Archives for posts with tag: canyoneering
01-pino-canyon

View from lower Pino Canyon Trail into Pino Canyon

Overview:

The Pino Canyon trail ascends the west side of the Sandia Mountains, leaving from the borders of urban Albuquerque and rising to the wild ridge crest. You go from open cacti-and-juniper terrain into dense spruce, fir and Ponderosa Pine (“pino” is Spanish for “pine tree”).  The demands  on the hiker are much less than some of the other west-side hikes since the trail hits the ridge at only 9200 feet. Both the lower altitude and the clear tread make this a choice winter destination. It would be a great place for tuning up those hiking muscles as hiking season pulls into view.

Driving Directions:

 

02-frosted-stick-cholla

Stick cholla in a winter wonderland

  • From I-25 North, heading through Albuquerque, take exit 232 for El Paso Del Norte (NM 423).  Stay to the right.
  • After 0.1 miles veer right at a second off-ramp signed for El Paso Del Norte East. This ramp merges into the left-hand lane of a 3-lane frontage road. It will help if you can get into either of the right-hand lanes.
  • After another 0.4 miles the frontage road splits at a concrete traffic island. Stay on the right and immediately arrive at the intersection with El Paso Del Norte East (NM 423). Go right (east) onto NM 423.
  • After 4.8 more miles arrive at a T-intersection with Tramway Blvd (NM 556). Turn right (south) onto NM 556.
  • After 1.2 miles, after a very slight bend to the right, look for Sims Park on your left. Just before the intersection there is a roadside sign for Elena Gallegos Open Space on the right side of the road. The Sims Park intersection does not have a traffic light. Go left (east) onto Sims Park Road.
  • After 1.3 miles arrive at the guard station for the park. On the south side of the station is a self-service pay station.  There are signs at the pay-station directing you to go right for the Pino Canyon trailhead. Follow ’em.
  • After 0.4 miles you will come to the trailhead on your right. (This is the second trailhead on your right). Immediately past the trailhead turnout there are restrooms.

Trailhead:

03-camry-at-pino-canyon-trailhead1

The mighty Camry at the ice-slicked trailhead.

The trailhead is paved, has toilets (vault-style from their appearance) and trash recepticals. I did not see any water sources. This is a very popular place for mountain bikers, dog walkers, joggers, mountain runners and hikers. It may be hard to find a parking spot on weekends unless you get here early. The parking fee is currently $2.00 per car on the weekends and $1.00 on weekdays. You must display a tag from a payment envelope to in order to park.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6450 feet
  • ending elevation:9210 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2760
  • distance: 4.7 miles one way
  • maps: USGS Sandia Mountains quadrangle

Hike Description:

Ladron Peak (somewhat washed out) on the horizon

Ladron Peak (somewhat washed out) on the horizon

From the trailhead go directly east along Trail #140 as it gently rises on a tread that is almost entirely free of rocks, branches and other complications. Make certain to look back over your shoulder as you ascend. Distant views to the mountains in the southwest open up; the early morning sun set Ladron Peak ablaze whereas South Baldy in the Magdelana Mountains was a mere purple silhouette.  On this date small winter storms blocked the views directly west to Mount Taylor.  After about a quarter mile come to an intersection with a major trail. Cross it and continue ascending east towards the crest.

Trail sign and first "foothill" at the mouth of Pino Canyon

Trail sign and first “foothill” at the mouth of Pino Canyon

The canyon walls rise above you. The more distant northern wall offers considerable distractions in the way of sheer cliffs and imposing rock spires. (Its higher reaches were obscured by clouds on this date). The southern wall is closer and gentler. From the trailhead it looks like a series of rolling hills. As you pass by the first of these hills (which are actually knolls and knobs atop a rib descending from the crest) you will see a pile of geo-rubbish at its foot. The trail comes quite close to the this pile and as you go by you will notice that the trail is rising up the southern wall. It is good practice to keep trail treads well above stream beds.

Thick forest and cloud occluded morning view of the north wall of Pino Canyon

Thick forest and cloud occluded morning view of the north wall of Pino Canyon

The trees thicken as you enter the canyon proper. The junipers give way to fir and spruce. The linear quality of the lower trail becomes markedly sinuous as it copes with the small waterways etched into the south wall of the canyon.  Views to the canyon rim become somewhat scant. On this day the snow-covered trailbed presented a wide array of animal  and bird tracks.

Forest devastation in upper canyon

Forest devastation in upper canyon

At about 2.5 miles the terrain begins to steepen. The trail displays its first switchbacks. Surprisingly, the trees start to thin. As you rise to the 8000 foot level the forest, now including many Ponderosa pines, shows signs of dire ill-health. The canyon bottom is layered with stacked deadfall. There is little or no sign of fire (that I could see), but others have commented on the dire effect that drought and bark beetles have had on flora in the Sandias.  Be careful on windy days, some of the snags overhead have adopted a rather threatening list.

Canyon anatomy: prominent ribs and giant molars

Canyon anatomy: prominent ribs and giant molars

At about 2.9 miles from the trailhead look above you towards the Sandia Crest. A high rib displays three rock protrusions – like a giant’s molars (in terms of fanciful dentistry). The tread swings south into a side canyon, crosses the stream bed and then contours directly beneath the three rock protrusions. Just above this point the trees regain a more healthy appearance and you re-enter the realm of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine.

09-afternoon-view-of-north-wall

A sunnier view of the Pino Canyon north wall

Up here there is a confusion of canyon branches. The trail winds back and forth across one bed, tires of the locale and abruptly contours into a separate branch. Watch your footing. Even though temperatures were below freezing there were numerous small waterways that were flowing onto the trail. Inevitably, hidden below the fresh snow, there were places where the wet soil had frozen into hard and slick gray ice. Traction devices are extremely useful.

Wind blasted knoll guarding the Sandia Crest

Wind blasted knoll guarding the Sandia Crest

At 3.8 miles the tread takes a marked turn to the south and begins a long slog up the last major incline before the crest. This is really beautiful terrain, not quite open enough to be sub-alpine, but an enjoyable stroll through a robust forest with occasional views to the northern wall of the canyon. At 4.5 miles a wind-blasted knoll marks your arrival at the crest – the trees are stunted and many short snags attest to the difficulty of growing at 9200 feet. Here the Pino Canyon Trail intersects the Crest Trail. It is worth going a few feet south (to your right as you reach the junction) on the Crest Trail to get a better view east and south over the Ortega Mountains and into the Pecos Basin. It can be chilly when the wind pours through this col. I found it worth while to hike north on the Crest Trail for a quarter mile. There is a spot where thick evergreens bunch up at the foot of a rock wall – offering some (small) respite from the storm.  Grab some photos and a bite to eat. The breeze will be enough to encourage a hasty re-hoisting of your bags. Return by the same route.

Recommendations:

The author, providing proof that even a 10-second timer delay can turn your fingers into unusually dextrous icicles.

Proof that a 10-second timer can turn your fingers into unusually dextrous icicles.

This is neither the most-demanding nor the most-scenic  nor the most-lonely trail you can find in the Sandias. Most hikers aren’t going to travel very far just to explore the Pino Canyon Trail.  That admitted, this trail is a huge gift to anyone in Albuquerque feeling the midwinter blues. Is that you? If so then put together some warm winter gear, grab some friends and get yourself over to Pino Canyon trailhead.

A single liter of water was sufficient on a deep and dark December day. It was interesting to find that the hose from my water bag had frozen-up on ascent. I had to carry it inside my jacket for more than an hour before it thawed up enough for use. Come prepared. It can be cold in them thar hills.

