Archives for category: Near Las Cruces

Overview:

View into Horse Canyon and distant North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope on the right side of the photo) from US-26

North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope rising from the right side of the photo) as seen from NM-26. The southern draw is the shadowed bowl partially screened by a bush on the extreme right. Staircase Rib descends from the ridge line of North Las Uvas Mountain to the left of the draw.

This is an off-trail scramble that ascends to the second-highest point in the Sierra de Las Uvas. “Second highest” may sound like faint praise, but it is a terrific alternative to driving to the fenced and locked summit of Magdalena Peak (the highest point in the range). This is desert wilderness so be prepared for difficult road, waterless trekking and terrain that rattles. It is also, in the springtime, a colorful hike into rarely seen terrain with spectacular views. Find a clear-blue day and do this hike!

Driving Directions:

  • From US-70 in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 (I-25) going north.
  • After 35.3 miles take Exit 41 for NM-26/Hatch.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left on NM-26.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a T-intersection with a stop sign, go right to continue on NM-26.
  • After 8.3 miles past the T-intersection, go left onto Las Uvas Spring Road. This road is paved. (Note, “Las Uvas Spring Road” is the name on a the street sign. It will be much easier to watch for a huge sign on the left side of the road that says Las Uvas Valley Dairy).
  • After 0.8 miles, where Las Uvas Spring Road bends sharply to the right, go left onto County Road E002 (gravel). There are some things to watch for while driving E002, notably:
    • After 300 feet E002, just past a cattle guard, come to an intersection. Straight ahead is a gravel road in rough shape. Don’t go there, instead take the sharp right to stay on E002.
    • After 1.7 miles on E002 come to a fork. E002 veers slightly to the right, while the left fork is County Road E003. Go right. About 30 feet past the fork you should pass a bent metal post signed “CR E002”.
    • After 4.7 miles on E002, at the mouth of Horse Canyon, come to the stone ranch building and tall windmill. This is Horse Canyon Ranch (private property). Continue on E002 as it enters the canyon.
  • After 5.0 miles come to small rise in the road with negligible berms on either side. Park beside the road.
The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib  is about 45° above and left.

The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib is about 45° above and left. (Double-click to enlarge)

Note: County Road E002 is rough. You may see pictures of the mighty Camry parked at the trailhead, but this road can not be recommended for family sedans. On this date the tracks of a road grader were visible in the roadbed – there must have been fairly recent maintenance efforts. Despite that, long stretches of the road was made up of loosely piled, fist-sized rocks. The road is sunken below the surrounding terrain for much of its length. You can go forward and you can back up, but turning around is often out of the question. Take a high-clearance vehicle. Those with high clearance vehicles could drive another 0.4 miles and save themselves a stretch of road hiking, but be warned that the road bed degrades significantly in that stretch.

Trailhead:

The trailhead is just a patch of dirt beside County Road E002. There are no amenities. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5020 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 6601
  • Net Elevation: 1581 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Souse Springs, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of whitish, scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

From the car, head up Horse Canyon on County Road E002. Rocks the size of bowling balls litter the gullied road-bed, be glad that you left the vehicle behind. The road gets so little use that a scattering of wild flowers were growing in both tracks. In about 0.4 miles come to a fork where a faint two-track departs the main road on the right and descends into the wash coming out of the south draw. Follow the two-track for roughly 100 yards and come to the wash, then turn upstream (left). On ascent I departed from the wash in just a hundred yards, worried about going too far into the southern draw. That was a misplaced concern – it is fine to follow the wash 0.3 miles to where you arrive at the foot of Staircase Rib.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

I’ve designated this rib “Staircase” because it is composed of harder and softer layers of rock; the hard rock forms the relatively flat shelves and the soft rock forms the steep risers. As you come to the first of the shelves, look up Horse Canyon and try to pick out an old barbed wire fence on the flanks of the rib. This fence begins in the bottom of Horse Canyon and rises part way up the rib. You should hit the fence about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. Ranchers worked hard on these structures and there is an old path along the uphill side of the fence. It is easier to follow the path than to “side-hill” along the rib. That said, you shouldn’t get too far from the rib top, so at about 1.1 miles from the car depart from the fence and ascend beside basaltic outcrops until hitting a grassy stretch that grants access to the rib top. From here it is only a short distance to where the rib joins the main ridge of North Las Cruces Mountain.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw and to the Cooke Range.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw to Cookes Peak.

Look around you as you reach the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. You will want to make sure you depart the ridge for Staircase Rib on descent. Having memorized this departure point, turn up hill and begin a long and surprisingly gentle ascent of the upper tablelands. There is an abundance of creosote bush and mesquite, some mountain mahogany, numerous varieties of small cacti (surprisingly few prickly pear, a few cholla), the odd ocotillo and an occasional juniper. Grasses grow in dense patches – watch for our sinuous friends during warm weather. There are numerous raptors overhead and evidence of cattle under foot. Shade is practically non-existent.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches the ridgeline.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches to the ridgeline.

There are no further route finding problems. Just stay close to where the ridge falls into Horse Canyon and continue ascending. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will come to the upper end of a canyon that drains from the ridgeline to the southwest (that is, to your right). These may be the headwaters of Pine Canyon. Surprising displays of cap rock appear in what would otherwise be a broad table of high desert. Water has gnawed all the way to the ridge, leaving minor rises and infinitesimal falls as you ascend towards the summit. Although the terrain is nearly flat, footing is tricky as the surface is covered with volcanic scoria intermixed with rounded lumps of sandstone. (Tricky and geologically confusing).  At about 2.4 miles from the trailhead you pass what seems to be the last of the canyon’s branches and might imagine that the juniper decorating the ridge above you is the summit. Oh no! It turns out that juniper trees enhance each of the innumerable  pseudo-summits on this gentle climb. Plod onward.

Cactus growing on a

Lichen and cactus growing on a “ground” of solid rock.

You will encounter the headwaters of one last canyon at 3.0 miles from the trailhead. Cross a two-track (evidently in current use) and ascend up a moderate incline to reach the broad expanse of true tableland northwest of the summit. On this date there was a considerable flower show. The columnar cacti, in particular, were putting on a massive show of red and purple flowers. Despite drought conditions the grasses were dense on the ground (although very dry).

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

As you get higher the views to the surrounding ranges become a major distraction. The Florida Mountains are prominent in the southwest, the Cooke Range to the west, the Black Range and the Caballo Range dominate the near-ground to the north, although I think I saw the distant San Mateo Range poking up between them. The east is dominated by the San Andreas Range. As you reach the summit at 4.2 miles, some very prominent peaks of the Sierra de Las Uvas appear. These include the conical form of Sugarloaf and the radar-dome topped prominence of Magdelana. Below lies the crazed terrain where White Gap Draw, Kerr Canyon, Choases Canyon and Valles Canyon converge into Broad Canyon. A bit south of east are the Robledos and Dona Ana Mountains, and beyond them lie toothy spires of the Organ Mountains. Have a bite to eat, sign the register, and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

♦Both the distance hiked and the elevation gained look very modest. Don’t be fooled. This is a 100% off-trail outing and the demands on your attention and on your legs are emphatically real. It is at least a moderately strenuous hike – less physically demanding than the ascent up Three Rivers Canyon in the Sierra Blanca Range, but far greater than the 7-mile loop around Kilbourne Hole.

♦County Road E002 crosses at least two washes. A storm could make the road impassable in a very short period of time. Keep a close eye on the weather. It would be an excellent idea to have a pick and shovel with you. As usual with desert sojourns, make certain your spare tire is inflated and bring extra water.

♦There is no protection from the sun or from lightning on this hike. Pick a nice day, preferably in the winter or early spring months. Sun screen is essential for most folks, and a broad rimmed hat is incredibly useful.

Links:

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). Protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). This rattler was protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

♦There is a mention of this peak on SummitPost. That description suggests an approach from the south rather than the north, which may be advantageous in terms of avoiding County Road E002. That approach, however, would leave you approaching North Las Uvas Mountain on its steep south/eastern faces. I haven’t tried it, but from what I could see on the summit you would want advanced scrambling skills to make that approach. It might be best to try this route in the colder weather when New Mexico’s venomous denizens are not quite so abundant.

A map provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seems to suggest that most of Horse Canyon and the lower half of the ridge up to North Las Uvas Mountain is owned by the State of New Mexico. The upper part of the ridge, to the summit, is BLM land. There is a small in-holding, the Horse Canyon Ranch, that bridges the narrow mouth of the canyon. It appears to me that you should try and drive at least a quarter mile past the abandoned ranch house and windmill in order to park on public lands. Land owners in New Mexico are usually very generous towards hikers and hunters but, absent explicit parking permission, it’s best to stay off of the ranch land.

♦That’s about it. This lack of public awareness may be why the summit log had only two previous entries in it!

