Archives for posts with tag: Dona Ana County

Overview:

View into Horse Canyon and distant North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope on the right side of the photo) from US-26

North Las Uvas Mountain (the slope rising from the right side of the photo) as seen from NM-26. The southern draw is the shadowed bowl partially screened by a bush on the extreme right. Staircase Rib descends from the ridge line of North Las Uvas Mountain to the left of the draw.

This is an off-trail scramble that ascends to the second-highest point in the Sierra de Las Uvas. “Second highest” may sound like faint praise, but it is a terrific alternative to driving to the fenced and locked summit of Magdalena Peak (the highest point in the range). This is desert wilderness so be prepared for difficult road, waterless trekking and terrain that rattles. It is also, in the springtime, a colorful hike into rarely seen terrain with spectacular views. Find a clear-blue day and do this hike!

Driving Directions:

  • From US-70 in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 (I-25) going north.
  • After 35.3 miles take Exit 41 for NM-26/Hatch.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left on NM-26.
  • After 1.4 miles, at a T-intersection with a stop sign, go right to continue on NM-26.
  • After 8.3 miles past the T-intersection, go left onto Las Uvas Spring Road. This road is paved. (Note, “Las Uvas Spring Road” is the name on a the street sign. It will be much easier to watch for a huge sign on the left side of the road that says Las Uvas Valley Dairy).
  • After 0.8 miles, where Las Uvas Spring Road bends sharply to the right, go left onto County Road E002 (gravel). There are some things to watch for while driving E002, notably:
    • After 300 feet E002, just past a cattle guard, come to an intersection. Straight ahead is a gravel road in rough shape. Don’t go there, instead take the sharp right to stay on E002.
    • After 1.7 miles on E002 come to a fork. E002 veers slightly to the right, while the left fork is County Road E003. Go right. About 30 feet past the fork you should pass a bent metal post signed “CR E002”.
    • After 4.7 miles on E002, at the mouth of Horse Canyon, come to the stone ranch building and tall windmill. This is Horse Canyon Ranch (private property). Continue on E002 as it enters the canyon.
  • After 5.0 miles come to small rise in the road with negligible berms on either side. Park beside the road.
The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib  is about 45° above and left.

The Mighty Camry, hard used, at the trailhead. South draw is immediately above the car. Staircase Rib is about 45° above and left. (Double-click to enlarge)

Note: County Road E002 is rough. You may see pictures of the mighty Camry parked at the trailhead, but this road can not be recommended for family sedans. On this date the tracks of a road grader were visible in the roadbed – there must have been fairly recent maintenance efforts. Despite that, long stretches of the road was made up of loosely piled, fist-sized rocks. The road is sunken below the surrounding terrain for much of its length. You can go forward and you can back up, but turning around is often out of the question. Take a high-clearance vehicle. Those with high clearance vehicles could drive another 0.4 miles and save themselves a stretch of road hiking, but be warned that the road bed degrades significantly in that stretch.

Trailhead:

The trailhead is just a patch of dirt beside County Road E002. There are no amenities. There may be cattle. Don’t scare them.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5020 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 6601
  • Net Elevation: 1581 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Souse Springs, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

As the two-track comes into the wash you will see these patches of whitish, scoured rock on the bed of the water-way.

From the car, head up Horse Canyon on County Road E002. Rocks the size of bowling balls litter the gullied road-bed, be glad that you left the vehicle behind. The road gets so little use that a scattering of wild flowers were growing in both tracks. In about 0.4 miles come to a fork where a faint two-track departs the main road on the right and descends into the wash coming out of the south draw. Follow the two-track for roughly 100 yards and come to the wash, then turn upstream (left). On ascent I departed from the wash in just a hundred yards, worried about going too far into the southern draw. That was a misplaced concern – it is fine to follow the wash 0.3 miles to where you arrive at the foot of Staircase Rib.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

Fence posts on the flanks of Staircase Rib and a view up Horse Canyon towards Big White Pass.

I’ve designated this rib “Staircase” because it is composed of harder and softer layers of rock; the hard rock forms the relatively flat shelves and the soft rock forms the steep risers. As you come to the first of the shelves, look up Horse Canyon and try to pick out an old barbed wire fence on the flanks of the rib. This fence begins in the bottom of Horse Canyon and rises part way up the rib. You should hit the fence about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. Ranchers worked hard on these structures and there is an old path along the uphill side of the fence. It is easier to follow the path than to “side-hill” along the rib. That said, you shouldn’t get too far from the rib top, so at about 1.1 miles from the car depart from the fence and ascend beside basaltic outcrops until hitting a grassy stretch that grants access to the rib top. From here it is only a short distance to where the rib joins the main ridge of North Las Cruces Mountain.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw and to the Cooke Range.

Near the point where Staircase Rib joins the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. The view is across the upper end of the south draw to Cookes Peak.

Look around you as you reach the main ridge on North Las Cruces Mountain. You will want to make sure you depart the ridge for Staircase Rib on descent. Having memorized this departure point, turn up hill and begin a long and surprisingly gentle ascent of the upper tablelands. There is an abundance of creosote bush and mesquite, some mountain mahogany, numerous varieties of small cacti (surprisingly few prickly pear, a few cholla), the odd ocotillo and an occasional juniper. Grasses grow in dense patches – watch for our sinuous friends during warm weather. There are numerous raptors overhead and evidence of cattle under foot. Shade is practically non-existent.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches the ridgeline.

View of another juniper-enhanced false summit and a fold in the tableland where a canyon reaches to the ridgeline.

There are no further route finding problems. Just stay close to where the ridge falls into Horse Canyon and continue ascending. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will come to the upper end of a canyon that drains from the ridgeline to the southwest (that is, to your right). These may be the headwaters of Pine Canyon. Surprising displays of cap rock appear in what would otherwise be a broad table of high desert. Water has gnawed all the way to the ridge, leaving minor rises and infinitesimal falls as you ascend towards the summit. Although the terrain is nearly flat, footing is tricky as the surface is covered with volcanic scoria intermixed with rounded lumps of sandstone. (Tricky and geologically confusing).  At about 2.4 miles from the trailhead you pass what seems to be the last of the canyon’s branches and might imagine that the juniper decorating the ridge above you is the summit. Oh no! It turns out that juniper trees enhance each of the innumerable  pseudo-summits on this gentle climb. Plod onward.

Cactus growing on a

Lichen and cactus growing on a “ground” of solid rock.

You will encounter the headwaters of one last canyon at 3.0 miles from the trailhead. Cross a two-track (evidently in current use) and ascend up a moderate incline to reach the broad expanse of true tableland northwest of the summit. On this date there was a considerable flower show. The columnar cacti, in particular, were putting on a massive show of red and purple flowers. Despite drought conditions the grasses were dense on the ground (although very dry).

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

Sugarloaf in the Sierra de Las Uvas.

