Archives for posts with tag: Organ Mountains

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:

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark's Tooth Peak

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark’s Tooth Peak (center)

This is a strenuous scramble. It averages just under 1000 feet of gain per mile, which some may see as a mild challenge. Attentive map readers will observe that very little of that gain comes at the beginning of the hike. Consequently, the end game is an exercise in geologic “shock and awe”. In close company with cacti, ocotillo and sotol, scramblers find themselves kicking steps into a scree surface over steep terrain. Falling is an option, but a tumble or two in such prickly quarters is not going to improve morale. The rewards come in the last quarter mile. Having gained good footing on the ridge top, you’ll find precipitous views north into the basaltic wonderland surrounding Baldy and Organ Peak and long views south across the Organ Mountains all the way to Bishops Cap.

This route is not for beginners. On USGS maps Shark’s Tooth is identified only with an altitude label, “point 7974”.

Driving Directions:

  • On East University Avenue, in Las Cruces, head east and reset your mileage meter at the traffic light for the on-ramp to I-25 South. Continue east on University Avenue. (Don’t get on I-25).
  • After 4.9 miles on East University Avenue turn right onto Soledad Canyon Road. (University Avenue is renamed to Dripping Springs Road after just 1.3 miles, but the transition is not well signed).
  • After 0.6 miles make a left turn. The new road is still known as Soledad Canyon Road.
  • After 4.2 more miles, at the end of the road, park in the Soledad Canyon parking area (gravel).

Trailhead:

The trailhead is a gravel parking area with a trash receptacle and a map board. There is no water (although there is a functioning windmill nearby). The trailhead is close to town and (unlike Dripping Springs) free of charge. It is popular with photographers, dog walkers, birders and mountain runners. The parking area was not packed on this date, but there may be days when an early arrival would be advisable.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5600 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7980
  • Elevation Gain: 2380
  • Distance: 2.5 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Organ Peak, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

01 Soledad Canyon Trail

Soledad Trail leading out of the parking area, Shark’s Tooth is the conical peak straight ahead.

From the trailhead ascend uphill into the canyon on the Soledad Trail. The trail is a well maintained and much-used, so navigation is generally obvious. There is a large side-canyon coming in from the northeast called Bar Canyon, which leads to a popular waterfall. You want to remain in Soledad Canyon. Arrive at a fork for Bar Canyon at 0.2 miles, at a junction where the Soledad Trail leaves the tread to the right. Go right onto the trail and continue ascending. The trail crosses a wash at several places and the wash is so open that it is tempting to ascend it.

The lower end of Shark Tooth's rocky ridgeline.

The lower end of Shark’s Tooth’s rocky ridgeline, Chimney Rock is on the photo’s right side.

If you do find yourself hiking in the wash, don’t worry. You are going in the right general direction. Just look for the next trail crossing to regain the Soledad Trail. If you find yourself in a short and rock-walled canyon that is blocked at the uphill end, then you have gone a little too far. Turn back to where the rock walls begin and leave the wash on the steep, gravelly north bank to regain the trail. You should be near a rocky ridge (shown above) with a volcanic throat called Chimney Rock. You will be ascending Shark’s Tooth along the far side of this ridge.

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark's Tooth Peak

Chimney Rock (left) and distant Shark’s Tooth Peak

The Soledad Trail terminates at a stout metal fence 1.2 miles from the trailhead. Turn left (north) and ascend a climbers tread that follows the fence line. At the top of the first knoll look north towards Shark’s Tooth. In the adjacent photo Chimney rock is on the left and the summit of Shark’s Tooth is in the middle. The peak’s shoulder runs down towards Chimney Rock. At the apparent intersection look for a whitish rock rock face on the shoulder (rather small in this photo). The route described here takes you across the intervening grassy valley to the flanks of the mountain. Then it ascends a steep sided bowl towards this whitish rock face. (Here referred to as “the target rock”). Also, look at the lower right corner of the photo. There you will see an area of bare rock where flowing water has scrubbed away soil and vegetion. The easiest way into the valley is to descend from the knoll to the top of this scrubbed rock (as opposed to staying along the ridge to get to Chimney rock). From the scrubbed area move out into the valley, crossing three small arroyos, and ascend toward the target rock on the mountain’s shoulder.

05 valley view

Wendy and Jerry (on descent) in the valley below Shark’s Tooth. The target rock is the whitish dot on the ridge top, directly below the cloud.

The valley floor rises towards Shark’s Tooth and offers several possibilities for ascent. Look for a bowl below the ridge line west of the summit. In the photo on the left, the west side of a bowl is defined by a large, blocky rock rib (coming in from the left edge of the photo). The east side of the bowl is defined by the pale cliff face that descends from the summit and arrows into the basin, forming an arête between the bowl on the left and the mountain’s front face on the right. But how do you enter this bowl? Study that blocky lefthand rib and you’ll see that its foot is shrouded in dense green vegetation. Presumably, that’s awkward terrain for travel. (It may help to double-click the photo to see it enlarged). But to the right of that green mass you will see a bit of pale rock that provides you an easy entrance. Ascend the valley and enter the bowl.

View to the target rock on the shoulder of Shark's Tooth.

View to the target rock atop the shoulder (center) and eastern arête (right edge). Photo taken from the entry to the western bowl.

The entrance to the bowl, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, is a great place to stop for a drink and take on some nourishment. The route is about to get a wee bit steep. In the doubtful shade of a huge, all-but-dead aligator juniper, crane your neck and study the terrain above you. The low point is a col just uphill of the blocky western rib. It is tempting to go that way, since it looks as if the remaining ascent along the ridge would be easy. Previous experience, however, indicates that you also want to study the intervening vegetation. It can be ugly. Here, turn your attention to the arête on the east side (right, looking up hill). Its edge also has heavy vegetation, but a short distance away from the arête is open, grassy and steep terrain.