As mentioned above, the winter tread through Pino Canyon has its icy spots. Even in the lower elevations (where the trail was rather crowded) the boot-stomped snow was slippery. Good traction devices are valuable.

Links:

The trail is briefly described in the Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide, GreatOutdoors.com and RootsRated.

The Pino Canyon page at AbundantAdventures.com has photos that capture the canyon in two very different moods.

Ondafringe has driving directions, trail description, photos, videos and gps data in this post and this post.

This is not the frozen arctic, as the Sunshine Nomads attest with some photos.

A Forest Service map (pdf) is interesting because it gives you quite a clear idea of how the trails are laid out in the Sandia Mountains. It could be handy if you are thinking about creating your own loop route.

During the warmer months this terrain can rattle, as documented here.

01 Cañon La Cueva upper wall in morning

Northern wall of Cañon La Cueva in its upper reaches. A narrow view of the limestone cliffbands just below the Sandia Crest can be seen at the extreme right.

Overview:

There are several trails that lead from the urban borders of Albuquerque all the way to the crest of the Sandia Mountains. Of these, the La Luz trail (“the light” in Spanish) appears to be the most popular. There is little wonder why. Unlike the other treads, such as the Domingo Baca trail, this trail enjoys several civilizing influences including switchbacks and an easy-to-follow trailbed. The trail can be hiked “one way” by substituting a tramway ride for either the descent or the ascent. The latter could be especially useful alternative for hikers who are not acclimatized to altitude (that route is slightly different from the route described here – see the “Links” section below). Despite its civilized nature, the hike is puts real demands on the hiker. This is not the place to introduce young hikers to the backcountry. The La Luz trail takes you into outstanding terrain and is strongly recommended.

Driving Directions:

02 La Luz Trailhead fee sign

  • Take Interstate-25 north through Albuquerque and take Exit 234 for NM 556/Tramway Road NE. The ramp is very short and merges almost immediately into the leftmost lane of the Pan American Frontage Road. Get over into the two rightmost lanes as quickly as safety permits.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of Pan American Frontage Road, come to an intersection with NM 556/Tramway Road NE. Turn right onto NM 556.
  • After 4.0 miles turn left onto Forest Service Road 333 (paved).
  • After 1.8 miles, turn right onto Pinon Place.
  • After 0.4 miles, at the end of Pinon Place, arrive at the trailhead

Trailhead:

03 Might Camry at La Luz trailhead

The mighty Camry at La Luz Trailhead

The trailhead is paved and has vault toilets and trash receptacles. There is no water. There is a $3.00 per day fee, but that is waived if you have one of the numerous passes available (a military pass or a national parks pass, for example). There isn’t a huge amount of parking here. I got onto the trail at 7 a.m. with only nine or ten open parking spots remaining and more cars arriving every few minutes.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7000 feet
  • ending elevation: 10,378 feet
  • elevation gain: 3,378 feet
  • distance: 7.6 miles
  • maps: USGS Sandia Crest quadrangle (both the 1990 and the 2006 editions show La Luz trail, the 2013 edition does not show any trails).

Hike Description:

04 view into T'uf Shur Bien bowl

View north from La Luz trail into the bowl containing Juan Tabo Canyon

From the trailhead, take a short and steep set of stairs to pull you up and eastward towards the crest. This trail enjoys a relaxed attitude towards gaining elevation, so it almost immediately laterals south over a slight rib. (This rib will hide the trailhead from you on descent). Cross the unmarked border between Sandoval and Bernalillo counties and continue south on a gently rising traverse into a small basin at the foot of the Sandias. This is a classic Sonoran life zone with plenty of sage brush, cane cholla and prickly pear cacti, plus the occassional juniper.

04 lower La Luz trail with peek at The Thumb

Lower La Luz with initial view of The Thumb

You are heading towards a small stream that drains the basin. Just before your feet can get wet the trail makes a short series of switchbacks and, at 0.9 miles, hits an intersection with the Tramway Trail. (If you rode the Tramway up then you will want to take the Tramway Trail to get back to the Tramway parking lot). Continue upwards, lacing the switchbacks and marveling at the sweat and concrete that has been poured into this tread. At 2.2 miles, after making a long lunge to the south, the trail hits the markedly flat rib-top.  This feature separates the trailhead’s small basin from the deeply gouged hydraulic slash that is Cañon La Cueva.

06 Sun-touched south rim of Canon La Cueva, Mt Taylor on horizon

View west to Rio Grande valley and distant Mt Taylor

The upper reaches of this canyon are divided into a northern fork and a southern fork. The trail ascends easterly, swiftly crossing the northern fork, then switches west  and then east-again to contour around a massive knob of rock. At 2.8 miles and at about 8200 feet the trail hits a second markedly flat spot. Here, between the forks, the trail begins a series of long and lazy switchbacks almost innocent of altitude gain. Enjoy it!

07 Canyon La Cueva closeup from second flat rib

Lower Cañon La Cueva and Albuquerque

Enjoy the vistas as well. There are terrific views west over Albuquerque, the Rio Grande and the distant swell of the Mount Taylor volcanic field.  Above you, to the south, rises an enormous fin of rock called The Thumb. It looks like a climber’s dream, and the tread you are on will take you up past its base.

08 taking off into upper Canyon La Cueva

Taking off into the upper canyon

At 4.3 miles and about 9100 feet elevation come to a third flat patch, a place to study the the startling gash below you that is Cañon La Cueva and above you where the southern fork of that self-same canyon will be your route. Is there snow in those heights? (There was on this date). If so, did you bring a hiking pole and microspikes?  You might need ’em.  Those dark conifers in the canyon bottom indicates that you’ve gotten into the transition zone where the prickly pear and juniper are tapering off and the Ponderosa Pine makes an appearance.

09 Descent to Upper Canyon and Thumb

South Fork of Upper Cañon La Cueva

From the level spot the trail descends gently towards the canyon bottom, losing about 300 feet. After crossing the waterway it begins to pull above the bed. Broad canyon walls tower above you to the north, the immense Thumb screams skyward to the south, and straight ahead is bedlam of cliff bands, spires, rockfall and hoodoos. A pair of fang-like spires seems to be directly in your path. However, just before you get to these fangs the trail runs into a vertical wall. You might catch a glimpse of a cave opening about 50 to 75 feet above your head. You have arrived back at 9100 feet and the start of innumerable short switchbacks that ascend up the buttress between The Thumb and the Crest. A sign warns that winter conditions can render the trail impassable. People descending from the Tramway rapidly pack down the snow, making it slippery. Moreover, much of remaining ascent is over boulder fields, which can be tricky when covered with snow. Good to go?  One-two-three, switchback!

10 packed and sometimes icy switchbacks

Packed snow on trail heading towards fang-like spires

You will gain 1000 more feet to find the last switchback, but it goes pretty quickly. Do not wait for a sun break – on a December day it stays dark in this canyon until the sun is straight overhead. Instead, marvel again at the labor that went into building this passage to the Crest and keep ploddin’ along. Eventually the trail moves hard against the Crest side of the canyon, makes about a half-dozen small switchbacks in an aspen grove (a signature species of the Canadian life zone) and arrives at a small col at 6.3 miles and 10,150 feet. Here the trail branches. To your left is a trail that will take you to the Crest House (a restaurant/gift shop concession). On this date, however, I wanted to check out the conditions at the Sandia Ski Area, so I went straight ahead.

11 sign at fork of La Luz and Crest House

Sign at trail fork

For the remainder of the trip the trail skirts below the Sandia’s uppermost cliff bands. As soon as you leave the intersection you depart Cañon La Cueva and arrive at the headwaters of  Cañon Domingo Baca. On your left is solid rock. On your right is the promise of good hang-gliding. Be careful on any icy spots. Portions of the southern Sandias pull into view, along with views along the Manzanita Mountains and the Manzanos (home to Manzano Mountain).