As you get higher the views to the surrounding ranges become a major distraction. The Florida Mountains are prominent in the southwest, the Cooke Range to the west, the Black Range and the Caballo Range dominate the near-ground to the north, although I think I saw the distant San Mateo Range poking up between them. The east is dominated by the San Andreas Range. As you reach the summit at 4.2 miles, some very prominent peaks of the Sierra de Las Uvas appear. These include the conical form of Sugarloaf and the radar-dome topped prominence of Magdelana. Below lies the crazed terrain where White Gap Draw, Kerr Canyon, Choases Canyon and Valles Canyon converge into Broad Canyon. A bit south of east are the Robledos and Dona Ana Mountains, and beyond them lie toothy spires of the Organ Mountains. Have a bite to eat, sign the register, and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

The author on North Las Uvas summit, with the radar dome of Magdelana Peak in the background.

♦Both the distance hiked and the elevation gained look very modest. Don’t be fooled. This is a 100% off-trail outing and the demands on your attention and on your legs are emphatically real. It is at least a moderately strenuous hike – less physically demanding than the ascent up Three Rivers Canyon in the Sierra Blanca Range, but far greater than the 7-mile loop around Kilbourne Hole.

♦County Road E002 crosses at least two washes. A storm could make the road impassable in a very short period of time. Keep a close eye on the weather. It would be an excellent idea to have a pick and shovel with you. As usual with desert sojourns, make certain your spare tire is inflated and bring extra water.

♦There is no protection from the sun or from lightning on this hike. Pick a nice day, preferably in the winter or early spring months. Sun screen is essential for most folks, and a broad rimmed hat is incredibly useful.

Links:

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). Protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

Western Diamondback (I think, since the white bands on the tail are thinner than the black bands). This rattler was protecting its turf in the wash leading out of the south draw.

♦There is a mention of this peak on SummitPost. That description suggests an approach from the south rather than the north, which may be advantageous in terms of avoiding County Road E002. That approach, however, would leave you approaching North Las Uvas Mountain on its steep south/eastern faces. I haven’t tried it, but from what I could see on the summit you would want advanced scrambling skills to make that approach. It might be best to try this route in the colder weather when New Mexico’s venomous denizens are not quite so abundant.

A map provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seems to suggest that most of Horse Canyon and the lower half of the ridge up to North Las Uvas Mountain is owned by the State of New Mexico. The upper part of the ridge, to the summit, is BLM land. There is a small in-holding, the Horse Canyon Ranch, that bridges the narrow mouth of the canyon. It appears to me that you should try and drive at least a quarter mile past the abandoned ranch house and windmill in order to park on public lands. Land owners in New Mexico are usually very generous towards hikers and hunters but, absent explicit parking permission, it’s best to stay off of the ranch land.

♦That’s about it. This lack of public awareness may be why the summit log had only two previous entries in it!

Overview:

Robbed Peak from knoll

Robledo Peak from knoll

This is a short but dramatic hike that is located close to Las Cruces. The drama comes from a contorted slot canyon – the genuine article with walls spaced just a few feet apart and towering more than 50 feet above your head. For newcomers it could be a stellar introduction to the mountainous desert of southern New Mexico. That said, this is not the “competent rock” that graces some of the nation’s most famous slot canyons. Instead the walls are composed of Robledo-rubble loosely cemented together. It would be an exceedingly poor location for riding out an earthquake. As with all slot canyons, you do not want to be trapped in there if a sudden storm drenches the higher reaches. Make certain to pick a nice day and go!

Looking south on the bone-dry Rio Grand.

Looking south on the bone-dry Rio Grand.

Note that the trailhead is on the east side of the Rio Grande while the hike is on the west side. That is no problem when the river has been shut off, but probably impassable when the river is running full during irrigation season. Check the river conditions before setting off! After reaching the upper end of the slot you can continue ascending in a wider canyon bed and come eventually to a tall waterfall. Most people will want to turn back here. This route description, however, continues the ascent with a scramble up a steep waterway to the canyon rim and then an easy ascent to a nearby knoll.

Driving Directions:

Entrance to the slot canyon (closeup) viewed from the levee road.

Entrance to the slot canyon (closeup) viewed from the levee road.

Route to the trailhead used on this date:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, turn north onto Valley Drive (Valley Drive becomes NM-185)
  • After 13.5 miles, turn left onto Hope Road (gravel)
  • After 0.6 miles, at what appears to be a T-intersection, turn right onto a gravel road (not signed). This gravel road stays on top of the levee on the east side of the Rio Grande
  • In 0.3 miles, veer left onto a flood plain road. Park on the flood plain.

This parking spot can not be recommended (see the hike description below for the kind of bush bashing that parking here entails). For this reason the map below shows a red warning sign with exclamation mark. Instead, park on the flood plain much closer to the spot where Hope Road intersects the levee road. The map marks this preferred spot with an icon of two hikers.

Edit: a comment was posted from the RV-Dreams.com site and that link describes an attempt at this hike that failed because there was water in the Rio Grande (gasp). Looking at Google Maps, there is an possible alternative, although it is one that I haven’t explored.  Here are the directions as provided by Google:

  • On Valley Drive/NM-185, going north, turn west (left) onto Shalem Colony Road (possibly signed as County Road D052).
  • After 1.2 miles, past the bridge over the Rio Grand, turn north (right) on County Road D013
  • After 5.5 miles find a corral on the rising land to the west (on your left). Find a place to park your car and walk back to the corral. 
  • NOTE: this approach will remove the need to cross the Rio Grande and deal with riverside thorn thickets. You can skip over the first two paragraphs in the hike description, but check out the photo of the corral so you’ll recognize it as you drive by. 

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry, poised high and dry on the Rio Grande floodplain.

The Mighty Camry, poised high and dry on the Rio Grande floodplain.

The trailhead is just a spot on the flood plain along side the Rio Grande. There are no amenities. You don’t want to leave your car here if it happens to be the day that the managers at Caballo Reservoir release impounded water into the river. Current release data can be found here, but it does not necessarily include any advisories about future releases. Last year (2014) water was scheduled for release in May. If anyone knows where to find release advisories, please leave a comment below. Otherwise, search the news sites before going.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 3920 feet
  • Ending elevation: 4960 feet
  • Net Gain: 1040 feet
  • Distance: 3.2 miles
  • Map: USGS Leasburg, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

Corral on the west side of the Rio Grande

Corral on the west side of the Rio Grande

If you are using the recommended parking site, then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up onto the far bank, and work uphill until you find a gravel road that parallels the river (about 0.1 miles from the car). Turn right (north) and follow the road until you come to a corral on the left-hand side of the road (to the west).

If you are using the same parking site that was used on this hike then head directly across the Rio Grande, climb up over the bank and find yourself in a thorn bush thicket. Within the thicket (and within 20 feet of the bank) you will find a cattle trail. Turn left (south) and follow the trail until the heavily interlaced branches of the thorn trees begin to thin and junipers start appearing. As soon as you can tolerate the notion, turn your back to the river and bash your way past the brush and juniper. In 200 feet, encounter the road that parallels the river. Turn left (south) and follow the road until you come to the corral.