Wendy and Jerry (on descent) in steep and thorny terrain

Wendy and Jerry (on descent) in steep and thorny bowl-side terrain

From the bowl’s entrance, battle uphill on a rising traverse towards the grassy area. The first hundred yards are especially plagued with dense growth. The rubbly nature of this slope becomes very apparent. Rivlets of scree erupt from the soil. Ascending this rubble is a thigh burning matter of pushing upwards and sliding backwards. Side-hilling (that is, making your own small switchbacks) can reduce the slippage. As you near the shoulder the slope eases slightly and a number of juniper trees help to stabilize the terrain. Here and there you may also find animal trails. The stabilized soil on these trails is a real asset. As you approach the shoulder pull east (to the right) of the target rock.

Basaltic wonderland north of Shark's Tooth.

Basaltic wonderland north of Shark’s Tooth.

On descent it can be difficult to know where to leave the shoulder. So, when you arrive, commit that ridge site to memory. But do not wait long to look over the ridge to the phantasmagoria that is the southern Organ Mountains. Rock walls soar and canyons plunge in ways that would give fighter pilots reason to pause. A prominence to the north has some similarity to Baldy Peak, but most likely it is the huge buttress that descends towards the west from Baldy’s true summit.

View to North Organ Mountains from Shark's Tooth summit.

View to northern Organ Mountains from Shark’s Tooth summit.

Having hiked about 2.2 miles from the trailhead, turn east and ascend the firm terrain on the ridge top. In places the ridge broadens out and is forested – make note of your path for the sake of an untroubled return. Arrive at the summit having hiked a mere 2.5 miles. Look south to Bishops Cap, west into the Tularosa Basin and north over the dark rock of the southern Organs to Organ Needle and the pale granite mass of the northern Organ Spires. In the west find Las Cruces, Picacho Peak, the distant horn of Cooke’s Peak and (on the faintest horizon) the bumps that are South and North Florida Peaks. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author on the rocky entrance to the bowl below Shark's Tooth.

Author on the rocky entrance to the bowl below Shark’s Tooth.

As mentioned at the start, this is a strenuous scramble. It’s only five miles round trip, but the stress of ascending steep, wild and prickly terrain on mushy footing is very real. A beginner who is about college-age, adventurous and very fit could do this hike and enjoy it. Most beginners will be a thousand-fold happier on the trail up to Baylor Pass or hiking the Pine Tree Trail at Aguirre Springs.

There is little to no shade on this south-facing trail. Place this on your “cold season only” list of hikes.

Do put this on your list of hikes. The Organ Mountains have few places with as much reward per mile.

There currently is no protection for the summit register – we found it lying on the grass. Rain has already washed the old names out of the register. If you’re doing this scramble, consider bringing something waterproof to hold this notebook. The register is about 10-inches long and 7-inches wide, but it could curl. Please leave a comment here so other’s know.

On a windy and sometimes chilly November day I barely touched my water – drinking about a liter. Bring more, of course. There are going to be warm days when 5 liters isn’t enough.

The basis for this report was a hike organized by the Jornada Hiking Club. Many thanks to Steven K. for leading this scramble and getting us out into the mountains.

Links:

Ryan Conklin has video posts from ascents in 2014 and 2013. Both videos show summit views from Shark’s Tooth (which he also names as Butler Peak). He identifies several mountains in the interior of the Organ Mountains that look very challenging. In addition, his “Appalachian Ink Trail” website has an entry describing his 2014 ascent. (That website also has a number of great posts regarding his experiences on the AT). It appears that Ryan chose to stay on the ridge above Chimney rock to get to the summit. That would be a significantly different route than the bowl-ascent described here.

Samat has a full GPS track posted for another trip to Shark’s Tooth. Samat’s track looks very similar to the one described here. Apparently Samat did the hike in 2012 with the Jornada Hiking Club, which also has it’s own trip report. That report emphasizes the route’s steepness and loose scree. Count on it!

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.

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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”.

Overview

Lower Needles (left) Windy Gap (middle) and Rabbit Ear spires (right)

Low Horns (left) Windy Gap (middle) and Rabbit Ear spires (right)

The route begins with a hike along Anvil Creek on the Pine Tree Trail, departs into an arroyo, climbs out on the flanks of a tall rib, and finishes with a rib ramble to Windy Gap. Smart hikers will then return the way they came. This route   description pauses to reflect on the perils of poor situational awareness. Then it describes the horror (“the horror”) of a traverse from Windy Gap south to Sotol Creek via impenetrable mountain-mahogany thickets.

The portion of the route that is a mild scramble to Windy Gap is strongly recommended for those hikers who are in good shape. The portion of the route that is a thicket traverse comes recommended only for those people who may have done you irreparable harm.

Driving Directions (and study guide):

Close up of Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif, north of Windy Gap

Close up of Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif, north of Windy Gap

The driving directions are the same as for the Pine Tree Trail in the Aguirre Springs Campground. Park at the trailhead for Pine Tree Trail. On Aguirre Springs Road, look for the Rabbit Ear spires that dominate the northern Organ Mountains. South of the Rabbit Ears look for a wide pass that is Windy Gap. South of Windy Gap watch the terrain make a brisk climb up Gretch’s Folly to the Lower Horns. Make particular note of a prominent rib (alternatively called a “hogback”, “buttress” or “welt”) that descends from Windy Gap towards you in the Tularosa Basin. You will be parking your car on the fall line of that rib and then hiking an arroyo that descends from Windy Gap along the far side of the rib. I haven’t seen a formal designation for this buttress, so here it will be called Aguirre Springs Rib.

Trailhead:

04 The Mighty Camry at foot of Aguirre Springs Rib

The mighty Camry parked below Aguirre Springs Rib (slanting down from upper right) and the Lower Horns (in the distance).

The Pine Tree Trail trailhead is in Aguirre Springs Campground and is signed. There is a trash receptacle, picnic tables and nearby pit toilets. It costs $5.00 per car to park for the day, 2.50 if you have one of the Federal passes. If your plans are more complex than just a day hike, see the trailhead section in the Pine Tree Trail post.

