Archives for category: Organ Mountains
View from the Cloven Shoulder: Florida Mountains, Cooke Peak and Black Range on horizon

Overview:

This scramble takes you to Sharkstooth Pass, immediately east of Sharkstooth Peak in the Organ Mountains, then down to the saddle separating North Canyon and Bar Canyon. The ascent involves “Organ-eering”, a blood-spill minimizing skillset for scrambling amidst mesquite, prickly pear, shin stabbers, chollo, banana yucca, columnar cacti and ocotillo. This, while bashing through gray oak, Gamble oak and mountain mahogany thickets. Footing will be uncertain, the terrain steep. Organeering is an acquired taste. The route crosses over the boundaries of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. The authorities there have been quietly tolerant of hiker’s who shave the corners of the reserve. A day-long drumbeat of distant artillery confirmed, utterly, assertions of live ordinance use. Having gone, I’m left feeling that this route edges uncomfortably far into the base.

So why describe it? Two reasons. First, Baldy Peak climbers might need a plausible bug-out route. Second (in the unlikely event of artillery practice being discontinued) this route might one day form part of an official Baldy Peak Trail.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) in Las Cruces, NM, take Exit 1. 
  • At the end of the ramp turn east on University Drive
    • If driving south (e.g. from Albuquerque) turn left
    • If driving north (e.g. from El Paso, TX) turn right
  • After 4.9 miles on University Drive turn right onto Soledad Canyon Road (well signed)
    •  at some point University Drive is renamed to Dripping Springs Road, although the transition point is not clear. Ignore the rename and simply treat this as a single road.
  • After 5.2 miles on Soledad Canyon Road, at the road’s end, park in the trailhead parking lot.
    • At 0.6 miles on Soledad Canyon Road, just before a firehouse, the road makes a sharp left-hand turn. The turn is well signed.

Kudos to the Las Cruces taxpayers. Once an automotive hardship, Soledad Canyon Road is now an attractive sojourn. A terrific bike lane lies near to the road and climbs to the trailhead. Nice job LCDOT!

Trailhead:

RuTwo in an extraordinarily engineered trailhead

The short entrance road (formerly rife with gullies, edged rocks, lumpy boulders, potholes and other impending disasters) now glides to the trailhead on smooth pavement. A gate at the start of the entrance road signals that Soledad Canyon Road (a city street) has ended. There are no services here (water, toilet, or trash receptacles). No fees are required, but a trail register takes pride of place at the trail entrance. Please sign – the register helps keep Soledad Canyon Day Use Area open.

Google reports that the trailhead opens at 8:00 AM and closes at 5:00 PM, although the underlying BLM website does not show the hours. Arrive a little early! The new ease-of-access could make this a very popular weekend destination.

Data:

The yellow line in the above map depicts the route taken going into the pass. The blue line depicts the route coming back from the pass.

  • Starting Elevation: 5568 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 7639 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2070 feet
  • Distance: 3.0 miles (one way)

Hike Description

First trail junction

From the trailhead hike up-canyon past a registration box and an information kiosk. At 0.2 miles come to a fork. The left-hand branch goes north into Bar Canyon, stay right to hike into Soledad Canyon. The path generally stays on the bank of the main arroyo with occasional crossings. It used to be hard to distinguish the trail and the wash, but on this date every crossing was clearly signed.

A distant Chimney Rock

At 0.7 miles come to a second junction, unsigned. Take the fork heading southeast (go right on ascent). I walked past the branch (see the short yellow stub in the map) because there is a line of rocks across tread. These are meant to keep loop-hikers on the loop trail. Step over the rocks and continue up Soledad Canyon. This portion of the trail runs on an old two-track that occasionally churns straight up the canyon bed. Ahead of you towers Chimney Rock, the throat of an ancient volcano.

Fort Bliss Border signage

Soledad Canyon soon begins to close in. At 1.3 miles, with Chimney Rock directly opposite your left shoulder, come to a steel fence across the two-track. Stern and accurate signage asserts a base border and reminds you of the inadvisability of messing with unexploded ordinance. If you still want to organeer, turn northeast, towards Chimney Rock, and follow the fence line up hill. The steel posts of this fence soon give out and a bold climber’s tread heads uphill and to the east.

Chimney Rock Tank

At 1.5 miles the tread drops to the upper end of Chimney Rock Tank, one of the rare water-resources in the Organ Mountains. The water was algae-green on this date, although you could filter treat it. Wild life and cattle depend on this tank so try not to linger. Instead, look upstream and pick out the game trail that ascends along the tank’s easterly bank (the rib on your right as you look uphill). Follow this many-branched trail to gain top of the rib. It may feel as if you are climbing up to a local highpoint, but the rib surprises by simply spreading out into an Upper Sonoran meadowland. Sharkstooth Peak soars above you. It may be tempting to push east, getting positioned directly below the pass. Resist temptation! The open meadows above are a treat compared to the heavily vegetated arroyos to your right.

Open meadows beneath Sharkstooth Peak

As you ascend study the folds of land between you and the pass. One prominent rib makes a shallow saddle and looks relatively open. Aim for it. Climb in the meadows until you are at about the same elevation as the outer end of the saddle. A thickly vegetated arroyo skulks between you and those open slopes. It looks tough, but don’t simply bash through!

Juniper (top, right) in arroyo where game trails converge

Instead, scan that arroyo for a prominent juniper. Several game trails go past that tree and offer unscathed passage into the flanks of the saddle. Once you get onto the saddle, at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead, again look east and above you. The heavy vegetation on the flanks of the next rib thins, leaving the rib-top open. Immediately depart from the saddle, battle past a narrow band of thickets, then attain the open-topped rib. (On return I tried the higher terrain immediately above the saddle – not a happy experience).

Looking back, past ocotillo, to Soledad

The “open topped rib” gets its character because it has been scrubbed of soil. The angle of attack increases and shattered rock supports your boot soles. A forest of ocotillo plants thrives in this scant soil. Some ocotillo extend 8 feet into the air and enjoy wide spacing. “Easy!”, you think. Those big ocotillo, however, have numerous smaller cousins clinging close to the rock. These are vegetative hacksaws. Position your shins carefully. Look up to see that Sharkstooth’s summit now positioned slightly to your left. Sheer cliffs adorn the east face and wall-in the east side of the pass. Set your sights on the talus field below the pass and battle over as soon as you can.

Talus below Sharkstooth Pass

The moderate talus angle makes for quick climbing. If you slide back a little for each step forward, at least you’re not being thwarted by thickets. Game trails along the edge help the climber. A serious brush bash glowers down from the top of the talus field. Scout for the most obvious game trail you can find. On this date I frequently crawled under low juniper branches, but those branches keep the brush away!