Approaching the mouth of the Slot Canyon.

Approaching the mouth of the Slot Canyon.

From the corral turn uphill towards the mouth of the canyon (which is clearly visible). The terrain is strewn with fist-sized rocks and the footing is awkward, expect to go slowly as you ascend. As you get further from the river the plant life becomes sparser and travel becomes easier. Much of the green bush is mesquite and creosote. Above you (and somewhat to the south) lies Robledo Peak. To the north is Lookout Mountain. There are innumerable lizards scurrying about the dry water courses. On this day I saw no snakes, although another party reported seeing a garter snake. Our reptilian neighbors seem to be returning from their winter get-aways.

View straight up to the sky.

View straight up to the sky.

At 0.7 miles from the trailhead enter the canyon and you will find that the temperature drops considerably. The canyon bed writhes and twists. The bed itself is paved with rocks that (presumably) have fallen from the walls above you. There are no navigation problems, although there are intriguing mini-slots that come into the main canyon from time to time. Long-time desert dwellers accustomed to big-sky views will find the skinny-sky to be a bit claustrophobic.

View to the waterfall that marks the end of the hike for most hikers.

View to the waterfall that marks the end of the hike for most hikers.

The slot is not terribly long. As you reach 1.2 miles from the trailhead the walls begin descending and then angling off. A much broader, arroyo-like conformation is adopted. The canyon bottom, which was free of vegetation in the slot, becomes a bit greener. Having reached 1.4 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself at the foot of a tall waterfall. This is a shady and green spot to have a bite to eat and a sip of water as you marvel at what water can do to hard rock. Many hikers will want to turn back at this point and enjoy the slot canyon on the way out.

View of upper reaches of the slot canyon

View of upper reaches of the slot canyon. The knoll that formed the turn-around point is in the center.

You can ascend to the rim of the canyon in a narrow gully on the south wall of the canyon (on the left, looking uphill). This gully is just to the left of the main waterfall. It is steep in places and choked with loose rock. You will want to be comfortable with mildly exposed rock-climbing moves. As you near the rim it can be helpful to pull out of the gully to your left to gain better quality rock (although still fairly rotten). Near the rim the angle eases and animal trails appear, follow them below the rim and ascend into the upper reaches of the canyon.

Wide open terrain on the flanks of Robledo Peak, as seen from the knoll.

Wide open terrain on the flanks of Robledo Peak, as seen from the knoll.

In it’s upper reaches the canyon walls are gently sloped. Descend into the canyon bed and immediately climb the far wall (the north side of the waterway). The terrain is open and quickly brings you into the domain of ocotillo plants and small juniper bushes. At 1.8 miles from the car, find yourself at the top of a knoll with tremendous views to Robledo and Lookout Peaks, long views of the dry river bed below, and vistas of the Dona Ana Mountains. This is wide open terrain and very inviting for those who relish a ramble.

Concentric red markings on a hand-sized boulder - a surprisingly common pattern in these sedimentary rocks.

Concentric red markings on a hand-sized boulder – a surprisingly common pattern in these sedimentary rocks.

On this date, however, I turned back for the trailhead. Rather than down-climb back into the canyon, follow the northern rim as it weaves down the bajada. The sedimentary rocks are colorful. On this date it was a little disappointing to get “skunked” of any fossil finds. As you near the mouth of the canyon the rib you are on nose-dives and becomes divided by a small waterway. It helps to stay on the north bank (left, looking downhill) as the falloff on the north side is gentler. Find your way back down to the mouth of the canyon, descend the alluvial fan below to the corral and then cross the Rio Grand to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Closeup of an old juniper growing at the foot of the waterfall.

Closeup of an old juniper growing at the foot of the waterfall.

The cool part of the hike, from both wow-factor and temperature points of view, lies in the slot canyon. If your party is not comfortable with exposed scrambling then turn them back at the waterfall.

Consider bringing a climber’s helmet into the slot canyon. The canyon bed is littered with rocks, some of which fell from the canyon rim. Getting beaned would hurt.

The upper part of the hike, above the waterfall, is completely exposed to the sun. Even the juniper trees are too stunted to provide meaningful shade. You’ll want sunscreen and other sun gear. I got through two liters of water on a fairly cool April day.

Links:

Apparently the slot canyon serves as a grasshopper graveyard in the autumn. The reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News  comments on the abundance of large insects on a November hike. On this date there were some flies, but nothing especially notable.

If you love slot canyons, then Southern New Mexico Explorer has a second post in which a number of alternative slots in the region are named. Doug Scott has provided an even more extensive list of canyons (both slot and box canyons) across New Mexico.

Joeseph j7uy5 has a flickr photo stream (including GPS tracks) of an exploration of this part of the Robledos.

George Ray has posted a video that captures a considerable fraction of hiking in the slot canyon.

UPDATE: The LC Sun-News is reporting that this year the river will begin flowing some time in late May, 2015. Keep an eye on that river!

Overview:

View over foothill to Sugarloaf Mountain

View over foothill to Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain is a striking tower of pale granite embedded in a massive rib descending from the Organ Mountain’s ridge line. The mountain’s smooth and steep face make it a playground for those with technical climbing skills and climbing gear. These mountaineers sometimes descend from the peak using a canyon on the south side of Sugarloaf. The canyon has a scrubbed bed of pale granite and offers scramblers a way to approach the range’s high country.

The ascent is steep in places and the smooth canyon bed leaves little in the way of handholds. The approach offers scramblers an opportunity to practice “smearing” technique (see below), but exposure may make it daunting for new scramblers. In fact, on this date it was just plain daunting. High winds made smearing impractical. I turned back before attaining the ridge, so this guide will only take you to within 400 feet of the ridge line.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 going north
  • After 4.8 miles take exit 6 for US-70 East. The exit ramp splits into three lanes, stay in the middle for US-70E
  • After 14.8 miles make a right turn onto Aguirre Springs Road.
  • After 6.2 miles, make a right turn onto the road for the Aguirre Springs Group Campground.
  • After about 100 feet, park in the parking lot for the Group Campground.
Sign on Aguirre Springs Road for the Group Campground

Sign on Aguirre Springs Road for the Group Campground

US-70E is a highway and the turn onto Aguirre Springs Road from the highway is rather abrupt. Look for an intersection that lies a little more than a mile after crossing San Agustin Pass. Also, there is a small sign on the highway that warns of the intersection a quarter mile before the turn.

