NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series on Rocky Mountain peaks. Parts 1 and 2 were Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt in Colorado. Today’s installment is Wheeler Peak in northern New Mexico. All photos by Ben Grasser.
It had been four years since I’d been to Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point tucked away in the southern Sangre de Cristo Range not far from the ski towns of Taos and Red River. Wheeler Peak doesn’t have the dramatic profiles of many of its northern neighbors, but it is special to me. This was the first 13,000 foot+ mountain I’d ever summited.
Years later I was back, taking my wife Becca, her sister Liz and two friends, Ben and Kendra Grasser, into the wilderness area surrounding the peak’s gentle but scenic slopes. For all four of them, this would be their first time on a big mountain, the first time they’d been this high.
At first glance, there’s not a lot about the mountain that inspires awe, like the Crestones further north with their sheer faces or the inherent danger and climbing challenge of Little Bear Peak. Wheeler Peak’s 13,167-foot summit is essentially a high point on a long ridge. The route is a gradual one with an excellent trail all the way to the top.
Those looking for an adrenaline rush would be missing the mountain’s other charms. Above the lower portions of the trails snaking up its flanks are truly wild places, gorgeous vistas and plentiful wildlife. The high parts of the mountain are in a wilderness area, and given the length of the routes from the Red River side of the mountain, Wheeler offers its visitors a real chance to avoid crowds and experience the alpine environment free of the hordes of hikers that tromp through other mountain areas.
Two routes up Wheeler can be accessed through Red River. The East Fork Trail is the longest — 20 miles round trip, something I did in 2003. We did that in a day, packing light and moving fast. This time, we chose the Middle Fork Trail — slightly shorter at 16 miles total. And we decided to camp halfway up and summit the next day.
Low on the trail, it can be quite busy. Many hikers will go see some of the waterfalls and lakes that are within a couple of miles from the Middle Fork trailhead. As we went up, we were passed by two mountain bikers, powering their way up the broad trail in granny gears before being forced to turn around at the boundary of the wilderness area.
By the time you reach this point, the crowds are long gone. It’s simply too far for most people to go unless they’re more serious about hiking and backpacking. Once we rose above 10,000 feet, we saw no one else until hitting the campsites at Lost Lake. At the time, the forest was quite healthy. Daily rain showers and a good amount of snow in the previous months made the place alive with greenery. On several occasions, we saw flocks of bighorn sheep munching on grasses on the slopes. Flowers and brightly colored fungi dotted the forest floor.
I initially planned to have the group camp at Horseshoe Lake, a body of water about a thousand feet below the summit. But after five miles of hiking with heavy packs, Lost Lake turned out to be our resting place for the night.
This was a good choice. Only two other people were camped there. We had excellent views and the lake itself was a good water source. We set up camp, cooked and took in the alpine night before turning in.
For people new to backpacking, sleeping in the rough can be rather unpleasant, particularly at altitude. By now, we were about 10,500 feet above sea level. If you don’t backpack frequently, crawling into a sleeping bag in a tent can be a miserable experience. Let’s just say the girls didn’t sleep well, and between their giggling and whining (plus my tentmate’s snores), no one got much sleep that night. Chalk it up as something funny to remember later on.
We got a late start the next morning. No one was in a hurry to get out of bed. But there was one nice bonus that morning. As I heated water for breakfast, a female bighorn sheep and her lamb casually walked through our camp, barely 20 feet away from us. This memory is just one of the reasons why I love the wilderness.
After we got going, we headed up the trail and approached what looked like the lip of a basin. I knew the area well. Three years before, I was in this exact spot (the East Fork and Middle Fork trails merge just past Lost Lake). Once we got over that lip and through the trees, Wheeler’s summit would reveal itself, towering over a huge amphitheater that surrounds the crescent-shaped Horseshoe Lake.
This is an amazing place. The views to the east are spectacular, and the lake itself is a gem. At this point, you’re right at treeline and you can finally see your final destination. We stopped there for photos, water filtration and just to look around. Liz hiked around the lake, then was confronted by an animal separating her from us. It was amusing to see everyone try to figure out what it was. I heard people suggest “mountain lion” and “bobcat” before I got a good look at what turned out to be a pretty small fox. Liz was relieved.
From Horseshoe Lake, we went up the shoulder of the summit ridge, the first part of the route that actually gets somewhat steep. After climbing for a half hour or so, the trail goes behind the ridge for well over a mile, then turns north before switchbacking up to the summit. From there, you can peer down into the Taos Ski Valley or into Red River itself. By following the range north, you can look deep into Colorado.
The summit was a busier place than the trail, and we were passed by a plucky little kid who eschewed the trail and just went straight up the rocks. Becca followed suit, getting weary of following the snaking trail.
Now for some lessons. I blasted my way up the mountain, but probably should have slowed down for the benefit of the rest of the group and saved a little energy for the 11 miles of hiking we had left to get back to the trailhead. Proper footwear would have been good for Becca. She thought her boots were up for the job, but they clearly weren’t meant for this type of activity. By the time she was done, she had well-worn blisters and a severely aching arch in her foot that would later turn into an injury.
Last, no matter how tired you are, always remember to pack your backpack correctly. When we got back to camp, all of us were worn out but still had to break camp and hoist the big packs another five miles down the hill. I threw stuff in my pack at random, hiked less than a mile and nearly threw my back out. So I stopped, repacked it right, then continued down.
Our late start and backback/boot troubles slowed us down. Becca and I shuffled into the parking lot well after the other three arrived, with the sun already well below the horizon.
Liz suffered least. She’d been training for a marathon, and with the exception of burping up a little stomach acid near the top, she was unscathed. Ben said he’d been seeing spots close to the summit, not a good sign. But he improved greatly as we descended. Kendra had stomach issues that started near the top and ended as we drove out and we were forced to stop so she could go into the bushes to throw up. I already mentioned my back. And Becca, ever the trooper, suffered through her busted blisters and injured foot arch.
A slower pace, better nutrition, better conditioning, proper pack balancing and appropriate footwear would have made the trip less stressful on the way down. But the sights, fellowship and accomplishments left us with a pretty positive experience. This trip was actually in 2006. When we all got together recently, everyone agreed that this was a fun way to spend a Labor Day weekend.
One last note: What I like about this area is its proximity to Oklahoma. From Oklahoma City, it’s about eight hours to Red River. And it’s a great place to break yourself into to backpacking and high-altitude hiking/mountaineering.