Baldy Peak (center) and Organ Peak (right) from Sharkstooth Pass

Sharkstooth Pass, a narrow cleft, opens to a 2600-foot wall that tumbles from Organ Peak summit to the North Canyon bed. Want more? Vexatious vegetation guards the those northern slopes. Fortunately, a steep game trail will take you directly down from the pass to another talus field. This field is steep and loose. Scramblers must work their way down to a well-compacted animal trail contouring across the field. Follow this compacted trail west (to your left). The path soon enters brush that is so dense that even deer are unable to go off-trail. Eventually you poke through into a grass-covered gully coming off of Sharkstooth. Take note of where you exit the brush! The map shows that I tried to find an alternative, higher path on return to the pass. That route cannot be recommended.

Cloven Shoulder (left), Baldy Peak (mid-left) and Organ Peak (right of center)

The grassy gully offers a steep scramble that quickly brings you to a shoulder jutting boldly north. (This shoulder is part of the rib that connects Sharkstooth to Baldy Peak). Look east across the summit of Squaw Mountain, where the Florida Range, Cookes Range and the Black Range dominate the horizon. Look east where North Canyon gouges the crumpled earth. Hmm, is this a “new” way to get to the Sharkstooth summit? Nope, not from this shoulder! A yawning chasm invites paragliders and spurns scramblers. The shoulder is cleaved by a deep, vertical gash – I could find no way to get to the high point only 50 feet away. Soak in the views and depart “Cloven Shoulder” by dropping back down the gully.

View of saddle connecting Sharkstooth to Baldy Peak

At the gully base turn east (left, descending) and traverse a semi-open slope. In a few hundred yards gain the rib connecting to Baldy Peak. Bar Canyon opens to the west. North Canyon opens to the east. Have a seat. Enjoy the solitude. Lunch. When done, return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author on Cloven Shoulder

Your best friends in the Organ Mountain are: thick soled boots, ballistic fiber gaiters and long pants. This terrain slices and dices; hiking shoes and shorts will sacrifice flesh. One hiking pole helps. The second pole impedes.

Carry water. I had two liters and wished for a third. Chimney Rock Tank is often dry

Deer and a rabbit come into view, but you would see more with a light pair of binoculars.

In warmer weather some lifeforms will rattle.

Links:

Couldn’t find any! Colorado has a Sharkstooth Pass that gets some attention, but the inter-web has nothing about this New Mexico pass.

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:

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:

View of rubble-strewn foothill and beyond to Indian Hollow and Sugarloaf Peak

View of rubble-strewn foothill (right) and beyond to Indian Hollow and Sugarloaf Peak (on left)

This route in the Aguirre Springs Campground begins with a gentle ascent on the Indian Hollow trail, diverts onto a scramble below the soaring walls of the Organ Needle and ends with a mellow descent on the Pine Tree Trail. It is a wonderful little hike. If you are teaching someone navigation skills and they are already comfortable with a map then this would be an excellent exercise. It is, however, a lonely route and probably too demanding for first time scramblers.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going North
  • After 4.4 miles, go right at Exit 6 onto US 70 East
  • After 14.5 miles, go right onto Aguirre Springs Road. (You reach the top of San Augustin Pass at 13.5 miles, very soon thereafter you see a sign on US-70 saying that Aguirre Springs turn-off is in a quarter mile).
  • After 5.7 miles stop at the signed fee area. (Potable water is available at the host site, at 1.6 miles along Aguirre Springs road).
  • After another 0.4 miles on Aguirre Springs Road (that is, 6.1 miles from US-70) go right for Group Sites.
  • After about 300 feet, park in the parking lot for the group sites.

Trailhead:

02 Camry in front of rubbly foothill

The Mighty Camry at the trailhead, with the rubbly foothill above it and the Organ Spires in the distance.

The trailhead is a large parking lot with several covered picnic sites for group camping. There are waste receptacles and pit toilets. There is no water at the trailhead, but as noted in the driving directions there is an offer of water at the host site on Aguirre Spring Road.  Fees are currently $5.00 per day in the campground, but there are significant complications to this story based on passes, fee-free days, and other considerations. Check the website and be sure to bring the correct change.

Data:

 

  •  Starting Elevation: 5420 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 6910 feet (depends on where you scramble)
  • Net Gain: 1490 feet
  • Distance: 6.2 miles (round trip)
  • Maps: USGS  Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Sign at start of trail

Sign at start of trail

The first few miles follow the same tread into Indian hollow as described in the Pine Pass route report. See that route description for full details. There are a few more observations that might be useful to scramblers. First, several people have pointed out that you do not need to go into Campsite One in order to find the trail. Instead, find a bright yellow sign suggesting that you leave the rattlesnakes alone on the uphill side of the parking lot. There is a clear tread right beside the sign. Follow this path as it rises briefly towards the Organ Mountains and then curves left (south) toward the rubbly hill. From there you will find the fence and needle’s eye mentioned in the Pine Pass report.

04 sign for Pine Pass

Signed trail junction with options for Sugarloaf (go left) or Pine Pass (go right). Go right for the Pine Tree Trail scramble as well.

Following the recommendations of the Pine Pass report, hike the Indian Hollow trail (a clear path) as it contours around the rubbly foothill and then rises into Indian Hollow. After three miles you will reach a junction where a sign indicates that you should go left for Sugarloaf or go right for Pine Pass. Go right. On your approach you should be moving toward a conical hillock topped with a white rock spire that sits in the center of Indian Hollow. In less than a quarter mile past the signed junction, while ascending on the left bank of a creek, you will pass this spire. You will depart from the main trail just after passing the conical hillock.

Meadowy terrain below the spire atop the conical prominence in Indian Hollow

Meadowy terrain near saddle uphill of the conical hillock.

Stroll past a small grove of oaks above you and to your left to come to a second intersection (unsigned). This junction is effectively 3-way. As described for Pine Pass, you could go uphill and away from the creek on a very faint tread. This faint departure trail is made clearer since someone left a line of rocks pointing uphill (in addition to the pink surveyors tape dangling from the oaks). You could go straight ahead on a path that initially stays along the bank but will eventually drop you into the creek bed. Or you could turn right and drop directly into the creek bed, where a scraggly juniper is marked with bright orange tape.  Turn right. It is here that you leave the route described for Pine Pass. Ascend the far bank of the creek on a faint trail marked with small cairns and bright orange tape. This trail brings you past a fire ring and into a small grassy saddle uphill of the conical prominence. At this point the cairns and survey-tape disappear. The scramble begins.

Smooth, whitish cliffs seen from the saddle behind the conical prominence.

Smooth, whitish cliffs seen from the saddle behind the conical prominence.

Looking out from the grassy saddle, look for a whitish cliff face and aim to cross near its foot. The cliffs look quite close, but you will cross several waterways before getting near that cliff. Another scramble above Aguirre Springs Campground goes from Windy Pass to Pine Tree Trail and that traverse pushes through brutally dense brush. Fortunately the terrain in Indian Hollow is much easier to cross. There is no formal trail but you will often find useful stretches of game trail. Look for stands of ponderosa pines because the terrain beneath the pines can be wide open. Burned bark is obvious in many places, so a recent fire may have much to do with the ease of movement here.

