Castle Rocks in Last Chance Canyon

Overview:

This is a desert jewel. Paved roads lead to the trailhead and from there the trail wanders into a dramatic canyon where water flows. Enjoy greenery, a myriad of birds, hoodoos, riverine meanders, vertical canyon walls and blue skies. The turn-back point described here is purely arbitrary. Make the hike as long or as short as your moment supports.

A massive flood in 2013 closed the Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area for a long time. Funding was eventually found to clear the immediate damage and re-open the Area. This history may explain why the first few miles of the Last Chance Canyon trail are obvious and clearly signed. At about 2.6 miles, where the trail makes a broad swing to the south, the tread becomes considerably more ambiguous.

Driving Directions:

This hike is located a little east of Carlsbad, NM in the extreme southeast corner of the state.

  • Drive Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 139 (about 8 miles south of Socorro).
  • After 0.5 miles on the exit ramp, as the ramp goes beneath I-25, the road becomes US-380 East. Reset your odometer. (This transition is not signed, and it may be that the official transition is not until the road crosses US-1 about 0.5 miles ahead).
  • After 107.5 miles on US-380 East, at a T-intersection, go left onto combined US-70 East/US-380 East. (There are signs for US-70 just before the intersection. If they mention US-380 I missed it).
  • After 43.5 miles on US70/US-380, at a traffic light, go right onto Relief Route (signed).
  • After 7.6 miles on Relief Route, at a T-intersection, go right onto US-285 South (signed).
  • After 59.4 miles on US-285 turn right onto NM-137 South (signed). In places this road is signed as Queen Highway for the town of Queen, NM.
  • After 22.8 miles on NM-137 turn right onto Sitting Bull Falls Road. There is a sign saying “Eddy County 409” just a short ways down this road.
  • After 7.1 miles turn left into the paved trailhead.

Some of these milages are taken from Google, please treat them as approximations. (It snowed hard the evening that I traveled down to the trailhead, taking my attention away from tracking mile markers and odometer readings!).

Trailhead:

Trailhead

The trailhead has a paved parking area and a covered picnic table with a trash barrel. It is the first such parking spot along Sitting Bull Falls Road. There are no toilets or water here. There was no fee for parking. The Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area, just up the road, has water, toilets and fees (currently $5.00, but check here). There is a gate across the road just past the trailhead, so if you drive into the SBFRA then make sure you drive out before the gate is shut.

Data:

Note on map: the yellow line shows the main trail. The short orange line indicates a side excursion on cattle paths.

  • starting elevation: 4450
  • ending elevation: 3830
  • net elevation: 880 feet
  • milage: 3.6 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

View into Wilson Canyon from Last Chance Canyon

Trail 226 (signed) jumps straight up the canyon wall from the parking area, soon turns northeast (right, going in) and contours across the wall to reach the mouth of Lost Chance Canyon. A brisk descent brings you to a fence in the canyon bottom. Take note of where the trail enters the bottom – I couldn’t find it on return. The tread follows the fence for 100 yards to the fence end, then sojourns out in to mid-canyon. This is cattle terrain and the next half mile is a celebration of the Cow Pat Polka. That song ends at 0.6 miles where a sign directs you west towards paired and nearly vertical canyon walls.

Rise to vertically walled section

Here the waters of the canyon rise to the surface. Flood-tossed tree trunks, branches, boughs and twigs lie in neatly delineated piles that often block the trail. Cross the stream bed to the right side (looking upstream) at first opportunity. The remnants of an old ranch road appears and fades away; finally terminating at the mouth of Robert’s Canyon. The views are classic. The sun-blasted canyon walls, barren of vegetation, contrast with the verdant canyon bottom. Semi-detached, cone-profiled meanders tower above you like castles. The water flows smoothly past your feet. That water is somewhat plagued with algae, bring a good filter if you plan on using it.