Overview:

Robbed Peak from knoll

Robledo Peak from knoll

This is a short but dramatic hike that is located close to Las Cruces. The drama comes from a contorted slot canyon – the genuine article with walls spaced just a few feet apart and towering more than 50 feet above your head. For newcomers it could be a stellar introduction to the mountainous desert of southern New Mexico. That said, this is not the “competent rock” that graces some of the nation’s most famous slot canyons. Instead the walls are composed of Robledo-rubble loosely cemented together. It would be an exceedingly poor location for riding out an earthquake. As with all slot canyons, you do not want to be trapped in there if a sudden storm drenches the higher reaches. Make certain to pick a nice day and go!

Looking south on the bone-dry Rio Grand.

Looking south on the bone-dry Rio Grand.

Note that the trailhead is on the east side of the Rio Grande while the hike is on the west side. That is no problem when the river has been shut off, but probably impassable when the river is running full during irrigation season. Check the river conditions before setting off! After reaching the upper end of the slot you can continue ascending in a wider canyon bed and come eventually to a tall waterfall. Most people will want to turn back here. This route description, however, continues the ascent with a scramble up a steep waterway to the canyon rim and then an easy ascent to a nearby knoll.

Driving Directions:

Entrance to the slot canyon (closeup) viewed from the levee road.

Entrance to the slot canyon (closeup) viewed from the levee road.

Route to the trailhead used on this date:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, turn north onto Valley Drive (Valley Drive becomes NM-185)
  • After 13.5 miles, turn left onto Hope Road (gravel)
  • After 0.6 miles, at what appears to be a T-intersection, turn right onto a gravel road (not signed). This gravel road stays on top of the levee on the east side of the Rio Grande
  • In 0.3 miles, veer left onto a flood plain road. Park on the flood plain.

This parking spot can not be recommended (see the hike description below for the kind of bush bashing that parking here entails). For this reason the map below shows a red warning sign with exclamation mark. Instead, park on the flood plain much closer to the spot where Hope Road intersects the levee road. The map marks this preferred spot with an icon of two hikers.

Edit: a comment was posted from the RV-Dreams.com site and that link describes an attempt at this hike that failed because there was water in the Rio Grande (gasp). Looking at Google Maps, there is an possible alternative, although it is one that I haven’t explored.  Here are the directions as provided by Google:

  • On Valley Drive/NM-185, going north, turn west (left) onto Shalem Colony Road (possibly signed as County Road D052).
  • After 1.2 miles, past the bridge over the Rio Grand, turn north (right) on County Road D013
  • After 5.5 miles find a corral on the rising land to the west (on your left). Find a place to park your car and walk back to the corral. 
  • NOTE: this approach will remove the need to cross the Rio Grande and deal with riverside thorn thickets. You can skip over the first two paragraphs in the hike description, but check out the photo of the corral so you’ll recognize it as you drive by. 

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry, poised high and dry on the Rio Grande floodplain.

The Mighty Camry, poised high and dry on the Rio Grande floodplain.

The trailhead is just a spot on the flood plain along side the Rio Grande. There are no amenities. You don’t want to leave your car here if it happens to be the day that the managers at Caballo Reservoir release impounded water into the river. Current release data can be found here, but it does not necessarily include any advisories about future releases. Last year (2014) water was scheduled for release in May. If anyone knows where to find release advisories, please leave a comment below. Otherwise, search the news sites before going.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 3920 feet
  • Ending elevation: 4960 feet
  • Net Gain: 1040 feet
  • Distance: 3.2 miles
  • Map: USGS Leasburg, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

Corral on the west side of the Rio Grande

Corral on the west side of the Rio Grande

If you are using the recommended parking site, then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up onto the far bank, and work uphill until you find a gravel road that parallels the river (about 0.1 miles from the car). Turn right (north) and follow the road until you come to a corral on the left-hand side of the road (to the west).

If you are using the same parking site that was used on this hike then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up over the bank and find yourself in a thorn bush thicket. Within the thicket (and within 20 feet of the bank) you will find a cattle trail. Turn left (south) and follow the trail until the heavily interlaced branches of the thorn trees begin to thin and junipers start appearing. As soon as you can tolerate the notion, turn your back to the river and bash your way past the brush and juniper. In 200 feet, encounter the road that parallels the river. Turn left (south) and follow the road until you come to the corral.

Approaching the mouth of the Slot Canyon.

Approaching the mouth of the Slot Canyon.

From the corral turn uphill towards the mouth of the canyon (which is clearly visible). The terrain is strewn with fist-sized rocks and the footing is awkward, expect to go slowly as you ascend. As you get further from the river the plant life becomes sparser and travel becomes easier. Much of the green bush is mesquite and creosote. Above you (and somewhat to the south) lies Robledo Peak. To the north is Lookout Mountain. There are innumerable lizards scurrying about the dry water courses. On this day I saw no snakes, although another party reported seeing a garter snake. Our reptilian neighbors seem to be returning from their winter get-aways.

View straight up to the sky.

View straight up to the sky.

At 0.7 miles from the trailhead enter the canyon and you will find that the temperature drops considerably. The canyon bed writhes and twists. The bed itself is paved with rocks that (presumably) have fallen from the walls above you. There are no navigation problems, although there are intriguing mini-slots that come into the main canyon from time to time. Long-time desert dwellers accustomed to big-sky views will find the skinny-sky to be a bit claustrophobic.

View to the waterfall that marks the end of the hike for most hikers.

View to the waterfall that marks the end of the hike for most hikers.

The slot is not terribly long. As you reach 1.2 miles from the trailhead the walls begin descending and then angling off. A much broader, arroyo-like conformation is adopted. The canyon bottom, which was free of vegetation in the slot, becomes a bit greener. Having reached 1.4 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself at the foot of a tall waterfall. This is a shady and green spot to have a bite to eat and a sip of water as you marvel at what water can do to hard rock. Many hikers will want to turn back at this point and enjoy the slot canyon on the way out.

View of upper reaches of the slot canyon

View of upper reaches of the slot canyon. The knoll that formed the turn-around point is in the center.

You can ascend to the rim of the canyon in a narrow gully on the south wall of the canyon (on the left, looking uphill). This gully is just to the left of the main waterfall. It is steep in places and choked with loose rock. You will want to be comfortable with mildly exposed rock-climbing moves. As you near the rim it can be helpful to pull out of the gully to your left to gain better quality rock (although still fairly rotten). Near the rim the angle eases and animal trails appear, follow them below the rim and ascend into the upper reaches of the canyon.

Wide open terrain on the flanks of Robledo Peak, as seen from the knoll.

Wide open terrain on the flanks of Robledo Peak, as seen from the knoll.

In it’s upper reaches the canyon walls are gently sloped. Descend into the canyon bed and immediately climb the far wall (the north side of the waterway). The terrain is open and quickly brings you into the domain of ocotillo plants and small juniper bushes. At 1.8 miles from the car, find yourself at the top of a knoll with tremendous views to Robledo and Lookout Peaks, long views of the dry river bed below, and vistas of the Dona Ana Mountains. This is wide open terrain and very inviting for those who relish a ramble.

Concentric red markings on a hand-sized boulder - a surprisingly common pattern in these sedimentary rocks.

Concentric red markings on a hand-sized boulder – a surprisingly common pattern in these sedimentary rocks.

On this date, however, I turned back for the trailhead. Rather than down-climb back into the canyon, follow the northern rim as it weaves down the bajada. The sedimentary rocks are colorful. On this date it was a little disappointing to get “skunked” of any fossil finds. As you near the mouth of the canyon the rib you are on nose-dives and becomes divided by a small waterway. It helps to stay on the north bank (left, looking downhill) as the falloff on the north side is gentler. Find your way back down to the mouth of the canyon, descend the alluvial fan below to the corral and then cross the Rio Grand to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Closeup of an old juniper growing at the foot of the waterfall.

Closeup of an old juniper growing at the foot of the waterfall.

The cool part of the hike, from both wow-factor and temperature points of view, lies in the slot canyon. If your party is not comfortable with exposed scrambling then turn them back at the waterfall.

Consider bringing a climber’s helmet into the slot canyon. The canyon bed is littered with rocks, some of which fell from the canyon rim. Getting beaned would hurt.

The upper part of the hike, above the waterfall, is completely exposed to the sun. Even the juniper trees are too stunted to provide meaningful shade. You’ll want sunscreen and other sun gear. I got through two liters of water on a fairly cool April day.

Links:

Apparently the slot canyon serves as a grasshopper graveyard in the autumn. The reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News  comments on the abundance of large insects on a November hike. On this date there were some flies, but nothing especially notable.

If you love slot canyons, then Southern New Mexico Explorer has a second post in which a number of alternative slots in the region are named. Doug Scott has provided an even more extensive list of canyons (both slot and box canyons) across New Mexico.

Joeseph j7uy5 has a flickr photo stream (including GPS tracks) of an exploration of this part of the Robledos.

