Not too many hikes begin at a ski resort. In fact, many ski resorts have begun to incorporate summer activities; mountain biking, festivals and other attractions. However, that is exactly where the journey to New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, begins, at Taos Ski Resort.
Wheeler Peak is not nearly as high as Mount Elbert, or many of Colorado’s other high points. It is a strange accident of geography that Colorado is home to 58 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation (referred to as “14ers”), while the highest point in neighboring New Mexico is only 13,167 ft.
As was the case with many State borers set at the time, a line of latitude (37ºN) was selected to form the border between Colorado and New Mexico. The same line is used for the borders between Arizona and Utah, and Kansas and Oklahoma.
All of Colorado’s peaks >14,000 feet in elevation
Yet, all the tallest peaks are contained within Colorado’s borders. Colorado’s Southernmost “14er”, Culbera Peak, is less than 10 miles north of the New Mexico border! Was it sheer luck, or did some sort of force will all the highest peaks be in Colorado?
Despite it not being a “14er”, the hike to the top of Wheeler Peak is actually quite similar. The vertical gain from the trailhead is just shy of 3,000 feet, and the threat of afternoon storms makes it advantageous to start the hike early in the morning.
Much of the ascent felt like chasing the sun. We were hiking up the mountain, while the alpenglow would slide further and further down.
It’s a 2.2 mile hike to Williams Lake, the destination for most hiking the first part of this trail.
This lake was not that crowded at 7:30 in the morning. Later in the day, it would become packed. Also, for those looking to hike to Wheeler Peak, the turn off is before the lake.
The marking for the Wheeler Peak turnoff at 7:30 A.M. and Noon
It is marked by a carving in a wooden stick, which is clearly labelled but easy to miss first thing in the morning.
For those who miss the turnoff, or decide to head to the lake, there is an alternate route. Good luck locating it.
I spent much of the second hour of the hike wondering both where the treeline is, and when I had reached it.
The term “tree line” makes it seem like hikers will reach a certain elevation and suddenly leave a dense forest for wide open alpine tundra. However, there are elevations where the trees thin out a bit but do not completely disappear. So, the elevation of the “treeline” is more of a guideline, or an approximation. The Alpine Visitor’s Center at Rocky Mountain National Park indicates that the treeline there is about 11,500 feet in elevation. In Northern New Mexico, that elevation is likely closer to 12,000 feet.
Just above the treeline, we had multiple close encounters with wildlife. First, the marmots chirped at us, as if to say “get off my lawn”.
Then, a surprisingly close encounter with bighorn sheep.
At first I wondered whether these animals were staying away from the busiest trails. However, someone who hikes this trail quite a bit indicated that wildlife encounters this close is actually quite rare on this trail. On any of these trails, encountering wildlife is likely just a matter of luck; whether or not certain creatures happened to be roaming the area at a certain time. After all, last summer I saw mountain goats up close on a very busy “14er” near Denver.
After this, there was a section that is quite challenging. Steep rocky switchbacks quickly ascend the final 1000 feet of elevation gain.
This challenging section ends suddenly with a view over the ridge, overlooking the rugged terrain of the Carson National Forest. The exhaustion that had lead to this point made it even more breathtaking.
A quick turn to the right, and the final ascent is made to the highest point in the State of New Mexico.
A plaque at the top reveals that the mountain is named after the surveyor who identified this point as the highest in the State.
I only imagined what it must have been like to be Major George Wheeler, charged with this task, especially at the very beginning. One look around the area, in most directions, revealed dozens of candidates for which peak could indeed be the tallest one in the State. He likely had to scale all of them to determine the true highest point. It reminded me of a situation we all find ourselves in at one point in our lives,. We agree to take on a project or endeavor. Getting started, me suddenly come to the realization that it is going to be significantly more work than anticipated.
Having many other peaks in the area that are nearly as tall gives it a pretty unique feel at the top. The plethora of similar peaks may have also contributed to the pleasant conditions at the top. There was surprisingly little wind at the top of Wheeler Peak that day (August 31, 2019).
The descent is also an interesting experience. Some of the steepest parts of the trail can be downright scary, and just as challenging as it was on the way up. It is also interesting to encounter the people that are still trying to reach the peak.
This aspect of the hike is a strange and somewhat depressing transition. At the start of the descent, still only a couple of hundred feet from the summit, it feels great to give hikers, often exhausted, encouragement and reassurance that they are “almost there”. Continuing downward, this transitions to having “a little bit to go”, to either no comment or vague encouragement.
If there is a depressing time of day on an amazing hike like this, it is 11:15 A.M. This is the time of when I start to realize that those that those still trying to get to the summit are probably not going to make it.
There is a safety concern behind this. Lightning is quite dangerous, even more so above treeline. Lightning is always looking for the fastest path to the ground. Regardless of where you are, if you’re outside, there is always a chance this can be you! Above treeline, without tall trees to theoretically provide that path, hikers are even more likely to be struck.
Surely enough, at 11:45, I heard thunder, and saw the convective clouds starting to build.
I just hope that everyone in danger got off the mountain and stayed safe! While policies, attitudes and even the height of the peaks may be different on either side of the 37th parallel, some things are the same. This includes how mountainous topography creates thunderstorms, how lightning behaves and how our bodies react to being struck. Danger aside, it is refreshing to know that regardless of boundaries created by humankind, there are things we can always count on being true.