Archives for posts with tag: Socorro

Overview:

This could be the most beautiful hike in New Mexico.

High sediment loads in the San Francisco River can give the water a muddy coloration. Don’t be put off! The hike remains gorgeous.

Stay away if the weather looks stormy. Flash flooding is a real risk.

Driving Directions:

  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150.
    • 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
    • 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.
  • After 62.2 miles on US-60, at a blinking yellow light in Datil, NM, turn left onto NM-12 (well signed).
FR-49 is just past this sign
  • After 61.7 miles on NM-12, past mile marker 13 and immediately after the “JTS Park 6” sign, turn right onto Forest Road 49 (gravel)
    • [there is a sign 50 feet down FR-49 (rendered illegible by gun-toting idiots) that seems to identify this road as County Road 113]
  • After 0.4 miles on FR-49, immediately past a small brown Forest Service sign saying “49”, make a hard left turn onto Forest Road 41 (unsigned).
  • After 4.4 miles on FR-41 come to the first ford of the San Francisco River. If you want to leave your car here then there is a rough turn-out on the right side of the road. In nice weather many cars can drive the remaining 1.7 miles to the official trailhead. Know the perils!

Trailhead:

RuTwo on the dirt turnout

The turn-out just before the first ford of the San Francisco River is a weed-covered dirt pad raised a few inches above the road. If you are driving a low-slung car then driving up onto the dirt pad may be awkward. A shovel could be handy if you should need to grade the lip of the rise, especially if a county bulldozer recently been through. There are no services at this trailhead.

Data:

  • high point: 6505
  • low point: 5900 
  • net elevation change: 610 feet
  • distance: 7.1 miles (one way!)

GPS signal gets badly scrambled in the confines of this deep canyon, so the data given above should be treated as rough estimates. Note that wading deep pools and clambering over boulders can make the trip more stressful than the numbers might suggest.

Hike Description:

Road walk in open valley

The first ford of the river was only 6 inches deep and roughly 15 feet wide on this date. The firm sand in the streambed showed little risk of bogging your vehicle if you choose to drive across. A scattering of river stones slightly upstream of the crossing might allow you to make the ford dry footed. This is an exceptionally pleasant road ramble. The six river crossings offer a minor challenge and the terrain is gorgeous. Deep debris fields surround the San Francisco Mountains and the river has etched into these bajadas, leaving tall walls of stony composite that peek at you over the tops of hardwood trees. There was a surprising population of runners and mountain bikers. It would be hard to find a more pleasant training ground.

Well said.

At 1.7 miles arrive at the official trailhead for Trail #762. A kiosk reminds hikers of “bear country” concerns and a second sign warns sternly of flash flooding risk. Head up the trail as it switchbacks onto the bajada top. Single-seed juniper and pinyon pine offer patches of shade. Prickly pear, columnar cacti and banana yucca threaten to poke you. Grama grass blankets the occasional meadow. Lizards and horned toads scurry from your footfall. The tread initially moves northeast; away from the river and avoiding private property bounds. At 3.4 miles from turnout the trail abruptly turns west (to your left, inbound) and traverses towards the canyon entrance. The trail goes through two gates (please close ’em!). At 4.7 miles the tread makes a sharp switchback and begins the steep drop to the river bottom.

Sign at junction with two-track

At 5.2 miles the trail reaches a junction with a two-track. Note the sign so you will know where to depart from the road on your return. Turn right and follow the two track as it leaves the sunny Sonoran and penetrates the leafy domain of the bosque.

Pipe suspended over the river

In a few hundred feet you will see a large rusty pipe (about 12 inches in diameter) fronted by a sign saying “private property”. Begin scanning to your left to find a track that drops down to the river bank and goes underneath the pipe. On the river bank the trail becomes hard to find. Go upstream, about 30 yards past the pipe, then cross to the left-hand bank (looking upstream). The trail stays on that side for less than a quarter mile, then recrosses to the right-hand bank. If you loose the trail just continue upstream.

Entering the Box

The trail departs from the river to cross a wide meadow, then rejoins where the river makes a broad bend to the north. Here the walls begin to rise and press in. Soon there is little or no bank on which to make a trail. Oh ohh. Plunge in. The river is the tread. There is no fixed turn-back point. Hike until your turn-around time arrives. If you need a destination then other reports indicate that there is a warm spring about two miles beyond my turn-back point.

Recommendations:

Author at turn-back point

Take your time. This is not a hike to be rushed!

Bring a great camera. My cell phone camera was not up to the task of recording this amazing trip.

Ice could make this a dangerous and unpleasant trip. Similarly, meltwater from mountain snows could introduce your party to hypothermia. Schedule the hike for the warm weather just-before or just-after New Mexico’s monsoon season.

Monitor the forecast for Luna, NM (upstream) for storms in this area. If you drive over the fords to the trailhead, then even a gently rising stream might prevent you from driving out. A stash of extra food, dry clothing and a good book might make the wait more pleasant.

Soaked boots can get heavy. This hike calls for fast-drying (not “water proof”) shoes. Your electronics need to be protected. Ziplock bags can keep your GPS and phone functioning. On this date I was able to stay (mostly) dry, but only after rolling up the legs of my shorts as high as they could go. Others have reported swimming in order to cross the deeper pools.

I was very happy to have a water filter with me on this hike.

Links:

I’m not certain why the river is so deeply brown. It is possible that char from wildfires is being washed down the stream. Back in 2011 the enormous Wallow wildfire burned the headwaters of the river (south and west of Alpine, AZ), but that seems like a long time ago. We’ve had an active monsoon, so runoff from the rains may contribute as well.

The USDA/Forest Service site has general information and safety alerts. In New Mexico summers it is always useful to check for wildfire warnings.

Doug Scott’s site (a go-to destination for slot canyon hikes) has great maps and some warnings about the seasons to avoid for this hike. One of the maps shows an alternative route that keeps you east of the river until you reach Devil’s canyon (a tributary feeding into the San Francisco River above the Frisco Box). You could return down the river and make a loop out of it.

Sadly, I saw no fish larger than inch-long fry. The restocking efforts might have suffered a setback from the large amounts of suspended sediment. Hopefully the drought is about over, allowing matters to improve.

View of San Mateo Mountains from the Black Range ridge

Overview:

This three-day, out-and-back, backpacking route follows the Continental Divide Trail along northern spine of the Black Range. The grade is gentle, access is easy and the views traverse most of mid-state New Mexico. Hiking the fire-wracked Black Range sounds daunting, but the trail possesses an uncanny knack for threading the dark green patches that survived the flames. Even the devastated slopes exhibit a budding green haze from colonizing aspen groves.

