Archives for posts with tag: San Mateo Mountains
Sheer canyon walls and level wash

Overview:

A feast of iconic western imagery, Potato Canyon proffers sheer canyon walls, gigantic trees, wildlife, a brief slot canyon and easy hiking into the heart of the lonesome Withington Wilderness. In the hike’s uppermost reaches (barely touched in this route description) there is evidence of a recent fire. This route would be a national treasure were it not for the last six miles of the drive. Those miles are hostile. Hikers possessing a high clearance vehicle and a high tolerance for care-filled driving should pack packs and go.

Driving Directions:

True!

Stretches of this drive are ugly. A high-suspension, four-wheel drive vehicle is required (alas). In its steeper sections the forest road slaloms between boulders and quakes under extended piles of loose rock.

It is a shame because the hike up to the waterfall is as family-friendly as any hike in New Mexico.


  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
    • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
    • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
  • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
    • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
    • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
    • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 (well signed).
  • After 26.4 miles on US-60, at the far end of the town of Magdelana, turn left onto NM-107 South (well signed).
    • NM-107 is paved for the first 4.3 miles, then turns to gravel. The current roadbed is in exceptionally good shape.
  • After 16.8 miles on NM-107 turn right onto Forest Road 52 (FR-52).
    • FR-52 is very rough. High clearance vehicles only. The Subaru made it, but at the cost of abuse to the suspension and tires.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 3.3 miles on FR-52 turn left onto FR-56
    • FR-56 is signed “Not fit for passenger cars“. This is correct.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 2.7 miles on FR-56 pull out onto the two-track going up Potato Canyon.
    • FR-56 drops into Big Rosa Canyon and stays there. This could be an exceptionally poor choice of parking during monsoon season.
    • At 2.1 miles the road enters the main canyon wash and the roadbed becomes significantly better!
    • The Potato Canyon trailhead is signed (see below), although the sign is getting shot-up.

Trailhead:

The Subaru in its native heath

The trailhead is a flat spot beside a two-track going up Potato Canyon. Don’t leave your vehicle on the two-track. On this date there were ATV tire tracks in the canyon bed for the first half-mile. Clearly, people do drive here. There is a shot-up sign saying, “Potato Tr”. There is no water, toilet, or trash service at the trailhead.

Data:

On this date I used a new GPS, which gathered only 44 data points. My old GPS would have collected more than 1000. Know that the track does not reflect the twists in the canyon, so distances are likely to be underestimated.

  • lowest point: 6706 feet
  • highest point: 8728 feet
  • net elevation: 2020 feet
  • distance: 5.7 miles (one way, may be understated)

Hike Description:

Depart Big Rosa Canyon by hiking the two-track west into Potato Canyon. The two-track gets lost amidst small waves of gregarious boulders and a web of gullies. The terrain is not bad for hiking, but a battering to wheeled vehicles. The canyon has the feel of a movie-set; a dry land of lonesome ponderosa, ancient alligator juniper, layered sandstone, numerous deer tracks and vertical canyon walls. The broad wash writhes, yet the footing is usually so good you can afford to stare at your surroundings. 

Early view into Potato Canyon

In a quarter mile, just past a sign for the Withington Wilderness, enter the first deep section of the canyon. Here the waters have cut down through a tall intrusion of hard rock. The south side of the canyon is a wall of this rock, but the north is far less steep; grassy and sunlight even in the early morning of a late fall day. Rather chilly (early in the morning) but the shaded nature of this hike is one of its biggest attractions. 

Foot thick gray oak

Inside the canyon there is an unexpected mixture of trees. Ponderosa pines have crept down this cool and moist environment, oddly competing with alligator juniper for the canyon’s resources. Many trees are outsized. Gray oak, for example, is typically encountered as brush. In this sun protected bottom, however, one old Gray flaunted a foot-thick bole armored with bark as corrugated as the bark of a Douglas fir. Similarly outsized Gambel oaks and big pinyon pines are everywhere. Amazing.

Western iconography

The first navigation challenge comes at 1.7 miles, in the junction of two canyons. The confluence bed is quite broad, flat and densely forested. You may need to scout around, but take the fork going southwest, not the very-prominent fork heading north of west. (That is, stay to your left, heading uphill). On this date a pretty run of water surfaced in mid-wash just west of this junction. Tracks show that turkey, deer and a cat (likely a bobcat) use this watering hole.  

Deadfall

Hiking on a sandy tread can blow out your calves. It is much more stressful than walking a regular trail of similar grade. Grit creeps into your boots. Even with gaiters you may need to stop now and then for a break to clear the those insoles. Deadfall crosses the wash, wherever running waters have undercut a tree. (In these cases you can often get around the barrier by walking past the rootball, the fall usually pulls the rootball from the bank). Some of these fallen trees make excellent benches.

Waterfall (path is to right)

At 4.0 miles the bed of the canyon rockets skywards and water sluices down its face. In early November the shadowed walls of this box can be decorated with ice. The waterfall is a navigation puzzle – look to the north side (to your right looking upstream) for the path forward. The last few steps of this path are right at the edge of the waterfall and somewhat exposed. For acrophobes it may be best to have lunch at the base of the falls and return. Others should continue on. There is a short but terrific little slot canyon immediately above the waterfall.  

