Archives for posts with tag: canyoneering
01 peek up Embodito to Summit

A peek at the Sandia Crest from the lower reaches of Embudito Canyon

Overview:

The Embudito Trail takes you from the very edge of Albuquerque to the top of South Sandia Peak (a rocky prominence on the crest of the Sandia Mountains). It is an outstanding winter hike that ascends a striking canyon across at least three life zones. Do you have cabin fever? The Embudito trail will cure what ails you.  Do you need views into grand terrain?  The Embudito trail will provide them. Do you need to train?  The Embudito Trail will give you distance and altitude.

(Edit: in the original post this trail was characterized as a “generally safe wintertime ascent”. Several people who have longer acquaintance with local conditions have suggested otherwise – see comments. I thank them all. The upper bowls, especially, are steep and open. In a heavy snow year they could slide.)

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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 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.

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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.

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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.