The title has an asterisk next to “Diamond Peak”. It makes me grumpy, but time was short and water in the Diamond Peak Spring was scant. I turned back at the spring rather than climbing to the nearby summit. A pity!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (north-bound or south-bound) take Exit 89 to NM-181.
  • At the end of the ramp turn west onto NM-181-South. (North-bound travelers will turn left. South-bound travelers will turn right).
  • After ~0.2 miles, from a stop sign at a T-intersection, turn left to continue on NM-181-South.
  • After 2.9 miles go right onto NM-52 (well signed)
  • After 38.0 miles turn left onto NM-59 (well signed)
  • After 13.8 miles turn left onto a Forest Service trailhead (signed)

All roads are paved. There are numerous small depressions along NM-59 where the road crosses arroyos, signed “Dip”. The savagely eroded road-margins in these dips are a threat. Watch your passenger side tires.

On NM-59 you will go over the geologic Continental Divide, which is signed. There is a turn-out on the left side of the road, but that is NOT the trailhead. You need to stay on the road for the full 13.8 miles. To the best of my recollection there’s roughly a half-mile from the geological Continental Divide to the CDT trailhead.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the CDT trailhead on NM-59

The trailhead is a gravel parking pad with a vault toilet. There are no water services or trash receptacles. The pullout sees lots of people pulling trailers and they need to be able to drive the full circle around the vault toilet in order to exit. Please leave as much clearance for them as you can.

Data:

IMPORTANT: my GPS device flatlined on this hike. Instead of being a GPS track the above map shows a trace of the CDT from Caltopo. There may be significant deviations from the actual trail!

  • starting elevation: 7702 feet
  • highest elevation: 9648 feet
  • net elevation: 1946 feet
  • distance: 26.1 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

Burned trunks and sparse understory

Day 1

Follow the trail south from the trailhead. On this date an extremely kind “trail angel” provided 10 full gallons of water. These are intended for CDT thru-hikers. We weekend backpackers should leave them alone.

The initial mile rises in a forest of young and severely burned ponderosa pines. Either the fire was unimaginably hot or a forest crew has been through and manually cleared out the remaining fuel from the forest floor. There are almost no burned logs on the ground. You do not see the crowded, bushy understory that normally springs up after a fire. It has the atmosphere of a forest singularly protected against the next major burn.

Spring feed tank

As the trail continues to rise mountain mahogany and gray oak do make an appearance. The terrain offers convoluted testimony to the ingenuity of trail designers – it is a minor miracle that the grade rises at such a steady rate. In places there are short drops where surprising groves of Douglas firs shade the tread. Much of the tread follows a barbed wire fence. At 5.3 miles from the trailhead come to a broad and sandy flat spot on the ridgeline. Look to your left for a gate in the fence with yellow signs asking, “Please Close Gate”. Water is available if you go through the gate and follow a side trail 0.3 miles down to a spring that drains into a small open tank. On this date the water was cold and free of algae, if slightly murky. Filtering is recommended.

Trick Tank or flying saucer?

Views open to the east. The Cuchillo Negros Range (Spanish for “black knife”) form a small ridge between the Black Range and the massive cliff faces on Vicks Peak in the San Mateo Mountains. At 8.7 miles from the trailhead the trail reaches a high point for the day, about 8700 feet. From there the trail bumps downward, reaching Forest Road 226A at 11.5 miles. You will see this road through the trees as you descend towards it – at this position you might want to scout about 100 feet off-trail to the northwest. There is a trick tank there. (A trick tank is one that collects rain water). On this date there was about 8 inches of water in the tank, thick with algae but still suitable for filtering.

Brutally weathered sign (left) and trail gate (right)

Across the FR-226A the tread descends along a closed road and enters a long, skinny valley crowded with trees. Doug fir and Ponderosa grow here, along with a conifer that produces an exceptionally large cone – possibly a Rocky Mountain Pine. Near the end of the valley someone has carved “CDT” and a left arrow into a huge standing snag. Go past the snag and follow the white-and-blue CDT signs as the trail climbs out of the valley. Near the top of the rise the trail joins another road. Go left onto the road as it reaches and then descends into the Chloride Creek drainage. The descent slogs along a rutted road – not foot-friendly. The road levels out where a feeder stream stream crosses from the left to the right side. An old and brutally weathered sign stands mutely on the right side of the road. A close look will show a CDT insignia branded into the lower left corner.Here the CDT starts an overlap with the Catalenia trail, #42. Go off the road, through a gate and follow the track as it meanders along side the stream.

Ruins of a shelter

The trail turns uphill where a second feeder stream joins in, about a quarter mile past the sign. This stream lies at the bottom of a narrow canyon, but the canyon bottom has occasional places where it flattens out and camp sites are available. On this date the stream was intermittent, but there were pools of water four or more inches deep, particularly at on the lower stretches. There is evidence under foot that cows like this cool and well-watered place. Filter your water. A crumbling chimney standing alone in the forest testifies that cowhands also once sheltered in this canyon. At 17.1 miles from the trailhead, near the upper reaches of the canyon and the last of the canyon pools, find a level spot for camping.

Caledonia sign with out CDT markers? A warning!

Day 2.

From the campsite climb steeply out of the canyon on switchbacks. The severely burned terrain could be unsettling, but a transition from carbon black back to green is under way. Budding young aspen colonies lead the way. The trail contours around a bump on the ridge then climbs to a saddle. In that saddle the Caledonia Trail splits away from the CDT and drops into a spectacularly beautiful, but entirely off-route, canyon. I lost a couple miles that way and it put me behind for the day – you are advised to stick with the CDT! And why not? This is ridge line hiking at its best. To the east lie the San Mateo Mountains, to the west snow still clings to the high summits in the Mogollon Mountains. On the ridge itself, 22 miles from the trailhead, lies the vertical walls of Fisherman’s Bluff.

A longer stretch of burned terrain on the Black Range

The damage done by the Silver Fire should not be understated. There are a few stretches of badly burned terrain that are grim and much plagued by deadfall. The trail builders have done their best to minimize the length of these stretches and, it must be said, that the recent winter hit the healthy patches of fir and ponderosa hard. Many fallen trees still have green needles on their branches. This is no place to wait out a wind storm.

Diamond Spring: a shallow skim of water from a muddy seep.

At 26.1 miles from the trailhead come to a wonderfully verdant hillside with a notable barrier of green-needled deadfall heaped across the trail. In the middle of the jumble is a sign of four lines saying, “Diamond Peak / Spring Mt. / Diamond Cr. / South Diamond Cr. Tr”. Above this jumble you will see a vertical rock wall. Look at the foot of the rock wall to find a boot-beaten path heading uphill. Follow this for roughly 40 feet and you find the Diamond Peak Spring. This is actually a seep; a mass of wet, black mud slowly releasing water onto the slopes below. I needed the water but I didn’t have the time to accumulate it from this slow flow. If you haven’t made the navigation errors I did then you will probably have time to ascend the next half mile of trail to the summit of Diamond Peak. From there you could continue south to reach Reeds Peak and even test out the new leg of the CDT where it descends from Reeds Meadow down Black Canyon Creek. Or, if the day wanes, you can hike back to camp and from there return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author enjoying a crisp late-April morning

The 2018-2019 winter season was unusually good for snow and rain. Water may be much harder to find in other years. You can get hints on the locations and conditions of various water sources at the CDT Water Report. These are social media reports and (for the Black Range) regrettably few in number. They carry no guarantees. You must assess the risks as you go along. The designations for springs and streams arise from the Bear Creek Survey. A sample of their work can be found here. Their designations (like “10_236WR”) are explained on page vii. A critical map of the trail “segments” (those initial numerals in the designation) is presented on page iii.