Short slot Canyon

Above the slot canyon the wide wash regains control. At 4.3 miles come to the another navigational issue at a confluence of canyons. A wide, smooth wash sweeps into the junction from the southerly branch (to your left), very tempting! A much more jumbled wash comes in from the northerly branch and ends atop a three foot embankment, forming a “hanging wash”. Go northerly, clambering onto the hanging wash and continuing uphill.

Middle finger rock

This mellow beach stroll continues onward and at 5.2 miles swings due west to open up views of Mt Withington. So close! Here the grade begins to increase significantly. Scan the northern bank (on your right while ascending) for cairns that lead you steeply up into the northerly branch of the next junction. Almost immediately above this junction the trail takes a four-foot vertical leap straight up off of the canyon floor and onto the terrain that separates the two branches. The ground directly above this “leap” is only slightly less than vertical. Imagine rock-climbing, but on marginally consolidated soil. Turning back before the leap would have been the reasonable thing to do. Without making any recommendation, it is possible but exposed to climb from tree to tree until reasonable “footing” reappears. On the narrow strip of land between the canyon branches continue on the steep climb. The tread, submerged under blackened debris, dodges between roasted tree trunks. A cluster of stone pillars topped by “middle finger rock” appears. Is that a sign? Have something to eat, think over your options, and if retreat seems good then return the way you came.

(Note: for those aiming at the summit of Mount Withington, keep an eye out for a fork in the trail that appears before you encounter that rude rock. This fork is obscured by a huge old log that has fallen into the tread in three, large and rotting chunks. One fork of the trail goes down to the “southerly” canyon branch – left on ascent – and that may be the best way forward).

Recommendations:

Go.

Don’t go if there is rain in the forecast. The bottom of Big Rosa Canyon (part of the approach drive) is said to be subject to flash flooding. The slot canyon is short, but for a slot canyon it is unusually awkward to negotiate.

Wear gaiters to keep sand out of your shoes.

Check your vehicle’s spare tire and jack before going. Have spare water and warm backup clothing in the vehicle. The Withington really is wilderness.

The remoteness of this hike makes extra care worthwhile. If you’ve been lightening your pack by sacrificing some optional medical supplies you may want to temporarily restore them.

Links:

A rock climbing site explains that Potato Canyon is named for The Great Potato rock formation found on the San Mateo ridgeline, high above the canyon. The photos are great.

A. Jackson Frishman has done an excellent job of capturing the feel of Potato Canyon at the FrishmanPhoto site. Scroll down to the second photograph.

Similarly, the writeup at DoughScottArt has a terrific photo of the waterfall, which gets named as the “Pink Cascade”. The text cautions that the Cascade disappears during the dry seasons, and a very clear map indicates exactly where to expect to find the cascade.

At the Wilderness 50 Challenge site the author makes some pointed remarks about the inadvisability of taking a sedan into the Wilderness (based on actual experience).

There is a thoughtful writeup of this trail (PDF, scroll to page 35) from the Forest Service. They give a pretty detailed description and caution, as mentioned above, that water does not always flow in the canyon. It is surprising to see this trail given a “most difficult” rating, but they explain that the primitive condition of the tread and the remoteness of the area serve to weight the decision.

A writeup in the Albuquerque Journal suggests that passenger vehicles can make this drive, despite the signs suggesting otherwise. Please note that this writeup comes from 1999!

The NMTrails website includes a trip report from 2017. The author notes the difficulty of finding the trail once you enter the old burn, and the stark incisions made into the flanks of Mount Withington by flooding after the fire.

Overview:

View of Vicks Peak from Forest Road 225

View of Vicks Peak from Forest Road 225. Doubleclick to enlarge.

This scramble takes you into the wild and lonely sky-islands of the San Mateo Mountains in Socorro County, New Mexico. It begins on the mellow bottomlands of Rock Springs Canyon, springs onto steep boulder fields near the San Mateo ridge line and finishes with a pathless ascent of the forested summit on Vick’s Peak. Don’t bring novice hikers. The route is short, strenuous and spectacular.

Driving Directions:

Nearing the Springtime Campground on the upper reaches of Nogal Canyon. Vicks Peak at top center.

Nearing the Springtime Campground on the upper reaches of Nogal Canyon. Vicks Peak at top center.

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate 25 (I-25) heading north.
  • After 99.7 miles take exit 100 for Red Rock
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn west (left) on an unsigned road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at a T-interesection with NM-1. Turn north (right) onto NM-1.
  • After 4.7 miles arrive at the junction where Forest Road-225 meets NM-1. The junction is well signed. Turn west (left) onto FR-225, which is a gravel road.
  • After 15.9 miles arrive at the trailhead. The road is rough in places. In a family sedan it may take longer to travel this 16 mile stretch than the entire rest of the trip. Here are a few landmarks to look for:
    • After 13.5 miles on FR-225 come to a junction where 225A continues straight ahead to Springtime Campground and FR-225 makes a sharp left. The junction is well signed. Go left. Soon the road begins to climb and is steep in places.
    • After 15.3 miles on FR-225 come to cattle guard on a height of land.  Two rough side roads come in on your left –  one before the cattle guard and one just past the cattle guard. Stay on FR-225.
    • After 15.9 miles on FR-225, after a long and remarkably straight descent from the height of land, the road makes a gentle rightward curve and then a sharp leftward bend. An old mining road comes in from the driver’s right. Park just past the intersection.

