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


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. 

Driving Directions:

  • Take interstate 25 (I-25) to exit 115 (between Socorro and Elephant Butte) for NM-107. 
    • If you are coming from the north then at the end of the ramp reset the odometer and turn northwest (right) onto New Mexico 107 (signed).
    • If you are coming from the south then at the end of the ramp turn northwest (left) onto NM-107. That takes you over I-25 and immediately passes the opposing ramps. Reset the odometer as you pass the opposing ramps. 
    • NM-107 is paved for the first 8.0 miles, then it crosses a cattle guard and abruptly transitions to gravel. The gravel bed is currently in excellent shape.
    • On most maps exit 115 is obscure, look for where NM-107 departs from I-25 to the northwest.
  • After 15.5 miles on NM-107 turn left onto Forest Road 478. 
    • NM-107 has a sign for FR-478 shortly before the junction. 
    • A large sign reading “Tigner Cattle Co” is positioned at the junction.
    • While driving on FR-478 watch for an unsigned fork at mile 1.2 and bear to your right.
    • The roadbed quality of FR-478 was high. 
  • After 1.5 miles on FR-478, in an arroyo bottom, turn left onto Forest Road 86 (signed). 
    • The road-bed quality drops on FR-86, but a careful sedan driver could negotiate it.  
    • At mile 1.5 on FR-86 veer left at an unsigned fork. 
    • At mile 3.5 the road becomes very narrow and drops into East Red Canyon. There is no passing space during the descent and culvert openings (on the passenger side) can be deep and steep sided.
  • After 4.5 miles on FR-86, at a signed junction, turn right onto Forest Road 332. 
    • Signs at the junction read “86” and “Primitive Road/Not Suited For Passenger Cars”. 
    • There is also a sign reading “332”, but it is hidden by junipers until you drive past the junction. 
    • In various places on FR-332 the road bed can be talus-heaped, boulder exposed, brutally crowned, severely sloped, deeply rutted, narrow, and-or brush encroached. A high suspension vehicle is required
    • At 2.6 miles on FR-332 you will need to open a cattle gate. Close the gate after you have driven past. Watch for this gate in case a careless driver has left this barbed-wire structure in the road bed.
    • Immediately past the gate FR-332 swings sharply to your right at a road junction.
Signed junction onto FR-86 from FR 478 (ignore the arrow and go left)
  • After 4.0 miles on FR-332, in an open saddle, park at the trailhead.
    • Parking for the trailhead is in the open, grassy space on the left side of the road. 
    • Angle-iron posts are all that remain of trailhead signs.

A word of caution: I’m pretty sure that I forgot to to reset my odometer when I turned onto FR-86, so my milage notes for that road were all off. In the above description I’ve corrected for the error. Also, the corrected data was checked against Google Maps. Just to be safe, be especially careful with the navigation data regarding FR-86!


The Ru, recovering at the trailhead

The trailhead is a wide spot in a ridge saddle. There are no services. Even the trail signs have gone missing, although where the road continues up out of the saddle you will see a road sign saying “332A”. 


  • Starting Elevation: 6868 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7400 feet
  • Net Elevation: 532 feet
  • Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 2440 feet
  • Distance:  2.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

View of Cold Spring Canyon downstream of the trail

From the car, cross the road, go past a sign post (sans sign) and descend into the canyon on a little-used trail. The views immediately amaze. The lower end of Cold Spring Canyon is a writhing display of sheer walls and a dense ponderosa. It is a pity that you won’t be going there today! The path down to the canyon bottom is short, steep and paved with rounded rocks the size of tangerines (ideal for sliding out under foot). When you reach the canyon bottom note the trail junction. The obvious path goes up-canyon but there is also a less-used tread going down canyon. Walking blithely past the exit trail on your return could damage your enjoyment of the day.

Morning sunlight on Cold Spring Canyon walls

Turn up-canyon. Many spots inside this deep fissure do not see direct sunlight during the winter, but light reflects strongly off of the walls. Ponderosa pine, alligator juniper and huge Gamble oak thrive. The canopy is thick enough that the canyon bottom is clear of brush, making it easy to rediscover the tread where washouts have occurred. That is fortunate because gaping at the rock walls can cause hikers to wander off trail. 

Blazes on Ponderosa with surprisingly smooth bark

In about a quarter mile arrive at the confluence of two huge branch canyons. A dense thicket of young deciduous trees testify that washouts are frequent here. The trail completely disappears. Which canyon to choose? Go right and rediscover the tread inside the right-hand canyon. On this date there was water in this section. (Reports from other sources say that livestock make heavy use of this water so it is advisable to filter). At 1.1 mile an old sign cryptical exhorts, “T87” (the trail number of the Cold Spring trail). Occasional meadows open and soon after the walls on the north side (to your right, going up) begin to tilt back. The forest becomes dominated by ponderosa pine.

