Archives for posts with tag: Lincoln National Forest


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

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

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

Driving Instructions

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 001 road sign

Signs on NM 246 just before turnoff.

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

    2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 002

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

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

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


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



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

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

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


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

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

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

Prominent bell shaped peak seen from lower canyons

Prominent bell shaped peak seen from lower canyons

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

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

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

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

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

Paintbrush (I think) alongside the trail.

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

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

Summit "ring within a ring" stone structure

Summit “ring within a ring” stone structure

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

Return the way you came.


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

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

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

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

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

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 029 approaching raincloud

Weather issues! Welcome to the New Mexico monsoon season.

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

2013-07-06 Capitan Mountain 028 summit pose

Quick summit pose before dashing down the mountain.

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






Morning sun on the north wall of Dog Canyon

Morning sun on the north wall of Dog Canyon

This hike will take you from the yucca-and-mesquite of the Tularosa basin up into the forested heights of the Sacramento Mountains.  Along the way you follow a canyon that, even in a drought bedeviled decade, possesses running water.  Music in the canyons!  As is typical of desert streams, the water often flows beneath the ground.  Even when it’s above ground the water is usually far below the trail.  Pack your own!

Caveat: I intended to hike to a place called Sunspot near the summit of Sacramento Peak.  The writeup here will necessarily be incomplete since my turn-around time arrived before my destination did.

Driving Directions

  • From I25 in Las Cruces, head west on US Route 70
  • After 62.5  miles, turn right (heading south) on US Route 54. The Shell station on the left will be the last chance to fuel up until you return.
  • After 9.1 miles, make a left-hand turn (across oncoming lanes) to Dog Canyon Road.
  • After 4 miles, enter the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park.  The trail leaves from the visitors center.


The trailhead begins at 4400 feet,  ascends via steep switchbacks to a shelf on the south wall at 4900 feet, then contours gently upward as it follows the canyon east.  Reaching a broad and grassy shelf at 5900 feet, it then drops back down to the canyon bottom, traverses it to the north side, climbs rapidly to a feature called the “Eyebrow”  that rises to about 6700 feet.  Entering the bottom of a large bowl the trail switchbacks inside the bowl to about 7300 feet, where it eases east out onto a pretty series of shelves before turning north again to gain the true rim of the canyon.  There it ends (after 5.1 miles) at an intersection with a road signed 90B.  The road can be followed east as it stays along the rim, then after about 2.5 miles gently descends to reach West Side Road (signed “90”).  Crossing 90, encounter the trailhead for Road Canyon.  I only got about half a mile up this trail, but I believe it will take you to a prominent man-made spire at a place called Sun Spot at 9240 feet.  Total altitude gain: 4840 (estimated).  Total milage: 9.0 miles (estimated, one way).


The day use fee is now $5.00 (it is listed in older guides as being $3.00).  Check with the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department for up-to date information on the current costs.  (I found the website a bit confusing.  Look for a link at the top labeled “Divisions”, if you hover you mouse over it then a dropdown box will appear that includes “Parks”.  Click on “Parks”.  The new page displays a map that includes “Oliver Lee Memorial”. Click on that.)

Another new and regrettable feature has to to with paying your park fees.  I got to the park at 7:40 am (having left Las Cruces at about 6:00).  It was surprising to find that the Self Service Pay Station was closed.  I wound up napping in the car until about 8:15 when an attendant arrived to open the station.  He proved to be a great guy, explaining that people were finding ways to steal payments out of the steel payment box.  As a consequence the Parks division can’t allow payments to stay overnight in unattended boxes.  I hope that the EMNR Department finds a way to address this problem.  Until they do it means a late start unless you camp at the park.  Next time my plan will be to arrive a day early, get a permit for a primitive site and carry a backpack up into the canyon.

Near the entrance to the memorial there is a turn-out with water (both potable and non-potable) and trash service. It is advertised for use by RVs but the services are available to all.  I think there were several outhouses scattered about as well.  If you want to use your own RV then note that developed sites with sewage and electrical hookups are available.  However, a sign at the pay station cautioned that all the developed campsites were taken.  Apparently they are very popular – call ahead.  This is a full service trailhead!

There used to be a store called Oliver Lee Country Store on Dog Canyon Road. It appeared to be out of business when I drove past.


