As prime hiking season nears, a list of ‘first’ mountain adventures

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here's how to get started.

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here’s how to get started.

Many people are looking for new challenges these days, and a big chunk of that crowd looks to fill that urge outdoors. For me, that always pointed me toward the mountains. Something about the high country just exudes an energy of adventure that is hard to find elsewhere.

Is this you? Yeah? But where to start?

Well, you’re in luck. It just so happens there are a number of places you can go in Colorado and New Mexico that will fit the bill, even if seeing the world from a mountaintop is something you haven’t done before.

We’ll break it down into categories, based on what your interests are, locations, and a bit more for those of you looking to take the next step in your alpine adventures. So here goes:

FIRST MOUNTAIN, CLOSE TO DENVER

There are several to choose from, as a bunch of high peaks are within 90 minutes of the Denver metro area. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require a long drive, you can expect a busy trail during the peak hiking season. But you’ll still have a good time.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

My choice: Mount Biesrstadt. It’s close to the Interstate 70 town of Georgetown, with easy access to the trailhead and a straightforward route. It’s a hike, and the round-trip route is about 7 miles. Standing at 14,060 feet, you’ll need a good set of legs and lungs to get up there. But you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Bierstadt’s Sawtooth Ridge as well as a host of nearby peaks. There are some boulder-hopping on the final stretch, but nothing too demanding. The trail is also dog-friendly, and you’ll likely meet a lot of other altitude seekers along the way.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, COMFORTABLE OVERNIGHT STAY

I’ve got one in mind here that’s close to Breckenridge. If you’d rather forgo the long drive from Denver and still have a comfortable place to stay before and after your summit, then the Breckenridge-Quandary Peak combo is for you.

Quandary Peak.

Quandary Peak.

Like Biesrstadt, it’s an easy-to-follow trail that goes right up the mountain’s east ridge and to the top. Again, about seven miles round-trip, topping out at 14,265 feet. Quandary Peak has incredible views of the nearby Mosquito Range as well as some of the high summits of the Tenmile Range. Again, this will be a busy peak during the summer, but a memorable one as well.

If you have more time and energy, go ahead and check out the loop that includes Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, all nearby 14ers in the Mosquito Range. Or just relax and enjoy some time in Breckenridge.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, MORE SOLITUDE

If you can get further away from the bigger cities and find time on a weekday, Huron Peak near Buena Vista, Colorado, is my choice. In fact, of all the first-time peaks on my list, Huron Peak has the most bang for the buck.

Huron Peak.

Huron Peak.

The mountain is deeper in the Sawatch Range, and if you ask anyone who has been there, they’ll tell you it has the some of the best views you can find. At 14,003 feet, it has commanding vistas of the nearby Three Apostles formation, three dramatic 13,000-foot peaks that make for excellent views and stunning photographs. Because it is farther away from any cities of size, it will also be less travelled than Bierstadt or Quandary. The route is just under seven miles from the four-wheel-drive trailhead, and just over 10 from the two-wheel-drive trailhead.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, BACKPACKING ADVENTURE

There are a lot of choices all throughout the Rockies, but my pick here is in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. Head into Red River, and then to the Middle Fork Trail parking lot for a trek up Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,159 feet.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

The trail takes you five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. At Lost Lake, there are a number of dispersed, primitive campsites. This is not the most heavily traveled route up the mountain – that is on the other side of the mountain near Taos. What you’ll get are great campsites, alpine scenery and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing (I had bighorn sheep walking through my campsite when I was last there). Get up the next morning and hike the remaining three miles to Wheeler Peak’s summit.

If you’re going to break into high country backpacking, I can’t think of many other places that will top it.

Route info

FIRST SNOW CLIMB

Late spring still means there’s going to be snow on the mountains, which a lot of hikers seek to avoid. But if you’re looking to try your hand at traversing and ascending snowy slopes, a good starter route is the Angel of Shavano Couloir on Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Mount Shavano is near Salida and Poncha Springs, and the southernmost of the massive Sawatch 14ers. It’s a hike all the way, but below the saddle between Shavano and a neighboring peak is a gully that fills with snow during the colder months. That’s the Angel of Shavano Couloir.

