10,098 Feet (207th Highest in New Mexico)
Ascent: Ox Canyon Trail (Class 1)
Descent: Kayser Mill Trail (Class 1)
Ox Canyon Trailhead (8,082 Feet)
Roundtrip Mileage: about 13.8 Miles
Elevation Gained: about 2,400 Feet
November 15th, 2008
The Manzano Mountains are a small range located about 25 miles southeast of Albuquerque, NM. The name refers to a small grove of apple trees that was planted by a rancher many years before the Mexican government issued the Manzano Land Grant in 1829. Some of the apple trees are still living in the small village of Manzano, which is near the entrance to the Manzano Mountains State Park. The approach to the mountain is quintessentially New Mexican Ė rusty cars, crumbling adobe haciendas, and overgrazed pastures. In other words, thereís plenty of local flavor. The plant life is also pretty typical for New Mexican high prairie Ė enebro (juniper), chamisa (rabbitbrush), yerba de la vibora (snakeweed), cholla (chain cactus), and miles and miles of sacate (grasses). Even with its rough edges, New Mexico lives up to its billing as ďThe Land of Enchantment.Ē
GPS map of the Ox Canyon/Kayser Mill route on Manzano Peak
My job takes me to New Mexico every year in the second week of November, and I try to make the most of it. The weather, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, is like a box of chocolates; you never know what youíre gonna get. This time, I got rain, hail, sleet, snow, and high winds. I didnít even bother to pitch my leaky old tent; I slid in my sleeping bag, reclined my seat all the way, and had a fitful night sleeping in my car. I awoke at first light with a fuller appreciation for the Ox Canyon Trailhead. It had a pit toilet, bear-proof trashcans, and picnic tables. The road to the trailhead was among the smoothest Forest Service roads that Iíve ever encountered. The precipitation had pretty much stopped before sunrise, but it was still bitterly cold when I hit the trail.
Ox Canyon Trailhead
The trail started out in a ponderosa pine/douglasfir/white fir forest that would not have seemed out of place in Colorado. The 2007 Ojo Peak Fire had blackened the tree trunks, but most of them on this side of the mountain were still in pretty good shape. I gathered from the uneroded condition of the narrow track that this trail must not see heavy traffic.
Trail through the scorched ponderosa pines
At about the 0.4-mile mark, I stayed left at the junction with the Box Spring Trail.
Trail junction at 0.2 miles
The climb up into the canyon was pretty mellow. In fact, the whole hike was pretty mellow; no part of the trail could be described as steep.
Trail heading up Ox Canyon
Old Manís Beard lichen
I steadily gained altitude, and at about 1.5 miles the trail switchbacked across a talus slope. Some of the fir trees in this area were covered in Old Manís Beard lichen. This delicate lichen is an indicator of good air quality, and may have antimicrobial properties. American Indians used it to dress wounds.
Switchbacking through the base of a talus slope
The plant communities changed as I gained altitude. The rock spiraea (Holodiscus dumosus) and waxflower (Jamesia americana) seemed much larger than their Colorado counterparts. Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) is common in the PiŮon/juniper community below, but it seemed out of place high on the mountain. Several species of ferns thrive on the mountain, which receives 23 inches of annual precipitation (compared to nine inches of precipitation for the Albuquerque area down below).
Banana yucca (Yucca baccata)
Looking down Ox Canyon towards the desert to the west
The views were limited under the canopy of trees, but the panorama opened up in a few spots high in the canyon. I noticed a fir cone laying in the trail; Iím not sure that Iíve ever seen one on the ground before. The scales typically fall off of the cones while theyíre still on the tree, leaving their center stems attached to the tree. The scales and seeds are dispersed on the forest floor, where birds and rodents consume their fair share. I saw several Abert's squirrels on the mountain; they live almost entirely off of the green twigs, inner bark, buds, and seeds of the ponderosa pine. I was unable to persuade any Abertís squirrels to pose for a photograph.
White fir cone and scale
The weather held out for me until I reached the crest of the mountain. I got peppered with graupel from the low-hanging clouds, but there was no significant accumulation.
Moving into the clouds
An airy grove of aspens broke the monotony of the mixed conifer forest. The bare trees allowed more light to pass through than the pine trees did, but it was still a dreary day. The tiny snowflakes that were falling were barely noticeable.
Light dusting of snow in the aspen grove
Mossy remnants of a fallen giant
I reached the crest of the mountain at about the 4.5-mile mark. The crest was broad and flat, and trees obstructed the views in every direction. I turned left (south) on the Crest Trail, which was marked by wooden signs and some oversized cairns.
