Archives for category: Sierra Blanca Range


08 cliff below summit

View of small cliff face on Argentina Peak (taken from the Crest Trail south of the peak)

Argentina Peak is a small bump on the crest of the Sierra Blanca Range (a.k.a. the White Mountains). This is an easy hike up and onto the ridge line. There are views west to White Sands National Monument in the Tularosa Basin, south along the crest to Lookout Peak and north to Nogal Mountain. This is an ideal trail for introducing a newcomer to the wonders of New Mexico’s high country.




Driving Directions:

  • From Lohmann Ave in Las Cruces, go north onto I-25.
  • After 2.5 miles take the exit for US 70 East.
  • After 61.7 miles, immediately after the third stop light light in Alamogordo, go right onto the ramp for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left onto the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 42.0 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto NM-48.
  • After 12.6 miles go left onto NM-37 (clearly signed)
  • After 1.3 miles, go left onto Forest Service Road 107. (There are signs on NM-37 for Bonito Lake).
  • After 8.3 miles on FR-107 the road ends with a short loop. Park by the sign for Big Bonito Creek Trail 36, at the end of the loop. FR-107 is heavily potholed in both its paved and gravel stretches – use caution.


00 Camry at trailhead

The mighty Camry parked at the sign for Big Bonito Creek Trail No. 36

The terminal loop of FR-107 has a large area devoted to car camping. There are pit toilets and  corrals for horses. Water is available from Big Bonito Creek, but should be treated before use. A few weeks ago the water was very high and carried a great deal of soot (presumably from the Little Bear fire of 2012). On this date, however, the streams were clear. You may not need to let the colloids settle before filtering.


  • Starting Elevation: 7850 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9127 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
  • Distance: 6.5 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Sign marking the trailhead. Hiking past this sign will launch you on the clockwise direction.

Sign marking the trailhead. Hiking past this sign will launch you on the clockwise direction.

This is a loop hike and will be described in the counter-clockwise direction. Either direction should work fine. If it has been wet and crossings of Big Bonito Creek threaten to leave you with wet feet, then going counter-clockwise may be advisable (your feet should remain dry for all but the last 2 miles of the hike). In this direction the descent from Argentina Peak provides you with views of Lookout Peak and White Horse Hill. On the other hand, the descent from Argentina Peak in the clockwise direction gives you memorable views of the crest north to Nogal Peak.

02 trail through meadows

Subalpine terrain – meadows appear as the trees become more widely spaced.

From the trailhead find a boot beaten path that ascends the Argentina Canyon bank immediately above your parked vehicle. In about 100 feet, come to the intersection with Argentina Canyon Trail No. 39 (signed). That steep bank is about the most difficult part of this hike. From this junction the trail ascends gently towards the crest in a forest of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa. Reports indicate that the canyon bed usually has water, although at times during the recent drought that water was hard to find. Currently the creek flows merrily, still influenced by a good monsoon and the remnants of hurricane Odile. 03 Cut Aross trail signIn 1.7 miles come to an intersection with the Cut-Across Trail No. 38 (coming in from your left). The Cross-Across Trail would bring you to Little Bonito Creek, cutting off the portion of the route that lies on the crest. Taking the Cut-Across substantially reduces the length of your hike. That could be a good option if someone in your group is flagging and you don’t want to simply return the way you came. For most hikers the the promise of montane grasslands will retain its allure, so go straight ahead on Trail 39.

Split rail fencing off the Argentine Canyon seep

Split rail fencing off the Argentina Canyon seep. Argentina Canyon is to the left.

At 2.4 miles from the trailhead come to the headwaters of Argentina Canyon. A split rail fence curtains off a large grassy area, and at the lowest point on the fence line there is a cemented stone wall forming a horse trough. On this date the trough was brimming full of water. (It can be dry). It turns out that the fence is not a corral for keeping trail horses penned near the crest. In fact, it has no gate at all. The fence is intended to keep elk, deer, horses, hikers and hunters from pulverizing (and otherwise polluting) the seeps from which Argentina Spring flows. Traverse to the left to get around the fenced area and rise to the intersection with the Crest Trail, #25. Note of caution – there are coils of old barbed wire fencing hidden in the grasses.

View from Argentina Peak summit south to Spring Peak (flat topped), White Horse Hill (grassy knoll) and Lookout Peak (forested).

View from Argentina Peak summit south to Spring Point (flat topped, center), White Horse Hill (grassy knoll) and Lookout Peak (forested, on left).

Take a moment to enjoy the view of the Tularosa Basin as you reach the crest then go south (left) on the Crest Trail No. 25. Take, too, a deep breath as you enjoy the benefits of working out at 9000 feet. Ascend gently sloping grasslands to pull away from the saddle above Argentina Canyon. Your destination is Argentina Peak, but this peak is one of a series of small rock outcroppings that populate the crest. To get there you must go a short distance off-trail. Watch for a spot on the Crest Trail where it approaches a little rise of about 20 feet. The trail dodges this bump by dropping off the crest to the east (to the left). Go off trail and ascend the rise. At the top, looking south, you will see another small rise and you will ascend to it. After three or four such rises you will come to one that has a 20 to 30 foot cliff on its south side. That bump, at 3.1 miles from the trailhead, is the summit of Argentina Peak.

View of Nogal Peak from the crest.

View of Nogal Peak from the crest.

There are several points along the crest where you get wonderful views north to Nogal Peak. Off to the the west is the Tularosa Basin, home to the White Sands National Monument. The western horizon is dominated by the San Andreas Range. To the northwest lie the Magdelana Mountains and I believe you can see the Ladron Range to the north of the Maggies. To the east the convoluted terrain of the Sierra Blanca range arrests the eye. A great deal of this terrain is scarred by the after-effects of the Little Bear fire of 2012.

