Archives for posts with tag: Capitan


01 Carrizo Peak

Carrizo Peak from US 380 and O-Bar-O Road intersection

Carrizo Peak (carrizo is Spanish for “reed”) is a lonely mountain. It rises from rangeland west of the Capitan Mountains and north of the Sierra Blanca Mountains; a tall and forested peak pleated by canyons on all sides. It lies within the northwest section of Lincoln National Forest. The hike described here follows trail T074 as it rises from the bed of Benado Canyon, strikes the base of Carrizo Peak and follows Johnnie Canyon to a ridge of false summits. Joining trail T072, it contours west, below the false summits, crosses a col and ascends steeply to the true summit. This is wild terrain. Blowdown trees criss-cross the trail and grasses compete with saplings for growth in the tread. Wildlife is abundant. Most likely the trail will belong to you alone.

Driving Directions:

  • From I25 in Las Cruces, take Exit 6 east towards Alamogordo on US 70. (As US 70 enters Alamogordo you will begin to encounter stoplights on the road. You want to go past the first three stoplights).
  • After 62.3 miles, immediately past the third stoplight, go right onto the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, turn left (north) onto the Relief Route.
  • After 4.9 miles, turn left onto US 54/70
  • After 9.6 (more) miles, turn left (north) onto US 54.
  • After 44.6 (more) miles, in Carrizozo, turn right (east) onto US 380.
  • After 8.5 miles turn left onto a gravel road signed O-Bar-O Road. This road is labeled A010 on Google Maps. Google shows A010 as having two branches. One branch intersects US 380 at the junction between US 380 and NM 37, but I did not see it. The second branch intersects US 380 about 0.6 east of the junction. The second intersection is the only one I found on this trip. Google may have mis-labeled a ranch road.
  • After 5.2 miles (about 0.2 miles after the O-Bar-O ranch headquarters, a spectacular building) cross a cattle gate that marks the start of the Lincoln National Forest. The road continues as Forest Road 441.
  • After 0.4 miles on FR 441, having crossed the bed of Benado for the second or third time, come to steep rise in the road as it leaves the bed for the last time. The steep rise had numerous rocky protrusions that my sedan could not handle and I left the car in a turn-off near the canyon bottom. Drivers of high-suspension vehicles (not necessarily 4-wheel drive) could continue 0.8 more miles to the trailhead.


Sign at the trailhead

Sign at the trailhead

The formal trailhead is signed “Johnnie Canyon Trail T074”. There is abundant parking there, but no other amenities. You may encounter a sign saying “Johnnie Canyon” earlier on FR 441, but that is not the start of T074 (see below). Alternatively, you can park near the canyon bed just before the steep rise in the road. There is a grassy turnout on the right. The turnout is unsigned, but it has several stone fire rings to mark the location.


  • Starting Elevation: 6700 feet (6890 feet at the signed trailhead)
  • Ending Elevation: 9656 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2956 feet (2766 from the signed trailhead)
  • Distance: 5.o miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS White Oaks South quadrangle

Hike Description:

NOT the trailhead.

NOT the trailhead.

From the car, follow Forest Service Road 441 as it ascends along Benado Canyon. In a quarter mile, come to a small creek bed that is signed “Johnnie Canyon” (the sign does not say “trail”). Although you can find a trail here, it is not T74. Stay on Forest Road 441. In three-quarters mile from the car come to the formal trailhead. A trail coming up from the Benado bed traverses a meadow and intersects the road, then rises towards the peak. Here find a sign for “Johnnie Canyon Trail T74” and a second marker for T074. The uphill tread is somewhat faint, quickly twisting left and then back to the right under obscuring forest duff, then settling down to a straight forward ascent of the gently sloping terrain. At about a mile from the car the tread unexpectedly broadens. It appears to have intersected an old jeep road that is now eroding and strewn with  rock.  Take note of this spot – on return you will want to be able to find the scrub-oak camouflaged trail when the broad tread suddenly disappears.