FR-225 is drivable but in places it will be pretty hard on your suspension. In several places it crosses canyon beds – bad places to be stuck if a heavy rainstorm is drenching the mountains above.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the trailhead. The old mining road coming down from above/right of the car.

Cliffs on Vick’s Peak tower over the Mighty Camry at the trailhead.  The mining road can be glimpsed coming down to the right of the car.

The trailhead is just a small and rough parking spot beside Forest Road 225. There are no services. Folks driving high clearance vehicles may be able to drive the old mining road 150 feet to a wide and safe parking area

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7760 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,256 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2500 feet
  • Distance: 2.4 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Vicks Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Game trail on grassy canyon bottom at the start of the scramble.

Game trail on grassy canyon bottom near the start of the scramble.

From the car, head up the mining road for 150 feet. You will find an opening in the trees with lots of parking space and a rock fire-ring on the left side of the road. A gate bars the road just a little further along. Turn uphill (right) and enter the open and frequently grass-covered bed of Rock Springs Canyon. There is no trail and no navigation problem. Simply probe uphill near the canyon bed, skirting around debris piles and pushing past occasional thickets. The open nature of the terrain is due to the big ponderosa pine that shade the canyon. You could hardly ask for a nicer way to warm up for a scramble. If you stay a bit high on the south side of the canyon (the left side going uphill) you may find yourself on an old mining road crisscrossed with deadfall. The road is faster, but the canyon bottom is more attractive.

View to South Gatepost from the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon

View to South Gatepost from the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon

After hiking 0.9 miles from the trailhead you will find yourself walking between matched cliffs on the south and north sides of the canyon. These I’ve termed The Gateposts, since they separate the lower portion of the canyon from the upper reaches. They are worth noting, since they act as navigation beacons when viewed from the main San Mateo ridge line.

A drift of bleached logs, four to six inches in diameter, tangled on the canyon bottom.

A drift of bleached logs, four to six inches in diameter, tangled on the canyon bottom.

Past the gateposts the terrain steepens. Ponderosa and pinyon pines dominate the bottom of the canyon, while Gambel Oak thickets hold the walls. There is less room to navigate around debris piles. As you ascend watch for waterways coming in from the north (from your right, looking uphill) as some are quite prominent. A moment’s inattention could send you on an unexpected journey. A big cliff dominates the canyon above you and it can make an explorer uneasy – what sort of tricky maneuvering might be needed to get past such a wall? At 1.3 miles you will find your answer. There is a pinch point where the cliff wall lunges towards Vicks peak. Thwarted, it leaves a canyon narrows for you to ascend in safety and comfort. Even the debris piles thin out here, presumably carried off by storms past.

A rock spire lofts towards the sky (left) while on the right is an opening to a boulder field.

A rock spire lofts towards the sky (left) while on the right is an opening to a boulder field.

Enjoy the shade while it lasts. The footing on the canyon bottom becomes increasingly rubbly. On your left you will see breaks in the woods where piles of shattered rock hold the forest’s encroachment at bay. On your right the canyon wall becomes a palisade of dizzying rock spires. Eventually, those spires will force you out of the forest and onto the rock piles. This is not pebble-size scree nor fist-sized talus, but a rather a slope containing small boulders – on average about the size of a basketball. Continue your westerly ascent along the shallowest gradient available. The footing is not bad, but your pace will probably slow considerably.

Cliff above boulder field, descending to the right. At the end of this decent is a snag, dead at its to but  retaining a green skirt of living branches at its base.

The main cliff above the boulder field, descending to the right. At the end of this descent is a snag, dead at its top but retaining a green skirt of living branches at its base.

The boulder field broadens dramatically as you ascend. After a steeper pitch the terrain benches and you will be able to see to the main San Mateo ridge. Above you, about mid-way up the remaining boulder field, you will see a tree that has lost all of its upper branches but retains a dense green “skirt” of living lower branches. Reach this tree having hiked 1.7 miles from the trailhead. On this date I turned directly for Vicks Peak to the south, a steep ascent up a loosely piled boulder field. There are alternatives. Consider staying on the lowest incline to reach a saddle on the main San Mateo ridge. The footing will probably be better and you should be able to follow the ridge to the peak.

Boulder field on Vick's Peak, looking toward

Boulder field on Vick’s Peak, looking out toward “Pestle Ridge”. The Gatepost cliffs are prominent in the center of the photo.

