Wheeler Peak Wilderness, NM: Wheeler Peak Loop

Connect alpine lakes and tag three summits on this wildflower- and wildlife-packed loop.
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Connect alpine lakes and tag three summits on this wildflower- and wildlife-packed loop.

Singleminded highpointers flock to 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak (New Mexico’s highest) via two short trails from Taos Ski Valley, west of the peak. Let them. Climb from the east on this three-day, 19.1-mile loop and get the same bragging rights—plus a chance to summit two more 13,000-foot peaks.

From the East Fork trailhead, dive into the woods and track along the East Fork of the Red River. Keep right at the junction with the Sawmill Park Trail at mile .9, continuing the mellow ascent as the flame-colored Sangre de Cristo Range peeks above the trees.

In 3.2 miles you’ll reach the first big vista--a perch overlooking the East Fork valley 1,000 feet below.Enter the Wheeler Peak Wilderness just beyond and cruise .5 mile through conifer forest to a junction for the spur trail to Horseshoe Lake. Go left and head .5 mile to a treeline campsite with peak views.

Rise by seven to beat Wheeler’s frequent summer lightning storms. With a summit pack, hike .3 mile to Horseshoe Lake, a curved pool sitting directly under the high point. Then ascend 1.3 miles to the 12,900-foot saddle between Wheeler and Simpson Peaks. Go right to bag Wheeler and savor views of glassy tarns radiating below your feet.

Now bag two more peaks before lunch: Return to the saddle and head .2 mile southeast to 12,976-foot Simpson, then continue another half-mile to 13,113-foot Old Mike Peak. Backtrack to Horseshoe Lake, retrieve your gear, and hike less than a mile on the Lost Lake Trail to reach your next campsite, on Lost’s north shore.

On day three, traverse talus slopes before descending through evergreens to reach the Middle Fork trailhead; roadwalk 2.6 miles east on Forest Roads 487 and 58A to your car.

Gear Up: Get batteries and fuel at Climates: 307 E. Main St., Red River, NM; (575) 754-1756

Contact: (575) 758-6200

-Mapped by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 30.9

Waypoints

WPL001

Location: 36.6062282, -105.3841297

Start hiking south from the East Fork trailhead.

WPL002

Location: 36.599047, -105.3824809

Cross rushing Sawmill Creek on a small bridge.

WPL003

Location: 36.5937526, -105.3828374

Keep right at the junction with the Sawmill Park Trail.

WPL004

Location: 36.5729702, -105.3818329

At mile 2.4, cross a small brook.

WPL005

Location: 36.5711732, -105.3818172

Cross the East Fork of the Red River via bridge.

WPL006

Location: 36.567598, -105.3863955

Cross a creek once again over a rickety two-log bridge.

WPL007

Location: 36.564644, -105.3926129

Pass a peaceful meadow to the right.

WPL008

Location: 36.565518, -105.3924557

Gaze up to the left at this steep scree field (and hazardous avalanche chute in the winter).

WPL009

Location: 36.5677926, -105.3926

Enjoy your first big vista here. This clifftop perch offers a peek at the East Fork valley below.

WPL010

Location: 36.56719, -105.3939688

Enter the Wheeler Peak Wilderness here.

WPL011

Location: 36.5698479, -105.3999539

Junction with the Horseshoe Lake spur trail. Turn left and begin climbing to reach the lake.

WPL012

Location: 36.5688135, -105.4029003

Splash across a small waterfall.

WPL013

Location: 36.5673567, -105.405364

Pitch a tent in this secluded, sheltered spot (camping is prohibited within 300 feet of the lake).

WPL014

Location: 36.564832, -105.4051769

Horseshoe Lake: Spend some time with dark, furry marmots on its U-shaped shoreline.

WPL015

Location: 36.5522547, -105.4165622

Here, you'll gain the saddle between Wheeler and Simpson peaks. Turn left to summit Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's high point first.

WPL016

Location: 36.5568386, -105.4168824

Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet). Retrace your steps to the saddle and continue south to Simpson Peak.

WPL017

Location: 36.5490405, -105.4143377

Stand atop 12,976-foot Simpson Peak, then continue southeast to Old Mike (yes that's a peak name, not a person).

WPL018

Location: 36.5453713, -105.4064972

Take in the last mountaintop views of the day on 13,113-foot Old Mike Peak. From here, return to Horseshoe Lake, then the trail junction and turn left to Lost Lake.

WPL019

Location: 36.5785579, -105.4040766

Camp on the north side of Lost Lake for the best sites.

WPL020

Location: 36.6111597, -105.4127017

Turn right onto Forest Road 487.

WPL021

Location: 36.6213722, -105.3945043

Turn right onto Forest Road 58A and continue back to your car.

3D: Horseshoe Lake to Wheeler Peak

Location: 36.5637031, -105.403862

East Fork Red River

Location: 36.5912162, -105.3820181

Creek Crossing

Location: 36.571217, -105.3817177

Trail Views

Location: 36.5665755, -105.3924465