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!

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”, turn left onto Forest Road 235. This junction also has a large sign saying “Cibola Forest Campground – Water Canyon”. The roadbed of water Water Canyon Road turns to gravel just before this junction. 
  • After 2.0 miles on FR 235 (gravel) pull into a turn-out on the right side of the road with a sign saying “South Baldy Trail, Trail 11”. This turnout appears about 100 yards past a sign on FR 235 saying “ELEV 7500 FT”.

Remember the name, “South Baldy Trail, Trail 11”. It is your path back to your car!

There are at least two spots where running water in Water Canyon would run across the top of FR-235. Usually these are dry, but keep in mind that wet weather could block the entrance (or the exit) for this hike.

Trailhead:

The trailhead is a wide and level spot in FR235. There is room for several cars. On this date there was no water in the adjacent canyon bed. There are no other services.

shows a view of the trailhead and the sign at the trailhead
South Baldy Trail trailhead (double click to enlarge)

Data:

  • Low elevation: 6795 feet
  • High elevation: 10,785 feet
  • Net elevation: 3990 feet
  • Distance 13.0 miles

Trail Description:

Copper Canyon turnabout

From the South Baldy trailhead walk down FR 235 to where it re-joins Water Canyon road. At the intersection turn left and ascend the campground road to where a right-turn would take you into the campground. Go past the turn, crossing a cattle guard, and continue walking up the road to a turn-about that is the Copper Canyon trailhead (signed). The road actually continues for about 100 yards. A second “Copper Canyon” sign pulls you off the road and onto the trail, having walked about three miles.

Downed sign at the Spur Trail junction

The Copper Canyon tread is in great shape, it remains out of direct sunlight for most of the morning, and offers a gentle approach into the Magdalenas. In this cool and (relatively) moist environment you will find alligator juniper competing directly with Ponderosa Pines. There was only a single puddle in the canyon bottom on this date. This sole puddle was full algae and surrounded by numerous animal tracks, not very palatable! After 3.2 miles in the canyon (6.2 miles from the car) pass the ruins of a log cabin and immediately come to a trail junction. To your left is the main Copper Canyon Trail, which climbs directly towards South Baldy. Instead, turn right onto the Copper Canyon Spur Trail for an alternative route to the crest.

Cairn on mining road

Back in 2014 one of these posts complained that this Spur Trail had degraded so badly that it essentially disappeared. In the subsequent years some kind and energetic folks have done a great job of restoring the tread. (That was probably a few years back since six or seven trees now cross over the tread). In a few short sections path will disappear beneath meadow grasses. However, the trail is eminently find-able. At 7.0 miles, almost at the crest, the trail intersects an old mining road at a junction marked by cairns. If you are feeling energetic then you can explore a quarter mile downhill on the mining road, where there are open mine shafts.

North End of San Mateo Mountains

To stay on the loop you should turn left and follow the mining road a quarter mile uphill to the crest. To the west lies the north end of the San Mateo Mountains and, beyond, the north end of the Plains of San Agustin. On the crest find an intersection with the North Baldy Trail #8 (signed, but the signs have fallen over). Turn south (to your left on ascent) and begin a mellow ridge ramble almost exactly on the 10,000-foot contour line. Meadows eventually open to the east, where you can stare down to the top of Socorro Mountain (a.k.a. “M Mountain”) and Strawberry Mountain. To the southeast lies the enormously long western face of the Oscura Mountains.

Sign at junction with Copper Canyon, but scout below this sign to find the correct summit-block trail

Arrive at the foot of the South Baldy summit block with signs for the junction between the North Baldy Trail #8 and the Copper Canyon Trail. There is some ambiguity at this junction because you could follow the North Baldy Trail #8 where it wraps around the east-facing side of the summit block and drops down to Forest Road 235. It is a little too soon for that, so scout 20 yards lower on the west-facing side of the crest to find the trail that remains on the west-facing side of the summit block. The tread itself is obvious but the signage that once named this trail has been weathered to splinters (a battered-but-erect 4X4 post is all that remains). Follow this trail south.

distant Observatory and the south end of the San Mateos (right) from South Baldy

This west-side trail does not actually go to the summit, but clings to the contour line. To get to the summit the watch for the summit’s grassy flanks to appear above you. You may need to poke through a thin line of ponderosa pines for the best approach to these meadows. These meadows are steep. It should be no surprise if your party needs frequent rest breaks! The actual summit is dominated by gear used by the Langmuir Lab for Atmospheric Research. Heavy cables, huge insulators, and a broad grid of wires testify to the difficulty of making lightning hold still for study. The entire sweep of the San Mateos lie to the west, broad Mount Taylor dominates the north, the Socorro Range and the Oscura Mountains lies east and south.

South Baldy Trail sign, and ditch

From the summit drop east to the dirt road (FR 235) that skirts the summit block. Follow the road downhill for 1.3 miles drinking up the views and looking for the “South Baldy Trail #11” sign. A recent effort by the New Mexico Volunteers For The Outdoors has brought the tread into excellent condition. Many thanks to those folks! There is one small hiccup at the start, where the a deep drainage ditch off of FR 235 sits practically on top of the Trail 11. Stay to the right of the drainage ditch and follow it down into the trees until you come across a recognizable trail. (I don’t know the exact distance, having made the mistake of staying on the left of the ditch and descending too far into a steep meadow. You shouldn’t have to explore more than a dozen yards before finding the trail).

The trail stays quite high on a long straight rib that descends from the crest to the east. Indeed, tired and impatient hikers might wonder if the long, straight trail, itself, goes on forever. No fears – the trail hits a gouge in the side of the rib, switchbacks steeply down to the bottom of Water Canyon, and begins a canyon-bed dance around boulders and over tributary streams. Return to the trailhead having gone 13 miles.

Recommendations:

Hunting season yet?
  • Consider taking gaitors to keep sand and pebbles out of your hiking shoes
  • Is your party new to hiking at 10,000 feet? You might want to study the writeup of acute mountain sickness here.
  • It has been very dry this past year. Although there are one or two lingering mud puddles alongside this trail it would be unwise to rely on them. I had three liters of water with me and that was plenty.
  • If you go in the warmer months you might want to reverse the loop direction. The South Baldy Trail is pretty sunny, while the Copper Canyon Trail struck me as better shaded.
  • Do you know who did the work on the Copper Canyon Spur Trail? If so please leave a comment. I couldn’t find anything about it on the web but their work was wonderful!

Links:

Stav at StavIsLost has a nice writeup of a similar loop that goes up Copper Canyon to bag South Baldy and then dashes along the crest to climb North Baldy. Check out the great photos, especially if you’re looking for ways to recognize the various junctions. He returned from North Baldy via an old mining road to Water Canyon Campground.

The AllTrails site has a recommended loop taking you up Copper Canyon, bagging South Baldy, following the crest to North Baldy, and descending via the North Fork of Dark Canyon. This may be much the same route as described by Stav. The AllTrails site includes a map of the route.

The folks at AllTrails have another suggested loop that entails parking at the South Baldy Trail trailhead, ascending to the summit of South Baldy and then returning via FR 235. It would be a long road slog!