George Ray has posted a video that captures a considerable fraction of hiking in the slot canyon.

UPDATE: The LC Sun-News is reporting that this year the river will begin flowing some time in late May, 2015. Keep an eye on that river!

Overview:

View over foothill to Sugarloaf Mountain

View over foothill to Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain is a striking tower of pale granite embedded in a massive rib descending from the Organ Mountain’s ridge line. The mountain’s smooth and steep face make it a playground for those with technical climbing skills and climbing gear. These mountaineers sometimes descend from the peak using a canyon on the south side of Sugarloaf. The canyon has a scrubbed bed of pale granite and offers scramblers a way to approach the range’s high country.

The ascent is steep in places and the smooth canyon bed leaves little in the way of handholds. The approach offers scramblers an opportunity to practice “smearing” technique (see below), but exposure may make it daunting for new scramblers. In fact, on this date it was just plain daunting. High winds made smearing impractical. I turned back before attaining the ridge, so this guide will only take you to within 400 feet of the ridge line.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 going north
  • After 4.8 miles take exit 6 for US-70 East. The exit ramp splits into three lanes, stay in the middle for US-70E
  • After 14.8 miles make a right turn onto Aguirre Springs Road.
  • After 6.2 miles, make a right turn onto the road for the Aguirre Springs Group Campground.
  • After about 100 feet, park in the parking lot for the Group Campground.
Sign on Aguirre Springs Road for the Group Campground

Sign on Aguirre Springs Road for the Group Campground

US-70E is a highway and the turn onto Aguirre Springs Road from the highway is rather abrupt. Look for an intersection that lies a little more than a mile after crossing San Agustin Pass. Also, there is a small sign on the highway that warns of the intersection a quarter mile before the turn.

Water is not usually available in the campground, but you can get some at the Campground’s host site. The site is on Aguirre Springs Road about 1.6 miles from US-70. There is a self-service fee center as you enter the campground. The fee center is on Aguirre Springs road, 5.8 miles from US-70.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, poised by the yellow sign that marks the start of the trail

The mighty Camry, poised by the yellow sign that marks the start of the trail

The Aguirre Springs Campground is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM charges for either day-use or camping. The day-use fee is currently $5.00, although you should check their website for the most up-to-date charges. There are some complications, such as occasional fee-free days or discounts for those with various passes. You will want to arrive early on fee-free days.

The trailhead itself is a paved area with room for about 25 cars. The Group Camp Site has covered picnic tables, vault toilets and waste bins, but no potable water. On this date there was a considerable flow of water in Sotol Creek and some of the drainages in Indian Hollow. This is not typical of the last few years, plan on bringing water from home. If you find water you will want to filter it (or use some other sterilization method).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5480 feet
  • Ending Elevation:  7600 feet
  • Net Gain: 2120 feet
  • Distance: 2.5 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Water flowing in Sotol Creek

Water flowing in Sotol Creek

Find the start of the trail beside a yellow BLM sign that asks, very reasonably, that you leave the rattlesnakes alone. Ascend briefly uphill and then turn southeast (left) as the trail takes you towards Sotol Creek. In less than 100 feet you will arrive at a barbed wire fence. Turn uphill and follow the fence closely until you arrive at a “needle’s eye” (a maze-shaped opening in the fence designed to allow hikers through but keep cattle out). Descend into Sotol Creek and rise towards the foothill on the south side. The trail will contour north to the outermost face of the foothill, then ascend gently east to enter a bowl that that opens into Indian Hollow.

View to Sugarloaf Mountain. The granite gulch can be seen as a white scar running diagonally upwards for the right-bottom corner.

View to Sugarloaf Mountain. Granite Canyon can be seen as a white scar running diagonally upwards from the bottom-right corner.

The first order of business is to cross this westside bowl. It is a pleasant task in open terrain broken by small stands of juniper and pinyon pine. The drainage out of this westside bowl is braided into numerous parallel streams. The trail slogs steeply up one creek bank only to drop precipitously into the next creek bed. During the last few years these streams have been dry, but on this date there was a heartening flow of water in each one. This has attracted cattle, so make certain that you sterilized any water before drinking it.

Close up of a conical prominence in Indian Hollow with a distinctive white spire.

Close up of a conical prominence in Indian Hollow with a distinctive white spire.

At 1.4 miles from the trailhead round a second rib and get a close-up view of the main bowl of Indian Hollow. The first thing you will notice is that a recent storm has plowed a huge number of boulders into the bottom of the main creek. The trail is nearly obliterated. Eventually the trail will be reconstructed, but for the moment follow cairns that take you almost 100 yards upstream, clambering over log jams and sidling around boulders as you go. If you look uphill you will see a low rib descending along the far side of the creek. You will cross the creek to find a clear tread adjacent to a rocky face on the low-point of this rib. From there the tread switchbacks, gains the top of this rib and then begins climbing much more steeply. Look between Sugarloaf (on your left) and the Organ Needle (on your right) for Pine Pass. Below the pass, in the main bowl of Indian Hollow, is a conical prominence topped with a distinctive white spire. The tread will continue up the rib and take you as high as the front face of this prominence.

Informal sign at the fork in the Indian Hollow Trail.

Informal sign at the fork in the Indian Hollow Trail.

The trail forks at 1.9 miles from the trailhead. Climbers assaulting the front face of Sugarloaf are directed to go left. You, however, should go right as if you were headed towards Pine Pass. Here you are getting onto the debris field below Sugarloaf and the trail steepens further. The junipers give way to Ponderosa Pines.

A convenient crack in the scrubbed bottom of granite gulch.

A convenient crack in the scrubbed bottom of Granite Canyon.

At 2.1 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses a deeply cut gulch (the first since the signed trail fork). Look uphill and you should see a long stretch of whitish granite in the bottom of this canyon. This is your  path to the ridgeline south of Sugarloaf. On descent you will want to be able to recognize the intersection of the canyon with the trail – memorize the local landmarks carefully. Turn uphill and go a dozen yards on small boulders to reach the scrubbed bedrock. From here up the stream bed will have much in common with a sidewalk, albeit a very steep sidewalk. Study the rock for foot placements that will stick. Small hollows and shallow protrusions can offer effective assists.  It usually helps to keep you feet flat against the rock with your weight “smeared” across the entire surface of your boot sole. Avoid resting your weight on your hands as that may release your boots from the rock. On this date there was a steady flow of water down Granite Canyon, which left wet dirt on many of the ledges. That can complicate the ascent. Fortunately, the flow was very narrow so it was almost always possible to find a foothold further away.

Slabs below the south saddle of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Slabs below the south saddle of Sugarloaf Mountain.

In 0.1 miles, come to a spot where the canyon tumbles over a steep headwall. I was unable to ascend this part of the canyon bottom, but found very good footing on the southern wall (to your right, looking uphill). Climb in loose gravel and singularly thorny terrain until you pass the top of the headwall, less than 50 feet, and then work you way back into the gulch. Ascend for another 0.2 miles to a second steep section. At the foot of this section there is a singularly battered Ponderosa Pine on the left edge of the canyon bottom. Uphill of this pine, indeed, stacked against it, is a pile of loosely arrayed boulders. There is no lichen on these rocks, no grass growing between them and only the thinnest scattering of brush about them. They look as if they were piled there yesterday. Ascend the boulder pile, gingerly avoiding spots where the stones look like they are about to surf down the slopes. At the top of this rubble enter the bowl below the south saddle on Sugarloaf. This is steep and weather-blasted terrain. The bottom of the bowl seems to be all exfoliating granite. It is not inherently impassible, but the winds on this date were blasting too hard for comfort. Here I turned about to return the way I entered.

Recommendations:

Author at turn-back point.

Author at turn-back point.

There are spots on this scramble where a fall would be very bruising (at best). If you have a large party then a light climbing rope might be appreciated by the least experienced members. On this date the flow of water was a small (but real) complication. Boot soles that are wet and dirty don’t grip the rock very well. Against that, it has to be said that the recent rains have left little particulate on this smooth rock. Long dry spells often leave sand on the canyon bed and could make the scramble much harder.

Of all the scrambles that I’ve been on in the Organs, this is the one that feels most sensitive to weather. It would be a mistake, I think, to get caught up high in any kind of rainstorm. Just a tiny amount of snow could make make the descent a long and slow process. As described above, merely windy conditions can raise the risk level. If you can find a “bluebird sky” on a calm day late in the fall or early winter then you might have the perfect situation for this hike.

Much of this hike was shaded, but the bowl below the ridge looked entirely open. It could get pretty toasty on a summer’s day. Some hikes on this side of the Organ Mountains are real thorn fests. You have to love the clear trail and the open bedrock in the Canyon for it’s freedom from aggressive vegetation.

Links:

Carol Brown has great photos from a hike into Granite Canyon.

Yubao has posted more photos at the Jornada Hiking Meetup site, including shots that appear to have been taken very near the ridge top.