View from lowest shelf to the north wall of Dog Canyon and a cave opening.

View from lowest shelf to the north wall of Dog Canyon and a cave opening.

According to Wikipedia, the sheer escarpment that marks the eastern edge of the Tularosa Basin arose when a huge block of limestone sheered away from its neighbors and the western end of that block was thrust several thousand feet upwards.  Dog Canyon is an example of what can happen to a steep limestone face given a source of water and a few million years.  Your first job, then, is to follow the trail as it briskly ascends this escarpment.  The trail rises until it hits the first of a series of shelves, follows the shelf as it enters the canyon and narrows to a mere overlook, but an overlook with a great view of a huge cave across the canyon.

15 stone ruins in upper Dog Canyon I

Ruins of a stone cabin. There was surface water running just 30 feet away from the ruin.

Rounding a rib, the trail crosses the bottoms of two bowl-like structures.  At the upper end of the second bowl the trail begins to switchback and rises to a broad shelf.  This second shelf has an abundance of grass (you are no longer in the Tularosa basin!), an enormous number of flowering cacti and several “hardened” spots for camping.  At the upper end of the shelf, a little over 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the track begins to drop down towards the canyon bed.  Looking down you can see a stone ruin where someone had built a one-room building against a large boulder.   There was water flowing in the canyon at this point, which helps to explain the presence of grasses and tall trees (junipers, if I recall correctly).  This spot is about 2.8 miles from the trailhead and makes a sensible place for turning around if you’ve had enough hiking for one day.

13 view of Eyebrow in upper Dog Canyon

View to north canyon wall. The low point on the rim (extreme left hand side) is the opening to the upper bowl. To the right of this opening is a cliff face. From the top the cliff drops almost vertically until it hits the first sloping debris field. Below the first debris field is a small cliff and a smaller debris field. Below that is the bottom-most cliff and the canyon-bottom debris field .

If you’re up for more then you’re about to get more.  The photo on the right was taken from the second shelf and shows the “Eyebrow” across on the north face of the canyon.  The stone ruin is out of sight in this photo, hidden by the grassy shelf in the foreground.  If you look just above the shelf, you can see a faint trail on distant wall leading up out of the canyon toward the deep  gully that splits the cliff face on the right.  The trail enters that gully where enormous labor has been expended to give the trail a stone staircase.  The staircase ascends the first cliff band and then turns left onto the debris field that separates the two lowest-and-shortest cliff bands.  It then traverses to the left, rising steeply in places, until it passes just above the large cliffs on the extreme left side of the image.  There is considerable exposure in numerous places. The Eyebrow is a poor place to bring acrophobic friends.  The views are spectacular.

Shelf below the north canyon rim.

Shelf below the north canyon rim.

Above the Eyebrow the trail ascends into a north-trending bowl, but eventually turns east and departs from the bowl onto a third shelf.  This shelf is currently dry, but there are depressions suggesting that in wet times it may be home to several small tarns.  Even dry it is a beautiful spot.  Eventually the trail turns back north for a short series of switchbacks that takes you through evergreens to the true rim of the canyon.  After a few hundred yards the trail ends at road 90B.

Road 90B is rather long (2.5 miles), somewhat rough, flat, and offers only modest inspiration.  It is truly forested, although the trees are all so small that I suspect that it was either heavily logged or burned in the not-too-distant past.  It is popular with ATVs and high-clearance vehicle drivers, don’t expect it to be especially lonely.  There was much evidence attesting to the popularity of both Bud and Coors products.  As you get further along you can see the white man-made spire high above you at Sun Spot.  After a short, gentle descent road 90B intersects with another gravel road (in much better shape) called West Side Road on maps but signed as “90”.

Directly across road 90 is the Road Canyon trailhead.  I’m pretty sure that this trail will take you to Sun Spot, although I didn’t get there myself.  The trail goes through a pine forest.  There was so much duff on the trail that I was initially uncertain of where the trail bed was, but the trail gets  clearer as the terrain gets steeper.  At my turnaround time, 2:00 pm, I was on a small knoll in a pine thicket.  A fine, cool place to have a drink of water and eat a Payday bar. I’m guessing that there would be less than a mile and perhaps only a few hundred feet of gain to get to Sun Spot.  It was a good idea to turn around since the sun was almost setting when I finally got back to the trailhead.

