Archives for posts with tag: Organ Mountains

Overview:

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

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

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

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

Trailhead:

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

Needle's eye gap in barbed wire fence near trailhead

Needle’s eye gap in barbed wire fence near trailhead

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

View of Pine Pass from parkland in bottom of Indian Hollow

View of Pine Pass from parkland in bottom of Indian Hollow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of Sugarloaf from the west.

View of Sugarloaf from the west.

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

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

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

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

..

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

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

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

Trail sign at the top of Pine Pass

Trail sign at the top of Pine Pass

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

Recommendations:

13 Author on bump above Pine Pass

Author on bump above Pine Pass

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

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

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

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

15 Organ Needle

View of Organ Needle from ridge above Pine Pass

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

Links:

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

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

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

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.

..

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:

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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:

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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.

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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.