To follow the route used on this date, depart from the “skirted” tree towards the largest cliff to the south. The footing is tricky since many of the boulders are only loosely held in place. There is a scattering of trees at the base of the cliff (shown in the photo above). The trees provide detritus for moss to grow in, and the moss plus soil helps to stablize the slope. High above the boulder field you will see a dense forest. A “finger” of this forest extends down the slope. When you rise high enough, about 1.9 miles from the trailhead, leave the base of the cliff and contour southeast to reach this narrow strip of forest. It is much easier to ascend on the duff that carpets this forested segment. Stay to the left side of this narrow strip of forest, looking southeast over the upper end of the boulder field. You will want to avoid the false summit that lies north-north-west of Vick’s Peak, so you need to work your way a little further southeast.  About 200 feet below the upper end of the boulder field leave the narrow strip of forest and cross 100 – 200 feet of boulder field to enter the main forest.

Climber's tread on the ridge to Vick's Peak

Climber’s tread on the ridge to Vick’s Peak

The high flanks of Vick’s Peak are covered with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and occasional aspen groves. Performing a rising traverse through this forest is tricky. Pathfinders often fail to climb enough on such traverses. You will want a compass and experience navigating with it. True north is 12-degrees west of magnetic north in this area. Set your compass’s declination and follow a bearing of 184 degrees from true north. Familiarize yourself with the local landmarks so you can descend the same route. At 2.1 miles from the trailhead come to the ridge that joins Vick’s Peak to its false summit. Pause to make certain that you will recognize this point on descent, where you will exit the ridge. Then turn south (to your left as you get onto the ridge) and follow the ridge as it ascends gently through open forest. There is a faint path, but in places the tread fans out into game trails and in other places it briefly disappears. Simply staying on the ridge will get you to the summit.

San Mateo Mountain (left), false summit on Vick's Peak (right) and beyond to the San Agustin Plains

San Mateo Mountain (left), false summit on Vick’s Peak (right) and beyond to the San Agustin Plains

At 2.4 miles from the trailhead the forest gives way to summit meadow. A tall cairn stands at the summit. I did not find a summit register. There are at least two brass plaques marking where the Geodesic Survey has surveyed the peak. You can pick out the Caballo Cone on the north end of the Caballo Range, the long sweep of the Black Range, high South Baldy in the Magdalena Range, the Manzano Mountains, the San Andreas Mountains and the Fra Cristobal Range. Close up, there are terrific views to the false summit on Vick’s Peak and nearby San Mateo Mountain. A vigorous party could descend north-north-west to the saddle holding Myer’s Cabin (being wary of mine shafts) and ascend San Mateo Peak before returning. Are you feeling oppressed by rapidly developing cumulus clouds? Snap some quick photos, grab a bite to eat and scamper back the way you came.

Recommendations:

The author, blocking your views to the Magdalena Mountains.

The author, blocking your views to the Magdalena Mountains.

Last week I visited this same area and made a few recommendations that can be found here.

The upper boulder field used on ascent for this route is steep and the rocks are not well consolidated. If you ascended to the “skirted tree” but continued upward on the low-angle portion of the field to the San Mateo ridge line, then you may find better footing. From the saddle you should be able to follow the ridge as it arcs southwest and then south (over Vick’s false summit) to attain the true summit.

This hike averages about 1000 feet per mile. The gentle grade in the first mile assures you of harsher grades in the last mile. You will need to expend considerable effort at altitudes that reach 10,256-feet. Altitude sickness is a real possibility. A good summary of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness can be found here.

The wind over Vick’s Peak was more than merely cool. At noon on a day in late May the wind was positively chilly. That, plus the discovery of a micro-snowfield lingering between boulder-field rocks, tells you that an emergency bivouac would be icy. Pack fleece.

There are two San Mateo Ranges in New Mexico. If you are looking for maps or other guides to this region, make certain that you are getting data on the San Mateo Range in Socorro County, not the range in Cibola County!

Links:

As mentioned last week, there isn’t much data on hiking into Rock Springs Canyon. This week I extended the search into hunting or rock-hounding web sites. No luck! You will be entirely on your own once you drive FR-225 past the fork to Springtime Campground.

Anna has done the hard work involved in downloading the map data and making it available to everyone. You can find the route data at Gaia GPS, https://www.gaiagps.com/public/l3bsL2NH45BEjZH55pnHppR0/?layer=GaiaTopoRasterFeet

Overview:

Vicks Peak seen from FR-225. Rock Springs Canyon  is the darkly shadowed canyon coming in from the right side.

Vicks Peak seen from FR-225. Rock Springs Canyon is the darkly shadowed canyon coming in from low on the right side.

This scramble takes you into the high, cool and extraordinarily beautiful San Mateo Mountains of Socorro County. (There is a second “San Mateo Range” up north in Cibolo County, NM). Vick’s Peak climbs to over 10,000-feet at the southern end of the range. Rock Springs Canyon begins up on Vick’s northern flank, descends to the east and then wraps to the south at the base of the peak. The south wall of the canyon is formed by the spectacular cliff faces of Vick’s Peak. The north wall of Rock Springs Canyon is made of an ancillary ridge that begins on the north-south ridgeline of the San Mateo Mountains and juts out to the east. This ridge is an unnamed wonderland of cliffs and hoodoos, separating Corn Canyon to the north from Rock Springs Canyon to the south. Questionable navigation choices took me up its steep and oak-entangled flanks. I starting thinking of this ridge as “Pestle Ridge” because it ground down my scrambling ambitions the way a rock pestle grinds down corn.  As an alternative, future explorers may want to try following the canyon bottom all the way to the main ridge line.

