New Mexico Wheeler Peak and area hikes

August 2009

By Darin Kerr

After hiking the high point in Texas last May, I began to think about climbing other state high points. Guadalupe Peak (elevation 8,751 ft) in Texas was ranked 13th toughest of the state high points. The views from the Guadalupe’s summit were awe-inspiring.

Number 12 state high point on the difficulty meter is Wheeler Peak (elevation 13,161 ft) in New Mexico. From the trip reports I have read, Wheeler Peak is a long steady climb similar to Guadalupe Peak - just much higher which explains the increased difficulty rating. Since I cannot train for altitude, I am sure this will be the most daunting task of summiting Wheeler Peak.

The most direct route to the summit is from the north, starting at the parking lot of the Taos Ski Valley. The ski area is accessed by driving north from Taos on US Hwy 64, then turn onto State Hwy 150. The trail is called ‘Bull of the Woods’ trail, and it is 8 miles long from the ski resort parking lot to the summit of Wheeler Peak.

My plan is to find a place to setup camp, and hike several of the area trails as day hikes, carrying only a small daypack. A small 15lb day pack should be more than enough food and water to complete most of the day hikes in the area.

Aug 17, 2009

I left my home at 4:30am, heading for the Taos Ski Valley. From Oklahoma City, there are several routes I could take. I decided against driving out I-40, as I’ve driven that route many times before on trips to the Grand Canyon. I decided to drive through the Oklahoma panhandle, then through Clayton, Springer, Cimarron, NM before arriving at the Taos Ski Valley. My hope of not running into road construction fell apart before I made it to Guymon, OK. Road construction cost me about an hour of lost time. There were 2 areas of construction that required you to come to a complete stop and wait for a lead vehicle to lead you through a single lane through several miles of construction. Also ran into rain in the panhandle around Guymon, but nothing severe. Guess I get a little gun shy after having my car repaired twice for hail damage. Nice view of the storm clouds looking back east:

The weather was cool and cloudy for part of the drive.   

I ran into the long arm of the law in Springer, NM. I was stopped by a Springer NM cop who said I made a illegal right turn from a parking lane (?). The intersection I turned at had a solid white line on the right, but since it was at the intersection, I assumed that was the turn lane. I told him I’ve never heard of parking lanes within 15 feet of an intersection. He replied in their community, you can park up to the very corner of a intersection. Strange. I think the stop was more of a reason to check for license and insurance on a out of state driver. After radioing in my license and tag number, he let me go without a ticket. Politeness and having ID/insurance handy always pays. However, that little stop cost me more time.

I stopped for lunch along I-25 at the Cimarron NM exit. It was a nice drive up to the pass leading into Eagles Nest. None of the grades were too steep, although I did have to shift down to 2nd gear to make a few of the sharp turns. The view of the valley and lake were very nice:

From this point, I could either take the south loop to Taos, or the north loop through Red River. I haven’t been to Red River since I was a kid, so I decided to drive that loop to get to the Taos Ski Valley. It was a very scenic drive with one pass to climb that was around 9800 feet. My 1.8 liter engine pulled it stronger than I expected. I think the fresh set of spark plugs and cleaned K&N air filter helped quite a bit.

Side note: I recently purchased a ‘Scangauge II’ which was handy for monitoring the performance of my car. For example, water temps hit about 210F climbing that pass. My gas mileage was all over the place driving in the mountains, although my average gas mileage was around 37 mpg for the trip. I highly recommend this device for anyone who wants more information about their engine than the standard gauges provide. Simple to install, just plug into the diagnostic port (OBD-II) underneath the dash.

I arrived at the Taos Ski Valley around 4pm. You can park your car in the ski resort parking lot right at the trailhead. With at least 3 or 4 hours of daylight left, I figured I would have plenty of time to find a camping spot. Camping along the trail is allowed, as long as you are camping on public land. I read that no permits or fees are required, and the sign at the trailhead confirmed this.

It took me about 30 minutes to get my gear sorted and loaded in my pack. As this was my first time on this trail, I didn’t know what to expect for camping spots. After 9 hours on the road, I think any flat spot big enough for my tent would be fine. It was about 1.8 miles to Bull of the Woods pasture. A couple I met coming down the trail said I could find several empty camping spots at the pasture with water nearby. I have to admit, I do like the idea of not carrying 20 lbs of water on hiking trips. Water seemed to be about anywhere along the first section of trail leading to the pasture:

