Wheeler Peak

13,161 Feet (Highest Mountain in New Mexico)

Ascent: Williams Lake Trail (Forest Service Trail #62) from Williams Lake Trailhead, 10,255 Feet

Descent: Bull-of-the-Woods Trail (Forest Service Trail #90)
November 11th, 2007
11.89 Miles Roundtrip
4,593 Feet Elevation Gained
Solo

 

Dirtbagging and Peak Bagging

 

Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico, was named for Capt. George Montague Wheeler. Capt. Wheeler headed an Army Corps of Engineers project to map large portions of the southwest in the 1870’s. Its status as New Mexico’s highpoint makes it one of the most heavily-used hiking locations in the state.

 

I had planned to visit Santa Fe this week, and I wanted to find a fairly strenuous hike in the area. Wheeler Peak is one of the more attractive hikes in northern New Mexico, and it is only about an hour and a half away from Santa Fe. Snow has been light and weather conditions have been good in the southern Sangre de Cristo Range, so I decided to make a late fall visit to Wheeler Peak.

 

I’m a person of limited means, so staying in the Taos Valley Ski Resort was not an option. Dirtbagging it in the back of my Jeep fit my budget perfectly. All of the campgrounds in the area were closed for the season, but not all of them have gates. I found a nice spot in the Cuchilla campground beside the Rio Hondo River. Camping sites in the Cuchilla campground are free even when the grounds are open, because it is in the Carson National Forest and the Forest Service does not provide the amenities that are required for fee-based campgrounds. Outhouses are provided, but are locked from October until May.

 

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The Cuchilla Campground beside the Rio Hondo River

 

The campground was in an idyllic setting. I took a few minutes to look around, and scared what I believe was a Cutthroat Trout while I was crossing the river. Rio Hondo means “deep river” in Spanish, but it was only about two feet deep in this area. Blue Willow (Salix irrorata) and River Birch (Betula occidentalis) grew beside the river, and White Fir (Abies concolor) grew on higher ground. The campground’s elevation was 7,800 feet.

 

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White Fir at the Cuchilla Campground

 

My zero-degree sleeping bag was too hot, so I just slept under a blanket. The gurgling river 15 feet away made it easy to sleep, so I had no problem waking up at 5:00 in the morning. It was a short drive to the Williams Lake Trailhead, which is near the Bavarian Restaurant and the Kachina Chairlift. There are other trailheads at the Twining campground and down at the ski village, so selecting a trailhead is a matter of choice. The Bull-of-the-Woods Trail is long (14 mile roundtrip) and the Williams Lake Trail is short (less than six miles roundtrip) but incredibly steep. I wanted to experience the best of both routes, so I planned a loop hike by going up the steep trail and down the long one.

 

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The Williams Lake Trailhead at 10,255 feet

 

The Williams Lake Trail starts out on private property near Taos Ski Valley’s Kachina Chairlift. This route is closed when the resort is open, because shuttle buses use the road to take skiers to the lift. The resort has not opened yet because of a lack of snow.

 

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Taos Ski Valley’s Kachina Chairlift

 

The ski resort has placed signs along the trail to keep hikers on the trail.

 

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Sign at the beginning of the Williams Lake Trail

 

The lower part of the trail follows a small creek. I slipped on an icy rock and fell into the creek while I was trying to take a picture. My pants leg froze instantly. My Gore-Tex boots saved me from further problems. I re-tweaked my sprained ankle, which made parts of the upcoming hike far less pleasant.

 

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Unusually mossy rocks in the creek beside the trail

 

The lower part of the trail is a hard-packed gravel road that adjoining landowners use to access their property.

 

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The lower part of the Williams Lake Trail winding through an Engelmann Spruce forest

 

After about ¼ of a mile, the trail leaves private property and enters the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. A nearby sign gives the mileage to Williams Lake as two miles.

 

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Wheeler Peak Wilderness sign

 

The trail narrowed a bit once it entered the wilderness area. Sage-green epiphytic lichens hung like beards from some of the trees.

 

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The middle part of the Williams Lake Trail

 

The Williams Lake Trail was an easy hike. The trail was in good condition, and the grade was gentle. It gained less than 800 feet in elevation in about 2.25 miles.

 

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The Williams Lake Trail just below the lake at 10,990 feet

 

I had to sidestep a few slick spots on the trail, but overall conditions were good. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and cool, and I could smell wood smoke. When I got to the lake, I could see four guys breaking camp. They had climbed Wheeler Peak on the previous day. Camping is prohibited within 300 feet of the lake, but there is plenty room to spread out. I was underwhelmed when I saw the lake; it was a small lake, and the water level was low. The water level is not deep enough to support any sport fish. It was a beautiful location, but it hardly seemed impressive enough to be such a popular hiking destination.

 

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Williams Lake, 11,040 feet

 

My goal, Wheeler Peak, stood more than 2,100 feet above the lake. It looked impossibly steep; I felt doomed. How would it be possible to get up there? There was only one way to find out; I hung a hard left and headed east towards the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Mt. Walter. The trail, which had been so easy up to this point, immediately got steep.

 

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Wheeler Peak looming large over Williams Lake

 

The trail bore practically straight up the side of the saddle with no switchbacks.

 

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Through the trees towards the Wheeler Peak-Mt. Walter saddle

 

The pitch changed very little for the first several hundred feet. The footing was good, but the grade made it quite a cardiovascular workout. I took 300 steps, and paused for 10 deep breaths. Each 300 steps took me almost 200 feet up the slope.