If you’re itching to learn skills using an ice axe and crampons, this is one of the better places to start. The Angel melts out fast in the spring, but if you hit it at the right time, the couloir links up to snow fields on Shavano’s summit cone that will take you all the way to the top. Learn how to use these pieces of gear, and if possible, go with someone who has done a snow climb before. Mount Shavano is a good introduction to these types of skills.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN TO KICK IT UP A NOTCH

When you’ve got to the point where you’re ready to graduate from the walk-up peaks and do a little climbing, some interesting options come to mind. My pick means taking a bit of a drive to southwestern Colorado, but it will be worth the trip. Few peaks have the beauty and challenge in combination with accessibility than Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Two-wheel-drive access to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead will get you to great campsites, and the route to the top is a little over seven miles. It’s all hiking until you get just under a formation called the Prow, and that’s where the climbing begins. Also called “scrambling,” a Class 3 route (Classes 1 and 2 are hiking only, with varying degrees of difficulty; Class 4 is more difficult unroped climbing, and Class 5 is technical climbing using ropes) will involve using your hands and feet to ascend. It is unroped climbing, but the rock is solid and getting to the top is fun.

The catch: The top section of Wetterhorn is pretty airy and if you’re intimidated by heights, this could be a challenge. But the best way to overcome those fears and push yourself to new levels is to tackle them head-on. Wetterhorn is a good peak to do just that.

Route info

So there’s a list you can check out and use to make your spring and summer plans. My guess is that after you do one of these peaks, you’ll want to do more.

Bob Doucette

Fine dining, backcountry style

Kitchen prep.

Kitchen prep.

I get a serious kick out of reading the restaurant reviews from one of the writers of my local newspaper. The guy knows his food, and his recommendations are not taken lightly.

I also confess to being a huge fan of the television programs Anthony Bourdain produces. Part of it is the travel element, but also his wicked sense of humor, excellent screenwriting and music tastes. On top of all that, I want to eat the things he eats.

I’ve never been a cook of a chef, and I’m not the guy you would want writing about cuisine. I just like to eat, and eat well. The fitness side of me wants to treat food as fuel, but the rest of me says otherwise. Taste matters. So does setting.

This is a particular problem for those of us who like to spend time outdoors. Sure, if you car camp or otherwise have access to the tools that make cooking away from home easy, you can work wonders. But what if you’re backpacking for several days? Living from a tent? Packing as light as possible to cut weight? Cooking with a camp stove?

Often times, those dining experiences are relegated to dehydrated foods, energy bars, trail mix and powder drink mixes. Or maybe some beans and rice. Often those backcountry or outdoor dining experiences are long on atmospherics and short on taste.

But not always. I got to thinking of a few times where the food, the surroundings and the company made for some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

Serve yourself-style. As fresh as it gets.

Serve yourself-style. As fresh as it gets.

Catch of the day

If you’re stuck living away from the coasts, you know all about bad seafood. The fresher, the better. And that doesn’t happen very often when you live far from the sea. All we usually get that somewhat qualifies as fresh fish come from catfish filets gleaned from large fish farms.

But all is not lost. You actually can live inland and get a meal more fresh than anything served at a Boston bistro or San Francisco eatery.

In this scenario, I was with my brother-in-law, Mark, somewhere near the town of Eagle in western Colorado. Inside a small alpine valley was a mountain stream, with its flow interrupted by frequent beaver ponds.

Storming through the weeds and sloshing away in this little wetland, we’re on the prowl for brook trout. They don’t get very big – a foot-long brookie is a whopper – but they are quite common and oh so tasty.

On the streams, we searched for those sweet spots behind boulders, in front of riffles and around the bends. But the real action was in the beaver ponds. Lots of hungry fish in still, deep pools carefully engineered by those tree-gnawing rodents we all know and love.

The end of the day brought us a modest catch, but more than enough for dinner. Mark was the man in this scenario. He came prepared. Corn meal, salt, pepper and some vegetable oil. We cleaned the fish at the campsite, fired up the stove and fried up a few filets for the evening meal. The simple ingredients, paired with the brookies’ light, flaky and tender meat turned out to be the perfect end to that day.

I dare you to match that dinner in terms of freshness. You can’t surpass it. Straight from the stream, to the campsite, to the pan and on my plate within a couple of hours. That’s how you do fish.

Only the finest of dining companions will do.

Only the finest of dining companions will do.

Fusion fare

First, we went up 1,000 feet. Then down 1,000 feet. Then up 4,000 feet.