The elevation was the killer. The parking lot elevation was 9200 feet. The Bull of the Woods pasture was at 10,800 feet. I had to climb 1600 feet in 1.8 miles. My lungs felt like useless empty luggage going up that trail. I had maybe 35 pounds in gear, 1 liter of water, and lungs that were accustomed to 1200 feet elevation. During that last ½ mile, I think I only made about 50 feet of forward progress before stopping for a minute to catch my breath. It took about 70 minutes to cover that 1.8 miles. At one point, the trail crossed a stream and you had to either get your feet wet or try to balance your way against some logs lashed together:

The effort was worth it… the camping spots there were very scenic and right next to a small pond. Well… pond might be a bit too generous of a term. It was more like a small watering hole. Pretty nice spot to camp, though:

According to my map and GPS, the elevation here was 10,800 feet. It sure felt like it, as even light exercise was making me breathe hard. The skies were a bit overcast, so I went ahead and pitched my tent with the rain fly just in case.

Aug 18, 2009

I slept fitfully and awoke with a splitting headache. The thinner air was definitely causing me problems. I figured if I didn’t feel better after breakfast, I’d pack up and head back to the car. After a breakfast of oatmeal and a cup of coffee, I felt much better. The problem must have been lack of caffeine as much as the thinner air.

I did a pretty hurried job of packing my gear yesterday, and realized I was short a warm shirt, spare socks and enough food for another night. Did the 3.6 mile round trip hike to the car to pick up the missing items. It wasn’t nearly as hard without a backpack.

Since today was a day for me to get acclimated, I decided I would climb Gold Hill as a training climb. The trail spur for Gold Hill was only a few yards away from my campsite. The sign at the spur said Gold Hill 3 miles. I thought a 6 mile loop hike would be a good way to get used to the altitude.

After the trip back to the car, I started up Gold Hill trail. The first mile of the trail was a steady climb through stands of blue spruce and aspen trees. You couldn’t see ahead more than 20 or 30 yards due to the dense forest. After the first mile, the trail broke free in a meadow with a nice view to the southwest towards the ski valley. You couldn’t quite see Taos from there due to a range of mountains blocking the view:

About this time I began to hear cattle, and not long after that 2 riders on horseback stopped and asked me if I spotted any cattle. I said I hadn’t seen any, but heard some in the trees to my right. About that time, one came out of the trees, and the riders headed off after it. I didn’t realize this area was open cattle range.

At mile number 2, I passed an abandoned mine, which I guessed is where the mountain got the name from. You can see the tailings from the mine on the left side of this photo:

Closer view of the tailing pile by the mine:
I kept following the trail up to a ridge, but once I reached the crest of the ridge, the trail abruptly stopped. I could see the peak of Gold Hill off in the distance to the northwest of my position, but my GPS said I had already covered 2.5 miles. The summit was much farther than .5 miles away... probably 1.5 or 2 miles.  So much for the accuracy of the signpost back by my camp.  This is a picture of Gold Hill... Goose Lake is just below the trees out of the view on the right:

I started following the ridge line towards the summit, but gray clouds overhead and a sudden decrease in temperature made me reconsider. I was only wearing a short sleeved shirt and long pants. It was getting cold enough my breath was starting to fog, so I figured I better skip on climbing Gold Hill and head back down to camp. 

The clouds dispersed about the time I got halfway back to camp. Never got any rain in the 4 days I was in the area.

When I got back to camp, I figured I’d take it easy the rest of the day. I was surprised that mosquito’s were not out in force considered the ‘meadow’ north of camp was actually a grassy swamp. I did see a few of them, but they didn’t seem all that interested in biting. The rest of the afternoon, I sat in camp and relaxed. The wind rustling through the aspens and spruce was very peaceful. Every once in a while, a group of day hikers and some groups on horseback would pass by on the trail. I wondered if the trail was good enough for horses to make it all the way to the top of Wheeler.

08/19/09 Wheeler Peak

Today was the big day to attempt climbing Wheeler. I slept much better last night than the night before and didn’t wake up with a bad headache. Since I was going to leave my camp setup at the pasture, all I needed to carry today was a mostly empty pack with snacks, food, water, and a fleece vest. Pack weight was under 20 lbs. It would have been lighter if I had my daypack, but that was still back in the car at the parking lot far below.

I started heading up the trail around 7:15am. No sooner than I left my camp, I came across a couple from Dallas who were headed to the summit as well. Another couple was hiking with them, and was pretty far ahead as they were hiking at a good pace. They said they were going at a very leisurely pace, so I proceeded ahead.

The Bull of the Woods trail does not make a straight ascent to the top of Wheeler. It first climbs a ridge near Fraser Mountain, then loses about 500 feet going into the La Cal basin. It was a bit disheartening to look down into La Cal basin and spot the trail climbing back out the other side. I cannot see why they don’t reroute the trail and bypass La Cal basin on the southwest side. It may be due to snow avalanches in spring but that‘s hard to say in August when no snow was on the mountains at all.