Junction of the Ox Canyon Trail and the Crest Trail
The trail dipped down below the crest on the west side, and passed under some bumps on the ridge. Some snow from a previous storm was still hanging around in the shady spots.
On the crest at about 9,800 feet
At mile 6.21, I passed through a small subalpine meadow at the junction with the Kayser Mill Trail. The wooden signs for the trail junction were on the ground, and I almost missed them. I had expected to be on the summit before I reached the six-mile mark, but all of the pertinent trailheads had been moved since my trail guide was published. The hike was turning out to be longer than I had anticipated, but the gentle grade on the excellent trail made the miles fly by.
Meadow at the junction of the Crest Trail and the Kayser Mill Trail
Mountain lover (Paxistima myrsinites), used by the Navajo to induce vomiting
Colorado grape holly, a.k.a. creeping barberry (Mahonia repens); used by the Navajo as a dye and as a laxative
The trail passed below the east side of the crest, then reached another junction at the 6.88-mile mark. A wooden sign pointed the way to the summit.
Trail junction just below the summit
As many as three different species of lichen on a single tree near the summit
Werenít there supposed to be good views from the summit? I was in the clouds, and could barely see a hundred yards. Still, it was an interesting summit. There was a cairn with a wooden sign post sticking out of it; somebody had carried a mailbox up there to house the summit register; there were stunted douglasfirs, Gambel oaks, and rock spiraea as well as several species of wildflowers. I could easily see that this would be a pleasant summit on a clear spring or summer day.
Manzano Peak summit
After enjoying the summit for a few minutes, I backtracked to the junction with the Kayser Mill Trail. As was the case with the Ox Canyon Trail, it didnít look like it received a great deal of traffic.
The start of the Kayser Trail
The trail through the head of the canyon was narrow, and I felt like I was passing through a tunnel of vegetation. There were mountain maples (Acer glabrum), cliff Fendler-bush (Fendlera rupicola), and numerous New Mexico locusts (Robinia neomexicana). The locusts have nasty thorns, and always seemed to grab me when I least expected it.
Thick understory growth along the Kayser Trail. Watch out for the thorns on the locust trees!
As the trail descended into Kayser Canyon, it crossed a massive talus slope. My trail map and my GPS showed that the trail descended steeply into the canyon at this point; the new trail, which apparently was constructed after the fire, stays high on the canyon wall and passes through three or four more drainages before it drops down into the canyon. It results in extra mileage, but itís easy going.
Trail across a talus slope
Coralbells (Heuchera sanguinea). This plant has brilliant red flowers early in the summer.
The fire destroyed virtually all of the trees in Kayser Canyon, but itís obviously making a strong comeback. The dense growth of grass and wildflowers will feed a lot of animals, and will hold the soil in place until the trees grow back.
Looking down Kayser Canyon through the burned trees towards the salt lakes and desert to the east
The runoff from the Manzano Mountains creates a green zone at the base of the mountains, but it eventually gives way to intermittent salt lakes and desert. This is probably the lushest landscape between Albuquerque and Texas.
Trail leading across Ė not down Ė Kayser Canyon
The trail that skirts the southwest side of Kayser Canyon goes through a badly-burned part of the forest. Small pockets of trees survived, but the devastation was nearly complete.
Wilderness Boundary sign
At about 10.6 miles into the hike, I passed a sign that indicated I was leaving the Manzano Mountain Wilderness and entering the Cibola National Forest (of which the wilderness is a part). From this point, it was about 0.5 miles to the Kayser Mill Trailhead. Grass growth on the lower part of the trail was so vigorous that it nearly obscured the trail.
Manzano Mountain Black & Tan
The vandalized trailhead sign was badly in need of repair. The trail ended here, and a rocky high-clearance 4WD road began. The road smoothed out after a few hundred yards, and the hiking became easier on the level ground. I was essentially off of the mountain at this point.
Kayser Mill trailhead
I followed the Forest Service road for half a mile until I reached an intersection with another Forest Service road. I turned left (northeast) at this intersection, and followed the road for 0.4 miles to get back to Forest Service Rd. 422. I followed this smooth gravel road for 2.2 miles back to the Ox Canyon Trailhead.
Old Forest Service road that leads back to FS 422
When I got back to the Ox Canyon Trailhead, my car was still the only one in the lot. I saw nobody on the trail all day, and there were no cars at either of the trailheads that I visited. The southern Manzano Mountain Wilderness is an excellent place for those who are seeking solitude. This botanically interesting island above the desert would be ideal for a spring wildflower hike, and the other lesser peaks in the area (Gallo Peak, Osha Peak, and Capilla Peak) offer more interesting hiking possibilities. Iíll certainly be back for another bite out of the Big Apple.