Archives for posts with tag: Tularosa Basin

Overview:

08 cliff below summit

View of small cliff face on Argentina Peak (taken from the Crest Trail south of the peak)

Argentina Peak is a small bump on the crest of the Sierra Blanca Range (a.k.a. the White Mountains). This is an easy hike up and onto the ridge line. There are views west to White Sands National Monument in the Tularosa Basin, south along the crest to Lookout Peak and north to Nogal Mountain. This is an ideal trail for introducing a newcomer to the wonders of New Mexico’s high country.

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Driving Directions:

  • From Lohmann Ave in Las Cruces, go north onto I-25.
  • After 2.5 miles take the exit for US 70 East.
  • After 61.7 miles, immediately after the third stop light light in Alamogordo, go right onto the ramp for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left onto the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 42.0 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto NM-48.
  • After 12.6 miles go left onto NM-37 (clearly signed)
  • After 1.3 miles, go left onto Forest Service Road 107. (There are signs on NM-37 for Bonito Lake).
  • After 8.3 miles on FR-107 the road ends with a short loop. Park by the sign for Big Bonito Creek Trail 36, at the end of the loop. FR-107 is heavily potholed in both its paved and gravel stretches – use caution.

Trailhead:

00 Camry at trailhead

The mighty Camry parked at the sign for Big Bonito Creek Trail No. 36

The terminal loop of FR-107 has a large area devoted to car camping. There are pit toilets and  corrals for horses. Water is available from Big Bonito Creek, but should be treated before use. A few weeks ago the water was very high and carried a great deal of soot (presumably from the Little Bear fire of 2012). On this date, however, the streams were clear. You may not need to let the colloids settle before filtering.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7850 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9127 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
  • Distance: 6.5 miles round trip
  • Maps: USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle

Hike Description:

Sign marking the trailhead. Hiking past this sign will launch you on the clockwise direction.

Sign marking the trailhead. Hiking past this sign will launch you on the clockwise direction.

This is a loop hike and will be described in the counter-clockwise direction. Either direction should work fine. If it has been wet and crossings of Big Bonito Creek threaten to leave you with wet feet, then going counter-clockwise may be advisable (your feet should remain dry for all but the last 2 miles of the hike). In this direction the descent from Argentina Peak provides you with views of Lookout Peak and White Horse Hill. On the other hand, the descent from Argentina Peak in the clockwise direction gives you memorable views of the crest north to Nogal Peak.

02 trail through meadows

Subalpine terrain – meadows appear as the trees become more widely spaced.

From the trailhead find a boot beaten path that ascends the Argentina Canyon bank immediately above your parked vehicle. In about 100 feet, come to the intersection with Argentina Canyon Trail No. 39 (signed). That steep bank is about the most difficult part of this hike. From this junction the trail ascends gently towards the crest in a forest of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa. Reports indicate that the canyon bed usually has water, although at times during the recent drought that water was hard to find. Currently the creek flows merrily, still influenced by a good monsoon and the remnants of hurricane Odile. 03 Cut Aross trail signIn 1.7 miles come to an intersection with the Cut-Across Trail No. 38 (coming in from your left). The Cross-Across Trail would bring you to Little Bonito Creek, cutting off the portion of the route that lies on the crest. Taking the Cut-Across substantially reduces the length of your hike. That could be a good option if someone in your group is flagging and you don’t want to simply return the way you came. For most hikers the the promise of montane grasslands will retain its allure, so go straight ahead on Trail 39.

Split rail fencing off the Argentine Canyon seep

Split rail fencing off the Argentina Canyon seep. Argentina Canyon is to the left.