 

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Higher up in the subalpine zone

 

There were some snowy patches on the trail that were frozen solid and were too slick to traverse. They were easily avoided.

 

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Icy patch on the trail at 11,961 feet

 

At 12,000 feet, the trees were few and far between. I had not even covered half the distance between the lake and the summit, and I was sucking wind. The peak was still far away, and the terrain that separated me from the summit seemed to be getting steeper.

 

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Wheeler Peak’s summit viewed from 11,961 feet

 

At about 12,300 feet, the trail seemed to unravel. It was badly eroded, and two types of gravel had been hauled in to patch it. The large gravel was so thick that my feet sank in it, and forward progress was difficult. The small diameter gravel was round, and they might as well have hauled in greased ball bearings. Since it was hazardous to walk straight up the center of the trail, hikers have stuck to the more stable edges, which has increased erosion. It would have been nearly impossible to ascend this section without trekking poles.

 

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Badly-eroded section of the trail at 12,578 feet

 

Above 12,500 feet, the land was rocky, treeless tundra.

 

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Wheeler Peak’s summit viewed from 12,578 feet

 

The eroded section of trail made it difficult to keep a steady pace. The trail improved just below the saddle, and I got back on track. Once I gained the saddle, the summit was not far away. It was bitterly cold and windy on the summit. I huddled in the wind shelter and put on my heavier hat and gloves.

 

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Wheeler Peak’s wind shelter

 

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Marker, plaque, and summit register on Wheeler Peak’s summit. Too cold for exposed flesh!

 

The plaque on the summit marker gave some information about the mountain’s namesake.

 

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Plaque on Wheeler Peak’s summit

 

Mt. Walter was the closest peak to the north. It is officially named, but is not ranked because it does not rise more than 300 feet above its saddle with Wheeler Peak.

 

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Mt. Walter viewed from Wheeler Peak’s summit

 

Taos Ski Valley was visible to the northwest.

 

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Taos Ski Valley, established in 1955, is in the center of this image

 

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View to the west from the summit

 

The next summit to the south was the 12,976-foot Simpson Peak. There was a trail that connected Wheeler Peak and Simpson Peak; it looked like a fairly easy ridge walk, but I was headed in the opposite direction.

 

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Wheeler Peak’s neighbor to the south, Simpson Peak

 

I had a lot of ground to cover, so I wasted little time on the summit. I descended to the saddle, and headed north to Mt. Walter. On the way over, I saw some movement down on Mt. Walter’s eastern slope; it was a big male Bighorn Sheep. He was far away, but he was downwind and must have caught my scent. He stopped abruptly and ambled out of sight.

 

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Bighorn Sheep ram headed for cover

 

Mt. Walter was not much more than a bump on the summit ridge. A plaque on its summit commemorates H. D. Walter, for whom it is named.

 

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Commemorative plaque on Mt. Walter’s summit

 

On the north side of Mt. Walter, the trail made a long, gradual descent into the La Cal Basin. The trail was in good shape and it was easy to keep a brisk pace all the way down into the basin.

 

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The trail down into La Cal Basin

 

The trail descended down into some trees in the bottom of the basin. There was quite a bit of snow in the shade of the trees, so the traction was sketch in places.

 

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La Cal Basin as seen from the summit ridge below Mt. Walter’s summit

 

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Patch of snow on the trail in the bottom of La Cal Basin

 

After I descended into the basin, I had to climb right back above timberline on 12,163-foot Fraser Mountain. The trail passes about 20 feet below the summit.

 

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The rounded summit of Fraser Mountain

 

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Mt. Walter and Wheeler Peak (in the distance) seen from Fraser Mountain

 

Once I got above timberline on Mt. Fraser, I gradually descended for a long distance. This high tundra walk was one of the most pleasant parts of the hike. To the left (west), I could see some of the snowless runs of the Taos Ski Valley.

 

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Looking over the tundra at some of Taos Ski Valley’s runs

 

At 11,920 feet, I saw the first of the Bristlecone Pines. They grew higher than any other tree on this west-facing slope. Spruce trees dominated the forest at lower altitudes.

 

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Bristlecone Pines beside the trail at 11,920 feet. Bristlecones have small white resin dots on the tips of their needles and large globs of resin on the cones.

 

The trail passed close to the Highline Group Mine on Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain. The mountain is private property, and is off-limits to hikers. At this point, the narrow trail ended and the route continued on a steep but well-maintained mining road. It was sunny, warm, and there wasn’t much wind at lower altitudes. I took off my hat, gloves, and shell jacket and was plenty warm in my fleece jacket.

 

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Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain

 

The Twining Campground was not far off of the mining road. In retrospect, the trailhead at the campground would have been an excellent place to start this long loop hike. I had to descend past the campground, then I had to ascend several hundred feet back to the Williams Lake Trailhead. Having to ascend to the trailhead is no way to end a long day! There were several unmarked forks in the trail, so my GPS unit was probably all that kept me from making a wrong turn.

 

This was probably the best loop hike that I have ever taken. It started with an anaerobic push up a long and incredibly steep slope, and ended with an aerobic 10K through tundra and forest. I passed over a high peak, through a deep valley, and through a water hazard. I was thoroughly exhausted, so rather than spend another night at the Rio Hondo Hilton, I decided to drive back to Colorado to sleep on a real mattress.

 

 

 

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