EDIT: Inaki Diaz de Etura, a 2019 CDT thru-hiker, reported on Facebook that he found water in October along this section of trail. The first spring (at 5.3 miles), the trick tank, and the stream along side Catalina Trail all had water (although the stream was just “pools”, not running). Moreover, after he passed Diamond Peak Spring and got to Reeds Meadow (further down trail than discussed in the guide above) he found running water in Black Canyon and Aspen Canyon. That’s good to know if you are planning a hike later in the season. Keep in mind that the monsoon was productive in 2019 – in dryer years the water may be more elusive.

There is an app for navigating the CDT that I should mention (this is an unpaid endorsement). It is called “Guthook” after the trail name of it’s author. You can find links to it from the publisher, Atlas Guides. The app shows you a map of the trail and your currently position – navigation made astonishingly simple! Plus it has a social media aspect, including water reports from other Guthook users. As an old-school “paper map navigator” I initially resisted using the app. While hiking the CDT last year that resistance crumbled immediately.

On windy mornings the ridges were cold and on windless afternoons the trail was hot. You will want good gear. Hiking the ridges during monsoon season would be challenging – you will need “bug out plans” for dealing with thunderstorms.

Links:

A post in Mudtribe reports on how the longstanding drought is affecting western trails, including the CDT. It was written in 2018, a bad summer for finding water.

One of the few through hikers to record their experiences in the Black Mountains is cu.ri0.us. He seems to have hiked the CDT several times and offers a retrospective video that includes a comparison between the Columbus NM route and the Lordsburg NM route (two choices at the southern terminus of the CDT). He has also done both the Black Range and the Gila River alternative. Most northbound hikers going onto the Black Range follow the official CDT as it leaves directly from Silver City. In sharp contrast, cu.ri0.us chose to hitchhike to the crest of the Black Range, taking NM-152 to Emory Pass. The Silver Fire (2013) hit that region hard and it imposed some very tough conditions on his hike.

Almost all the existing reports mentioning the Black Range leg of the CDT do so only to say that they the author decided to take the Gila River alternative. If you know of other reports, or if you’d like to describe your own experience, then please use the Comments tool below. If you don’t see an option for making a comment then click on the title for this report. That will re-format the report and the comment section should appear at the bottom.


North Baldy from the south

Overview:

Central New Mexico contains many hiking gems, but even in that company the Hop Canyon Loop in the Magdalena Mountains is a lustrous stunner. It offers easy access, a clear tread, vertiginous canyons and an unruly mob of high and darkly forested peaks. The Hop Canyon Loop tours a sky archipelago and offers a lightly exposed extension onto North Baldy Peak. Ambitious hikers could add a second side trip to South Baldy for a rousing and exhausting day in the mountains.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 (going either north or south) take Exit 147 for Socorro, NM. The exit ramp turns into the northbound lanes of California Street. Reset your odometer as you pass the first gas station.
  • After 0.6 miles on California St, at the first stoplight, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.4 miles on Spring Street, at the first stop sign, turn left onto US-60.
  • After 25.8 miles on US-60, immediately past the Forest Service Station in Magdalena NM, turn left onto South Kelly Road.
  • After 2.0 miles on South Kelly Road, at a fork, veer right onto Hop Canyon Road. (There is no road sign, but a sign at the fork has a right-pointing arrow labeled “Hop Canyon”).
  • After 4.4 miles on Hop Canyon Road turn right onto the trailhead parking area, signed, “TR 25”.

Paved roads lead almost all the way to the trailhead. Hop Canyon Road becomes a gravel road after 2.0 miles. The roadbed narrows and degrades as you go further up Hop Canyon. Leave the Porshe at home. With careful steering, however, even a soft-suspended sedan can be driven to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at Trail 25 trailhead

A pine-shaded gravel pad offers parking on the west side of Hop Canyon Road. There are no toilets, trash receptacles or water service. (Water flowed in a seasonal stream across the road, unreliable in warmer seasons). If you wish to follow a clockwise loop, then cross Hop Canyon Road to find the trail. There is a sign saying 25A about 20 feet into the woods. If you wish to follow a counterclockwise loop (heading for South Baldy) then stay on the west side of the road and look up-canyon for the trail. About 100 feet up that track you will find signs saying “TR25” and “North Baldy Trail #8 / 5 miles”.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 7723 feet
  • highest elevation: 9875 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2152 feet
  • gross elevation gain: 3428 feet (GPS data)
  • gross elevation loss: 3479 feet (GPS data)
  • distance: 10.3 miles

Hike Description:

Cross Hop Canyon Road and follow the trail past a sign for trail 25A. The trail briefly descends the canyon, but then turns east to cross a waterway. On this date there was a good flow of water, but no difficulty crossing dry footed. The ponderosa in this small canyon soon disappear. The open, drier, northwest facing slopes support pinion and juniper in graciously spaced intervals. The spacing permits views down Hop Canyon to a small butte called Elephant Peak.

Peek to Withington Wilderness

The trail segues into an unnamed sidecut to Hop Canyon and begins a gentle ascent. The wall to your right lies on the flanks of point 9613 (per USGS maps). The cliff-ringed summit of this high point can be recognized from many points on this loop, a useful aid to navigation. As you climb views open over the flanking western hills to the distant and rarely visited Withington Wilderness. Keep your planning for future hikes in careful check and focus on ascending the trail you are on!

Abandoned dig

Near the top of this first canyon note the odd talus field on the right. Talus falls from many of the cliffs in the Magdalenas, but the canyon top is cliff-free. Perhaps, you might muse, the rocks are mineralized so as to be susceptible to radical freeze-thaw cycles. With that thought in mind, be rewarded by the sight of an abandoned mining dig at 1.3 miles, atop a small saddle. The trail turns southeast and begins a series of switchbacks threading through ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. On this date short patches of icy snow hogged the trail – footing was awkward on these sun protected slopes. Peek-a-boo views open to the north, including close-by Granite Mountain northeast of the town of Magdalena. At 2.4 miles from the trailhead, immediately below a second saddle, come to an obvious trail junction. Don’t be fooled – the intersecting trail is but an elk boulevard. Continue straight across and rise to the saddle.

The trail turns left in the saddle, pulling away from point 9613 and pushing towards the main ridge. Ascend sunny meadows housing lofty ponderosa, which thin to montane grasslands as you near the ridge. Contour southwest (right on ascent) around an open knoll. The main loop is going to take you south (to your right) onto the main ridge. A notch in the ridge lies below your feet. From there the ridge rises south as a crescendo of darkly forested humps, hillocks, knolls, knobs, knuckles, and frank mountain summits. The challenge is to pick out South Baldy without stumbling.