View to a high rib from below the smooth, whitish cliffs

View to a high rib from below the smooth, whitish cliffs

Once you have contoured around this first cliff band, look ahead to find a high rib that blocks views north into the Sotol Creek drainage. Once again, it appears to be quite close by, but the navigation issues are far from resolved. There are two more drainages to traverse and there is a smaller rib to contour around before climbing to the top of this high rib. Running between the small rib and the high rib is an arroyo with canyon aspirations. If you try to descend into this arroyo you may find yourself being deflected away by the steep walls of the waterway.  It is possible to cross, but it takes some effort. Once you get onto the high ridge and look back you will see that the top of the small rib is nicely forested. Although it is an untested route, it might be easier if you climb to the top of the small rib and stay out of the arroyo completely.

Castle Rock and Pine Prominence on the high ridge, just above the saddle used to cross the ridge.

Castle Rock and Pine Prominence on the high ridge, just above the saddle used to cross the ridge.

The top of the high ridge is marked by a squarish, almost crenellated rock above a bump that is crowned with a single pine. An open saddle below the bump offers a convenient crossing point. There are broad views out to the Sacramento Mountains, White Sands National Monument and the Tularosa Basin. If you were hoping to join up with Pine Tree Trail at this point then prepare yourself for a small disappointment. You are about to enter the headwaters of Sotol Creek, but the trail is still a ways off. Ominously, the brush factor starts to pick up here as well. Progress slows as you hunt for game trails to take you around the densest thickets and abundant thorn bushes. This is a good place to begin edging downhill as the descending arm of the Pine Tree Trail is a bit below you.

Baylor Peak - looking a bit imposing!

Baylor Peak – looking a bit imposing!

Traverse one more steep-banked water way. It is relatively easy to enter, but you might have to descend about 300 feet before finding a good exit point. On the next height of land note the striking profile of Baylor Peak to the north. In contrast to the hard-edged profile of the Organ Spires, Baylor usually looks a little bland. The view here reveals a surprising amount of gain between Baylor Pass and Baylor Summit. Push through the last 100 yards of downed logs, thorns and scrub oak until you come to the Pine Tree Trail. In comparison to what you’ve been on the tread looks like a super-highway. Follow the Trail downhill. If you are alert, you could divert off of the trail and follow Sotol Creek back to the Group Camping Area. I followed the trail all the way back to the Pine Tree Trail trailhead and then followed Aguirre Springs Road back to the car.

Recommendations:

Author enjoying the shade in the group picnic site.

Author enjoying the shade in the group picnic site.

Summery conditions, coupled with springtime winds, are returning to the Organ Mountains. As it turns out, this is a pretty good hike for that kind of day. The lower reaches of Indian Hollow seems to be out of the wind (although you could hear it roaring through the passes above). The pine forests that take up much of the traverse are cool. Bring lots of water, there was no running water at all on this date.

View of northern Organ Spires, Windy Gap and the Rabbit Ears

View of northern Organ Spires, Windy Gap and the Rabbit Ears

As with any scramble there are going to be stretches in which you don’t exactly know where you are. This is especially provocative when you think you’re nearing the Pine Tree Trail and have to allow for the possibility that you’ve stayed too high and might be traversing above the Trail. Many hikers, especially new hikers, find this level of uncertainty upsetting. Know your fellow hiker’s risk tolerance before setting off!

Just past the sign for Sugarloaf/Pine Pass I found a rattler beside the trail. It did not seem particularly anxious to share the trail, but gave no trouble other than to warn of its presence. It was terrifically camouflaged, none of the photos I took give a good view of the animal. It had no bands on it’s dark tail, so I assume it was a black tailed rattlesnake.

Link:

The National Drought Monitor shows a bit less than 2% of the state is currently “abnormally dry”, the entire remainder is shown as under moderate drought or worse. This looks like a bad year for campfire lovers.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some great photos, particularly of Sugarloaf and autumn foliage on the few aspen that can be found in Indian Hollow. He also mentions that he found a boot-beaten tread on his traverse, which is something I never encountered.

The Jornada Hiking and Outdoor Club in Las Cruces has done this hike. Their writeup includes a recommendation for gaiters (almost an essential for scrambling here) and a link to a GPS track that is markedly different from the one shown in the map above. There is a big bow in the track of the scramble/traverse – they may have found another way to avoid the mini-canyon below the high ridge.

 

Overview:

Indian Hollow; Sugarloaf on left, conical prominence with white spire in center, Organ Needle on right

Indian Hollow; Sugarloaf on left, conical prominence with white spire in center, Organ Spires on right

This scramble is a vastly under-celebrated gem. A well-defined path takes you from the trailhead in Aguirre Springs, crosses Sotol Creek, contours around a foothill, and enters into Indian Hollow – a big bowl walled to the south by the smooth face of Sugarloaf Peak and to the northeast by vertiginous spires. In the Hollow the trail meanders over open parkland, investigating juniper micro-forests, plunging into and erupting out of small drainages until, at last, the allure of high country pulls the tread skyward. Arriving at a fork in the trail (signed) the trail begins to fade to a scramble. A pocket-sized hanging valley, forested in pines, appears just below the ridge line. At the pass you stand at the shoulder of the Organ Needle with views to an abandoned observatory, the long ridge up to Organ Peak and the rocky folds and attractive parkland of upper Fillmore Canyon. Beyond, look west into the Mesilla Basin as far as the Florida Mountains or look east across the Tularosa Basin to White Sands National Monument and the Sacramento Range. In shape? Then get thee there!

Caveat: the vastly more famous Pine Tree Trail in Aguirre Springs is a different hike!

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohmann Drive in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going north
  • After 2.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East
  • After 14.4 more miles go right onto Aguirre Springs Road. There was no street sign naming the road, but there is a notice on US 70 letting you know that the exit for Aguirre Springs is a quarter-mile ahead and at the exit itself there is a large brown sign (Park Service style) saying “Aguirre Springs Campground”.
  • After 5.0 miles stop at the self-service pay station for Aguirre Springs Campground.
  • After another 0.3 miles on Aguirre Springs Road, turn right onto the side road signed for Group Camping.
  • After 400 feet, arrive at the end of the road and trailhead parking.

A sign at about two miles down the Aguirre Springs Road offers potable water at the caretaker’s facility. The facility is not always open (the sign says 8:00 to 5:00), so it is advisable to bring your water with you.