Samat has a complete GPS track for this hike on GPSies.com. It shows a route complete to the ridgeline and an estimate of 7.8 miles (round trip) involving 2725 feet of gain.

Overview:

Dry Falls in Beeman Canyon  (the turn-around point) from Spectacle Trail

Dry Falls in Beeman Canyon (the turn-around point) from Sentinel Trail

Are you yearning for a morning in the mountains complete with canyon scenery, numerous small bouldering problems, blue sky, variegated rock and a desert-dominated biome? This is the hike for you! Nestled into the corner where US-82 departs west from US-70, this small canyon brings you into some lonesome terrain. The highlight of this off-trail scramble is a bouldery segment of canyon known as the Jumble. Wending your way up, over and around this boulder barrier is a fun and mildly athletic challenge. At the upper end of the Jumble is a dry waterfall, which might be climbable but is characterized by seriously rotten rock. A better alternative is to ascend the steep canyon wall and discover an unlikely horse path called the Sentinel Trail. On this date we turned west and headed back towards the basin on the trail. A longer day could be made by following the canyon as it reaches towards the sky on the flanks of Horse Ridge.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 going north
  • After 4.3 miles, take exit 6 for US-70E to Alamogordo (the exit splits into three roads, stay in the center for US-70E)
  • After 63.6 miles, immediately after the third stoplight entering Alamogordo, take the exit ramp for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route (CLMRR).
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto the CLMRR (going north).
  • After 5.0 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn right onto US-70.
  • After 0.4 miles, at a lighted intersection, turn left onto Scenic Drive.
  • After 1.5 miles turn left into the parking lot for the Christ Community Church.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry and Mike (in front of his truck) in the Christ Community Church parking lot.

The mighty Camry and Mike (in front of his truck) in the Christ Community Church parking lot.

As you enter the grounds for the Christ Community Church there is a small gravel pad immediately on your right (east of the entry lane). Park in the gravel lot.

You will need to find alternative parking on Sundays or whenever there is any sign that the church has need of these parking spaces. We did not test this, but a possible alternative might be found immediately uphill of the church. On Scenic Drive, go past the church to the next opening in the concrete center-strip. There turn left and enter onto a dirt road. This dirt road takes you about 0.1 miles east, turns 90-degrees to due north and travels towards Beeman Canyon. After driving past four houses on your right (and just past the church on your left) you should be able to find a suitable parking space on the side of the road. There are no trailhead amenities at either trailhead. There are no fees.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 4560 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5600 feet
  • Net Gain: 1040 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles (round trip)
  • Maps: USGS Alamogordo North

Hike Description:

Mike on the limestone floor of lower Beeman Canyon

Mike on the limestone floor of lower Beeman Canyon

From the trailhead, head north and walk past the church towards a water tank at the rear of the property. Just past the water tank is a small dirt berm that blocks vehicular traffic. Cross the berm and join up with a dirt road headed north. (This is the same dirt road that is suggested as an alternative trailhead).

At 0.5 miles the road crosses a broad and stoney wash that is the outflow of Beeman Canyon. Past the wash (actually, teetering on the edge of its far bank) a second dirt road departs to the right. Go right as this road swings northeast towards the mountains and then shyly turns back to a northerly course. In little over 0.1 miles from the first turn come to a four-way intersection of dirt roads and go right. On this new road you will be heading directly east. Go boldly into the mountains. A plethora of possible roads come in on your left, but ignore them. As long as you keep the wash on your right you can’t miss the canyon. At about 0.9 miles from the trailhead the wash makes a sharp S-bend and rock walls arise on the outside curves. Welcome to Beeman Canyon.

Twin, trailer-sized boulders announce the approach of the Jumble.

Twin, trailer-sized boulders announce the approach of the Jumble.

The hike into the lower canyon is a very mellow stroll. The bottom switches between scrubbed bedrock and stretches of sand and small rock. Layered limestone lines the walls. The available soils are so thin that you might expect to the canyon to be completely barren, yet cacti cling to crevices and both yucca and sotol will sprout where-ever a cup of earth has been deposited. There are no navigation problems – you simply stay in the canyon bottom. At about 1.7 miles from the trailhead, come to a pair of trailer-sized boulders that serve notice that the Jumble is nearby. The hike immediately above this portal is fairly open. There may be a few isolated, easy boulder blocks in the canyon bed, but it will be another 0.4 miles to get to the continuous heap-o-boulders that characterizes the Jumble.

Mike bouldering above the gateway to the Jumble

Mike bouldering above the gateway to the Jumble

At about 2.1 miles from the trailhead the bed of the canyon becomes thick with person-sized, roughly egg-shaped boulders. It is a puzzle to explain how the huge, angular rocks that protrude from the canyon walls become so markedly rounded on the canyon floor. Wind and water doubtlessly have central roles. Both factors, however, are at play in nearby places like Ortega Canyon, North Marble Canyon and South Marble Canyon. None of these nearby canyons present similar boulder playgrounds. Is the rock softer in Beeman? Does the lower angle of the grade allow for longer weathering? Regardless, the playground is there in front of you. Enjoy the challenge.

Mike on an exposed spot in mid-Jumble

Mike on an exposed spot in mid-Jumble

In most places the climbing moves are straightforward and scramblers will have little problem getting past them. There are a few spots, however, where boulder has piled upon boulder and climbing brings exposure. Scramblers who are not comfortable with these moves need only look around. There is almost always a side trail that will take you up the canyon wall and around the climbing problem, although with new challenges in the form of “shin stabbers” and prickly pear. You can’t avoid those problematic plants by climbing. Several of the hardest moves in the canyon are complicated by vegetation that is every bit as prickly as it is inconveniently placed.

This dry waterfall is where we turned around. The waterfall looks climbable, but some of its shelves are supported by exceptionally friable stone.

This dry waterfall is where we turned around. The waterfall looks climbable, but some of its shelves are supported by exceptionally friable stone.

The canyon ascent ends at a tall waterfall at about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. Be careful around this waterfall as the rock is notably rotten and there are huge boulders hanging overhead. You will find freshly fallen rock right at the base of the falls. Unlike their rounded downstream relatives, each new-fallen rock looks as though it had been had been squared by quarrymen. This dry waterfall is an outstanding place for a break. Have a snack and take in views across the Tularosa Basin to the San Andreas Mountains or scope out the high canyon walls above you.

Sample of the faint track on the steep side of Beeman Canyon.

Sample of the faint track on the steep side of Beeman Canyon.

Although it seems improbable, there is an old horse trail on the steep southern wall of Beeman Canyon (looking up-canyon it will be the right wall). Ascend on loose gravel, past sotol and yucca, in the direction of the cliff that forms the canyon top. Less than 50 feet above the floor of the waterfall you should encounter a faint old track. (Keep checking over your shoulder since it is easier to see the trail from above than from below). You could turn uphill and follow the track as it climbs into the upper end of Beeman Canyon. On this date, however, we turned right to gain the ridge and then begin a descent.

Sloping shelf below the cliff line above Beeman Canyon.

Sloping shelf below the cliffs above Beeman Canyon.

This trail, called the Sentinel Trail, makes a brief and gentle climb to just above 5600 feet. There it contours below the cliffs on a sloping shelf.  The cliffs are being slowly worn into hoodoos – several free-standing stone towers become apparent as you near them. The shelf itself is a desert wonderland of brown grasses, chaparral and stuff that prickles or stabs. If the grasses have grown over the trail then walk along at mid-shelf until you regain the tread. Great views open to the northern ridge above Beeman (Horse Ridge) and beyond to the northern Tularosa Basin. Don’t forget to look down into the canyon bottom, the view of the waterfall and the top of the Jumble is extraordinary.

One of the taller hoodoos in the Spectacle.

One of the taller hoodoos in the Sentinels.

While you walk west on a nearly level path, the rocky rim above you is descending. The top of the ridge approaches the level of the trail at about 3.8 miles from the trailhead. Here you will find a cluster of house-tall hoodoos known as the Sentinels. There are views past these towering rocks and across the basin to White Sands National Monument. We had an exceptionally clear day for this hike and the individual sand dunes in the Monument were clearly visible. The tread becomes more obvious beyond this spot as it eases out onto the broad top of Beeman Ridge. The trail is rubbly and in places rather deeply cut into ridge-top soils. From the ridge you can look south across the Sacramento Mountains as they tower above Alamogordo.

View of the knoll where the main trail departs north, but a useful side trail trends east back to the trailhead.

View of the knoll where the main trail departs north (right), but a useful side trail trends east back to the trailhead. Double click for larger image.

As you get close to the basin watch for a junction where the main trail diverts north to skirt around a knoll. You will want to find a secondary trail that goes east (left, looking downhill) and descends a rib in the direction of the trailhead. In ordinary weather the large building of Christ Community Church will be in sight. While descending the rib you may spot an old well on a flanking arroyo wall. The well appears to have been dug into a seep above the arroyo, years ago. Since that time the walls of the arroyo have worn down and opened the well like a cut-away diagram.