Driving Directions:

  • Sobering overcast at Exit 100 off of Interstate-25

    Worrisome overcast at Exit 100 off of Interstate-25

    From Lohman Drive in Las Cruces, enter Interstate 25 (I-25) heading north.

  • After 98.0 miles take exit 100 for Red Rock
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn west (left) on an unsigned road.
  • After 0.3 miles arrive at a T-interesection (stop sign) with NM-1. Turn north (right) onto NM-1.
  • After 4.7 miles arrive at the junction where Forest Road-225 meets NM-1. The junction is well signed. Turn west (left) onto FR-225, which is a gravel road.
  • After 15.9 miles arrive at the trailhead. The road is rough in places. In a family sedan it may take longer to travel this 16 mile stretch than the entire rest of the trip. Here are a few landmarks to look for:
    • After 13.5 miles on FR-225 come to a junction where 225A continues straight ahead to Springtime Campground and FR-225 makes a sharp left. The junction is well signed. Go left. Soon the road begins to climb and is steep in places.
    • After 15.3 miles on FR-225 come to a cattle guard on a height of land.  Two rough side roads come in on your left, one before the cattle guard and the other just after. Stay on FR-225.
    • After 15.9 miles on FR-225, after a long and remarkably straight descent from the height of land, FR-225 makes a gentle curve to the right and then a sharp leftward bend. An old mining road comes in from the right. Park just past the intersection.

FR-225 is drivable but in places it will be pretty hard on your suspension. There are aged tracks from road-grading machinery, so it has received reasonably recent attention. In several places it dives into canyon beds – bad places to be caught if a heavy rainstorm is drenching the mountains above.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry, parked at the sharp turn on FR225 (going left) with an old road coming in from the right.

The Mighty Camry, parked at the sharp turn on FR225 (going left) with an old road coming in from the right.

Immediately below the intersection of the old mining road and FR-225 there is a parking spot large enough for one car. The surface is uneven – I had to jack up the Camry to free it from a protrusion – but it gets your car off the narrow confines of FR-225. The mining road itself is very rough, but drivers with high clearance vehicles can ascend the steep initial 50 feet to find a broad and safe parking area. The trailhead is informal and no services are provided.

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 7800 feet
  • Ending elevation: 9600 feet
  • Net elevation gain: 1800 feet
  • Distance: 1.9 miles one way
  • Maps: USGS Vicks Peak, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

A stack of cliff faces high on Vick's Peak

Stacks of cliff faces high on Vick’s Peak (double-click to enlarge).

The original plan for this post was to describe a route to the main ridge line of the Magdalena Mountains via Rock Springs Canyon. It was hoped that it might become a guide to summiting Vick’s Peak as well. As Mr. Burns gleefully notes, plans “gang aft agley“. In fact, the experience did not produce very much in terms of a scramble guide. Treat this post, instead, as a summary of how to spend a splendid day lost in one of New Mexico’s grandest sky islands. If it encourages you to explore this part of the San Mateos then that would be great.

Grassy, open terrain in the lowest stretches of Rock Springs Canyon.

Grassy, open terrain in the lowest stretches of Rock Springs Canyon.

There are two ways to start the scramble. You can walk up FR-225 for about 50 feet and enter directly into the main bed of the canyon. However, it is a bit more pleasant to hike up the old mining road for 150 feet to a point where you can see the sign on a gate blocking further motor vehicle travel. (Look for a stone fire-ring on your left). Turn off the road on the uphill side and enter the canyon bottom. The terrain is open, shaded and grassy. There is no trail, but here in the canyon bottom there are no navigation difficulties. You will encounter some thickets and occasional deadfall, but there is plenty of room to move around such barriers.

Initial view to the

Initial view to the “northern gatepost” at the start of the upper canyon.

This is the domain of ponderosa pine interspersed with alligator juniper and the occasional pinyon pine. The initial slope is very mellow. If a formal trail were to be introduced here it would be considered family friendly. After a half a mile you will begin to get glimpses into the upper canyon. This terrain is distinguished by a pair of cliffs that pinch in on both the north and south sides of Rock Springs Canyon – naturally occurring gateposts separating the high country. The rock is spectacular. Up close you can see that the northern gatepost is well on its way to being carved into hoodoos.

A portion of the

A view down-canyon to the topmost portion of the “southern gatepost” on the sides of Pestle Ridge.

Just past the gateposts, about 0.9 miles from the trailhead, encounter an opening in the trees. For unclear reasons a grove of ponderosa is dying – many trees are plainly dead snags and others in the last stages of losing their brown needles. This sad opening does give you a glimpse into the canyon’s highest reaches. As you would expect, there are numerous cliff faces on the famously rocky flanks of Vick’s Peak. It was unsettling to note the many towering outcrops that appear on the “Pestle Ridge” side of the canyon as well. Worried about getting trapped in the bottom of a box canyon, I took a look at the terrain leading directly up hill towards the top of Pestle Ridge. In the low part of the canyon the terrain was open and the walls were not especially steep. Turning directly uphill, I started wandering towards a prominent fin of rock. For the record, this is not a recommended route.

