Archives for posts with tag: Las Cruces

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:

View of rubble-strewn foothill and beyond to Indian Hollow and Sugarloaf Peak

View of rubble-strewn foothill (right) and beyond to Indian Hollow and Sugarloaf Peak (on left)

This route in the Aguirre Springs Campground begins with a gentle ascent on the Indian Hollow trail, diverts onto a scramble below the soaring walls of the Organ Needle and ends with a mellow descent on the Pine Tree Trail. It is a wonderful little hike. If you are teaching someone navigation skills and they are already comfortable with a map then this would be an excellent exercise. It is, however, a lonely route and probably too demanding for first time scramblers.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going North
  • After 4.4 miles, go right at Exit 6 onto US 70 East
  • After 14.5 miles, go right onto Aguirre Springs Road. (You reach the top of San Augustin Pass at 13.5 miles, very soon thereafter you see a sign on US-70 saying that Aguirre Springs turn-off is in a quarter mile).
  • After 5.7 miles stop at the signed fee area. (Potable water is available at the host site, at 1.6 miles along Aguirre Springs road).
  • After another 0.4 miles on Aguirre Springs Road (that is, 6.1 miles from US-70) go right for Group Sites.
  • After about 300 feet, park in the parking lot for the group sites.

Trailhead:

02 Camry in front of rubbly foothill

The Mighty Camry at the trailhead, with the rubbly foothill above it and the Organ Spires in the distance.

The trailhead is a large parking lot with several covered picnic sites for group camping. There are waste receptacles and pit toilets. There is no water at the trailhead, but as noted in the driving directions there is an offer of water at the host site on Aguirre Spring Road.  Fees are currently $5.00 per day in the campground, but there are significant complications to this story based on passes, fee-free days, and other considerations. Check the website and be sure to bring the correct change.

Data:

 

  •  Starting Elevation: 5420 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 6910 feet (depends on where you scramble)
  • Net Gain: 1490 feet
  • Distance: 6.2 miles (round trip)
  • Maps: USGS  Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Sign at start of trail

Sign at start of trail

The first few miles follow the same tread into Indian hollow as described in the Pine Pass route report. See that route description for full details. There are a few more observations that might be useful to scramblers. First, several people have pointed out that you do not need to go into Campsite One in order to find the trail. Instead, find a bright yellow sign suggesting that you leave the rattlesnakes alone on the uphill side of the parking lot. There is a clear tread right beside the sign. Follow this path as it rises briefly towards the Organ Mountains and then curves left (south) toward the rubbly hill. From there you will find the fence and needle’s eye mentioned in the Pine Pass report.

04 sign for Pine Pass

Signed trail junction with options for Sugarloaf (go left) or Pine Pass (go right). Go right for the Pine Tree Trail scramble as well.

Following the recommendations of the Pine Pass report, hike the Indian Hollow trail (a clear path) as it contours around the rubbly foothill and then rises into Indian Hollow. After three miles you will reach a junction where a sign indicates that you should go left for Sugarloaf or go right for Pine Pass. Go right. On your approach you should be moving toward a conical hillock topped with a white rock spire that sits in the center of Indian Hollow. In less than a quarter mile past the signed junction, while ascending on the left bank of a creek, you will pass this spire. You will depart from the main trail just after passing the conical hillock.

Meadowy terrain below the spire atop the conical prominence in Indian Hollow

Meadowy terrain near saddle uphill of the conical hillock.

Stroll past a small grove of oaks above you and to your left to come to a second intersection (unsigned). This junction is effectively 3-way. As described for Pine Pass, you could go uphill and away from the creek on a very faint tread. This faint departure trail is made clearer since someone left a line of rocks pointing uphill (in addition to the pink surveyors tape dangling from the oaks). You could go straight ahead on a path that initially stays along the bank but will eventually drop you into the creek bed. Or you could turn right and drop directly into the creek bed, where a scraggly juniper is marked with bright orange tape.  Turn right. It is here that you leave the route described for Pine Pass. Ascend the far bank of the creek on a faint trail marked with small cairns and bright orange tape. This trail brings you past a fire ring and into a small grassy saddle uphill of the conical prominence. At this point the cairns and survey-tape disappear. The scramble begins.

Smooth, whitish cliffs seen from the saddle behind the conical prominence.

Smooth, whitish cliffs seen from the saddle behind the conical prominence.

