Wheeler Peak, Taos NM highpoint - www.surgent.net

Wheeler Peak • Highpoint: State of New Mexico
• Highpoint: Taos County
• Range Highpoint: Taos Mountains

Looking at the peaks
from the Taos Ski Valley

Chris and I before our start in

Chris on the summit

and me, too

Wheeler Peaks as viewed from
Taos Pueblo, June 2016.
The structure in front is the
bell tower of an old church
destroyed by American forces
in the 19th Century.

N.M. PageMain Page


Date: August 14 & 15, 1994 • Elevation: 13,161 feet • Prominence: 3,409 feet • Distance: 14 miles • Time: 24 hours (includes overnight camp) • Gain: 4,700 feet • Conditions: Clear mornings, stormy afternoons • Teammates: Chris Surgent

Wheeler Peak is the highest point in the state of New Mexico, located in the Sangre de Christo Range in Taos County. To this point in my life I had hiked a grand total of three state highpoints, and was admittedly very new to the hobby. When planning this hike, I had nothing to go on. I was unaware of the one or two state highpointing books on the market back then, and the internet was still a useless curiosity, just coming into the general public at the time.

My brother Chris, age 20, joined me for this hike. The plan was to drive to New Mexico, get maps and figure it all out on the spot. Chris drove to Phoenix from California, then we drove together to Albuquerque, then to Taos, all in one long day from my place in Phoenix. We arrived in Taos in late afternoon in stormy weather, including rain and lightning. We were able to get a topographical map at a map shop along the way. We stayed at a hotel in town that night.

The next day, we checked in with the Forest Service in Taos about the hike. While we gained useful information, this put our actual hiking start off until 9 a.m. Our plan was to hike to the La Cal Basin, about 5 miles in toward Wheeler Peak summit, and camp there for the night, then make an early-morning hike to the top, then out all on the second day. The day started out lovely, but we knew enough not to get complacent. The weather called for more storms later in the day.

We followed the Bull-of-the-Woods route, a longer approach but a nicer trail with better scenery. With packs for a full night, the going was slow, but we made steady progress. The initial hike was through forest, but after an hour we emerged into the Bull of the Woods meadow, then followed an old service road as it encircled Bull of the Woods Peak, cresting at a wooden fence marking the National Forest Boundary. We rested here, the road portion now over and the long pretty hike along the ridge about to start. A small glade of trees offered shade. We had covered about three miles and it was not yet 11 a.m.. We were doing well and the weather was still behaving too.

Moving again, we ascended through sparse forest and open terrain for about an hour, reaching nearly 12,000 feet of elevation before descending steeply into the verdant La Cal Basin. This was a beautiful camping area, and we set up our tent quickly. It took us three and a half hours to cover the five miles, and the weather was holding steady ... sort of. The clouds started to get puffy and form from nowhere, so we knew we might be in for some action. We spent time exploring the area and talking with a father-son duo camped nearby. We relaxed and enjoyed the solitude, the quietness and the scents. Sure enough, by 4 p.m., we got hit with squally rains and thunder, but within an hour the storms had dissipated and we were able to venture outside a little while more before the sun set for the evening.

We awoke early the next morning and started the hike to the top. We were just a couple miles away from the summit. From camp, we followed the trail which gained steeply out of La Cal Basin. The trail switchbacked through forest, then broke into the open and made two long sweeping switchbacks across the grassy slopes to gain the main high ridge. We walked south toward an obvious peak, and were happy to gain this peak's summit, only to discover it was Walker Peak, which is lower than Wheeler by a few feet.

Fortunately, Wheeler Peak was just a few minutes' walk away, and we were at the top of New Mexico by 7:30 a.m. in pleasant, cool and dry conditions. The sky was cloudless, and we had unlimited views in all directions: the big peaks north in Colorado, more big peaks south of us, and high desert and foothills to the east and west. We stayed for about 20 minutes, snacked, took photos and made friends with a chubby pika looking for free grub (he got a couple treats from us).

We descended back to camp after an hour of hiking. We disassembled everything and within another half-hour, we were making our way back to the truck. The uphill segment from La Cal Basin to the high ridge was slow going, but we made decent time. We took a number of rest stops, partly caused by our being low on water. We exited at 1 p.m. and quickly drove into the Taos Ski Valley shops for desperately-needed gatorade and water.

The hike was spectacular, a 14-mile round trip journey with about 4,700 feet of gain to the summit. While many people do it in a day, we enjoyed the camp at La Cal Basin for a wonderfully enjoyable two-day outing.

Once we were sufficiently watered and rested, we started driving toward Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where we stayed at a cheap motel for the evening. The next day, we visited Mesa Verde National Park and the cliff cities there. Afterwards, we drove through the Four Corners and the Navajo Nation to my place in Phoenix. Chris stayed with me for the night, then drove himself back to California the next day.

I enjoyed my hike with Chris and was happy we had made the summit given our lack of any advance knowledge of the peak. He was a good partner. For me, this was my 4th state highpoint.

(c) 1994, 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.