Water is not usually available in the campground, but you can get some at the Campground’s host site. The site is on Aguirre Springs Road about 1.6 miles from US-70. There is a self-service fee center as you enter the campground. The fee center is on Aguirre Springs road, 5.8 miles from US-70.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, poised by the yellow sign that marks the start of the trail

The mighty Camry, poised by the yellow sign that marks the start of the trail

The Aguirre Springs Campground is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM charges for either day-use or camping. The day-use fee is currently $5.00, although you should check their website for the most up-to-date charges. There are some complications, such as occasional fee-free days or discounts for those with various passes. You will want to arrive early on fee-free days.

The trailhead itself is a paved area with room for about 25 cars. The Group Camp Site has covered picnic tables, vault toilets and waste bins, but no potable water. On this date there was a considerable flow of water in Sotol Creek and some of the drainages in Indian Hollow. This is not typical of the last few years, plan on bringing water from home. If you find water you will want to filter it (or use some other sterilization method).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5480 feet
  • Ending Elevation:  7600 feet
  • Net Gain: 2120 feet
  • Distance: 2.5 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Water flowing in Sotol Creek

Water flowing in Sotol Creek

Find the start of the trail beside a yellow BLM sign that asks, very reasonably, that you leave the rattlesnakes alone. Ascend briefly uphill and then turn southeast (left) as the trail takes you towards Sotol Creek. In less than 100 feet you will arrive at a barbed wire fence. Turn uphill and follow the fence closely until you arrive at a “needle’s eye” (a maze-shaped opening in the fence designed to allow hikers through but keep cattle out). Descend into Sotol Creek and rise towards the foothill on the south side. The trail will contour north to the outermost face of the foothill, then ascend gently east to enter a bowl that that opens into Indian Hollow.

View to Sugarloaf Mountain. The granite gulch can be seen as a white scar running diagonally upwards for the right-bottom corner.

View to Sugarloaf Mountain. Granite Canyon can be seen as a white scar running diagonally upwards from the bottom-right corner.

The first order of business is to cross this westside bowl. It is a pleasant task in open terrain broken by small stands of juniper and pinyon pine. The drainage out of this westside bowl is braided into numerous parallel streams. The trail slogs steeply up one creek bank only to drop precipitously into the next creek bed. During the last few years these streams have been dry, but on this date there was a heartening flow of water in each one. This has attracted cattle, so make certain that you sterilized any water before drinking it.

Close up of a conical prominence in Indian Hollow with a distinctive white spire.

Close up of a conical prominence in Indian Hollow with a distinctive white spire.

At 1.4 miles from the trailhead round a second rib and get a close-up view of the main bowl of Indian Hollow. The first thing you will notice is that a recent storm has plowed a huge number of boulders into the bottom of the main creek. The trail is nearly obliterated. Eventually the trail will be reconstructed, but for the moment follow cairns that take you almost 100 yards upstream, clambering over log jams and sidling around boulders as you go. If you look uphill you will see a low rib descending along the far side of the creek. You will cross the creek to find a clear tread adjacent to a rocky face on the low-point of this rib. From there the tread switchbacks, gains the top of this rib and then begins climbing much more steeply. Look between Sugarloaf (on your left) and the Organ Needle (on your right) for Pine Pass. Below the pass, in the main bowl of Indian Hollow, is a conical prominence topped with a distinctive white spire. The tread will continue up the rib and take you as high as the front face of this prominence.

Informal sign at the fork in the Indian Hollow Trail.

Informal sign at the fork in the Indian Hollow Trail.

The trail forks at 1.9 miles from the trailhead. Climbers assaulting the front face of Sugarloaf are directed to go left. You, however, should go right as if you were headed towards Pine Pass. Here you are getting onto the debris field below Sugarloaf and the trail steepens further. The junipers give way to Ponderosa Pines.

A convenient crack in the scrubbed bottom of granite gulch.

A convenient crack in the scrubbed bottom of Granite Canyon.

At 2.1 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses a deeply cut gulch (the first since the signed trail fork). Look uphill and you should see a long stretch of whitish granite in the bottom of this canyon. This is your  path to the ridgeline south of Sugarloaf. On descent you will want to be able to recognize the intersection of the canyon with the trail – memorize the local landmarks carefully. Turn uphill and go a dozen yards on small boulders to reach the scrubbed bedrock. From here up the stream bed will have much in common with a sidewalk, albeit a very steep sidewalk. Study the rock for foot placements that will stick. Small hollows and shallow protrusions can offer effective assists.  It usually helps to keep you feet flat against the rock with your weight “smeared” across the entire surface of your boot sole. Avoid resting your weight on your hands as that may release your boots from the rock. On this date there was a steady flow of water down Granite Canyon, which left wet dirt on many of the ledges. That can complicate the ascent. Fortunately, the flow was very narrow so it was almost always possible to find a foothold further away.

Slabs below the south saddle of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Slabs below the south saddle of Sugarloaf Mountain.

In 0.1 miles, come to a spot where the canyon tumbles over a steep headwall. I was unable to ascend this part of the canyon bottom, but found very good footing on the southern wall (to your right, looking uphill). Climb in loose gravel and singularly thorny terrain until you pass the top of the headwall, less than 50 feet, and then work you way back into the gulch. Ascend for another 0.2 miles to a second steep section. At the foot of this section there is a singularly battered Ponderosa Pine on the left edge of the canyon bottom. Uphill of this pine, indeed, stacked against it, is a pile of loosely arrayed boulders. There is no lichen on these rocks, no grass growing between them and only the thinnest scattering of brush about them. They look as if they were piled there yesterday. Ascend the boulder pile, gingerly avoiding spots where the stones look like they are about to surf down the slopes. At the top of this rubble enter the bowl below the south saddle on Sugarloaf. This is steep and weather-blasted terrain. The bottom of the bowl seems to be all exfoliating granite. It is not inherently impassible, but the winds on this date were blasting too hard for comfort. Here I turned about to return the way I entered.

Recommendations:

Author at turn-back point.

Author at turn-back point.

There are spots on this scramble where a fall would be very bruising (at best). If you have a large party then a light climbing rope might be appreciated by the least experienced members. On this date the flow of water was a small (but real) complication. Boot soles that are wet and dirty don’t grip the rock very well. Against that, it has to be said that the recent rains have left little particulate on this smooth rock. Long dry spells often leave sand on the canyon bed and could make the scramble much harder.

Of all the scrambles that I’ve been on in the Organs, this is the one that feels most sensitive to weather. It would be a mistake, I think, to get caught up high in any kind of rainstorm. Just a tiny amount of snow could make make the descent a long and slow process. As described above, merely windy conditions can raise the risk level. If you can find a “bluebird sky” on a calm day late in the fall or early winter then you might have the perfect situation for this hike.

Much of this hike was shaded, but the bowl below the ridge looked entirely open. It could get pretty toasty on a summer’s day. Some hikes on this side of the Organ Mountains are real thorn fests. You have to love the clear trail and the open bedrock in the Canyon for it’s freedom from aggressive vegetation.

Links:

Carol Brown has great photos from a hike into Granite Canyon.