Sign where the Crest Trail #25 intersects the  Little Bonito Creek Trail #37

Sign where the Crest Trail #25 intersects the Little Bonito Creek Trail #37

To return to the trail, descend from Argentina Peak to the east (away from the Tularosa Basin). There is a patch of oaks to work through or around. After a descent of less than 100 feet you will arrive in a piney meadow on the top of a flat, east-trending rib. Currently the Crest Trail is a prominent tough in the low-point of this meadow with an almost road-like appearance. Turn right (south) and continue on Trail 25 as it wraps around to the south side of Argentina Peak, directly below the cliffs. From there the trail drops fairly steeply to the saddle between Argentina Peak and Spring Point. At 3.7 miles from the trailhead the Crest Trail arrives at a complex junction with the Little Bonito Trail (your destination) and two trails descending towards the west – the Phantom Trail and the Barbar Ridge Trail. Unless you are tremendously ambitious you probably don’t want to descend to the west! Take the Little Bonito Trail No 37 to head east back to the trailhead.

Mineshaft just downstream of the last crossing of Big Bonito Creek

Mineshaft just downstream of the last crossing of Big Bonito Creek

Like Argentina Canyon, the drop down Little Bonito Creek is quite mellow. The creek is, as of this writing, flowing from the top. It makes for a musical accompaniment as you descend away from the grassland and back into the pine forest. There is more evidence of the Little Bear fire, but nothing like the desolation seen further to the south and east. At 4.0 miles from the trailhead you will encounter another signed junction with the Cut-Across Trail. Continue to descend on the Little Bonito Creek Trail and at 5.2 miles there is a confluence between the Little Bonito Creek and the Big Bonito Creek. Shortly after, there begins a series of eight stream crossings. Two weeks prior, each of these crossings would have meant drenched boots. On this date it was possible to rock-hop across with dry feet. At 6.2 miles find the last of the stream crossings and an old mine shaft dug into the hard rock making up a canyon wall. Alas! it is only 0.3 more miles and you will be back at the trailhead.


Author on Argentina Peak

Author on Argentina Peak

♦Do this hike!

♦Take friends. This is one of the most hospitable places I’ve seen in southern New Mexico. If you are at all worried about off-trail navigating to get to Argentine Peak then feel free to skip it. The views from the Crest Trail are fine.

♦Both Argentina Canyon and Little Bonito Creek are often dry in the upper reaches. Bring water. In the autumn just two liters of water should be plenty.

Horned toad competing for trail space on the Little Bonito Creek Trail.

Horned toad competing for trail space on the Little Bonito Creek Trail.

♦I believe hunting season is on (two weeks ago there were bow hunters at the trailhead). Perhaps as a consequence, I didn’t see any deer or elk while hiking nor did I hear any elk bugling. (In contrast, there was a herd of deer grazing on the northern outskirts of Ruidoso – be careful on the drive in)!

♦The number of bugs and reptiles has diminished in the last few weeks and even though the grasses were vividly green they were running to seed. It looks like nature is preparing for winter.


♦ Argentina Peak is just a bump on the Sierra Blanca Range crest, you won’t find too many sites devoted specifically to this destination. If you’re searching then “argentina canyon” works better as a keyword. That will give you many hits to destinations in this area of the crest.

♦ Johnny Hughes at Ruidoso.Net has a detailed description of this loop (he follows the loop clockwise). It is interesting to learn that Little Bonito Creek in most years has water in its lower reaches.

♦ The Forest Service has an odd, but eventually useful, map of the trails in the area. It shows the trails and provides each trail with a trail number. Nearby roads and the outline of the national forest are also shown. Trailheads are named. However, the map is shorn of virtually every other piece of information that might help you to pick a trail. No mountain is named, no canyon is identified, no stream is labeled. There are no contour lines. Other than trail number, each trail remains an anonymous black line against a uniform gray background. I can only recommend that you use the information on this site to get up onto the White Mountains and become familiar with the terrain. After a couple trips, the forest service map becomes a useful inventory to the trails that you’ve been missing!


White Horse Hill on crest of Sierra Blanca Mountains

White Horse Hill on crest of Sierra Blanca Mountains

Three Rivers Canyon is a rarity in drought-stricken southern New Mexico; there are huge trees, running water with fingerling trout in the deep pools, languorous switchbacks on a well-shaded trail and a substantial gain to a high summit. From the summit you will find wonderful views along the Sierra Mountains crest, west to the Tularosa Basin or northeast to the Pecos Valley. Are you recruiting a hiker to New Mexico? Take them here.

Driving Directions:

Sign adjacent to turn onto Three Rivers Road

Sign adjacent to turn onto Three Rivers Road

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 north.
  • After 4.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East. The ramp splits three ways, remain in the center to get onto US 70 E.
  • After 61.9 miles (just after the 3rd traffic light as you enter Alamogordo), take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, go left (north) on the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 4.9 miles, at a traffic light, go left (north) onto US 70 E/US 54 N/N White Sands Blvd.
  • After 9.8 miles, as the road makes a broad right-hand curve in the town of Tularosa, turn left onto US 54 N/Saint Francis Drive
  • After 17.8 miles turn right onto Three Rivers Road. This road is tightly gated by flanking stone walls, but is easy to find due to the large Petroglyphs Picnic Ground sign that the Forest Service has installed. Three Rivers road is initially paved, but after a big, concrete-lined “dip” into a waterway the road turns to gravel. Currently the gravel part of the road is in superb shape.
  • After 13.2 miles, at the end of the road, park in the Three Rivers Campground (signed)


  • Starting elevation: 6400
  • Ending elevation: 10,255 feet
  • Net Gain: 3855 feet
  • Distance: 6.0 miles (one way)
  • Maps: The trailhead and a very short stretch of the hike is on the right edge USGS Godfrey Peak quadrangle.  The vast majority of the hike is found on the USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle.


