This is going to different from the usual route description. If you are looking for hiking or scrambling routes then please click on the “Hikes By Name” menu item from the menu above and search through that list.

Yesterday I followed the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) from Forest Road 234 up into the Magdalenas, aiming for South Baldy. Up pretty high I twisted my ankle. It was not a big deal, but I was concerned enough to look for a bail-out route and followed a side trail back west. Regrettably, that trail took me across private land and my presence made the owner very unhappy. To be explicit, I do not mean “crazy, shouting, arm waving” anger but rather a grim, deep, gut-churned sensation on the part of an innocent guy who was wronged. To his eternal credit, he heard me out, spoke eloquently of the high value of his privacy and then gave me a ride back to my car. A nice guy, in fact.

So today I spent some time looking into the issue of avoiding such situations. How do you know where public domains end and where private land begins? I spoke with people both at the Magdelana Ranger station and at the BLM Field Office in Socorro. The BLM, particularly, has maps of land use borders that seem very useful. They also suggested an app, called CarryMap.

EDIT: In the first iteration of this post I gave a strong recommendation to CarryMap. Regrettably, I have to withdraw that recommendation (at least, for use on an iPhone). In my experience CarryMap quickly drains the battery whenever the iPhone is out of direct cell-tower reach. This is a pity. If I had had that data on this hike I could have done a much better job at picking a route out. If I find a suitable replacement I will update this post again.

This blog has mentioned previously that we hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, trail runners, backcountry skiers, birders and hunters benefit enormously from the generosity of New Mexico land owners. It never hurts to give back. We benefit when we make obvious, explicit efforts to respect the their rights.

Marty

Steep meadows before the summit of Timber Peak

Overview:

The South Baldy Trail #11 ascends from a darkling canyon bed up to the sunny ridgeline of the Magdalena Mountains. Access is easy and the grade is moderate. The subsequent views from the Timber Peak Trail #70 sweep the region; from the San Juans in southern Colorado to the Black Range in southern New Mexico. Pick a clear day and go! Novice hikers should know that snow sometimes obscures the trail. If you have doubts about your navigation skill then come anyway, bringing a resolute willingness to turn back when the tread becomes doubtful.

Driving Directions

  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
    • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
      • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
      • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
      • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
    • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
      • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
      • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
      • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 West (signed).
  • After 14.9 miles on US-60 West turn left onto Water Canyon Road. Just before the turn you will see a sign on US-60 saying, “Water Canyon Campground”. There is a state historic marker at the junction as well. 
  • After 4.6 miles on Water Canyon Road, at the Water Canyon Campground (signed), turn left onto Forest Road 235 (signed, roadbed becomes gravel)
  • After 2.1 miles on Forest Road 235, at a wide and level spot on the right side of the road, park at the trailhead. A sign for  “South Baldy Trail No. 11” should be visible. (FR-235 is numbered with small, blue signs about every tenth of a mile, the trailhead is about 100 yards past the blue sign saying “24” and a second sign saying “ELEV 7500 FT”).

A sign at the start of FR-235 recommends against driving the road unless you have a high-suspension, 4-wheel drive vehicle. For now, however, almost any normal passenger car can make it as far as the trailhead.

Trailhead:

Trailhead (double click to get a better view of the sign)

A wide spot on the right side of the road, tucked into the floor of Water Canyon, forms your trailhead. On this date there was some water moving in the canyon, but you should not count on it as a resource. There are no services at the trailhead, although you will pass several campgrounds along FR-235 that have vault toilets. Water Canyon Campground is currently open and you can check on its status here. Important note! About 100 yards before this trailhead there is another trailhead, signed for “South Canyon Trail No. 15”. That is a separate trailhead for a separate trail! 

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7,540
  • ending elevation: 10,510
  • net elevation: 2970
  • distance: 4.3 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

Warm morning sunlight strikes the canyon rim.

At 7500 feet you might expect juniper and pinyon pine, yet this cool canyon shelters a narrow forest of tall and thriving pines. Some have the cinnamon bark of ponderosa pine, but others had a dark gray, vertically furrowed bark typical of a Chihuahua white pine. Recent snowfall has toppled some of the old snags. True to Murphy, these always seem to fall directly across the tread. Dodge those trunks and hike on – all such impediments fade away in less than a half mile. 