Teepee Peak Trail junction (almost)

At 1.7 miles from the trailhead, in a meadow, find a sign for Teepee Peak Trail, #81. This sign points to the north wall of the canyon but leaves you to wonder why there is no tread there. The meadow narrows markedly about 150 feet further upstream on Cold Spring Canyon. If you scout that end of the meadow you might find a tiny cairn by the main trail. Uphill from that is another small cairn piled against a tree. Push your way uphill, past a few scrub oak, and you will find a tread that is a little more obvious than a deer track. That trail rises steeply for about 30 feet and then turns left to contour past a large scrub oak and then into a scree field. In the scree the tread becomes more obvious. Trail #81 is often obscure in its lowest reaches.

View to main San Mateo Ridgeline from side of Teepee Ridge

Fortunately, this trail shows no intention of staying low. It rockets up the steep wall, becoming vastly drier. This terrain sports a little grass, some mountain mahogany and plenty of cactus, sotol and yucca. A prickly desert set on its edge. Plug along, watching for switchbacks. If you find yourself tangled in cacti and shrubs you’ve missed a turn. Take your time and watch the unfolding views of upper Cold Spring Canyon. A careless hiker who sprinted into that region might accidentally attain low earth orbit. 

San Mateo Crest – sadly burned

Feel as if you’ve reached outer space? That means you’re near the canyon rim, called Teepee Ridge.  On top of the ridge the angle gentles and the tread disappears into a braid of animal trails. Sight lines on the ridge top are short due to the mountain mahogany and juniper. Memorize this location because there are few indications of where the trail departs from the ridge. You will need to be on your navigation game. On this date I scouted a short distance along the ridge but found no hint of a trail (not even blazes). The map shows that I may have veered too far north. Those venturing higher will want to keep Cold Spring Canyon in sight as they start up the ridge. I returned the way I came in. Those making it to the San Mateo crest might consider returning via Cold Spring Canyon so as to make a loop. (If you do, please leave a comment!) 


Author, back at trailhead

Have mercy on your driver. Getting to the trailhead can be exhausting. 

Stick to your turnaround time during these short days – night driving on FR-332 would be grim work.

Even in wet years the climb on Teepee Ridge is dry. On this cool date two liters of water was sufficient to get to the ridge. A warmer day or a longer excursion might raise the demand to four or five liters. 

It looked as if this year’s fire has left many standing snags in the high reaches of the San Mateo Mountains. Stay away if the day looks windy.

The December, 2021 Drought Monitor map shows that 99% of New Mexico is under extreme drought conditions or worse. Given how dusty the mountains are we need to give up camp fires for a while.


If the Teepee Ridge scramble lacks appeal then consider exploring the Cold Spring Canyon Trail all the way up to the ridge line. An excellent writeup of both Teepee Peak Trail and Cold Springs Canyon Trail (and many others) can be found here. The writeup, a PDF, is slightly dated and does not reflect the Vic’s Peak Fire.

Talon Newton, writing a comment in the About page of this blog, gives a brief description of a backpacking trip into the San Mateos via Cold Spring Canyon. It was the inspiration for this route description. That trip happened before the Vic’s Peak Fire, however, and I fear that trips along the crest have been tragically altered.

There is a post at Southern New Mexico Explorer which describes the lower portions of Cold Spring Canyon. The photos are beautiful. In that post he mentions taking FR-972 into Cold Spring Canyon. I didn’t find that road on any of my USGS maps, but there is a FR-972 heading into nearby Woods Canyon in a 2010 map of Forest Service Roads found here (a dandy resource, by the way). Using the roads named on that map it appears that SNME took FR-976, which is shown leaving from FR-332 and descends into Cold Spring Canyon. I think the departure point is very near the cattle gate. He also mentions an app called On-X, which evidently will show you the boundaries between private and public land. Sounds very useful.

A map showing the approximate location of the damage done in the Vic’s Peak Fire can be found at Inciweb.

The Drought Monitor map for New Mexico (which is updated every week) can be found here.

I saw some hunters on this hike so hunting season would seem to be open, orange attire is strongly suggested! The full book of New Mexico hunting regs can be found here. Caveat: this PDF is hugely detailed and takes some work to understand. It helps to know that the San Mateo Mountains of Socorro County are in Game Management Unit 17. Don’t get confused with the San Mateo Mountains of Cibola County!