At 2.4 miles from the trailhead come to the headwaters of Argentina Canyon. A split rail fence curtains off a large grassy area, and at the lowest point on the fence line there is a cemented stone wall forming a horse trough. On this date the trough was brimming full of water. (It can be dry). It turns out that the fence is not a corral for keeping trail horses penned near the crest. In fact, it has no gate at all. The fence is intended to keep elk, deer, horses, hikers and hunters from pulverizing (and otherwise polluting) the seeps from which Argentina Spring flows. Traverse to the left to get around the fenced area and rise to the intersection with the Crest Trail, #25. Note of caution – there are coils of old barbed wire fencing hidden in the grasses.

View from Argentina Peak summit south to Spring Peak (flat topped), White Horse Hill (grassy knoll) and Lookout Peak (forested).

View from Argentina Peak summit south to Spring Point (flat topped, center), White Horse Hill (grassy knoll) and Lookout Peak (forested, on left).

Take a moment to enjoy the view of the Tularosa Basin as you reach the crest then go south (left) on the Crest Trail No. 25. Take, too, a deep breath as you enjoy the benefits of working out at 9000 feet. Ascend gently sloping grasslands to pull away from the saddle above Argentina Canyon. Your destination is Argentina Peak, but this peak is one of a series of small rock outcroppings that populate the crest. To get there you must go a short distance off-trail. Watch for a spot on the Crest Trail where it approaches a little rise of about 20 feet. The trail dodges this bump by dropping off the crest to the east (to the left). Go off trail and ascend the rise. At the top, looking south, you will see another small rise and you will ascend to it. After three or four such rises you will come to one that has a 20 to 30 foot cliff on its south side. That bump, at 3.1 miles from the trailhead, is the summit of Argentina Peak.

View of Nogal Peak from the crest.

View of Nogal Peak from the crest.

There are several points along the crest where you get wonderful views north to Nogal Peak. Off to the the west is the Tularosa Basin, home to the White Sands National Monument. The western horizon is dominated by the San Andreas Range. To the northwest lie the Magdelana Mountains and I believe you can see the Ladron Range to the north of the Maggies. To the east the convoluted terrain of the Sierra Blanca range arrests the eye. A great deal of this terrain is scarred by the after-effects of the Little Bear fire of 2012.

Sign where the Crest Trail #25 intersects the  Little Bonito Creek Trail #37

Sign where the Crest Trail #25 intersects the Little Bonito Creek Trail #37

To return to the trail, descend from Argentina Peak to the east (away from the Tularosa Basin). There is a patch of oaks to work through or around. After a descent of less than 100 feet you will arrive in a piney meadow on the top of a flat, east-trending rib. Currently the Crest Trail is a prominent tough in the low-point of this meadow with an almost road-like appearance. Turn right (south) and continue on Trail 25 as it wraps around to the south side of Argentina Peak, directly below the cliffs. From there the trail drops fairly steeply to the saddle between Argentina Peak and Spring Point. At 3.7 miles from the trailhead the Crest Trail arrives at a complex junction with the Little Bonito Trail (your destination) and two trails descending towards the west – the Phantom Trail and the Barbar Ridge Trail. Unless you are tremendously ambitious you probably don’t want to descend to the west! Take the Little Bonito Trail No 37 to head east back to the trailhead.

Mineshaft just downstream of the last crossing of Big Bonito Creek

Mineshaft just downstream of the last crossing of Big Bonito Creek

Like Argentina Canyon, the drop down Little Bonito Creek is quite mellow. The creek is, as of this writing, flowing from the top. It makes for a musical accompaniment as you descend away from the grassland and back into the pine forest. There is more evidence of the Little Bear fire, but nothing like the desolation seen further to the south and east. At 4.0 miles from the trailhead you will encounter another signed junction with the Cut-Across Trail. Continue to descend on the Little Bonito Creek Trail and at 5.2 miles there is a confluence between the Little Bonito Creek and the Big Bonito Creek. Shortly after, there begins a series of eight stream crossings. Two weeks prior, each of these crossings would have meant drenched boots. On this date it was possible to rock-hop across with dry feet. At 6.2 miles find the last of the stream crossings and an old mine shaft dug into the hard rock making up a canyon wall. Alas! it is only 0.3 more miles and you will be back at the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author on Argentina Peak

Author on Argentina Peak

♦Do this hike!