Trailhead:

There is a large paved parking lot, trash receptacles and pit toilets at the trail head. There is no water. Substantial, cement-floored and sun-shaded pavilions are provide for larger groups to enjoy. Campsite One is the pavilion at the east end of the parking lot. The trail leaves from there. Fees are usually $5.00 per car for day hikers. The fees change and there are exceptions for pass holders, see Aguirre Springs Campground site for up-to-date information. On this date, there was a fee holiday and the group site parking lot was packed solid. Arrive early on such days or you might have to add to your anticipated hike distances.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 5420 feet
  • Ending elevation: 7900 feet
  • Net gain: 2480 feet
  • Length: 3.3 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle.

Hike Description:

Needle's eye gap in barbed wire fence near trailhead

Needle’s eye gap in barbed wire fence near trailhead

From the large pavilion at the southern end of the parking lot (labeled “Campsite 1”) head uphill (west) over a network of paths for roughly 80 feet, looking for a major tread going south (left). Follow the tread to a barbed wire fence with a “needle’s eye” gap, just wide enough for a hiker to thread. The trail falls into the bed of Sotol Creek 600 feet after leaving the trailhead and immediately rises up as though it intended to climb to the top of a rocky hill. (Don’t follow the stream bed). Rather than climb the hill, however, the trail diverts east towards the Tularosa Basin, trying to stay at a constant elevation but falling into arroyo beds and ascending rock slabs. Reaching the eastern-most point on the contour at half a mile, the trail begins a swing back to the south and towards the ridge line of the Organ Mountains. At this point Sugarloaf pops into view. You will want your camera.

View of Pine Pass from parkland in bottom of Indian Hollow

View of Pine Pass from parkland in bottom of Indian Hollow

This portion of the hike is very mellow. The trail crosses open, park-like terrain in the Hollow, copes with the occasional arroyo and flirts with modest shade opportunities beneath alligator junipers. The course is mostly south and the tread is very clear. It is worth studying the terrain ahead. Keep an eye on the evolution of Sugarloaf as you ascend up Indian Hollow, and study the south shoulder of Organ Needle, which is where you will arrive. Pine Pass is the col just south of the Organ Needle. The terrain up there looks fairly open and, shockingly, actually is open. You will see evidence of fire higher on the route, which helps to explain the freedom from brush.

Closeup of conical prominence and white spire, seen just below Pine Pass

Closeup of conical prominence and white spire, seen just below Pine Pass

At 1.3 miles from the trailhead the trail ceases meandering, turns due south, and begins gaining altitude in earnest. Straight ahead is a prominence topped by a sharp white spire. This is another landmark that is worth tracking because the trail starts to fade out as you rise past this prominence. At 1.4 miles the trail crosses the main course of Indian Hollow Creek. The approach will rise along side this drainage to its headwaters below the pass. At 1.5 miles come to a confluence of two drainages, the trail crosses to the center divide (an arête-like structure) and continues climbing due south. This is still juniper country, but views to pine trees just above are plentiful.

Trail sign at first junction in Indian Hollow Trail. Go right for Pine Pass or for Pine Tree Trail

Trail sign at first junction in Indian Hollow Trail. Go right for Pine Pass or for Pine Tree Trail

In just over two miles, come to a signed trail junction. The trail going to the left will take you to the base of Sugarloaf and is most often used by climbers. The trail going to the right, signed “Pass/Pinetree”, will take you to the main ridge of the Organ Mountains. Go right. If you have been tracking the conical prominence you will see that you have drawn close to its base. At this point it provides the far bank of Indian Hollow Creek.

View up slab canyon, past pines, to summit of Sugarloaf.

View up slab canyon, past pines, to summit of Sugarloaf.

The Pine Pass trail continues ascending, diverting briefly where various canyons that descend from Sugarloaf strike the tread. One canyon in particular looks like a wonderland of granite slabs and widely spaced pines. It could be very much worth exploring. However, stick with the trail as it rises to the level of (but not onto) the saddle uphill of that conical prominence. It is here that the trail becomes hard to follow. Stay on the south bank (left-hand side looking uphill) and ascend past the conical prominence.

View of spire as you pass the conical prominence on the rapidly-fading Pine Pass trail

View of spire as you pass the conical prominence on the rapidly-fading Pine Pass trail

Begin to watch carefully for a trail that departs into the stream bed and seems to lead onto the saddle behind the prominence (about 2.4 miles from the trailhead). This offshoot trail is marked with small cairns and bright orange tape. The junction is just past a small grove of oak trees. On close inspection you’ll find you have three options at the junction. You can go right, crossing the stream and then ascending towards the saddle. Or you can continue ascending along the left side of the creek, which is what I did and will describe here. A useful alternative, however, is to find a faint trail marked with sun-faded pink surveyor’s tape that heads left, pulling up and away from the creek. This “pink tape” trail is quite sketchy in places and you must do some scouting. It takes you to Pine Pass. I used it on descent and the footing was better than the route described here. EDIT: Jim has added an October 2015 comment (see below) saying that the pink tape seems to have disappeared. That’s too bad, but the off-trail route described below will work as well!

High country barbed wire (north end) as you scramble in subalpine meadows

High country barbed wire (north end) as you scramble in subalpine meadows

At the junction an obvious tread ascends along the left bank of the creek and is quite prominent for about another 80 feet. Then the tread disappears into Indian Hollow creek without apology. (Actually, there is no other option since the left bank becomes a vertical rock wall about 8 feet tall with trees growing out of it). Ascend in the creek bed past the wall and come to a point where the stream forks. The two upper waterways are separated by a narrow and steep-sided divide. The top of the divide is relatively open, so climb onto it and follow the right-hand stream uphill. This is a beautiful spot – plenty of shade from large conifers but with frequent peeks at the south shoulder of Organ Needle and the terrain of Pine Pass. It is clearly off trail. The trees begin to thin and soon you are hiking in subalpine meadows. A surprise barbed wire fence makes an appearance. I went to the right (north) to go around the fence. If you go left (south) to get around the fence then you will intersect with the pink-tape trail.

View of Sugarloaf from the west.

View of Sugarloaf from the west.

At 2.7 miles the terrain steepens, the trees grow smaller and the soil under foot becomes sandy and surprisingly loose. Push three feet up hill and loose one foot back, as the soil drops away like a pulled rug. Marshal those thigh muscles and watch for handy ledge outcrops that offer more reliable footing. Mind, some of those outcrops are pretty rotten so verify before trusting. There is a return to desert-like plant life. Lots of inconveniently placed cactus, an amazingly tough, slender, little thorn bush that grows in small thickets. Avoid ’em where you can. But also there is considerable grass coverage, a rare thing in Southern New Mexico and a welcome stabilizing influence.

It is strange to find signs when you think you're off trail, but here my route intersected the trail marked with pink surveyor's tape.

It is strange to find signs when you think you’re off trail, but here my route intersected the trail marked with pink surveyor’s tape.

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to a shelf in the otherwise steep terrain, on which three or four small pines are growing. Nearing the shelf there is a sign saying “Pass”. It is not much of a landmark, but if you can find it this is very near where the faded-pink-tape trail comes in. If you want to take the trail on return, then note that the trail departs the shelf on a steep easterly switchback rather than straight-down to the north. It is a kinder and gentler way to get down from Pine Pass.

