New Mexico High Point Hike

Highpoint 41. New Mexico, Wheeler Peak, 13,161 ft, 10/6/04

Wheeler Peak is located in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area of the Carson National Forest north of Taos, New Mexico. I was aware of no day-use fee. The hiking handouts list the Wheeler Peak season as late-June thru October.
My ascent time was 4 hours. Descent was 2 hours, 30 minutes. Drank only 40 ounces of water on this hike.

Used Wingers' book and Zumwalt's book for guidance.

If coming from the south, it is possible to avoid traffic delays in Santa Fe and Taos, by using the bypasses. Use the Hwy 599 bypass to go around the west and north of Santa Fe. Use Hwy 240 and Blueberry Hill Road to go around the west side of Taos. In the worst case, it has taken up to 1 hour to drive thru Taos on the main road. Perhaps the merchants prefer this. I've seen no improvement since my last visit 4 years ago. I make it a point not to purchase anything in Taos.

Nevertheless, I did stay in a motel in Taos. Had planned to make the hike on October 5th, but unusual, unseasonal, very heavy thunderstorms pelted much of the state with rain and hail. This meant early snow at higher altitudes.

As most hiking books point out, there are 2 trail-heads. he road to the first trail-head is paved all the way, and is rental car 'safe'. Unfortunately, the hike from this trail-head is about 14 miles round-trip. To get to the trail-head for the shorter route, the Williams Lake Trail, it is necessary to drive nearly 2 miles further on a steep, but well maintained gravel road.

I departed the motel in Taos about 6:30 am on Wednesday, October 6th. Departed the trail-head at 8:19 am. The first 2 miles of trail has a rise of around 1000 feet and took about an hour. Just before the descent to Williams Lake, I headed left, up thru the trees. From the trail-head, up to the tree line, there was about 2 inches of snow. Above the tree line, the snow varied from 1 inch to 12 inches. Some hiking guides say there is no trail. I could see a trail thru the snow, and followed it to the saddle. Near the top, especially from the saddle to the summit, the conditions were blizzard-like. The wind was intense, but sometimes a break in the clouds would allow the sun to poke thru, and it was possible to see blue sky. Sometimes it was also possible to see all the way down to the valleys to the east and to the west.

This was the first hike which I started knowing that I might have to abort if circumstances became bad enough. When I reached the saddle, even though the summit was only a few hundred feet higher, I pondered turning back because of the wind. While there was a nice trail right down the middle of the ridge, I walked 6 feet or more to the west and a little lower, because I did not want to be blown over the ridge by a gust.

The summit cairn/wind-break was drifted full of snow. The summit plaque has a base with about an 8 inch diameter steel pipe cemented into it. The pipe has a big screw-on cap, and the hiker logs (all full) are inside. I found 2 pages with several listings from Monday, 10-4-04. I found no listings for 10-5-04. I think my entry was the only one for 10-6. I found 3 blank lines in the middle of the 10-4 entries. My fingers were very cold from having my gloves off, but I suffered no frost-bite.

I only stayed 20 minutes on this summit. Did not find or look for survey benchmarks because of the snow. Did not eat, but did drink some water. Started descent at 12:40.

Descended 1000 ft in 20 minutes. Because of the snow, it was easy to walk 'heel-down' in the deeper snow. I really wanted to try skiing on my boots, but because I was hiking solo, it would have been unsafe. The texture of the snow was changing, and if I had lost my balance, I would have become a great snowball and rolled down the fall-line all the way to Williams Lake. The only foot prints on the mountain were mine, and I followed them down to the Williams Lake Trail. When I got back to the Williams Lake trail, there were a lot of foot prints in the snow, which was now slushy at this lower altitude, so other hikers had been as far as Williams Lake during my hike to the summit.

The Williams Lake Trail goes by the base of a ski lift. When descending, there is a very misleading sign at the ski lift that will send you the wrong way. Do NOT follow the trail which says 'RETURN TO BASE'. It will take you all the way to the lower trail-head. I have been thankful many times for my Garmin Legend GPS, and this was another of those times. I always record a waypoint at the trail-head.


I knew it would be snowy, cold, and windy. Wore a stocking cap instead of a Gilley's hat. Wore wicking thermal underwear, and wicking wool-blend socks. Wore a breathable hooded shell. My hiking pants probably should have been water proof for this hike. Boots worked ok. Insulated leather gloves are great if there is any scrambling. Electronic toys included camera, GPS and Suunto watch-altimeter-barometer-compass.

My last night before flying home was in Albuquerque. It was the middle of the Balloon Festival week. In the morning, I could see the launch area from my motel room. The balloons started lifting at 7 am. At one time, I counted 110 hot air balloons visible from my room.

Williams Lake from the trail.
I turned left at the sign,
because I didn't want to lose any altitude.
Williams Lake from the trail
Some references say Route 1 has no
trail above the tree line.
Looks like a trail to me.
Route 1 trail
Cairn-shelter on the summit,
drifted full of snow in early October.
Cairn-shelter on the summit, drifted full of snow in early October
Summit Plaque. Beneath it is
an 8" pipe with hiker logs.
Summit plaque
Followed my tracks descending.
Notice the self-formed snowball on
the right and it's trail.
I followed my own tracks down.
Warning: BAD SIGN! 'RETURN TO BASE'. When descending, ignore this sign near the bottom of the ski-lift. It is for skiers. BAD SIGN! 'RETURN TO BASE' This is for skiers.
Albuquerque Balloon Festival. Balloons start lifting off at 7am. At one time, I counted 110 from my room. One did get tangled in power lines this day. Albuquerque Balloon Festival