08 fin and rockfall on flanks of Pestle Ridge

The fin of rock (and open rockfall) that lured me onto the steep flanks of Pestle Ridge.

My naive hopes for an easy approach to the main San Mateo ridgeline were crushed as the pines gave way to steep and dry terrain on which Gambel Oak intertwined with mountain mahogany, punctuated with “shin dagger” agave. This kind of bush-bashing is a way of life in the Organ Mountains, where you expect to encounter long reaches of importunate vegetation. But this was the San Mateo Range, home to fine wandering terrain like San Mateo Peak and the trail to Myers Cabin!  A more experienced New Mexico explorer would have turned around after penetrating just 20 feet into this vegetative miasma. After all, there would have been nothing wrong with following the bed of Rock Springs Canyon into a high (and possibly impassable) box end. Instead, lured by glimpses of pine high above, a kind of mindless, “straight at em” mantra took over my navigational thinking. It took an hour and a quarter to gain the 800 feet to the ridge top. This at considerable cost to pants, shirt, hat, bootlaces and hands. This is not how experienced scramblers navigate a wonderland.

South Baldy (right) and North Baldy (left) in the Magdalena Range.

View to what I now think is Carrizo Peak (right) and perhaps Lone Mountain (left). The original post mis-identified the mountains as North Baldy and South Baldy, but these peaks are too far away and too far south to be in the Magdalenas.

In contrast, the top of Pestle Ridge is just about everything a scrambler could ask for. It is a rise-and-fall ramble in a ponderosa and Doug fir forest with outstanding views across Rock Spring Canyon to the summit of Vicks Peak. There are equally inspiring views north-north-east, across Mulligan trough to the bold prominences of South Baldy Peak and North Baldy Peak in the Magdelana Mountains. Beautiful terrain. The hours had gone by, however, and my turn-around time arrived at a point just a few hundred feet below the the main San Mateo ridgeline. This area is calling out for further exploration.

View to false summit on Vick's Peak from the turn-back point.

View to false summit on Vick’s Peak from the turn-back point.

Return to the low point on Pestle Ridge and take note of a gently sloping draw that looks like a better route for returning to the canyon bottom. In fact, it proves to be an excellent alternative. There were short steep pitches, but these were never long and don’t require any climbing moves. The chief difficulty is that the bottom of the draw is occasionally debris-chocked. You have to move around or over these piles of log and brush. If the upper end of the main canyon proves impassable then this draw would be a very handy alternative. The draw segues almost imperceptibly into the main bed of Rock Springs Canyon. (Future explorers who wish to remain in the main canyon on their ascent should stay close to the north side – the left hand side looking uphill). Return to the trailhead via the canyon bottom.

Recommendations:

The author at the turn-back point.

The author at the turn-back point.

♦This is a beautiful spot. I doubt that I’ve seen anything more attractive anywhere in New Mexico. Scramblers who are in good shape ought to put this high in the to-do list. Bring a camera, a sense of adventure and a couple strong friends.

♦I can’t think of any reason why anyone, anywhere or at any time might want to follow my track up the wall of “Pestle Ridge”. Instead, try exploring the bottom of Rock Springs Canyon all the way to the main San Mateo ridge line. Alternatively, ascend the draw that was used on this day’s descent. Edit: see this post for a route description that takes you up Rock Springs canyon to the summit of Vicks Peak.

♦Rock Springs Canyon was entirely dry on this date. Bring all the water that you might need.

♦This is a scramble in wild terrain! A map, compass and navigation skills are essential. A GPS is a great tool – I had mine with me – but be careful of leaving your navigation needs to something that can break or run out of battery power. Vick’s Peak is heavily forested above the main ridge line and has distinct navigation challenges.

♦As mentioned in the driving directions, Forest Road 225 crosses several canyon bottoms and even follows along the canyon beds for short sections. A drenching rainstorm in the San Mateos could make your exit drive far more exciting that anyone could hope for. Bring lots of patience, at least one shovel and a pick if you come to the San Mateos with rain in the forecast.

♦Also, FR-225 gets bumpy where rocky shelves appear in the road. These were blasted out to make the original road, but they can be very rough on your car’s springs and shocks. Ditto for those places where previous drivers have churned up a muddy road bed and then left it to harden into contorted gullies. Oil pans are fragile things, go slow and careful. Where FR-225 makes long descents, consider shifting your vehicle into first gear.

Links:

Searches for “Rock Springs Canyon” AND “San Mateo” turns up a list  sites where they offer geological place names or location data (or “nearby” hotels!). This scramble seems to be missing from all of the usual sources for hike information including Trail.Com and SummitPost.Com. There are more hits with “Vicks Peak”, but all the ones I read suggest approaching either from the Springtime Campground to the north or from Burma Road to the south. Evidently, Rock Springs Canyon is a little too lonesome even for the internet.