South facing wall of Water Canyon

December mornings refrigerate the canyon bottom. Fortunately, the trail departs the canyon bed at 0.8 miles. A long switchback pulls you onto the south-facing wall of the northern-most tributary to Water Canyon. Climb into morning sunshine and feel it going to work! Off come the wool hats and puffy coats. At the switchback’s end the trail turns up-canyon and begins a carefully engineered slog that slowly creeps up the wall – almost reaching the rim. At some point you may want to dash up onto the rim for a fine view down into Copper Canyon and across the east-facing slopes of the Magdalenas.

Snow covered trail

Below you the tributary bottom starts to soar and at 1.9 miles the bed rises to meet the trail. Here, on this date, snow began covering the trail. Those with little navigation experience should recognize this turn-back signal. For others, follow the trail as it crosses the tributary and turns southeast, traversing into the large bowl encompassing the canyon’s headwaters. The trail slaloms between the forested hillocks that dominate the ridgeline. You may hear some traffic noise – the main ridgeline houses both the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) and the Langmuir Laboratory. At 2.9 miles the South Baldy Trail ends at its upper junction with Forest Road 235.

Sign at trail’s intersection with FR-235

If you were to turn right and follow the road uphill you would come to South Baldy, the highest peak in the Magdalenas. For this route, however, turn left and follow the road as it gently descends a quarter mile. Find the heavily weathered sign for Timber Peak Trail #70 at a traffic turnout. (Curiously, the turnout had been plowed – possibly to make room for later snow accumulations). Depart the road and follow the tread up the ridgeline.

South Baldy Peak (MRO is midway across the ridge’s snow field)

A series of bumps populates this ridge. The trail makes several westerly-detours to contour below them. The views are terrific. Above and west of you lies the summit of South Baldy, snow clad in winter and grassland in summer. The MRO is a prominent, white, ridge-top building capped with a shiny aluminum dome. Below and east of you lies the Socorro Mountains. Straight ahead (south) lie views into the depths of Sawmill Canyon. At 3.8 miles the tread rejoins to the ridgeline and barrels straight at Timber Peak.

San Juans (snow capped, left-third on the horizon) and Ladron Peak (right-third, middle distance)

Snowy conditions can make that ascent demanding. Postholing at altitude! A broad meadow graces the flanks of the summit block and it is pitched steeply enough to require kicking steps into the snow. The grade finally gentles and you are guided into a small alcove framed by fir trees. You might think that you’ve arrived. False hope! The true summit lies 20 or so feet above you. This is not technical terrain, but you may have to probe the snow with your boots to find adequate foothold. Finally, at 4.3 miles from the trailhead, join the weather-station sensors crowning this summit.

View over Sawmill Canyon to Hardy Ridge, San Mateo Mts and (visible just above San Mateos) the distant Black Range.

Views include the snow clad San Juan Mountains directly north, Ladron Peak to the northwest, along with hazy views of the Sandia Mountains and Manzano Peak in the Manzano Mountains. To the southwest lie the Oscura Mountains and the rounded dome of Carrizo Peak. Look west, over the vast gulf of Sawmill Canyon, to find San Mateo Peak in the San Mateo Mountains. Beyond the San Mateos (in the far distance) glimpse the north end of the Black Range.

Recommendations:

Author, obscuring your view of the Oscura Mountains

Postholing became a problem above 9500 feet. In preparation, I brought along my elderly MSR snowshoes but failed to examine them closely. Alas! The ancient elastomers that made up the straps had quietly succumbed to old age. I had gone no further than 20 feet when the bootstrap on the left shoe broke. The right shoe straps broke about 100 yards later. Fortunately, it was rare to plunge more than a foot or so. If you have functioning snowshoes take them with you in the car. As you approach on US-60 take a look at the summit of South Baldy. If you can see snow up there then you will want to carry your snowshoes into the upper reaches.

I didn’t carry an ice ax. There was no need for the South Baldy Trail. The Timber Peak Trail has several segments of side-hilling on steep meadows where an ax might be advisable.

On a cool day I went through just one liter of water. I was glad to have two, however, as the sun in the afternoon shone warmly on the west-facing slopes and water breaks were frequent.

Kicking steps at 10,000 feet is hard work. Has your party just come from sea level? Then keep an eye out for signs of acute mountain sickness.

Links:

Solphoto has a writeup and nice photos of the tremendous views you get from the ridge leading to Timber Peak. Check it for what this part of the hike might be like in warm weather.

The Chamber of Commerce in Magdalena, NM has an extensive description (PDF) of nearby trails including the South Baldy Trail and the Timber Peak Trail. Bookmark it if you need route suggestions for hiking in this area.

The HikeArizona site, a great resource, provides a brief description of a variation which you’d hike up the South Baldy Trail No. 11 all the way to South Baldy Peak.

