Capitan Mountain • Capitan (Sacramento) Mountains
• Southern Lincoln County

Date Climbed
August 8, 2007

10,201 feet

5.5 miles

2 hours hike

1,200 feet

Clear, very nice

3,261 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

Capitan Gap

Capitan Mountain

Summit cairn

It's called Palko Peak???

Sierra Blanca from the road

Some of the road

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After my hikes south in the Sacramento Range, I drove from Alamogordo through Carrizozo and then east another 20 miles through some pretty hill country to the town of Capitan, arriving about 3 p.m. in rainy weather. Capitan has just one hotel, the Smokey Bear Lodge, and I took a room there for two nights, seeing it as a good place to fan out for the three peaks I had next on my list. I didnít do much for the rest of the day other than relax, watch some tube and read. At sunset, the clouds parted and the storms started to die down, leaving some spectacular conditions and beautiful colors. I set up my camp chair outside my room and just sat and enjoyed the pleasant temperatures.

Next on my agenda was the summit of the Capitan Mountains, located immediately north of town. The Capitans are famous for a huge forest fire that swept the range in 1950, and the discovery of a small bear cub, injured in the blaze, that was nursed to health and who became the famed Smokey Bear symbol for forest fire prevention (note: it is "Smokey Bear", not "Smokey the Bear"). The bear lived until the mid-1970s at the National Zoo in Washington, D. C., and was buried back here in Capitan after his death. Capitan the town capitalizes on this theme, with many places in town named for the bear, and a museum in the heart of town that is worth a quick visit.

The range itself is essentially one large massif, a granite intrusive body above the sedimentary plains below. It is one of the rare ranges to run east-west, and its ridge features very little actual variation. Its peaks and subpeaks barely rise a hundred feet above the ridgeline. Capitan Peak, at 10,083 feet, is a popular hiking destination, a smallish hill on the rangeís east tip. However, the summit of the range is a small hill on top the range at 10,201 feet. Apparently it is called Palko Peak, but this name is never mentioned on any maps.

The range is crossed length and breadth by trails, offering many options to access the highpoint. Steep routes can get one from the plains to Capitan Peak, then a long ridge trail (called the Summit Trail) leads to the highpoint. However, this would have entailed at least 16-18 miles of hiking, and significant time high on the ridges which was out of the question given the weather pattern lately. Instead, I looked at a service road that works its way high onto the range crest from the west via Capitan Gap. Assuming I could get the truck in most of the way, I would be left with a relatively short hike to the highpoint. I hoped the road was in reasonable condition, and started in early the morning of the 8th.

From Capitan I went east on US-380 for two miles to the Capitan Gap Road (Road C-1), and for the first 5.3 miles it was a wide gravel road that worked its way up and over rolling rangeland of grasses, pinon and juniper. At the 5-mile mark it drops into a small private inholding featuring a run-down home with dozens of old vehicles in the yard. Then, just as fast I crossed into Forest property. The good road turns right to a Bible Camp, while the road to Capitan Gap continues north, now called Lincoln National Forest Road 56. This is decent road, gaining up through moderate forest cover to Capitan Gap, 6.9 miles from the highway.

I stayed right and then started up the steep grades, putting the truck into 4-wheel drive. The road is quite steep for the next two miles or so, but in pretty good shape and wide, too. Afterwards it gains onto the main range crest, where the gradient is gentler, features some ups and downs and some pretty meadows and scenery. Padilla Point is about 5 miles up from Capitan Gap, and probably the last best place to camp, for afterwards the road starts to lessen in quality and become far more rocky and steep. Where the road runs north of the flattish summit of "Summit Spring" near the Corral Canyon sign, the rocks became rather bad. I managed to bash and smash the truck down into a small saddle at elevation 9,572, where I parked, 7.2 miles from Capitan Gap. This put me about 1.7 miles from the end of the road, but in retrospect (had I known about this section of road) I would have parked farther back and walked this stretch. In any case, I was where I was and ready to go.

I hiked up the road, now gaining gently on the south face of the range crest. It was still early enough so that I had shade. In about 30 minutes I had covered the 1.7 miles to near the end of the road, to the junction with the Summit Trail (Trail 58). From here I walked down the switchbacks hewn into the talus, an impressive feat of "moving rocks aside" in order to create the trail. From here to the highpoint is just over a mile, in which the trail drops about 200 feet, then regains about 125 feet to top out on a small intermediate bump (the map is incorrect here: the trail goes right over the top, not to the side). Then another drop of about 80 feet, and the final push to the actual summit. The trail is pretty good, but overgrown, suggesting it probably doesnít see a lot of hikers.

As I gained to the actual highpoint, I left the trail early and started hiking cross-country in the knee-high grasses, finally coming up to the summit after a few minutes. The top is rocky with a cairn and a sign, where I learned the summit is called Palko Peak, and some simple rock benches. However, the places was buzzing and crawling with insects, and a small gopher snake that scooted away as I came upon him. I wasnít too motivated to stick around, so I only stayed long enough for a photo and some looking around. Views from here are mostly of the nearby trees.

Hiking down, I found the trail quickly then worked my way back to my truck, for about an overall journey of three hours. I enjoyed the impressive views down into the valleys below, unimpeded by foothills. The drive out was bumpy and nasty as I managed that last section, then nice once past that. I didnít realize how steep the road was as I descended into Capitan Gap, but boy it is, and exposed too, although still wide and well-maintained. But the views were stunning. In a way, this hike not only had a fun walking portion to it, but the driving part of the hike was just as fun! I enjoyed it thoroughly. Since the town was so close, I was back to my hotel by 10:30 a.m., still a whole day to kill.

The weather was holding up a bit better than yesterday. Some puffy clouds were starting to develop but none had yet taken the turn into thunderheads quite yet. Of the remaining two peaks nearby, Carrizo was closer, but Gallinas, about 50 miles north, was much quicker logistically, and given the potential for afternoon storms, I chose to save Carrizo for the next morning and drive the road up to Gallinas Peak.

(c) 2007, 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.