♦Take friends. This is one of the most hospitable places I’ve seen in southern New Mexico. If you are at all worried about off-trail navigating to get to Argentine Peak then feel free to skip it. The views from the Crest Trail are fine.

♦Both Argentina Canyon and Little Bonito Creek are often dry in the upper reaches. Bring water. In the autumn just two liters of water should be plenty.

Horned toad competing for trail space on the Little Bonito Creek Trail.

Horned toad competing for trail space on the Little Bonito Creek Trail.

♦I believe hunting season is on (two weeks ago there were bow hunters at the trailhead). Perhaps as a consequence, I didn’t see any deer or elk while hiking nor did I hear any elk bugling. (In contrast, there was a herd of deer grazing on the northern outskirts of Ruidoso – be careful on the drive in)!

♦The number of bugs and reptiles has diminished in the last few weeks and even though the grasses were vividly green they were running to seed. It looks like nature is preparing for winter.

Links:

♦ Argentina Peak is just a bump on the Sierra Blanca Range crest, you won’t find too many sites devoted specifically to this destination. If you’re searching then “argentina canyon” works better as a keyword. That will give you many hits to destinations in this area of the crest.

♦ Johnny Hughes at Ruidoso.Net has a detailed description of this loop (he follows the loop clockwise). It is interesting to learn that Little Bonito Creek in most years has water in its lower reaches.

♦ The Forest Service has an odd, but eventually useful, map of the trails in the area. It shows the trails and provides each trail with a trail number. Nearby roads and the outline of the national forest are also shown. Trailheads are named. However, the map is shorn of virtually every other piece of information that might help you to pick a trail. No mountain is named, no canyon is identified, no stream is labeled. There are no contour lines. Other than trail number, each trail remains an anonymous black line against a uniform gray background. I can only recommend that you use the information on this site to get up onto the White Mountains and become familiar with the terrain. After a couple trips, the forest service map becomes a useful inventory to the trails that you’ve been missing!

Overview:

White Horse Hill on crest of Sierra Blanca Mountains

White Horse Hill on crest of Sierra Blanca Mountains

Three Rivers Canyon is a rarity in drought-stricken southern New Mexico; there are huge trees, running water with fingerling trout in the deep pools, languorous switchbacks on a well-shaded trail and a substantial gain to a high summit. From the summit you will find wonderful views along the Sierra Mountains crest, west to the Tularosa Basin or northeast to the Pecos Valley. Are you recruiting a hiker to New Mexico? Take them here.

Driving Directions:

Sign adjacent to turn onto Three Rivers Road

Sign adjacent to turn onto Three Rivers Road

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 north.
  • After 4.5 miles, take Exit 6 for US 70 East. The ramp splits three ways, remain in the center to get onto US 70 E.
  • After 61.9 miles (just after the 3rd traffic light as you enter Alamogordo), take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. At the end of the ramp, go left (north) on the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route.
  • After 4.9 miles, at a traffic light, go left (north) onto US 70 E/US 54 N/N White Sands Blvd.
  • After 9.8 miles, as the road makes a broad right-hand curve in the town of Tularosa, turn left onto US 54 N/Saint Francis Drive
  • After 17.8 miles turn right onto Three Rivers Road. This road is tightly gated by flanking stone walls, but is easy to find due to the large Petroglyphs Picnic Ground sign that the Forest Service has installed. Three Rivers road is initially paved, but after a big, concrete-lined “dip” into a waterway the road turns to gravel. Currently the gravel part of the road is in superb shape.
  • After 13.2 miles, at the end of the road, park in the Three Rivers Campground (signed)

Data:

  • Starting elevation: 6400
  • Ending elevation: 10,255 feet
  • Net Gain: 3855 feet
  • Distance: 6.0 miles (one way)
  • Maps: The trailhead and a very short stretch of the hike is on the right edge USGS Godfrey Peak quadrangle.  The vast majority of the hike is found on the USGS Nogal Peak quadrangle.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead below the Sierra Blanca Mountains crest