..

View to the west, with upper Fillmore Canyon in the foreground, Las Cruces and the Mesilla Basin in the mid-ground, and the Florida Range on the horizon.

View to the west, with upper Fillmore Canyon in the foreground, Las Cruces and the Mesilla Basin in the mid-ground, and the Florida Range on the horizon.

Above this shelf, at the three mile mark and just below the ridge, enter a tiny hanging valley populated by pines. It is a short and very pleasant stroll through this grove of conifers and up to the ridge at about 3.2 miles. There are great views out to Las Cruces and the Mesilla basin. The Florida Range, over by Deming, was in clear sight. You stand beside the shoulder of Organ Needle. To the south lies the ridge that connects Sugarloaf to Organ Peak, and below Organ is the open parkland of upper Fillmore Canyon. Beyond Sugarloaf is the White Sands Missle Base, the Tularosa Basin and White Sands National Monument. The Sacramento Mountains were somewhat haze-softened on this fine April day.

Trail sign at the top of Pine Pass

Trail sign at the top of Pine Pass

You can return the way you came. Or, if you want to find that flagged trail then drop to the lowest point on Pine Pass. To my surprise, there was a clear tread going over the pass and yet another trail sign . It points southwest to name Fillmore Canyon and points northeast to name Indian Hollow. Follow the sign northeast and maintain a sharp eye for faded surveyor’s tape. It is pretty clear that the tape was set up for something more than just someone’s navigation. It was too conscientiously placed and has more switchbacks than a climber would ordinarily use. Hopefully, it is the BLM “roughing out” a trail that will be fully engineered by the time this year ends!

Recommendations:

13 Author on bump above Pine Pass

Author on bump above Pine Pass

As with all scrambles in the Organ Mountains, take care that you really are fit enough and sufficiently versed in navigation to do this safely. If you are comfortable going over Baylor Pass then that’s probably sufficient. If Baylor makes you uncomfortable, then Pine Pass is unlikely to be your friend. As you’ve surmised, I had a ball doing this scramble on an exceptionally nice April day. If you check out the Jornada Hiking link (see Links, below) you will find comments highlighting the fact that the same scramble in June is much hotter and more challenging. The slog up loose, sandy soil on the steep upper slopes takes a big toll on a warm day. Bring lots of water. The navigation problems are not hard, in fact this might be a great place to bring someone interested in developing those skills. On ascent you always have Sugarloaf arching above on your left and the Needles screaming skyward on your right. Indeed, you can frequently glimpse Pine Pass itself through the trees.

Clouds over the ridge joining Sugarloaf and Organ Peak, in foreground is a mellow seeming connector to Pine Pass.

Clouds over the ridge joining Sugarloaf and Organ Peak, in foreground is a mellow seeming connector to Pine Pass.

I was tempted by the seemingly mellow ridge that connects from Pine Pass to the ridge that joins Sugarloaf Peak to Organ Peak. Unfortunately dark cumulus complications arose above me. The day stayed rain-free on the east side of the Organs, but there is no doubt that riding out a thunderstorm on these ridges would be problematic entertainment. I turned and ran.

15 Organ Needle

View of Organ Needle from ridge above Pine Pass

Much of upper Fillmore Canyon lies just inside the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. It would be wonderful if a small corner of the reservation (the corner that includes Organ Peak, Baldy and Sharks Tooth) were ceded back to be accessible to the public. A semi-loop system could be set up so that energetic hikers in Las Cruces could cross from Dripping Springs over Pine Pass to Aguirre Springs and then return over the Baylor Canyon Trail. (Ideally, it would be terrific if there was an option to cross over Windy Pass as well). Let your Congresspersons know. Organ Mountains Marathon, anyone?

Links:

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some great photos and comments on how access has changed over the years. Change is a constant in Indian Hollow, this terrain is becoming more and more accessible. I’m not completely certain, but gather that the route described in SNME’s blog climbs the lower trail to the signed fork, and then goes left towards Sugarloaf rather than right to Pine Pass.

The Jornada Hiking Club has been up this route, although their link to pictures from the Ocotillo group shows a completely different ascent than the one described here. It looks to me as if the Ocotillo group took the pines-and-granite-slab canyon that heads up towards a pass hidden on the south of Sugarloaf. There is a great deal to explore up here.

The Mountain Project has a map of climbing routes on Sugarloaf that labels the “hidden” pass on the mountain’s south side as “South Saddle”.

Overview

Lower Needles (left) Windy Gap (middle) and Rabbit Ear spires (right)

Low Horns (left) Windy Gap (middle) and Rabbit Ear spires (right)

The route begins with a hike along Anvil Creek on the Pine Tree Trail, departs into an arroyo, climbs out on the flanks of a tall rib, and finishes with a rib ramble to Windy Gap. Smart hikers will then return the way they came. This route   description pauses to reflect on the perils of poor situational awareness. Then it describes the horror (“the horror”) of a traverse from Windy Gap south to Sotol Creek via impenetrable mountain-mahogany thickets.

The portion of the route that is a mild scramble to Windy Gap is strongly recommended for those hikers who are in good shape. The portion of the route that is a thicket traverse comes recommended only for those people who may have done you irreparable harm.

Driving Directions (and study guide):

Close up of Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif, north of Windy Gap

Close up of Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif, north of Windy Gap

The driving directions are the same as for the Pine Tree Trail in the Aguirre Springs Campground. Park at the trailhead for Pine Tree Trail. On Aguirre Springs Road, look for the Rabbit Ear spires that dominate the northern Organ Mountains. South of the Rabbit Ears look for a wide pass that is Windy Gap. South of Windy Gap watch the terrain make a brisk climb up Gretch’s Folly to the Lower Horns. Make particular note of a prominent rib (alternatively called a “hogback”, “buttress” or “welt”) that descends from Windy Gap towards you in the Tularosa Basin. You will be parking your car on the fall line of that rib and then hiking an arroyo that descends from Windy Gap along the far side of the rib. I haven’t seen a formal designation for this buttress, so here it will be called Aguirre Springs Rib.

Trailhead:

04 The Mighty Camry at foot of Aguirre Springs Rib

The mighty Camry parked below Aguirre Springs Rib (slanting down from upper right) and the Lower Horns (in the distance).

The Pine Tree Trail trailhead is in Aguirre Springs Campground and is signed. There is a trash receptacle, picnic tables and nearby pit toilets. It costs $5.00 per car to park for the day, 2.50 if you have one of the Federal passes. If your plans are more complex than just a day hike, see the trailhead section in the Pine Tree Trail post.

Data:

The map shows the ascent route in blue. The descent route, going south into Sotol Creek Bowl, is shown in black. The portion of the Pine Tree Trail that was not used on this route is shown in purple.