12 Domingo Baca Spires and view south

Upper Domingo Baca Cañon, Manzanita and distant Manzano Mountains

The top of Cañon Domingo Baca is enormously scalloped. The trail whips back and forth along  convoluted horizontal path even as it strives mightily to minimize the vertical change. The cables of the Tramway come into sight, but you still will have a mile or more to go. Finally, having arrived at 10,378 feet and traveled 7.6 miles, top out at the Tramway station on the Crest of the Sandias. Trees block the hard-earned views to the east, so follow a path down to the Sandia Ski Area (just a hundred feet) for views north to Santa Fe Baldy and southeast to the Pecos Basin. Return the way you came.

Recommendations

13 Author on Sandia Crest

Author on Sandia Crest

Winter conditions and summer conditions are going to be very different. So when I say that three liters of water was more than plenty, make a note that it is plenty for chilly December day. In summer this trail is going to be hot and, as the sun swings westerly, possibly unbearable.  An REI rep told me that it is a good idea to climb the west-facing Sandia slopes in the winter and then swing over to the east-facing slopes in the summer. That seems sound to me.

If you are hiking here in the winter then it would be an excellent idea to bring along some sort of traction device (such as Yaktraks or Microspikes). In many places the snowmelt puddles up during the afternoon and freezes during the night. Creeping over long stretches of gray ice can get sketchy.

This trail is high and sometimes cold. I doubt that it is ever lonesome. Three trail runners blasted by me first thing in the morning and two separate pulses of tramway riders went by in the other direction. At the Crest House fork there is a sign dispensing advice to horsemen! This is an excellent place to exercise your trail courtesies. Safety is the first concern, but otherwise please give the runners some room, step off the trail on the downhill side for the horses (if you can) and offer right-of-way to hikers on ascent. For a popular trail the La Lux was blissfully trash-free, let’s keep it that way and pack out everything.

Conditions at the Sandia Ski Area (for those who are curious) were poor. The ski trails leading to the top chairlift were largely bare of snow.

My GPS unit went a little crazy in the deeper sections of canyon. Presumably the satellite signals were convoluted by reflections off of the canyon walls.  When mapped the uphill and downhill tracks crisscrossed each other so badly that in places it became hard to interpret. (For this blog I removed the up-hill track, which had the most obvious departures from the trail).  The downhill track does, at least, stay in its proper canyons. Still, this presentation does not have the expected degree of accuracy.

The La Luz Trail is shown and labeled on Google Maps. Unfortunately, the trail from the La Luz trailhead to the intersection with the Tramway Trail is labeled “Tramway Trail” rather than “La Luz”. Don’t worry, as the paths themselves are properly signed as you hike along the trails.

Links:

Unlike any other trail I’ve encountered in New Mexico, the La Luz seems to have it’s own website. It’s mostly pretty pictures, a few links and some static trail data. At the bottom is a sobering reminder that three hikers lost their lives on the mountain in 2015. (Side note, apparently the website is not completely up-to-date, as the Albuquerque Journal recounts the passing of a fourth hiker in 2015).

Additionally, there is a detailed description of La Luz in Wikipedia. If only more New Mexico trails had such acclaim!

There is an excellent description of this hike at CloudHiking. It is very detailed and offers numerous photos. There are links for GPS data and for a map. Additionally, instead of going to the tramway top (as described here), the CloudHiking guide chooses to go left at the top fork to ascend to the Crest House. That’s an attractive option as it leads to the highest point on the Sandia Crest.

Edit: as suggested in the comments section, a nicely formatted trip report (including some very motivating photography) can be found at BackpackersReview.Wordpress.com.  In addition to the photos it includes some useful data on things like logistics, requisite supplies and where to find current weather conditions.

There is an annual run up this trail, which appears to be run on the first Sunday in August (although I’m not completely certain of that). The run is organized by the Albuquerque Road Runners Club, which has a website describing the run here. Most hikers will want to choose another date for using this trail.

For a description of the Tramway-up, Boots-Down approach you can find an excellent writeup here.

Good directions for navigating the trail all the way from the Tramway parking lot can be found at SummitPost.

A post describing La Luz in considerable detail can be found at Around 505. It includes some input from a Forest Service Volunteer, David Hammack, who has been using this trail (and putting up other routes) since 1959. Good authority!

Dawn silhouette of Ortega Peak (left) and Hershberger Peak (right) from Alamogordo

Dawn silhouette of Ortega Peak (left) and Hershberger Peak (right) from Alamogordo

The head of Marble Canyon South arises close to the summit of Hershberger Peak and descends the west face towards Alamogordo, NM. The ascent of Marble Canyon South is entirely off-trail and physically demanding, markedly more so than last week’s description of routes off of the main canyon. Beginning hikers, the strongly acrophobic and those who dread feeling lost should look elsewhere for an enjoyable outdoors stroll. That said, there is much to induce a curious canyoneer to venture up onto the deeply carved westerly face in the Sacramento Mountains. There is a brief  section of slot canyon, steep stretches of scrubbed bedrock, overhanging canyon walls, dry waterfalls and an ascent to a sky-island forest of pinyon pine, alligator juniper and rocky  mountain juniper. There is an option to ascend to Hershberger summit (and possibly descend by the “A Trail“), but on this date we opted to descend by way of the The Mesa and the Goat Springs Trail. On the descent you have great views south to the promising terrain dominated by The Roundup Grounds mesa, Alamo Canyon and Caballero Canyon.

Driving Directions:

The drive to Marble Canyon South is exactly the same as the drive to Marble Canyon N3-N4 and N2.

Trailhead:

02 gravel pad parking

Gravel pad to south of Marble Estates Road, with parking that is closest to the mouth of Marble Canyon

The trailhead is a parking lot for a playground/park in Alamogordo. Some of our group parked a little further along Marble Estates Road, which seems advisable. Drive 250 feet on Marble Estates and turn right onto a large, level gravel pad with room for many cars. Looking south you will see a dirt road leading from the gravel pad to a second gravel pad at the mouth of Marble Canyon. Note that the second gravel pad is signed for Alamogordo City vehicles only.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 4800 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 7300 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2500 feet
  • Distance: 8.1 miles
  • Maps: Most of the hike is shown near the bottom edge of the USGS Alamogordo North quadrangle. A small part of the descent along rib descending from Hershberger Peak to The Mesa lies on the top edge of the Alamogordo South quadrangle (which is also very handy for identifying southerly features like Alamo Canyon). If you are going to summit Hershberger and try to descend by way of the A-Trail then you will also want the map to the east, the High Rolls quadrangle.

Description:

Mouth to Marble Canyon viewed from above the large concrete flume

Mouth to Marble Canyon viewed from above the large concrete flume

From the playground parking lot follow Marble Estates Road as it goes briefly south and swings east. In about 250 feet from the trailhead there will be a large gravel pad to your right (south). Cross the pad and pick up a dirt road at the far end. The road will take you to a second gravel pad less than a quarter mile from the trailhead. (This is the site signed for official Alamogordo vehicles only). At the south end of the pad, about a quarter mile from the trailhead, is a large concrete flume set into the stream bed of Marble Canyon. Ascend along the edge of the flume and then drop into the bed of Marble Canyon.