The mighty Camry, parked at trailhead below the Sierra Blanca Mountains crest

This is a deluxe trailhead. The Three Rivers Campground has a dozen car-camping spots, a wide parking area for hikers at the start of the trail (signed), pit toilets, bear-proof trash cans and even offers piped water. The usage fee is currently $6.00 per car, but check the Forest Service website for any updates. Although the canyon itself is pleasantly supplied with water, the larger forest (freighted with innumerable snags from the Little Bear fire) is very dry. Fire hazard was rated as “very high” on this date. The Forest Service has declared Stage One fire restrictions (no campfires until the monsoons begin to kick in).

Description:

Tantalizing glimpse into side cuts from Three Rivers Canyon

Tantalizing glimpse into side cuts from Three Rivers Canyon

Find the start of the Three Rivers Canyon Trail (#44) and head up-canyon on an old road. The trail soon crosses the canyon bed (running water!) and then drifts north a little ways, just far enough to give a send-off to the Barber Ridge Trail (#49) at the quarter-mile point. Turning back up-canyon trail 44 soon re-aligns with the creek. The start is a high desert affair with prickly pear on all sides, but that rapidly segues into pine and fir forest. The canyon bed ascends at a remarkably leisurely pace, and where the terrain acquires a step-and-shelf topology the the trail engineers have provided switchbacks. Within 10 minutes from the trailhead you will start noticing heights of land above the trees to the south and to the north. These evolve into sheer walls as you enter the canyon proper after about forty-five minutes. The crumbling roadbed quietly reshapes into a tread beneath the trees.

Granite cliffs along side the Three Rivers Canyon

Granite cliffs along side the Three Rivers Canyon

The trail crosses and re-crosses the stream bed. Currently that is no problem, but during periods of very high flows it could be a serious challenge. Reportedly the stream received extraordinary water volumes in 2008 that damaged much of the trail and flushed most of the fish population out into the Tularosa Basin (not a known haven for brook trout). At several places you will see evidence of more recent damage where side cuts have dumped vast quantities of sand, scree and talus on the sides of the main stream. The power of of the main stream itself is revealed in steeper terrain by a vast exposure of smoothly scrubbed rock. This is a geologist’s playground. The views up into Fall Creek (at two miles) and the Three Rivers South Fork (at 3.2 miles) were quite tantalizing. There does not seem to be any trail in those canyons. Be prepared for off-trail travel if you want to reach those destinations.

15 gaitors and butterfly

Western Tiger Butterfly hunting nector beside Three Rivers Canyon trail

There is an exceptional variety of wildlife as well. The only reptiles spotted on this hike was a garter snake and innumerable lizards. Butterflies of widely varied description seemed to find the trail congenial. Several of the deeper pools had fingerling trout, never more than about four or five inches long and rather skinny (the low water levels may be stressful). I had expected to find horned toads and to see some elk, but those were the only disappointment on this day.

At 3.6 miles reach a shaded campsite. This is a great lunch spot and a perfectly reasonable turn-around point for a party with novice hikers. The trail to this point has been almost unbelievably mellow, and it steepens somewhat above.

Large Douglas Fir. Note the relative size of the hiking pole.

Large Douglas Fir. Note the relative size of the hiking pole.

Continuing up, you will start to notice hints of alpine meadows. The space between trees grows and the shrub layer of the forest understory gives way to grasses. Douglas fir and white pines abound, some of considerable girth. At 4.6 miles come to the first of a series of large, steep subalpine meadows. The trail engineering never flags, however, as switchbacks gentle the way up and across these pleasant spaces. Views open out to the Tularosa Basin. Pick out White Horse Hill on the crest, to the northwest.