Data:

The map shows the ascent route in blue. The descent route, going south into Sotol Creek Bowl, is shown in black. The portion of the Pine Tree Trail that was not used on this route is shown in purple.

  • Starting Elevation: 5680 feet
  • High Point: 7450 feet (at Pass)
  • Net Gain: 1770 feet
  • Distance to Windy Gap: 1.9 miles (one way)
  • Distance from Windy Gap to Sotol Creek and back by Pine Tree Trail: 3.8 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Organ Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

View directly up the spine of Aguirre Springs Rib, into Windy Gap

View directly up the fall line of Aguirre Springs Rib and into Windy Gap

From the trailhead, ascend the stem of this lollipop route and arrive at the loop portion in less than 1000 feet. At this point you have left the fall line of Aguirre Springs Rib and are almost in the bed of Anvil Creek. The joys of this well maintained trail are described in the Pine Tree Trail post, so here it should be enough to say “go right (counterclockwise)”.

View of south side of Aguirre Springs Rib - note the light-colored rocky side buttress and the more distant green buttress. The latter has a white, tooth-like spire at its foot.

View of the northern-most Lower Horns (left) and the south side of Aguirre Springs Rib (right) Note the light-colored rocky side buttress on ASR and the more distant green buttress. The latter has a white, tooth-like spire at its foot.

Follow the trail as it ascends along Anvil Creek. Keep an eye on Windy Gap, which will frequently be in sight. You want to keep the Aguirre Springs Rib either under your feet or immediately on your right. The south side of Aguirre Springs Rib is cut up by several small drainages that feed into Anvil Creek. One such drainage, well above the loop, is marked by a whitish rocky outcrop that runs along its bank top. Beyond and above that is a second drainage that has more soil and is greener. Near the foot of this green bank-top is a tooth shaped spire of white rock. The ribs and the tooth-shaped spire can be useful markers later in the scramble.

View of arroyo where the scramble leaves the Pine Tree Trail and ascends this waterway.

View of arroyo where the scramble leaves the Pine Tree Trail and ascends this waterway.

The departure from the trail to the scramble is not marked. At just over a mile from the trailhead the tread crosses a minor drainage by contouring slightly right. Then, in the bed of the drainage, the trail makes a hard left. In just 30 more feet the trail bends 90 degrees to the right to go around an 8-foot tall boulder. Just past these twists the trail enters the bed of a big arroyo that feeds Anvil Creek. In another twenty or thirty feet the Trail leaves the arroyo bed and heads south (purple line in the map). Here, leave the trail for the arroyo bed. The trick is to identify this rapid sequence of a hard-left, a hard right (around boulder) and entrance into the arroyo.

Ascending canyon past the whitish, toothlike spire at the foot of the green buttress.

Ascending past the whitish, toothlike spire at the foot of the green buttress as you ascend the arroyo

At 1.25 miles from the trailhead begin ascending the arroyo and picking a way past boulders and over downed limbs. The bed is deeply shaded and cool. There was no water in it on this late-winter day. Occasionally the tree limbs accumulating in the creek bed will force you off to one bank or the other, but it is useful to stay in the bed for as long as you can. Watch the drainages coming down off of Aguirre Springs Rib. You will quickly pass two candidates that could be that drainage that was topped by a whitish rocky outcrop. At 1.5 miles from the trailhead you will pass the green-topped drainage. You will get a good view of the tooth-shaped rock spire, which up-close seems rather crooked.

Terrain on the south side of Aguirre Rib, just above the arroyo bed.

Terrain on the south side of Aguirre Rib, just above the arroyo bed.

Shortly past the spire the trees becomes densely packed on the bed of the canyon. The north-facing wall on your left becomes high-angle rock slab. Turn right and ascend the steep south-facing wall of the canyon. The angle is shallow enough to retain soil and there is some plant growth. The chief problem is that the soil is very loose and climbing the slope is like climbing a steep-sided sand dune. Switchbacking does help.

Gully that leads to the top of the bump at the crest of Aguirre Springs Rib.

Gully that leads to the top of the bump at the crest of Aguirre Springs Rib.

At 1.6 miles reach the fall line of the rib and turn uphill. This begins a long process of dodging prickly pear and cholla cacti, various forms of agave, sotol and yucca, and the occasional alligator juniper. The ascent is steep, although not generally as steep as the walls of the flanking arroyo. One exception occurs as you approach Windy Gap. Here the rising rib slightly over-shoots the saddle point of the pass, leaving a bump rising above the main col. It is a puzzle how to get around the bump since it is rather steep sided. If you go right (towards the Rabbit Ears) you will find a steep gully with convenient hand-holds that will take you to the top. At 1.9 miles, arrive at the bump-top in Windy Gap.

View up to Lower Needles from Windy Gap

View up Gretch’s Folly to Lower Horns as seen from Windy Gap

This is a terrific place for a tired scrambler to have lunch and admire the views. To the west lies Las Cruces, the West Potrillo Mountains and the distant Florida Range. To the east lie White Sands Missile Base, the Tularosa Basin, the Sacramento Mountains, White Sands, and even sight lines to Sierra Blanca. But the stunner views are north to Rabbit Ear Massif and the Rabbit Ears, and south to the spires of the Lower Horns. There seem to be approaches, perhaps practicable, in both directions. Smart scramblers might take notes for future reference and return the way they came. That way you could return directly to the car (about 4 miles, round trip), or continue following Pine Tree Trail for a great six-mile day.

View to Sugarloaf (distant) and the rib that separates Sotal and Anvil creek basins. Do not forget to scrutinize the close-up terrain.

View to Sugarloaf (distant) and the rib that separates Anvil and Sotal creek basins. Do not forget to scrutinize the close-in terrain. (Double click to enlarge)

Alternatively, those of us who are somewhat new to this kind of terrain might allow their gaze to ride south across the Anvil Creek Bowl. There, just below the rib that separates Anvil Creek Bowl from Sotol Creek Bowl, you might discern open parkland, lightly forested, within easy reach. If you do, then you are wrong. Study the intervening ground carefully. You will note that your line of sight extends all the way to the grass covered ground in that open park land. Closer in, however, the ground below the Lower Horns is densely covered with a haze of gray-green stuff. Also, that gray-green area has odd contrasting lines that seem to go straight down hill. What is this striated, gray-green terrain? Let’s find out, shall we?