Looking out from the grassy saddle, look for a whitish cliff face and aim to cross near its foot. The cliffs look quite close, but you will cross several waterways before getting near that cliff. Another scramble above Aguirre Springs Campground goes from Windy Pass to Pine Tree Trail and that traverse pushes through brutally dense brush. Fortunately the terrain in Indian Hollow is much easier to cross. There is no formal trail but you will often find useful stretches of game trail. Look for stands of ponderosa pines because the terrain beneath the pines can be wide open. Burned bark is obvious in many places, so a recent fire may have much to do with the ease of movement here.

View to a high rib from below the smooth, whitish cliffs

View to a high rib from below the smooth, whitish cliffs

Once you have contoured around this first cliff band, look ahead to find a high rib that blocks views north into the Sotol Creek drainage. Once again, it appears to be quite close by, but the navigation issues are far from resolved. There are two more drainages to traverse and there is a smaller rib to contour around before climbing to the top of this high rib. Running between the small rib and the high rib is an arroyo with canyon aspirations. If you try to descend into this arroyo you may find yourself being deflected away by the steep walls of the waterway.  It is possible to cross, but it takes some effort. Once you get onto the high ridge and look back you will see that the top of the small rib is nicely forested. Although it is an untested route, it might be easier if you climb to the top of the small rib and stay out of the arroyo completely.

Castle Rock and Pine Prominence on the high ridge, just above the saddle used to cross the ridge.

Castle Rock and Pine Prominence on the high ridge, just above the saddle used to cross the ridge.

The top of the high ridge is marked by a squarish, almost crenellated rock above a bump that is crowned with a single pine. An open saddle below the bump offers a convenient crossing point. There are broad views out to the Sacramento Mountains, White Sands National Monument and the Tularosa Basin. If you were hoping to join up with Pine Tree Trail at this point then prepare yourself for a small disappointment. You are about to enter the headwaters of Sotol Creek, but the trail is still a ways off. Ominously, the brush factor starts to pick up here as well. Progress slows as you hunt for game trails to take you around the densest thickets and abundant thorn bushes. This is a good place to begin edging downhill as the descending arm of the Pine Tree Trail is a bit below you.

Baylor Peak - looking a bit imposing!

Baylor Peak – looking a bit imposing!

Traverse one more steep-banked water way. It is relatively easy to enter, but you might have to descend about 300 feet before finding a good exit point. On the next height of land note the striking profile of Baylor Peak to the north. In contrast to the hard-edged profile of the Organ Spires, Baylor usually looks a little bland. The view here reveals a surprising amount of gain between Baylor Pass and Baylor Summit. Push through the last 100 yards of downed logs, thorns and scrub oak until you come to the Pine Tree Trail. In comparison to what you’ve been on the tread looks like a super-highway. Follow the Trail downhill. If you are alert, you could divert off of the trail and follow Sotol Creek back to the Group Camping Area. I followed the trail all the way back to the Pine Tree Trail trailhead and then followed Aguirre Springs Road back to the car.

Recommendations:

Author enjoying the shade in the group picnic site.

Author enjoying the shade in the group picnic site.

Summery conditions, coupled with springtime winds, are returning to the Organ Mountains. As it turns out, this is a pretty good hike for that kind of day. The lower reaches of Indian Hollow seems to be out of the wind (although you could hear it roaring through the passes above). The pine forests that take up much of the traverse are cool. Bring lots of water, there was no running water at all on this date.

View of northern Organ Spires, Windy Gap and the Rabbit Ears

View of northern Organ Spires, Windy Gap and the Rabbit Ears

As with any scramble there are going to be stretches in which you don’t exactly know where you are. This is especially provocative when you think you’re nearing the Pine Tree Trail and have to allow for the possibility that you’ve stayed too high and might be traversing above the Trail. Many hikers, especially new hikers, find this level of uncertainty upsetting. Know your fellow hiker’s risk tolerance before setting off!

Just past the sign for Sugarloaf/Pine Pass I found a rattler beside the trail. It did not seem particularly anxious to share the trail, but gave no trouble other than to warn of its presence. It was terrifically camouflaged, none of the photos I took give a good view of the animal. It had no bands on it’s dark tail, so I assume it was a black tailed rattlesnake.

Link:

The National Drought Monitor shows a bit less than 2% of the state is currently “abnormally dry”, the entire remainder is shown as under moderate drought or worse. This looks like a bad year for campfire lovers.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some great photos, particularly of Sugarloaf and autumn foliage on the few aspen that can be found in Indian Hollow. He also mentions that he found a boot-beaten tread on his traverse, which is something I never encountered.

