South Baldy Peak • Highpoint: Socorro County
• Range Highpoint: Magdalena Mountains

Date: (1) September 3, 2000; (2) September 4, 2005 • Elevation: 10,783 feet • Prominence: 3,803 feet • Distance: 1 mile hike • Time: 20 minute hike, 2 hour drive • Gain: 200 feet • Conditions: (1) Pleasant; (2) A little cloudy • Teammates: Beth Cousland in 2005


The top, and our truck


High altitude moos


Beth on top


Helpful sign


Last bit


South Baldy Peak is faintly
visible against a cloudy backdrop,
as seen from Mt. Withington


Scott meets a pretty doggy in town


Beth pets Ringo the kitty

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South Baldy Peak is the highest point of the Magdalena Mountains in central New Mexico. The peak is topped by Langmuir Lightning Laboratory and the new Magdalena Ridge Observatory, which at 10,600 feet above sea level, is the fourth highest observatory in the world, according to their website.

As you may have inferred, the summit of South Baldy Peak is a big place, with broad ridges and room to build big buildings. It's not much of a mountaineering or hiking challenge, but it is the highest point in the county, a range highpoint and a highly-prominent mountain, so it's worth a visit. I have been here twice, once on my own in 2000 and again with my wife in 2005.

First Visit, September 2000: I was on a Labor Day weekend run of county highpoints in western New Mexico, having driven out the day before to the Grants area, where I had successful hikes up Cerros de Alejandro (yesterday) and Mount Taylor this morning. After descending Mount Taylor and the time still not yet 10 a.m., I drove south toward Socorro, bypassing Albuquerque and taking a lonely state route directly to Los Lunas then on to Socorro, where I caught US-60 and drove west to the Water Canyon entrance, on the north flanks of the Magdalena Range. It was 3 p.m. when I arrived and the thunderstorms seemed to be taking the day off, so I decided to go for it today and not wait until tomorrow.

The road in from US-60 leads up the gently-sloping alluvial terrain into Water Canyon for a few miles, coming to the Water Canyon Campground. Here, the pavement ends, but a decent dirt road continues up to the Langmuir Laboratory (as it was signed in 2000). I followed this road up about a dozen miles to its end, at an old gate spanning the road just short of the summit, which is a bare hump visible a short ways past this gate. The drive up took an hour and was moderately rough, but not too bad (the road needed a grading). I parked in a wide area near the gate.

I decided to skip the road and instead charged up the steep hillside to gain the main ridge. From here it was an easy walk to the top, the hike taking all of 10 minutes. Lots of metal-work is spread out everywhere, including mesh screens, which I am guessing "enhance" the likelihood of lightning strikes. I could see the actual lab buildings a distance away, another half-mile past the gate. I descended the same way back to my truck and drove back to US-60 in about another hour. I drove to Truth or Consequences, where I stayed the night before embarking on another peak the next day, McKnight Mountain.

Second Visit, September 2005: Beth and I were planning our Labor Day getaway and we originally planned to drive from Chandler to Grants, New Mexico, hike up Mount Taylor, then drive down to visit South Baldy, stay in Truth Or Consequences, and go home. But ... we realized we were trying to cram too much into the three days, so we excised the Grants and T or C portions of our trip, and stuck mainly in and around Catron and Socorro Counties. We still planned to visit South Baldy, as well as the Very Large Array, the San Mateo Range, and the areas in and around Datil, Reserve and the Plain of San Augustin.

We left Friday afternoon and drove north and east through Payson and Springerville and on into Datil (NM) along US-60, arriving about 9 p.m.. In a slight drizzle, we pulled up into an open campsite at the Datil Well National Recreation Area, and pitched the tent. With no moon and clouded skies, and no city lights nearby, everything was ink black. My lantern gave me just enough light to get the tent righted correctly. We ate dinner in the cab of the truck as the rain picked up, and had a decent night's sleep in the tent. The rain gave away during the night and we awoke to cool and foggy conditions.

We took time to explore the Datil Well campground. This was one of a few dozen wells strung out along a 200-mile corridor called the Magdalena Cattle Highway, in which stockmen drove their cattle herds eastward to the trains in Magdalena for market. It was one of the largest of its kind and was active up until about 1970. The well is hardly the attraction at Datil Well, but the area is an attractive hilly region of pinon and juniper woodland. We stopped in the tiny town of Datil (pronounced "daddle"), read the amusing poem on the ceiling of the gas station, and got moving. We went east along US-60 about 35 miles through the town of Magdalena and another 10 miles to the Water Canyon entrance toward South Baldy Peak, arriving to the turn off about 9:30 a.m.

From here to the top was smooth sailing, the road having been greatly improved. I was wondering if I was simply overstating the condition of the road on my first trip, but definitely there were parts on my first visit that were rough, while the entire road this time was nice and smooth. We parked at a turnout near a guard shack, a few hundred feet short of the gate, and below a trailhead for the North Baldy trail. A small herd of cattle sat in the open meadow grass and watched us, but after a few minutes got up and "moo"ved on.

We hiked up the trail about 70 vertical feet up to the ridge, turned left, and followed a sketchy use path partways up the ridge to the top. We arrived to the top and snapped photos, then walked down the road down the other side, coming back out onto the main road on the grounds of the Langmuir Labs. No one was around, so we moseyed slowly back to our truck, a short hike of a mile round trip in 30 minutes. It was cool and breezy, with moderate cloudiness. The drive down went well and the entire round trip took 2 hours.

We stopped in Magdalena for lunch and a visit to the local shops. We were told a new optical observatory is being built on a peak east of South Baldy (we had seen the construction but assumed it was Langmuir Lab stuff). The telescope is a joint venture between New Mexico Tech Univeristy and Cambridge University in England. We were told that Prince Andrew himself had visited to cut the ribbon. I can imagine that he thought this was the last place he ever pictured himself visiting. We stayed the night in Magdalena when the rains picked up. Here we met Ringo the friendly kitty. He let us pet him and he entertained us with his jumping ability, plus his overall friendliness.

The next day we visited the Very Large Array as well as making a somewhat hasty drive-up visit to the summit and lookout atop Mount Withington, the highpoint of the north sector of the San Mateo Range, west of the Magdalena Mountains. The Very Large Array is pretty cool. There are 27 monster satellite dishes arranged in a Y-pattern, able to pick up the faintest radio signals from the most distant quasars on the furthest realms of the universe... and possibly, if arranged just right, ESPN-Classic, or so I hear. We ate lunch in Reserve, a tiny city in western New Mexico, and camped that night in the mountains along the state line.

(c) 2000, 2005, 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.