Climbing Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

The trail rises up from the Taos Ski Area ten miles northeast of Taos to the 13,161 foot Mount Wheeler, the highest point in New Mexico The seven-mile long trail to Mount Wheeler begins at the northern edge of the Taos Ski Area some ten miles northeast of Taos, New Mexico.

Mt Wheeler,Taos, NM - 13,200 ft

Mt Wheeler,Taos, NM – 13,200 ft

There is no other way to get here in the summer other than by private car where there is ample parking during the summer months for a hundred cars or more. The starting point of the Mount Wheeler Trail is 9,207 feet above sea level. Hikers should sign the trail register just above the parking area. The best times to climb Mount Wheeler are early June through early September.

Be Aware of Early June Snow Storms

Be aware that late spring snow storms can hit this high area of northern New Mexico into early June. The worst times to climb this peak would be from mid-September through early June. There are no man-made hazards on this seven-mile trail to the summit but the hiker should be wary of summer afternoon thunderstorms so it is best to get an early start. The climber should acclimate to higher elevations before starting this climb as there are at least two miles of this trail at or above 13,000 feet. Once the hiker is on the way above 9,200 feet, she will be treated to a wide variety of subalpine flowers along the trail including tall stalks of pink fireweed and fuzzy small blossoms of pearly everlasting.

The First Two Miles Are Steadily Upwards

The trail ascends steadily through lush stands of Douglas fir and angular lodgepole pines. If the climber begins early enough in the morning, he may see western mule deer as well as chickaree squirrels and a variety of birds from Steller’s jays to Canada jays and chickadees. After two miles, he will arrive at a stagnant pond where the trail turns sharply to the right due south and up a rocky escarpment.. It is best to pause here to drink water and take photographs.

Sweeping Views of the Pecos Mountains and Taos Valley

Once atop the escarpment (at about 10,000 feet) the hiker will be afforded sweeping views to the south of the Pecos Mountains where New Mexico’s second highest peak (Pecos Peak) rises high above the desert. to the west spreads the vast Taos Valley housing the Taos Indian Pueblo as well as the large town of historic Taos. Within a mile and a half or so the hiker will enter the krummholz or tree line above 11,500 feet. It is here that the treeless tundra begins with grassy slopes covered with alpine sunflowers in late summer. Western song sparrows will treat you to choruses of melodious notes.

A Sudden Descent of the Trail

Just as the hiker begins to get used to this higher elevation with views of lower mountains all around, the trail makes a sudden descent at four miles from the trail head into a lush valley of twisted limber pines (western white pines) and colorful flowers such as red Indian paintbrush and yellow alpine avens. This area might be a good place to rest and enjoy some energy snacks because the trail rises quite abruptly from these alpines woods.

The Trail Shows No Mercy at a 50 Degree Angle Ever Upwards

The trail above the limber pines rises straight up to a bald ridge high above. Take frequent rests, if needed, as you ascend this steepest portion of the trail. Stop to enjoy the views well above 12,000 feet. When the hiker is finally walking along the top of this bald ridge, s/he will be afforded amazing views both eastward and westward some five miles from the trail head. Directly below lies a brilliantly blue Horseshoe Lake and slightly less than two miles beyond the view of this lake looms Mount Wheeler and a slightly lower Mount Walter at 13,110 feet.

The Hiker May See Bighorn Sheep

The rest of the trail up to Mounts Walter and Wheeler is perhaps the most enjoyable part as it skirts along the bald ridge above a vast subalpine valley directly below with continual views of the upper third of New Mexico. Just before Mount Walter, the trail ascends to the 13,000 foot level and remains at this elevation for the last mile to the summit of Mount Wheeler via Mount Walter and down a bit to a tundra saddle before the final surge up to Wheeler’s summit at 13,161 feet. With luck, the hiker may see a bighorn sheep along this portion of the trail. If the weather is clear, s/he will be able to see to the Arizona border with the 11,000 foot Taylor Mountains in-between as well as a vast stretch of arid New Mexico to the east. The climber can’t help but feel like an Inca up here. This hike will take all day round-trip with a vertical gain of 3,954 feet! Bring sufficient water as there are no water sources on the trail nor are there any restrooms. You can download a trail map from The Carson National Forest web page.

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