  • Starting Elevation: 5680 feet
  • High Point: 7450 feet (at Pass)
  • Net Gain: 1770 feet
  • Distance to Windy Gap: 1.9 miles (one way)
  • Distance from Windy Gap to Sotol Creek and back by Pine Tree Trail: 3.8 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

View directly up the spine of Aguirre Springs Rib, into Windy Gap

View directly up the fall line of Aguirre Springs Rib and into Windy Gap

From the trailhead, ascend the stem of this lollipop route and arrive at the loop portion in less than 1000 feet. At this point you have left the fall line of Aguirre Springs Rib and are almost in the bed of Anvil Creek. The joys of this well maintained trail are described in the Pine Tree Trail post, so here it should be enough to say “go right (counterclockwise)”.

View of south side of Aguirre Springs Rib - note the light-colored rocky side buttress and the more distant green buttress. The latter has a white, tooth-like spire at its foot.

View of the northern-most Lower Horns (left) and the south side of Aguirre Springs Rib (right) Note the light-colored rocky side buttress on ASR and the more distant green buttress. The latter has a white, tooth-like spire at its foot.

Follow the trail as it ascends along Anvil Creek. Keep an eye on Windy Gap, which will frequently be in sight. You want to keep the Aguirre Springs Rib either under your feet or immediately on your right. The south side of Aguirre Springs Rib is cut up by several small drainages that feed into Anvil Creek. One such drainage, well above the loop, is marked by a whitish rocky outcrop that runs along its bank top. Beyond and above that is a second drainage that has more soil and is greener. Near the foot of this green bank-top is a tooth shaped spire of white rock. The ribs and the tooth-shaped spire can be useful markers later in the scramble.

View of arroyo where the scramble leaves the Pine Tree Trail and ascends this waterway.

View of arroyo where the scramble leaves the Pine Tree Trail and ascends this waterway.

The departure from the trail to the scramble is not marked. At just over a mile from the trailhead the tread crosses a minor drainage by contouring slightly right. Then, in the bed of the drainage, the trail makes a hard left. In just 30 more feet the trail bends 90 degrees to the right to go around an 8-foot tall boulder. Just past these twists the trail enters the bed of a big arroyo that feeds Anvil Creek. In another twenty or thirty feet the Trail leaves the arroyo bed and heads south (purple line in the map). Here, leave the trail for the arroyo bed. The trick is to identify this rapid sequence of a hard-left, a hard right (around boulder) and entrance into the arroyo.

Ascending canyon past the whitish, toothlike spire at the foot of the green buttress.

Ascending past the whitish, toothlike spire at the foot of the green buttress as you ascend the arroyo

At 1.25 miles from the trailhead begin ascending the arroyo and picking a way past boulders and over downed limbs. The bed is deeply shaded and cool. There was no water in it on this late-winter day. Occasionally the tree limbs accumulating in the creek bed will force you off to one bank or the other, but it is useful to stay in the bed for as long as you can. Watch the drainages coming down off of Aguirre Springs Rib. You will quickly pass two candidates that could be that drainage that was topped by a whitish rocky outcrop. At 1.5 miles from the trailhead you will pass the green-topped drainage. You will get a good view of the tooth-shaped rock spire, which up-close seems rather crooked.

Terrain on the south side of Aguirre Rib, just above the arroyo bed.

Terrain on the south side of Aguirre Rib, just above the arroyo bed.

Shortly past the spire the trees becomes densely packed on the bed of the canyon. The north-facing wall on your left becomes high-angle rock slab. Turn right and ascend the steep south-facing wall of the canyon. The angle is shallow enough to retain soil and there is some plant growth. The chief problem is that the soil is very loose and climbing the slope is like climbing a steep-sided sand dune. Switchbacking does help.

Gully that leads to the top of the bump at the crest of Aguirre Springs Rib.

Gully that leads to the top of the bump at the crest of Aguirre Springs Rib.

At 1.6 miles reach the fall line of the rib and turn uphill. This begins a long process of dodging prickly pear and cholla cacti, various forms of agave, sotol and yucca, and the occasional alligator juniper. The ascent is steep, although not generally as steep as the walls of the flanking arroyo. One exception occurs as you approach Windy Gap. Here the rising rib slightly over-shoots the saddle point of the pass, leaving a bump rising above the main col. It is a puzzle how to get around the bump since it is rather steep sided. If you go right (towards the Rabbit Ears) you will find a steep gully with convenient hand-holds that will take you to the top. At 1.9 miles, arrive at the bump-top in Windy Gap.

View up to Lower Needles from Windy Gap

View up Gretch’s Folly to Lower Horns as seen from Windy Gap

This is a terrific place for a tired scrambler to have lunch and admire the views. To the west lies Las Cruces, the West Potrillo Mountains and the distant Florida Range. To the east lie White Sands Missile Base, the Tularosa Basin, the Sacramento Mountains, White Sands, and even sight lines to Sierra Blanca. But the stunner views are north to Rabbit Ear Massif and the Rabbit Ears, and south to the spires of the Lower Horns. There seem to be approaches, perhaps practicable, in both directions. Smart scramblers might take notes for future reference and return the way they came. That way you could return directly to the car (about 4 miles, round trip), or continue following Pine Tree Trail for a great six-mile day.

View to Sugarloaf (distant) and the rib that separates Sotal and Anvil creek basins. Do not forget to scrutinize the close-up terrain.

View to Sugarloaf (distant) and the rib that separates Anvil and Sotal creek basins. Do not forget to scrutinize the close-in terrain. (Double click to enlarge)

Alternatively, those of us who are somewhat new to this kind of terrain might allow their gaze to ride south across the Anvil Creek Bowl. There, just below the rib that separates Anvil Creek Bowl from Sotol Creek Bowl, you might discern open parkland, lightly forested, within easy reach. If you do, then you are wrong. Study the intervening ground carefully. You will note that your line of sight extends all the way to the grass covered ground in that open park land. Closer in, however, the ground below the Lower Horns is densely covered with a haze of gray-green stuff. Also, that gray-green area has odd contrasting lines that seem to go straight down hill. What is this striated, gray-green terrain? Let’s find out, shall we?

Slabs used for descent away from notch above the descent arroyo.

Slabs used for descent below the Lower Horns cliff line.

Descend south (toward Gretch’s Folly) from the bump top to the col that forms Windy Gap. On the col, face east towards the Tularosa Basin. Here you stand at the head of the arroyo that you followed up from Pine Tree Trail. Pick your way down the arroyo, threading your way between increasingly dense gray bushes and past granite slabs.

Notch in the wall on the south side of the descent arroyo, directly below the Needles cliff line.

Notch in the wall on the south side of the descent arroyo, directly below the Lower Horns cliff line.