05 entrance to South Marble CanyonFollow Marble Canyon into the mountains, crossing a dirt driveway that crosses the canyon above the flume and then upper Marble Canyon Road at three-quarters of a mile. Take special note of the canyon walls above your head to the south (to your right, headed up hill) as sticking too close to the northern wall might cause you to miss the mouth of Marble Canyon South. The floor of the canyon is nearly level here and composed of loose gravel and occasional piles of boulders. It is easy going (for now). At 0.9 miles pass the last house on Marble Canyon Road and begin traversing below the old marble mine. Large blocks of cut stone are scattered all the way to the canyon bed. At 1.0 miles, reach the mouth of South Marble Canyon.

View into North Branch, South Marble Creek Canyon from the bed of South Marble Creek Canyon

View into North Branch, South Marble Creek Canyon from the bed of South Marble Creek Canyon

Head south (right) into Marble Canyon South following the canyon bed as it traverses below tall canyon walls. The footing remains gravelly, although there are a few steps that require a climbing move or two.  Often there are paths around these blockages, most often to the bank on the west side (right hand) of the canyon bed. At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, pass the mouth of a side canyon (I don’t know its name). It gets little attention since the mouth of the brief slot canyon is only 200 feet further upstream. There was a trifle of water running in the bottom of the slots, surprising in so dry a set of years. Clamber through this terrain –  all too quickly, maybe 150 feet – and resume the upward tread on loose gravel.

07 ice on scrubbed bedrock

Ice coating the scrubbed bedrock floor of South Marble Canyon

At 1.9 miles the canyon turns sharply to the east, aimed more directly uphill. At 2.0 miles come to a confluence of canyons. The one of the left (to the north of the other) is called “North Spur, Marble Canyon South”. It also climbs steeply up the west face of Hershberger Peak. Stay right, taking the more southerly of the branches to remain in South Marble Canyon. The canyon acquires a tighter feel, partly due to the smaller flow of water above the other mouths, partly due to the increasing incline of the bed and much due to the increasingly close canyon walls.

View down waterfall to water pan at the base.

View down waterfall to water pot at the base.

As you climb higher the floor of the canyon tends to become scrubbed bedrock and the climbing problems become more demanding. As before, each of these can be skirted by retreating down-canyon for a dozen (or so) feet and looking for faint treads that climb the debris slopes at the base of the canyon walls. Rock in the canyon can be rotten. That is, it shows a tendency to break away under pressure. Test your hand holds and foot holds. Most of the climbing problems arise where the canyon walls have pinched together and trapped boulders or where abrasion-resistant strata have produced waterfalls.

View into the upper canyon were it diverges left from a broad bedrock floor.

DJ standing below the upper canyon (above him to his right) at a confluence on a broad bedrock floor.

There are two places where the route becomes notably ambiguous. At 2.7 miles from the trailhead a hint of a forest appears. The alligator juniper and pinion pine are beautiful but they obscure views to the surrounding terrain. Watch that you stay left in the brush-obscured canyon bed rather than diverting upwards in a steep but relatively open side cut coming down from the south rim. At 3.0 miles, in an expanse of very steep but open bedrock, come to the reverse problem. A very appealing cut, floored with scrubbed bedrock, comes down from the north ridge and appears to be the obvious route for Marble Canyon South. It isn’t. Turn your eyes right, to what appears to be a forested cut coming down from the south canyon rim. That is the actual bed.  Up there the canyon is rising aggressively.

Looking down South Marble Canyon from the top of the most difficult waterfall climb.

Looking down South Marble Canyon from the top of the most exposed waterfall climb.

Up and up and steeply up! There is one particular waterfall in this area that is climbable (one of our party ascended directly up the right-side of the face) but is also somewhat rotten and notably exposed. Look for a faint tread up the north (left) side to get get around the waterfall if your climbing skills are not of that caliber. At the top of the fall, turn back and enjoy the view (only feebly captured on the photo to the left). From US 70 in Alamogordo you could not have known that this canyon wonderland existed on the bland face of Hershberger Peak.

Looking up-canyon to the overhanging rock wall that forms the upper amphitheaters.

Looking up-canyon to the overhanging rock wall that forms the upper amphitheaters.

Finally, at 3.3 miles, enter an amphitheater beneath tall and overhanging rock. This is the high point in the canyon bed.  Find shade beneath the evergreens that thrive in the amphitheater, have lunch and admire the distant San Andreas Mountains across the broad Tularosa Basin. The cliff band above your head extends way across the west face of Hershberger and appears to give rise to the amphitheater above the North Branch, Marble Canyon South.

View to Roundup Mesa and Alamogordo Canyon from Mesa Rib on Hershberger Peak

View to The Roundup Grounds Mesa and Alamo Canyon from Mesa Rib on Hershberger Peak

Once rested, traverse below the overhanging rock towards the south wall of the canyon. (To the right, looking up hill). Climb the south wall on loose dirt amid well spaced trees in the lowest reaches of the Lincoln National Forest. Resist the temptation to descend towards The Mesa below you as there are some cliff bands between you and the mesa. Maintain a steeply rising traverse, and at 3.7 miles hit the fall line of the rib that descends from Hershberger Peak to The Mesa. Look west for a clear view of the terrain that will take you down to The Mesa. Look north into depths of Marble Canyon and marvel at the ascent you have just made. Look south into the rugged terrain of Alamo Canyon and it’s innumerable tributaries.

12 Goat Canyon mouth

Waterfall in mouth of Goat Canyon immediately above Alamogordo

Descend to The Mesa at 5.3 miles and follow Goat Springs Trail above the northern cliffs to a gully that cuts the cliff bands. Follow Goat Springs Trail as it descends this gully and then turns west to traverse below the cliff bands that support The Mesa. At 6.5 miles the trail reaches upper Goat Springs (which was flowing) and then descends into the damp bed of Goat Springs Canyon. The trail makes a brief climb to the south rim of the canyon and leads to a trail junction just below a large home at 6.9 miles. Go left to descend into the spectacular lower reaches of Goat Springs Canyon or go right for a more direct return to the trailhead. We opted for Goat Springs Canyon.

Evening view of mouth of Marble Canyon from the aqueduct

Evening view of mouth of Marble Canyon seen from the aqueduct

At 7.25 miles strike a dirt road and go right, downhill towards the Alamogordo aqueduct. Follow the road beside the concrete aqueduct north to return to the mouth of Marble Canyon at 7.8 miles. The road will return you to the trailhead at 8.1 miles.

Recommendations:

We had a surprising February day; the temperature would rise above 80 degrees in the Tularosa Basin and I suspect it was close to 70 degrees in the sunnier canyon locations. I went through all three liters of water in my pack. If you go summer, bring a lot of water. Consider making this a dawn hike, as the canyons will remain out of the suns rays for much of the morning.

I found it hard to retain a clear idea of my map position as we ascended. It was not always easy to know which stream bed was the main canyon and which was a “side cut”. Fortunately Mike lead this trip and he was familiar with the terrain. If your group does not have a local expert in it, then get everyone to maintain a good attitude towards exploration rather than merely covering ground.

If your party intends to climb to Hershberger Summit then you could have a long day in front of you. It would be a good excuse for getting new batteries into your headlamp, particularly for short wintertime days.

Links:

Mike has written up Marble Canyon South here and here, with a particularly useful focus on the variety of terrain you can find in this scramble. If you are interested in the North Spur of Marble Canyon South, you can read about his ascent  here.

Samat has a brief writeup of the hike over at AllTrails.

A photographer identified only as “Wilkie” has posted a photo looking down the waterfall to the water pot that is almost identical to the one shown seven photos above. It was taken only week before, but Wilkie has very usefully included a subject in the photograph to give you a much clearer sense of perspective.