The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead below the Sierra Blanca Mountains crest

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead below the Sierra Blanca Mountains crest

This is a deluxe trailhead. The Three Rivers Campground has a dozen car-camping spots, a wide parking area for hikers at the start of the trail (signed), pit toilets, bear-proof trash cans and even offers piped water. The usage fee is currently $6.00 per car, but check the Forest Service website for any updates. Although the canyon itself is pleasantly supplied with water, the larger forest (freighted with innumerable snags from the Little Bear fire) is very dry. Fire hazard was rated as “very high” on this date. The Forest Service has declared Stage One fire restrictions (no campfires until the monsoons begin to kick in).


Tantalizing glimpse into side cuts from Three Rivers Canyon

Tantalizing glimpse into side cuts from Three Rivers Canyon

Find the start of the Three Rivers Canyon Trail (#44) and head up-canyon on an old road. The trail soon crosses the canyon bed (running water!) and then drifts north a little ways, just far enough to give a send-off to the Barber Ridge Trail (#49) at the quarter-mile point. Turning back up-canyon trail 44 soon re-aligns with the creek. The start is a high desert affair with prickly pear on all sides, but that rapidly segues into pine and fir forest. The canyon bed ascends at a remarkably leisurely pace, and where the terrain acquires a step-and-shelf topology the the trail engineers have provided switchbacks. Within 10 minutes from the trailhead you will start noticing heights of land above the trees to the south and to the north. These evolve into sheer walls as you enter the canyon proper after about forty-five minutes. The crumbling roadbed quietly reshapes into a tread beneath the trees.

Granite cliffs along side the Three Rivers Canyon

Granite cliffs along side the Three Rivers Canyon

The trail crosses and re-crosses the stream bed. Currently that is no problem, but during periods of very high flows it could be a serious challenge. Reportedly the stream received extraordinary water volumes in 2008 that damaged much of the trail and flushed most of the fish population out into the Tularosa Basin (not a known haven for brook trout). At several places you will see evidence of more recent damage where side cuts have dumped vast quantities of sand, scree and talus on the sides of the main stream. The power of of the main stream itself is revealed in steeper terrain by a vast exposure of smoothly scrubbed rock. This is a geologist’s playground. The views up into Fall Creek (at two miles) and the Three Rivers South Fork (at 3.2 miles) were quite tantalizing. There does not seem to be any trail in those canyons. Be prepared for off-trail travel if you want to reach those destinations.

15 gaitors and butterfly

Western Tiger Butterfly hunting nector beside Three Rivers Canyon trail

There is an exceptional variety of wildlife as well. The only reptiles spotted on this hike was a garter snake and innumerable lizards. Butterflies of widely varied description seemed to find the trail congenial. Several of the deeper pools had fingerling trout, never more than about four or five inches long and rather skinny (the low water levels may be stressful). I had expected to find horned toads and to see some elk, but those were the only disappointment on this day.

At 3.6 miles reach a shaded campsite. This is a great lunch spot and a perfectly reasonable turn-around point for a party with novice hikers. The trail to this point has been almost unbelievably mellow, and it steepens somewhat above.

Large Douglas Fir. Note the relative size of the hiking pole.

Large Douglas Fir. Note the relative size of the hiking pole.

Continuing up, you will start to notice hints of alpine meadows. The space between trees grows and the shrub layer of the forest understory gives way to grasses. Douglas fir and white pines abound, some of considerable girth. At 4.6 miles come to the first of a series of large, steep subalpine meadows. The trail engineering never flags, however, as switchbacks gentle the way up and across these pleasant spaces. Views open out to the Tularosa Basin. Pick out White Horse Hill on the crest, to the northwest.

17 Sign in col

Sign in col on Sierra Blanca crest

At 5.5 miles reach a col between White Horse Hill and Elk Point on the Sierra Mountains crest.  A signed junction indicates that you’ve reached the Crest trail (#25), which will take you to Lookout Mountain if you go right (east). If you go straight across the col then the Aspen Canyon trail will take you down to the north (eventually linking up with the Big Bonito Trail). If you choose to go left, as I did, then you are on the Big Bonito Trail (#36) where it overlaps with the Crest Trail. The tread is initially quite obvious and takes you past small stands of evergreens while rising towards White Horse Hill. Within a quarter mile, however, the tread disappears amid tall grasses and the hoof prints (elk, presumably). It may be that the recent fires have discouraged hikers from getting to the crest, permitting nature to reclaim the tread. Never fear, however, since White Horse Hill is directly above you.

Nogal Peak (middle ground) and Carrizo Peak (horizon)

Nogal Peak (middle ground) and Carrizo Peak (horizon)

Ascend open terrain towards the summit at 6.0 miles. There are great views west into the Tularosa and White Sands National Monument, north to Carizzo Peak, northwest to the Capitan Mountains, and due west across the enormous damage of the Little Bear to the Pecos Valley. There is even a glimpse to the summit of Sierra Blanca itself. There is a summit register hidden inside a tiny cairn. The summit was windy and strikingly cool – this on a day in which it reached the high 90s in Las Cruces! Return the way you came.


Author approaching the summit

Author approaching the summit

In Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area, Magee points out that this shady and high route is a good summertime destination. I could not agree more. Still, with over 3800 feet of gain you will go through a lot of water. I had 4 liters and that was only just enough.

