View from the rim above Pierce Canyon to the snowy summit of Sierra Blanca
View to Sierra Blanca from the west rim of Pierce Canyon


Huge burn scars, visible across the southerly visage of the El Capitan Mountains, invoke much dismay. Fortunately, the moist environment of Pierce Canyon buffered the canyon bottom against the fire. This ascent offers a pleasant stroll; accompanied by running water and marred only slightly by fire damage. Towering Sierra Blanca dominates south and west and sere flatland contrasts vividly north and east. A good portion of this hike crosses a near-flat bajada where firewood collectors have produced a confusion of ATV trails. Be on your navigation game. 

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) take Exit 139, signed for US-380 East/San Antonio:
    • Southbound: the ramp curves under the highway and merges with the northbound ramp at 0.6 miles.
    • Northbound: the ramp merges with the southbound ramp after 0.3 miles.
    • Either direction, continue straight ahead on the merged ramp.
  • After 0.6 miles on the merged ramp, at an intersection with Old US Route 1 (blinking yellow light), reset your odometer and continue straight ahead onto US-380
  • After 94.4 miles on US-380, just past a sign for “Salazar Canyon/Baca Campsite”, turn left onto Forest Road 57 (FR-57). NOTE: you will see two side-by-side roads at this turn. Pick the leftmost of the two. You want to go over the cattle-guard and the road should turn to gravel. 
  • After 7.0 miles on FR-57, park in a turnout on the right side of the road.
Sign forFR-57 & Baca Campground on US-380

Not coming from I-25? If you are going east on US-380 through the town of El Capitan, then reset your odometer as you pass the Forest Service Ranger Station. The station is on your left as you enter town, look for the “Fire Danger” sign. The turn off of US-380 onto FR-57 will be 9.0 miles from the ranger station.

If you turn off of US-380 and find yourself on a paved road and passing picnic tables, then you’ve missed FR-57. Go back to the junction and look for a road reached by crossing a cattle guard.

FR-57 forks at mile 6.6 (signed), where you should veer left. A sign at the fork warns: “County Maintenance Ends”. Road quality drops immediately. The last 0.4 miles on FR-57 offer segments of difficult driving. I think that the family sedan will make it, but be prepared to stop, get out and study the road. 

Travelers in a high clearance vehicle (and possessing tolerance for suspension wear) can continue an additional 1.1 miles on FR-57 to park at the sign for Pierce Canyon Trail No. 61.  Watch for a 50-foot stretch that is paved with boulders, roughly 100 yards past the suggested trailhead. 


The trailhead is a grassy turn-out by the side of FR-57. You will know that you’ve arrived if you see the road rising smoothly but abruptly (up about 3 feet) to surmount a large culvert. This rise lies immediately past the turn-out. The parking space can accomadate about two cars. There are no fees. The stream going through the culvert was dry on this date (bring water). There are no trash removal services or vault toilets at this trailhead. The Baca Campground, at mile 5.5 on FR-57 (signed), has vault toilets.


  • lowest elevation: 6360 feet
  • highest elevation: 9240 feet
  • net elevation: 2880 feet
  • distance: 6.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

Brown and white forest service sign on FR-57, indicating the direction to the Pierce Canyon Trail Number 61
Sign for Pierce Canyon Trail on FR-57

From the trailhead follow FR-57 for 1.0 mile, where it enters a drainage and then starts a brief but steep climb onto a ribtop. At 1.1 miles, on the rib top, find a brown Forest Service sign reading “Pierce Canyon Trail No. 61”. Turn uphill on a forest road that follows the rib north towards the mountains. This is meadow and juniper terrain, with open views of the crest straight ahead.

Image of the cairn that marks the start of the Pierce Canyon Trail
Cairn at start of Pierce Canyon Trail

At 1.8 miles the forest road swings sharply to west (to your left on ascent). An old and overgrown two track goes straight ahead. Surprisingly, it is best to follow the forest road  west for another 200 feet. There you will find something that looks like a streambed striking the road. But cairns have been carefully placed here. If you follow the seeming-streambed uphill it turns out to be the Pierce Canyon Trail. There is short sojourn through the woods, grass-overgrown but well cairned, before the trail rejoins an ATV track at 2.0 miles from the trailhead. A tall pair of cairns on the west side of the ATV track mark the entrance of the trail onto the track. You will want to remember to look for these cairns on return. 

Paired stone cairns marking the spot where the Pierce Canyon Trail rejoins the ATV track.
Twin cairns (partly obscured by grasses)

Turn uphill on the ATV track and watch for a second pair of tall cairns on the east side of the road. On this date I marched straight past these cairns on ascent, but noticed them on descent. I believe that they mark the continuation of Pierce Canyon Trail (but I haven’t tested this belief). According to my map that part of the trail goes almost straight east until it reaches a rib, then abruptly turns north on the rib to reach a signed intersection with a different ATV track (see below). On this date I stayed on the ATV track and continued ascending across the gently inclined terrain. At 2.3 miles come to a prominent 4-way intersection, much littered with cairns. 