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to a forest service sign saying “Hop Canyon Trail #25 / Forest Rd No. 101 2.5 miles”. Here Trail 25A ends at a T-intersection with Trail 8, the North Baldy Trail. To your left the North Baldy Trail ascends on an obvious path. To your right there is a broad mass of ledge-laced, downward-sloping terrain. Look for cairns that lead across these rocky surfaces into the notch (mentioned above). For the side trip to North Baldy you first want to turn left.

Summit View: Sierra Ladrones (left), Strawberry Peak (center-right) and Socorro Mts

The trip to North Baldy summit is slightly longer than a half mile and lots of fun. The trail clings to rock surfaces on a narrow ridge top. Reaching the summit block the trail traverses the block’s south face through a long stretch of scrub oak, eventually discovering a roads-end on the southeast corner. The road corkscrews uphill on the east side of the summit block. On the north side the road plummets, so you must go off-trail on terrain blissfully free of scrub oak to gain the summit. There are fossils in some of the summit rocks (check the cairns). To the south lies the bulk of the Magdalena Range, including South Baldy. To the west lies the San Mateo Mountains, including the Withington Wilderness. The northwest quadrant is an inexpressibly vast plain. The Bear Mountains lie close-by to the north. Beyond, the huge bulge of Mount Taylor dominates the horizon. The east side is a hodgepodge of ranges, most of which were not visible on this hazy day. Close in, and visible despite the haze, was the Sierra Ladrones, Strawberry Peak and the Socorro Mountains.

If you are reading this sign you are facing the wrong direction, turn 180° and follow a faint tread into the woods

Return to the signed junction and scan below, once more, for those cairns that theoretically guide you onto the southern leg of the North Baldy Trail. Descend on friendly ledges, passing between house-sized outcroppings of pale, friable rock, to lose about 300 feet onto the notch. The trail returns to its normal self, a clearly visible trough in the ridge-top soils. This trail clearly suffered a harsh winter. Push aside as many fallen limbs as you can, going briefly off-trail to avoid deadfall that won’t be bullied. Cliff-sided Point 9613 is a beacon on your right. Arrive at a high point of 9825 feet. Dark Canyon cleaves the east-facing slopes on your left. A rubble-strewn descent delivers you to a saddle and yet another rise, this time bursting through tree line to a signed trail junction. To the south (left if going clockwise) the obvious North Baldy Trail continues to South Baldy. Go west (right if going clockwise), on a faint tread that returns to the woods.

Relax, it’s only 2.1 more miles

A brief ascent brings you to a saddle with a view to the bald south slope of South Baldy. A small ascent still remains until you leave the rim above Hop Canyon and begin descending on the slopes leading into Agua Fria Canyon. Huge old-growth ponderosa and Douglas fir grace this terrain, a rare sight. The trail switchbacks on steep terrain and, having traveled 7.6 miles, you will arrive at a gate in a barbed wire fence. In theory you should be able to unlash a stick from the post on your left, pass through the gate, then re-lash the stick to the post. That stick, however, is broken and there is no obvious way to unlash the entire thing. The system does, however, allow you to unlash the bottom part, and you can scoot under the top part. From here the trail contours to the north on very gentle terrain. You will pass through ungated fencing at 8.2 miles where a trail informs you that it is 2.5 miles back to Hop Canyon trailhead.

Point 9613 shrouded in snow

At 9.0 miles the tread regains the rim above Hop Canyon. Point 9613 returns to sight. Follow the rim west, along side wire fencing. Eventually the trail unexpectedly pivots back east (where did the fence go?) and writhes down the walls of the canyon. Arrive back at the car having traveled 10.3 miles. Stop in Magdalena for an ice cream, you’ve earned it!

Recommendations:

Author, blocking Timber Peak view

As usual with trails nearing 10,000 feet, Acute Mountain Sickness (a.k.a. altitude sickness) is a concern. AMS shows small respect for gumption, strength or experience. If your party includes hikers newly arrived from Portland (Maine or Oregon) then give them a chance to stretch out on a lower tread.

If your group is adapted to altitude, then consider adding a side hike to South Baldy. That would not be especially easy (South Baldy rises to 10,800 feet) but it is fun to see the astronomical observatory and the hefty gear used at the Langmuir Laboratory lightening research facility. Clearly, you will want to avoid these ridges during monsoon season.

I never put on my microspikes. That part of the Magdalena hiking season seems to have passed.

Some older maps will show the North Baldy Trail clinging to the east side of the ridge line. That was not my experience. In many places it was square on top of the ridge, but where it had to depart it did so to the west.

On a cold late-March day two bottles of water were fine. In warmer weather bring much more. There aren’t any reliable springs near the ridge that I could find.

Links:

Tom Lohr, at the SkyAboveUs site, reports on doing this trip in the counter-clockwise direction. He mentions concerns regarding pets on this hike, with emphasis on the risks poised by mountain lions. He also mentions places where you can see the Very Large Array of radio telescopes.

The HikeArizona site describes the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) where it crosses the Magdalenas, overlapping with some of the loop described here. It has suggestions on where water might be found. No guarantees! Water quality on the GET can be very poor – treat any water you take.

Sierra Ladrones seen from the north (the high point lies to right of the notch)

Overview:

The rugged and ancient Sierra Ladones lie only 50 miles south of Albuquerque. You will not, however, be troubled by crowds. Unpaved roads take you to a ‘trailhead’ in a range devoid of trails. Towering above the surrounding desert, Ladron Peak is a trial for legs and a challenge for navigators. Experienced scramblers will enjoy the isolation and the demands. Novice hikers will not. The summit offers incomparable views across central New Mexico. Take strong friends and scramble Ladron.

There are two adjoining peaks that compete for “high-point” status. Older maps sometimes place the “Ladron Peak” label on the shorter, eastern summit. Current USGS maps place that label on the taller, western summit. This post follows the current convention.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) take Exit 175 (about 50 miles south of Albuquerque or 25 miles north of Socorro).
    • If you were heading north on I-25 then: 
      • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left following the sign for North 116. (This turn could be easy to miss, the ramp is designed to merge you directly onto US-60 East).
      • After 0.3 miles on 116, immediately before it becomes the ramp onto I-25 South, turn right onto Old Highway 60 (signed).
    • If you were heading south on I-25 then:
      • after 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, immediately turn left onto Old Highway 60. (This turn might be easy to miss because the ramp merges directly onto 116).
  • After 1.5 miles on Old Highway 60, in front of the signed gate fronting the Sivelleta National Wildlife Refuge, turn right onto County Road 12. No sign names ‘CR-12’.
  • After 20.8 miles on CR-12, a good gravel road, veer left onto County Road E-65. No signs name this road, but look for small signs on both sides of the entrance saying “Limited Area”.
  • After 0.8 rough miles on CR E-65, veer left onto a primitive road. From this point on a you will want high clearance vehicle.
  • After 1.9 miles (estimated) on the first primitive road veer left onto a second primitive road.
  • After 0.4 miles (estimated) on the second primitive road, in front of a gate in a barb wire fence, park at the trailhead.