Three Rivers Canyon is well watered, but this is an unmistakable season of drought. We can hope for a good monsoon season to ease the danger to the forests, but for the moment the National Drought Monitor indicates that over 95% of the state is under moderate drought or worse. The stage 1 fire restrictions for Lincoln National Forest (no backcountry campfires) are pretty reasonable.

The crest is completely exposed. You’ll want a good hat and sunscreen. Also, keep an eye on those fluffy monsoon-season clouds. There are worse places to be in a thunderstorm, but not by much!



For a poetic report on wintertime camping along the Three Rivers Trail (and a comment to the effect that the approach road is not always in superlative condition) check out Eugene Smith’s BackPackingLight post.

Marsha Rupe has some photos from this hike taken in 2010. Her summit shot makes a sad contrast with the 2014 vista, which is much altered by the Little Bear Fire. Her title suggests that she made a loop, ascending by Three Rivers Canyon and then descending by Dry Canyon. That sounds like an excellent alternative. However, in exploring towards White Horse Hill I noted that the connector trail was becoming difficult to follow. You might want to plan for some small navigation challenges if you want to make this loop.

Johnny Hughes has a description of this hike, and several others nearby. Good options if you have a couple days to explore this face of the range.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has photos and some comments on the Canyon as a fishing expedition. His visit was in 2010, not too long after the 2008 flood. The tread condition has improved enormously since then.



2013-05-18 29 Nogal from col below

Nogal Peak – note how the grassy lower region gives way to brushy terrain above!

The green highlands of the Lincoln Nation Forest provide some contrast to the severe drought that is everywhere evident in New Mexico. Bonito Lake (a reservoir for Ruidoso) is low but still has water. Bonito Creek is flowing pleasantly. This hike takes you from a meadow area alongside Bonito Creek, up the gentle drainage of Argentina Creek, bumps along a ridge overlooking the Tularosa, and summits on a notable height of land called Nogal Peak. Return by way of Turkey Creek.

2013-05-18 39 Fire ravaged mountains

Fire denuded peak in Lincoln National Forest

That said, last year’s Little Bear Fire is everywhere evident. Entire mountains within the Forest were crisped, although an abundance of fuel for future fires remains. Stage II fire restrictions have been announced for the Smokey Bear, Sacramento and Guadalupe Ranger Districts (those are all the districts that are listed in the Lincoln National Forest website). For backpackers this means no open camp fires until things get a little damper. Petroleum fueled stoves are still being allowed. As you’d expect, fire works, off-roading, use of chainsaws, welding or out-of-doors smoking are also prohibited. There is talk of increasing the threat level to “III”, where  stoves would not be permitted. Check the current threat level on the Forest Services website, here.

No complaints, please! You can’t avoid seeing the damage that wildfire has already done. As much as we all enjoy a morning cup of coffee, the stage is set for us to cold-camp in the Lincoln National Forest.

 Driving Directions

  • From I-25, take exit 6 for US Route 70 east towards Alamogordo.  As you near Alamogordo you will see the first stoplights that you’ve seen on Rt 70.  Go though the first three stoplights.
  • At 62.3 miles (immediately past the 3rd stoplight) go right onto exit for Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Road.
  • At 4.9 miles turn left onto US 54/US70/Whitesands Blvd
  • At 9.6 miles turn left onto US54/St. Francis Drive.
  • At 44.6 (more) miles turn right onto US 380-E
  • At 7.9 miles turn right onto NM-37-S signed for Ruidoso/Nogal
  • At 12.8 miles turn right onto Forest Service Road 107/Bonito Lake Rd
  • At 8.8 miles arrive at the Argentina Canyon trailhead at end of road.

There is road work being done on FS road 107. It is paved in portions, but other stretches are dirt. Where the dirt road crosses stream beds it can be very rutted.  At one point there is a Y in the road, next to a horse stable signed “Runnels”.  Go right to stay on road 107.  (Going left will take you to Big Bear Canyon).

The drive up 107 takes you in and out of areas with substantial fire damage. A strong wind could put trees across the road.


2013-05-18 05 trailheadRoad 107 ends by making a long, narrow loop in a meadow. Park along the loop. There are pit toilets.  The trails attract numerous backpackers and horse riders, many of whom camp on the loop.  Bonito Creek flows past the loop. Due to low flow rates and heavy usage you will want to filter the water before using it.

The Argentina Canyon Trail (T39) and the Bonita Creek Trail (T37) both leave from the upper end of the loop. There is a prominent sign for the Bonita Creek trail. There may be an equivalent sign for Argentina Creek but if so then I missed it. Instead, stand in front of the Bonita Creek sign and then look to your right for an obvious trail leading up a steep embankment. If you take that trail then you will encounter a sign saying you are on the Argentina Canyon Trail T39 in about 50 yards.


  • Start Elevation: 7800 feet
  • End Elevation: 9957 feet
  • Net Gain: 2157 feet
  • Distance: 11.1 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Nogal


2013-05-18 07 start of Argentina Canyon trail

Start of trail up Argentina Canyon

There are numerous possible loops that could be made in this region.  This particular hike describes an ascent up Argentina Canyon (T37), then along the Crest Trail (T25), and reaching the high point with a traverse across Nogal Peak (portions off-trail)  before returning by way of Turkey Canyon (T40).  The Little Bear burn did not seem to reach this part of the Crest Trail, but there are some dismal views of dead forests to the south.  The Turkey Canyon descent was the leg of this trip with the most fire-killed trees.

Argentina Canyon ascends a very shallow grade and is a good way to warm up car-stiffened legs. Argentina Creek itself seemed dry. The terrain benches-and-shelves, with grassy meadows appearing on the shelves. About 1.6 miles from the trailhead you will encounter a crossover trail, T38.  Apparently that would let you return to the trailhead by way of Bonita Creek.