Thick bark fireproofing on Douglas Fir

Thick bark fireproofing on Douglas Fir

Enjoy the ascent past alligator juniper, pinyon and ponderosa pine. The trail stays to the left of a gully, often steep-sided, that must be the bed of Johnnie Canyon. The trees obscure your destination, but you will occasionally see evidence of the twin hillocks that form the mouth of the canyon.  In just-under two miles enter these “gates” and watch a canyon form. The walls rise steeply above you, the bottom of the canyon is cool and the forest mixture begins to include instances of Douglas Fir. Although small at first, some of these firs are several feet in diameter in the higher terrain.

First stretch of blowdown on Johnnie Canyon trail.

First stretch of blowdown on Johnnie Canyon trail.

Long stretches of blowdown appear starting at 2.2 miles from the car. Keep an eye on the other side of the canyon bed since the terrain over there can be much more open than the nominal trail. Boulder fields appear as the canyon walls steepen. Apparently these are chunks of volcanic stone that have flaked off of the higher cliff bands under the influence of freeze-thaw cycles. At three miles, arrive at a spring. On this winter’s day water was flowing from the spring. The surrounding ground was pulped by the hooves of the animals that use this water supply – bring a filter if you want to use the water. There is no guarantee, of course, that the water flows year round.

Trail where it leaves the canyon bed and begins switchbacking

Trail where it leaves the canyon bed and begins switchbacking

At 3.3 miles from the car, come to a wide-open meadow. With such a low-use trail, it isn’t surprising that the grasses obscure your course. Watch the terrain along the north side of the meadow for evidence of the trail picking up. “Up” is the key word as the terrain tilts markedly and begins to impose a greater burden on a hiker’s thigh muscles. Ascend past small cliff bands in dense woods until, at about 4 miles from the car, the trail abruptly turns right. Here the tread crosses the canyon bed for the last time and begins switchbacking. After three or four switchbacks the trail turns straight uphill and leads you to a col at the head of the Johnnie Canyon.

11 meadow on col and summit

Meadow on col in front of summit block (double click to enlarge). The ascent takes you to the open patch near the summit.

On the col trail T74 makes an unsigned intersection with trail T72. Make note, as you will need to make the southerly (right hand) departure on return. Turn left (to the west) and follow the trail as it ascends towards (but not to) a false summit. Contouring below the false summit, the trail begins descending gently and at 4.6 miles leaves you in a wide meadow on a col below the summit block. Patchy snow was present on this visit and obscured some of the tread, but with Dark Canyon falling below you to the north and Powell Canyon falling below you to the south, your only option is to cross the col west towards the summit.

Inclement weather obscuring the Tularosa Basin from Carrizo Summit

Inclement weather obscuring the Tularosa Basin from Carrizo Summit

Here the tread was often buried in snow patches. In warmer weather the path may be easier to find, but on this date the best option was to ascend as steeply as possible. That leads, with much panting, to an open summit. The air is thin at 9656 feet. Views ought to have been outstanding, but I can’t say as the weather was not cooperating. Snap some summit photos and return 5 miles the way you came.


Author on Carrizo summit

Author on Carrizo summit

This hike has a woodland beauty that contrasts markedly with the desert appeal of destinations such as Marble Canyon or Cox Peak. The overcast weather and wide Douglas Firs on this hike made it very reminiscent of hiking in the Pacific Northwest. Try it out!

Except for the last half mile on the summit block the tread is mostly mellow. I would not hesitate to recommend it for a beginner in good shape, except that the blow-down thickets are really something of a problem. If the Forest Service ever gets refunded, then this might be a great place to bring strong new hikers.


Summit Post (by streeyyr) gives some additional guidance on getting to the trailhead.

A detailed description of the trail is given at Surgent.Net. It is a slightly older post (2007) and some of the signage has changed.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a partial trail description and shows photos of the trailhead, deadfall, and rock slides.

The Forest Service briefly describes the trail here. (A good link for checking against flood or fire closures).

Jim_H has posted a trail description and great photos at HikeArizona.Com.

The Mountains of New Mexico” says that Carrizo Peak is a laccolith,  having magma-derived rock that is more weather-resistant than the surrounding sedimentary rock. Carrizo’s broad hump-shape closely resembles the example laccoliths shown on the Wikipedia site.


