Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wheeler Peak - New Mexico

Bull of the Woods Trail
Wheeler Peak Wilderness
Carson National Forest
Taos Ski Valley, NM
Mileage - 12.1
Time - 5:30
AEG - 4395ft

Wheeler Peak is New Mexico's tallest mountain, topping out at 13,161 feet high above the surrounding landscape and ranks 11th in the state in order of prominence. Located in the Sangre De Cristo (Blood of Christ) range, it stands guard over the southern end of the Rocky Mountains.  The Sangre de Cristo mountain range is a spectacular collection of peaks that stretches 250 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Salida, Colorado.

Now that you have a little background on Wheeler, let's talk about our camping situation and the hike itself.  We arrived late Saturday night after covering a long stretch of highway from Springerville, AZ to Taos Ski Valley, NM where the three of us decided on a campsite in the National Forest just off of NM 150.  There are a handful of campsites offering a limited selection and no services other than pit toilets.  We opted against the closest site to the trailhead (Twining) because it was on a hillside and didn't have picnic tables.  We drove back down NM150 a few miles and set up camp at Cuchila.  Even on a holiday weekend, it wasn't a problem finding a spot.

The alarm went off at 5:30am, time to get moving.  First priority; coffee and oatmeal, then break camp and get our gear together.  The route we planned to follow took us on a steep, but gradual climb along the Bull of the Woods trail 8 miles and more than 4,000 feet of vertical gain one way to the summit. With only one stop, the three of us made short order of this trail and were standing on top of the state highpoint in just over 3 hours.  The initial ascent takes you through a dense forest, although, there's no shortage of scenery any way you look.  By the time the wilderness boundary is reached approximately 4 miles in, the trail is completely exposed as you pass above treeline at 12,000 feet. Long switchbacks continue up the hill and draw you closer to the first of two false summits. Then it appeared, and it's apparent where you're headed as the trail is clearly visible without snow present. Once we reached the peak, I realized that there was an alternate (and shorter) trail to the top, which explained the crowd of people and how they beat us up there.  Instead of back-tracking on Bull of the Woods, the Williams Lake trail would make a nice loop hike, save some time and provide a change of scenery.  A little over 12 miles later the ski village was in sight and we were back at the car and I was eager to soak my legs in the frigid mountain stream. 

This trek had everything we could have hoped for, a prominent state highpoint in a beautiful mountain range with pristine forests, mountain lakes and streams, open meadows, and a challenging climb to provide a real sense of accomplishment. It's certainly one for the record books!    

Bull of the Woods Trail

Sangre De Cristo Range looking West

Wheeler Peak Summit
Boone, Ben, & Matt at the Peak

Taos Ski Village

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