Gray. Hmm. Sounds familiar. The terrain is not bad initially and you may be distracted by the loose sandy footing. It’s actually quite fun. Stay to the south side until reaching a cliff-like slab traversing the arroyo. At the slab top, track back towards the Aguirre Springs Rib, never straying far from the arroyo bed. After descending about 1000 feet from the bump, however, the thick bushes in the arroyo floor became a major barrier to progress. Scan the south wall for a small notch in the rock and head for that. From this notch there is a view into a broad waterway descending from the northern-most Lower Horns. Getting there entails a descent of a granite slab in a minor gully (barely a gutter) that offers occasional hand holds. The slab is not very steep, but the lower end is lined with stout and pointy agave so exposure is unexpectedly high). Below the slab find a nice shelf, only a little brushy, and follow it into the waterway. Ascend the far side to a lonely pine sentinel. There, look south, hoping for an easy ramble through high-country parkland.

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

Never so lucky! press into more gray green brush, watching for cactus, snakes, thorn bushes, and thigh-murdering agave plants (often screened by dead vegetation). Remember those lines you saw in the gray-green area below Windy Gap? Each one of those was a small rib separating minor water courses. If you have a good memory you may recall having seen at least six of these lines. In practice, there are about ten. On each one you bash over the small rib, descend past more boulders, down slabs, around cholla, pincushion, hedgehog and prickly pear cacti, deflecting more agave, sotol and yucca, all for the simple and light hearted purpose of pushing your way deeper and deeper into oak thickets, mountain mahogany thickets, and mixed thickets leavened with rare instances of what appear to be Texas Madrone. Arriving at the bed of the next water course, prepare to do it again.

Crisp silhouette of author's index finger (blocking sun) and pretty good view of scrubbed-bedrock canyon bottom.

Crisp silhouette of author’s index finger (blocking sun) and pretty good view of scrubbed-bedrock canyon bottom.

After 0.8 long miles, arrive in the scrubbed-bedrock floor of the major waterway descending from the Lower Horns into Anvil Creek. It is a sunny and wonderfully open place. Stop for water, some calories, and a chance to ponder your sanity. You have the option, I think, of descending this waterway. It should take you back to Pine Tree Trail and an easy amble to the car. If, on the other hand, you are possessed of a belligerent attitude towards your personal happiness then cork that canteen, pick up that pack, push up over the canyon wall and into the welcoming branches of the next thicket.

16 view back to Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Massif

Quick check to see that the Rabbit Ears remain directly behind you on traverse.

Fortunately it is almost impossible to get lost here. Views into the vast Tularosa Basin on your left are almost constant. The large rib that separates Anvil Creek from Sotal Creek is usually visible in front of you. You will have views beyond this rib to Sugarloaf as well. The Lower Horns loom spectacularly above and to your right. If you loose sight of Sugarloaf then a quick glance backward should show you the Rabbit Ears. Plunge on.

..

As distances begin to appear between bushes, views to the Tularosa open up.

Pine trees showing sign of old burns in front of the Tularosa Basin.

Actually, after the big drainage the brush starts to thin out a bit. Small clusters of big pines appear. Wonderful game trails start to crop up. Two of the small drainages on this date had flowing water in them. There are bushes still, never fear, but the route up to the high point on the Sotol/Anvil rib becomes clearer and clearer. Arrive at the the most prominent bump on this rib in just over a mile from Windy Gap – shaken and stirred. If you were to descend from the rib south into Sotol Creek Bowl you would hit the Pine Tree Trail in about 200 feet. Unaware of this fact, I turned downhill and followed the rib until it struck the trail, adding about a quarter mile to the total. Turning left on the trail (towards the Rabbit Ears) will get you back to the trailhead quickest, while turning right will allow you to complete the loop part of the trail. Turn right, enter Sotol Creek Bowl, and enjoy a meticulously maintained freedom from cactus spines.

The rest of the hike on this trail has been described elsewhere. After 3.8 miles from Windy Gap, return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author standing on bump in Windy Gap, Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif in background.

Author standing on bump in Windy Gap, Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif in background.

Do not bother with the traverse. Repeat as needed.

There was quite a display of small lizards on this hike, but no other reptiles. The weather is still pretty brisk up high (it was spitting snow at the trailhead on Saturday morning), but the approaching warm weather should soon bring out a few a few of our sinuous mountainside friends.

The bump atop Aguirre Springs Rib has truly exceptional views. I saw one patch where a very small tent could be pitched up there. There could be a rare display of stars on a nice April evening. The camping would be entirely dry.

Outside Links:

The inspiration for this exploration was OnWalkabout’s description of a venture to Windy Gap (although OW didn’t reach the ridge line). That post has great photos of the Horns taken right at cliff line and shots of a descent passage on scrubbed-bedrock canyon floor. Readers should consider, however, the possibility that the author of that report got slightly off of his mapped route. The ascent described here never went directly beneath the spires, nor did the ascent ever follow a bedrock waterway. Instead, those features were encountered on the southerly traverse away from Windy Gap. My guess is that OW departed from Pine Tree Trail beyond the arroyo and nearer the main bed of Anvil Creek. If so, then OW must have pushed steeply uphill through appalling thickets on lousy footing. That blog’s assertion that “the going became tough” may be the ne plus ultra in hikerly understatement.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some comments about ascending to Windy Gap from the other (i.e. western) side of the Organ Mountains. It sounds brutal!

The daily paper in Las Cruces, the LC Sun-News, has a write up concerning the names of various Organ Mountain summits and spires, as well as commentary on how obscure the background to the names can be.

That article refers to an image in The Mountain Project that labels the peaks in the Organ Mountains. That site also has a second image with labels for features near the Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Plateau (sometimes called Rabbit Ear Massif).

The “Peak Locator” in R. L. Ingraham’s “Climbing Guide to the Organ Mountains” shows much the same information. (The Guide was printed in 1965 and is clearly dated in places. Still, it is a huge resource and my thanks to R. A. Hahn for adapting it to the web and NMSU for supporting it).

Overview:

An array of three rabbit ears: South Rabbit Ear (on left), Middle Rabbit Ear and North Rabbit Ear.

An array of three rabbit ears in a bright blue sky: South Rabbit Ear (on left), Middle Rabbit Ear and North Rabbit Ear.

The Pine Tree Trail in Aguirre Spring Campground is a loop trail. This trip report describes a counterclockwise, 4 mile trip on a well-maintained tread. The surrounding terrain is dramatic, with the craggy Rabbit Ears perked up into the northern sky, Sugarloaf Mountain grabbing the southern view and the Organ Needles hovering directly overhead. It is not a particularly demanding hike, but it is a great stay-in-shape destination close to Las Cruces. There are fees for using the Campground. Make sure to bring the correct cash amount or a check (see below).

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohmann Drive in Las Cruces, enter I25 going north
  • In 2.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East
  • In 14.4 miles go right onto Aguirre Springs Road. On this day there was no sign naming the road, but there is a notice on US 70 letting you know that the exit for Aguirre Springs is a quarter mile ahead and at the exit itself there is a large brown sign (Park Service style) saying “Aguirre Springs Campground”.
  • In 5.0 miles stop at the self-service pay station for Aguirre Springs Campground.
  • In an additional 0.1 miles on Aguirre Springs Road (at the top of the next rise) turn left into the trailhead parking.