Overview:

01 View of Tularoas from Slab Canyon

View down N4 (Slab Canyon) to White Sands and San Andreas Mountains

Marble Canyon is in the Sacramento Mountains above the town of Alamogordo.  It divides Ortega Peak to the north from Hershberger Peak to the south. The head of the main canyon begins high on the east face of Hershberger Peak, swiftly wraps to the north face and then tumbles a long ways straight west towards the Tularosa Basin. There are many side canyons that drain into the main canyon. This scramble begins at the mouth of the main canyon but diverts north, leaving the main canyon and ascending side canyons that descend from Ortega Peak. These northerly cuts are designated N1, N2, N3 and N4.  (The first three join together and share a single drainage into the main canyon, while N4 connects directly to the main canyon). This report describes a combination of two distinct ascents. The first ascent goes up cut N4 (also called Slab Canyon), climbs over a ridge top and then descends in cut N3. The second ascent is in cut N2. It climbs to a waterfall high in N2 and then descends N2 all the way back to the main canyon.

You can hardly get lost since Alamogordo is often in sight and always directly below you. Still, this is not a beginner’s trip into the mountains. It is off-trail, poking through gnarled terrain, brushy, boulder-blocked, strenuous and steep. Occasional rock climbing moves are needed although the exposure is never very high.

Driving Directions:

Follow the driving directions for Ortega Canyon South until you are almost at end of East 10th Street in Alamogordo. Just before the fire station at the upper end of East 10th, turn right onto Marble Estates Road. (Marble Estates road turns into Marble Canyon Road, but the road sign on upper end of East 10th Street just says Marble Estates). There is parking on your left just after you turn.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at Alamogordo playground park (and Marble Canyon trailhead)

The mighty Camry at Alamogordo playground park (and Marble Canyon trailhead)

The trailhead we used is a playground parking lot. There is no trail sign and I did not see a water fountain. There are trash cans but no other amenities.

It should possible to drive on Marble Estates Road a few hundred more feet and park in a large, flat, open area south of the paved road. That would leave the playground parking open and also trim off a little of the least interesting part of the hike.

Data:

  • Start Elevation: 4800 feet
  • Top of N4: 6640 feet
  • Elevation Gained to top of N4: 1840 feet
  • Elevation Gained in N2: 700 feet
  • Total Elevation Gained: 2540 feet
  • Distance: 5.5 miles round trip
  • Maps: The Alamogordo North quadrangle shows the trailhead and canyons described in this report. The local summits (Ortega Peak and Hersherberger Peak) are on the quadrangle to the east, High Rolls.

A note on nomenclature. The main Marble Canyon drainage descends from a peak called Hershberger on Google Maps and Alamo/Hershberger Peak on both USGS and Acme Mapper 2.1 maps. Since this report uses Google Maps to show the route it will stick with Hershberger. The side-canyon designations (N1, N2 etc) are those used by the folks at the Alamogordo Trails meetup group.

Trail:

House-dwarfing flume below mouth of Marble Canyon

House-dwarfing flume below mouth of Marble Canyon

Ascend along Marble Estates/Marble Canyon road for about 250 feet and turn right onto a flat, open gravel pad. Cross the pad south and enter a dirt road that will take you, at about 1200 feet from the trailhead, to an enormously wide concrete flume.  Ascend along the north edge of the flume and then enter the stream bed above it. Stay in the canyon bed, crossing Marble Canyon Road at three quarters of a mile and enter the mouth of the canyon in under one mile (just past the uppermost home built in the canyon).

Boulder hopping in main Marble Canyon drainage

Boulder hopping in main Marble Canyon drainage

At one mile from the trailhead note a major side canyon coming in from the south (called South Marble Canyon). Reportedly, South Canyon is a strenuous and more technical ascent than the N4-N3-N2 outing described here. Staying in the main canyon, the bed begins to incline more steeply and the way becomes occasionally clotted with boulders and tree branches. At 1.3 miles from the trailhead come to the mouth of the drainage on your left that includes cuts N1, N2 and N3. Your descent route will return to this point. There is a prominent cliff band above this mouth called Marble Bluff. It is a useful landmark for taking your position at various points along the scramble.

Steep and bouldery entrance into N4 (Slab Canyon)

Mike leading the steep and bouldery entrance into N4 (Slab Canyon)

Go past the mouth of N1, continue boulder hopping and pushing past occasional thickets until you reach the mouth of N4 (Slab Canyon) on your left at 1.6 miles.  The entrance is somewhat obscured by a berm-like pile of rock and gravel so keep your eyes open for a cut breaking open the north wall (your left, ascending). It is very easy to walk past it. The N4 entrance is steep, piled with boulders and rather heavily vegetated. Heavy gloves are recommended. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead N4 opens up and the canyon floor becomes a smoothly rounded gully carved into bedrock. Steep in places, the canyon is a pleasure to ascend. The canyon walls are sometimes vertical, there is abundant (often prickly) vegetation. It was our good fortunate that Mike, who lead the scramble, had been up earlier in the week and cleared openings in the thickest brush.

Evergreen tree obscuring the exit to rim of N4

Evergreen tree obscuring the exit to rim of N4

On a mid-winter day the canyon bottom held numerous small pots of water but we saw no wildlife.  The presence of a neighboring Airforce Base (Holloman) was advertised by occasional sonic booms. Look over your shoulder because there are great views to the distant San Andreas, the White Sands National Monument, and the gnarled terrain of the Marble Canyon drainage. At 2.2 miles the canyon seems to top out like a box canyon. A gully in the cliff line, slightly obscured by an evergreen tree, offers a way out of the box. N4 actually continues up above this point, but instead of following it we contoured north, crossing a gentle depression and gathering to look down into cut N2. There is a view to the top of a waterfall that will be the end point of the (later) N2 ascent.

Terry (above) and DJ (within) negotiating the large step in N3

Terry (above) and DJ (within) negotiating the large step in N3

Turn down hill and descend east-south-east into the “gentle depression” mentioned above. It slowly acquires walls and firms up as a very small canyon – N3. (You could argue for ravine status – you would have to hike hunched over if you wanted to keep your head below the canyon rim). At about 2.6 miles from the trailhead there is an 10 foot drop that marks the “crux” move for this canyon. Don’t worry as there are abundant foot and hand holds. The terrain is again quite bushy and very prickly. Even with leather gloves on you will want to place your gloves carefully.

Terry, Summer and John leading up N3

Terry, Summer and John leading up N2

At 2.9 miles you will come to the mouth of N3 as it enters into the larger bed of canyon N2. You could continue your descent in the common drainage of N1, N2 and N3 to get back to the main canyon. Or, you can head upwards in cut N2. We chose the latter.

View down N3 from top of 2-step waterfall

View down N2 from top of 2-step waterfall

Push upwards in bushy and boulder-strewn terrain. In 100 yards find a much more open canyon bottom. There are numerous places where the bottom is made up by ledge systems (staircases) or smoothly scoured bedrock. One boulder problem had an overhang that made me regret my thick day pack. There is a second problem at a two-step waterfall. The lower step is an 8-ft wall that is conveniently solved by stemming off of a tree growing from the base of the step. The upper step is undercut, so we went to the right (looking uphill) and ascended on loose scree to get around the upper step.

John beneath large slab just before the upper waterfall

John beneath large slab just before the upper waterfall

At 3.3 miles from the trailhead the canyon bottom becomes unexpectedly forested (the canyon rim must be shading the trees) and at 3.4 miles you come to a point where a large rock slab leans against the canyon wall. The opening between the wall and slab is large enough to walk through, and you will find yourself in a cool grotto with hanging plants growing on the face of the waterfall that you had previously viewed above N4. The waterfall seems climbable (John in our group did some exploration) but we turned back down canyon at this point. The canyon is a pleasure to descend, as the staircases and scrubbed canyon bed make footing very easy. Enjoy the odd feeling of being able to look about on descent – the views into the Tularosa Basin are grand.