The Jornada Hiking and Outdoor Club in Las Cruces has done this hike. Their writeup includes a recommendation for gaiters (almost an essential for scrambling here) and a link to a GPS track that is markedly different from the one shown in the map above. There is a big bow in the track of the scramble/traverse – they may have found another way to avoid the mini-canyon below the high ridge.

 

Overview:

Picacho Peak from west trailhead (Dona Anna Mountains to the left)

Picacho Peak from west trailhead (Dona Anna Mountains to the left)

Picacho is Spanish for “peak”. You might think that something called Peak Peak would be pretty intimidating. Indeed, newcomers to Las Cruces sometimes get their first glimpse of Picacho as a dark and dauntingly perfect purple cone silhouetted against a blazing orange-and-gold sunset. It is a vision of pinnacles like Fuji or Popocatepetl. Picacho is a an elderly volcano. Alas, it rises no more than 800 feet from the low points of the surrounding terrain. This hill offers a nice morning’s stroll through classic North Chihuahuan terrain; incredibly open, prickly, sometimes green, always cattle browsed and on occasion rattle-ly. It can be windy and chill at the top, even on days when the desert is earning its reputation at the base. The surrounding canyons invite exploration.

Driving Instructions:

I followed the instructions in Day Hikes and Nature Walks In The Las Cruces – El Paso Area, which was written in 2004. New roads, however, have entered this area and the Bureau of Land Management has added a new trailhead. For completeness my driving route is described here. Check below, however, for an alternative.

  • From Main Street in Las Cruces, enter I-10 going west.
  • After 6.8 miles get off at Exit 135. This exit ramp snaps around and deposits you on US 70 going back east in one of the most dangerous intersections I’ve ever seen. Your task, upon hitting US 70 will be to leap into the passing lane and turn immediately left onto the median strip (paved). You will have about 20 feet to get this done. If you are facing any traffic on US 70 it is probably safest to go past this left turn and wait for a better spot (in a quarter mile) in which to do a U-turn and return west.
  • After 20 feet on US 70 East, turn across a paved section of the median strip and go directly across the west-bound lanes of US 70, entering Frontage Road 1031.
  • After 0.4 miles on Frontage Road 1031, go right onto an unsigned gravel road. This may be Box Canyon Drive. Stay on the road as it heads northeast towards the airport and then directly north along the eastern edge of the airport.
  • After 3.0 miles (from Frontage Road 1031) turn right onto a wide gravel pad with prominent gravel berms at the far end. This is the west trailhead. Picacho Peak can be seen nearby, over the tops of the berms.

Box Canyon road is washed out in places. Be careful if you are approaching before daylight. There are at least two places where deep gullies have formed in or near the road. Incautious tire placement would leave you stopped and might leave you stuck.

Picacho Peak is now a part of BLM’s Picacho Peak Recreation Area. They have introduced a new trailhead. The new trailhead will place you directly south of Picacho Peak and closer to the mountain than the west trailhead (described above). To get there they advise using US 70 as it goes through Las Cruces. In its northeastern reaches US 70 is also called North Main Street. When it nears downtown, however, US 70 takes a hard right and becomes West Picacho Ave.

  • Turn right onto West Picacho Ave from North Main.
  • After 4 miles on West Picacho Ave, turn north (right) on Picacho Hills Drive.
  • After 1.0 miles Picacho Hills forks, stay to the left and the road becomes Barcelona Ridge Road.
  • After 1.0 miles turn north (right) from Barcelona Ridge Road onto Anthem Road.
  • After 1.0 mile Anthem Road ends at a T-intersection with Loop Road. Go north (right) for 1.5 miles to the trailhead.

That is what the instructions say at the BLM website. Looking at Google Maps, I think you may have to turn right off of the Loop Road and onto an unimproved road that continues to the trailhead. I suspect that the south trailhead is easily visible from Loop Road. The unimproved road is not recommended for vehicles pulling trailers.

Not optimal for trailhead parking.