The fee for day use is currently $5.00 per car. For camping the fee is $7.00 per campsite. If you have the Golden Age Passport, the Interagency Senior Pass or the Interagency Pass then the day use fee is only $2.50 (for the pass holder’s car, but not for group use). If you have the Senior Pass then the charge for a campsite is just $3.50.  Cash or checks can be used, there is no change service. The Aguirre Springs link above should be up-to-date on any changes.

The Aguirre Springs Road is gated about halfway to the Campground. The exit “gate” is a tire-shredder preventing entrance, so you don’t have to worry about getting locked in. Don’t arrive too early or you may have to wait at the gate. Currently the opening time is 8:00, but check the Aguirre Springs link before setting off.

Trailhead:

04 trailhead

Pine Tree trail trailhead, with southern Organ Needles seen in distance.

The trailhead is signed, it has a trash receptacle, views of the mountains to the west and the Tularosa Basin to the east and a covered picnic area. There is no water at the trailhead. If you need water there is a host site on the Aguirre Springs Road, about four miles before the trailhead. A sign there offers potable water, but it isn’t clear how often the host site is open.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5680 feet
  • Highest point: 6880 feet
  • Net Gain: 1200 feet
  • Distance: 4 miles
  • Maps: The USGS Organ Peak quadrangle is probably all you have to have, although the Organ quadrangle to the north would be handy for identifying the mountains to the north of the Campground.

Description:

03 Warning Sign

Words of wisdom from the Bureau of Land Management. (Double-clicking will enlarge any picture).

Sign-in at the trailhead. Aguirre Springs Campground is run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the log helps justify the Campground’s upkeep. Begin ascending past the bright yellow warning sign. After a fifth of a mile you will arrive at the loop (signed) and will have the choice of either a clockwise or counterclockwise trip. I chose to go counterclockwise.

06 prickly pear in snowIMG_1981

Prickly pear cactus (and trekking pole) in about three inches of day old snow.

This portion of the trip follows close to the stream bed for Anvil Creek. There was day-old snow on the ground and enough had melted that the creek produced that rarest of desert sounds – the burbling of running water. The trail is pinned between the creek bed and a rib descending from the col south of the Rabbit Ears (Windy Gap). With no where to go but up, up you go.

Reddish bark on Ponderosa Pine bole

Reddish bark on Ponderosa Pine bole

At about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead the trail enters a wide bowl that drains into Anvil Creek. This bowl contains a “pocket forest” that includes the promised pines. Some of these appear to be ponderosa pines since the bark is copper colored, the needles are strikingly long (about six or seven inches) and grow in bunches of three. Another pine species with thick, fissured bark and shorter needles was mixed in as well, possibly the Chihuahuan Pine. After rising high the trail makes a sharp left turn (to the south) and begins a traverse the top of Anvil bowl.

At this altitude the snow was deeper and packed down in places. I passed a couple people who looked uncomfortable with the footing – one poor soul was trying to manage two dogs that were tugging enthusiastically at the leash. It was slippery enough that the extra traction provided by heavy boots and a hiking pole was much appreciated.

Prominent, tree-topped rib parallel to the Organ Mountains skyline

Prominent, tree-topped rib parallel to the Organ Mountains skyline

After crossing Anvil Bowl the trail reaches a prominent rib at 1.6 miles and curls back, climbing in a short series of switchbacks to begin a traverse of the Sotol bowl. The top of the rib that separates the bowls is open. There are excellent views of the mountains north and south and the Tularosa Basin to the east if you scramble up onto the rib-top.

Midpoint and primitive campsite, with view to Tularosa basin

Midpoint and primitive campsite, with view to Tularosa basin

It isn’t clear if the Sotol Creek is named after the drink or the plant). It contains several running streams and where the trail crossed the stream beds the intersection was often flooded and icy. The halfway point is signed, elevation 6880 feet, about midway across the bowl. There are one or two primitive campsites nearby.

View of Sugarloaf Peak from descent.

View of Sugarloaf Peak from descent. The day certainly got cloudy.

The trail rises towards the next rib (one descending from SquareTop Peak), as if it intended to keep heading south into Indian Hollow. Instead, at 2.2 miles, near the rib top, it turns east and starts descending. Switchbacking occasionally, the trail rapidly reaches a col between the main slope and an outlying hill at 3.1 miles. At about this point the snow petered out and the footing returned to normal. At 3.9 miles, return to where you entered the loop. Turn right onto the entrance trail and return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

South facing banks, such as the one on the left, clear of snow faster than the creek bottom or the north facing banks.

South facing banks, such as the one on the left, become clear of snow faster than the creek bottom or the north facing banks.

On the high traverse the snow was heavy enough to get packed down and slippery. Some form of traction, like Yak Traks or Microspikes, might be useful. Admittedly, I did not see anyone using them. When light snow has fallen, like today, it may be best to hike the loop counter-clockwise. In either direction you have to traverse the high terrain, descending into stream beds and then climbing up the far bank. If you go counterclockwise you’ll be making the tricky descents on banks with southern exposures, are are more likely to be free of snow.

Some folks seemed to be hiking in tennis shoes and t-shirts.  Granted, of course, that the trail is very well maintained and only four miles long. Still, it is easy to imagine midwinter circumstances where a heavy jacket and a good hat would be welcome.

View of Sugarloaf on the descent. The day sure got cloudy.

Author on the rib between the Anvil and Sotol bowls, with Sugarloaf in the background.

Hiking in cool and overcast conditions is wonderful. Where the trail wound through snowy evergreens I was reminded of the Cascades. I took along a 2 liter water bag and a liter bottle, and didn’t drink any of it. That is not typical of Organ Mountain hiking!

Outside Links:

The SummitPost site (2007) reports that the ride along Aguirre Springs Road is 6 miles rather than the 5 miles reported here. That is backed up in the guidebook “Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces-El Paso Area” (2004). I’m not certain who is correct.

The reviews on TripAdvisor are mostly very positive and the photos will give you a better idea of the park in warmer seasons.

OnWalkabout has an interesting post about the possible ascent into Windy Gap using Pine Tree as an approach trail. The author did not make it to the ridge top, but it sounds intriguing.

If a four mile hike seems too short, then the folks at the DailyMile running site suggest running across the mountains via Baylor Pass and then adding on Pine Tree trail. That would make for a 15.5 mile day out in the mountains. 

SouthernNewMexicoExplorer offers some great dry-season photos from the trail. In his text he mentions several alternative destinations in the Organ Mountains that sound intriguing. He mentions a prohibition against pets at Aguirre Springs, but note that the Bureau of Land Management now says that leashed pets are allowed on the trails.