43 back view of canyon near bottom

Look back into Dog Canyon from the lowest shelf, nearly at sunset

Return by the same route back to the trailhead.  A previous post noted that in six months of New Mexico hiking I had not seen a rattlesnake.  (Of course, much of that period was winter).  That has now changed.  In the lower part of the upper bowl (just above the Eyebrow) a distinctive rattle sounded, from a snake resting in the shade of a yucca plant about a foot away from where I had just walked.  The scales adjacent to the rattle were pretty dark, so it was probably a black tailed rattler.  Apparently it was a friendly interaction, a reminder from one vertebrate to another that movement in the desert calls for a high degree of situational awareness.  Taking the advice, I spent the rest of the descent scanning carefully for sinusoidal forms.


37 me along trail - bottle saluteThis is a great hike and a strenuous hike.   Next time I will make it an overnighter and camp on the shelf just down-canyon of the stone ruins (about 2.75 miles in).  Watch for reptiles, keep an eye out for fossils in the limestone walls along the Eyebrow.  Everyone says that the guided nature hike along the canyon bottom near the Visitors Center is rewarding.  Sunlight reflected off those sheer walls could be brutal on a mid-summers day.


Outlook Mt/Ski Apache (behind a forested rise) and Sierra Blanca

Sierra Blanca rises to 12,003 feet (3660 m) and is one of the highest peaks in southern New Mexico. Next to it is Lookout Peak, home to the Ski Apache resort. Portions of the hike go through terrain burned in the Little Bear fire (2012). Due to this burn, both the Forest Service and the Mescalero Apache Travel Office have closed the trail at least until Spring of 2013.


Sierra Blanca forms part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. In normal years a permit is required for the summit portion of this trip. This year both the Mescalero Tribe and the Forest Service have closed the terrain to hikers due to fire damage. Both the Mescalero Apache Travel Office (575-464-4494) and the Smokey Bear Ranger Station (575-257-4095) state in the strongest possible terms that the danger to hikers from dead fall and the even greater danger to the region from fire make it imperative to keep people out until the winter has come and gone. They were very polite, but state unambiguously that hikers should wait until spring of 2013, then check back to see if the trails have been re-opened and permitting re-established.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Exit #6 from I-25 in Las Cruces, heading east on US 70 (towards Alamogordo).
  • After 62.0 miles (100 km) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. (US 70 in Alamogordo can be slow since it is lined by businesses. The “Relief Route” takes you around the busy stretch. The exit is just past the third stoplight you encounter in Alamogordo, signalling for the junction of US 70 with US 54 South).
  • After 4.8 miles (7.7 km), go left at the stoplight back onto US 70 East.
  • After 42.4 miles (68.2 km), turn left onto Sudderth Dr. (on the outskirts of Ruidoso).
  • After 3.4 miles (5.5 km), turn right onto Mechem Dr. (in the center of Ruidoso).
  • After 5.3 miles (8.5 km), turn left onto County Road 532.
  • After 11.0 miles (17.7 km) this year you will encounter a sign saying Road Closed. (See the warnings under “permits”, above). Once the road re-opens it should be possible to go a bit further than a mile to get to the normal trailhead. According to other reports the trailhead is found at a sharp, left-hand switchback near the ski area.

I stopped off at the All American Diner in Ruidoso (390 Sudderth Dr.) for a bite to eat. Its sign indicated American/Mexican cuisine, and the staff were speaking Spanish. My server was very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the combo plate. The chile rellenos tasted about the same as the refried beans. In place of cream they serve a vastly regrettable food-like substance in the “coffee whitener” clade. For future reference, across the street from the All American there is a promising sign for the Cornerstone Bakery. Further down the road Farley’s Pub had the fullest parking lot on both Saturday and Sunday. The sign on that building says “Ribs, Burgers, Dogs”.


Map of actual trail (not the dirt road route through burned forest):

CR 532 is closed here at mile marker 11. 

County Road 530 follows a gently inclined stream bed to reach an altitude of 8000 feet (2440 m), then explodes upward in a series of switchbacks to reach the 10,000 ft (3050 m) contour. At the 11 mile marker it reaches a pass. Normally you would drive down to the ski area from the pass. This year the road is closed at the pass. As reviewed in the “permits” section, travel is not permitted while the region recovers from the near-term effects of fire.