Yubao has posted more photos at the Jornada Hiking Meetup site, including shots that appear to have been taken very near the ridge top.

Samat has a complete GPS track for this hike on GPSies.com. It shows a route complete to the ridgeline and an estimate of 7.8 miles (round trip) involving 2725 feet of gain.

Overview:

Mt Riley. Approach is from the left side and descent is down the rib to the right.

Mt Riley. The approach is on a ridge coming in from the left side and the descent is down the rib to the right.

This route is an off-trail journey in the Potrillo Volcanic Field (potrillo is Spanish for “foal”) within the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eruption risk is minimal, but there are risks due to temperature extremes, steep and difficult footing, the lack of any trails, the near-total absence of other visitors, and potential navigational hazards such as dust or thunder storms. All of which is made manageable by hiking in the cool season, bringing friends, carrying the requisite navigational aids and keeping an eye on the weather. You get a great hike in stark, other-worldly terrain that is an easy drive from Las Cruces.

Mt Riley is part of a ridge that extends for two miles west to east. For ease of reference it is called the Riley Ridge in this guide. Mount Riley proper, at 5905 feet, anchors the east end of Riley Ridge. “Point 5782” (named after the altitude label on the USGS quadrangle) anchors the west end. South of Point 5782 is the summit of Cox Peak. In this scramble you will traverse the Riley Ridge and return via the Cox-Riley valley.

Driving Directions:

This shallow waterway is also the jeep track.

This shallow waterway is also the jeep track.

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going south.
  • After 3.0 miles I-25 merges with I-10 going east.
  • After 29.1 miles (having crossed into Texas) take Exit 8 for Texas Highway 178, also known as Aircraft Road. The exit will first merge onto a frontage road called South Desert Road.
  • After 0.6 miles on South Desert Road, at a traffic light, go right onto Texas Highway 178.
  • After 2.9 miles, at the state border, the road is renamed to NM 136 (also known as the Peter V. Domenici Highway). Reset your mileage meter here.
  • After 6.1 miles on NM 136 turn right onto NM 9. There is a small road sign, but there is no traffic light (this may seem odd as there are traffic lights at earlier junctions on NM 136). If you miss this turn then you will come to the Santa Teresa Port of Entry border station in less than 2 miles.
  • After 23.8 more miles, go right onto County Road Ao05. There is the usual road sign as well as a second sign saying “Mt Riley”. CR-Ao05 is a gravel road.
  • After 8.5 miles turn right onto a jeep track and park on the grassy area to the side. The jeep track can be a little hard to identify so the following navigation clues may be useful
    • After 1.2 miles on CR-Ao05 come to the Mt Riley Ranch, where there are two gates across the road. You will have to open the gates, drive through, close and re-latch them (unless the ranch has left them open).
    • After 4.5 miles on CR-Ao05 come to an intersection where County Road Ao07 departs to your right. (CR Ao07 is used for the Cox Peak trailhead, but here it is just used to check navigation).
    • After 8.0 miles on CR-Ao05 (approximately) the mesquite and chaparral bushes that line the sides of the road start falling away, and there are larger and larger stretches of grassland beside the road. You can see into the valley between Cox Peak and Riley Ridge. You are getting close.
    • After 8.5 miles on CR-Ao05, while crossing a broad and only barely noticeable height of land, you will find a shallow, two-foot wide waterway coming in on your right. Although it doesn’t look much like a jeep track, that’s what it is.

If you go past the jeep track then CR-Ao05 will take on a slight downhill pitch. Turn back. Drivers of low clearance vehicles will want to park immediately beside CR-Ao05. Drivers of high clearance vehicles can drive a mile further on the jeep track to the campsite described below.

Trailhead

03 trailhead

The mighty Camry, parked below Point 5782 on the west end of Riley Ridge.

The trailhead is just a grassy spot beside CR Ao05. There are no services. When pulling off the road watch for the small mesquite bushes hidden in the grasses. Their thorns are not good for your tire’s sidewalls. Also, if a road grader has recently passed this spot then there may be a small berm on the roadside. High-suspended vehicles would have no problem, but sedan drivers may want to have a shovel handy.

Data

  • Starting Elevation: 4440 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5905 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1465 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Mt Riley quadrangle

Hiking Description

View from second campsite on jeep road to Point 5782. The feeder arroyo that takes yo to the ascent rib is on the left side of the photo.

View from second campsite on jeep track to Point 5782. The feeder arroyo is the green swath on the lower right side of the photo.

Follow the jeep track as it makes a shallow climb to the east along the Cox/Riley valley floor. This valley is saddle-shaped rather than spoon-shaped. That is, the high point for a traveler going west to east along the valley floor would be the low point for a traveler going south-to-north from Cox Peak to Point 5782. Study that saddle point as you ascend the jeep track. It is important to navigation on return. After one mile on the track come to a campsite with a rock fire ring. Look closely and you will find a much fainter jeep track ascending for another two-tenths of a mile on the Mt Cox side of the valley. The faint jeep track ends at a second campsite. Peruse the prominent rib that descends from Point 5728 almost straight at you. That rib is your path to the ridge. Descend north-east to the central arroyo in the valley floor, cross, and ascend along side a feeder arroyo that takes you toward the rib.

View along "Open Ocotillo Avenue" to a false summit ascending to Point 5782

View along the “open ridge avenue” to a false summit on ascent to Point 5782

After leaving the jeep track you will be entirely off trail. As you cross the valley floor watch for dense accumulations of prickly pear cactus, thorny mesquite and saw-like sotol. This is no place for sneakers or shorts. At about 1.4 miles from the trailhead the terrain begins to steepen. Leave the feeder arroyo and stick to the rib as it becomes increasingly steep. Initially the rib is rather broad and open, making it easy to throw in a few switchbacks. At about 1.7 miles from the trailhead come to a shoulder on the rib. The gradient eases and the rib-top becomes more sharply defined. Ocotillo plants appear, but oddly they don’t seem to grow well on the very top of the rib (perhaps due to wind-damage). An open ridge-top avenue takes you skyward. The terrain rises and shelves several times, but you eventually arrive at the summit of Point 5782 having walked 2 miles from the trailhead.

View from Point 5782 along the ridge to Mt Riley.

View from Point 5782 along the ridge to Mt Riley. The western-most peaklet is visible in front of Mt Riley.

The views are terrific. The blocky mass of Cox Peak dominates the south. Immediately to the west are the cinder cones of the Potrillo Volcanic Field. Beyond lie the Florida Mountains. To the north are the Las Uvas and Robledo Mountains, while the Organ Mountains dominate the north-east. Eventually, however, you must turn your attention south of east and focus on the long ridge that will take you to Mt Riley. Descend on easy terrain to reach a pleasant col and then gird yourself for the climb to the first of three peaklets along Riley Ridge. The climb is easy. At the top you get your first view of the middle peaklet, which is topped with a pair of small knolls separated by a little pass. Drop down on steep terrain with lots of loose rocks, cross a minor saddle and rise to “Middle Peaklet Pass” 2.4 miles from the trailhead.

