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October 1999

Twelve Toughest Trails

Twelve trails that'll chew you up, spit you out, and have you begging for more.

New Mexico

Capitan Peak Trail

Billy the Kid felt right at home in the Capitan Mountains. But then, the outlaw had a horse. Backpackers must hoof it up the Capitan Peak Trail in south-central New Mexico to reach one of the finest ridgeline hikes in the southern Rockies.

Get ready to sweat, pardner, because the trip from the trailhead to a breathless climax on Capitan Peak covers 3,783 vertical feet and takes you from desert to purple mountains majesty in less than 6 miles. At least the sideshow along the way is interesting. At the 2-mile mark, spectacular Chimney Rock looms, a spire of red stone towering over prime elk and bear range. Further on, rivers of rock attest to the region’s molten birthright, and rare ancient forests of aspen, spruce, and fir rise improbably above cactus patches and antelope flats.

From the summit, the views are out of this world: an unobstructed 360 degrees that includes the Staked Plains, Chihuahuan Desert, Guadalupe Reef, and snowy Sangre DeCristos. Speaking of otherworldly, UFO headquarters (Roswell) is visible in the distance, so watch out for hovering spacecraft.

Where: From Carrizozo at the junction of US 380 and US 54, travel east on US 380 to Capitan. Exit onto NM 246 north. Follow it to Forest Road 130 headed south. Take FR 130 to the trailhead at Pine Lodge.

Route: Use Capitan Peak Trail to create a high-flying, 32-mile backpacking trip by connecting with the 8.5 mile Summit Trail, then linking with 15 miles of less strenuous loops on the North and South Base Trails.

Grunt factor: 4; steep ascents, loose rock, innumerable switchbacks, and little water.

The payoff: An opportunity to experience remote wilderness, plus views that frame the best of the West.

More Information: New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide, by Bob Julyan and Tom Till (1999; Westcliffe Publishers; 800-523-3692;; $24.95).

-Gary Lantz


Grandview Trail,Grand Canyon

The raft-swallowing rapids of the Colorado River defy labeling by the standard whitewater rating system. That’s why paddlers invented the Grand Canyon Scale. Backpackers should do the same for the canyon’s trails.

All Grand Canyon hikes are hard-stupendous drop-offs, hot sun, sparse water-but an informal dividing line separates the truly difficult from the wicked: need rope or not? Of the need-rope variety, the Nankoweap Trail on the North Rim is the most notorious; for saner people, the Grandview is challenge enough.

On this trek, reaching the river is cause for celebration, partly for the accomplishment but mostly thanks to the perfect riverside beach you’ll call home for a few days. Gradually, though, the realization sinks in that you have to get back to the rim, which means a 13-mile, 4,800-foot climb through the canyon’s rocky, sunbaked terrain. The final push ascends a sheer slice of Coconino sandstone that’s a real nail-biter. But look on the bright side: Each step up reveals a little more of the famous canyon, where views are so breathtaking they jump the scale.

Where: The Grandview Trail is in northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, 10 miles east of the visitor center on East Rim Drive.

Route: Combine the New Hance Trail (going in) and the Tonto/Grandview trails (going out) for a 21-mile loop.

Grunt factor: 5. The elevation gain/loss totals 9,200 feet.

The payoff: Watching the sun set from a riverside camp, as golden light fades to pink and purple on a vertical mile of rock.

More information: Hiking the Grand Canyon, by John Annerino (1997; Sierra Club Books; 800-935-1056;; $15).

-Dennis Lewon


Charleston Peak Trail

In the Southwest, where big mountains are a dime a dozen, 11,918-foot Charleston Peak is a standout. It’s one of the tallest peaks between the Sierra Nevada and the southern Rockies, and a base-to-summit elevation profile of 9,700 feet makes it truly imposing.

Once on the summit ridge, the trail ambles gently among gnarled bristlecone pine and sidesteps jagged cliffs. Atop Mt. Charleston, the ridge narrows, the views extend into California and almost to the Utah line, and you feel suspended in space.

Complicating matters for hikers attempting this 18-mile loop is the fact that winter snowmelt disappears into the underlying limestone quicker than a retiree’s nest egg at the slot machines below. Unless you catch lingering snow before the end of June, you’ll have to carry all your water.

Where: The South Loop begins in a picnic area at the end of NV 157, 19 miles west of US 95. The North Loop begins nearby, on Echo Road.

Route: For an 18-mile loop, ascend via the North Loop, and collect water at a convenient spring halfway up. Descend via the South Loop, road-walking back to the start. Spur hikes to 11,059-foot Griffith Peak and 11,528-foot Mummy Mountain (no trail) add extra miles.

Grunt factor: 4 (5 if you’re not altitude acclimated). The trail rises 4,200 vertical feet.

The payoff: Hundred-mile vistas from one of the most extreme mountain ramparts in North America, plus ancient bristlecone pines and impressive limestone cliffs.

More information: Grab a copy of Hiking the Great Basin: The High Desert Country of California, Nevada, and Utah, by John Hart (1992; Sierra Club Books; 800-935-1056;; $14.95).

-Richard A. Lovett

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