And it was then that we were only half done, atop the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross last fall. The next half of the journey would be retracing all those steps back to camp. Twelve miles round-trip, and 6,000 feet of total elevation gain.

A simple breakfast and high-calorie snacks helped power me through that ascent, but there is only so much sweet-tasting stuff you can handle before something more savory is required.

That’s not just a preference. It’s fact. When you’re burning through thousands of calories on such an endeavor, your body needs its salts. That’s why you see pretzels and salted potatoes sometimes offered during long races for runners’ consumption.

I was too tired and lazy to do much cooking myself. So I resigned myself to eating whatever edibles I had left at camp before retiring for the night.

But being among a group of mountain people, and mountain people being generally awesome, generosity abounded.

A couple of dudes grilled up some bratwursts over the campfire. They then hurried those tubes of meaty, fatty goodness away, sliced them up, then plopped them into a pot filled with mac and cheese and a sprinkling of diced peppers.

Best mac and cheese ever. A got a sampling of it just as it came off a two-burner Coleman stove. They need to serve that mess in restaurants.

Just then, another couple confessed to over-buying on food and had a box of convenience store White Castle burgers they didn’t want. They offered it to me, which I gladly accepted. Wrapped in foil, these little grease bombs cooked nicely over the fire and filled that salty/savory urge my body craved. Such nice people! I shared what beer I had, knowing my offering was an inadequate trade.

As the night went on, more goodies were passed around, usually in the form of cookies, potato chips and fine scotch. A warm, low glow of the fire brightened the faces underneath knit caps pulled tight over folks’ heads. Hours drifted on and a whole bunch of stories were swapped between people who all seemed to know each other well from past ascents, and yet included me just the same. I wasn’t an equal to any of them, but felt a part of the gang nonetheless, even if temporarily. This was their world, and I was just a guest.

And one of the best things about being an outsider invited in is feeling the gratitude toward people’s hospitality. The best meal isn’t always about atmospherics, mood-setting or even the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes it’s the company you keep.

The right setting can make all the difference.

The right setting can make all the difference.

Breakfast for three

So I noted earlier that great meals aren’t always about the setting in which you dine. But let me tell you something: Sometimes they are.

About seven years ago, I was on a little backpacking trip in northern New Mexico. We’d hiked about five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area near a small alpine lake somewhere around 11,000 feet.

The previous night was a little rough in terms of sleep. No one at camp had done a whole lot of sleeping in a tent lately, and certainly not at that elevation. I got up first, fired up the stove and began to boil water for the morning’s breakfast.

It was going to be simple for me: instant oatmeal. I got the water boiling, mixed it with the oats and munched on this modest meal alone just before everyone else finally roused.

The woods where we camped were gorgeous. The smell of pine was amazing. The only sounds (aside from the stirrings inside the tents) were birds greeting the morning.

And then my solitude was interrupted.

Uphill from me, a female bighorn sheep slowly ambled its way into camp, its lamb in tow. They weren’t skittish. They paused to take a look at me, and their curiosity satisfied, continued their leisurely walk downslope.

I wished everyone else there could have seen them, but then again, we had a big day of hiking ahead and they’d need all the rest they could get. And selfishly, that was a moment I kind of liked having to myself. A brief one, but very memorable. Sort of like a gift, and it was all mine.

Best breakfast ever? I won’t go that far. But certainly the most memorable. And definitely a backcountry dining experience that trumps just about anything I can think of at any restaurant to which I’ve ever been.

I think I will excuse myself from ever being a full-time food critic or foodie television rock star. But I know good eats. And I know a little something about great dining experiences, even if they don’t quite fit within the norm.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Close encounters of the wild kind

Part of the allure of getting outside is to be away from the world we humans have manufactured for ourselves.

Our homes, workplaces, public spaces – they’re all built in ways to cater to our comforts. This is where all of our interactions with people occur, and even where most of our encounters with animals take place.

Seeing that most of those creatures are our pets, well, you get the idea. Very little occurs in our lives that haven’t been skewed by civilization.

That’s why people feel that urge to get away and unplug. They head to the hills, to the woods, to the ocean, to see, smell and hear the world sans civilization.

But those wild places are also home to a lot of creatures we never see close to home. Encounters with them make for some of the most memorable experiences of any adventure.

I spent some time thinking about just that. Several memories come to mind.