Corral above Argentina Spring

Corral above Argentina Spring

At 2.3 miles trail T37 struggles over a rock ledge just below a corral to a junction with the Clear Water Trail.  Argentina Spring is between the ledge and the corral. Currently the spring is a shallow hole containing a small amount of greenish-brown water. This is the only water that I saw near the crest and from its appearance I can’t recommend it. Bring your own!

2013-05-18 28 little Horntoad

Trailside horn toad

At this point you could turn right and follow the Clear Water Trail on the south side of the ridge or you could turn left to climb above the corral and intersect the Crest Trail (T25) in a nearby grassy col. I chose the latter.  Turn right onto the Crest Trail and follow as it winds into gullies and contours around the crest’s high points.  There are enormous views out into the northern Tularosa Basin.  There must be nearby water sources since I encountered two herds of elk along the crest.  Watch for horned toads in the shadow of trailside rocks.

2013-05-18 25 first view of Nogal

First view of Nogal Peak from Crest Trail

Just before the Crest Trail rejoins the Clear Water Trail you will get your first view of Nogal Peak.  From a distance it looks open and accessible. There is supposed to be a spring at the junction with Clear Water Trail, but the spring was either dry or hidden by the vegetation on this visit.  The Crest Trail drops down into Turkey Canyon at 4 miles where there is another corral and three horse troughs. In other years water might be expected at Turkey Spring. This year there was only dust. Climb steeply out of Turkey Canyon and regain views of Nogal Peak.  Note that the open summit is surrounded by a dense haze of grey vegetation.

From part way up Nogal, view of lone pine, down to grassy col and bumps along the Crest Trail

Looking back towards the Crest Trail from part way up the west side of Nogal Peak. The photo shows that lone pine, the lower grassy slopes and col, and some of the bumps along the Crest Trail

The Crest Trail goes past a rapid succession of junctions (Skull Canyon Trail to the south and T33 to the north at 4.7 miles and then T54 leading off to the northern drainages at 4.8 miles).  I followed the T54 trail because it rose into the col immediately west of Nogal. From the col the lower reaches of the summit seemed grassy. Unexpectedly, there was no clear trail to the summit from the col. Spotting a lone pine about half way up, I left the col and headed across the grassland towards that pine.

2013-05-18 38 Lookout and Sierra Blanca

View south to Lookout Peak (with ski trails) below the summit of Sierra Blanca

Above the pine, however, a peculiar and untracked forest of small scrub oak appears. Still without leaves, these trees form the “grey haze” seen from distant vantages. These oaks typically rise to about chest-height, although there are stands that are eight to ten feet tall and numerous knee-high saplings as well. All sizes are well contrived for preventing movement. It isn’t as bad as climbing past slide alder, but the going is very slow. The border of each oak thicket tends to be populated with thorn bushes. Trying to stay in the grassy areas I wound up traversing towards the southern side of Nogal (shown on the map as an orange line). There you do get good views of the ski trails on Lookout Peak and Sierra Blanca’s summit. Dense thickets eventually forced me back towards the col. The only alternative was to try ascending straight up from the pine above the col, toward a prominent rock outcrop at 5.2 miles from the trailhead (the mileage omits the traverse into the southern thickets). Climbing to the outcrop entailed bushwhacking past oak and thorn on animal trails that inevitably disappeared into steep rock or impenetrable vegetation. The complete absence of a trail was a surprise.

2013-05-18 44 what is dark region in Tularosa (from summit)

The Carrizozo Malpais in the middle of north Tularosa Basin

Above the rock outcropping the grasses reappear. It is an easy and brief ramble to the summit at 5.3 miles from the trailhead. There is a tall summit cairn that has attracted the eager attention of numerous flies. I could not say why. Next to the cairn is an equally mysterious golf club. Setting aside the disquiet caused by the terrible fire damage, the views are great. There is a huge ridge to the distant northeast, the Capitan Mountains, which looks challenging.  Immediately surrounding Nogal Peak are regions of dark forest nested with regions of open parklands.  There are no visible cacti! In the middle of the North Tularosa Basin there is a dark region that I thought might be vegetation – could there be an oasis out there? Alas, no. Apparently that region is “malpais” – terrain formed by 1500 year old lava flows.

View back towards summit on eastern side.

View back towards summit on eastern side.

On the eastern side of the summit there is a trail (!) that makes penetrating the thickets easy, even if the tread is directed away from the trailhead.  Follow that trail as it crosses several small knobs and enters a wooded col. In the woods the trail splits, go right to descend out of the col and drop easterly until it joins the Crest Trail at 6.1 miles.  Turn right onto the Crest Trail and begin hiking the extra mile or so that is the price for avoiding those thickets.

2013-05-18 63 Turkey Canyon and Road 107 junctionBack at Turkey Spring (8.1 miles), turn downhill and follow another gently inclined canyon as it pours southwest towards FS road 107.  Although Turkey Spring is dry, other water sources begin to add up and in places water is flowing in the canyon.  There are several mines along the creek and a degraded mining-road makes up the lower reaches of the trail. (Mining roads tend to be cut into the hillside well above the threatening waters of the canyon bottom. The steep hillside cut is forever dropping loose rock onto the tread).  The mine entrances are open – with the attendant risks of open shafts and rockfall.  At 10.6 miles you come to the intersection with FS road 107, turn right and ascend back to the trailhead.


2013-05-18 54 typical oak thicket (at summit)

Our friend, Mr. Scrub Oak

There is little euphoria in scraping past thorn-bushes and struggling through scrub oaks. More experienced navigators will probably avoid the ascent of the western side of Nogal and use the trail on the eastern side.

