Wheeler Peak, NM
Elevation: 13,161 ft (4011 m)
Elevation gain: 2961 ft (903 m)
Distance: 4.1 mi (6.6 km) one way
Location: near Taos, New Mexico
Date: August 16, 2012
Following last October’s failed attempt to climb Wheeler Peak after an early season snowstorm, I again travelled to Taos, New Mexico to try again to reach the state’s highest point. This time the weather looked much more cooperative, and I pulled into an open campsite along the road between Taos and the ski valley at 4:30 on August 15.
The following morning I woke up at 6:00, ate breakfast, packed up my car, and drove up the road to the ski valley. I passed the Bull of the Woods trailhead where I was forced to begin my attempt ten months prior (its 7.1 miles one way from there to the summit) and continued up the steep but well-maintained dirt road to the Williams Lake trailhead. A sign at this trailhead said that there was parking available about 0.25 miles up the road, so I continued on to park near a restaurant at the ski area’s uppermost lift at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.
I began hiking at 6:50 up a very steep and rocky dirt road that is closed to public vehicles. I then reached the end of the road at the border of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness and continued following the trail for about two miles. This trail traversed spruce-fir forests, and being in the valley it had few views of the surrounding mountains except for areas cleared by avalanches that occurred a few decades ago based on the size of the trees. Just before arriving at Williams Lake, the trail reaches its highest point at 11,200 feet.
This is also the intersection with the new Wheeler Peak Trail that was completed in 2011. The new trail roughly follows the path of a former hiker’s trail that went straight up the side of the mountain. The old unofficial trail was so steep, rocky, and difficult that most hikers had opted for the 7.1 mile hike via the Bull of the Woods Trail. The new trail is still very steep by hiking trail standards, but it switchbacks all the way up the mountain and was much easier than the appearance of the old trail.
About 1/3 of the way up the Wheeler Peak Trail you emerge above tree line and are rewarded with views of the peaks to the west and south as well as Williams Lake. The trail connects with the trail on the ridge at the 13,000-foot saddle between Wheeler Peak to the south and Mount Walter to the north. From here the hike to Wheeler Peak is fairly short and not as steep.
I arrived at the peak at 9:10, and I was the only one there, although someone else had been there at 7:50 that morning according to the register. After about 20 minutes on the summit I went back down to the saddle and up Mount Walter, which is 13,141 feet high. It was surprisingly calm on the peaks, but the little wind that there was made it quite cold at times. Everywhere I looked above tree line there were marmots as well as several pikas, but I couldn’t find any bighorn sheep.
After descending all the way down the Wheeler Peak Trail I turned to have a look at Williams Lake. This lake is perhaps the most accessible and most visited alpine lake in New Mexico, and there were plenty of people on the trail on their way up to it. I made my way around to the southwest side of the lake where a small cascade descended towards the lake. I noticed a path going up alongside the cascade, so I followed it to a small waterfall. I then turned around and returned to the trailhead by 11:30.
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