2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 034 Peak and peak to east

Sunset Peak (left) and Capitan Peak (right) from NM 246

This is a bittersweet hike, combining a closeup look at the aftereffects of a fire (probably the “Peppin Fire” of 2004) with great views, abundant wildlife and a trail that has seen a great deal of care in its design and execution. The trail could use some new TLC because brush, grass, logs and rockfall are beginning to obscure the tread.

Driving Instructions

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 001 road sign

Signs on NM 246 just before turnoff.

  • From I25 in Las Cruces, take Exit 6 east towards Alamogordo on US 70. (As US 70 enters Alamogordo you will begin to encounter stoplights on the road. You want to go past the first three stoplights).
  • After 62.3 miles, immediately past the third stoplight, to right onto the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, turn left (north) onto the Relief Route.
  • After 4.9 miles, turn left onto US 54/70

    2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 002

    Sign on road 130 about 50 feet after turning from NM 246.

  • After 9.6 (more) miles, turn left (north) onto US 54.
  • After 44.6 (more) miles, turn right (east) onto US 380.
  • After 19.7 miles, in the town of Capitan NM, turn left onto NM 246. This road takes a sharp right hand turn at 8.9 miles, stay on NM 246.
  • After 32.0 miles, about 100 feet past a pair of signs reading “Roswell 53” and “Boy Scout Mountain ->”, turn right onto road 130. There will be a sign reading “130” about 50 feet down the road.
  • After 3.9 miles, come to the signed trailhead. There is a gate at this point in the road, usually locked, indicating that the road beyond this point is on private property. There is quite a lot of parking space off the main road on some woods roads coming in on your right.

Road 130 was in pretty good shape for the first 1.9 miles – there is some washboarding and a few small gullies developing. After a ranch gate at 1.9 miles the quality of the surface degrades markedly. Especially, there are numerous fist-sized rocks on the road surface. Family sedans, such as the mighty Camry, can make the drive but only slowly.


2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 004 T64 trailhead signThe T64 trailhead is signed. A set of jeep trails join with Road 130 at the trailhead so finding a parking spot that is off Road 130 is not a problem. There are no other amenities.



  • Starting Elevation: 6280 feet
  • Highest Point: 10,083 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 3800 feet
  • Distance: 5.9 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Arroyo Serrano West, USGS Arabella, NM and USGS Capitan Peak.

The map above represents my best efforts to detect the trail from satellite imagery on Google Maps. The lower reaches of the trail are accurately mapped, but the switchbacks just below the summit are not – there is some creative cartography going on there (be warned). Although the trail was sometimes difficult to find in satellite images, it was generally easy to follow on the ground.

While hiking I tried to compare the trail depicted on the USGS maps against the reality on the ground. The task was a unusually challenging since the trail goes directly south right along the edges of the maps for Capitan Peak and Arabella NM. USGS maps are often very good, but in this case there were several large switchbacks that are not well represented on the map.


2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 007 first view of pinnical

Chimney Rock seen through a burn just above the point where the trail enters the wilderness area.

The trail parallels Road 130 as it gently rises into a pretty hanging valley where there are a number of private homes.  Trending south, it rises to a rib above the last home (roofless, apparently victim to the fire) in a half mile. The trail crosses the signed border with the Capitan Mountains Wilderness at 0.8 miles. The first of many switchbacks appears and views to a solitary spire named Chimney Rock begin.

Prominent bell shaped peak seen from lower canyons

Prominent bell shaped peak seen from lower canyons

At a little over a mile the trail comes to the confluence of two canyons and chooses the steeper and narrower chute on the right. Switchbacking athletically, the tread again encounters a confluence and again chooses the right-hand chute at 1.3 miles. The path rises close to the top of the canyon’s rocky western wall, over which you will see an isolated and  symmetric bell-shaped peak. This fire denuded mountain is not Capitan Peak, in spite of its apparent solitude. (It may be the 7880 foot peak due west of the trail). The trail then turns east for a series of switchbacks that, at 2.4 miles, will deliver you to the top of the ridge that forms the eastern wall.