In milder weather folks with high-clearance vehicles drive to the Timber Peak trailhead and do just the upper part of this route. George at Ondafringe has a description with numerous photos to give you an excellent idea of what to expect in warmer seasons, extending the trip to an open part of the ridge beyond Timber Peak.

A post at the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors explains how it is that the South Baldy Trail is in such excellent shape. Thanks to Nick T and all the other volunteers!

Sheer canyon walls and level wash

Overview:

A feast of iconic western imagery, Potato Canyon proffers sheer canyon walls, gigantic trees, wildlife, a brief slot canyon and easy hiking into the heart of the lonesome Withington Wilderness. In the hike’s uppermost reaches (barely touched in this route description) there is evidence of a recent fire. This route would be a national treasure were it not for the last six miles of the drive. Those miles are hostile. Hikers possessing a high clearance vehicle and a high tolerance for care-filled driving should pack packs and go.

Driving Directions:

True!

Stretches of this drive are ugly. A high-suspension, four-wheel drive vehicle is required (alas). In its steeper sections the forest road slaloms between boulders and quakes under extended piles of loose rock.

It is a shame because the hike up to the waterfall is as family-friendly as any hike in New Mexico.


  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
    • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
    • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
  • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
    • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
    • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
    • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 (well signed).
  • After 26.4 miles on US-60, at the far end of the town of Magdelana, turn left onto NM-107 South (well signed).
    • NM-107 is paved for the first 4.3 miles, then turns to gravel. The current roadbed is in exceptionally good shape.
  • After 16.8 miles on NM-107 turn right onto Forest Road 52 (FR-52).
    • FR-52 is very rough. High clearance vehicles only. The Subaru made it, but at the cost of abuse to the suspension and tires.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 3.3 miles on FR-52 turn left onto FR-56
    • FR-56 is signed “Not fit for passenger cars“. This is correct.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 2.7 miles on FR-56 pull out onto the two-track going up Potato Canyon.
    • FR-56 drops into Big Rosa Canyon and stays there. This could be an exceptionally poor choice of parking during monsoon season.
    • At 2.1 miles the road enters the main canyon wash and the roadbed becomes significantly better!
    • The Potato Canyon trailhead is signed (see below), although the sign is getting shot-up.

Trailhead:

The Subaru in its native heath

The trailhead is a flat spot beside a two-track going up Potato Canyon. Don’t leave your vehicle on the two-track. On this date there were ATV tire tracks in the canyon bed for the first half-mile. Clearly, people do drive here. There is a shot-up sign saying, “Potato Tr”. There is no water, toilet, or trash service at the trailhead.

Data:

On this date I used a new GPS, which gathered only 44 data points. My old GPS would have collected more than 1000. Know that the track does not reflect the twists in the canyon, so distances are likely to be underestimated.

  • lowest point: 6706 feet
  • highest point: 8728 feet
  • net elevation: 2020 feet
  • distance: 5.7 miles (one way, may be understated)

Hike Description:

Depart Big Rosa Canyon by hiking the two-track west into Potato Canyon. The two-track gets lost amidst small waves of gregarious boulders and a web of gullies. The terrain is not bad for hiking, but a battering to wheeled vehicles. The canyon has the feel of a movie-set; a dry land of lonesome ponderosa, ancient alligator juniper, layered sandstone, numerous deer tracks and vertical canyon walls. The broad wash writhes, yet the footing is usually so good you can afford to stare at your surroundings. 

Early view into Potato Canyon

In a quarter mile, just past a sign for the Withington Wilderness, enter the first deep section of the canyon. Here the waters have cut down through a tall intrusion of hard rock. The south side of the canyon is a wall of this rock, but the north is far less steep; grassy and sunlight even in the early morning of a late fall day. Rather chilly (early in the morning) but the shaded nature of this hike is one of its biggest attractions. 

Foot thick gray oak

Inside the canyon there is an unexpected mixture of trees. Ponderosa pines have crept down this cool and moist environment, oddly competing with alligator juniper for the canyon’s resources. Many trees are outsized. Gray oak, for example, is typically encountered as brush. In this sun protected bottom, however, one old Gray flaunted a foot-thick bole armored with bark as corrugated as the bark of a Douglas fir. Similarly outsized Gambel oaks and big pinyon pines are everywhere. Amazing.

Western iconography

The first navigation challenge comes at 1.7 miles, in the junction of two canyons. The confluence bed is quite broad, flat and densely forested. You may need to scout around, but take the fork going southwest, not the very-prominent fork heading north of west. (That is, stay to your left, heading uphill). On this date a pretty run of water surfaced in mid-wash just west of this junction. Tracks show that turkey, deer and a cat (likely a bobcat) use this watering hole.  