By spring of 2013 it may be possible to continue about another mile on CR 532 to a left-hand hairpin turn and park there. Internet reports say that the trailhead is located near a gate for the ski area. Also, the gate is closed after dark so hikers will want park outside the ski area.


The legitimate trail goes from a trailhead at 9840 feet (3000 m) to the summit at 12,000 feet (3660 m) for a gain of 2160 feet (660 m) in 4.3 miles, one way. It appears that the trails used are T15 to an intersection with T25, then T25 to an intersection with T78, then T78 to the summit.

The route taken began at the pass at 10,100 feet for a net gain of just 1900 feet (580 m) in 6.3 miles (10.1 km) one way.

Hike: (not open at least until spring 2013, see “Permits” above)

Two burned trees (at either edge of photo) carry twin blazes to mark the point where the trail departs the road.

The dirt road at the pass stays close to the 10,000-foot contour for a about 1.3 miles (2.1 km). Views to Lookout Mt show the wildfire damage done to Ski Apache (see newspaper images). The forest that the road traverses is entirely burned. The trail departs from the road about 100 feet (30 m) before a sharp right-hand switchback on a forested saddle. The departure is marked by twin ax-blazes on a pair of burned trees on the down-hill side of the road, shown on the photo to the left. Beyond the trees is a steep meadow. Trail T25 traverses this hillside close to the low end of the meadow.

At the end of the meadow T25 winds through a burned wood, then joins with another trail in a second meadow and goes sharply right. I think the other trail might be T15, the connector to the normal trailhead (but I didn’t explore it). T25 becomes mostly level at this point, passing a small stream flowing in a deep V-notch, swinging around a broad rib and reaching a meadow below another saddle. Here the trail turns sharply left and begins to ascend via several switchbacks towards Icy Spring. There were numerous elk around the meadow, and their bugling was tremendous. In places grass is growing in the trailbed just as densely as in the adjacent forest floor. An enormous amount of work has been put into clearing burned logs from the trail and leaving twin ax-blazes for navigation.

Icy Spring was flowing, and one offshoot of the trail crosses the deep stream bed. For this venture I stayed on trail T25 (there are signs at the Icy Spring crossing) to ascend to the ridge crest. On the crest there is a signed junction with T78. To get to Lookout Mt and thence to Sierra Blanca follow T78 south. There are several saddles on the crest that provide good camping spots.

Looking into the sunset at camp near T25 and T78 junction.

Leaving the car at 4:30 p.m. proved unwise, since it led to a hasty camp setup. At 11,200 feet (3410 m) in New Mexico you get an eyeful of nighttime sky. The light from a half-moon was bright enough to cast vivid shadows. The ridge could be a severely windy spot, but on this evening it was peaceful. Sleep was elusive since I’m not acclimated to the altitude. The down-insulated hood on my sleeping bag was a deeply appreciated design feature.

View from Lookout summit to Sierra Blanca

From the intersection the trail bumps southerly along the ridge, with views out to Tularosa Basin and its White Sands Monument in the west. It drops slightly to intersect a ski trail signed “Ambush” and then ascends the ski trail to Lookout Peak. On the highest point (above the lifts) there is a circular concrete bench. The views from this bench were not any better than from the ridge, and there is a ski-road that avoids most of the gratuitous gain if you prefer. From the south side of the summit block you have a fine view of the grassy rise that precedes the knife-edge ridge to Sierra Blanca summit.

View from Sierra Blanca summit back towards Lookout Peak

Drop from Lookout Mt straight towards Sierra Blanca and ascend the grassy rise. Between the altitude and the steepness of the rise, expect a vigorous cardio workout. The rise hits a prominent shoulder with a good view of the knife-edge. There are faint climber’s treads along that ridge, but it is advisable to look for steep stream bed that drops away towards the west (right side, looking uphill), Just past this proto-canyon, find a tread that drops down a short distance on the western side. It offers a way of getting around the tricky little rise in the middle of the ridge and provides good footing for the ascent. Near the summit the terrain becomes entirely rock, the tread disappears and it becomes a scramble to the summit proper.