View from Mid Bump Pass down to the third bump and Mt Riley.

View from Middle Peaklet Pass down to the eastern peaklet, the main saddle and the west face of Mt Riley.

From here look down to the eastern-most peaklet and beyond to the steep flank of Mt Riley. You will definitely be losing lots of hard-won elevation. But, there is much to be learned here. The top of Mt Riley is almost flat. When you eventually near the top you will be coming to a western shoulder and then strolling east in a park-like environment to the summit. This can be seen, in the photo above, where the top of Mt Riley appears slightly notched. The shoulder is on the left and the summit is on the right of this “notch”. More importantly, the climb from the main saddle directly up the mountain’s steep west face is an unattractive route. Instead, when you leave the main saddle you will want to climb the west face until ascent becomes difficult, then turn right (more southerly) and perform a rising traverse across the mountain to gain the rib that descends from the shoulder. That rib can be seen in the photo as a smooth, light-colored curve descending from the shoulder. It is still steep but the footing is better.

Steep terrain and plate-like rock flakes decorate the steep flanks of Mt Riley.

Steep terrain, cacti and plate-like rock shingles decorate the flanks of Mt Riley.

Enough theory? Descend from Middle Peaklet Pass down to the last peaklet of Riley Ridge. This terrain is moderately inclined and etched with cattle trails. As you near the eastern-most peaklet you will pick up an old barbed wire fence. Follow it along the ridge to the main saddle directly below Mt. Riley, having hiked 2.7 miles. Continue following the fence across this grassy saddle onto Mount Riley’s west face. Where the grasses give over to juniper, barrel cacti and rock turn right and begin that rising traverse across difficult terrain. As pictured above, you will encounter ledges that are flaking off large piles of broad rock shingles. Some of those piles are none-too-stable. There is a marked improvement in the footing when you gain the rib that descends from the mountain’s shoulder.

View from ascent rib south and east to the East Potrillo Mountains

View from ascent rib south and east to the East Potrillo Mountains

On the rib turn uphill and zig-zag past ledges, dodge ocotillo thickets and push by more barrel cactus. (On this date these cacti had orderly circles of vividly yellow fruit on display). The angle is pretty severe so don’t be too distracted as views open to the East Potrillo Mountains. At 3.1 miles reach the shoulder and, as promised, an effortless stroll to the summit cairn in less than 100 yards. The views are similar to those from Point 5782, but with spectacular sight lines east to Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater out in the middle of the Mesilla Basin. Beyond the craters lie the Franklin Mountains.

Riley Ridge from Mount Riley Summit

Riley Ridge from Mount Riley Summit

Also, there are absorbing views west that reveal the full extent of Riley Ridge. That’s quite a scramble you’ve just had. Take a break. Grab a bite to eat. It can be hard to beat an in-season orange consumed in the warm New Mexican sunshine while sitting on a desert peak and studying possible approaches to the East Potrillos. Eventually, though, the lure of the valley below will induce you to hoist your pack. Head south, picking your way past junipers and aiming towards the east slopes of Cox Peak. Descend a broad rib that tumbles through layers of softer rock and then shelves as it strikes the harder stuff.

Looking over the south-east projecting "claw" at the foot of Mount Riley, towards the summit of Cox Peak.

Looking over the south-east projecting “claw” at the foot of Mount Riley, towards the summit of Cox Peak.

Near its foot the mountain sends out two claw-like projections. Stay a little to the left (east) to get onto the south-projecting claw and then turn right and contour down to the top of the south-east projecting claw. Having hiked 3.5 miles, you are nearing the valley floor. You want to set a course that will return you to the valley’s saddle point. There are an infinity of choices.  On this route, stay high and contour west along the base of the mountain on easily followed animal trails. This will take you across the southern face of Mt Riley to a point below the ridge’s main saddle. Follow a rib descending from main ridge and gradually work your way into the steep-sided arroyo on the rib’s west side. From the far bank aim towards the center of the valley, but try to avoid losing so much elevation that you have a long climb back to the valley’s saddle point.

Continue west, dropping into drainages and fighting up over each far bank to regain the table-land. Some of this table-land is covered with dense, light-brown grass. The grassland looks attractive from a distance. Up close, however, those dense grasses make it hard to see the light brown rocks that lurk beneath. Walking becomes a very slow process. The juniper, cactus and mesquite terrain is actually easier to negotiate. You quickly learn to steer away from the light brown patches in favor of the dark-colored terrain. At about 4.3 miles, come to the valley’s central arroyo and cross it. Above the bank on the Cox Peak side you should find a well-defined trail heading up towards the valley’s saddle point. This is great for tired legs. Continue along the trail to the valley’s saddle point, cross over, and then head down-valley. At 5.0 miles, return to the campsite at the upper end of the faint jeep track. Follow the jeep track back to the trailhead, having hiked 6.1 miles.

Recommendations

The author on the summit of Mount Riley (Cox Peak in the background).

The author on the summit of Mount Riley (Cox Peak in the background).

♦This is an outstanding cold-season hike. The conditions at the start of November, for example, were perfect. It was cool, a bit windy and overcast. Hikers who are not training for the Death Valley Marathon will want to stay away during the hot months.

♦A second good reason for favoring the winter months is that I saw only two reptiles on this hike. (One lizard, one horned toad). The reports say that the terrain can rattle in warmer weather. See below.

♦Bring friends. This place is so lonely that there are yellow flowers growing in the crown of County Road Ao05 (these flowers look something like tickseed).

♦Bring a map, compass and a GPS device. Bring knowledge of how to use them. On nice days there may be some grumbling about this (“hey, I can see 100 miles from here”). On nice days that turn sour – when rain or dust blows in – you’ll be glad to have independent means for navigating.

Bring all the water that you need for rehydration plus an emergency liter or two. On this November day I used about 2.5 liters of water. It was reassuring to have carried four.

Links

♦RayRay, on Summit Post, has a very complete report on scrambling Mt. Riley. He was able to drive the jeep track and then hiked the Cox-Riley valley to get to the base of Mt. Riley. From there he did a direct ascent and returned by the same route. That cuts the round trip distance to 4.4 miles.

♦Greg at Greg’s Running Adventures has a thoughtful post viewing Mount Riley from a runners perspective. It includes a number of great photos, including evidence that the scramble can be rattle-y.

♦There is a YouTube video of Hadley Robinson paragliding near the summit of Mount Riley. The video was made in 2009 so the images are grainy. The video includes shots of the summit and several good views of the East Potrillo Mountains. Still photographs from the event (with a great deal more resolution) can be found here.

♦This hike is located close to the Mexican border. The Federal Government advises caution in this area due to the potential for illegal border crossing activity. They also warn that the road may become impassable during wet weather.