Campfire deer

In the middle of the summer of 2004, a group of nine friends and me had the hare-brained idea of backpacking to Missouri Gulch in the Collegiate Peaks region of central Colorado. We had a whole range of people with varying degrees of fitness, outdoor experience and age. One thing we had in common: We all knew how to have a good time.

Get a group of guys around a campfire and good times will abound. Memories of the previous day’s ascent of Mount Belford were retold, each time with a little more drama. Jokes were told. Farts were never funnier.

But as time passed, discussions grew more introspective, thoughtful and serious. The clamor that dominated earlier in the night gave way to calm.

It was about that time a healthy doe ambled into camp. We were right at treeline, but still inside the trees. So none of us saw her coming until she was right in our midst. She showed no fear, only curiosity. Perhaps she thought there might be some easy food to score, I’m not sure. But I like to think that once our group had settled down a bit, she thought it would be safer to join in. Given how skittish deer tend to be, I was amazed at how at ease she was in our presence. There were 10 of us gathered around the fire ring, but she was not bothered. She was with us for a few minutes, and then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone, melting into the darkness of the surrounding woods.

The feeling I got out of that was not unlike being the dork at the party when the prettiest girl in the room pops in, approaches you, and then spends some time talking to you. Suddenly you’re the luckiest guy in town.

Breakfast with the Bighorn

A few years after that Belford backpacking trip, I went with another group to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in northern New Mexico’s Kit Carson National Forest. We were backpacking to Lost Lake to camp before looking to hit Wheeler Peak’s summit the next day.

No one slept too well that night, and everyone was slow to get up in the morning. I got up first to start boiling water for breakfast when I had some unexpected friends come to join me.

We’d seen bighorn sheep from a distance on the hike up, but on that morning I got a much closer look. While everyone else was snoozing, a spied a mother bighorn and her lamb walking down the slope toward our camp.

They approached within 20 feet of me, calmly inspecting the scene, giving me a glance, then heading down the hill. It was a quiet moment which I alone enjoyed that morning. I was struck by how unconcerned they appeared to be by my presence, more curious than anything else.

Not long after they’d gone, everyone else started crawling out of their tents. They just missed it.

Near miss

I was alone in the middle of a heavy rainstorm in southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, tromping through a thickly wooded stretch of trail. A lot of my plans that day had been derailed by the rain and intermittent lightning, but I was determined to stay out there for the day and make the most of it.

One of the things about the Wichitas is that is crawling with wildlife, probably more here than just about anywhere else in the state. I’ve seen all kinds of creatures here – elk, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs and more.

But the king of the Wichitas is the buffalo. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to the Wichitas and not seen them. But I usually spot buffalo from a distance, and approach them to no less than 50 feet away. They are, after all, wild animals. And they’re big. With horns. Getting gored or trampled by a buffalo does not sound like a good time, and they will charge someone when they feel threatened.

They also seem to be masters of concealment, at least for me.

The woods where I was hiking were thick. So was the underbrush. It was early June and the spring rains had lavished the state with abundance, meaning that the Wichitas were about as green as I’d ever seen them. Unless you were looking down the trail, you wouldn’t see anything more than 10 feet away.

Ahead of me I saw a creekbed that was a landmark of a place where I’d turn toward my next destination. Too bad I didn’t see the big guy in the thicket to my right.

The thickness of the foliage provided some cover from the rain, and I’d used it myself when the downpour was getting particularly hard. While the rainfall had let up some, it was still coming down, creating a soft din of noise that masked the sounds of my approach.

I must have surprised the buffalo that had expertly concealed itself in the underbrush to my right. I didn’t see it at first. I heard it. A miffed snort, and then a dark flash. And a near miss. I jumped to my left to avoid getting hit, turned, and then saw the buffalo down the trail about 50 feet away, facing me.

Fortunately, the big guy wasn’t blocking my path. Only seconds later did my heart begin to race a little, once my mind caught up with the fact that I just missed being run over by a beast nearly eight times my size.

That’s as close as I’d ever been to a wild animal of that sort of size. I felt fortunate to have been spared. I walked away with an appreciation for the risks of hiking solo and a respect for an animal, in its own environment, that was much more powerful than me.

What sort of wildlife experiences have you had that stick with you? Feel free to share!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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

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

Places I like: Horseshoe Lake, Wheeler Peak Wilderness, New Mexico

The alpine beauty of New Mexico's Horseshoe Lake beneath Wheeler Peak's summit ridge.

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.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088