Overview:

San Mateo Mountains ridge line (roughly where San Mateo Peak is) as seen from Forest Road 225

San Mateo Mountains ridge line (roughly where San Mateo Peak is) as seen from Forest Road 225

Many trails in central New Mexico suffer (if that is the word) from a lack of attention. The Apache Kid Trail No. 43 is a spectacular exception. A well engineered tread takes you from the Springtime Campground up the headwaters of Nogal Canyon and then along the ridge line of the San Mateo Mountains. The tread is obvious and trail junctions are well signed. Water was (on this occasion) abundantly available at the San Mateo spring. There is a short stretch of downed trees as you leave the Apache Kid Trail for the San Mateo Peak Lookout Trail, but that stretch is easily passed. Folks who aren’t acclimated should know that the summit elevation is just over 10-thousand feet. The ridge and summit are heavily forested, so you will need to climb the fire tower to get 360-degree views. That tower is not in full repair.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, get onto I-25 North
  • After 97.3 miles, take the exit ramp for Exit 100, Red Rocks.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left (west) on an unsigned road. This road will take you over the highway.
  • After 0.3 more miles, at a T-intersection, turn right onto NM-1 (north)
  • After 4.6 more miles, just past a sign for Forest Road-225, turn left (west) onto FR-225
  • After 13.2 more stony and bumpy miles, come to a junction where FR-225 makes a hard left and FR-225A continues straight. Go straight ahead on FR-225A.
  • After 0.4 miles come to the Springtime Campground, your trailhead. Park just before a cattle-guard in the campground. If you look just uphill of the cattle-guard you will see a Forest Service sign for the Apache Kid Trail (the sign is small).

If you are driving south on I-25, say from Albuquerque, then it may be useful to use a slightly different route described in the Myer’s Cabin report.

FR-225 is a gravel road that crosses several arroyos. It can be driven in a family sedan, but at low speed if you value your alignment. Running water could make your exit a little more exciting than hoped, so keep an eye on the weather and perhaps carry a shovel in the vehicle.

The mighty Camry parked below dawn-illuminated cliffs at the campground.

The mighty Camry parked below dawn-illuminated cliffs at the campground.

Trailhead:

The Springtime Campground has three-sided shelters, vault toilets, picnic benches and grills. Reports say that water in the campground is not reliable. A pipe descending from a spring to the campsite was making promising gurgling sounds, but it was not easy to find the outlet. It’s best to bring your own water.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7,560 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 10,139 feet
  • Net Gain: 2,580 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles, one way
  • maps: USGS Vick’s Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Apache Kid Trail sign just uphill of the cattle-guard in the Springtime Campground

Apache Kid Trail sign just uphill of the cattle-guard in the Springtime Campground

From the trailhead, head up-canyon on the Apache Kid Trail. The headwaters of Nogal Canyon is a complex of converging stream beds. After 0.4 miles the trail makes a feint into a drainage coming in from the east, abruptly switchbacks west, crosses over a small rib and places you along a second waterway descending from the north. The canyon walls are generally eroded, but every now and then a sharp needle of tougher rock leaps for the sky – spectacular in the light of the rising sun.

Spires of stubborn stone and views east to the headwaters of Springtime Canyon.

Spires of stubborn stone and a peek east towards the headwaters of Springtime Canyon.

At 1.1 miles come to the point of departure from the canyon bottom. Switchbacks come hard and fast as the trail strives for altitude. This is the sun drenched domain of pinyon pine and alligator juniper. It is sufficiently open that good views open to the surrounding canyon walls and down-canyon to the graben holding the Rio Grande. Eventually the switchbacks themselves give up and the trail contours south and west to reach a rib descending from the main ridge line. Rising north on this ridge the tread passes several possible campsites.

Ridge-top junction between the Apache Kid Trail and the Shipman Trail.

Ridge-top junction between the Apache Kid Trail and the Shipman Trail.

Having journeyed 2.1 miles, arrive at the main ridge line. A grassy meadow occupies the saddle where the trail crosses the ridge – the perfect spot for a break. Passing over the ridge top you re-enter the forest and arrive at the junction of the Apache Kid Trail and the Shipman Trail #50. The latter would take you south towards Vick’s Peak and San Mateo Mountain. Here, however, stay on the Apache Kid trail and ramble north towards San Mateo Peak.

Interior canyons of the Apache Kid Wilderness.

Interior canyons of the Apache Kid Wilderness.

The interior of the Apache Kid Wilderness is a fantastic jumble of water carved volcanic rock. This portion of the trail provides soaring views over terrain cut by Mateo, Smith, Milo and Nave Canyons, along with their innumerable tributaries. You will have left the pinyon pine and the alligator junipers behind by the time you arrive at the junction with the Milo Canyon Trail #49 at 2.5 miles.

Full trough of water at the San Mateo Spring

Full trough of water at the San Mateo Spring

The Apache Kid Trail continues north, passing a crumbling log cabin and arriving at the San Mateo Spring at 2.7 miles. An immense amount of effort has gone into protecting the spring. A trough placed along the trail has been set into concrete. Pipes connect the trough to the spring. The spring is also encased in concrete and has a heavy metal cover. The spring is reportedly unreliable, but on this date the trough was brimming full and the water was perfectly clear. Reflect on the job of carrying the trough, pipes, spring cover, signage and all that cement up this trail and continue ascending on the Trail.