11 N2 Juniper

Possible Rocky Mountain Juniper (has brown bark that exfoliates in thin strips).

Return to the mouth of N3 at 3.9 miles and descend in the N1/N2/N3 bed. Watch for Marble Bluff to signal the distance to the main canyon. The angle lowers but the amount of debris under foot becomes greater as you return to the main drainage in Marble Canyon at 4.2 miles. Return down the main canyon and remain in the stream bed until striking the concrete flume. At the bottom of the flume turn north (right looking downhill) to return to Marble Estate Road. Reach the trailhead after traveling a total of just 5.5  incredible miles.

Recommendations:

The route is short but gains a great deal of altitude. I would not bring young children, out of shape hikers or new hikers on this trip. The waterfall and boulder problems could be hard on dogs.

Author in Slab Canyon with the Tularosa Basin in the background

Author in Slab Canyon with the Tularosa Basin in the background

We enjoyed a surprisingly warm winter’s day (it was expected to hit 61 degrees). I went through a 2 liter Platypus bag and would have finished the 1 liter bottle in my pack had it not been so inconvenient to get out.

The footing is “unnaturally good” in parts of the canyons and the downhill vistas are wide. It would have been useful to have along pair of binoculars on this hike. I could have used a larger zoom on my camera as well.

It would be easy to get misplaced in this jumbled terrain. There is no trail. View lines are often short. Nothing is signed. It can be difficult to know which cut is “N1”. If, for example, you accidentally wandered into South Marble Canyon it would be a while before the error was obvious. A GPS could be handy. Keep an eye out for Marble Bluff. At least the return route is always obvious. My thanks to Mike who both lead the group and who has previously spent a lot of time clearing small passages through the most impenetrable brush.

Links:

Interested in getting out into the Sacramento Mountains (or beyond)? Check out the Alamogordo Trails Meetup site.

Mike has detail descriptions of his hikes at ArizonaHiking.com (now a central source for hiking in all the states). Check out his N4 description.

Here is the Usual Internet Caveat: there are several trip reports for “Marble Canyon” that only describe the easiest and lowest section of the main canyon. E.g. MapMyHike. Don’t be fooled!  The hike described here gains a great deal more than 150 feet.

Overview:

Ortega Peak seen from A-trail as the trail approaches the forested region.

Ortega Peak seen from A-trail as the trail approaches the forested region.

Last September I got confused by the array of barbed wire fences near the mouth of Ortega Canyon, thinking that they meant to keep me out. I wound up taking the “A-Trail” up to Ortega Peak instead. This time, hiking with local experts, we threaded our way past the fences, ascended a beautiful canyon, exited near the canyon top and used the A-Trail for the short distance remaining to get to the summit. From the summit of Ortega the views are great: north to Sierra Blanca, east to the Sacramento crest, south over Marble Canyon to Hurshburger Peak, and west to the Tularosa Basin. Looking west we could see sand being wind-blasted into a thick haze above White Sands National Monument. The trail described here is a loop, ascending the canyon and returning by way of the A-Trail.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I25 North
  • After 4.3 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East
  • After 62.3 more miles (and after the 3rd traffic light as you enter Alamogordo) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, go left onto the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route
  • After 2.0 miles (at a light) go right onto E 10th Street.
  • After 3.1 miles E 10th Street ends. The road makes a sharp left and becomes Paiute Trail. Despite its name, Paiute Trail is a paved road.
  • After 0.2 miles, pull over to the (high) curb on the right and park car.

Trailhead:

Ortega Peak from Paiute Trail trailhead. The canyon is to your left (not visible here)

Ortega Peak from Paiute Trail trailhead. The canyon is to your left (not visible here)

There is no trailhead in the normal sense. You park at the curbside of a paved road that has suburban-style housing on the downhill side and open terrain rising towards the Sacramento Mountains crest on the uphill side. We parked close to the intersection of Sunny Circle Ave and Paiute Drive.

Data:

  • Start Elevation: 4600 feet
  • End Elevation: 7700 (Ortega Peak summit)
  • Net Gain: 3100 feet
  • Distance: 7.4 miles round trip
  • Maps: the canyons described here lie entirely within the Alamogordo North quadrangle. However, the summit block of Ortega Peak is on quadrangle just to the east, the High Rolls quadrangle. The latter may be useful since it identifies many of the peaks you’ll see just to the east of the summit.

Description:

Canyon bottom in bottom section of Ortega Canyon, just beyond the fences.

Canyon bed in bottom section of Ortega Canyon, just beyond the fences.

Head north along the (paved) Paiute Trail until you see a regular trail paralleling the road on the uphill side, about 10 feet away from the road. Follow this trail north for about 1500 feet until it intersects Thunder Road (also paved). Go right and follow the road westward. At half a mile from the trailhead the road passes beneath a big cylindrical tank (a city water tank, presumably). Just past the tank, depart the road uphill and enter what appears to be a stream bed. This is the mouth of Ortega Canyon. Soon you will encounter a barbed wire fence across the canyon bed. On this date the fence had been flattened to the ground and was trivial to step over. (Last year it was better suspended, however).  The next barbed wire fence, less than 100 feet up from the first, was still erect. Fortunately, there were openings cut into the fence to admit passage of canyoneers. The land is not “signed”, meaning there aren’t any “No Trespassing” or “Posted” signs. This is generous of the homeowners whose homes are immediately above the canyon bed. Please help keep the terrain open to the public by respecting their privacy.

First big set of natural staircases. The trail does not go over these stairs!

First big set of natural staircases. The trail does not go over these stairs!

The lower part of the canyon is comprised of boulder hopping and occasional passages over a few feet of bed rock. The terrain on either side modulates from sloping ravine sides to vertical rock walls. The bed bobs and weaves, presumably threading between the harder rock formations, and ascends at a moderate rate. Occasional rock walls and bedrock staircases appear, giving hints of things to come. On this outing an interesting feature was the number of tarantulas frozen to the canyon floor. We must have passed half a dozen, including one stuck to a small ice puddle.

Lower Water Fall in Ortega Canyon.

Lower Water Fall in Ortega Canyon.

At 1.2 miles from the trailhead you will come to a confluence of canyons, take the one on the left. This starts a northerly swing and then changes its mind, trending easterly towards the crest. At about 1.4 miles from the trailhead arrive at the lower waterfall, perhaps 25 feet tall. It seems climbable, and in fact a couple of our party scrambled to a ledge half way up the rock face. With a large party unequipped for climbing we turned back down the canyon for a few hundred feet.

Frozen tarantula on floor of the canyon.

Frozen tarantula on floor of the canyon.

..

Note on the map – I did not get a GPS reading for the waterfall.  The location mapped for this lower waterfall is merely guesswork. You’ll know when you get there when you hit the first feature of the canyon that involves climbing moves with real exposure.

06 re-entry chute into canyon above waterfall

Opening in canyon rim where we began a descent back into Ortega Canyon

Go back down-canyon from the base of the waterfall for about 200 feet. Reach a spot where the canyon is curving to your left and a shallow cut comes in on the northern side (right). Look carefully at the north wall for a steep and faint path leading up to the canyon rim. On the rim there isn’t any tread to follow. Just stay close to the rim and ascend 300 to 500 feet. You are looking for a break in the rim wall that will let you descend back into the canyon once you have ascended past the lower waterfall. The descent we chose was opened on the rim by a narrow, 6-foot tall, chute (almost a chimney) in the rocky rim-top. That leaves you on dirt and talus at a fairly high angle, but a careful descent will take you to a more gently sloped, almost shelf-like feature that descends towards the east (up canyon). After less than 100 feet, find a slight gully and descend to the canyon bed.

