Archives for posts with tag: Aguirre Springs Campground

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:

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”.