It was a mistake to head into such damaged terrain. It would have been perfectly possible to find other hikes in this region that were robust and open to hikers. That said, don’t stay away next spring! Call the numbers for the Tribe and for the Forest Service to see if this beautiful trail has been re-opened. There were trucks going back and forth on the closed section, presumably to re-open the road for the 2012-2013 ski season.

This scramble took place at the end of New Mexico’s “monsoon” season. Admittedly, it has been a terribly dry monsoon this year, but be cautious in planning for water on this trail. I have no idea if any of the described streams would be flowing before the monsoon begins. Six liters in my bag were enough. In fact, two liters survived the trip out and back, but it’s reassuring to have extra.

County Road 532 is home to miles of savagely abused roadside cable-barriers as it climbs to 10,000 feet (3050 m). Apparently it pays to keep your wheels on the tarmac. I kept my car in second gear during descent to take some stress off of the brake pads.

The summit of Sierra Blanca is wide and surprisingly grassy. It’s a great place for a nap or watching the many raptors. It would have been a good place for a self-portrait, if only I had remembered to bring my camera along. The other photos shown here are from my cell phone. It’s an aged Android app and does not seem to have a timer feature.

The night was cold – there was frost on the broad-leaf ground cover when the sun rose. I was otherwise very lucky with the weather. The ascent took advantage of cool temperatures and experienced just enough sunshine to make writing in the summit register a joy. In contrast, a wet and windy descent would make for a memorably bleak experience. This is not a good place for acrophobes. Let’s be careful up there.


T119 on a steep rise (still rocky), but nearing forested terrain.

I picked this trail simply because I knew it to be visible from space, hoping it would be within my range of competence after getting quite confused in the neighboring canyons. It proved to be easy to follow and  a great workout.  It also showcases the transition from the Chihuanuan desert floor to the forested terrain that lies above 6500 feet.


  • From Las Cruces, get onto I-25 and take exit #6 (US Route 70) East towards Alamogordo.
  • After 62.6 miles (100.7 km), go right onto Rt 54 West.
  • After 0.2 miles (0.32 km), go left onto Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 2.3 miles (3.7 km), turn right onto W 10th Street.
  • After 3.1 miles (5.0 km), W. 10th Street makes a hard left-hand turn and becomes Paiute Trail.
  • After 0.2 miles (0.32 km), look for an excavated wash that goes under Paiute Trail.  The uphill wash is the start of the trail. Park by the side of the road.

White Sands National Monument Balloon Festival (seen from Alamogordo). At one point there were about 40 balloons in the air.

Comment on directions: On my approach I actually took a slightly different route through town. It was characterized by frequent turns, missing road signs, and several strikingly blind intersections.  When heading back, I followed the directions given above (but in reverse, of course).  The given directions above are much easier to follow.  Regrettably,  I didn’t track the mileage values on return, so these values are taken directly from Google.  Be a little wary of the exact mileage figures.  They will be updated after the next visit to the Lincoln National Forest.


On the map, the trailhead is on the left (west) and my turn-around point is on the right (east). You may have to scroll to see either end.
A-trail (aka T119) trailhead

Trailhead for T119.  The trail begins in the excavated wash and heads uphill. After 100 ft (30 m) the wash intersects another excavated wash that runs parallel to Paiute Trail, then rises up onto the jeep track that forms the remainder of the trail.

The trailhead is located where an excavated wash comes into Paiute Trail (a paved road).  The photo at the right shows the view from the trailhead, looking up the wash.  There is quite a lot of open space on the uphill side of Paiute Trail, but it is fronted by a curb that is too high for my sedan.  Since the road is quite wide, most people will simply park next to the curb.

Note the cliffband at the top of the photo – the trail swings to the right of this cliff.


The jeep track rises 3200 feet (975 m) in 3.6 miles (5.8 km), hitting the highest point just before my turn-around in the open meadows facing the interior of Lincoln National Forest.  The actual jeep track continues on – on Google it looks like it enters a forest service road in less than half a mile.  To get to the summit of Ortega Peak hikers would need to ascend off-trail from the pass for another 300 feet (90 m) of gain.


