasses. There are tracks for deer, although they remained shyly out of sight. The elk seem especially tame, barely bothering to scatter when I walked within a quarter mile. This remote location may limit their exposure to hunters.

Snowy Mogollon Mts from eastern rib

As you approach the forest-green summit will peek down at you from between two grassy ribs. It should be possible to walk straight up the draw between these two ribs, but on this date I chose to make a loop by entering the draw and then rising up the foothill at the end of the east rib (to your right on ascent). The steep hillside was thick with rocks. This complicated the prolonged side-hilling ascent – you may want to consider an ascent directly up the wash to the summit. Scramblers who climb this hill are rewarded with great views. Look southwest into the snow covered Mogollon Mountains, south into the broad expanse of the Gila National Forest and southeast to the Black Range.

Snowy terrain over the CDT canyon, San Agustin Plains in distance

Drop from the hill and follow the main rib as it bops over a series of knobs and knolls. The terrain is open and navigation is easy. Eventually you will reach the rim of a canyon between you and the summit. Going west (left on ascent) would follow the rim to a saddle due south of Pelona summit. I recommend you take that path. On this date, however, I dropped into the canyon to meet up with the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The north-facing canyon wall exhibited a thick and steep cover of snow. This is where my ankle remembered a recent insult and started plaguing me. At the bottom of the canyon is a barbed wire fence. The CDT follow the fence and is further marked by tall 4-by-4 posts. It proved easy to follow even with the snow.

The trail rises back to a saddle at the base of the summit block. At this point my GPS turned itself off and my phone battery died, adding insult to an injury (ankle). It seemed like a sign to turn back. Make loop by descending into the draw west of the ascent draw. A mellow rib makes the hiking easy. In the draw bottom there is a ranch road. Follow it south to the end of the loop but do not follow the road when it turns west. Instead, contour around the rib to the east and rejoin the ascent wash, turning south to return to the car.


This scramble offers a nice day’s outing, unusual navigation challenges and a pleasant ridge ramble. I am slightly ambivalent about recommending it because of the length of the drive. The “bang per mile” is on the low side. If you live close by, such as Socorro or Reserve, then I can gladly recommend it. If you live a tad further and feel the need to escape the grind, but are bored of your regular mountain haunts, then give Pelona Mountain a shot.

Navigation challenges were moderate on this date but they could become severe. My experience is testimony to the fallible nature of electronics. Right at the start my eTrex and my inReach GPS devices had low batteries (fortunately, I had backups). Then my eTrex turned off up high. Then, my cell phone ran out of power. That is why, in the Data section above, I give the magnetic declination for the first time on this blog. Bring a map and a compass and the skillset needed to use them.

The footing on this scramble was notably uncertain. Boots would help.


If you would prefer to hike into Pelona Mountain on the Continental Divide Trail then the BLM suggests driving just 14.5 miles on NM-163 and parking at a small pullout. If I’m reading the Guthook app correctly, then you would hike 12.5 miles (one way) to reach the summit block of Pelona Mountain. The footing would probably be better!

That’s about it. There are quite a few references to the Sierra Pelona Mountains, but those are in California! I had expected to see more from CDT through-hikers who often journal their experiences. Most of those folks, however, choose to hike the Gila River alternative rather than the official trail going over Pelona.