Overview:

Indian Hollow; Sugarloaf on left, conical prominence with white spire in center, Organ Needle on right

Indian Hollow; Sugarloaf on left, conical prominence with white spire in center, Organ Spires on right

This scramble is a vastly under-celebrated gem. A well-defined path takes you from the trailhead in Aguirre Springs, crosses Sotol Creek, contours around a foothill, and enters into Indian Hollow – a big bowl walled to the south by the smooth face of Sugarloaf Peak and to the northeast by vertiginous spires. In the Hollow the trail meanders over open parkland, investigating juniper micro-forests, plunging into and erupting out of small drainages until, at last, the allure of high country pulls the tread skyward. Arriving at a fork in the trail (signed) the trail begins to fade to a scramble. A pocket-sized hanging valley, forested in pines, appears just below the ridge line. At the pass you stand at the shoulder of the Organ Needle with views to an abandoned observatory, the long ridge up to Organ Peak and the rocky folds and attractive parkland of upper Fillmore Canyon. Beyond, look west into the Mesilla Basin as far as the Florida Mountains or look east across the Tularosa Basin to White Sands National Monument and the Sacramento Range. In shape? Then get thee there!

Caveat: the vastly more famous Pine Tree Trail in Aguirre Springs is a different hike!

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohmann Drive in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going north
  • After 2.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East
  • After 14.4 more miles go right onto Aguirre Springs Road. There was no street sign naming the road, but there is a notice on US 70 letting you know that the exit for Aguirre Springs is a quarter-mile ahead and at the exit itself there is a large brown sign (Park Service style) saying “Aguirre Springs Campground”.
  • After 5.0 miles stop at the self-service pay station for Aguirre Springs Campground.
  • After another 0.3 miles on Aguirre Springs Road, turn right onto the side road signed for Group Camping.
  • After 400 feet, arrive at the end of the road and trailhead parking.

A sign at about two miles down the Aguirre Springs Road offers potable water at the caretaker’s facility. The facility is not always open (the sign says 8:00 to 5:00), so it is advisable to bring your water with you.

Trailhead:

There is a large paved parking lot, trash receptacles and pit toilets at the trail head. There is no water. Substantial, cement-floored and sun-shaded pavilions are provide for larger groups to enjoy. Campsite One is the pavilion at the east end of the parking lot. The trail leaves from there. Fees are usually $5.00 per car for day hikers. The fees change and there are exceptions for pass holders, see Aguirre Springs Campground site for up-to-date information. On this date, there was a fee holiday and the group site parking lot was packed solid. Arrive early on such days or you might have to add to your anticipated hike distances.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 5420 feet
  • Ending elevation: 7900 feet
  • Net gain: 2480 feet
  • Length: 3.3 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle.

Hike Description:

Needle's eye gap in barbed wire fence near trailhead

Needle’s eye gap in barbed wire fence near trailhead

From the large pavilion at the southern end of the parking lot (labeled “Campsite 1”) head uphill (west) over a network of paths for roughly 80 feet, looking for a major tread going south (left). Follow the tread to a barbed wire fence with a “needle’s eye” gap, just wide enough for a hiker to thread. The trail falls into the bed of Sotol Creek 600 feet after leaving the trailhead and immediately rises up as though it intended to climb to the top of a rocky hill. (Don’t follow the stream bed). Rather than climb the hill, however, the trail diverts east towards the Tularosa Basin, trying to stay at a constant elevation but falling into arroyo beds and ascending rock slabs. Reaching the eastern-most point on the contour at half a mile, the trail begins a swing back to the south and towards the ridge line of the Organ Mountains. At this point Sugarloaf pops into view. You will want your camera.

View of Pine Pass from parkland in bottom of Indian Hollow

View of Pine Pass from parkland in bottom of Indian Hollow

This portion of the hike is very mellow. The trail crosses open, park-like terrain in the Hollow, copes with the occasional arroyo and flirts with modest shade opportunities beneath alligator junipers. The course is mostly south and the tread is very clear. It is worth studying the terrain ahead. Keep an eye on the evolution of Sugarloaf as you ascend up Indian Hollow, and study the south shoulder of Organ Needle, which is where you will arrive. Pine Pass is the col just south of the Organ Needle. The terrain up there looks fairly open and, shockingly, actually is open. You will see evidence of fire higher on the route, which helps to explain the freedom from brush.

Closeup of conical prominence and white spire, seen just below Pine Pass

Closeup of conical prominence and white spire, seen just below Pine Pass

At 1.3 miles from the trailhead the trail ceases meandering, turns due south, and begins gaining altitude in earnest. Straight ahead is a prominence topped by a sharp white spire. This is another landmark that is worth tracking because the trail starts to fade out as you rise past this prominence. At 1.4 miles the trail crosses the main course of Indian Hollow Creek. The approach will rise along side this drainage to its headwaters below the pass. At 1.5 miles come to a confluence of two drainages, the trail crosses to the center divide (an arête-like structure) and continues climbing due south. This is still juniper country, but views to pine trees just above are plentiful.

Trail sign at first junction in Indian Hollow Trail. Go right for Pine Pass or for Pine Tree Trail

Trail sign at first junction in Indian Hollow Trail. Go right for Pine Pass or for Pine Tree Trail

In just over two miles, come to a signed trail junction. The trail going to the left will take you to the base of Sugarloaf and is most often used by climbers. The trail going to the right, signed “Pass/Pinetree”, will take you to the main ridge of the Organ Mountains. Go right. If you have been tracking the conical prominence you will see that you have drawn close to its base. At this point it provides the far bank of Indian Hollow Creek.

View up slab canyon, past pines, to summit of Sugarloaf.

View up slab canyon, past pines, to summit of Sugarloaf.

The Pine Pass trail continues ascending, diverting briefly where various canyons that descend from Sugarloaf strike the tread. One canyon in particular looks like a wonderland of granite slabs and widely spaced pines. It could be very much worth exploring. However, stick with the trail as it rises to the level of (but not onto) the saddle uphill of that conical prominence. It is here that the trail becomes hard to follow. Stay on the south bank (left-hand side looking uphill) and ascend past the conical prominence.

View of spire as you pass the conical prominence on the rapidly-fading Pine Pass trail

View of spire as you pass the conical prominence on the rapidly-fading Pine Pass trail

Begin to watch carefully for a trail that departs into the stream bed and seems to lead onto the saddle behind the prominence (about 2.4 miles from the trailhead). This offshoot trail is marked with small cairns and bright orange tape. The junction is just past a small grove of oak trees. On close inspection you’ll find you have three options at the junction. You can go right, crossing the stream and then ascending towards the saddle. Or you can continue ascending along the left side of the creek, which is what I did and will describe here. A useful alternative, however, is to find a faint trail marked with sun-faded pink surveyor’s tape that heads left, pulling up and away from the creek. This “pink tape” trail is quite sketchy in places and you must do some scouting. It takes you to Pine Pass. I used it on descent and the footing was better than the route described here. EDIT: Jim has added an October 2015 comment (see below) saying that the pink tape seems to have disappeared. That’s too bad, but the off-trail route described below will work as well!