07 sidewalk like canyon bottom

Middle Ortega Canyon, a classic rockscape.

This is the middle canyon, the scenic high-point of the hike. The canyon bed is flat bedrock, the walls are vertical. A brief descent will take you to the top of the waterfall for a look over its vertiginous edge. Then turn and ascend (no boulder-hopping here) watching the canyon walls rise above you. There are several places with an almost sidewalk-like feel. There is a tendency to speed along this miraculously open and thorn-free territory. Fight that tendency!

Partial view of upper waterfall and climbers. Most of us exited on the shelf below the yellow rock.

Partial view of upper waterfall and climbers. Most of us exited on the shelf below the yellow rock.

At about 2.3 miles from the trailhead reach the upper waterfall. One of our party climbed up and past it. Most of us used a low angle exit, found by ascending the waterfall about six to eight feet and then pushing through the brush on the south side (to your right on ascent). The side of the canyon is sheltered from the sun and on this day retained quite a lot of old snow.  Footing can become a little tricky. Contour slowly upwards and reach the top of a ridge dividing the main canyon from a tributary canyon at 2.5 miles. Most of our party decided to descend the tributary canyon that lies just to the south of the rim (called “Jim’s Cut”). Others chose to head for Ortega Peak.

Jim standing at the junction between the A-Trail (left in picture) and a converging ATV trail.

Jim standing at the junction between the A-Trail (left in picture) and a converging ATV trail.

To reach the peak, ascend Jim’s Cut. At the upper reaches of the cut the terrain became brushy and swale-like. Cross the swale heading south and on the next rib-top join to the A-Trail (also known as T119) at 2.8 miles. The trail is practically a road due to ATV use. It is hard to miss.  The trail ascends into upland forest at about 3.0 miles. As the slope eases it joins with another ATV trail at 3.4 miles. On descent you will want to remember to go left, on the southerly branch. Here the A-trail becomes almost level as it contours around the summit block of Ortega Peak.

Sandy embankment on the upper side of the A-Trail marks where the climber's tread to the summit intersects.

Sandy embankment on the upper side of the A-Trail marks where the climber’s tread to the summit intersects.

Hike through open, cattle-friendly terrain, passing a water tank and watching for ATVs. The trail curves to the northeast and then swings back to a little south-of-east (a long gentle right-hand turn). Look for a climber’s tread on the uphill side of the trail. It is a little obscure, leaving the road straight into the trees on a sandy bank. This climber’s tread takes you through trees, switchbacking in places and heading straight up the hill in others until you reach a prominent rocky outcrop just below the summit. Leave the tread and ascend through the broken outcrop directly towards the summit at 3.9 miles. A summit register is contained inside an ammo box at the top.

Sierra Blanca from the summit of Ortega Peak

Sierra Blanca from the summit of Ortega Peak

Views are great towards Sierra Blanca (large swarths of its southern exposure were snow-free, hopefully the slopes at Apache Ski Resort have retained their cover better). It was breezy on Ortega Summit, but the winds must have been howling out on the Tularosa Basin. Gypsum granuals were being whipped into a haze extending from White Sands to the north as far as you could see. It was hard to see much of the San Andreas. There are intriguing views into the forested uplands east of the summit, leading to the true crest of the Sacramentos.

View from the A-Trail south across Marble Canyon.

View from the A-Trail south across Marble Canyon.

Return by way of the A-Trail, remember to take the left hand trail where the ATV tracks diverge. As you near the trailhead watch for a spot where the main tread takes a hard turn to the right (north). It is worth staying on the lesser branch trail that heads west, back towards the cars.

Recommendations:

This hike was arranged by the folks at the Alamogordo Trails meet-up group. My thanks to Michal for sharing his considerable expertise in the canyon lands above the town of Alamogordo and to the co-organizer Jim who lead to the summit.

In the winter it can be hard to find the motivation to stay in shape. This canyon was tailor-made to give you a day with a good chunk of altitude gain and some fine canyoneering. It is markedly different from the Organ Mountains adjacent to Las Cruces.

The snow and ice (not to mention the frozen tarantulas) speak to the night-time temperatures on Ortega Peak in winter. It would seem advisable to carry some warm gear with you. It was cold enough on the peak, at mid-day, that standing in the breeze without a coat was pretty chilling.

Outside Links:

Mike describes numerous hikes in detail on ArizonaHike.com. It sounds great. Check out the “imike” listings. In particular, there is a good description of “Jim’s Cut“, the side canyon that most of our group used as a descent route.

Nice photos of the canyon, particularly of the lower waterfall, can be found at Jim Harris photography.

Fossil found on A-Trail at about the point where we exited from Jim's Cut.

Fossil found on A-Trail at about the point where we exited from Jim’s Cut.

The Wikipedia article on the Sacramento Mountains says that the range is “a wide east-dipping fault block, made up entirely of limestone”. I mention this because it seems to explain why fossils are relatively easy to find on this trail. A sample of what came to light is shown in the photo to the right. The array-of-disks structure in the rock is a fossilized instance of a crinoid stem.

Overview:

Florida Range, the highest two spires are the South Summit and North Summit of Florida Peak

Florida Range, the highest two spires are the South Summit and North Summit of Florida Peak

The route described here departs from the conventional approach and cannot be generally recommended. Neverless, the description gives a general sense of what you can expect on the usual approach to Florida Peak: off-trail scrambling, steep terrain, poor footing in talus field crossings, bashing through brush and occasional mild exposure. On this particular day the scramble was complicated by a dusting of snow. The footing was unusually deceptive. This is a wild and beautiful spot. It is hard to believe that it gets so little attention.

Driving Directions:

  • From Main Street in Las Cruces (near University Ave) enter I10 West.
  • After 38 miles, take exit 102 for Alkela Flats.
  • After 0.2 miles reach a stop sign at the end of the ramp and go left (west) on Frontage Road. There is no sign naming the road, but a sign for “Rock Hound State Park” points you in the right direction.
  • After 0.3 miles turn left (south) onto Geronimo Road. This immediately crosses an overpass for I10.
  • After 0.2 miles, immediately after the overpass, come to a stop sign at a 4-way intersection with NM 549. Go right (west) on NM 549. This intersection is signed and there is another sign for Rock Hound State Park.
  • After 13.5 miles come to an odd intersection where NM 549 west forks and (separately) NM 143 comes in from the south. Turn hard-left (south) onto NM 143.
  • After 5.5 miles go right onto a road signed Gap Road. A few feet down this road you’ll also see a sign indicating that it is also NM 198.
  • After 0.6 miles come to a point where the paved road, NM 198, makes a sharp right turn. Gap road (signed) continues straight ahead as a gravel road. Go straight onto Gap road. A few feet down the road you will see another sign identifying the gravel road as being CR B023.
  • After 1.6 miles come to an adobe gate identifying the upcoming terrain as “Tres Lomas Ranch”. Continue through the adobe gate on CR B023.
  • After an additional 0.8 miles on CR B023 turn right onto an unsigned primitive road that heads directly toward the Florida Range.
  • In less than 0.1 miles on the primitive road, come to a widened area that serves as the trailhead. The primitive road is ledgy and soft suspended passenger cars should go cautiously.

The primitive road is easy to miss. It isn’t much of a road and it is slightly screened by a juniper tree. On this date the rocks pushed aside by a road grader created a berm across the mouth of the primitive road.  I had to shovel aside some of the rocks so that my low-suspended car could turn off of CR B023

Trailhead:

Trailhead from CR B023. Note the "screening" juniper on left and berm of scraper-produced rocks along roadside.