Slabs used for descent away from notch above the descent arroyo.

Slabs used for descent below the Lower Horns cliff line.

Descend south (toward Gretch’s Folly) from the bump top to the col that forms Windy Gap. On the col, face east towards the Tularosa Basin. Here you stand at the head of the arroyo that you followed up from Pine Tree Trail. Pick your way down the arroyo, threading your way between increasingly dense gray bushes and past granite slabs.

Notch in the wall on the south side of the descent arroyo, directly below the Needles cliff line.

Notch in the wall on the south side of the descent arroyo, directly below the Lower Horns cliff line.

Gray. Hmm. Sounds familiar. The terrain is not bad initially and you may be distracted by the loose sandy footing. It’s actually quite fun. Stay to the south side until reaching a cliff-like slab traversing the arroyo. At the slab top, track back towards the Aguirre Springs Rib, never straying far from the arroyo bed. After descending about 1000 feet from the bump, however, the thick bushes in the arroyo floor became a major barrier to progress. Scan the south wall for a small notch in the rock and head for that. From this notch there is a view into a broad waterway descending from the northern-most Lower Horns. Getting there entails a descent of a granite slab in a minor gully (barely a gutter) that offers occasional hand holds. The slab is not very steep, but the lower end is lined with stout and pointy agave so exposure is unexpectedly high). Below the slab find a nice shelf, only a little brushy, and follow it into the waterway. Ascend the far side to a lonely pine sentinel. There, look south, hoping for an easy ramble through high-country parkland.

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

Never so lucky! press into more gray green brush, watching for cactus, snakes, thorn bushes, and thigh-murdering agave plants (often screened by dead vegetation). Remember those lines you saw in the gray-green area below Windy Gap? Each one of those was a small rib separating minor water courses. If you have a good memory you may recall having seen at least six of these lines. In practice, there are about ten. On each one you bash over the small rib, descend past more boulders, down slabs, around cholla, pincushion, hedgehog and prickly pear cacti, deflecting more agave, sotol and yucca, all for the simple and light hearted purpose of pushing your way deeper and deeper into oak thickets, mountain mahogany thickets, and mixed thickets leavened with rare instances of what appear to be Texas Madrone. Arriving at the bed of the next water course, prepare to do it again.

Crisp silhouette of author's index finger (blocking sun) and pretty good view of scrubbed-bedrock canyon bottom.

Crisp silhouette of author’s index finger (blocking sun) and pretty good view of scrubbed-bedrock canyon bottom.

After 0.8 long miles, arrive in the scrubbed-bedrock floor of the major waterway descending from the Lower Horns into Anvil Creek. It is a sunny and wonderfully open place. Stop for water, some calories, and a chance to ponder your sanity. You have the option, I think, of descending this waterway. It should take you back to Pine Tree Trail and an easy amble to the car. If, on the other hand, you are possessed of a belligerent attitude towards your personal happiness then cork that canteen, pick up that pack, push up over the canyon wall and into the welcoming branches of the next thicket.

16 view back to Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Massif

Quick check to see that the Rabbit Ears remain directly behind you on traverse.

Fortunately it is almost impossible to get lost here. Views into the vast Tularosa Basin on your left are almost constant. The large rib that separates Anvil Creek from Sotal Creek is usually visible in front of you. You will have views beyond this rib to Sugarloaf as well. The Lower Horns loom spectacularly above and to your right. If you loose sight of Sugarloaf then a quick glance backward should show you the Rabbit Ears. Plunge on.

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As distances begin to appear between bushes, views to the Tularosa open up.

Pine trees showing sign of old burns in front of the Tularosa Basin.

Actually, after the big drainage the brush starts to thin out a bit. Small clusters of big pines appear. Wonderful game trails start to crop up. Two of the small drainages on this date had flowing water in them. There are bushes still, never fear, but the route up to the high point on the Sotol/Anvil rib becomes clearer and clearer. Arrive at the the most prominent bump on this rib in just over a mile from Windy Gap – shaken and stirred. If you were to descend from the rib south into Sotol Creek Bowl you would hit the Pine Tree Trail in about 200 feet. Unaware of this fact, I turned downhill and followed the rib until it struck the trail, adding about a quarter mile to the total. Turning left on the trail (towards the Rabbit Ears) will get you back to the trailhead quickest, while turning right will allow you to complete the loop part of the trail. Turn right, enter Sotol Creek Bowl, and enjoy a meticulously maintained freedom from cactus spines.

The rest of the hike on this trail has been described elsewhere. After 3.8 miles from Windy Gap, return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author standing on bump in Windy Gap, Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif in background.

Author standing on bump in Windy Gap, Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ears Massif in background.

Do not bother with the traverse. Repeat as needed.

There was quite a display of small lizards on this hike, but no other reptiles. The weather is still pretty brisk up high (it was spitting snow at the trailhead on Saturday morning), but the approaching warm weather should soon bring out a few a few of our sinuous mountainside friends.

The bump atop Aguirre Springs Rib has truly exceptional views. I saw one patch where a very small tent could be pitched up there. There could be a rare display of stars on a nice April evening. The camping would be entirely dry.

Outside Links:

The inspiration for this exploration was OnWalkabout’s description of a venture to Windy Gap (although OW didn’t reach the ridge line). That post has great photos of the Horns taken right at cliff line and shots of a descent passage on scrubbed-bedrock canyon floor. Readers should consider, however, the possibility that the author of that report got slightly off of his mapped route. The ascent described here never went directly beneath the spires, nor did the ascent ever follow a bedrock waterway. Instead, those features were encountered on the southerly traverse away from Windy Gap. My guess is that OW departed from Pine Tree Trail beyond the arroyo and nearer the main bed of Anvil Creek. If so, then OW must have pushed steeply uphill through appalling thickets on lousy footing. That blog’s assertion that “the going became tough” may be the ne plus ultra in hikerly understatement.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some comments about ascending to Windy Gap from the other (i.e. western) side of the Organ Mountains. It sounds brutal!

