Sierra Blanca, New Mexico

Location: west of Ruidoso, New Mexico
Summit elevation: 11,981 feet
Elevation gain: 9.3 miles round trip
Date: September 14, 2013

Sierra Blanca from Lookout Point

At nearly 12,000 feet in elevation Sierra Blanca is the highest point in southern New Mexico and the highest point in the state outside of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Sierra Blanca dominates the area and rises 7,800 feet above the Tularosa Valley to the west. While much of the hike crosses Lincoln National Forest, the peak is in the Mescalero Reservation, and you're apparently supposed to obtain a permit to hike to the summit, but from what I've seen I don't think many people, if any, actually get a permit (there even seems to be doubt whether a permit even exists).


So I drove to Ruidoso and on to the Oak Grove Campground along the road to Ski Apache on Friday evening. It was raining when I arrived, and it had actually been raining for the previous five days, causing some flooding in the area. It rained much of the night but mostly stopped by about 8:00 the next morning. I then made the drive up to Ski Apache and parked at the trailhead just before the ski area parking.

Oak Grove Campground on Friday
A sign at the trialhead said that the Crest Trail was closed between Buck Mountain Road and the Lookout Point Trail, due to the lack of labeling on the map at the trailhead and the USGS topo map I had with me, I wasn't sure if this was the trail I would be taking. It turns out that I followed a large portion of this section of the Crest Trail, and I learned this once I reached its junction with the Lookout Point Trail. The trail seems to be closed because much of the forest that the trail goes through was burned in 2012, but the trail was in otherwise good condition.

Along trail 15 just above the trailhead

From the trailhead the route begins by following trail 15 (also apparently called the Scenic Trail) to its junction with the Crest Trail after about a half mile. Trail 15 initially follows the bottom of a small valley but then turns uphill through a hillside meadow. At this turn there appears to be an unmarked trail that continues on up the valley, and the sign for trail 15 is actually behind you on the way up the hillside (this may lead to some confusion).

The Crest Trail going through the burned area

After reaching the Crest Trail, I turned left towards the ski hills and entered the burned area. The trail eventually reaches a clearing where there is usually a spring but was actually a stream with numerous springs and water all throughout the field when I reached it. There is a sign for trail 25 (Crest Trail) in the middle of this field, but the trail seems to disappear. You have to look around to the left (west) of this meadow to rediscover the trail as it reenters the forest and switchbacks up the mountain.

The Crest Trail as it passes the ski slopes between the first Spring and Ice Spring

About 2.5 miles from the trailhead the Crest Trail reaches its junction with the Lookout Point Trail (trail 78). Just after this junction on the Lookout Point Trail is Ice Spring, a reliable water source that was flowing very strongly thanks to the recent rains. From here it is 0.8 miles to the summit of Lookout Point at  an elevation of 11,580 feet. To get there follow the trail to is junction with another connector trail along the crest of the range and then continue up along the ski slopes to where the gondola ends and is a yurt with refreshments (both open on summer weekends).

Water flowing from Ice Spring

During my visit there was ongoing construction, so I followed a new bike trail for a short distance before breaking off and going up to Lookout Point. During much of my hike there were low-lying clouds obscuring higher areas, including Lookout Point and Sierra Blanca, but when I was at the summit of Lookout Point I actually has some of the clearest views of the day. From here you can see the route to the summit of Sierra Blanca.

View from Lookout Point
Sierra Blanca from the road below Lookout Point

Go down from Lookout Point and follow a rough dirt road towards Sierra Blanca. You can actually follow this road for a little longer than I did. I chose to turn off the road and go around a hill between Sierra Blanca and Lookout Point to avoid a small amount of unnecessary elevation gain and loss. After you leave the road it is all off trail to the summit of Sierra Blanca. Continue up a very steep portion of the ridge to a false summit to the north of the peak. From here you can see the cliffs on the northeast side of the peak, so continue below the top of the ridge before making the final steep, rocky climb to the summit.

The northeast side of Sierra Blanca


Sierra Blanca after the first steep climb

View west (at center) from the summit of Sierra Blanca. The primary route follows the ridge at right.
When I was at the summit my view was obscured by clouds, except for the occasional glimpse to the northwest. There were numerous elk bugling throughout my hike, and during my return more clouds moved in bringing some light rain, which lasted until I descended off the crest.

Follow this ridge down from Sierra Blanca

Low clouds along the crest during my descent

© Copyright 2017 Matthew Pintar. All rights reserved.



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