Trailhead from CR B023. Note the “screening” juniper on right and the small berm of scraper-produced rocks along roadside.

The trailhead is simply a flat spot slightly above CR B023. There are no amenities. Parking is limited. Perhaps four or five cars, parked carefully, could be left there. High suspension vehicles could go considerably further up the primitive road.

Data:

  • Trailhead: 4760 feet (per USGS)
  • North Florida Peak Summit   7440 feet (estimated from USGS)
  • South Florida Peak Summit: 7448 feet (per USGS)
  • Net Gain: 2700 feet
  • Distance: 5.1 miles round trip
  • Maps: The twin summits of Florida Peak are awkwardly placed on USGS maps. The North Summit is on the bottom-left corner of the Florida Gap quadrangle. The South Summit is in the top-left corner of the Gym Peak quadrangle. The canyons make for an exceptional hodgepodge of contour lines. This would make a great challenge if you’re trying to teach someone about topo maps, but proved discomforting in the field. It might be convenient to get the two quadrangles immediately to the west. These are Capital Dome (north) and the South Peak (south) quadrangles. If you were to circumnavigate North Florida Peak as described here then the westerly maps are useful in staying oriented to the terrain.

Description

Road entering the lower reaches of Windmill Canyon.

Road entering the lower reaches of Windmill Canyon.

From the trailhead, follow the primitive road as it ascends gently into lower Windmill Canyon. In about half a mile pass a low set of sheer cliffs to your right (north), useful as a marker for “almost there” on the  trip back to the car. The road crosses the Windmill Canyon bed at about 0.8 miles as you enter the mouth of the lower canyon and then ends at a set of shot-up watering tanks at 1 mile.

04b streambed above water tanks

Streambed crossed about 50 feet uphill from the water tanks. The trail stays close to the right-hand (northwest) bank of this stream.

Follow the tread uphill from the tanks.  In about 50 feet the trail crosses a small stream bed, rises a few feet to the far bank and forks. The right-hand fork is easy to see and goes to an old mine. The left-hand fork, which was pretty obscure on this date, heads directly up-canyon following the stream bank. If you miss this branch and get to the mine (a six-foot deep hole in solid rock) then the faint tread headed  towards the canyon bed will take you back to the trail.

Hoodoo above lower Windmill Canyon

Hoodoo above lower Windmill Canyon

At about 1.4 miles a secondary drainage comes in from your right (from the west) while Windmill Canyon bends a bit to the south. This comprises the end of the lower canyon and the start of the upper canyon. I think this is where Magee (in Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area) recommends that day hikers turn around.  The trail, already sketchy, becomes even fainter past this point.  It heads into brush that grows in enthusiastic abundance in the bed of the upper canyon.

11 approach ridge viewed on descent

View of sunny rib used for ascent (the photo was taken on descent). The route used follows the bases of each rocky prominence along the rib top.

It is probably preferable to stay in the canyon bed and cope with the brush. Apparently, that is the standard route (see description of the descent, below). On this journey, however, I stayed to the right (west) of the canyon bed and sought a path in the zone above the densest brush but below the steeper open slopes on the rib.  At about 1.7 miles, tired of side-hilling, I  headed straight up the sloping canyon wall. My hope was that the rib coming down from north of the North Summit would offer more balanced footing.  Thwarted by a small rock prominence near the rib top I skirted below it and climbed again, only to find that the entire remaining rib line was guarded by rocky fins and spires (some very striking).  Not wanting to descend I kept at the base of these fins on reasonably good ground but without any relief from side-hilling.

Eventually the North Summit pulled into view. North of the summit was a ridge line that formed the top of a bowl that drops into a deep side-canyon leading to Windmill Canyon. Continuing up the rib will bring you into the bowl and then onto the ridge.

North Summit of Florida Peak (right) and the ridge line its north (left). Ascended the drainage leading up to the north ridge line.

North Summit of Florida Peak (left) and the ridge line its north (right). Ascended the drainage leading up to the north ridge line.

The North Summit is fairly technical (rated as 4.0 or higher) and beyond my comfort zone in a solo hike. To reach the non-techical South Summit it seemed easiest to drop a short distance down from the ridge line towards the west. Reach steep, traversable terrain in about 100 feet and contour along the north side of the North Summit.The worst difficulty here is the extremely dense brush. This side of the North Summit is protected from the sun and the limbs on the bushes were interlocked to a remarkable degree. They are entangled, moreover, by an abundant grass-like shrub that produces a pod (a seed pod I presume) protected by a dense array of spines. This is no place for bare legs or low hiking shoes! It was great to have on “ballistic fiber” gaiters and heavy hiking boots. The protected terrain also retained an inch or so of snow – beautiful to look at but unwelcome on the occasional exposed passage.

View of North Summit from South Summit of Florida Peak.

View of North Summit from South Summit of Florida Peak.

At about 2.4 miles reach a rib that descends from the North Summit towards the west.  From here, view a bowl that opens to the southwest with far less vegetation. Hurray! There is even a discernible trail that goes across the upper levels of the bowl. The trail disappears at a rock wall on the far side of the bowl. Head uphill and cross the rocky rib into a narrow drainage where the far (northern) wall is choked with bushes. Pushing past those bushes will put you below the South Summit. The South Summit has it’s own false summit off to the west, which I mistakenly ascended at about 2.7 miles. (It is not recommended).  From the false summit it is about 100 feet of gain to the South Summit at 2.8 miles.

14 snow and talus on descent

View up-canyon of ridge, cactus and snow covered talus. Slow hiking at best.

From the South Summit descend southeast to the ridge line at 2.9 miles. From this ridge, drop into Windmill Canyon as it drains north-north-east back towards the trailhead. The upper reaches are fairly open and the chief difficulty is negotiating the loose talus. (Snow in this protected bowl reached far, far, far down the canyon). Stay near the canyon bed. The terrain is only occasionally demanding. Steep narrows in the bed are created by erosion-resistant rock. Often these narrows can be identified from above because juniper trees grow where the harder rock holds back the water. At about 3.7 miles rejoin the faint tread that took you into into the upper canyon. From here it is 1.4 miles back to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Needle's Eye natural arch (lower right in photo), looking back towards the ridge line from upper Windmill Canyon

Needle’s Eye natural arch (lower right in photo), looking back towards the ridge line from upper Windmill Canyon

  1. Stay near the canyon bottom on the ascent.  (Don’t go to the rib top).
  2. Don’t go if there is snow. If you do go when there is snow then get here early (short days) and be prepared to hike slowly.
  3. If you have gators then wear them. Everyone writing about Florida Peak makes note of its prickly nature. Good boots are essential.
  4. Ask your state representative about putting in a formal trail.
  5. In warm weather, watch for our reptile friends. (See the links below).

Links:

Author on South Summit of Florida Peak

Author on South Summit of Florida Peak

LizardBoy’s Summit Post is a fun description with due notice that in the warmer months the peak can be rattle-y.

Adam Helman has comments on the route up the technical parts of North Florida Peak,scroll down to the Sat Nov 12, 2005 description.

As mentioned above, the USGS maps can be awkward to use. This awkwardness is swept aside at peakbagger.com. This digital map is a fantastic way to orient yourself to the terrain in a Google-Maps sort of interface, but apparently with full USGS detail.  The map is labeled “Google Maps Dynamic Maps”, choose the “CalTopo” option from the drop-down menu in the upper-right part of the map. You will have to use the enlargement tool (“+”) to make it useful.