The daily paper in Las Cruces, the LC Sun-News, has a write up concerning the names of various Organ Mountain summits and spires, as well as commentary on how obscure the background to the names can be.

That article refers to an image in The Mountain Project that labels the peaks in the Organ Mountains. That site also has a second image with labels for features near the Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Plateau (sometimes called Rabbit Ear Massif).

The “Peak Locator” in R. L. Ingraham’s “Climbing Guide to the Organ Mountains” shows much the same information. (The Guide was printed in 1965 and is clearly dated in places. Still, it is a huge resource and my thanks to R. A. Hahn for adapting it to the web and NMSU for supporting it).

Overview:

IMAG0181

View from col atop Mars Canyon. Chimney rock is the volcanic throat near middle-center. Shark’s Tooth is (I think) the high point on the left.

Quite a bit of this hike is off trail, there are climbing moves to be contemplated, the trail follows a loop and there is a genuine navigation problem. This is a trail that awards situational awareness! It nicely boxes the Achenback Canyon hike. The hike begins by ascending Mars Canyon to the north of Achenback, turns south along the ridge line that forms the eastern extremity of Achenback, and returns by way of Ladera Canyon to the south of Achenback. The navigation problem lies with finding the right place to leave Ladera and traverse Achenback so as to get back to the trailhead.

Driving Instructions:

  • From I25 take Exit 1 to University Av.
  • At the end of the ramp, turn east (toward the prominent Organ Mountains and Mt A) on University Av.
  • After 4.8 miles, turn right (south) onto Soledad Canyon Road.
  • After 0.6 miles, make a 90° left turn as Soledad Road lurches east.
  • After 3.4 more miles, turn right (south) onto Ladera Road.
  • After 0.5 miles you will pass three large dumpsters on your left. Just past the dumpsters, turn left onto a primative road towards the mountains. This year this road is rocky and gullied.
  • After 0.2 miles (if your vehicle can make it) park in the broad parking area at about 0.2 miles.

As on the trip into Achenback Canyon, my soft-suspended Camry did not make it the full 0.2 miles to the trailhead. Instead, I parked alongside the approach road (about a tenth of a mile from the trailhead).

Trailhead:

IMAG0156

View from trailhead to Organ Mountains. Mars canyon is the deeply shaded canyon above the person in the center.

The trailhead is a flat gravel area with room for at least a dozen cars. There are no amenities.

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Data

  • Map: USGS Organ Peak
  • Starting Elevation: 5140 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 6400 feet
  • Net Gain: 1400 feet (cumulative gain from bumps on ridge line is higher)
  • Distance: 5.3 miles

Hike:

If you stand in the trailhead and look towards the mountains you will see a deeply carved canyon to your left (just a little north of east). This is Mars Canyon. Reportedly, an executive at the Mars Corporation had a kid at NMSU and visited Las Cruces. They liked the area well enough to buy some property at the foot of the canyon and have opened the approach to the canyon on the condition that it be kept up. It has, there was no litter at all. Please help keep this resource open!

Approaching the mouth of the Mars Canyon

Approaching the north wall of Mars Canyon

There is a gravel road leaving from the north side of the parking lot toward the canyon. In about a quarter mile, go through a fence and approach the northern canyon wall. As you approach look up to the ridge line above the canyon and you will see a tiny, lone tree outlined against the sky. That tree is where you are heading. Enter the canyon. At this point the road becomes a trail, the trail then becomes a boot beaten tread and the tread then becomes a web of faint hopes and aspirations. There are cairns (rock piles) to help show the way, but as you go higher it becomes obvious that the best way is simply to stick to the stream bed in Mars Canyon.

Ascending Mars Canyon streambed

Ascending Mars Canyon streambed

This stream bed is mostly a forgiving place, but there is one short pitch that would require some climbing moves up to a chockstone. It can be avoided by exiting from the canyon bed to the left (looking uphill), about 20 feet before the pitch. That will take you on a steep hike to a small horn of rock, after which you can descend back into the bed above the chockstone.

In a little more than a mile from the trailhead the grade eases and you reach a col on the ridge line. You will be near that tree. To the east of the col you can see into Soledad Canyon. There is a good view of Chimney Rock and (to the northeast) the slopes of Sharks Tooth. Looking down you can see Soledad Canyon Road. From this col, make a short but steep ascent on the south side of the col.

Hikers in col above Mars Canyon

Hikers in col above Mars Canyon

Before reaching the top of this small prominence, the trail leaves the ridge and contours below the ridge top. Soon, the trail disappears completely. Continue southwest, parallel to Soledad Canyon road below and the ridge top above. In just less than half a mile the ridge line will turn a bit north of east, effectively pushing you out in to Soledad Canyon. Rise up over the ridge and drop down to the south. That will place you on the ridge that makes up the eastern most portion of Achenback Canyon.

IMAG0189

Gully carved into stone on gently inclined portion of ridge line.

At this point you get a short break while walking along a nearly flat and completely open ridge line. You can see east into the military-only section of Soledad Canyon and southwest into both Achenback and Ladera canyons. All too soon the terrain rises and, at about 2.5 miles from the trailhead reaches another ridge line prominence. Again, there is no actual trail here and our group stayed below the ridge top on the Soledad canyon side.

Descending from col above Ladera Canyon

Descending from col above Ladera Canyon

At about 2.8 miles reach a col that is crossed by an honest-to-goodness trail. A sign on the col warns that eastbound hikers are about to enter an artillery range. Head back to the car, to the west. Be warned, however, that you are entering Ladera Canyon and not Achenback. The most direct route to the car requires that you eventually pop over the small rise of land that separates these two canyons.