Deadfall

Hiking on a sandy tread can blow out your calves. It is much more stressful than walking a regular trail of similar grade. Grit creeps into your boots. Even with gaiters you may need to stop now and then for a break to clear the those insoles. Deadfall crosses the wash, wherever running waters have undercut a tree. (In these cases you can often get around the barrier by walking past the rootball, the fall usually pulls the rootball from the bank). Some of these fallen trees make excellent benches.

Waterfall (path is to right)

At 4.0 miles the bed of the canyon rockets skywards and water sluices down its face. In early November the shadowed walls of this box can be decorated with ice. The waterfall is a navigation puzzle – look to the north side (to your right looking upstream) for the path forward. The last few steps of this path are right at the edge of the waterfall and somewhat exposed. For acrophobes it may be best to have lunch at the base of the falls and return. Others should continue on. There is a short but terrific little slot canyon immediately above the waterfall.  

Short slot Canyon

Above the slot canyon the wide wash regains control. At 4.3 miles come to the another navigational issue at a confluence of canyons. A wide, smooth wash sweeps into the junction from the southerly branch (to your left), very tempting! A much more jumbled wash comes in from the northerly branch and ends atop a three foot embankment, forming a “hanging wash”. Go northerly, clambering onto the hanging wash and continuing uphill.

Middle finger rock

This mellow beach stroll continues onward and at 5.2 miles swings due west to open up views of Mt Withington. So close! Here the grade begins to increase significantly. Scan the northern bank (on your right while ascending) for cairns that lead you steeply up into the northerly branch of the next junction. Almost immediately above this junction the trail takes a four-foot vertical leap straight up off of the canyon floor and onto the terrain that separates the two branches. The ground directly above this “leap” is only slightly less than vertical. Imagine rock-climbing, but on marginally consolidated soil. Turning back before the leap would have been the reasonable thing to do. Without making any recommendation, it is possible but exposed to climb from tree to tree until reasonable “footing” reappears. On the narrow strip of land between the canyon branches continue on the steep climb. The tread, submerged under blackened debris, dodges between roasted tree trunks. A cluster of stone pillars topped by “middle finger rock” appears. Is that a sign? Have something to eat, think over your options, and if retreat seems good then return the way you came.

(Note: for those aiming at the summit of Mount Withington, keep an eye out for a fork in the trail that appears before you encounter that rude rock. This fork is obscured by a huge old log that has fallen into the tread in three, large and rotting chunks. One fork of the trail goes down to the “southerly” canyon branch – left on ascent – and that may be the best way forward).

Recommendations:

Go.

Don’t go if there is rain in the forecast. The bottom of Big Rosa Canyon (part of the approach drive) is said to be subject to flash flooding. The slot canyon is short, but for a slot canyon it is unusually awkward to negotiate.

Wear gaiters to keep sand out of your shoes.

Check your vehicle’s spare tire and jack before going. Have spare water and warm backup clothing in the vehicle. The Withington really is wilderness.

The remoteness of this hike makes extra care worthwhile. If you’ve been lightening your pack by sacrificing some optional medical supplies you may want to temporarily restore them.

Links:

A rock climbing site explains that Potato Canyon is named for The Great Potato rock formation found on the San Mateo ridgeline, high above the canyon. The photos are great.

A. Jackson Frishman has done an excellent job of capturing the feel of Potato Canyon at the FrishmanPhoto site. Scroll down to the second photograph.

Similarly, the writeup at DoughScottArt has a terrific photo of the waterfall, which gets named as the “Pink Cascade”. The text cautions that the Cascade disappears during the dry seasons, and a very clear map indicates exactly where to expect to find the cascade.

At the Wilderness 50 Challenge site the author makes some pointed remarks about the inadvisability of taking a sedan into the Wilderness (based on actual experience).

There is a thoughtful writeup of this trail (PDF, scroll to page 35) from the Forest Service. They give a pretty detailed description and caution, as mentioned above, that water does not always flow in the canyon. It is surprising to see this trail given a “most difficult” rating, but they explain that the primitive condition of the tread and the remoteness of the area serve to weight the decision.

A writeup in the Albuquerque Journal suggests that passenger vehicles can make this drive, despite the signs suggesting otherwise. Please note that this writeup comes from 1999!

The NMTrails website includes a trip report from 2017. The author notes the difficulty of finding the trail once you enter the old burn, and the stark incisions made into the flanks of Mount Withington by flooding after the fire.