Rip & Go: Wheeler Peak Loop – Wheeler Peak Wilderness, NM
Connect alpine lakes and tag three summits on this wildflower- and wildlife-packed loop.
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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 (1), dive into the woods and track along the East Fork of the Red River. Keep right at the junction with the Sawmill Park Trail (2) 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 (3)–a perch overlooking the East Fork valley 1,000 feet below.
Enter the Wheeler Peak Wilderness (4) just beyond and cruise .5 mile through conifer forest to a junction (5) for the spur trail to Horseshoe Lake. Go left and head .5 mile to a treeline campsite with peak views (6). Rise by seven to beat Wheeler’s frequent summer lightning storms. With a summit pack, hike .3 mile to Horseshoe Lake (7), a curved pool sitting directly under the high point. Then ascend 1.3 miles to the 12,900-foot saddle (8) between Wheeler and Simpson Peaks. Go right to bag Wheeler (9) 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 (10), then continue another half-mile to 13,113-foot Old Mike Peak (11). 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 (12). On day three, traverse talus slopes before descending through evergreens to reach the Middle Fork trailhead (13); roadwalk 2.6 miles east on Forest Roads 487 and 58A to your car.
Driving From Red River, 35 miles northeast of Taos, take NM 578 six miles south to where the pavement ends at the Middle Fork/East Fork junction. Turn east on FR 58A (it’s a rough road) and drive 1.2 miles to the trailhead sign.
To skip the two-mile road walk to close this loop, drop a bike at the Middle Fork Lake trailhead, just west of the East Fork trailhead on FR 58.
Get batteries and fuel at Climates: 307 E. Main St., Red River, NM; (575) 754-1756
Key Skill: Recognize Altitude Sickness
Thin-air-induced misery isn’t just for Himalayan summits. Altitude-related illnesses can strike at 8,000 feet or even lower, which can make the 3,500-foot climb up Wheeler Peak a lung-straining struggle. Acute mountain sickness, or AMS, is the first stage of altitude-related illness associated with the brain. Here’s how to diagnose and treat it.
Symptoms usually appear within six to 10 hours of arrival at altitude, but they can pop up in as little as one hour. The most common (and usually first) complaint is a headache. Other signs include loss of appetite, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, and more fatigue than seems fitting for the day’s exertions. It’s a lot like feeling hungover or being extremely dehydrated.
Mild AMS won’t cause lasting damage, but it does show that you’re not acclimatizing well–and it will only get worse if you keep climbing. Stop ascending and take ibuprofen for the headache. Drink water, too (aim for four liters per day), since AMS and dehydration symptoms are very similar. Light exercise (like jumping jacks) may relieve a mild case, but if symptoms don’t resolve within 24 to 48 hours, descend.
Bighorn sheep Scan the high ridges above Horseshoe Lake for these crowned ungulates (females have horns, too, but they’re spiky, not curved). Once nearly wiped out by hunting and livestock diseases, the population has been growing since 33 sheep were reintroduced in 1993. At home on rocky mountainsides, bighorns use cupped hooves to balance on two-inch-wide ledges and charge up steep pitches without slipping. Go in late fall to witness 300-pound rams head-butting each other at 30 mph as they battle it out over ewes, or in June to see lambs frolicking on the grassy slopes.
Gaze to the southeast from the top of Old Mike Peak and you’ll glimpse more than just another high-alpine pool: It’s Blue Lake, one of the Taos Pueblo tribe’s most sacred sites. Lumped into the Carson National Forest in 1906, the lake and surrounding mountains were returned to the tribe in 1970 after years of intense protests, and are now deemed off-limits to outsiders–especially in mid-August, when the tribe congregates there for annual ceremonies. Though it’s okay to bag Old Mike, says Taos Pueblo War Chief Bernard Lujan, stay on the north side of the ridgeline and definitely don’t take any photos of Blue Lake or the basin. Tribe members patrol the boundary and might confiscate the cameras of anyone who doesn’t respect their wishes.
On the Menu
On the road
Lunches 1 & 2
PB & honey bagel
Old Mike’s Rice
Breakfasts 2 & 3
Energy bar and beef jerky
Old Mike’s Rice
A super-easy dish that packs a punch
2 cups instant rice
4-ounce can chopped green chiles
5-ounce can chicken
1 chicken bouillon cube
4 ounces pepper jack cheese
Bring two cups of water to a boil; add rice, chiles, chicken, and bouillon cube, stirring to break up cube. Cover and simmer five minutes. Finely chop cheese; sprinkle on rice, then eat.
Can’t stop with just one
8 corn tortillas
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
4 ounces pepper jack cheese
1 cup salsa
2 teaspoons olive oil
Finely chop cheese and chipotle pepper. Place a tortilla in lightly oiled skillet; top with pepper, cheese, and salsa. Heat until cheese melts, then fold tortilla and flip. Toast opposite side, then eat. Repeat.
The Grocery List (Aisle #) in nearest store below
1 pack trail mix (4)
1 pack beef jerky (4)
2 bagels (5)
4 packs oatmeal (6)
4 energy bars (6)
7 oz. chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (7)
8-oz. jar salsa (7)
4-oz. can green chiles (7)
5-oz. can chicken (8)
1 chicken bouillon cube (8)
1 box instant rice (8)
8-oz. jar peanut
1 jar honey (9)
1 pack corn tortillas (dairy)
8 oz. pepper jack cheese (dairy)
Pack olive oil
Nearest Grocery Store
Der Market Food Store
307 West Main Street, Red River, NM; (575) 754-2974; dermarktfoodstore.com
On the way out of town, grab a jumbo Middle Fork Pork burrito with a side of fresh guacamole at Tia Buena’s. And don’t miss the obligatory slathering of piquant red or green chile on top. 325 W. Main St., Red River, NM; (575) 754-6577