Sierra Blanca • Highpoint: Otero County
• Range Highpoint: Sacramento Mountains
• Highpoint: Mescalero Indian Reservation
• Most Prominent Mountain in New Mexico
Lookout Mountain • Highpoint: Lincoln County
• Sacramento Mountains

Date Climbed
July 14, 2001

11,973 feet (Sierra Blanca)
11,580 feet (Lookout Mountain)

9.5 miles round trip

8 hours

2,700 feet

Clear, a bit humid

5,533 feet
(Sierra Blanca)
400 feet
(Lookout Mountain)

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

Lookout Mountain from Sierra Blanca

Siera Blanca from Lookout Mountain

Me, after the climb

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Sierra Blanca is a huge mountain, looming nearly 12,000 feet high and almost 8,000 feet above the desert valley floor below and making it one of the largest escarpments in New Mexico. It sits grandly over the Sacramento Range, which is a conglomeration of smaller ranges in southern New Mexico northeast of Alamogordo, west of Roswell, and south of Carrizozo. Sierra Blanca is the only mountain in New Mexico with over 5,000 feet of prominence, and it can be seen from over a hundred miles away from some vatnage points.

A year ago I was here to climb Sierra Blanca and it's northerly neighbor Lookout Mountain, but I unluckily arrived a few days after Hurricane Beryl landed in south Texas, and started breaking up inland. Even though Sierra Blanca is a good 500 miles from the Gulf, the remnants of the hurricane were still quite severe. I had landed in El Paso and driven up to Ruidoso in a spectacular lightning storm and heavy rain. The next morning the rain subsided but the clouds did not. I drove up the curvy mountain road to the Apache Ski Area but met up with dense fog. Sensing that I shouldn't try it at this time, I turned back and returned to my hotel in Ruidoso.

For this attempt, I again flew into El Paso from Phoenix on Friday the 13th. It's a quick one-hour hop of a flight, but my seatmate was the Woman Who Wouldn't Shut-up. I made like I was a sleep most of the time so she would bore the person on her right (I was on her left). Among other things, she always asks for free playing cards and coloring books on flights, and gives these out as Christmas gifts. I know this because she told everyone within a five-foot radius. Finally, we landed and I was on my way. I had plenty of daylight to make the 2-hour drive to Ruidoso, where I stayed at a Motel-8. I woke very early the next morning, with the intent of being at the trailhead at day-break. As it was, I was at the trailhead right at 4:30 a.m. in darkness, still a good 45 minutes from dawn. But a waning moon was up and offered enough ambient light to allow me to get started. After suiting up in the brisk coolness, I began my hike at 4:45 a.m. at approximately 9,800 feet elevation.

The trail is a good one, regularly maintained, and part of an extensive network of trails in the area. I followed Trail #15 into the forest, paralleling a creek. The trail gained at a pleasant grade for 1/4 of a mile, then made a switchback and gained another 1/4 mile to a junction with Trail #25, elevation 10,200. Aside from some trees at the start, most of the first half-mile was open grassy slope. easily visible in the dim moonlight. When it did pass through a stand of trees, I had a flashlight handy to ensure I didn't step on anything or lose my way.

I made a left turn at Trail #25. It contoured for about a half-mile through a forest, and actually lost about 50 feet over this period (I didn't notice the drop going in, but coming out, all tired, I certainly noticed it). The trail then opened up again in a grassy meadow, then began a short series of switchbacks in the forest before again opening up again in the grass. I was roughly at the 11,000-foot mark, and the sun was starting to come up and give me good light. I could see the Ski Apache complex across the drainage, and Lookout Mountain's bald top was visible above the trees. I was making excellent time, as It was barely 6 a.m.

Finally, Trail #25 merged with Trail #78 near Ice Springs, where the trail contoured through one final batch of trees, then to a saddle, and then steeply up an old set of jeep tracks up a grassy slope toward the top of the ski runs. Signs in the area pointed out the various ski runs. Here, the trail got kind of steep. I hiked behind a lodge building and up the final grade to the top of Lookout Mountain, elevation 11,580 feet and the highest point of Lincoln County. I arrived at 6:30 a.m. in cool weather and nearly no breeze, a total hike of about 3.5 miles. I had seen no one on the trail and there apparently was no one in the buildings at the top, though I did hear a generator buzzing away.

Lookout Mountain has a cicular concrete slab about 10 feet in diameter on its summit, with a stone wall and some benches. Markers indicate nearby peaks, with, of course, Sierra Blanca towering above to the south. I should note that Lookout Mountain is by itself a worthy peak: it is open with excellent views. It just happens to be dominated by the larger Sierra Blanca nearby, and happens to be the highpoint of Lincoln County because the guy who drew in the county boundary in 1869 placed it just south of the summit, putting this here summit itself inside Lincoln County. I stayed on Lookout for about 15 minutes, then started down the other side toward Sierra Blanca.

There is no maintained trail to Sierra Blanca, but the whole route is wide open and up grassy and rocky slopes. There are paths beaten in by previous hikers, but more often than not I made my own way. Down from Lookout, I followed the jeep tracks a short bit, then across a grassy field to a breach in the snow fence at the border of the ski area, and from there down to the saddle between Lookout and Blanca, elevation 11,150 feet (roughly).

From the saddle, Sierra Blanca looks pretty imposing. First, I had to hike up a steep grassy slope up to a rocky knob at elevation 11,672 feet. This tired me pretty good, and I was feeling the effects of altitude, too. I rested often, easily distracted by the awesome views. At this rocky knob I stowed my pack and hiked across a somewhat level section of exposed rock. From below it looks like a serrated knife-edge, but actually it has plenty of room for maneuvering and I was never in any danger of plummeting to my death. In short order I was at the base of the final push to the summit, still about 350 feet above me. The route from here follows a faint path through rocky obstacles which, while looking impressive, do not require any technical experience other than route-finding. This was a pretty fun section, albeit steep. I finally gained the summit at 8 a.m. sharp. Absolutely spectacular!

I stayed at the summit about 20 minutes, taking photos, signing the register and looking out over the valleys below and the distant ranges. White Sands was visible way off to the southwest. The weather was superb, and the views magnificent. With its prominence, Sierra Blanca offers probably the best views from any peak in New Mexico. I could see half of New Mexico, it seemed.

Soon, however, I was on my way down. The hike down went quickly, although I rested here and there, especially on the hike back up Lookout (I didn't go back to the top, but instead followed the road around it). I started to see more hikers as I hiked down. I thought about taking a ski-run back down but figured it would be easier on my knees to take the trail. At least I would get to see what I couldn't in the pre-dawn dark. I arrived back to my car at 10:45 a.m., a total of six hours and nine miles of hiking, with a gross 2,800 feet of gain.

I spent the rest of the day driving down the roads north through the town of Nogal into Carrizozo, then south back to Alamogordo, where I got a hotel room at 1 in the afternoon. I showered and took a long nap. I didn't do much the rest of the day, and my drive back to El Paso and flight home to Phoenix was uneventful, other than a bumpy flight.

(c) 2001, 2011 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.