Taos County High Point Trip Report

Wheeler Peak (13,161 ft)

Date: September 26, 2003
Author: Mouser Williams

I suppose there isn't much to say about Wheeler that hasn't been said, it's pretty straight forward and a relatively high-traffic highpoint. Regardless, here's an egregiously over-detailed Wheeler trip report in case someone hasn't been yet.

Here are some pictures taken during the hike. Click on the thumbnails for the full-size picture with commentary.

The hike, via the route I took, is about 15 miles and 4,000 feet gross elevation gain. It took me an entire day, but I am a rather slow hiker - especially above 12,500 feet.

The first step is to get to the Taos Ski Valley. From Taos, NM, take highway 64 (which is also Taos' main strip) north out of town to a stoplight junction with highway 150 (UTM zone 13S 446695 E, 4034589 N). If you get to the Rio Grande gorge bridge (UTM zone 13S 434383 E, 4036835 N), you've gone way too far though if you've never seen it, the 600+ foot high bridge is definitely a worthy side trip. Take a right onto highway 150 and follow it all the way to the ski area. Once at the ski resort, find the Bull-of-the-Woods trailhead (UTM zone 13S 459810 E, 4050013 N). The Bull-of-the-Woods trail is definitely not the shortest route to the summit of Wheeler, but it is considerably less effort than hiking to Williams Lake and then straight up the 30 degree slope of Wheeler for 2,000 feet.

I started on this trail at 8:30 AM. The first part of the trail (trail 90), up to Bull-of-the-Woods pasture (UTM zone 13 S 461723 E, 4051742 N) is the steepest ascent of the route, since there aren't really any switchbacks. It rises almost 1,500 feet in a little over two miles. From there, the trail turns south and more or less follows the ridge towards Wheeler. Once the trail works its way around the west side of Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain (11,640 feet), it reaches a nice saddle which we used as a lunch area. From the saddle there is a good view east to Little Costilla Peak, highpoint of Colfax County, NM.

We also made the short side trip north to the summit of Bull-of-the-Woods (UTM zone 13S 461892 E, 4050639 N) to check out the mines. Both mines listed on the USGS quad have been filled in, and the summit is mostly a tailings pile. Looks like it might have been a copper mine; lots of green corrosion on everything.

Continuing south, the trail crosses over the ridge just north of the summit of Frazer Mountain (12,163 feet) and then makes a really obnoxious drop down into La Cal Basin. Looking at the USGS Quad, I was tempted to try to maintain the ridge due south and ascend to Mount Walter off-trail. However, looking at the rough ridge line made mostly of scree, I decided the La Cal Basin trail was probably less effort despite the 200-foot drop. The switchbacks out of La Cal seemed to take forever.

Once back on the ridge we had a wonderful view of Horeshoe Lake to the East and it was a quick slog up to the summit of the very humorous Mount Walter. At 13,141 feet, just 20 feet short of Wheeler, and connected by a high saddle, Walter is one of the least-prominent named summits ever. But for some reason it has its own metal sign and everything. We decided that we would declare our trip an expedition to conquer Mount Walter, with short side trip to Wheeler. After goofing off at Walter for a few minutes, it was on to Wheeler (13,161 feet). Coming up out of the saddle between Wheeler and Walter, the trail actually splits and what appears to be the "main trail" actually avoids the summit and skirts Wheeler below and to the east. We made this wrong turn and ended up having to go straight up the east slope of Wheeler for about 50 feet.

Once on the summit (UTM zone 13 S 462737 E, 4045591 N) we rested for about half an hour and took in the view. The time was 3:00 PM. I tried to count the county highpoints visible from this point. I could definitely see Little Costilla, Truchas, Redondo, Blanca, and Crestone. Caballo was probably visible as well, though it was dwarfed by Redondo behind it. Is there a list of highpoints from which the most other highpoints are visible?

On the way back, we decided to take the "quick way down" which involves negotiating the scree slope straight down to the lake, 2,000 feet below. There is actually a faint trail that leaves the main trail at the saddle between Walter and Wheeler and heads due west. This is a really loose trail and shock-absorbing trekking poles are strongly recommended.

Mark was running out of water and was planning on purifying some water from Lake Williams when we got there, but about 3/4 of the way down we found a great spring flowing out of the ground right next to the trail (UTM zone 13S 462003 E, 4045929 N). Given the marmot density nearby, we still purified it.

The scree trail down to the lake was very hard on our knees, but once at the lake the trail is very easy to negotiate, even with burnt-out legs. The lake area is very pretty and we sat there for about fifteen minutes. The time was 5:00 PM. The trail from the lake to the southern-most ski lodge is a little less than two miles. Just behind this ski lodge there is a restaurant called The Bavarian which is very expensive and exceedingly good. If you can afford a $15-$30 plate of dinner, it really hits the spot. The excellent food and hour's rest really helped for the last two miles back to the car. Although we did have to do these two miles in the dark, it was on a service road for the ski area and therefore wasn't too treacherous. We made it back to the car at 8:00 PM.

This was my first trip to Wheeler. It was my 23rd state highpoint and my 67th county highpoint. It is also my personal highest point. Wheeler is a great climb, if a bit of a long slog. The views are unparalleled.