17 Sign in col

Sign in col on Sierra Blanca crest

At 5.5 miles reach a col between White Horse Hill and Elk Point on the Sierra Mountains crest.  A signed junction indicates that you’ve reached the Crest trail (#25), which will take you to Lookout Mountain if you go right (east). If you go straight across the col then the Aspen Canyon trail will take you down to the north (eventually linking up with the Big Bonito Trail). If you choose to go left, as I did, then you are on the Big Bonito Trail (#36) where it overlaps with the Crest Trail. The tread is initially quite obvious and takes you past small stands of evergreens while rising towards White Horse Hill. Within a quarter mile, however, the tread disappears amid tall grasses and the hoof prints (elk, presumably). It may be that the recent fires have discouraged hikers from getting to the crest, permitting nature to reclaim the tread. Never fear, however, since White Horse Hill is directly above you.

Nogal Peak (middle ground) and Carrizo Peak (horizon)

Nogal Peak (middle ground) and Carrizo Peak (horizon)

Ascend open terrain towards the summit at 6.0 miles. There are great views west into the Tularosa and White Sands National Monument, north to Carizzo Peak, northwest to the Capitan Mountains, and due west across the enormous damage of the Little Bear to the Pecos Valley. There is even a glimpse to the summit of Sierra Blanca itself. There is a summit register hidden inside a tiny cairn. The summit was windy and strikingly cool – this on a day in which it reached the high 90s in Las Cruces! Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author approaching the summit

Author approaching the summit

In Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area, Magee points out that this shady and high route is a good summertime destination. I could not agree more. Still, with over 3800 feet of gain you will go through a lot of water. I had 4 liters and that was only just enough.

Three Rivers Canyon is well watered, but this is an unmistakable season of drought. We can hope for a good monsoon season to ease the danger to the forests, but for the moment the National Drought Monitor indicates that over 95% of the state is under moderate drought or worse. The stage 1 fire restrictions for Lincoln National Forest (no backcountry campfires) are pretty reasonable.

The crest is completely exposed. You’ll want a good hat and sunscreen. Also, keep an eye on those fluffy monsoon-season clouds. There are worse places to be in a thunderstorm, but not by much!

 

Links:

For a poetic report on wintertime camping along the Three Rivers Trail (and a comment to the effect that the approach road is not always in superlative condition) check out Eugene Smith’s BackPackingLight post.

Marsha Rupe has some photos from this hike taken in 2010. Her summit shot makes a sad contrast with the 2014 vista, which is much altered by the Little Bear Fire. Her title suggests that she made a loop, ascending by Three Rivers Canyon and then descending by Dry Canyon. That sounds like an excellent alternative. However, in exploring towards White Horse Hill I noted that the connector trail was becoming difficult to follow. You might want to plan for some small navigation challenges if you want to make this loop.

Johnny Hughes has a description of this hike, and several others nearby. Good options if you have a couple days to explore this face of the range.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has photos and some comments on the Canyon as a fishing expedition. His visit was in 2010, not too long after the 2008 flood. The tread condition has improved enormously since then.

 

Overview

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

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

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

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

Driving Directions (and study guide):

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

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

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

Trailhead:

04 The Mighty Camry at foot of Aguirre Springs Rib

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

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

Data:

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

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

Hike Description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View up to Lower Needles from Windy Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slabs used for descent below the Lower Horns cliff line.

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

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

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

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

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

View down the descent route into gray-green thickets

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

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

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

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

16 view back to Rabbit Ears and Rabbit Ear Massif

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

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

..

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

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

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

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

Recommendations:

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

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

Do not bother with the traverse. Repeat as needed.

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

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

Outside Links:

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

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

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

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

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

Overview

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

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

Directions

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

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

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

Trailhead:

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

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

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

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

Data:

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

Hike:

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

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

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

bench-and-rise topology of Ortega Mountain

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

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

Canyons:

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

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

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

barbed wire fence across "Wrong Canyon"

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

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

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

Recommendations:

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

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

Free at last!

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

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