Hikers in arroyo in Ladera Canyon

Hikers in arroyo in Ladera Canyon

Continue downhill (Ladera means “hillside” in Spanish). The trail goes across several bushy drainages, crossing grassy flats and steeps, eventually making a sharp drop of about four feet over a bank and into an arroyo. (It appears from Google Maps that a trail resumes on the south side of the wash, however we simply kept to the bed of the wash as it tends west-south-west towards Mesilla Valley). After a half mile in the wash bottom, watch carefully for a trail coming in from the right. This will take you north, over that small height of land that divides Ladera and Archenback canyon. Near the bottom of Archenback the trail traverses an old earthen dam, presumably used at one time to hold water for livestock.

The trail stays on the northern side of the streamed, and reaches the Achenback Canyon waterfall (dry this time of year) in less than 0.4 miles. Snap some photos, and continue on the trail as it descends into the lower reaches of the canyon and back to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author near the top of Mars Canyon

Author near the top of Mars Canyon

This hike was arranged through the Jornada Hiking Club (a.k.a the Las Cruces Hiking Meetup). My thanks to Carol for leading us through beautiful terrain.

As always in the Organ Mountains, you will need to bring your water. In November my 3L supply was ample. There was one small source of open water, but it was inundated with insect life. It would be easy to miss and you probably wouldn’t want to use it unless you really had no alternatives. We had a mild day, but I suspect that any sort of breeze could make a wintertime hike uncomfortably chilly on those ridge lines.

This would be a great place to bring someone to practice navigation skills.  The ascent up Mars canyon is steep and long enough to be challenging, but not out of reach even for fairly young hikers. Like the hike straight up into Achenback, this makes a great training hike.

Overview:

2013-06-15 Bishops Cap 033 east side (portrait)It’s June – the days are hot and the demands on your time are intense.  What’s a hiker to do? Try this short and easy scramble. The trail raises just 1000 feet in a little over two miles. You can explore a little of the country near to Las Cruces and still get back in time to set up the barbecue.

Driving Directions:

  • Enter I25 heading south for El Paso from University Drive in Las Cruces
  • After 2.3 miles merge onto I-10 East (signed for El Paso).
  • After 8.8 (more) miles take exit 151 off of I10.
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn left onto unsigned paved road (heading east, towards the Organ Mts). This will take you over the highway and to a stop sign for the frontage road, Las Alturas Street. Go straight across the intersection. The road heads northeast, turns to gravel after  1.4 miles, and runs along the west and north boundaries of the Dona Ana County Liquid Waste Disposal Facility. At 3.3 miles the road goes under a power line. Just past this there is an intersection. A wide and well-tended road comes in from the left  (north), while the  road you’ve been driving on continues straight  (ENE) on a narrower and less carefully graded roadbed. Continue straight on the narrow road. In “Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area” Magee says that the road can become rougher at this point and high clearance vehicles might be needed, but as of this date the family sedan managed the road easily.
  • After 4.5 miles on the unsigned road, turn right and park at the trailhead. The trailhead is at the road’s closest approach to the cluster of hills that make up the Bishops Cap outlier.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead on the north end of the approach ridge

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead on the north end of the approach ridge

The trailhead is a gravel parking area next to a wash and immediately north of the main ridgeline for Bishops Cap/Pyramid Peak. It is made up of a short, U-shaped turn-out on the right side of the unnamed approach road. There are no amenities.

Data

  • Starting Elevation: 4400 feet
  • Ending Elevation:  5419
  • Net Elevation:  1020 feet
  • Distance:  2.2 miles one way
  • Map: USGS Bishop Cap, NM

Hike:

2013-06-15 Bishops Cap 009 morning sunlight on peak (better)

Sunrise on Bishops Peak from the jeep track at the start of the hike.

The terrain is open and in some places the tread is not obvious.  The general plan is to gain the main ridgeline (running north-south) and follow it to the summits of both Pyramid Peak and Bishops Cap.  Many other approaches are also possible.

2013-06-15 Bishops Cap 011 Pyramid shadow on basin floor

Shadow from the false summit, taken from the col immediately above the wash used to approach the ridge

From the trailhead, follow a jeep trail into the adjacent wash and downstream (away from the mountain) for a few feet until the road pulls up over the left bank of the wash. The road initially veers away from hills but a quarter mile from the trailhead it swings to the south and forks. Take the left hand fork back towards a small draw at the north end of the ridge.  The road enters the draw and begins to ascend on a small rib on the right side (south).  Shortly after, at 0.6 miles, it becomes a single-tread trail and, in less than 50 more yards, terminates in a col on the rib. There are good views out to the Mesilla Valley.

Cliffband above col on approach to ridge. Go right (south) to the first break in the cliffs.

Cliffband above col on approach to ridge. Go right (south) to the first break in the cliffs.

Look east to the major ridge above your head and see how the direct approach is guarded by a long cliff. Head south across country  on a climbing traverse. In 0.7  miles from the col enter a gully that has broken an opening into the cliff bands. Ascend the gully to the top of the major ridge.  If you look down on the lower reaches of this gully you will see that it cuts through successive layers of rocks. This succession of layers make it the look of an open-air amphitheater since the rock layers resemble a tier of curved benches. This can be useful – on return you will want to know where to descend from this long ridge.

2013-06-15 Bishops Cap 020 rock ledges on back side of first false summit (good)

View of numerous short cliff bands on the south side of the false summit. The bulk of the rock hopping is done over these small bands.

Follow the ridge line south. At 0.9 miles arrive at a false summit with excellent views of the broad valley that separates the Organ Mountains from the Bishop’s Cap outlier. The south side of the false summit consists of many small bands of rock, easily to down-climb but with no obvious tread.  The last of the rock-hopping is marked by a pair of cairns in the col below the false summit.

View south towards Franklin Mountains

View south towards Franklin Mountains

Ascend along the now gentle ridge line, rambling over several minor prominences until attaining the summit of Pyramid Peak at 1.5 miles.  From here there are views south to the Franklin Mountains, east to the other ridgelines of the Bishops Peak outlier, and north along the front face of the Organs. However the biggest attraction from Pyramid Peak is the “wedding cake” structure of Bishops Cap, south east from the summit.

