Caballo Mountain • Highpoint: Los Alamos County
• Jemez Mountains

Caballo Peak from
across Guaje Canyon

Canada Bonita as we
headed in

Edward rests in the
verdant Guaje Canyon

Morning light breaks
break into the forest
(Guaje Canyon)

Me resting in the summit meadow

Canada Bonita on the way out

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Date: September 25, 2004 • Elevation: 10,496 feet (summit), 10,480 feet (Los Alamos HP) • Prominence: 900 feet • Distance: 14 miles • Time: 7 hours • Gain: 3,400 feet • Conditions: Dry and breezy • Teammates: Edward Earl

Los Alamos is well known as one of the leading science and research centers in the world. The surrounding county was formed during World War II once the town of Los Alamos was selected to become the United States' main research center, which included the development of the nuclear bomb. The county is tiny, just 145 square miles, snuggled up in the mountains northwest of Santa Fe. The city of Los Alamos looks and feels like a university. The streets have names like "Trinity", "Oppenheimer", and "Bikini Atoll Road".

The drive to Los Alamos from Santa Fe ascends a series of impressive mesas and cliffs, and the city of Los Alamos is 7,000 feet elevation. The county is flanked on its north and west by rounded mountains, the eastern extension of the Jemez Mountains. The highest peak within the county's boundaries is the east summit of Pajarito Mountain at 10,360 feet. However, Caballo Mountain contains land that lie within the county at 10,480 feet, although its summit actually lies inside Sandoval County, at 10,496 feet. Were the boundaries slightly adjusted west slightly and south slightly, it's possible that another peak (e.g. Pajarito's main summit or Cerro Rubio) could have become the county highpoint. It's safe to say the people in charge of drawing the lines in 1945 weren't thinking about the county highpoint.

I was down to three remaining county highpoints needed to complete the entire state of New Mexico: this one, and nearby Redondo Peak (in Sandoval County) and Santa Fe Baldy (in Santa Fe County). With the summer heat abating and a lull period before the wintry snows set in, I decided to speand a weekend to hike Caballo Mountain, and perhaps, one of the other ones I needed to finish. I arranged to meet Edward Earl, with whom I've hiked and climbed before. Edward arrived a day earlier to hike Chicoma Mountain nearby, and we agreed to meet at the trailhead near the Pajarito Ski Area before sun-up. I flew into Albuquerque Friday evening and drove up to Santa Fe where I ate dinner and got supplies, then took a hotel in Espanola. Very early the next morning, I drove to Los Alamos and followed Camp May Road to the ski area. I didn't see Edward in the dark but it turned out he was camping nearby and we met at the trailhead as planned about 6 a.m., still in darkness.

The trailhead is a short ways past the main parking area of the ski complex, on the north side of the road, set back but easy to find, even in the dark. Edward and I started in at 6:15 a.m. just as dawn was breaking. We followed Guaje Canyon Trail #282, which is an old road for the first few hundred feet. We stayed left at a Y-junction and hiked mostly level through the trees, gaining a little, then coming out into a beautiful sloping meadow called Canada Bonita after 1.5 miles and a 400-foot gain. Our path took us right up to the boundary fence of the Valles Calderas National Preserve. The trail then went right and re-entered a stand of trees, before shortly coming into the open again at another Y-junction.

We backtracked and re-caught our trail as it trended northerly in the forest before making a hard right and descending about 200 feet and coming out to a prominent rock promontory. We stopped here to rest, and take in the view of Caballo Mountain, which was directly across the canyon from us to the north. We figured this point to be about 4 miles from the trailhead, and it had taken us about 90 minutes to get here. The map has a spot elevation of 9,468 feet here, meaning a net gain of 250 feet from the trailhead (which is just above 9,200 feet). Actually, the 4 miles in included plenty of long (but gentle) ups and downs, so the gross figure is more like 550 feet.

The Guaje Canyon trail makes a hard left turn at this promontory and descends rather steeply down the north side of this spit of rock, then generally down its east face. A mile later we'd dropped almost 800 feet into the heart of Guaje Canyon, a lovely verdant canyon of green grasses and huge fir and aspen trees, with a flowing creek. Shortly we came to the trail junction with Caballo Trail #277. We turned left and started up the steep slopes of Caballo Mountain. This stretch went slow and was very steep in places, but route finding was easy, with occasional deadfall blocking our path the only nuisances.

Closer to the top the grade moderated and soon we came into a wide meadow south of the summit, with unobstructed views of Los Alamos below and of Santa Fe Baldy Mountain on the horizon. The trail grew weak and disappeared amid the tall clumpy grass. A sign mentions a trail junction with the Agua Piedra Trail and that some of this land belongs to the Santa Clara Indian Reservation. Actually, the map showed us to be just south of the Los Alamos-Sandoval County line, which also demarcates the Santa Clara Reservation (north, in Sandoval County) and the Santa Fe National Forest (where we were, in Los Alamos County). We followed the trail into the meadow, then headed into the trees to seek out the county highpoint.

As stated above, the highpoint of Los Alamos County is along its county line just south of the summit. We found a very old fence line, mostly on its side, which we surmised to be the county boundary. Newer orange plastic stakes were also along this fence, delineating the National Forest boundary. With that, we pretty much knew for certain the fence and stakes were the county line. We tread upon the fence for a few hundred feet, seeking the higher rises. We felt that two areas near some big trees might be highest and built a small cairn at the likeliest candidate point.

We also walked 200 feet northeast to the summit at 10,496 feetm which was thickly wooded with no views. Then we went back to the meadow, where we took a lunch break and admired the views. Some thunderheads were already developing. Not counting the time we spent searching along the fence line for the county highpoint, our one-way ascent had taken 3.5 hours and had covered 7 miles, with the last two coming up from Guaje Canyon, entailing an 1,800-foot gain. Counting the ups and downs of the first portion our one way gain to the summit was more like 2,200 feet. We got moving for the hike out at 10:30 a.m.

The descent into Guaje Canyon went fast, taking 40 minutes. Then, the slog back up the steep switchbacks to the rocky promontory, an overall 1,000 foot gain if measured from the lowest point to where it topped out before descending slightly north of Pipeline Road. We made reasonable time and met some bicyclists as we gained the higher ground. Back at Pipeline Road we stopped near some dirt piles (an earthmover was grading the road nearby) and snacked. We peered down into Valle de los Posos, located within the Valles Calderas National Preserve. Redondo Peak stood grandly off in the distance, while thunder rumbled from points well to the north.

The remaining hike out took another hour, and we were back to our vehicles slightly before 2 p.m., an overall round trip of about 7.5 hours. Including the gain we had to make up going out, our total gross gain for the hike was almost 3,400 feet. The Pajarito Ski Area was full of partiers and live music, as a Blues Festival was going on. We descended into Los Alamos and met up with Mouser Williams, a fellow county highpointer working on his doctorate in Los Alamos. First, however: burgers, brats and beer!

(c) 2004, 2016 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.