View from Mesa Trail: Timber Peak (left), South Baldy (center) and North Baldy (right).

This 9-mile, figure-8 trail offers a splendidly shaded workout in the Magdalena Mountains. Going counter-clockwise, the lower loop ascends a canyon to reach the mesa top. There you can either stroll up a connector onto the mesa-top loop or you could just descend the lower loop (for a shorter day). Either way, the return path bounces down between vertical cliff bands – a workout! Go if you are introducing a newcomer to New Mexico’s mountains, training while the crest lies under snow, or simply need to stretch out your legs.

There are at least five unsigned trail junctions, do bring maps.

Thanks to Peter Mosley for recommending this hike!

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 (FR-235).
  • After 0.5 miles on FR-235 turn right into the signed trailhead for the Mesa Trail #13.


Mesa Trail Trailhead

A vault toilet, a picnic table, and a kiosk (signboard) populate the trailhead. Pack-in your own water and pack-out your own trash. The main Water Canyon channel edges past the trailhead, currently innocent of any aqueous accusations.

The trail includes a 0.3 mile road walk on FR-235 between an “informal campground” and the Mesa Trail #13 trailhead. When driving in you cross a cattle guard at 0.2 miles and this campground appears on your left – an almost level spot where campers have left tire tracks and fire rings. The torn forest floor obscures the tread. Hikers going clockwise should enter the lower campground while staying along the left-most edge.  In about 100 feet you will find a faint, sandy two-track that goes further left into the woods. That is the trail. A small tree that has been sawed down and its abandoned trunk currently marks the start of the two-track.


Important: please be extra careful using this GPS track. The first 1.4 miles (orange) was recorded as a separate KML file from the final 7.1 miles (yellow). If you download the data to your GPS make certain you get both parts!

  • lowest elevation:  6800 feet
  • highest elevation: 8320 feet
  • net elevation:1520 feet
  • distance: 8.5 miles

Hike Description:

Tall Canyon Walls

From the car, cross FR-235 to the start of the Mesa Trail #13, directly beneath a brown Forest Service kiosk. The trail ascends quite steeply to pull way from the road, then turns south to parallel it. In 0.3 miles the tread enters the mouth of a broad canyon, wraps around a rib, and then turns east (to your left on ascent) to ascend the canyon. Numerous rock risers protect the tread against boots and other erosive forces. Attaining the top of the rib, the trail levels out and contours into the canyon bed. Pillows of water-smoothed stone contrast with angular rock outcrops (perhaps the product of freeze thaw cycles) under tall canyon walls.

Remains of sign post at second trail junction

The geological drama ends at mile 0.9 where the canyon regains it’s wider, forested character. At 1.4 miles, where the mesa wall careens upward, the tread makes a hard left turn and pulls up out of the canyon bottom. Switchbacking mightily, the trail lunges onto a small saddle, home to the remains of a sign-post (but no sign). This used to be a trail junction but very little remains of the right-hand trail. Follow the main tread left.

Go right (on ascent) to explore the upper mesa, go left to return to FR-235

Above the post the Mesa Trail clings atop a narrow rib for the rest of the climb. At the mesa top a tiny cairn marks a junction with a faint trail heading north (to your left on ascent). This is not the the lower loop! Stay with the maintained trail. Stroll across the eroded mesa surface amid ponderosa pines, gray oak and open meadows. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead arrive at the junction of the lower loop with the mesa-top loop, much decorated with cairns and forest debris (see photo above). If you are short on time then you can turn north (left on ascent) and follow the lower loop back down to FR-235.

Actual water in a guzzler below the catchment

To hike the full figure-8 continue east (right on ascent) to explore the upper mesa. The tread begins with a steep, rubble-infested pitch. Fortunately the trail quickly levels and smooths. At 2.8 come to a trail junction where the upper loop closes back on itself, so both forks present Trail 13 signs. To go counter-clockwise bear slightly to the right at this junction. The edge of the mesa proffers views to the mountains south and east. The skies were hazy on this date – the Oscuro Mountains were faintly visible beyond a much crisper overlook of the Chupadera Mountains. At 3.1 miles two catchments appear on your left. These 15-foot wide cones guide rainwater into storage tanks. The storage tanks, in turn, feed an open-top tank (a “guzzler”).This system was working very well. At least one of the storage tanks appeared full, despite extremely dry conditions this winter and spring. Deer and Albert’s squirrels made appearances, while elk could be heard running in the distance. Water attracts life.

Fire scars

The tread makes a wide swing to the north through a stand of young ponderosa – rarely more than eight inches across at the base. A handful of large snags display ancient fire scars, which may explain the forest’s youth. The Manzano Mountains put in a very brief appearance before a mesa-top ridge cuts off the views to the east. At 4.6 miles the upper loop reaches its northern-most point and tacks to the south, opening views to the crest of the Magdalena Range. Plunk yourself down for a snack as you pick out future destinations.

Steep mesa walls

The mesa loop rejoins itself at mile 5.6 and then returns to the lower-loop junction (unsigned) at mile 5.9. At the lower loop junction turn north (to your right on descent) to continue a counter-clockwise exploration. A rubbly, brief descent takes you onto a cool canyon floor. The forest on this floor was spared the worst of the fire and large ponderosa shade the trail. At 6.9 miles reach the top of the mesa walls. Steep! You could rig up your hang glider. Alternatively, stay in close contact with innumerable switchbacks as this dauntless tread threads its way between cliffs. A trail junction seems to appear at 7.2 miles, but the left-hand fork goes just a few feet to an overlook. Go right to stay on the main tread. At 7.6 miles an authentic fork (marked only by cairns) challenges your navigation skills. Take the left-hand fork to go back towards the trailhead. The terrain mellows and enters an informal campground. From the this campground turn left onto FR-235 and ascend the remaining 0.3 miles to the Mesa Trail trailhead.


I picked up several big pieces of forest debris weighing nearly nothing, as if freeze-dried. We should see fire restrictions soon. Let’s leave those matches in the emergency pouch.

A liter of water met all my needs on this warm May morning, although I was glad to have a backup liter. The water catchment on the mesa currently has water, so for a little while you might have that resource (no guarantees!). It looked murky, filtering is recommended. A lot of wildlife depends on this source, so please move away from this tank as quickly as you can.

If you down-load the GPS waypoints shown in the map then be extra careful! Unfortunately the track got split into two files and you will want them both on your GPS. Keep your navigation sense firmly in gear for this one.

Under icy conditions the steep tread through the cliff bands could be daunting. You would want to carry micro-spikes and hiking poles.

If you hike the lower loop in the counter-clockwise direction (as described) then consider parking at the lower trailhead. That way you’d get the road-walk out of the way first thing in the morning. If you want a much stiffer workout, then hike the lower loop in the clockwise direction. The climb up from the lower trailhead through the cliff bands could be everything you asked for!


The lower loop gets a brief mention in this post at AllTrails.

In contrast, this Hiking Project post suggests ascending to the upper mesa loop and then returning by the same path (this would avoid the descent through the cliff bands).

There is a detailed description of this trail, if somewhat dated, found in this PDF (scroll to page 6).

The folks at PNGYoung have a post that describes a hike up Trail 13 just to the mesa top.