2013-06-15 Bishops Cap 035 good view of swale and cliffs

The “swale” mentioned in the post is the opening in the middle cliff band that lies directly beneath the summit block

Descend southeast to the col below Bishops Cap at 2.0 miles. The mid-mountain cliff bands on Bishops Cap are broken by a broad swale. Ascend this steep swale, guarding against the rocks’ tendency to slide out from under your feet. As you near the top of the broken cliff bands, exit the swale to your right, onto a level shelf immediately above the right-hand cliff face. Above you will be another steep rock cliff, potentially a puzzle as to how to proceed. Scout the shelf to the west (towards Mesilla valley) and you will find a clear boot beaten trail that solves the puzzle. This tread brings you into a break in the cliff bands and rises to a steep grassy incline below the summit block.  At the base of the summit block the trail turns back east for just a few feet, to where a gully has been carved into the summit. Scamper up the gully. Footing in the gully is a little better to the right side, once you’ve entered.  Arrive at the summit in 2.2 miles. Descend the way you came.

Recommendations.

For folks in Las Cruces this is a great morning-away-from-home. It is more dramatic than Achenbach Canyon and not as time consuming as the Baylor Pass traverse over to Aguirre Springs. This particular Saturday-in-June eventually became quite hot, but by arriving at the trailhead at 6:00 it was possible to complete the hike under (mostly) cool temperatures. I saw no snakes, but have seen several online reviews suggesting that the terrain can rattle.

Author on Bishops Cap, Organ Mountains in background

Author on Bishops Cap, Organ Mountains in background

The first 0.6 miles on the jeep track described here is not terribly entertaining.  You can reduce the mileage and create a  wilder hiking environment by hiking the jeep track to the point where it begins turning west, away from the mountains (about 30 feet after leaving the wash). Look for a faint trail heading straight south towards the peak.  This faint trail will connect you to a very well established trail, go right. This trail rises slightly over the north end of the ridge, initially curving a little to the west then returning back east to enter the draw and reconnect with the jeep track.  The jeep track looked to be drivable for folks with high clearance vehicles and willing to negotiate entry and exit from the wash.

There are potential driving problems on the unsigned approach road. At the junction just past the power lines – where the approach road narrows – there was a bank of sand across the mouth of the narrowed road. Fortunately, other people in high clearance vehicles had packed down this sand enough that I could get past it. However, if you arrive just after a road grader has been by, you might not be as lucky. It could be handy to have a shovel in your car, if only to ensure you can escape once the hike is finished.

Overview

North, Middle and South Rabbit Ears from bed of Rabbit Ear Canyon North, Middle and South Rabbit Ear spires viewed from bed of Rabbit Ear Canyon

This report describes a short but surprisingly strenuous scramble in the Organ Mountains that reaches the summit of a spire called South Rabbit Ear. You depart the trailhead on an old mining road, traverse below the Organs on a well established trail, and then ascend into Rabbit Ear Canyon in the canyon bed. On ascent, I left the canyon bed and climbed up the steep gully that descends from the col between Middle Rabbit Ear and South Rabbit Ear. The gully was heavily vegetated and offered no obvious tread – an unpleasant and painfully slow brand of hiking. Movement becomes easier in the narrow cleft between Middle Rabbit Ear and South Rabbit Ear. The route from the col to the summit has stretches of class 3 climbing so you will want to be somewhat comfortable on rock. This writeup offers some suggestions on how to find a game trail that traverses from the base of the South Rabbit Ear summit block across to the canyon bed. The game trail gives you an easier path above the worst of the brush.

EDIT 2019 – the years go by and game trails disappear. See Barry’s description in the comments for an update!

Driving Directions

  • In Las Cruces, take Exit 6 from I-25 onto US 70 East (towards Alamogordo)
  • After 10.2 miles take the exit for NASA Road/Baylor Canyon. There isn’t much distance to the next right hand turn so get into the right hand lane as quickly as traffic permits.
  • After 0.2 miles, go right onto Baylor Canyon Drive
  • After 3.6 miles find the trailhead and park the car off to the side of the road.
Camry at the trailhead, just beyond a cattle guard in Baylor Canyon Drive Camry at the trailhead, just beyond a cattle guard in Baylor Canyon Drive

Baylor Canyon Drive continues, straight as an arrow, right past the unmarked trailhead.  Watch your odometer! The trailhead is just past a cattle guard, I think it is the 5th cattle guard you cross on Baylor Canyon Drive, but I’m not 100% certain. Look for the following trailhead clues. First, there should be a mining road heading up towards the mountains on the left side of the road, just past the cattle guard. Second, the mining road has a cattle guard of it’s own near its intersection with Baylor Canyon Drive.  Finally, on the opposite side of the road is another dirt road (in rough condition) heading down the mesa towards Las Cruces.

If you have a high clearance vehicle you can drive a ways on the mining road and save yourself some dull road side hiking. On this trip I opted to park beside Baylor Canyon Drive.

Trailhead

2013-6-01 70 Camry at trailheadThere are no amenities at this trailhead.

 

 

 

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Data

  • Starting elevation: 4950 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 8130 feet
  • Net Gain: 3180 feet
  • Distance: 3 miles one way.
  • Map: USGS Organ Peak

Hike

Mining gear (next to mine) below the front face of the Rabbit Ears Plateau Mining gear (next to mine) below the front face of the Rabbit Ears Plateau

Ascend the mining road.  In 0.9 miles you pass a stone ruin and in 1.4 miles you come to a Y in road. Stay left.  At 1.5 miles the road ends in long pile of tailings. The mine is above the road to your right if you wish to explore. Head directly over the tailings from the road to pick up the summit trail.

At 1.6 miles you will come to a trail junction marked by a cairn. Go left, traversing the front of the Organ Mountains and rising somewhat towards the mouth of Rabbit Ear Canyon. At 1.9 miles enter canyon bed.  Be sure to note this spot so you get correct exit on return.