Return to the trailhead having hiked 6.1 miles.

Recommendations:

Half cut-away view into an old well on the side of the arroyo below the

Half cut-away view into an old well on the side of the arroyo below the knoll

♦This is a great hike for folks who are comfortable being off trail and in good enough shape to do small bouldering problems. Beeman Canyon is probably too difficult for young children, risk-adverse parents or the strongly acrophobic. Just about anyone, however, may find that the road and the broad canyon bed in the lower part of the canyon makes for a very enjoyable stroll. An easy hike can be had by turning back at the “gates” for the Jumble.

♦This was a terrific mid-winter scramble. On this date the weather was very mild, so I only went through a liter of water. Under warmer conditions this west-facing canyon would get toasty. Adjust your water load accordingly.

♦The Sacramento Mountains do rattle and they are home to various stinging insects. Especially in warmer weather, be careful about where you place your hands. Even the plants can sting, so gloves are strongly recommended.

♦This hike crosses private land. Please keep these kind folks happy by treating their property respectfully.

Links:

View of cliff-tops above the dry falls in Beeman Canyon.

View of cliff-tops above the dry falls in Beeman Canyon.

♦Mike, who led this hike, has a description on the Hike Arizona site that takes you all the way into the upper part of Beeman Canyon and its North Fork.

♦That’s about it! This fun little scramble seems to be almost unknown on the web.

Overview:

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark's Tooth Peak

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark’s Tooth Peak (center)

This is a strenuous scramble. It averages just under 1000 feet of gain per mile, which some may see as a mild challenge. Attentive map readers will observe that very little of that gain comes at the beginning of the hike. Consequently, the end game is an exercise in geologic “shock and awe”. In close company with cacti, ocotillo and sotol, scramblers find themselves kicking steps into a scree surface over steep terrain. Falling is an option, but a tumble or two in such prickly quarters is not going to improve morale. The rewards come in the last quarter mile. Having gained good footing on the ridge top, you’ll find precipitous views north into the basaltic wonderland surrounding Baldy and Organ Peak and long views south across the Organ Mountains all the way to Bishops Cap.

This route is not for beginners. On USGS maps Shark’s Tooth is identified only with an altitude label, “point 7974”.

Driving Directions:

  • On East University Avenue, in Las Cruces, head east and reset your mileage meter at the traffic light for the on-ramp to I-25 South. Continue east on University Avenue. (Don’t get on I-25).
  • After 4.9 miles on East University Avenue turn right onto Soledad Canyon Road. (University Avenue is renamed to Dripping Springs Road after just 1.3 miles, but the transition is not well signed).
  • After 0.6 miles make a left turn. The new road is still known as Soledad Canyon Road.
  • After 4.2 more miles, at the end of the road, park in the Soledad Canyon parking area (gravel).

Trailhead:

The trailhead is a gravel parking area with a trash receptacle and a map board. There is no water (although there is a functioning windmill nearby). The trailhead is close to town and (unlike Dripping Springs) free of charge. It is popular with photographers, dog walkers, birders and mountain runners. The parking area was not packed on this date, but there may be days when an early arrival would be advisable.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5600 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7980
  • Elevation Gain: 2380
  • Distance: 2.5 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

01 Soledad Canyon Trail

Soledad Trail leading out of the parking area, Shark’s Tooth is the conical peak straight ahead.

From the trailhead ascend uphill into the canyon on the Soledad Trail. The trail is a well maintained and much-used, so navigation is generally obvious. There is a large side-canyon coming in from the northeast called Bar Canyon, which leads to a popular waterfall. You want to remain in Soledad Canyon. Arrive at a fork for Bar Canyon at 0.2 miles, at a junction where the Soledad Trail leaves the tread to the right. Go right onto the trail and continue ascending. The trail crosses a wash at several places and the wash is so open that it is tempting to ascend it.

The lower end of Shark Tooth's rocky ridgeline.

The lower end of Shark’s Tooth’s rocky ridgeline, Chimney Rock is on the photo’s right side.

If you do find yourself hiking in the wash, don’t worry. You are going in the right general direction. Just look for the next trail crossing to regain the Soledad Trail. If you find yourself in a short and rock-walled canyon that is blocked at the uphill end, then you have gone a little too far. Turn back to where the rock walls begin and leave the wash on the steep, gravelly north bank to regain the trail. You should be near a rocky ridge (shown above) with a volcanic throat called Chimney Rock. You will be ascending Shark’s Tooth along the far side of this ridge.

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark's Tooth Peak

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark’s Tooth Peak

The Soledad Trail terminates at a stout metal fence 1.2 miles from the trailhead. Turn left (north) and ascend a climbers tread that follows the fence line. At the top of the first knoll look north towards Shark’s Tooth. In the adjacent photo Chimney rock is on the left and the summit of Shark’s Tooth is in the middle. The peak’s shoulder runs down towards Chimney Rock. At the apparent intersection look for a whitish rock rock face on the shoulder (rather small in this photo). The route described here takes you across the intervening grassy valley to the flanks of the mountain. Then it ascends a steep sided bowl towards this whitish rock face. (Here referred to as “the target rock”). Also, look at the lower right corner of the photo. There you will see an area of bare rock where flowing water has scrubbed away soil and vegetion. The easiest way into the valley is to descend from the knoll to the top of this scrubbed rock (as opposed to staying along the ridge to get to Chimney rock). From the scrubbed area move out into the valley, crossing three small arroyos, and ascend toward the target rock on the mountain’s shoulder.

05 valley view

Wendy and Jerry (on descent) in the valley below Shark’s Tooth. The target rock is the whitish dot on the ridge top, directly below the cloud.

The valley floor rises towards Shark’s Tooth and offers several possibilities for ascent. Look for a bowl below the ridge line west of the summit. In the photo on the left, the west side of a bowl is defined by a large, blocky rock rib (coming in from the left edge of the photo). The east side of the bowl is defined by the pale cliff face that descends from the summit and arrows into the basin, forming an arête between the bowl on the left and the mountain’s front face on the right. But how do you enter this bowl? Study that blocky lefthand rib and you’ll see that its foot is shrouded in dense green vegetation. Presumably, that’s awkward terrain for travel. (It may help to double-click the photo to see it enlarged). But to the right of that green mass you will see a bit of pale rock that provides you an easy entrance. Ascend the valley and enter the bowl.

View to the target rock on the shoulder of Shark's Tooth.

View to the target rock atop the shoulder (center) and eastern arête (right edge). Photo taken from the entry to the western bowl.

The entrance to the bowl, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, is a great place to stop for a drink and take on some nourishment. The route is about to get a wee bit steep. In the doubtful shade of a huge, all-but-dead aligator juniper, crane your neck and study the terrain above you. The low point is a col just uphill of the blocky western rib. It is tempting to go that way, since it looks as if the remaining ascent along the ridge would be easy. Previous experience, however, indicates that you also want to study the intervening vegetation. It can be ugly. Here, turn your attention to the arête on the east side (right, looking up hill). Its edge also has heavy vegetation, but a short distance away from the arête is open, grassy and steep terrain.

Wendy and Jerry (on descent) in steep and thorny terrain

Wendy and Jerry (on descent) in steep and thorny bowl-side terrain

From the bowl’s entrance, battle uphill on a rising traverse towards the grassy area. The first hundred yards are especially plagued with dense growth. The rubbly nature of this slope becomes very apparent. Rivlets of scree erupt from the soil. Ascending this rubble is a thigh burning matter of pushing upwards and sliding backwards. Side-hilling (that is, making your own small switchbacks) can reduce the slippage. As you near the shoulder the slope eases slightly and a number of juniper trees help to stabilize the terrain. Here and there you may also find animal trails. The stabilized soil on these trails is a real asset. As you approach the shoulder pull east (to the right) of the target rock.

Basaltic wonderland north of Shark's Tooth.

Basaltic wonderland north of Shark’s Tooth.

On descent it can be difficult to know where to leave the shoulder. So, when you arrive, commit that ridge site to memory. But do not wait long to look over the ridge to the phantasmagoria that is the southern Organ Mountains. Rock walls soar and canyons plunge in ways that would give fighter pilots reason to pause. A prominence to the north has some similarity to Baldy Peak, but most likely it is the huge buttress that descends towards the west from Baldy’s true summit.

View to North Organ Mountains from Shark's Tooth summit.

View to northern Organ Mountains from Shark’s Tooth summit.

Having hiked about 2.2 miles from the trailhead, turn east and ascend the firm terrain on the ridge top. In places the ridge broadens out and is forested – make note of your path for the sake of an untroubled return. Arrive at the summit having hiked a mere 2.5 miles. Look south to Bishops Cap, west into the Tularosa Basin and north over the dark rock of the southern Organs to Organ Needle and the pale granite mass of the northern Organ Spires. In the west find Las Cruces, Picacho Peak, the distant horn of Cooke’s Peak and (on the faintest horizon) the bumps that are South and North Florida Peaks. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author on the rocky entrance to the bowl below Shark's Tooth.