Old Highway 60 is paved at its start. After crossing a battered bridge over the Rio Puerco the pavement breaks up and the ride is very bumpy, then the road turns to gravel. A new bridge, in mid-construction, lies upstream of the battered one – this particular road-quality concern should have a short lifespan.

I drove only 0.7 miles on the first primitive road, at which point my worries for the Aging Camry’s suspension overwhelmed my aversion to road-hiking. As a consequence the length estimates for the two primitive roads had to be taken from Google Maps.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry in front of Ladron Peak

The second primitive road ends at a gravel pad with a fire ring. There are no vault toilets, trash receptacles or water services. The flat spot where I left the sedan (off the first primitive road) offers some seclusion but little else.

.

Data:

In the map above the yellow line indicates the ascent route while the orange line indicates the descent.

  • starting elevation: 6200 feet
  • ending elevation: 9209 feet
  • net elevation: 3010 feet
  • distance: 4.7 miles (one way, includes the road walk)

Hike Description:

Stone ruins beside the ranch road

On this date the hike began with a road walk of 1.7 miles. (The hiking distances listed in this description include this extra length). At the road’s end you will find a gate through a barbed wire fence. Go through the gate and onto a faint trail. After another 100 yards the trail intersects a ranch road. Make note of this junction, it would be easy to miss on return. Turn east (left on ascent) onto the road. The road soon goes through a fence opening and then passes a stone ruin. These, too, make good landmarks for your return voyage.

Frozen algae

The ranch road is cut into the south side of a hogback. A water pipe extends along the length of the ranch road. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead go past a cattle trough. It contained 6 inches of water and was frozen on this date. It also enjoyed a dense algae population. Don’t count on it as a water resource. The road soon ends, but the pipe continues along a service trail. Follow the trail until you see open grassland on the hogback above you. Ascend on loose soils past juniper and prickly pear to reach the hogback’s spine. At 3.0 miles arrive at the high point on the hogback.

View to Mt Taylor from bench on east wall of canyon (double click to enlarge)

Descend to a small saddle and then veer northeast into a canyon (left on ascent). Here you leave the juniper realm and travel into the domain of pinyon and ponderosa pines. The track shows that I kept edging up to the east to study the high ridge line. Don’t be edgy. Stick to the pleasant, duff-dominated forest floor beneath the pines and ascend to where the forest thins out. The canyon wall south of you (right on ascent) has been cleared by fire. It looks like an attractive alternative, might it be a good line for descent? Look straight up-canyon as well. Near the 8000-foot level (at 3.8 miles) deceptive sight lines make the ridge look to be five minutes away. In fact, you are looking at a “false ridge”, the true ridge line towers high above. Clamber on, pushing your way past the pinch points on the steepening canyon bottom, until you find a way to turn east – towards the high and cliff-protected ridge that leads to the summit. Climb steeply on loose soils, bands of recalcitrant rock, past shin stabbers, cholla and prickly pear to slight mellowing of the grade at 8500 feet (4.1 miles from the trailhead).

View from mellowed slope to the main ridge, the north side (left) is cliffy.

The cliff-dominated terrain directly below Ladron Peak, to the north, looms as a fortress-barrier to scramblers. Continue rising as steeply as you can but with a robust acceptance of south-trending compromises. Zig zag to avoid exposed rock faces and thickets of Gambel’s Oak – either one will blunt your pace. The rib you are climbing has several near-shelves and each shelf makes a false ridge-line to cheat your hopes.

Ridge-line carpeting

Climb undaunted until, after many rest stops, you reach a saddle on the true ridge at 4.3 miles. This is just one of many saddles on the ridge, give it some study if you plan on retracing your steps on return. Footing remains critical. Not because the ridge is steep or exposed (it is neither), but because of the columnar cacti colonies that grow everywhere. Mind toes and fingers! Turn north and follow the ridge towards the summit.

Green lichen on steep boulder pile

The ridge runs into a lichen-bedecked boulder pile at 4.4 miles. Avoid this face by swinging to the east (right on ascent) and gingerly ascending on loose talus in a steep chute. A thicket atop the chute blocks your way. Push through to the ridge and stop to memorize how this thicket conceals the chute from descending scramblers.

View from knob over an abrupt fall

The only other difficulty comes at 4.5 miles. A knob ends with a fall of about 20 feet down to the ridge. Back up a few paces and descend in a narrow, boulder-strewn and east-facing chute. Fortunately, this chute is better consolidated and devoid of thickets. From the saddle at the base you can continue ascending directly on the ridge top, although an intermittent climbers tread runs along the east side.

Summit view southwest to Magdalena Range and distant Black Range

Arrive at the summit having traveled 4.7 miles into 360 degrees of awesome. In the north rises bold Mount Taylor (snow capped on this date). Sandia Peak in the Sandia Mountains and Bosque Peak in the Manzano Mountains dominate the northeast. Distant El Capitan Peak in the El Capitan Mountains and Nogal Peak in the White Mountains round out the southeast. Strawberry Peak lies near by to the south, while South Baldy (in the Magdelana Mountains) and the entire Black Range remained snow capped to the southwest. The gigantic plains to the northwest proffer the huge volcanic neck that is Cabezon Peak.

It should be possible to return the way you came. The map above shows that I tried a slight variation, descending back to the saddle where I first hit the ridge line and then staying on the ridge line as it descends gently to a point directly above the entrance canyon. Gentle descents don’t loose much altitude, so at this point there is a long, steep drop into the canyon bottom. Two big chutes lead down to the canyon. Pick the one to the north (right on descent) as lively drops bedevil the south chute. What follows is a long, sketchy scramble down talus slopes and scratchy bashes through oak thickets. Eventually you attain the southern rim of the canyon – open and mellow terrain. Lured by the thought of easy walking on pine duff I angled off the rim onto the canyon walls. This involved side-hilling long distances, a clear mistake. The wiser course, judging from the maps, would be to stay on the canyon rim as it drops towards the hogback. It isn’t clear to me if this descent route is any improvement over the line used for ascent.

Recommendations:

Author, blocking your view of Sandia Crest

This trip includes miles of tough footing amidst vexatious vegetation. Wear boots.

Between road-end and summit you gain 2600 feet in less than 3 miles. It is strenuous. Beginning hikers and the acrophobic want to look elsewhere.

I expect that the lower terrain rattles in the warmer months. Watch where you place your hands and feet.

Two liters of water was fine for a cool day but you’ll want some more to cover emergencies. In warm weather you will want much more. Stay off these ridges when thunderstorms threaten.

There are fossils on the flanks of the hogback. The one pictured above might be a piece of coral.