North (front) Rabbit Ear and Middle Rabbit Ear (sharp spire) North (front) Rabbit Ear and Middle Rabbit Ear (sharp spire)

From the canyon mouth the bed initially rises to the east. Soon the North Rabbit Ear spire comes into view. At about 2.0 miles from the trailhead the canyon turns sharply south and begins rising more steeply. Both the North and the Middle Rabbit Ears are in sight. You will see a prominent “bump” of rock in the middle of the canyon (rising about 100 feet above the canyon bed). Keep to the right of the bump.  At about 2.6 miles you will pass the upper end of the bump at about 7000 feet of elevation.  At this point you should be able to see all three of the spires that make up the Rabbit Ears (see photo at top of the post).

2013-06-01 26 wall of Middle Rabbit Ear and South Rabbit Ear Gully leading up to col between Middle Rabbit Ear (cliff on left) and South Rabbit Ear (spire on right).

At 7200 feet, about 2.7 miles from the trailhead, you will find a gully formed by water draining from all three Rabbit Ears. After scouting around for a while I headed up this gully. I do not recommend this approach. The yucca, cholla cactus, and thorn bushes were pretty dense, so I ascended to a rib immediately above the gully and continued thrashing upward. Between the vegetation and the steep gravel surface my progress upward was awfully slow. Looking up and to my left I could see the entrance to the slot between the Middle Rabbit Ear and the South Rabbit Ear. A prominent boulder at the base of the South Rabbit Ear stood out by virtue of its dense covering of green lichen.  This “Green Gateway” rock – about 2.8 miles from the trailhead – was my target. Once there, I looked back and saw a tread/deer-path that traverses from high in the canyon to the base of South Rabbit Ear. On the return trip I followed that tread and it was much easier.

Lower part of ascent onto the summit block, class 3 rock. Lower part of ascent onto the summit block, class 3 rock.

Follow the slot between the steep and smooth walls of Middle and South Rabbit Ears, allowing yourself to wonder how anything in terrain like this might be construed as class 3.  At the top of the col you get narrow views of the Tularosa Basin and, directly below you, a look at the Aguirre Springs Campground.  If you look back the way you came you can see over the west wall of Rabbit Ear Canyon to Mesilla Valley.  Go back about 20 feet to get to the start of the climb up the summit block. This is hands-on-the-rock terrain and remains so for the short distance to the summit at 3.0 miles. There are only two or three places where the  moves are not obvious. For example, as you rise out of the col, about 80 feet up, there is a point where you have to stretch to get over a deep crack in the rock. On ascent the move is  straightforward, but pay attention to where the handholds are. On the descent the task of crossing this crack is a bit more taxing.

2013-06-01 40 Middle Rabbit Ear from summit Middle Rabbit Ear from summit of South Rabbit Ear. North Tularosa Basin is to the right. North Mesilla Valley is to the left.

From the summit you have tremendous views all around. The Middle Rabbit Ear is quite imposing.  Past it you can see north into a portion of White Sands National Monument. To the east lies the enormous swath of the Tularosa basin and the Sacramento Mountains.  Directly south lies the lower and upper Organ Needles. West, there is the Mesilla Valley. Other climbers have erected a summit cairn, but I did not see a summit register.

2013-6-01 57 view back toward rocky nub along primative trail Smooth grey rock protruding just above the vegetation. This view is looking uphill, the same as if you were ascending and trying to find the easiest path to the summit block.

Descend on the same route. At the Green Gateway you can avoid the worst bushes by traversing the line where the rock of the summit block gives way to shrubs. At the lowest point on the summit block, pick up the previously mentioned game trail as it contours towards a small rise of smooth rock that stands slightly higher than the surrounding vegetation (about 150 feet away).  From that rock, descend in open sandy terrain about 20 to 30 feet and pick up the trail as it continues to traverse high in the canyon. In another 300 feet the trail reaches a prominent white boulder (with a concave face )that is shaded by a juniper tree. At this point you’ve crossed above all the vexatious vegetation and are placed above the open terrain of the canyon bed.

2013-6-01 61 pine below a tongue of granite (departure) On the right is a pine tree growing just below a raised tongue of granite. This marks the point where you would start a rising traverse towards the low edge of the summit block (the block is just visible on the left). Click to enlarge.
2013-6-01 60 rock rib and (upper right) juniper and hollow boulder View across the granite slab (foreground) to the low granite ridge (rising from left to right) that diminishes back into the canyon floor at the upper right. To find the deer track, ascend towards the green juniper next to the white boulder in the upper right of the picture.

For future travel, note that this key location in the canyon bed is marked by a large pine tree immediately downhill of (and protected by) a tongue of granite.  See the top picture to the right. This pine appears to be quite close to the upper end of the canyon – the col between South Rabbit Ear and the Rabbit Ear Plateau.  If you have climbed to this spot then look to your left – there should be a wide slab of unvegetated granite that ends against a low granite wall. (Lower picture on right).  This wall peters out above your head, ending with that juniper shaded boulder.  If you find this boulder you’ve found a route to the Green Gateway.

Follow the canyon bed back towards the trail from the mine.  As you get into the space between the west canyon wall and the “bump” of rock I tried going to the left (close to the canyon wall). It was not a successful experiment. Stay near the bump.

Recommendations

Summit pose Summit pose

I took only three liters of water to hike for a day in the June sunshine. That was a mistake. I’d take two more liters in future travel. It might be an even better idea to reserve the hike for the cooler months.

Hiking back down that mining road is something of a chore. Someone with a high clearance vehicle could chop off a half-mile or so of the descent. For soft-suspended cars, such as the mighty Camry, I don’t recommend going up the mining road at all. It quickly becomes a boulder strewn assault on your oil pan.

This is not a hike for your acrophobic friends. Nor is it a good place to bring first time hikers. Take this scramble with well conditioned hiking companions who have some experience with rock climbs. The views are outstanding.