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On Walkabout On: Wheeler Peak, New Mexico – Part 1

Basic Information

  • Name: Wheeler Peak – 13,161 foot (4,011 m)
  • Where: Taos, New Mexico
  • Distance: 13.65 miles
  • Difficulty: Hard (3,477 foot ascent)
  • More Info:

GPS map of the trail with mileage markers every third mile and elevation chart can be seen below:


Since New Mexico is located next to Colorado which contains all the 14 thousand foot peaks in the Rocky Mountains, the hiking in the southern portion of the Rockies located in New Mexico can often be overlooked by hikers.  However, for those that find out about the hiking in northern New Mexico, they will not be disappointed by the plethora of great hikes in the region.  One of the most popular areas to hike in the vicinity around Taos, New Mexico.  The historic city of Taos is not only a great city to visit but its adjacent mountains includes some of the highest peaks in the state to include its highest, the 13,161 foot (4,011 m) Wheeler Peak:

The mountain is named after US Army Major George M. Wheeler who surveyed a large portion of New Mexico in the late 1870’s and confirmed that the mountain was higher than the Truchas Peaks located just south of Wheeler Peak.  As far as who was the first to summit Wheeler Peak no one really knows though most likely the credit would have to go to the Native-Americans that inhabited the nearby Taos Pueblo.

George M. Wheeler, image via Wikipedia.

Wheeler Peak is accessed by driving to the Taos Ski Valley which is about a 30 minute drive from downtown Taos:

View Larger Map

Depending on the route up, the hike can be an all day outing or a half day outing.  I decided to make it an all day outing by hiking a long loop route to the summit of Wheeler Peak.  Not only would I summit Wheeler Peak, but also New Mexico’s 2nd highest mountain, the 13,151 foot (4,008 meter) Mt. Walter as well.  The loop route consists of hiking the extent of the Bull of the Woods Trail to the summit of Wheeler Peak followed by descending the south face of Wheeler Peak to Williams Lake.  From the lake I planned to follow Williams Lake Trail back to the ski village.

The trailhead for the Bull of the Woods Trail begins at the upper parking lot of the Taos Ski Valley.  From the upper parking lot just look for the Carson National Forest sign pictured below, just above the parking lot:

It was dark out when I arrived  at the upper parking lot at about 5AM, so I initially had a hard time finding the trailhead, but I found it soon enough.  I also noticed that the area around the trailhead is used as a campground.  As I walked up the trail a  couple of campers opened their tents to see who was walking by them.  As I walked a short ways up the trail I crossed over a dirt road and then spotted this Bull of the Woods Trail sign:

The trail at the start of the hike follows a fast flowing creek up a steep hillside:

As the sun rose I could see that this portion of the trail along the creek is really beautiful:

Here is where I had to cross over the creek using a few thin trees that had been laid over the creek as a make shift bridge:

At the lower portion of the trail there were occasional Bull of the Woods signs to make sure people didn’t get lost because there was a few side trails and roads that did branch off from the main trail that could cause some people to get confused:

After the leaving the creek the trail meets up with an ATV road that ascends steeply up the mountain:

From the ATV road I could see way down below the fast flowing creek at the bottom of the valley:

This is something that I would see throughout my hike is that the Wheeler Peak area is very lush with a lot of water.  After a very steep gain in elevation the trail levels out a bit at an area known as the Bull of the Woods Pasture:

Here there was a beautiful spring with some nearby grassland that appears to have been used or maybe even still used today as grazing land:

The water from the spring flowed down into the valley below where I had seen the creek along the trail:

From the pasture the Bull of the Woods Trail was really easy to follow the whole way because of the amount of signs along the trail ensuring that hikers go in the right direction:

Something else I found of interest was that there was signs telling bikers to yield to horses and hikers:

Actually I have never really had a problem with mountain bikers before on trails.  They are usually quite courteous on the trail compared to some of the dirt bike riders I have encountered that have nearly hit me on a trail before.

The Bull of the Woods Trail eventually came to the Red River Canyon Overlook:

The view from the overlook would have been more spectacular if I didn’t have the sun shining directly in my face:

The Red River Canyon looks like quite a beautiful place to live for those lucky enough to live there.  There is also the small Red River Ski Area located in the canyon as well.  Shortly after the Red River Canyon Overlook, the Bull of the Woods Trail turns into the Wheeler Peak Trail:

From here the high alpine grassland that cover the summits of the mountains in the region could now be seen:

As I gained in elevation up a steep hillside I looked back towards the Red River Canyon Overlook that I was at before and noticed that right above the overlook was what appeared to have been a quarry or a mine:

I have no idea what was being quarried or mined this high up in the mountains, but I was a bit surprised to see such activity had gone on in such an isolated area.  Here is the view I had looking towards the west at other high summits in the southern Rockies:

This portion of the Rocky Mountains is called the Sangre De Cristo Range which is Spanish for Blood of Christ.  The range got its name as the legend goes because the early Spanish thought that the mountains looked like they were covered in the blood of Christ when the sunset.  The range extends from Santa Fe, New Mexico all the way into southern Colorado.  The highest 14,000+ foot peaks of the range can be found near Westcliffe, Colorado.  The mountains around Taos may not be as high but they definitely are just a rugged and beautiful as the high peaks of the Sangres located in Colorado:

As I continued up the trail I eventually had a nice view looking down into the Taos Ski Valley:

Here was the view looking west again looking back across the portion of the trail I had already covered:

As I continued to follow the trail I then passed this sign marking the beginning of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness :

I had previously been walking through the Carson National Forest which was named after the famed western explorer Kit Carson.  Since I had just entered into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness I figured that the summit must be nearby.  I ended up finding out that I still had a long ways to go; not so much in distance, but in effort since I had to walk up a very steep hillside and battle some nasty winds coming up later in the hike.

Next Posting:  Wheeler Peak, New Mexico – Part 2


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