Links:

American Hiking offers a suggestion (PDF) for exploring the lower Ladrons without the navigation challenges and other hazards of climbing to the summit.

The Albuquerque Journal has a brief article on the range. The summit gets described as challenging and they, too, suggest other destinations within the range.

SummitPost describes the approach roads to this scramble, know that some of the signs they mention are no longer in place. In the “Climbers Log” link the commenters make frequent use of the word ‘rough’.

The PeakBagger page has basic data on the range, but check the trip report by Phil Robinson. He provides a GPS track and adds a description of the traverse from Ladron Peak to the lower eastern peak. It sounds daunting. If I understand his report correctly then he followed the canyon bottom all the way to the ridge line, but on descent he pulled off the ridge and descended on a line similar to the the ascent described here. In the dark!

Geocaching firmly notes the difficulties of this terrain. Additionally, they offer GPS coordinates for several of the turns on these unsigned county roads.

Socorro Mountains at dawn, Strawberry Peak on the right side and distant from the main block of mountains
Socorro Mountains from I-25 (Strawberry Peak on the right, separated from the main block)

Strawberry Peak is named for its resemblance, from some perspectives, to a downside-up strawberry. An outlier from the Socorro Mountains, it towers above the desert. The peak is eye candy for mountaineers driving south on Interstate-15. Don’t get distracted! Up close this is a very moderate mountain (7000 feet) that can be scrambled. The summit block gets a class two rating since few scramblers will feel any need for a rope. The approach is a long desert ramble launched from the floor of the Rio Grande basin, rising onto a broad bajada and chasing an arroyo to the base of the peak. A short and strenuous ascent brings you from base to summit.

Land notes: the land immediately to the south of this hike belongs to the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC) at New Mexico Tech. “Energetic material” means “explosive”. Unexploded ordinance lies scattered in that terrain and the EMRTC has a vigorous enforcement effort to keep people off the test grounds. Portions of this trail cross ranch property. The ranchers have been generous in allowing hikers, runners and bicycle riders to use their land. Keep yourself safe and keep the trail open by staying on the trail.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 near Socorro, NM (driving either north or south) take exit 150 and follow the ramp system to where it joins California Street at an intersection with a stoplight. Reset your odometer. Proceed onto California St.
  • After 0.3 miles on California St, turn right onto Bullock St. 
  • After 0.7 miles on Bullock St, at the third stop sign, come to an intersection with Lopezville Road. Continue straight ahead onto the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology where the road becomes Olive Dr (Olive Drive is not signed at the intersection).
  • After 0.2 miles on Olive Dr, at a stop sign, turn right onto Canyon Rd.
  • After 0.5 miles on Canyon Rd turn right onto East Road.
  • After 1.1 miles on East Rd come to a gate. If the road is gated then park on the gravel pad before the gate. Otherwise, after 1.5 miles on East Rd come to a small, paved turnout on your left and park.

At the 0.4 mile mark on East Road you will come to a stop sign at a four-way intersection. To stay on East Road you must turn right. In my short experience East Road been gated on weekends. If you come on a weekday you will save yourself a total of 0.8 miles of road-walking.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry parked at locked gates across East Road

There are no services at either the gravel pad before the East Road gate or at the paved pad at the formal trailhead. The popularity of this trailhead can cause parking overflows. You might try parking on the broad shoulders of East Road. Mesquite (that side-wall killer) grows at the shoulder margins. Have care for your tires.

.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 4680 feet
  • highest elevation: 7039 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2360 feet
  • distance 7.7 miles (one way, including road walk)

Hike Description:

The first fork, just before power lines

If you’ve parked at the gate then hike north on East Road for 0.4 miles. Look for the formal trailhead – a small paved pad on the west side of the road. This unsigned trailhead offers a gate through a barbed wire fence. Close the gate after you go through and enter private ranch land. The trail meanders south and meets with another barbed wire fence in 100 yards. A high-stepping ladder surmounts this difficulty. This portion of the trail sees many bicyclists; expect the tread to have a U-shaped cross section holding tire-loosened rock. The Rio Grande runs past only a few miles away, but here you stand in the Chihuahuan desert. Creosote bush completely dominates the terrain. In warmer months you will want to watch for snakes. At 1.2 miles you will reach a power line. (All distances in this route description include the 0.4 mile road walk). Immediately before the power lines watch for a fork in the trail. Go right and follow the trail as it parallels the power line. At the top of a small rise the path swings to the west (to your left, heading in) and leaves civilization behind.

Faint fork to the right? Take it!

 The tread heads towards a tiny conical hillock, denoted as point 4874 on USGS maps. The trail splits just before reaching this hillock. Like many, many other junctions on this trail there will be an obvious fork going south and a fainter fork going north. Here is the rule: always take the faint northerly route (go right, heading in). The trail swings around the hill and climbs a bit. From the hillock the trail drops into a wash and then climbs 80 to 100 feet onto a broad bajada. From the top be sure to look back. Views extend north to Polvadera Peak, northeast to Manzano Peak in the Manzanos Range, across the Rio Grande to the Quebrada hills, southeast to the dome of Carrizo Peak and south along the front of the Socorro Mountains, past the Chupedera hills and down to the distant San Andreas Mountains.

Strawberry Peak in the distance: the gully-top is at lower-center

Wind your way west, entering BLM lands, as the trail stretches across the mellow bajada. At 2.7 miles come to another junction with a prominent fork dropping south into an arroyo and a much fainter fork heading northwest. Remember: take the faint northerly track. The bajada portion of the hike ends at 3.8 miles. Nogal Arroyo appears off to your right and you must find a way down to the bed of the arroyo. The trail first drops into a small side-cut, rises on the far side, and quickly reaches the rim of the main arroyo. Finally, nosing west along the rim, the tread comes to a gully that drops briskly to the arroyo bed. If you look west along the arroyo you should see a windmill. Descend the gully on a cow path. (The arroyo rim trail continues past the top of the gully. If you find yourself pulling away from the main arroyo above another sidecut then you’ve missed the gully. Turn back). Follow the bottom of the Nogal Arroyo west. For several hundred yards you will be crossing private land. The windmill provides water for cattle and wildlife, please stay a good distance away. 

Windmill and Strawberry Peak from arroyo

The arroyo bottom has long stretches of compacted sand interspersed with jumbles of basketball-sized boulders. Plates of a whitish and fibrous mineral, most likely a form of gypsum, are abundant. At 5.5 miles from the trailhead come to a confluence where the main arroyo bends to the south. Take the northerly fork.

The map shows that I took the wrong fork and found myself trending further and further south. Piles of desk-sized boulders clog the south fork, you won’t find such piles elsewhere on this hike. On this date there were pools of water as well, but the salts precipitated next to the pools make drinking from them inadvisable. If you are worried about your course then you can scramble up the sides of the arroyo and look for the ruins of a rock house. If the ruins are north of you then you are off course. Best practice: stay close to the north side of the arroyo as you near Strawberry Peak – that will take you into the north fork and keep the Peak on your left.

