Scraping the Sky
In a state full of jaw-dropping scenic vistas, Wheeler Peak may very well beat out all competitors. Rising to a height of 13,161 feet from the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountain range near Taos, New Mexico's highest point is also embedded in one of the most beautiful areas of our achingly beautiful state. Because it scrapes the roof of the world, it's also nice and cool up there. So if you're looking for a way to beat the heat, Wheeler Peak is a prime place to start.
You can either do a backpacking trip that eventually leads to the top, or, if you're in relatively decent shape, you can ascend it on a long day hike.
A third option is to saddle up. Located in Taos Ski Valley, Rio Grande Stables offers a day trip on horseback to the peak that includes lunch for $130 per person (www.lajitasstables.com/taos.htm, 505-776-5913). A fourth option is to rent yourself a llama to do all the heavy lifting for either a day trip or a multi-day adventure. Try Wild Earth Llama Adventures (www.llamaadventures.com, 800-758-LAMA).
There are two standard hiking routes to the top. The first begins at a trailhead at the Taos Ski Valley parking lot, rising up the side of Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain before hooking south to climb over Fraser Mountain then making the final climb to Wheeler Peak. This route makes the journey to the top about seven miles, one way.
Last summer, a friend and I decided to scramble down the side of the mountain, along a faint trail that descends to Williams Lake, then take an alternate route back to the ski area. If you do it this way, you can shave off a couple miles so that the whole round trip is about 11 miles.
The second main route to the top of Wheeler Peak begins near Red River. Take Highway 578 to Wheeler Peak Village, passing through a series of private property fences until you get to a National Forest Service trailhead. The beauty of this trail to the top is that it passes by two trout-filled lakes—Lost Lake and Horseshoe Lake. Although you're not supposed to camp right at the lakes, there are several excellent sites nearby.
These directions won't make much sense, of course, until you're looking at a map. The Forest Service puts out the best topo of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. It's available at most outdoors stores around town.
Once you get to the top, beware the large population of overly affectionate (and hungry) marmots. These fat ridiculous rodents make an excellent living begging off gullible hikers at the peak.
Also make sure you keep one eye on the sky at all times. Nasty weather often rolls into the area in the afternoon, and you don't want to be stuck up at the peak while Zeus is hurtling thunderbolts by the dozen at your exposed head. Trust me on that one. Try to get an early start, so you can be up and off the peak before the blue sky turns black.
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