Due to fire damage hikers are being encouraged to use extra caution. I spent as little time as possible on the summit because of forecasts for high winds. Given how the Camry got blown about on US 54 late that afternoon, I was happy to be away from those stands of burned timber. Consider putting a saw into your vehicle. If a small tree falls on the road you might be able to save yourself hours waiting for the road to reopen. Remember this problem when selecting a parking spot or a camping site.

Internet chatter suggests that Lincoln National Forest could be closed in the near future. If you want to do this trip in 2013 then it might help to do it soon. It helps if you take a moment to look at the US Drought Monitor for New Mexico. That link is dynamic, so what you see will depend on when you click. At this writing, 45% of the state is listed as being in “Exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe of all the ratings. It is hard to miss the evidence of stress in the forest. I think that I’ll be doing cold camping until it rains again. Let’s hope that the New Mexico monsoon delivers a lot of water and not too much lightening  – soon. You may want to check the Lincoln National Forest website before setting off for the forest.

2013-05-18 53 hiking back to summit

Me, approaching the summit over open grassy terrain

I blew through three liters of water on this late May day and was wishing for more. In the town of Carrizozo (the name is reportedly derived from the Spanish term “carrizo”, meaning reed grass) the Carrizozo Market was selling slices of watermelon. It was an exact match to a need for water and calories. The Market is just reopening after a tornado took its roof. Surprisingly it did not yet have a soda cooler. As a consequence I wound up at the Tuli Freeze in the town of Tularosa, further down US 54. Although not normally a fan of soft ice cream I do admit that it had a very distinct cooling effect – very satisfying on a warm afternoon.


Outlook Mt/Ski Apache (behind a forested rise) and Sierra Blanca

Sierra Blanca rises to 12,003 feet (3660 m) and is one of the highest peaks in southern New Mexico. Next to it is Lookout Peak, home to the Ski Apache resort. Portions of the hike go through terrain burned in the Little Bear fire (2012). Due to this burn, both the Forest Service and the Mescalero Apache Travel Office have closed the trail at least until Spring of 2013.


Sierra Blanca forms part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. In normal years a permit is required for the summit portion of this trip. This year both the Mescalero Tribe and the Forest Service have closed the terrain to hikers due to fire damage. Both the Mescalero Apache Travel Office (575-464-4494) and the Smokey Bear Ranger Station (575-257-4095) state in the strongest possible terms that the danger to hikers from dead fall and the even greater danger to the region from fire make it imperative to keep people out until the winter has come and gone. They were very polite, but state unambiguously that hikers should wait until spring of 2013, then check back to see if the trails have been re-opened and permitting re-established.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Exit #6 from I-25 in Las Cruces, heading east on US 70 (towards Alamogordo).
  • After 62.0 miles (100 km) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. (US 70 in Alamogordo can be slow since it is lined by businesses. The “Relief Route” takes you around the busy stretch. The exit is just past the third stoplight you encounter in Alamogordo, signalling for the junction of US 70 with US 54 South).
  • After 4.8 miles (7.7 km), go left at the stoplight back onto US 70 East.
  • After 42.4 miles (68.2 km), turn left onto Sudderth Dr. (on the outskirts of Ruidoso).
  • After 3.4 miles (5.5 km), turn right onto Mechem Dr. (in the center of Ruidoso).
  • After 5.3 miles (8.5 km), turn left onto County Road 532.
  • After 11.0 miles (17.7 km) this year you will encounter a sign saying Road Closed. (See the warnings under “permits”, above). Once the road re-opens it should be possible to go a bit further than a mile to get to the normal trailhead. According to other reports the trailhead is found at a sharp, left-hand switchback near the ski area.

I stopped off at the All American Diner in Ruidoso (390 Sudderth Dr.) for a bite to eat. Its sign indicated American/Mexican cuisine, and the staff were speaking Spanish. My server was very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the combo plate. The chile rellenos tasted about the same as the refried beans. In place of cream they serve a vastly regrettable food-like substance in the “coffee whitener” clade. For future reference, across the street from the All American there is a promising sign for the Cornerstone Bakery. Further down the road Farley’s Pub had the fullest parking lot on both Saturday and Sunday. The sign on that building says “Ribs, Burgers, Dogs”.


Map of actual trail (not the dirt road route through burned forest):

CR 532 is closed here at mile marker 11. 

County Road 530 follows a gently inclined stream bed to reach an altitude of 8000 feet (2440 m), then explodes upward in a series of switchbacks to reach the 10,000 ft (3050 m) contour. At the 11 mile marker it reaches a pass. Normally you would drive down to the ski area from the pass. This year the road is closed at the pass. As reviewed in the “permits” section, travel is not permitted while the region recovers from the near-term effects of fire.

By spring of 2013 it may be possible to continue about another mile on CR 532 to a left-hand hairpin turn and park there. Internet reports say that the trailhead is located near a gate for the ski area. Also, the gate is closed after dark so hikers will want park outside the ski area.


The legitimate trail goes from a trailhead at 9840 feet (3000 m) to the summit at 12,000 feet (3660 m) for a gain of 2160 feet (660 m) in 4.3 miles, one way. It appears that the trails used are T15 to an intersection with T25, then T25 to an intersection with T78, then T78 to the summit.

The route taken began at the pass at 10,100 feet for a net gain of just 1900 feet (580 m) in 6.3 miles (10.1 km) one way.

Hike: (not open at least until spring 2013, see “Permits” above)

Two burned trees (at either edge of photo) carry twin blazes to mark the point where the trail departs the road.