Caprock on a rubble pile

At 5.7 miles from the trailhead the terrain on the south side of the north fork (left on ascent) starts to rise. Watch that side for a big pile of loose rubble topped with a thick and slanted slab of cap rock. Just past this odd configuration a gully leads steeply up the foot of Strawberry Mountain. Leave the bed of Nogal Arroyo and ascend on the south side of the gully (left on ascent). After the initial steep pitch the angle mellows. Pick your way around juniper, prickly pear, and boulders towards a pair of cliff-fronted knolls. At the base of the knolls the terrain flattens to a narrow and grassy shelf. Cross the shelf and ascend between the knolls. A cattle path rising between the knolls offers solid footing. 

Second shelf: wide and flat

Past the knolls the terrain flattens dramatically in a wide shelf. Cattle love this place – every tuft of grass has been grazed to its roots. Watch your footing because tiny but prodigiously armed cacti lie scattered on this small plain. Cross to the base of a second pair of knolls and ascend the gully between them. Once again a cow path up this gully improves the footing considerably. 

Third shelf: lumpy. Look for the waterway to the left.

Past these knolls the terrain forms a third shelf, distinctive for its numerous lumps and hollows. On this date I crossed these lumps directly toward Strawberry Peak. The footing on the next rise was not attractive. You may want to wind around the lumps going south and catch the waterway that rises to the fourth (and final) shelf.

Fourth shelf: below the summit block

At the edge of the final shelf take a moment to study the scramble ahead of you. You will be ascending the southwest facing slope (the left-facing slope in the picture). Also, take note of where you are standing. The open shelf offers many options for descent, some of these options could make you very grumpy. When you know how to enter and how to leave then cross the shelf, contouring to the south (left on ascent), to attain a low shoulder.

View of the Magdelana Mountains from summit.

From the shoulder climb directly to the summit on steep, scree-covered terrain. The scree lasts for a rise of about 400 feet. At this point the surface becomes more rocky but maintains the steep pitch. After having ascended a total of 600 feet the angle mellows. The summit block has mild exposure, but the chief risk from a tumble comes from the belligerent vegetation. Arrive at the summit having travelled 7.7 miles. The summit houses offerings to space aliens and includes a phone for calling home. The views are grand. To the north lies the nearby Ladron Mountains, the semi-distant Manzano Mountains and Sandia Peak in the far Sandia Mountains. To the east find Carrizo Peak, the El Capitan Range and the north end of the White Mountains. The Socorro Mountains dominate the south. To the west, across La Jencia plain, find South Baldy amidst the entirety of the Magdelana Mountains. Sign the climbers log, phone home and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Alien offerings

The summit log has several entries from people who ran the entire length of this trail. I am impressed. Still, it would not be much fun to have your foot stabbed by the cacti and mesquite found here. More importantly, the ascent on loose scree begs for both foot protection and ankle reinforcement. Wear boots.

Two liters of water was enough for an overcast, windy and cool autumn’s day. In warmer conditions you will need at least twice that amount.

I treated this hike as a training exercise and took a full backpack. Mistake! The excess gear (together with some strong winds) threatened my stance on the steep-sided summit block. This tread rewards those who pack lightly.

The land owners along this route deserve your thoughtful consideration. Pack out litter. Give any cattle you encounter as wide a berth as you can. The windmill is a working piece of ranch gear and you can avoid stressing the cattle by staying away from it.

Links:

An valuable Summitpost entry gives due consideration to the possibility that you may end this hike in a secret CIA prison.

An entry on Peakbagger provides the basic data on this hike. Take a look at the trip report by Thomas Denham for another GPS track and more recommendations on route decisions.

The Albuquerque Journal presents a useful list of suggested hikes for this region that includes Strawberry Peak, although that route description seems to have been taken from the SummitPost entry.

01 Ridge Containing Black Mountain

View of ridge containing Black Mountain from NM-59 (foreground peak is probably Beaver Points Mountain).

Overview: 

This hike is a mellow stroll to a lookout tower on the northern edge of the Gila Wilderness. Wolf Trail #773 has a clear tread, a manageable vertical gain and a summit low enough to be snow-free for much of the year. The summit view swings from Vick’s Peak in the San Mateo Range to the northeast, passing Hillsboro Peak in the Black Range to the east, Black Peak in the Pinos Altos Range to the south and winding up on Whitewater Baldy in the Mogollon Mountains to the west. There may be no better place for getting an overview of this huge and varied National Forest. The roads are paved for much of the way, so access is relatively easy. These roads do wiggle and writhe, however, so getting here is not especially fast.

To be clear, this is Black Mountain in Catron County on the northern boarder of the Gila National Forest. It is not Black Peak (near Signal Peak) on the southern border of the Gila National Forest. Nor is it Black Mountain (near Whitewater Baldy) on the western border  of the Gila National Forest. In fact, none of these peaks lie within the Black Range on the western border of the Gila National Forest.

Driving Directions:

02 Turn off of NM-59 (FR-141)

Sign for trailhead

The directions given here are from Silver City, NM, south of the Gila National Forest. Many people going to this trail will come from the Interstate-25 (I-25) corridor. Those people may want to skip down to where it says, “veer right onto the Exit 83” and follow from there.

  • From the junction of US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City, go east on US-180.
  • After 7.6 miles on US-180 turn left onto NM-152. The junction is well signed.
  • After 66.1 miles on NM-152 turn left onto the on-ramp for I-25 NorthThe junction is well signed.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the on-ramp, merge onto I-25 North
  • After 20.0 miles on I-25 North veer right onto the Exit 83 off ramp for Elephant Butte.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the off-ramp, turn left onto NM-52/NM-181. These roads were not signed at this junction. Instead, look for a sign that has a large, left-pointing arrow labeled, “CHUCHILLO”. That  arrow will point you in the right direction.
  • After 2.4 miles on NM-52/NM-181 turn left onto NM-52 North. (NM-181 continues straight ahead). The junction is well signed.
  • After 38.0 miles on NM-52 North turn left onto NM-59. The junction is well signed.
    • At 31.4 miles on NM-59, just after a cattle guard, the road turns to gravel and splits. You should turn left to stay on NM-59. The road quality here is currently very good. Google Maps seems to think that this gravel segment is a combination of both NM-61 and NM-59, but currently it is only signed for NM-59. 
    • At 32.0 miles on NM-59 turn right.  An unsigned gravel road continues straight ahead, but it is not NM-59. The turn at this junction is well signed. The road quality remains fairly good but in places the road bed has numerous embedded rocks to rattle your vehicle. This portion of NM-59 also has Forest Service signs indicating it is also known as Forest Road-141.
  • After 37.5 miles on NM-59 (just past mile marker 37) turn left onto Forest Road 991, also signed for Wolf Hollow Campground.
  • After 0.7 miles on FR-991 come to a loop at the end of the road, in a Forest Service campground.