View from A-trail west to White Sands and San Andres Mountains

View of Alamogordo, White Sands National Monument and (faintly) the San Andres Mountains. Taken from the A-Trail at about the level of the big painted “A”.

The trail starts out following an excavated wash (nicely squared off) for about 100 feet (30 m) before climbing out onto a jeep track.  There are several side-branches to the jeep track, simply stay on the most-used road. From the trailhead you can see a prominent cliffband directly uphill.  The jeep trail goes to the right of that cliffband and then turns back to follow along the top of the cliff, then turns uphill and goes through quite a few switchbacks to gain the top of the large “A” painted on the hillside.  From the top of the “A” there are great views of the basin and a glimpse of White Sands National Monument.  (The view of White Sands improves constantly during the hike).

bench-and-rise topology of Ortega Mountain

View of Ortega summit from A-trail, capturing some of the bench-and-rise topology and the gradual transition to a forested environment.

From the painted “A” the terrain has a pronounce cycle of rise-and-bench.  On the steep rises the  jeep track is often quite rocky and it is hard to get a good rhythm going.  Fortunately the rocks can be quite colorful and for certain stretches the gleam of mica is a common roadbed distraction.  At about 6800 feet (2070 m) the terrain benches for the last time before hitting the meadows of the pass.  Trees start to appear, and the road becomes more like a dirt road than a stream bed.   As the road draws near the summit block it contours through alpine forest (short firs and something that resembles cedar trees) with occasional meadows and even a tarn bed (although the tarn was dry when I was there).  The road skirts a bowl and reaches a pass at about 7400 feet (2255 m).  Just over the pass there is an open meadow with good views to the terrain east of Ortega Peak.  That’s were I turned around.


View from "A" trail down to trailhead for Ortega Canyon South

The distant water tank on the top-left is where you park your car. The water tank on the top-center is where you enter the canyon. I went into the canyon north of the water tank (on the far side). I believe that you want to enter the southern canyon, on the near side between the water tank and the house with the red roof.

My original intention for today was to get a look at Ortega Canyon South.  The instructions for that hike said to park your car at the lower of two water tanks on Thunder Road, then follow the road to the upper tanks and find the canyon departing from there.  From up high on T119 I could see my mistake.  I stayed on Thunder Road to the upper water tank, but I walked past the tank because the road drops immediately into a canyon along the north side of the tank.  Mistake!  Ortega Canyon South looks like it should be reached by following Thunder Road until you just reach the nearest edge of this fenced property, then immediately ascend on the tank’s southern side (to the right, looking uphill).  Keep going uphill and trending a little towards the right until you reach the mouth of a Ortega Canyon South.  (The canyon comes down between the water tower and a house with a red roof.)

barbed wire fence across "Wrong Canyon"

View uphill to the first (of several) barb wire fences that traverse the canyon I chose to explore. There is an opening for a flexible hiker to get through, but the next fence is less hospitable.

The canyon that I entered (a.k.a. “the wrong canyon”) contains a surprising amount of rusted metal junk, but even more striking is it’s collection of barb wire fences that cling grimly to the canyon floor.  That didn’t seem right.  Still anxious to get going, I walked further to the north on Thunder Road to see if there would be a track leading to another large canyon up there, but it was suburbia city and I didn’t want to trespass.  That was fortunate, since that would have been an even “wronger” canyon from the point of view of getting to Ortega Canyon South.

CAVEAT: I didn’t actually get into the right canyon, this is just a report of what looked like the “right canyon” from high on T119.  I recommend finding someone with actual experience in hiking Ortega Canyon South, if you can!   The internet reports  are like this one – very confusing.


That’s me, standing a little too close to an ocotillo plant about halfway through the descent.

“A” Trail has a fair amount of gain on a track that is completely open.  This is probably not he best place to be on the hottest day of the year.  Still, I envy hikers in Alamogordo.  A couple hikes up this highly accessible trail would be a great way to get into shape and stay there.

Free at last!

Kids (just released from the family van) running on the trail leading into the White Sands National Monument.

White Sands National Monument is on the road from Las Cruces to Alamogordo.  They say that it is a pretty spectacular spot, although my energy levels were too low to do much on the return trip other than take a few photos from the edge of the sands.  According to the signs, the sand is actually gypsum that has drained out of the surrounding mountain ranges.