Not optimal for trailhead parking.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the west trailhead, Pichacho in background and berm on the right

The mighty Camry at the west trailhead, Pichacho in background and berm on the right

The west trailhead (described here) is unsigned and has no amenities. If you should drive past the trailhead then you will soon begin a steep descent into Box Canyon – turn about! Judging from the litter on the trailhead, this is a popular place to fire shotguns.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation (trailhead): 4440 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 4959
  • Net Gain: 519 feet
  • Distance: 5.4 miles (round trip)
  • Maps: USGS quadrangle Picacho Mountain

Hike Description:

The "almost back to the trailhead" perspective on Picacho Peak

The “almost back to the trailhead” perspective on Picacho Peak

From the outermost berm on the west trailhead pause and study Picacho Peak to the east. This will be a useful memory to retain, as the last part of the return is off-trail and your perspective on the hill is a clue as to how near you are to your car. Then, find a faint old road that heads down from the berm along a rib pointed at Picacho Peak. In about half a mile strike a new dirt road. This is the “unimproved road” mentioned in the alternative driving directions. If you were to turn left and follow it you would come to the south trailhead. Not knowing this I crossed it to see if I could pick up the trail in the desert. Just past the road, however, there is a new barbed wire fence that forces hikers back to the road at 0.6 miles from the trailhead. Follow the road briefly and come to a gap in the roadside fencing that is signed for the trail. Turn left and follow the trail into an arroyo bed at three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead.

Trail from the (new) south trailhead as it descends into the arroyo

Trail from the (new) south trailhead as it descends into the arroyo

Follow the arroyo downstream. At one mile you will see a trail coming down from the right (south) bank. This is the trail from the south trailhead (the BLM’s new trailhead).  When it reaches the arroyo bottom, turn left onto the trail and follow as it sticks to the left arroyo wall. (It is a good idea to keep trails out of waterways, they disappear fast when it rains). After much turning, some rising and rather more falling, the trail comes to a confluence of arroyos at 1.2 miles. In this broad space you have renewed vistas to the top of Picacho. Also at this point, intersect a jeep trail that traverses the waterway and heads directly at the hill. Go left on the jeep trail and begin to ascend.

Picacho Trail (jeep trail) as it departs the arroyo for the peak.

Picacho Trail (jeep trail) as it departs the confluence of arroyos for the peak.

When viewed from the southwest the peak no longer appears as a perfect cone. Instead, there is a ridge descending from the summit to the north-west. The jeep trail climbs a rib leading to the northwest end of the ridge. A deep gulch descends from the ridge line. In its steeper sections all the surface soil has been scrubbed away leaving a bed of rhyolite to shine in the sun. The trail stays to the left (north) of this gulch, reaching a small rock wall at 1.7 miles from the trailhead.

Jeep road ends at small wall (left) below ridge (top) and above gulch (right)

Jeep road ends at small wall (left) below ridge (top) and above gulch (right)

Contour to the left to go around the small rock face. The road disappears, but a carefully constructed trail switchbacks up the rib. Ocotillo tends to lean over the trail and battles with barrel cactus for every drop of water that might be recovered from this parched terrain. Shortly you will reach the small prominence that marks the northern end of the ridge. At 1.9 miles from the trailhead, turn southeast and follow the trail across the ridge and up toward the peak.

Summit view across Mesilla Valley to the Organ Mountains

Summit view across Mesilla Valley to the Organ Mountains

The trail comes to a trail junction at 2.0 miles and rises to the summit at 2.1 miles. There are good views north to Robledo Peak, the Dona Anna Mountains east of that, the Organ Needle is due east (somewhat hazy on this day), with the Franklins and the Three Sisters (including Cox) to the southeast and south west, respectively. The last time I was up here I shared the summit with three or four cattle. It takes a long series of drought years to drive cattle up to summits in the quest for fodder. This time it was more lonesome. This summit is great spot for a bit of trail mix and studying approaches into the surrounding ranges. The white gleam on the highest summit in the Sierra de las Uvas may be the old Blue Mesa Observatory (now an FAA radar installation). If so then that very prominent peak is Magdelana Peak. Is there a sense of frustration in the NMSU Department of Astronomy? There are ex-observatories on Organ Peak, Magdelana Peak and Tortuga Mountain.

From here it would make sense to simply return the way you came. This terrain is so open, however, that it constitutes an open invitation to roaming. The following describes a different route back to trailhead.

Junction between ascent trail (coming in from left) and the easterly departure trail (going to upper right)

Junction between ascent trail (coming in from lower left) and the easterly departure trail (going to upper right)

Descend off of the summit to where the approach trail joins with another trail coming in from the east. Start east (i.e. depart from the approach trail), but in less than a 10th of a mile come to an intersection with another trail coming in from the north. The north trail is a little faint, but keep the faith and head down into the northern canyons.