High country barbed wire (north end) as you scramble in subalpine meadows

High country barbed wire (north end) as you scramble in subalpine meadows

At the junction an obvious tread ascends along the left bank of the creek and is quite prominent for about another 80 feet. Then the tread disappears into Indian Hollow creek without apology. (Actually, there is no other option since the left bank becomes a vertical rock wall about 8 feet tall with trees growing out of it). Ascend in the creek bed past the wall and come to a point where the stream forks. The two upper waterways are separated by a narrow and steep-sided divide. The top of the divide is relatively open, so climb onto it and follow the right-hand stream uphill. This is a beautiful spot – plenty of shade from large conifers but with frequent peeks at the south shoulder of Organ Needle and the terrain of Pine Pass. It is clearly off trail. The trees begin to thin and soon you are hiking in subalpine meadows. A surprise barbed wire fence makes an appearance. I went to the right (north) to go around the fence. If you go left (south) to get around the fence then you will intersect with the pink-tape trail.

View of Sugarloaf from the west.

View of Sugarloaf from the west.

At 2.7 miles the terrain steepens, the trees grow smaller and the soil under foot becomes sandy and surprisingly loose. Push three feet up hill and loose one foot back, as the soil drops away like a pulled rug. Marshal those thigh muscles and watch for handy ledge outcrops that offer more reliable footing. Mind, some of those outcrops are pretty rotten so verify before trusting. There is a return to desert-like plant life. Lots of inconveniently placed cactus, an amazingly tough, slender, little thorn bush that grows in small thickets. Avoid ’em where you can. But also there is considerable grass coverage, a rare thing in Southern New Mexico and a welcome stabilizing influence.

It is strange to find signs when you think you're off trail, but here my route intersected the trail marked with pink surveyor's tape.

It is strange to find signs when you think you’re off trail, but here my route intersected the trail marked with pink surveyor’s tape.

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to a shelf in the otherwise steep terrain, on which three or four small pines are growing. Nearing the shelf there is a sign saying “Pass”. It is not much of a landmark, but if you can find it this is very near where the faded-pink-tape trail comes in. If you want to take the trail on return, then note that the trail departs the shelf on a steep easterly switchback rather than straight-down to the north. It is a kinder and gentler way to get down from Pine Pass.

..

View to the west, with upper Fillmore Canyon in the foreground, Las Cruces and the Mesilla Basin in the mid-ground, and the Florida Range on the horizon.

View to the west, with upper Fillmore Canyon in the foreground, Las Cruces and the Mesilla Basin in the mid-ground, and the Florida Range on the horizon.

Above this shelf, at the three mile mark and just below the ridge, enter a tiny hanging valley populated by pines. It is a short and very pleasant stroll through this grove of conifers and up to the ridge at about 3.2 miles. There are great views out to Las Cruces and the Mesilla basin. The Florida Range, over by Deming, was in clear sight. You stand beside the shoulder of Organ Needle. To the south lies the ridge that connects Sugarloaf to Organ Peak, and below Organ is the open parkland of upper Fillmore Canyon. Beyond Sugarloaf is the White Sands Missle Base, the Tularosa Basin and White Sands National Monument. The Sacramento Mountains were somewhat haze-softened on this fine April day.

Trail sign at the top of Pine Pass

Trail sign at the top of Pine Pass

You can return the way you came. Or, if you want to find that flagged trail then drop to the lowest point on Pine Pass. To my surprise, there was a clear tread going over the pass and yet another trail sign . It points southwest to name Fillmore Canyon and points northeast to name Indian Hollow. Follow the sign northeast and maintain a sharp eye for faded surveyor’s tape. It is pretty clear that the tape was set up for something more than just someone’s navigation. It was too conscientiously placed and has more switchbacks than a climber would ordinarily use. Hopefully, it is the BLM “roughing out” a trail that will be fully engineered by the time this year ends!

Recommendations:

13 Author on bump above Pine Pass

Author on bump above Pine Pass

As with all scrambles in the Organ Mountains, take care that you really are fit enough and sufficiently versed in navigation to do this safely. If you are comfortable going over Baylor Pass then that’s probably sufficient. If Baylor makes you uncomfortable, then Pine Pass is unlikely to be your friend. As you’ve surmised, I had a ball doing this scramble on an exceptionally nice April day. If you check out the Jornada Hiking link (see Links, below) you will find comments highlighting the fact that the same scramble in June is much hotter and more challenging. The slog up loose, sandy soil on the steep upper slopes takes a big toll on a warm day. Bring lots of water. The navigation problems are not hard, in fact this might be a great place to bring someone interested in developing those skills. On ascent you always have Sugarloaf arching above on your left and the Needles screaming skyward on your right. Indeed, you can frequently glimpse Pine Pass itself through the trees.

Clouds over the ridge joining Sugarloaf and Organ Peak, in foreground is a mellow seeming connector to Pine Pass.

Clouds over the ridge joining Sugarloaf and Organ Peak, in foreground is a mellow seeming connector to Pine Pass.

I was tempted by the seemingly mellow ridge that connects from Pine Pass to the ridge that joins Sugarloaf Peak to Organ Peak. Unfortunately dark cumulus complications arose above me. The day stayed rain-free on the east side of the Organs, but there is no doubt that riding out a thunderstorm on these ridges would be problematic entertainment. I turned and ran.

15 Organ Needle

View of Organ Needle from ridge above Pine Pass

Much of upper Fillmore Canyon lies just inside the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. It would be wonderful if a small corner of the reservation (the corner that includes Organ Peak, Baldy and Sharks Tooth) were ceded back to be accessible to the public. A semi-loop system could be set up so that energetic hikers in Las Cruces could cross from Dripping Springs over Pine Pass to Aguirre Springs and then return over the Baylor Canyon Trail. (Ideally, it would be terrific if there was an option to cross over Windy Pass as well). Let your Congresspersons know. Organ Mountains Marathon, anyone?

Links:

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some great photos and comments on how access has changed over the years. Change is a constant in Indian Hollow, this terrain is becoming more and more accessible. I’m not completely certain, but gather that the route described in SNME’s blog climbs the lower trail to the signed fork, and then goes left towards Sugarloaf rather than right to Pine Pass.

The Jornada Hiking Club has been up this route, although their link to pictures from the Ocotillo group shows a completely different ascent than the one described here. It looks to me as if the Ocotillo group took the pines-and-granite-slab canyon that heads up towards a pass hidden on the south of Sugarloaf. There is a great deal to explore up here.

The Mountain Project has a map of climbing routes on Sugarloaf that labels the “hidden” pass on the mountain’s south side as “South Saddle”.