Barely legible sign for the Pierce Canyon Spring Trail (linked to, but different from, the Pierce Canyon Trail)
Weathered Pierce Canyon Spring sign

Study this intersection so you will recognize it on return, then turn east on a new ATV track. This track is rubbly in stretches and walking is slow. There are several ATV track turn-offs, but you want to stay on the main track going east and rising slowly. At 3.0 miles from the trailhead come to a signed intersection. The signs look as if they might have been emplaced by ancient Egyptians. Close inspection, however, reveals that these signs are in English. Very weathered English. One of the more legible elements points uphill to announce the Pierce Canyon Spring Trail. If you look downhill (on this trail) you will see more signs about 100 feet away. On this date I went down to inspect them, and found that they announced the Pierce Canyon Trail. This is likely to be the continance of trail described above that was marked by an otherwise anonymous pair of cairns.

View (from the top) of the fallen sign lying on a stone cairn, the sign indicates that the trail leaves the ATV track at this location.
View straight down onto the sign-atop-a-cairn for Pierce Canyon

You can stay on the main ATV track, however, since the Pierce Canyon Trail joins it almost immediately. Continue east to where the track crosses a stream bed. Past the stream the track is blocked by large logs, so ATV traffic is blocked. The two-track slowly morphs into a single-track while rising from the stream and entering the first burned area. As in most burn scars, blackened snags point skyward. The fire must have occurred about a decade ago, however, since the snags are widely spaced surrounded by juniper saplings. It is encouraging to see such a rebound! The rubble strewn tread contours around a steep-sided knob and arrives an important cairn at 3.7 miles from the trailhead (on the uphill side of the tread). Currently the cairn supports a supine fragment of another old Forest Service sign – this fragment saying that the Pierce Canyon Trail departs from this location. Turn uphill on the trail.

View from the crest of the El Capitan Mountains showing the vast plains of north eastern New Mexico
View of the plains north from the crest of the El Capitan Mountains

Good news! Now the trail enters the canyon and the navigation problems disappear. Huge ponderosa, seared but obviously thriving, dominate the canyon. Water music reverberates from the canyon walls. The tread, which has been mildly inclined, now takes on steeper ambitions. At about 5.0 miles the stream has sawn through a wall of hard rock, leaving a pinch-point. Above that point the fire-ravaged upper bowl appears. The canyon bottom remains grassy, but the slopes above you are barren. Huge rock slides dominate the flanks of the range. This part of the hike is mercifully brief. The trail then pulls away from the canyon bed to attain the western canyon rim. Sierra Blanca peers down at you through stands of Douglas fir. As you near the crest the terrain gets steeper still. Short switchbacks lead to long switchbacks. At 6.7 miles from the trailhead arrive at the intesection with the Crest Trail. El Capitan Peak lies along the Crest Trail to the east, summoning the ambitious. Others, particularly on short winter days, may want to enjoy Sierra Blanca, the green and corrugated terrain south and east and the infinite plains stretching north. Return the way you came. 


Author, amidst the ponderosa of the lower canyon

Expect moments of confusion. The trail signage is ancient, often unreadable or simply missing. The cairns, being cairns, are ambiguous. The Pierce Canyon Trail frequently crosses and sometimes follows the snarl of ATV roads. Until you get to the mouth of Pierce Canyon you should keep a good topo map in hand. Take a GPS too, but don’t rely on anything that can be “bricked” by dying batteries or a drop onto the rocks.

There was water in several streams on this wintertime hike. I suspect that the flow in these streams is dependent on snow melt. You will want to carry at least two liters in cool weather and probably twice that in warmer months.

Winter days are short! An early start would be a great idea.

This hike is not particularly distinguished by the distance or the altitude gained. These two factors are compounded, however, by the frequent need to make navigation decisions. The difficult footing also adds to the stress. In order to enjoy this hike make sure that your party is in good shape.


Michelle Norris has a long comment, from 2021, on the AllTrails website that neatly captures the navigational issues for this hike. She mentions a tall cairn with a stick sticking out of the top. I think this now may be the “paired cairns” (above) mentioned as lying on the east side of the ATV track.

Steven Smith, at the MyLifeOutdoors site, has a post about the Pierce Canyon Trail from 2019. Note that the trail has been improved considerably since his report! On this date there were very few downed logs across the trail. The major exception is in the last half-mile to the crest, where you do have to work your way around a few logs.

The HikeArizona writeup of Pierce Canyon includes a GPS track. It might be worth looking at because I think it captures the portion of the official Pierce Canyon Trail that I missed.