There are numerous places along NM-52 where the road descends sharply into washes and are signed “DIP”. When water is flowing in the wash it will go directly across the crown of the road. Be careful under wet conditions. In many of these dips flowing water has sculpted deep holes in the sand adjacent to the paved road. Don’t let your passenger side tires ride out onto the road margins.

FR-991 looks as if it recently received a couple loads of crushed rock, which is great.  Unfortunately, the crushed rock is not very well packed down. It can hide the tops of pretty substantial rocks. By going slow and steering carefully it is perfectly possible to take a sedan.

Trailhead:

03 The Mighty Camry in Wolf Hollow Campground

The mighty Camry in Wolfs Hollow Campground

This is a Forest Service campground. There is a vault toilet, picnic tables and a corral. I did not see trash receptacles or any source of water. At the southern end of the loop there is a small kiosk that says “Wolf’s Hollow Campground” and a second sign saying only, “Trail”. This is trail 773 to the Black Mountain lookout tower. A second sign, next to the “Trail” sign, warns that this is a wolf relocation area. 

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7840 feet
  • ending elevation: 9288 feet
  • net elevation gain: 1448 feet
  • distance: 4.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

04 Ponderosa path in Wolf's Hollow

Trail into Wolf’s Hollow

The trail leaves the campground and immediately enters a broad waterway – a hollow rather than a canyon. The tread is clear and the the angle is shallow. On this date there was a thin scatter of snow on the ground but there did not seem to be any water flowing out of the hollow. This is the domain of small ponderosa and some firs. At first these firs may look a little unfamiliar. The cones scattered nearby, however, will all have “mouse tail” bracts showing that these trees are all Douglas fir. Douglas fir likes moist, cool conditions and it may be that these trees are so stressed that the bark and limbs have been affected.

05 Cattle gate 1

First cattle gate

In 0.3 miles you will reach the first of the four gates on this trail. You are welcome to unlatch them and pass through, but please be sure to re-latch them before heading on.  The gentle ascent continues, past a second gate, and reaches the hollow’s upper basin in about 1.7 miles. The upper basin appears to be the scene of a fire, most likely the Miller fire of 2011. There is deadfall scattered all over the basin but none on the trail (it was cleared in 2017). The angle steepens modestly and at 2.1 miles you will reach a long switchback that will carry you out of the basin and onto a shoulder leading towards a height of land. This is a false summit and you may scold yourself for thinking that you might be approaching the peak. There are miles to go! 

06 view north from upper hollow

Pale grasslands seen from the upper basin of Wolf Hollow

From the shoulder, looking north, you will see that the dark, coniferous terrain of the Gila National Forest gives way to pale grasslands. The terrain in the National Forest is considered to be volcanic in origin; numerous calderas have formed and eroded, while Black Mountain itself seems to have been formed by rhyolitic ash-flow tuffs. This soft rock has been carved into innumerable canyons and hollows that radiate, star-like, in all directions from the summit. In contrast, the region north contains broad areas of sedimentary rocks. It may be that the difference in vegetation is a reflection of the geology. 

08 1st saddle to Black Range

View from first saddle to the Black Range

The tread climbs the rib as if it were going to the false summit. Instead, it contours below that deceptive knoll to arrive at a saddle about 2.7 miles from the trailhead. There are “peek-a-boo” views thru the trees to the Black Range. On this date the snow had an inch or two in depth, the most accumulation along the tread. Ahead of you is the upper basin of a second hollow that (like Wolf’s Hollow) drains to the northeast. The tread follows the westernmost wall of this waterway while hugging the 9000 foot contour. Eventually it reaches a second saddle at the head of the basin, trespasses briefly on the easternmost wall, and then goes over that wall on a third saddle about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. This saddle has been signed to let you know you are entering the Gila Wilderness Area.

11 Bear Prints

Bear there.

At this third saddle you are at the headwaters of another canyon, this one draining due east. The trail makes a broad swing from south to west, dropping slightly, to bring you around uppermost rim of this canyon. You will reach the fourth and last of the saddles at 4.1 miles from the trailhead and go through the fourth and last of the gates. Above and ahead lies the summit block for Black Mountain. The tracked snow on this part of the trail indicated that this region is home to deer, elk, rabbits and bear, with occasional visits from horses. There were no obvious wolf tracks on this date. 

13 Mogollon Mountains

Mogollon Mountains seen from the fire tower.

The trail now ascends briskly, aided by a switchback or two, to attain the summit at 4.7 miles. The fire tower on the summit is reported to be permanently closed. The stairs up to the observation deck are painted and strong, however, and there are stellar views from a perch just below the observation deck. As promised, the entire Gila National Forest is laid out in front of you. It is clear that the forest is walled in to the east by the Black Range and to the west by the Mogollon Mountains. A ripple in the terrain far south of the Black Mountain is Tadpole Ridge. A surprising number of trails depart from this summit: the Sam Martin Trail, #23, the Cassidy Spring Trail #26, the Jordan Trail (signed as #26, but shown as #20 on most maps) and a trail signed CCC /East Fork (which is likely the CCC Canyon Trail #772) venture off in various directions.  Pull on some warm gear, have a bite to eat and consider your many options. Most day hikers will probably return the way they came, down the Wolf Trail, #773.

Recommendations:

14 author, off the summit block

Author, in the saddle before the summit block

It was a poor decision to go hiking in December in trail shoes. Boots would be warmer and more resistant to snowmelt. On this date the accumulation of snow did not call for either micro spikes or poles, but that is very subject to change. 

This seems to be a notably lonesome hike. Arrange matters so that someone will know when you are supposed to return. 

It isn’t clear how much of a safety issue arises with the wolf-release program. I haven’t seen reports of wolf encounters with hikers, hunters or ranchers. Injuries and fatalities to livestock are known, however. A recent report indicated that there were 50 such incidents in the first half of 2018, or about two per week in New Mexico. 

If you want to explore in rarely-visited terrain the the trails leading from the summit could be the answer to your wishes. A large loop could be constructed by heading out on the Jordan trail and returning via the Sam Martin Trail (with several other trails used to link). The quality of these treads is unusually uncertain and you’d want to think carefully about how to secure water along the way.  

As noted in the Overview section, there are many heights of land nearby that are named “Black”. Internet searches will turn up many false positives for this trail!

Links:

There is a fascinating website called PeakVisor.com in which you can enter a summit name and get a sketch of the surrounding peaks along with labels for them. Scrolling left or right allows you to go around the full compass circle. There is an associated phone app with similar capacity and it might be a great tool for backcountry navigation. (I haven’t tested it). This is the link to the sketch from Black Peak.

The Forest Service site has a map, and is particularly useful for getting information on the official trail numbers for all those trails leading off of the summit. The NaturalAtlas site is even better since it includes names as well as trail numbers.

It is slightly shocking to report, but either my internet search skills have deserted me or this mellow gem seems to be completely unknown on the web. Please let me know if you find a link or have added a trip report of your own.

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