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 033 first view of capitan peak from rib

First glimpse of summit (in the middle). The trail follows a ridge towards a col to the left (east) of the summit

The trail ascends on the ridge top. As the tread contours around around a small rise you will see your first view of Capitan Peak. The ridge rises towards the visible col between Capitan Peak and its eastern neighbor Sunset Peak, although the trail departs the ridge before getting to this col.

At 3.5 miles, enter a dense pocket forest of Douglas firs and begin to pull away from the ridge. At the end of this stretch of fire-protected evergreens enter a forest of silver deadwood. At the base of the snags is a dense undergrowth of young aspen trees, each about an inch in diameter and almost 10 feet tall.

Paintbrush (I think) alongside the trail.

Aubri tells me that the purple flower above is a Bull Thistle, and an awkward customer if you’re hiking in shorts. Originally it was misidentified here as a Paintbrush.

At 4.2 miles begin a series of long switchbacks on the north face of Captain Peak. Short stretches of the tread are becoming obscured by brush, rockfall and grass, you may have to do a little scouting. The trail crosses talus fields, burned regions and pockets of healthy trees. If you come to a boulder field and there is no obvious tread, then look for a steep switchback corner and a tread rising above and behind you.

Summit "ring within a ring" stone structure

Summit “ring within a ring” stone structure

The trail doesn’t reach to the summit of Capitan Peak. Instead, at 5.2 miles (roughly at 9800 feet), the trail performs a final traverse across the north face and then continues to follow the contour across the northwest face. There is a great deal of deadfall on this stretch. At the end of the northwest face the trail nears a ridge descending from the summit towards the southwest. The tread follows this new ridge away from the summit. Take matters into your own hands and leave the trail, ascending steeply to the height of the ridge where you will find a barbed wire fence. Follow the fence uphill towards the summit. Where the fence ends (near a wooden structure with a metal roof) continue in open terrain to the summit. There is a cairn and an unusual rock structure that has a fire-pit surrounded by a rock wall. I didn’t find a summit register.

Return the way you came.


You are allowed to cross the Lowe property, just don't set up housekeeping!

You are allowed to cross the Lowe property, just don’t set up housekeeping!

Road 130 crosses the Lowe property with cattle guards at each end (there is no need to open or close gates). It is generous of the Lowes to provide a right-of-way, please respect their posted request to avoid leaving trash or taking wood.

Similarly, the low end of the trail passes quite close to several homes in the upper valley. It seems certain that they would prefer not to be awoken by the chatter and clatter of hikers getting an early start. Judging from the fire damage in the valley, these folks have enough to worry about.

On this trail I heard coyotes, saw a doe and fawn, and inadvertently spooked a black bear within 200 feet of the summit. The bear took off, making a huge racket as it ran through the woods. Bruins are impressively speedy. It caused me to make a little more noise as I finished up the hike.

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 029 approaching raincloud

Weather issues! Welcome to the New Mexico monsoon season.

More troubling, on this first weekend of July (monsoon season) I found a small line of cumulus clouds waiting for me on the south side of the Capitan Mountains. One was releasing a lot of rain and it was getting bigger and bigger. It didn’t seem fair that the storm should aim for me, especially since there was no wind to speak of at the summit. So I took a fast set of photos and ran, hoping to get off of the ridge-lines before the storm struck. Those storms are almost as fast as black bears. Large, cold drops started striking as I returned to the small forest of Douglas firs. I dropped off the ridge-line and entered the forest, tying my tarp to a burned stump and a small sapling. It was pouring before I finished, but the tarp kept the rain off during the next 15 minutes as the storm passed. The interval between seeing a lightening strike and hearing the thunder shortened to much less than a second – lightening was hitting the ridge above me. On the whole, I would recommend not getting caught by thunderstorms in these mountains. It was good to have rain gear in the pack as the shrubs along the trail were all soaking wet and the temperatures fell substantially.

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 028 summit pose

Quick summit pose before dashing down the mountain.

This trail rises 3800 feet in six miles. If you want to introduce newcomers to the joys of hiking, this one may be too demanding.