The dirt road at the pass stays close to the 10,000-foot contour for a about 1.3 miles (2.1 km). Views to Lookout Mt show the wildfire damage done to Ski Apache (see newspaper images). The forest that the road traverses is entirely burned. The trail departs from the road about 100 feet (30 m) before a sharp right-hand switchback on a forested saddle. The departure is marked by twin ax-blazes on a pair of burned trees on the down-hill side of the road, shown on the photo to the left. Beyond the trees is a steep meadow. Trail T25 traverses this hillside close to the low end of the meadow.

At the end of the meadow T25 winds through a burned wood, then joins with another trail in a second meadow and goes sharply right. I think the other trail might be T15, the connector to the normal trailhead (but I didn’t explore it). T25 becomes mostly level at this point, passing a small stream flowing in a deep V-notch, swinging around a broad rib and reaching a meadow below another saddle. Here the trail turns sharply left and begins to ascend via several switchbacks towards Icy Spring. There were numerous elk around the meadow, and their bugling was tremendous. In places grass is growing in the trailbed just as densely as in the adjacent forest floor. An enormous amount of work has been put into clearing burned logs from the trail and leaving twin ax-blazes for navigation.

Icy Spring was flowing, and one offshoot of the trail crosses the deep stream bed. For this venture I stayed on trail T25 (there are signs at the Icy Spring crossing) to ascend to the ridge crest. On the crest there is a signed junction with T78. To get to Lookout Mt and thence to Sierra Blanca follow T78 south. There are several saddles on the crest that provide good camping spots.

Looking into the sunset at camp near T25 and T78 junction.

Leaving the car at 4:30 p.m. proved unwise, since it led to a hasty camp setup. At 11,200 feet (3410 m) in New Mexico you get an eyeful of nighttime sky. The light from a half-moon was bright enough to cast vivid shadows. The ridge could be a severely windy spot, but on this evening it was peaceful. Sleep was elusive since I’m not acclimated to the altitude. The down-insulated hood on my sleeping bag was a deeply appreciated design feature.

View from Lookout summit to Sierra Blanca

From the intersection the trail bumps southerly along the ridge, with views out to Tularosa Basin and its White Sands Monument in the west. It drops slightly to intersect a ski trail signed “Ambush” and then ascends the ski trail to Lookout Peak. On the highest point (above the lifts) there is a circular concrete bench. The views from this bench were not any better than from the ridge, and there is a ski-road that avoids most of the gratuitous gain if you prefer. From the south side of the summit block you have a fine view of the grassy rise that precedes the knife-edge ridge to Sierra Blanca summit.

View from Sierra Blanca summit back towards Lookout Peak

Drop from Lookout Mt straight towards Sierra Blanca and ascend the grassy rise. Between the altitude and the steepness of the rise, expect a vigorous cardio workout. The rise hits a prominent shoulder with a good view of the knife-edge. There are faint climber’s treads along that ridge, but it is advisable to look for steep stream bed that drops away towards the west (right side, looking uphill), Just past this proto-canyon, find a tread that drops down a short distance on the western side. It offers a way of getting around the tricky little rise in the middle of the ridge and provides good footing for the ascent. Near the summit the terrain becomes entirely rock, the tread disappears and it becomes a scramble to the summit proper.


It was a mistake to head into such damaged terrain. It would have been perfectly possible to find other hikes in this region that were robust and open to hikers. That said, don’t stay away next spring! Call the numbers for the Tribe and for the Forest Service to see if this beautiful trail has been re-opened. There were trucks going back and forth on the closed section, presumably to re-open the road for the 2012-2013 ski season.

This scramble took place at the end of New Mexico’s “monsoon” season. Admittedly, it has been a terribly dry monsoon this year, but be cautious in planning for water on this trail. I have no idea if any of the described streams would be flowing before the monsoon begins. Six liters in my bag were enough. In fact, two liters survived the trip out and back, but it’s reassuring to have extra.

County Road 532 is home to miles of savagely abused roadside cable-barriers as it climbs to 10,000 feet (3050 m). Apparently it pays to keep your wheels on the tarmac. I kept my car in second gear during descent to take some stress off of the brake pads.

The summit of Sierra Blanca is wide and surprisingly grassy. It’s a great place for a nap or watching the many raptors. It would have been a good place for a self-portrait, if only I had remembered to bring my camera along. The other photos shown here are from my cell phone. It’s an aged Android app and does not seem to have a timer feature.

The night was cold – there was frost on the broad-leaf ground cover when the sun rose. I was otherwise very lucky with the weather. The ascent took advantage of cool temperatures and experienced just enough sunshine to make writing in the summit register a joy. In contrast, a wet and windy descent would make for a memorably bleak experience. This is not a good place for acrophobes. Let’s be careful up there.


T119 on a steep rise (still rocky), but nearing forested terrain.

I picked this trail simply because I knew it to be visible from space, hoping it would be within my range of competence after getting quite confused in the neighboring canyons. It proved to be easy to follow and  a great workout.  It also showcases the transition from the Chihuanuan desert floor to the forested terrain that lies above 6500 feet.


  • From Las Cruces, get onto I-25 and take exit #6 (US Route 70) East towards Alamogordo.
  • After 62.6 miles (100.7 km), go right onto Rt 54 West.
  • After 0.2 miles (0.32 km), go left onto Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 2.3 miles (3.7 km), turn right onto W 10th Street.
  • After 3.1 miles (5.0 km), W. 10th Street makes a hard left-hand turn and becomes Paiute Trail.
  • After 0.2 miles (0.32 km), look for an excavated wash that goes under Paiute Trail.  The uphill wash is the start of the trail. Park by the side of the road.

White Sands National Monument Balloon Festival (seen from Alamogordo). At one point there were about 40 balloons in the air.

