Summer hiking in Taos: Wheeler Peak Loop

By Cindy Brown
For The Taos News
Posted 7/25/18

With the return of the rain, the forests are vibrantly green and full of life. The Carson National Forest reopened July 10 and hikers are out in the backcountry again. The monsoon rains …

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Summer hiking in Taos: Wheeler Peak Loop

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With the return of the rain, the forests are vibrantly green and full of life.

The Carson National Forest reopened July 10 and hikers are out in the backcountry again. The monsoon rains bring relief to the dry, hot conditions we experienced in June, but they also bring a new set of challenges for staying safe while hiking, especially above tree line. Planning ahead and bringing rain gear are crucial during the summer rainy season.

A recent hike to Wheeler Peak offered a chance to experience the views, wildflowers and wildlife to be found in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness. The hike was also a reminder that thunderstorms can move in at any time bringing rain and hail.

Wheeler Peak Trail No. 67 Up

At 13,161 feet, Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in the state. The most popular route to the summit begins at the Williams Lake Trailhead: elevation 10,200 feet.

On a recent July day, the early morning air was cool and welcoming. After parking at the hikers parking lot on Deer Lane, a walk down the hill past the Bavarian Lodge in Taos Ski Valley and up next to the Phoenix Grill brings hikers to the Williams Lake trail sign.

At the beginning of the trail, hikers will find significant areas of wood cutting being done to reduce the chance of a catastrophic wildfire and its impact on the water supply for the Village of Taos Ski Valley. The work has resulted in a rerouted trail in the area.

Follow the new path as it makes a gentle climb through the evergreen forest. With the recent rains, wildflowers are blooming in the meadows and on hillsides, including bellflowers, larkspur, fireweed, and Indian paintbrush.

Soon the hiker glimpses the boulder field to the right of the trail, and eventually the trail climbs up through the boulder field itself. Columbines can often be seen growing near the massive stones. At a bit under two miles, look for the trail marker on a post to the left that says Wheeler Summit (67). From here, it is about 2.5 miles to Wheeler Peak.

The trail climbs moderately at first and then steepens as it makes its way through the woods. The trail emerges above tree line and begins a series of long sweeping switchbacks. Williams Lake is visible below.

If hikers are up ahead, you will be able to see the next section of trail above you. Look up farther to see the ridge between Mount Walter and Wheeler Peak, which is your destination. The trail crosses and re-crosses several areas of rock slide scree.

As you climb, be on the lookout for the wildlife that inhabits the alpine region about tree line. On a recent hike, I saw diminutive American pika in the rock slide areas as well as bighorn sheep grazing on the side of the mountain.

After the climb up the switchbacks, you will reach the ridge. Turn to the right for the final rolling climb to Wheeler Peak. Total length of the trail from the hikers parking lot is a bit under 4.5 miles, with an elevation gain of over 2,950 feet.

At the peak, dramatic views reward the hiker in every direction. You are above all the nearby mountains and can see southeast to Simpson Peak and Old Mike Peak, among many others. If you have an app on your phone, such as Peak Finder, you will have the pleasure of being able to identify the numerous peaks below you.

At the top, a plaque explains the peak is named after Major George Wheeler of the U.S. Army who helped map this area for 10 years in the 1870s.

Under the plaque a canister contains the log to sign in. You will see numerous small chipmunks in the rocks on top the peak as well as the yellow-bellied marmot in rocky spots along the ridge.

Keep an eye on the weather as dark clouds are often visible even before noon at this time of year.

Return Wheeler Peak Trail No. 90

For this loop, I chose to descend down Wheeler Peak Trail No. 90. This trail passes by Fraser Mountain and reaches the Bull-of-the-Woods pasture, before returning to the Taos Ski Valley parking lot. It is a longer more gradual route with more elevation change, dropping from 13,161 feet to 9,400 feet, about 3,760 feet over the course of 8.2 miles.

To follow this route, return down the ridge and pass the intersection with Trail No. 67 that brought you to the ridge. Look for views of the beautiful, dark green Horseshoe Lake below. Continue northeast up Mount Walter.

Before 1948, it was believed that Truchas Peaks were taller than Wheeler. Harold Walter proved that Wheeler Peak was higher. He began to call this spot Mount Walter, and it was officially so named in 1958 after his death.

The trail crests the peak and then descends into La Cal Basin in a series of gradual switchbacks. There is a long section above tree line, so continue to monitor the weather. During my July hike, I made it to Wheeler Peak without getting caught in a storm, but during the descent, I encountered several squalls with heavy rain and hail. It was a relief to reach the shelter of low-growing evergreens, which provide a place to rest and wait out the worst of the storm.

The trail climbs up and over a ridge that brings you down under Fraser Mountain, which will be to your left. Continue on until you begin a descent through woods and meadows. Soon, you will begin to see signs that identify the area as Northside lands.

Northside is a private recreation area. In 1935, an easement was given to preserve the public access to Wheeler Lake through this area. There are views toward Red River off to the east.

The trail then heads down from the ridge toward the Bull-of-the-Woods pasture. Go past the pond and turn left to follow the steep trail for the final two miles of descent. The trail follows the east fork of the Río Hondo with its beautiful waterfalls and pools. Hllsides of wildflowers bloom near the trail, and soon you will arrive at the main parking area for the Taos Ski Valley.

Weather and gear

It is good to see high country so wet after the long dry month of June. On the descent, so much rain fell that the water flowing on trails made them look like small creeks. It is wise to go early enough to be off the peak before noon.

On my recent hike, it took more than two and half hours of walking time to reach the peak; with rest stops total time was about three and a half hours. Even with an early start, there is a chance you will be caught in a thunderstorm.

Bring a raincoat and a fleece layer. I also wore gloves and a headband that I keep in my backpack, to keep warm during the storms.

Cindy Brown is the author of the Taos Hiking Guide available at local retailers and at nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at cindybrowntaos2010@yahoo.com. For previous hiking columns, search by trail name at taosnews.com.

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