Highpoint #31 – Wheeler Peak, New Mexico – September 19, 2020

I apologize for not getting this done and posted sooner but all-in-all it’s been a busy fall. We made our trip down this way over a few days, and felt pretty fortunate to be escaping the smoke from the horrible wildfires in the northwest.

Our route took us to the southeast corner of Washington, the northeast corner of Oregon, across Idaho, and down through Utah. There will be a post about our visit to the Moab area.

After staying in Taos for a night, we camped at Twinings Campground in Taos Ski Valley near the big resort complex. The elevation of the campground is 9300’ so it would be good to camp here to continue to acclimatize for our ascent of Wheeler Peak, 13,160’. The campground is squeezed right in between large buildings and the wilderness. We got there just as the sun was going down after we’d picked up some groceries in Taos. Before setting up our tent, we drove up to the trailhead to make sure we knew where we were going in the morning. The trailhead was easy to locate and well-developed, so we knew where to go in the morning and headed back to set up camp.

We awoke at 5:00 in the dark on summit day. Made and drank one mug of coffee while we woke up. It was near freezing. The tent was struck and put away while we loaded our day packs for the hike. Finally, everything was ready and we drove up to the trailhead.

There were just a couple cars there when we drove in. After using the trailhead facilities, we started down the well-marked trail at 6:30am. This was the Williams Lake Trail #62. It continued on through the upper part of the ski area base and entered the forest with widely spaced trees and not much underbrush – unlike our own Northwest wilderness. The trail climbed consistently but never too steeply. We did get warmed up quickly and we noticed a bit of sweat on our backs. The trail was wide with rocks sticking up here and there on the trail bed.

Williams Lake-Wheeler Summit Trail intersection

In two miles, we reached a trail intersection. Here is where the Wheeler Summit Trail #67 begins. It diverges from the Williams Lake trail before it reaches the lake. From here the trail climbs more steeply until it comes to a gentle basin about 1000’ below the summit ridge. After that, it climbs consistently across talus and rocks mostly making many switch-backs before it tops out at the summit ridge. We were surprised how high the grasses and trees grow here. Tree line was around 11,500’ and grasses grow all the way to the 13,000’ summit.

If you look closely, you can see a friendly pika sitting on the rock. Also known as “Rock Rabbits”.

There were a few pairs of people ahead of us on the trail as we went up. We were very surprised at how we felt as we climbed at this high altitude. We felt great! No heavy breathing. And no sense that the air was much thinner than at sea level. We made the summit in less than 3 hours. 4.1 miles and 3000’ of elevation gain. We enjoyed every minute. It was a beautiful day with a light breeze to keep us just a little cool.

Wheeler Peak Summit

We visited with the hikers that had already reached the top and had a bit of food while we chatted from our “socially distanced” position. The summit register was in a large piece of iron pipe that was cemented into a large block. We also found the USGS (US Geological Service) marker cemented on to the very highest chunk of rock. The summit is very roomy and not scary at all. No steep drop-offs.

Although we thought the elevation of Wheeler Peak was going to make it a tough objective, it wasn’t that way. We had done a couple hikes in the Olympic Mountains earlier in the summer to get prepared. Each one helped us get a little better in shape. By the time we got to the top of Wheeler Peak, we knew we had prepared quite well. Even though we climbed up above 13,000 feet, it didn’t seem that hard. And the trail was really well graded and maintained. The views were great, and we could look out over a lot of the southern Rocky Mountains. We really enjoyed this highpoint objective, and would recommend it to anyone who likes hiking and wondrous views. We thought that our choice of coming in September was perfect. Quite cool at night, and very comfortable hiking early in the morning as long as you have a warm hat and gloves. Evidently, lots of people from the area come up here and others that are passing through and like to get on a cool trail.

One down on our list of attempt on this trip. Check back for what happens on our next target – Black Mesa, the highpoint of Oklahoma.

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