Author on the rocky entrance to the bowl below Shark’s Tooth.

As mentioned at the start, this is a strenuous scramble. It’s only five miles round trip, but the stress of ascending steep, wild and prickly terrain on mushy footing is very real. A beginner who is about college-age, adventurous and very fit could do this hike and enjoy it. Most beginners will be a thousand-fold happier on the trail up to Baylor Pass or hiking the Pine Tree Trail at Aguirre Springs.

There is little to no shade on this south-facing trail. Place this on your “cold season only” list of hikes.

Do put this on your list of hikes. The Organ Mountains have few places with as much reward per mile.

There currently is no protection for the summit register – we found it lying on the grass. Rain has already washed the old names out of the register. If you’re doing this scramble, consider bringing something waterproof to hold this notebook. The register is about 10-inches long and 7-inches wide, but it could curl. Please leave a comment here so other’s know.

On a windy and sometimes chilly November day I barely touched my water – drinking about a liter. Bring more, of course. There are going to be warm days when 5 liters isn’t enough.

The basis for this report was a hike organized by the Jornada Hiking Club. Many thanks to Steven K. for leading this scramble and getting us out into the mountains.

Links:

Ryan Conklin has video posts from ascents in 2014 and 2013. Both videos show summit views from Shark’s Tooth (which he also names as Butler Peak). He identifies several mountains in the interior of the Organ Mountains that look very challenging. In addition, his “Appalachian Ink Trail” website has an entry describing his 2014 ascent. (That website also has a number of great posts regarding his experiences on the AT). It appears that Ryan chose to stay on the ridge above Chimney rock to get to the summit. That would be a significantly different route than the bowl-ascent described here.

Samat has a full GPS track posted for another trip to Shark’s Tooth. Samat’s track looks very similar to the one described here. Apparently Samat did the hike in 2012 with the Jornada Hiking Club, which also has it’s own trip report. That report emphasizes the route’s steepness and loose scree. Count on it!

Overview:

Hiking offtrail in the Franklin Mountains State Park

East side of the Franklin Mountains.

This route is a desert ramble in a strikingly urban environment. It was shaped by a late start, by poor interpretation of satellite imagery and by a thwarted attempt to ascend a small slot canyon on the flanks of the Franklin Mountains. In all, a great little excursion. It is included here because a civilized stroll in Chihuahuan terrain may interest newcomers, because thwarted attempts are by no means unusual and because there aren’t many ways to better spend a cool November day than by rambling footloose in the desert.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 South.
  • After 2.9 miles the interstate merges with I-10 East.
  • After 16.9 more miles, take Exit 162 for NM-404 (signed for Anthony/Chapparal).
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-404.
  • After 8.1 miles, just a few feet short of a traffic circle, go right on a connector that merges into NM-213 (War Road) going south.
  • After 2.6 miles, at the Texas border, the road becomes Farm To Market 3255/Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Continue straight.
  • After 4.9 more miles, at a traffic light, turn right onto Jon Cunningham Road.
  • After 0.4 miles come to a T-intersection with Officer Andrew Barcena Drive. Straight ahead is the entrance for the parking lot for a city park.  Park in the parking lot.

Looking at Google Maps you will see a number of roads extending from Martin Luther King Jr Blvd west toward the Franklin Mountains, north of Jon Cunningham Road. These are private roads, however, and not open to the public. I stopped at one of these ranch roads and talked with Richard, a cattleman, who was very cordial. His first concern was for the oil pan of my low-slung Camry on such roads. He pointed out that his road was in such bad shape that he was having it graded, then invited me to come back after the grading was done. (The grader drove past while we were talking). Since this guide is not private I had to decline his very kind offer.

Trailhead:

trailhead for Franklin Mountains Desert Ramble

The mighty Camry (actually, the incapacitated Camry) poised in its native heath.

The trailhead is a parking lot for the Chuck Heinrick Park in the North Hills neighborhood of El Paso. I did not see any trailhead services other than the parking spaces. The location is very popular with both mountain bikers and folks out walking the dog. On nice weekend days you may find it necessary to park along the flanking streets.

Although the city park is free, entrance to the Franklin Mountains State Park is not. After walking about a quarter mile from the parking lot you will enter the state park. There you will have to fill in a form on an envelope (it is a good idea to bring along a pencil) and pay. On this date the fee was $5.00, but check the state website for up-to-date information.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 4140 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5220 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1080 feet
  • Distance: 8.7 miles
  • Maps: USGS North Franklin quadrangle

Hike Description:

03 south along the dam

Head uphill  from the parking lot towards the sloping concrete reinforcement-walls of a flood control dam. Just before reaching the dam, turn left and follow a path up onto the top of this embankment. Your destination is to the northwest, but first you must dodge around the flood control basin uphill of the dam. Head south on the embankment top (the first righthand path dead-ends in the basin), and follow the dam as it curves uphill . At 0.3 miles from the trailhead, reach the border of the Franklin Mountains State Park. Fill out the deposit envelope and leave your entrance fee. The road returns north until you are back parallel with the trailhead and then bends to the west. This part of the trip is a road ramble and very popular. Runners, dog walkers and bicyclists are thick on the ground.

hiking, scrambling near Anthony's Nose Franklin Mountain

View to Anthony’s Nose and the north Franklin Mountains

Take a moment to get oriented as you ascend the lowest skirts of this mountain range. To the north lies the highest point of the Franklin Mountains in New Mexico, a prominence named Anthony’s Nose. This peak, shaped like the schnoz of a reclining man, soars over the end-point of this route. To get there you will be roving over the ribs and weaving up the arroyos that sculpt the bajada.

View of the southern Franklin Mountains.

View of the southern Franklin Mountains. Navigation Hill is the green prominence in the mid-ground.

To the south you will see Mundy’s Gap and North Franklin Mountain. In the mid-ground is a small foothill, labeled on the topo-maps as point 4857. Here it is referred to as as Navigation Hill. Study this foothill as you hike since it is a very useful marker of near-the-trailhead terrain. As you ascend the slopes the road starts to bend south towards Mundy’s Gap and away from the northern reaches. So, when the road points itself at the north flank of Navigation Hill, depart from the road to the right (north) to cross a wide arroyo and rise to a rib top on the far side. On this date I scared up four jack rabbits and a lizard. This would be the only reptile noticed on the hike; a rare instance where sightings of warm-blooded organisms out-numbered the cold blooded.

flora on the Franklin Mountains hike.

Well camouflaged cacti, appearing to be burrowing into the terrain.

Much of the magic on this hike, both black and white, lies in the needle-y, spiny, thorny, bristly, pokey, and saw-like natural flora. Here you will find all the Chihuahaun favorites: long leafed sotol, feathery mesquite and tall yucca. One genus that deserves particular mention is the stout-leafed and needle-pointed agave, sometimes called shin daggers. These grew to near lawn-like density on the tops of the lowest ribs – the sort of lawn that would force croquet to be played with medicine balls and war hammers. Another striking plant is a species of cactus (shown above) that is four or more inches in diameter but only rises an inch or two above the soil line. An online search showed some similarity to Enchinocactus horizonthalonius, also known as “Eagle Claw Cactus”. Boots make it possible to move amidst these plants. The sneaker footed will want to stay on bike trails.

Possible fossilized burrows

Possible fossilized burrows

Steer toward Anthony’s Nose. Even in November the desert is still scattered with flowering plants in yellow, white and purple display. The bushier of these tend to cluster in the arroyos where some of the geology of the Franklin Mountains is also on display. The fossil shown above is composed of a dense array of bumps arranged hexagonally. This seems to be the mineralized record of burrows formed by an ocean dweller named Paleodictyon nodosum, which apparently survives to this day in the deep oceans. Here in the state park, cacti and sea bottom co-exist.

A deep gully points straight at Anthony's Nose on ascent.

A deep gully points straight at Anthony’s Nose on ascent.

At 2.1 miles from the trailhead intersect an obvious bike trail that makes long, S-shaped switchbacks as it ascends a rib between two large arroyos. Follow it uphill until it intersects an old road and turn right on the road to head north along the foot of the Franklin mountains. At 2.6 miles the road descends into a major drainage. Looking uphill you will see that this drainage collects the water from the ridgeline south of Anthony’s Nose. Head uphill in this arroyo on a pleasant, sandy bottom. Soon, however, the terrain steepens and the once broadly-sloped banks rise high and vertical as the waterway becomes a trench-like gully. Be wary. Where water has undercut the banks a loose matrix of soil is holding bowling-ball sized rocks over thin air.

View towards the ridgeline, with the walls of a slot canyon gleaming in the sunlight.

View towards the ridge line with the walls of a slot canyon gleaming in the sunlight.