The wind on some of the western ridges was causing me some difficulty. It wasn’t a constant wind… it would die off almost to dead calm, then a sudden blast would come roaring up the slope.

I stopped for rest and a snack lunch at the ‘Middle Fork of the Red River’. Nice area for a rest stop with plenty of shade and the soothing sound of bubbling spring water trickling past. Getting out of the wind was a nice break, too. 

Soon after leaving La Cal basin, the trail quickly climbs above the treeline and into a tundra-like area where a number of switchbacks bring you up to the ridgeline for the final ascent to Wheeler. Marmot dens were all over the place in this section. In this picture taken near the top, you can also see the trail branching off and heading down slope in a hurry towards Williams Lake:

I saw a group of people actually climbing up that route. They were struggling with loose scree as they climbed up.  Even a small Shihtzu dog was up for the challenge of climbing Wheeler.

At this point, I decided I didn’t need to carry my pack the rest of the way, so I dropped it behind some rocks out of the wind. I carried just my camera for the final climb. The climb didn’t take very long, as I was trying to get past the exposed areas quickly between blasts of wind. I was so busy looking down at the ground to avoid twisting an ankle when the trail stopped climbing. I looked up and was at the summit! It took me about 4 hours and 20 minutes with rest stops to get from my camp to the summit.

Three people from Dallas were at the top signing in the register. There was a small rock wall built on the western side of the summit which was great for huddling behind to get out of the wind. It is hard to describe the views; it was 360 degrees of panoramic awesomeness extending to the horizon.

I took pictures of the Dallas threesome with their camera, they took pictures of me with my camera.  I was glad I brought along the extra layer of clothing as temps at the summit were only in the 40's.  The wind chill made it feel far colder than that.

I was glad there was someone up there to take my picture, as the wind would have made setting up my tripod for a self-portrait a questionable idea. While resting, we found a 2 way FRS radio stuffed between 2 rocks. The radio was still partially charged and you could tell it hadn’t been there for very long. I told the other 3 people that I bet it belonged to the other pair of people hiking with the Dallas couple. I told them I’d return it to the couple when I saw them on my way back down. 

I only stayed at the top about 20 minutes, which was enough time to sign the register and snap a few photos between blasts of wind. On my way back to retrieve my pack, I took a picture of the summit of Mt. Walter:

Just below Mt Walter, I met up again with the couple from Dallas.  I noticed he had the exact same FRS radio as the one I found.  He was concerned that the other couple was out of radio contact for so long, but was happy to get the other radio back.

Several pretty alpine lakes were on the Red River side, like this one:

Here’s a view looking towards the north at La Cal basin, Gold Hill is the highest peak in the background near center right:

The hike back took a bit less time - 2 hours and 45 minutes with breaks. I’m glad I had my hiking poles with me, they really helped to take a lot of pounding off my knees, especially when traveling downhill.

When I arrived back at camp, I was tired but elated that I had completed the hike to the highest point in New Mexico. My next decision was to either pack up camp and head back to the car, or spend another free night up here at the pasture. I liked this spot so much, I decided to spend one more night. However, that meant yet another trip down to the car as I had only carried up enough food to last today. It would mean another 3.6 miles of hiking, but without the weight of a pack on my back.

After hiking down to my car, dropping off extra gear and trash, then returning to my camp with extra food, I was pretty much done for the day. I tried to write some of my trip report after dinner, but started nodding off mid-sentence.

Aug 20, 2009 Return home

I decided to pack up and head back home today. It was about an hours' hike back to the parking lot.  I drove through Taos, got stuck in road construction there, then hit Hwy 518 to Las Vegas, NM. Hwy 518 is a very scenic drive that passes a ski resort. Very little traffic and good road the whole way from Taos to Las Vegas, NM.


Then it was back to I-40 and dozens of road construction zones on the way back to Oklahoma. No sooner than you would get out of one work zone, you would hit another one.

I highly recommend the Wheeler Peak hike. It is definitely tougher than the Guadalupe Peak hike, as the trail is much longer (8 miles) and is several thousand feet higher. If anything, the wind was even more fierce than Guadalupe Peak. There are several routes up to Wheeler, several from the Taos side, and at least one from the Red River side. There may be more than one route from Red River. Bull of the Woods trail is the easiest of the various routes to the top of Wheeler.

For us lowlanders, best advice is to get up there a few days in advance to get yourself acclimated before tackling Wheeler.

Good luck and good hiking...
Darin Kerr