Robledo Mountains in the distance and Bar Canyon with target rock pillar in the foreground.

Robledo Mountains in the distance and Bar Canyon with target rock pillar in the foreground.

This faint trail switchbacks in a mannerly fashion, descending towards and eventually beside a large rocky outcrop. At this point, 2.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail intersects a much larger road. This road descends to the east, which is not the direction of choice here. Leave both road and tread, swing below the rocky outcrop and descend along a gently inclined rib. If you look down into the canyon bed you will see a distinctive pillar of rock. This rock, due north, is the destination.

Waterfall made of pillow lava

Waterfall made of pillow lava

Judging from the patties scattered about, this part of Picacho is very popular with bovines of alpine intent. Their trails mark out an easy route of descent. Coming off of the flattest section you are presented with an opportunity to enter one of the drainages. These cattle are impressively adventurous because the footing into the canyon is not all that secure, yet cow paths lead there. It is worth checking out. A waterfall composed of pillow lava is quite a sight to see.

Picacho bayou

Picacho bayou

Best of all, the mouth of this drainage opens up almost at the foot of the rock that was the north landmark. Actually, if you divert just slightly to the east (right) you will find an huge old circular water tank. To my amazement it was still functioning – about half full of water and nearly choked with the first swamp vegetation I’ve seen since hiking Dog Canyon. Indeed, there was a customer for tank services, a single black cow. The only other mammal that I saw on this hike.

Light colored capstone and darker basement rock on walls of Box Canyon

Sand colored capstone and muddier basement rock on walls of Box Canyon

Walk into the bed of Box Canyon, turn left (to the west) and at 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to the base of the rock pillar. The canyon is a fun hike – easy footing in soft sand (sometimes too soft for convenience), lots of rock formations, side cuts coming in off of Picacho and longer drainages coming in from the Robledo Range. In particular, you want to note a set of cliffs with sandy colored capstone and darker supporting rock, along with a couple large canyons coming in from the north. This is a sign that you have gotten well to the west of Picacho. You don’t have many views of Peak Peak because the canyon walls are rather high here. On the left side you will pass another open, circular water tank and later, a huge old enclosed cylinder that I suppose was also a tank.

Departure point from bottom of Box canyon on prominent trail (swinging to the left)

Departure point from bottom of Box canyon on prominent trail (swinging to the left)

Pass under the multi-colored cliffs at 3.3 miles and look on your left for a very prominent cow path (it appears to be a regular path) at 3.5 miles heading into the arroyos above you. If you miss it there should be no problem. An obvious road departs from the canyon bottom in less than half a mile, so by following the first road left (south) out of the canyon you would be returned to the car. If you take the prominent path however, you will be delivered into a wonderland of small canyon cuts, sedimentary rocks intermingled with volcanic scoria, and easy open roaming in an archetype desert environment. You will also get glimpses of Box Canyon Road as it tops small rises to the south. Watch Picacho Peak as it returns to the perspective you had when you first got out of the car. That tells you you’re nearing the trailhead. As the perspective becomes familiar, start edging west towards the highlands. Watch especially for the faint road you took down from the trailhead and use it to return to the car at about 5.4 miles, round trip.

Recommendations:

Author in Box  Canyon

Author in Box Canyon

Out of shape, but ready to get back into those mountains? You could hardly ask for a kinder re-introduction to the joys of gaining altitude.

This route description includes some fairly demanding navigation at the end of the route. If you don’t have experience with off-trail hiking then consider returning from the summit the same way you arrived. With just a little experience (and a map!) it should not be difficult to take the roads back to the trailhead.

I suspect that the road to the BLM’s trailhead is in much better shape and kinder to your car. There isn’t much advantage to using the western trailhead. Next time I’m going to the south trailhead.

Links:

Southern New Mexico Explorer mentions the gun play that occurs in the vicinity of Picacho Peak. That report is fairly recent and is consistent with the shells found scattered at the trailhead. It looks as though the firearms community has not yet gotten word about the regs against firing inside the park. Given the housing that has sprung up along the south side of Picacho, this is no longer a good spot for target practice.

Wendi Hammond, on Trailrunner.com has a brief discussion of the training opportunities. The new trailhead is discussed and mention is made of shaded picnic tables.