Algae-laced water

Thorny vegetation abounds in this region. Some of the prickly pear cactus display enormous pads and these cacti grow in huge clusters. More solitary forms of columnar cactus display a density of spines that resembles fur. The plant that catches the most attention, and the most flesh, is a spindly shrub. Possibly the New Mexican Locust, this bush rises to mid-thigh, exhibits medium-gray bark on a half-dozen stems and these branch into a haze of twigs. Each node on every twig is graced with a pair of short, stout, curved and opposite thorns. Those thorns carry a money-back guarantee for ripping pant legs in outward trip and gouging the exposed skin on the return trip. Spotting these plants is quickly learned skill.

Brambles thorns and thickets

The tread crosses to the inside of a huge bend where the canyon turns to the south. It is here that the tread quality begins to degrade. Views open to a gigantic canyon wall directly in front of you and asks, “north or south?”. Unfortunately the trail chooses to disappear right at this point. The correct answer, it turns out, is to continue following the bend to the south.




Trail-questing in the kingdom of brambles

The bend will take you into a dead bosque – a long row of silver snags are all that’s left of the huge, old trees that once graced the canyon bottom. Their skeletal remains are now wreathed by dense, thorny shrubs. On this trip I opted to rise up on the left wall of the canyon (going in), where the previously mentioned thorny-twig plants grew in abundance but with better separation. After a quarter mile the snags disappear and you should return immediately to the canyon bed. Watch for a tall boulder, crowned with a cairn, on the opposite side of the canyon (right side, going in) where the trail leaves the bed and rises on the west facing wall. The trail rises quickly to a mellow shelf with a distinct track.

[Side note: on this date my phone died after just 3 hours. So, no more photos for this hike. Sincere apologies! I earlier recommended the CarryMap app, but since that installation my phone has rapidly lost power when it is out of cell tower range. This points to (but does not prove) CarryMap as the culprit.]

Hoodoos near canyon rim

There is only one further thing to mention about the trail. The mellow shelf with the obvious tread goes about 0.6 miles south and then swings sharply to the west. There the shelf cliffs out. To avoid this, watch the tread for a point where someone has left a 10-foot long line of white rocks curving uphill. Scout uphill, looking for micro-cairns and the faintest approximations of a trail. As you rise to the point where the canyon swings west this high tread finally becomes much more obvious. (The orange stub on the map shows where I stepped over the line of rocks and remained on the shelf. At the time it seemed reasonable as the lower tread was obvious and even cairned in spots).

The high trail is a tight-rope walk along the wall of the canyon. Creep along, taking special care where runoff-deposited riprap lies mounded on the tread. Don’t forget to stop and stare at the waters flowing 100 feet below you. Study the canyon walls beyond. Take in those classic blue skies. Welcome to a walking definition of “gorgeous terrain”.

On this date I noticed some dark clouds rolling in and turned back at about noon. Judging from the images on Google Maps you should be able to continue for at least two more miles. There are few desert features more intriguing than this canyon. Have a ball.

Recommendations:

Do this hike!

This is a cold hike in winter. The canyon walls shadow the canyon bed and cold winds blew persistently. I was perfectly comfortable in my puffy jacket and wool hat, but surprised to find that I needed them for the entire day. Of course, in the summertime a trip along a south-facing canyon wall is going to be ultra-toasty. Prepare for temperature extremes.

There are plenty of cattle along the waterway. You will want to filter this water before using.

Expect to do some scouting along the way.

In researching the hike I noticed news articles from several different years that describe different trailhead closures due to flooding. Flash flooding seems to be a big concern, check the weather before going.

Links:

With the short day I missed the waterfalls in Sitting Bull Falls, that’s a shame!

A PDF file with a valuable map of the trails in the SBFRA and a link to GPX file (for your GPS) can be found here. That GPX file traces the tread from the lower trailhead (described here) to the trailhead at the upper end of the canyon. I found that I could download it as an XML file and still open it with Garmin BaseCamp.

Rick at BestHikes has some great photographs and endorses the Last Chance Trail as one of the best hikes in North America.

The driving directions provided here take you to the mouth of Last Chance Canyon. There is a separate trailhead near the upper end of the canyon, but that involves taking back country roads that are described as rough and require a high-clearance vehicle. Such a description, with a brief but useful writeup of the canyon can be found at SummitPost.