New Mexico hiking and backpacking: Wheeler Peak’s Middle Fork Trail

My friends Ben and Kendra at one of the waterfalls low on Wheeler Peak’s Middle Fork Trail.

Who says you can never go back again.

Three years after summiting Wheeler Peak – New Mexico’s highest mountain at 13,161 feet – I went back a second time with friends and family to tackle it again, but from a different route. This time, we chose to take the more often-traveled and scenic Middle Fork Trail: Slightly shorter than the East Fork Trail, but packed with sights that draw small crowds to its lower features.

I counted no less than three waterfalls and one lake down low. We saw plenty of people whose sole goal that day was to hike to the lake and photograph the falls – not unexpected on a holiday weekend, but somewhat disconcerting when the thought of finding campsites came to mind. That fear would subside later on, however, as the bulk of these folks would not hike much further than two miles in.

The lower trail is not just a path for hikers, as super-fit mountain bikers like to test themselves on the path’s steeper pitches. The trail is wide enough that you’re unlikely to get plowed by bikers. I personally marveled at the two guys who passed us going up, grinding away uphill on their granny gears before eventually turning around and cruising down the hill later on. It’s not like we were slacking off, carrying 35-pound packs to our eventual campsite higher up. It just seemed like those guys were working a whole lot harder than we were.

Not every growing thing is green.

Carpeted in green, the forests of Carson National Forest were in prime health that summer.

This particular trip was a few years back, and at that time the southern Rockies had received a good amount of rain during the summer monsoon reason. This meant that alpine forests on Wheeler’s eastern flanks were lush and green. Between the drought and beetle kills that have been plaguing the mountain west in recent years, it had been a long time since I’d seen a Rocky Mountain forest look that healthy.

This surreal scene greeted us at our campsite at Lost Lake. The lake is five miles from the trailhead and inside the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area.

We camped in mists, with deep gray clouds settling close to the waters of Lost Lake, barely shrouding the numerous bighorn sheep that were grazing in the area. I prefer filtering water from running streams, but this snow-fed lake proved to be an excellent source for cooking and drinking water. Only two other people camped here, far from us, giving us a good amount of privacy. Sometimes it pays off to hike to places that are harder to reach.

Waking up the next morning, I got on early start on breakfast, boiling water for oatmeal. While the rest of my group just started arising from a rough night’s sleep (it takes a while to get accustomed to sleeping on the ground at 10,500 feet) I was joined by a female bighorn and her lamb, who were slowly ambling down the hill. Their casual pace through our camp was evidence of a surprising lack of concern over their proximity to humans.

Breaking through treeline on a bluebird day.

Horseshoe Lake, about 11,500 feet.

Maybe a mile from camp, the Middle Fork and the East Fork join, leading to Wheeler Peak’s signature sight: Horseshoe Lake and the surrounding amphitheater. I remember being awestruck the first time I stumbled upon the place, and I had a sense of anticipation about the reaction my group would have when they laid eyes on it.

The lake made another good place to grab a snack, filter some more water and get a quick rest before tackling the final piece of the route and hitting the summit.

Another shot at the lake, looking toward the next section of the hike.

Horseshoe Lake, seen from higher up on the trail.

Looking down at the lake and the forest from the shoulder of the summit ridge.

The hike up the shoulder of the summit ridge that rises over the lake is the toughest part, gaining a good piece of elevation at a rate not seen elsewhere on the trail. Things level out more once this section is tackled, going into a steady, more gradual incline leading toward the final summit pitch. It’s a long stretch, and by this time the tell-tale head-pounding from a circulatory system working on overdrive had settled in.

Summit view, looking west into the Taos ski valley.

A quick turn north and up a short series of switchbacks takes you to Wheeler’s summit. To the west you can peer into the Taos ski valley. North is Colorado. All around you is the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Some people refuse to do a summit twice. They’re always seeking a new peak to bag, and I know why. New challenges and adventures await.

But with each mountain, there is always something new to see. That’s why I don’t mind a repeat.

Another summit view from New Mexico’s highest point.

GETTING THERE: From Red River, take NM 578 6.4 miles until the pavement ends, then go right on Farm Road 58. You will drive about 1.1 miles to the trailhead parking lot, but on this road a car with good clearance is recommended.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Like the East Fork Trail, this route is long, well-marked and well-maintained. You will initially hike on a relatively wide trail that is used by hikers and mountain bikers. This will last for a little over two miles before you enter the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. From here, it’s hikers only (no mechanical transport allowed). After five miles, you’ll reach Lost Lake, a great place for camping with multiple spots that are well-spaced. From the lake, continue following the well-defined trail for another mile or so until you reach treeline and the highest alpine lake on the mountain, Horseshoe Lake. You’re now at about 11,500 feet.

The trail gets steeper as you ascend the ridge overlooking the lake. This is the hardest part of the hike, which eventually levels out some as you hike below the ridge on the mountain’s south side (you’ll be heading west). From here, the route goes up, turns north, and then follows a series of switchbacks that leads you to the summit. Total round-trip route length is 16 miles, Class 1 hiking. Elevation gain is about 3,521 feet.

NOTE: All photos by Ben Grasser.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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5 thoughts on “New Mexico hiking and backpacking: Wheeler Peak’s Middle Fork Trail

  1. Pingback: As prime hiking season nears, a list of ‘first’ mountain adventures | proactiveoutside

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