By the time I got there, the trek was already several hours and many miles long. But as I hiked over the lip of one last rise and broke through the trees, I was rewarded by one of the most amazing alpine settings I’d ever seen.
Rising around me was the broad summit ridgeline of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point at 13,161 feet. Its high walls surrounded me like a massive amphitheater. Taller pines gave way to altitude- and wind-stunted bristlecones that could only manage to grow knee high under the harsh conditions that persist here for much of the year. Alpine grasses and flowers carpeted the ground and surrounded the jewel of this treeline scene – a crescent-shaped oasis spreading out for a couple of acres known as Horseshoe Lake.
Horseshoe Lake is the highest of a series of lakes hikers encounter on the way to Wheeler’s summit via the Middle Fork Trail. Its waters fill a basin at just over 11,500 feet, still 1,600 feet and a couple miles of hiking short of the mountain’s summit.
The lake is the last rest stop before taking on the hardest part of the Wheeler Peak ascent. This is the place where you take a break, filter some water and perhaps get something to eat before heading for the top.
It also marks a transition point. Horseshoe Lake is surrounded by pine forests and tundra grasses, the hallmark of the above-treeline ecosystem that eventually gives way to a rocky moonscape higher up on Wheeler’s slopes.
What makes Horseshoe Lake so special is all of these elements meet here, within the protective ramparts of Wheeler Peak’s summit ridge. As you emerge from the forest, it opens up before you in a way that might make you think of entering a grand cathedral, or perhaps some divinely constructed coliseum. Added to the bright blue skies above and the stillness of the waters and I’d been blessed with a memory that is gratefully burned into my memory for as long as I’ll live.
Places like this are why I go to the mountains, a place so huge, with me being so small. I feel privileged to have been allowed to be there right then.
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