Comment on directions: On my approach I actually took a slightly different route through town. It was characterized by frequent turns, missing road signs, and several strikingly blind intersections.  When heading back, I followed the directions given above (but in reverse, of course).  The given directions above are much easier to follow.  Regrettably,  I didn’t track the mileage values on return, so these values are taken directly from Google.  Be a little wary of the exact mileage figures.  They will be updated after the next visit to the Lincoln National Forest.


On the map, the trailhead is on the left (west) and my turn-around point is on the right (east). You may have to scroll to see either end.
A-trail (aka T119) trailhead

Trailhead for T119.  The trail begins in the excavated wash and heads uphill. After 100 ft (30 m) the wash intersects another excavated wash that runs parallel to Paiute Trail, then rises up onto the jeep track that forms the remainder of the trail.

The trailhead is located where an excavated wash comes into Paiute Trail (a paved road).  The photo at the right shows the view from the trailhead, looking up the wash.  There is quite a lot of open space on the uphill side of Paiute Trail, but it is fronted by a curb that is too high for my sedan.  Since the road is quite wide, most people will simply park next to the curb.

Note the cliffband at the top of the photo – the trail swings to the right of this cliff.


The jeep track rises 3200 feet (975 m) in 3.6 miles (5.8 km), hitting the highest point just before my turn-around in the open meadows facing the interior of Lincoln National Forest.  The actual jeep track continues on – on Google it looks like it enters a forest service road in less than half a mile.  To get to the summit of Ortega Peak hikers would need to ascend off-trail from the pass for another 300 feet (90 m) of gain.


View from A-trail west to White Sands and San Andres Mountains

View of Alamogordo, White Sands National Monument and (faintly) the San Andres Mountains. Taken from the A-Trail at about the level of the big painted “A”.

The trail starts out following an excavated wash (nicely squared off) for about 100 feet (30 m) before climbing out onto a jeep track.  There are several side-branches to the jeep track, simply stay on the most-used road. From the trailhead you can see a prominent cliffband directly uphill.  The jeep trail goes to the right of that cliffband and then turns back to follow along the top of the cliff, then turns uphill and goes through quite a few switchbacks to gain the top of the large “A” painted on the hillside.  From the top of the “A” there are great views of the basin and a glimpse of White Sands National Monument.  (The view of White Sands improves constantly during the hike).

bench-and-rise topology of Ortega Mountain

View of Ortega summit from A-trail, capturing some of the bench-and-rise topology and the gradual transition to a forested environment.

From the painted “A” the terrain has a pronounce cycle of rise-and-bench.  On the steep rises the  jeep track is often quite rocky and it is hard to get a good rhythm going.  Fortunately the rocks can be quite colorful and for certain stretches the gleam of mica is a common roadbed distraction.  At about 6800 feet (2070 m) the terrain benches for the last time before hitting the meadows of the pass.  Trees start to appear, and the road becomes more like a dirt road than a stream bed.   As the road draws near the summit block it contours through alpine forest (short firs and something that resembles cedar trees) with occasional meadows and even a tarn bed (although the tarn was dry when I was there).  The road skirts a bowl and reaches a pass at about 7400 feet (2255 m).  Just over the pass there is an open meadow with good views to the terrain east of Ortega Peak.  That’s were I turned around.


View from "A" trail down to trailhead for Ortega Canyon South

The distant water tank on the top-left is where you park your car. The water tank on the top-center is where you enter the canyon. I went into the canyon north of the water tank (on the far side). I believe that you want to enter the southern canyon, on the near side between the water tank and the house with the red roof.

My original intention for today was to get a look at Ortega Canyon South.  The instructions for that hike said to park your car at the lower of two water tanks on Thunder Road, then follow the road to the upper tanks and find the canyon departing from there.  From up high on T119 I could see my mistake.  I stayed on Thunder Road to the upper water tank, but I walked past the tank because the road drops immediately into a canyon along the north side of the tank.  Mistake!  Ortega Canyon South looks like it should be reached by following Thunder Road until you just reach the nearest edge of this fenced property, then immediately ascend on the tank’s southern side (to the right, looking uphill).  Keep going uphill and trending a little towards the right until you reach the mouth of a Ortega Canyon South.  (The canyon comes down between the water tower and a house with a red roof.)

barbed wire fence across "Wrong Canyon"

View uphill to the first (of several) barb wire fences that traverse the canyon I chose to explore. There is an opening for a flexible hiker to get through, but the next fence is less hospitable.

The canyon that I entered (a.k.a. “the wrong canyon”) contains a surprising amount of rusted metal junk, but even more striking is it’s collection of barb wire fences that cling grimly to the canyon floor.  That didn’t seem right.  Still anxious to get going, I walked further to the north on Thunder Road to see if there would be a track leading to another large canyon up there, but it was suburbia city and I didn’t want to trespass.  That was fortunate, since that would have been an even “wronger” canyon from the point of view of getting to Ortega Canyon South.

CAVEAT: I didn’t actually get into the right canyon, this is just a report of what looked like the “right canyon” from high on T119.  I recommend finding someone with actual experience in hiking Ortega Canyon South, if you can!   The internet reports  are like this one – very confusing.


That’s me, standing a little too close to an ocotillo plant about halfway through the descent.

“A” Trail has a fair amount of gain on a track that is completely open.  This is probably not he best place to be on the hottest day of the year.  Still, I envy hikers in Alamogordo.  A couple hikes up this highly accessible trail would be a great way to get into shape and stay there.

Free at last!

Kids (just released from the family van) running on the trail leading into the White Sands National Monument.

White Sands National Monument is on the road from Las Cruces to Alamogordo.  They say that it is a pretty spectacular spot, although my energy levels were too low to do much on the return trip other than take a few photos from the edge of the sands.  According to the signs, the sand is actually gypsum that has drained out of the surrounding mountain ranges.