Archives for posts with tag: Carrizozo

Overview:

White Horse Hill on crest of Sierra Blanca Mountains

White Horse Hill on crest of Sierra Blanca Mountains

Three Rivers Canyon is a rarity in drought-stricken southern New Mexico; there are huge trees, running water with fingerling trout in the deep pools, languorous switchbacks on a well-shaded trail and a substantial gain to a high summit. From the summit you will find wonderful views along the Sierra Mountains crest, west to the Tularosa Basin or northeast to the Pecos Valley. Are you recruiting a hiker to New Mexico? Take them here.

Driving Directions:

Sign adjacent to turn onto Three Rivers Road

Sign adjacent to turn onto Three Rivers Road

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 north.
  • After 4.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East. The ramp splits three ways, remain in the center to get onto US 70 E.
  • After 61.9 miles (just after the 3rd traffic light as you enter Alamogordo), take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, go left (north) on the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 4.9 miles, at a traffic light, go left (north) onto US 70 E/US 54 N/N White Sands Blvd.
  • After 9.8 miles, as the road makes a broad right-hand curve in the town of Tularosa, turn left onto US 54 N/Saint Francis Drive
  • After 17.8 miles turn right onto Three Rivers Road. This road is tightly gated by flanking stone walls, but is easy to find due to the large Petroglyphs Picnic Ground sign that the Forest Service has installed. Three Rivers road is initially paved, but after a big, concrete-lined “dip” into a waterway the road turns to gravel. Currently the gravel part of the road is in superb shape.
  • After 13.2 miles, at the end of the road, park in the Three Rivers Campground (signed)

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 6400
  • Ending elevation: 10,255 feet
  • Net Gain: 3855 feet
  • Distance: 6.0 miles (one way)
  • Maps: The trailhead and a very short stretch of the hike is on the right edge USGS Godfrey Peak quadrangle.  The vast majority of the hike is found on the USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead below the Sierra Blanca Mountains crest

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead below the Sierra Blanca Mountains crest

This is a deluxe trailhead. The Three Rivers Campground has a dozen car-camping spots, a wide parking area for hikers at the start of the trail (signed), pit toilets, bear-proof trash cans and even offers piped water. The usage fee is currently $6.00 per car, but check the Forest Service website for any updates. Although the canyon itself is pleasantly supplied with water, the larger forest (freighted with innumerable snags from the Little Bear fire) is very dry. Fire hazard was rated as “very high” on this date. The Forest Service has declared Stage One fire restrictions (no campfires until the monsoons begin to kick in).

Description:

Tantalizing glimpse into side cuts from Three Rivers Canyon

Tantalizing glimpse into side cuts from Three Rivers Canyon

Find the start of the Three Rivers Canyon Trail (#44) and head up-canyon on an old road. The trail soon crosses the canyon bed (running water!) and then drifts north a little ways, just far enough to give a send-off to the Barber Ridge Trail (#49) at the quarter-mile point. Turning back up-canyon trail 44 soon re-aligns with the creek. The start is a high desert affair with prickly pear on all sides, but that rapidly segues into pine and fir forest. The canyon bed ascends at a remarkably leisurely pace, and where the terrain acquires a step-and-shelf topology the the trail engineers have provided switchbacks. Within 10 minutes from the trailhead you will start noticing heights of land above the trees to the south and to the north. These evolve into sheer walls as you enter the canyon proper after about forty-five minutes. The crumbling roadbed quietly reshapes into a tread beneath the trees.

Granite cliffs along side the Three Rivers Canyon

Granite cliffs along side the Three Rivers Canyon

The trail crosses and re-crosses the stream bed. Currently that is no problem, but during periods of very high flows it could be a serious challenge. Reportedly the stream received extraordinary water volumes in 2008 that damaged much of the trail and flushed most of the fish population out into the Tularosa Basin (not a known haven for brook trout). At several places you will see evidence of more recent damage where side cuts have dumped vast quantities of sand, scree and talus on the sides of the main stream. The power of of the main stream itself is revealed in steeper terrain by a vast exposure of smoothly scrubbed rock. This is a geologist’s playground. The views up into Fall Creek (at two miles) and the Three Rivers South Fork (at 3.2 miles) were quite tantalizing. There does not seem to be any trail in those canyons. Be prepared for off-trail travel if you want to reach those destinations.