Several canyons descend from the ridge line to feed into the gully. At the confluence of these canyons, find a high road cut into the mountainside that crosses the waterway. Find an exit from the gully bed and stroll on the high road to the south bank of the gully. Looking up-canyon, scan for what may be a rising system of grass covered ledges or, possibly, a road abandoned long-long ago. This apparent road stays along the south side of the canyon as the canyon rises and furrows into smaller streams. Above the furthest visible point on the road there seems to be a slot canyon. Experienced scramblers may want to ascend the slot canyon. Others will have a better time taking in the views, having a bite to eat and returning as described in the paragraph after next.

scrambling a slot in the Franklin Mountains

Blocked slot canyon with brush covered chock stone (double click for greater detail)

Leave the high road by climbing over an embankment and find the grass-covered ledge/road. Follow it along the canyon wall and note how the vegetation has changed. On the bajada there was some space between plants. Here they are firmly entangled, if no less thorny. Each little open grassy space is a major improvement in your circumstances. In just 0.2 miles this ledge/road system runs into a side canyon and ends. Descend into the main waterway on sloped, but solid, terrain. Push past the dense brush in the bottom of the stream and ascend steep and loose gravel to the north bank. Let the upper walls of the slot canyon be your guide as you ascend. You are almost in the slot canyon when you come to a watercourse carved into the north wall that is packed with a virtual river of prickly pear. Ascend on the sloped north wall until you reach a point where you can ford this virtual river. The next watercourse also looks pear-packed, but it is navigable. Descend to the canyon bed and you will be in the floor of the slot. A mere 50 feet up the slot there is a large vertical chalkstone with dense bushes growing on top. Skillful climbers might find a way around this blockage (there is an apparent weakness on the south side). On this date, however, this formed the turn-around point.

hiking the Franklin Mountain State Park

Navigation Hill (left) as seen from the high road.

Return down canyon to the high road. On the high road, turn south and enjoy easy ambling on a wide tread with the Franklins towering over your right and views into suburban El Paso on your left. The road will strike a rib and make a long contour to the east, double back into a canyon, and then return to the front of the range. Here, five miles from the trailhead, leave the road southeast along a gently inclined rib that is pointed a little east of Navigation Hill. As you near its foot, swing directly towards Navigation Hill, cross a large arroyo and arrive at a dirt road. Cross this road and rise directly onto the next rib. Scout to the east and find a wide bike trail heading due south towards Navigation Hill. After hiking 6.1 miles from the trailhead, come to a signed intersection with the road back to the trailhead. Head east on the road as it rounds Navigation Hill, and follow the road back to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

♦Do this hike on a nice winter’s day. If you’ve not been out in the Chihuahuan Desert before, then you could hardly ask for a better opportunity to ramble. There is enough company (joggers and bikers) that you will not feel totally on your own. Navigation problems are obviated by the mountains on the west, the extensive housing tracts on the east, and the mass of Navigation Hill near the trailhead. A heavy dust storm could be problematic, but that just means paying attention to the weather and weather forecasts.

♦Enjoy the back country of this state park in heavy boots and long pants. The desert is not kind to people in sneakers and shorts. I was glad to have on ballistic-fiber gators. These gators are usually sold as protection from snakes, but they also armor your shins against thorns and spines.

♦The bikers I encountered were unfailingly polite and seemingly expert. Still, even the best bikers have moments of poor bike management – it is smarter to stand aside just as you would for a horse rider.

♦As with all desert sojourns, take along some extra water. Surprisingly, I got through almost all of the 4 liters that I had brought with me. Next time I’ll bring along six.

♦The short scramble up to the slot canyon could be very uncomfortable for a new hiker; the terrain is steep and loose and prickly. It is poor location to learn climbing moves.

Links:

♦Desert hikes get very little attention and the terrain adjacent to the Franklin Mountains is no exception. A terrific overview of the biking, hiking and climbing opportunities has been posted by Outdooraholic on the Summit Post site.

♦On-Walkabout has an extensive description of hiking in similar terrain on the west side of the Park (aiming for Anthony’s Nose) that includes some very useful photos of the terrain.

♦Greg at the Greg’s Running Adventures site celebrates the terrain in the Franklin Mountains State Park from a runners perspective.

♦Devon, at Southern New Mexico Explorer, has several brief posts in which he illustrates the terrain and comments on the difficulties sometimes encountered in steep desert desert terrain and sometimes encountered in near-urban environments.

Overview:

Mt Riley. Approach is from the left side and descent is down the rib to the right.

Mt Riley. The approach is on a ridge coming in from the left side and the descent is down the rib to the right.

This route is an off-trail journey in the Potrillo Volcanic Field (potrillo is Spanish for “foal”) within the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eruption risk is minimal, but there are risks due to temperature extremes, steep and difficult footing, the lack of any trails, the near-total absence of other visitors, and potential navigational hazards such as dust or thunder storms. All of which is made manageable by hiking in the cool season, bringing friends, carrying the requisite navigational aids and keeping an eye on the weather. You get a great hike in stark, other-worldly terrain that is an easy drive from Las Cruces.

Mt Riley is part of a ridge that extends for two miles west to east. For ease of reference it is called the Riley Ridge in this guide. Mount Riley proper, at 5905 feet, anchors the east end of Riley Ridge. “Point 5782” (named after the altitude label on the USGS quadrangle) anchors the west end. South of Point 5782 is the summit of Cox Peak. In this scramble you will traverse the Riley Ridge and return via the Cox-Riley valley.

Driving Directions:

This shallow waterway is also the jeep track.

This shallow waterway is also the jeep track.

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going south.
  • After 3.0 miles I-25 merges with I-10 going east.
  • After 29.1 miles (having crossed into Texas) take Exit 8 for Texas Highway 178, also known as Aircraft Road. The exit will first merge onto a frontage road called South Desert Road.
  • After 0.6 miles on South Desert Road, at a traffic light, go right onto Texas Highway 178.
  • After 2.9 miles, at the state border, the road is renamed to NM 136 (also known as the Peter V. Domenici Highway). Reset your mileage meter here.
  • After 6.1 miles on NM 136 turn right onto NM 9. There is a small road sign, but there is no traffic light (this may seem odd as there are traffic lights at earlier junctions on NM 136). If you miss this turn then you will come to the Santa Teresa Port of Entry border station in less than 2 miles.
  • After 23.8 more miles, go right onto County Road Ao05. There is the usual road sign as well as a second sign saying “Mt Riley”. CR-Ao05 is a gravel road.
  • After 8.5 miles turn right onto a jeep track and park on the grassy area to the side. The jeep track can be a little hard to identify so the following navigation clues may be useful
    • After 1.2 miles on CR-Ao05 come to the Mt Riley Ranch, where there are two gates across the road. You will have to open the gates, drive through, close and re-latch them (unless the ranch has left them open).
    • After 4.5 miles on CR-Ao05 come to an intersection where County Road Ao07 departs to your right. (CR Ao07 is used for the Cox Peak trailhead, but here it is just used to check navigation).
    • After 8.0 miles on CR-Ao05 (approximately) the mesquite and chaparral bushes that line the sides of the road start falling away, and there are larger and larger stretches of grassland beside the road. You can see into the valley between Cox Peak and Riley Ridge. You are getting close.
    • After 8.5 miles on CR-Ao05, while crossing a broad and only barely noticeable height of land, you will find a shallow, two-foot wide waterway coming in on your right. Although it doesn’t look much like a jeep track, that’s what it is.

If you go past the jeep track then CR-Ao05 will take on a slight downhill pitch. Turn back. Drivers of low clearance vehicles will want to park immediately beside CR-Ao05. Drivers of high clearance vehicles can drive a mile further on the jeep track to the campsite described below.

Trailhead

03 trailhead

The mighty Camry, parked below Point 5782 on the west end of Riley Ridge.

The trailhead is just a grassy spot beside CR Ao05. There are no services. When pulling off the road watch for the small mesquite bushes hidden in the grasses. Their thorns are not good for your tire’s sidewalls. Also, if a road grader has recently passed this spot then there may be a small berm on the roadside. High-suspended vehicles would have no problem, but sedan drivers may want to have a shovel handy.

Data

  • Starting Elevation: 4440 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5905 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1465 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Mt Riley quadrangle

Hiking Description

View from second campsite on jeep road to Point 5782. The feeder arroyo that takes yo to the ascent rib is on the left side of the photo.

View from second campsite on jeep track to Point 5782. The feeder arroyo is the green swath on the lower right side of the photo.

Follow the jeep track as it makes a shallow climb to the east along the Cox/Riley valley floor. This valley is saddle-shaped rather than spoon-shaped. That is, the high point for a traveler going west to east along the valley floor would be the low point for a traveler going south-to-north from Cox Peak to Point 5782. Study that saddle point as you ascend the jeep track. It is important to navigation on return. After one mile on the track come to a campsite with a rock fire ring. Look closely and you will find a much fainter jeep track ascending for another two-tenths of a mile on the Mt Cox side of the valley. The faint jeep track ends at a second campsite. Peruse the prominent rib that descends from Point 5728 almost straight at you. That rib is your path to the ridge. Descend north-east to the central arroyo in the valley floor, cross, and ascend along side a feeder arroyo that takes you toward the rib.