Small, widely spaced trees growing on bare and gravelly ground.

Small, widely spaced trees growing on bare and gravelly ground.

Soon the tread begins a new series of long switchbacks. The nature of the woodland changes as well – small and widely spaced pines grow on steep terrain. There is almost no understory, just gravelly soil and trees. The near-complete lack of shrubs and grasses suggests that a fire may have occurred recently, but none of the older trees are blackened. Perhaps this odd niche is akin to a serpentine barren where soil toxins discourage the smaller plants.

Contrasting sky, conifer and aspen.

Contrasting sky, conifer and aspen.

Above the switchbacks the trail resumes its northerly course and at 3.2 miles comes to a junction with the trail for the San Mateo Peak Lookout. Go left onto the Lookout trail, which is not quite as obvious as the Apache Kid tread but still easily followed. In 100 yards hit an entanglement of downed trees with many more trees still propped over your head. Thread your way through the tree jam (barely more than 50 yards) and begin ascending through a near-miracle’s worth of old-growth forest. Ancient Douglas firs of huge girth (but stubby stature) intermingle with aspen and pine. Between the trees is a wealth of grasses, which remained very green on the late-October date of this report.

View through a tower platform that is missing boards

View through a tower platform that is missing boards

Pass the junction for the Cowboy Trail at 4.0 miles and, barely a tenth of a mile further, come to the summit. There is fire tower, a cabin and a decaying corral. The forest is still quite thick, although there are views to the northern reaches of the Apache Kid Widerness and beyond to the Withington Wilderness. The fire tower remains standing, but portions of the platforms are missing. Be extra cautious with any ascent.

Magdalena Range from the San Mateo Peak fire tower.

Magdalena Range from the San Mateo Peak fire tower.

The views from the upper tower are great. To the northeast lie the Magdalena Mountains, to the southeast lies the Fra Cristebol Range. Beyond them, far to the southeast you can see the San Andreas Mountains. The broad expanse of gleaming desert floor due south is actually the Elephant Butte Reservoir. South and west lie the Black Range and beyond them lie the mountains of the Gila National Forest. To the northwest lies the Plains of San Augustin (home of the Very Large Array observatory). Descend carefully and return to the trailhead the same way you came in.

Recommendations:

Author descending the San Mateo fire lookout tower

Author descending the San Mateo fire lookout tower

♦This is a beautiful trail. It is not too terribly long and has a reasonable amount of vertical gain. This would be terrific destination for newcomers to the mountains of New Mexico.

♦Know, however, that these are lonely mountains. There was no one else at the trailhead either in the morning or in the afternoon. I saw no one else while hiking.

♦There are two ranges in New Mexico named after Saint Matthew. The range described here lies to the west of I-25 in Socorro County. The “other” San Mateo range lies to the  north of I-40 in Cibola County.

♦Just to keep things interesting, there are two peaks within the Socorro range called “San Mateo”. The summit described here is “San Mateo Peak”. If you were to follow the Shipman Trail #50 south you would find a summit called “San Mateo Mountain”.

♦This is hunting season. You will probably want to wear some orange if you go into these mountains. On this trip there wasn’t a single gunfire report, but the range is touted for it’s wildlife.

♦We’ve had a pretty good monsoon season so the springs are currently reliable. The San Mateo Spring is reportedly intermittent so in drier times bring your own water. I went through about two liters.

♦Many aspen trees are nearly bare. If you want to see some of the most striking color that New Mexico has to offer then get into them-thar hills as soon as possible!

Links:

♦Bob Mitchael, at the Sierra Club, has a 1999 report with interesting comments on the geology and surprisingly lush botanical resources on San Mateo Peak.

♦A good description (pdf) of the entire Apache Kid Trail has been provided by the Magdalena Chamber of Commerce.

♦The Albuquerque Hiking meet-up group has done this hike. One report cautions to expect several inches of snow for a mid-winter trip to the summit.

♦A. Jackson Frishman at FrishmanPhotos has an image of the southern end of the San Mateo Mountains. A glance at the photo may be enough to make you grab those hiking boots and get outdoors. Do bear in mind that he is showing San Mateo Mountain (not San Mateo Peak). The neighboring prominence is sometimes called Vic’s Peak rather than Vick’s Peak. This makes sense since it is named after a Mimbreño Apache leader named Victorio. “Vick’s Peak”, however, is the USGS designation. For the sake of navigators, here we will stick with the USGS usage.

♦Matt Basham has filed a report on the cultural and natural resource in the Magdalena Ranger District. The body of the report is interesting and the appendix showing color photos of plant life in the area is also worth studying. I learned that the brush that has been referred to on this website as “scrub oak” is perhaps better called Gambel’s Oak.

♦RWStorm describes this trail and provides many useful pictures at hikearizon.com

♦If you plan on taking an unacclimatized party up over 10,000 feet, then it pays to be aware of the symptoms and treatment of acute mountain sickness. A succinct treatment is given here.