15 gaitors and butterfly

Western Tiger Butterfly hunting nector beside Three Rivers Canyon trail

There is an exceptional variety of wildlife as well. The only reptiles spotted on this hike was a garter snake and innumerable lizards. Butterflies of widely varied description seemed to find the trail congenial. Several of the deeper pools had fingerling trout, never more than about four or five inches long and rather skinny (the low water levels may be stressful). I had expected to find horned toads and to see some elk, but those were the only disappointment on this day.

At 3.6 miles reach a shaded campsite. This is a great lunch spot and a perfectly reasonable turn-around point for a party with novice hikers. The trail to this point has been almost unbelievably mellow, and it steepens somewhat above.

Large Douglas Fir. Note the relative size of the hiking pole.

Large Douglas Fir. Note the relative size of the hiking pole.

Continuing up, you will start to notice hints of alpine meadows. The space between trees grows and the shrub layer of the forest understory gives way to grasses. Douglas fir and white pines abound, some of considerable girth. At 4.6 miles come to the first of a series of large, steep subalpine meadows. The trail engineering never flags, however, as switchbacks gentle the way up and across these pleasant spaces. Views open out to the Tularosa Basin. Pick out White Horse Hill on the crest, to the northwest.

17 Sign in col

Sign in col on Sierra Blanca crest

At 5.5 miles reach a col between White Horse Hill and Elk Point on the Sierra Mountains crest.  A signed junction indicates that you’ve reached the Crest trail (#25), which will take you to Lookout Mountain if you go right (east). If you go straight across the col then the Aspen Canyon trail will take you down to the north (eventually linking up with the Big Bonito Trail). If you choose to go left, as I did, then you are on the Big Bonito Trail (#36) where it overlaps with the Crest Trail. The tread is initially quite obvious and takes you past small stands of evergreens while rising towards White Horse Hill. Within a quarter mile, however, the tread disappears amid tall grasses and the hoof prints (elk, presumably). It may be that the recent fires have discouraged hikers from getting to the crest, permitting nature to reclaim the tread. Never fear, however, since White Horse Hill is directly above you.

Nogal Peak (middle ground) and Carrizo Peak (horizon)

Nogal Peak (middle ground) and Carrizo Peak (horizon)

Ascend open terrain towards the summit at 6.0 miles. There are great views west into the Tularosa and White Sands National Monument, north to Carizzo Peak, northwest to the Capitan Mountains, and due west across the enormous damage of the Little Bear to the Pecos Valley. There is even a glimpse to the summit of Sierra Blanca itself. There is a summit register hidden inside a tiny cairn. The summit was windy and strikingly cool – this on a day in which it reached the high 90s in Las Cruces! Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author approaching the summit

Author approaching the summit

In Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area, Magee points out that this shady and high route is a good summertime destination. I could not agree more. Still, with over 3800 feet of gain you will go through a lot of water. I had 4 liters and that was only just enough.

Three Rivers Canyon is well watered, but this is an unmistakable season of drought. We can hope for a good monsoon season to ease the danger to the forests, but for the moment the National Drought Monitor indicates that over 95% of the state is under moderate drought or worse. The stage 1 fire restrictions for Lincoln National Forest (no backcountry campfires) are pretty reasonable.

The crest is completely exposed. You’ll want a good hat and sunscreen. Also, keep an eye on those fluffy monsoon-season clouds. There are worse places to be in a thunderstorm, but not by much!

 

Links:

For a poetic report on wintertime camping along the Three Rivers Trail (and a comment to the effect that the approach road is not always in superlative condition) check out Eugene Smith’s BackPackingLight post.

Marsha Rupe has some photos from this hike taken in 2010. Her summit shot makes a sad contrast with the 2014 vista, which is much altered by the Little Bear Fire. Her title suggests that she made a loop, ascending by Three Rivers Canyon and then descending by Dry Canyon. That sounds like an excellent alternative. However, in exploring towards White Horse Hill I noted that the connector trail was becoming difficult to follow. You might want to plan for some small navigation challenges if you want to make this loop.

Johnny Hughes has a description of this hike, and several others nearby. Good options if you have a couple days to explore this face of the range.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has photos and some comments on the Canyon as a fishing expedition. His visit was in 2010, not too long after the 2008 flood. The tread condition has improved enormously since then.

 

Overview:

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.

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.

Data:

  • 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.

Recommendations:

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.

Links:

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.