New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak: Hiking the East Fork Trail

Rick Ponder enjoys the company of a few furry visitors: Marmots are common above treeline in the Rockies.

NOTE: This is an updated version of a story I wrote in 2003 about hiking Wheeler Peak’s East Fork Trail, which was my first 13er/high mountain trek. At some point in the near future, I’ll also post about another route in Wheeler Peak, the Middle Fork (or Lost Lake) trail.

It’s been more than 20 years since I lived near the Rockies. Twenty years for my body to get accustomed to the oxygen-rich air of Oklahoma and the softer lifestyles of suburbia.

It was time to shake things up.

A small group of like-minded folks decided to leave our comfort zones and make a weekend adventure centered on conquering Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain.

For flatlanders like me, the best advice for summiting New Mexico’s highest point is simple: Put one foot in front of the other until you get to the top, 13,161 feet above sea level.

With its craggy crown in sight, the three of us began the journey on a crisp summer morning.

Several well-maintained trails lead to the summit. We chose the East Fork route from Red River, estimated at 20 miles round-trip by the local folks with whom I talked.

While lengthy, it is also spectacular. The trail winds through a wilderness area of the Carson National Forest, a thick mix of pines, spruces and aspens that reach heights of 70 feet or more.

We packed light. Many people who hike Wheeler Peak make a two-day trip of it, going halfway up to one of the campsites, then rising the next morning to make the trek to the summit. We chose to do it in a day.

Wildlife abounds, though most animals stay away from people. Folks who hike the wilderness are advised to travel in small groups, and a few hikers I saw wore whistles — handy noisemakers that can startle a bear into fleeing. We didn’t see any of the creatures, but we knew we were in bear country: One trailside pine had deep claw marks in its bark, indicating the presence of what was probably a sizable adult black bear.

We did have one brief wildlife encounter. A pair of curious marmots, probably looking for handouts, approached us close to the summit. The fuzzy little rodents were as plump as they were bold, indicating they’d received their fair share of meals from generous trekkers. (I would advise against feeding wildlife, just because you don’t know what habit you might be fostering in animals who become accustomed to associating people with food sources. This is particularly true with bears.)

We kept a good pace all the way up. After three hours of winding through the forest and across a few rock slides, we crossed the timberline and stopped at the last landmark before the final ascent — Horseshoe Lake.

Horseshoe Lake, about 11,500 feet and below Wheeler Peak’s summit ridge.

The lake is at the base of the peak’s crown and is surrounded by tundra and ground-hugging evergreens, whipped into submission by the fierce winds and heavy snows that rule the place much of the year.

At this point, the real work started. Most of the way, the trail was manageable. But above 11,500 feet, the trail got much steeper, angling upward the closer we got to the summit. Making matters worse is that there are many paths leading to false peaks that are more visible, but not as tall as the true summit.

Not until we were within 50 yards of the top did we actually see it. Labored breathing and an accelerated heart rate gave way to an adrenaline-induced push up to the mountaintop.

At Wheeler’s high point, we could peer down into the Rio Grande River valley to the west and even see the southern reaches of Colorado to the north. Below us, the snow-fed mountain lakes looked like curbside puddles. Views of shorter but still spectacular mountains and pine-covered hills made for a nice visual payoff after five hours of hard work.

As far as mountaineering goes, climbing Wheeler Peak isn’t difficult. It doesn’t require the equipment or skills associated with rock climbing. Instead, the ascent takes its toll by the length of the journey. It presents a strange contradiction: Wheeler Peak is perfect for those who have never climbed a tall mountain before. But, depending on the route taken, it could be a bit too arduous for the typical weekend warrior.

Summer hikers are warned not to linger above timberline too late into the afternoon because of daily summer thunderstorms that bloom over the mountains. A hiker on the ridge can become a lightning rod for fast-developing storms.

The way down proved to be a race. A line of storms attacked the mountains quickly, making it imperative to get below timberline as fast as possible. Like the ascent, the way down was taxing. Don’t let anyone fool you: Going downhill is almost as hard as going up.

With the storms came a welcome break from the sky. About one-third of the way down, a soft rain began to fall. It intensified as the afternoon went on, but never became more than a steady soaker.

During one rest break, I truly got to experience the wilderness on its terms. The three of us were quiet, partly from fatigue, partly from intrigue. We all noted the sounds.

Absent were all things human: cars on the highway, the steady tapping of a computer keyboard or the din of conversation.

All we heard were the sounds that have filled this place for eons. The thunder from the storms overhead. Breezes rustling through the pines. Gentle rain hitting the foliage. The nearby creek. These were the same sounds heard by explorers more than a century ago, the same sounds picked up by the natives who once owned these hills. The same sounds these woods have recorded since the beginning of time.

The rain also awakened the smells of the forest, that sweet aroma of pine unleashed by a wilderness grateful for a drink. It was just the fix to energize us for the last leg of the hike.

The journey ended just more than nine hours after it began. We were drenched, exhausted and sore. But, at the same time, we were better for it. The aches helped us remember we were alive.

Upon reaching our lodge, the three of us shuffled to the base of the stairs. One more climb to make. And, as distasteful as it sounded, I’d have to do it the same way I reached Wheeler’s summit — by putting one throbbing foot in front of the other.

Looking north along Wheeler Peak’s summit ridge. This was taken at the summit.

GETTING THERE: From Red River, take NM 578 6.2miles until the pavement ends. From here, you can drive 1.2 miles over a rough road or just hike it instead.

ROUTE INFORMATION: If you’re hiking the last portion of the trail, it will add 2.4 miles round trip. The hike is all Class 1 on a well-marked and well-maintained trail. Most of the hike will be below treeline. After about 7 miles, the East Fork Trail will join the Middle Fork (Lost Lake) Trail just below treeline. As you break through the trees, you will encounter the first lake along this route, Horseshoe Lake, at about 11,500 feet. This is where the hike gets steeper. Follow the trail along the ridge up steeper hiking. You will gain another 1,000 feet from here as you connect with the summit ridge. It will then turn into a short series of switchbacks before you gain the summit. Total route length is about 21.6 miles, or 19.2 if you can drive the first portion of FR 58A. Elevation gain is about 3,521 feet.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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2 thoughts on “New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak: Hiking the East Fork Trail

  1. This is actually about 2.5 hours from where I live. I’ve never hiked it, but it is on my to-do list! My Dad says whenever he goes, he sees tourists who aren’t quite prepared for the elevation gain!

  2. It’s a great trip for sure. I liked it so much, I went back to do another route. One thing that is different from a lot of the higher peaks in Colorado is the route length. It’s really long, and a lot of people don’t prepare for that. But even the East Fork can be done in a day.

    One good thing about the elevation gain is that it’s pretty gradual. But even then, things get tougher once you get above treeline.

    You should plan a trip and go! I highly recommend it, and from what I can tell, the two routes from Red River, though long, are more scenic.

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