Los Alamos County Highpoint Trip Report

liner on southern slope of Caballo Mountain (10,480+ feet)

Date: June 17, 2003
Author: Adam Helman

Note: All NAD27 UTM coordinates are in zone 13S.


Los Alamos County forms an aberration among New Mexico counties: it is small (by western USA standards) and came late in the game. Formed after WWII, Los Alamos County is the site of much research and development by government scientists at LANL - the Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL began life with the Manhattan Project - our nation's effort to develop an atomic device during the war years. With a greater per capita number of Ph.D.s than any other community, Los Alamos has a "matter of fact", different air about it than your average town. No bars. Even in the local supermarket I found the clientele separated into your "average Joe" and obviously nerdy types as myself.

I would enjoy living there.

Security in the areas seems to have a negative impact on access to the county highpoint - I explored all possible approaches (except one from the west), and found just one approach to be viable at this time. Specifically, the approach suggested in previous reports is now obsolete owing to a new locked gate that prevents outsiders from driving west on BIA601 onto Indian lands. The only approach I found is from the south of Caballo Mountain, parking at the Pajarito Ski Resort as described below.


New Mexico route 501 is the start of your adventure. From Diamond Avenue in Los Alamos on the west side of town, drive west 1.4 miles on 501 to the paved approach road leading northwest to the Pajarito Ski Resort. Alternatively, from the junction of routes 4 and 501, drive east 2.9 miles on route 501 to the same junction - waypoint J-ROAD below, at approximately 7,500 feet elevation.

From the junction, drive 4.1 miles northwest on the paved Pajarito Ski Resort access road and park in any of numerous lots near the 9,200 foot trailhead, waypoint TRAILHEAD. Convenient camping is available on National Forest land by driving about 0.3 mile up the Pajarito approach road from waypoint J-ROAD and turning right (north) into a maize of dirt roads with pullouts. A short walk takes you from campsite to a ridge overlook of Los Alamos.

A sign at the trailhead precludes vehicular traffic on the former jeep trail. When I scouted this approach two days earlier I saw mountain bikers preparing to ride the trail. Since the first 4+ miles are relatively level, the option of a combined bike/climb may be considered.


Proceed on foot or bicycle up the jeep road for three miles, first northeast, then briefly north, and finally in a northwest direction over the first two miles. Here an engaging meadow is crossed, topping out on a ridge on its north side at about 9,600 feet. Avoid taking the trail right to Canada Bonita after about one mile from the trailhead. Also, there are numerous side trails that are poorly marked. On the return in particular, be mindful of staying on the main trail despite these annoying junctions with cryptic names, e.g. "north loop", "shortcut", etc... .

Continue north on the old jeep road after crossing the ridge, dropping perhaps one hundred feet, and eventually intersecting, after a total of three miles, the Pipeline Road trending east to west at waypoint PIPE below.

Beyond the junction at PIPE, continue north on the jeep road for about one mile to waypoint 9617. The topography drops off sharply to your left (west), and views of the large Valle Grande of the Valles Caldera Nature Preserve may be visible to your southwest through the trees.

At waypoint 9617 the road turns northeast and then due east for about one-half mile, ending abruptly atop a cliff at spot elevation 9468 and marked by waypoint CLIFF below. You need to locate the start of a trail that zigzags down into Guaje Canyon to your east. The trail is not at all obvious. It begins about fifty feet to the west of the sheer dropoff and is located on the left (north side) of the road (or what remains of it) at a good-sized cairn I have constructed to this end. The trail begins at a severe angle of 150° with respect to your easterly direction of travel along the road.

Take the trail down into Guaje Canyon. After an elevation loss of one thousand feet from spot elevation 9617 and perhaps a mile into the trail, encounter an unmarked junction with the Caballo Mountain Trail on your left (north), marked by waypoint J-CABALLO below. Climb steeply up this trail as it trends northwest up the east side of a gully. Deadfall will be a problem, especially higher up when the trail switchbacks.

After about one thousand feet of gain from the unmarked junction, the trail shifts from climbing northwest up the gully to an easterly heading directly for the summit area of Caballo Mountain. Deadfall may at times make finding the trail difficult since the decaying trees tend to obscure the path. If you lose the trail then simply head up the gradient.

The trail does not reach the summit. Rather, it tops out in an open meadow with good views to the south and of Los Alamos. A post marks the junction with a not-too-obvious Agua Piedra Trail coming from the north.

The liner, waypoint LINER, is some four hundred feet ENE of this trail junction, just inside the forested summit area and with no views whatsoever. Bashing through the forest and over much deadfall, I verified my position by a delapidated barbed wire that must have marked the county boundary. I walked east-west for many yards in each direction to guarantee I had at some point visited the county highpoint. The county line runs due east-west and the terrain is quite flat - such that no single point was obviously the highest. Hence the need to walk quite a distance in each direction.

The summit is enshrouded in forest and is marked by waypoint SUMMIT below. In light of gathering clouds I chose to not visit the summit. Instead, and after visiting the liner area, I returned to waypoint MEADOW, as the trail junction, and had lunch.

Return the route of ascent. I estimate the round-trip distance as fifteen miles. The total elevation gain is 3,400 feet. I consumed about 8 1/2 hours including all breaks and "summit" siesta.

GPS Waypoint (Easting, Northing) Topo chart (waypoint at cursor)
************ **************** *********
J-ROAD (378460 E, 3970442 N) click here
TRAILHEAD (374335 E, 3973093 N) click here
PIPE (374452 E, 3976248 N) click here
9617 (374147 E, 3977797 N) click here
CLIFF (374792 E, 3977843 N) click here
J-CABALLO (376103 E, 3977691 N) click here
MEADOW (376687 E, 3979337 N) click here
LINER (376809 E, 3979362 N) click here
SUMMIT (376936 E, 3979464 N) click here