View along "Open Ocotillo Avenue" to a false summit ascending to Point 5782

View along the “open ridge avenue” to a false summit on ascent to Point 5782

After leaving the jeep track you will be entirely off trail. As you cross the valley floor watch for dense accumulations of prickly pear cactus, thorny mesquite and saw-like sotol. This is no place for sneakers or shorts. At about 1.4 miles from the trailhead the terrain begins to steepen. Leave the feeder arroyo and stick to the rib as it becomes increasingly steep. Initially the rib is rather broad and open, making it easy to throw in a few switchbacks. At about 1.7 miles from the trailhead come to a shoulder on the rib. The gradient eases and the rib-top becomes more sharply defined. Ocotillo plants appear, but oddly they don’t seem to grow well on the very top of the rib (perhaps due to wind-damage). An open ridge-top avenue takes you skyward. The terrain rises and shelves several times, but you eventually arrive at the summit of Point 5782 having walked 2 miles from the trailhead.

View from Point 5782 along the ridge to Mt Riley.

View from Point 5782 along the ridge to Mt Riley. The western-most peaklet is visible in front of Mt Riley.

The views are terrific. The blocky mass of Cox Peak dominates the south. Immediately to the west are the cinder cones of the Potrillo Volcanic Field. Beyond lie the Florida Mountains. To the north are the Las Uvas and Robledo Mountains, while the Organ Mountains dominate the north-east. Eventually, however, you must turn your attention south of east and focus on the long ridge that will take you to Mt Riley. Descend on easy terrain to reach a pleasant col and then gird yourself for the climb to the first of three peaklets along Riley Ridge. The climb is easy. At the top you get your first view of the middle peaklet, which is topped with a pair of small knolls separated by a little pass. Drop down on steep terrain with lots of loose rocks, cross a minor saddle and rise to “Middle Peaklet Pass” 2.4 miles from the trailhead.

View from Mid Bump Pass down to the third bump and Mt Riley.

View from Middle Peaklet Pass down to the eastern peaklet, the main saddle and the west face of Mt Riley.

From here look down to the eastern-most peaklet and beyond to the steep flank of Mt Riley. You will definitely be losing lots of hard-won elevation. But, there is much to be learned here. The top of Mt Riley is almost flat. When you eventually near the top you will be coming to a western shoulder and then strolling east in a park-like environment to the summit. This can be seen, in the photo above, where the top of Mt Riley appears slightly notched. The shoulder is on the left and the summit is on the right of this “notch”. More importantly, the climb from the main saddle directly up the mountain’s steep west face is an unattractive route. Instead, when you leave the main saddle you will want to climb the west face until ascent becomes difficult, then turn right (more southerly) and perform a rising traverse across the mountain to gain the rib that descends from the shoulder. That rib can be seen in the photo as a smooth, light-colored curve descending from the shoulder. It is still steep but the footing is better.

Steep terrain and plate-like rock flakes decorate the steep flanks of Mt Riley.

Steep terrain, cacti and plate-like rock shingles decorate the flanks of Mt Riley.

Enough theory? Descend from Middle Peaklet Pass down to the last peaklet of Riley Ridge. This terrain is moderately inclined and etched with cattle trails. As you near the eastern-most peaklet you will pick up an old barbed wire fence. Follow it along the ridge to the main saddle directly below Mt. Riley, having hiked 2.7 miles. Continue following the fence across this grassy saddle onto Mount Riley’s west face. Where the grasses give over to juniper, barrel cacti and rock turn right and begin that rising traverse across difficult terrain. As pictured above, you will encounter ledges that are flaking off large piles of broad rock shingles. Some of those piles are none-too-stable. There is a marked improvement in the footing when you gain the rib that descends from the mountain’s shoulder.

View from ascent rib south and east to the East Potrillo Mountains

View from ascent rib south and east to the East Potrillo Mountains

On the rib turn uphill and zig-zag past ledges, dodge ocotillo thickets and push by more barrel cactus. (On this date these cacti had orderly circles of vividly yellow fruit on display). The angle is pretty severe so don’t be too distracted as views open to the East Potrillo Mountains. At 3.1 miles reach the shoulder and, as promised, an effortless stroll to the summit cairn in less than 100 yards. The views are similar to those from Point 5782, but with spectacular sight lines east to Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater out in the middle of the Mesilla Basin. Beyond the craters lie the Franklin Mountains.

Riley Ridge from Mount Riley Summit

Riley Ridge from Mount Riley Summit

Also, there are absorbing views west that reveal the full extent of Riley Ridge. That’s quite a scramble you’ve just had. Take a break. Grab a bite to eat. It can be hard to beat an in-season orange consumed in the warm New Mexican sunshine while sitting on a desert peak and studying possible approaches to the East Potrillos. Eventually, though, the lure of the valley below will induce you to hoist your pack. Head south, picking your way past junipers and aiming towards the east slopes of Cox Peak. Descend a broad rib that tumbles through layers of softer rock and then shelves as it strikes the harder stuff.

Looking over the south-east projecting "claw" at the foot of Mount Riley, towards the summit of Cox Peak.

Looking over the south-east projecting “claw” at the foot of Mount Riley, towards the summit of Cox Peak.

Near its foot the mountain sends out two claw-like projections. Stay a little to the left (east) to get onto the south-projecting claw and then turn right and contour down to the top of the south-east projecting claw. Having hiked 3.5 miles, you are nearing the valley floor. You want to set a course that will return you to the valley’s saddle point. There are an infinity of choices.  On this route, stay high and contour west along the base of the mountain on easily followed animal trails. This will take you across the southern face of Mt Riley to a point below the ridge’s main saddle. Follow a rib descending from main ridge and gradually work your way into the steep-sided arroyo on the rib’s west side. From the far bank aim towards the center of the valley, but try to avoid losing so much elevation that you have a long climb back to the valley’s saddle point.

Continue west, dropping into drainages and fighting up over each far bank to regain the table-land. Some of this table-land is covered with dense, light-brown grass. The grassland looks attractive from a distance. Up close, however, those dense grasses make it hard to see the light brown rocks that lurk beneath. Walking becomes a very slow process. The juniper, cactus and mesquite terrain is actually easier to negotiate. You quickly learn to steer away from the light brown patches in favor of the dark-colored terrain. At about 4.3 miles, come to the valley’s central arroyo and cross it. Above the bank on the Cox Peak side you should find a well-defined trail heading up towards the valley’s saddle point. This is great for tired legs. Continue along the trail to the valley’s saddle point, cross over, and then head down-valley. At 5.0 miles, return to the campsite at the upper end of the faint jeep track. Follow the jeep track back to the trailhead, having hiked 6.1 miles.

Recommendations

The author on the summit of Mount Riley (Cox Peak in the background).

The author on the summit of Mount Riley (Cox Peak in the background).

♦This is an outstanding cold-season hike. The conditions at the start of November, for example, were perfect. It was cool, a bit windy and overcast. Hikers who are not training for the Death Valley Marathon will want to stay away during the hot months.

♦A second good reason for favoring the winter months is that I saw only two reptiles on this hike. (One lizard, one horned toad). The reports say that the terrain can rattle in warmer weather. See below.

♦Bring friends. This place is so lonely that there are yellow flowers growing in the crown of County Road Ao05 (these flowers look something like tickseed).

♦Bring a map, compass and a GPS device. Bring knowledge of how to use them. On nice days there may be some grumbling about this (“hey, I can see 100 miles from here”). On nice days that turn sour – when rain or dust blows in – you’ll be glad to have independent means for navigating.

Bring all the water that you need for rehydration plus an emergency liter or two. On this November day I used about 2.5 liters of water. It was reassuring to have carried four.

Links

♦RayRay, on Summit Post, has a very complete report on scrambling Mt. Riley. He was able to drive the jeep track and then hiked the Cox-Riley valley to get to the base of Mt. Riley. From there he did a direct ascent and returned by the same route. That cuts the round trip distance to 4.4 miles.

♦Greg at Greg’s Running Adventures has a thoughtful post viewing Mount Riley from a runners perspective. It includes a number of great photos, including evidence that the scramble can be rattle-y.

♦There is a YouTube video of Hadley Robinson paragliding near the summit of Mount Riley. The video was made in 2009 so the images are grainy. The video includes shots of the summit and several good views of the East Potrillo Mountains. Still photographs from the event (with a great deal more resolution) can be found here.

♦This hike is located close to the Mexican border. The Federal Government advises caution in this area due to the potential for illegal border crossing activity. They also warn that the road may become impassable during wet weather.