San Mateo Peak, Manzano Peak


By: Bob Michael


The Mogollon Mountains (SAGE #262, July 99) were so much fun last spring that (Phoenix) George Horn and I decided on a return c engagement in southern New Mexico this fall. This time, our mountain ranges of choice were just too far a drive from Phoenix to be practical, so we both flew to Albuquerque. (When was the last time an AIRPORT t RESTAURANT knocked your socks off? Try Gardunos.) We rented a car and headed down 125, following the Rio Grande to our lodgings in Truth or Consequences.

Our first objective was the San Mateo Mountains' geologically quite similar to the Mogollon Mountains -a Basin-and Range upfaulted block of mostly andesitic (light-colored) volcanic rocks, uplifted along the eastern margin of the southern end of the Plateau, where Basinand-Range tectonics are eating into the Plateau. "WHOA, wait a niinute!," shout my perceptive readers". The Basin and Range (Nevada) is WEST of the Plateau (Utah). You're almost right; but look at a physiographic map of the West. The Basin and Range makes an "end run " around the southern margin of the Plateau - east past the Baboquivari Mountains, the Santa Ritas and Chiricahuas, into the southwest comer of New Mexico - the Animas and Big Hatchet Mountains (which I wrote up about twenty years ago and described as a chunk of southern Nevada transplanted bodily into New Mexico), the Florida Mountains, and the awesome Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces. (.I'd bet a case of Dom Perignon that 8,980' Organ Needle would be a DPS Emblem Peak if it weren't too far away.)

From the Las Cruces/El Paso region, a narrow zone of classic Basin and Range extensional (Nevada-style) tectonics stabs hundreds of miles north into the heart of the Colorado Rockies. It's called the Rio Grande Rift Zone from the river that takes advantage of the central downdropped block, or graben. Like the East African Rift, this is a lineament where the interior of a continent is being pulled apart. Unlike Africa, which is about to start unzipping from the north at Djibouti, the Rio Grande is a failed (dead) rift; Albuquerqueans will not be surfing anytime soon. However, the Rio Grande Rift in its heyday left us with a splendid legacy of mountain ranges and volcanic features all along its trace north past Albuquerque, Santa-Fe, and Taos into Colorado. The east face of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of southern Colorado, home of some of the finest Fourteeners (Crestones, Blanca) looks a whole lot like the east face of the Sierra ... the Rift simply. cut right across the much older Rocky Mountain structures (a process called "tectonic overprinting"), and, sure enough, the west face of the Sangres is a fault block rising above the San Luis Valley, a mirror image of the Sierra/Owens Valley. Further north, the Rift has downdropped the Arkansas River valley east of the fourteener-rich Sawatch Range before finally dying out west of Vail.

Back to our own little piece of the Rift last September. We drove 26 miles north on 125 from "T or C" (as the locals call it) to an exit that takes you onto old US Highway 85, now New Mexico Highway One. About 5 miles N on 1, we turned W on the good dirt road that leads up broad Nogal Canyon 13 miles to Springtime around at 7,350'. The 12 mi RT hike from here to 10,139' San Mateo Peak in the Apache Kid Wilderness is possibly the finest and most varied Southwest forest hike I've ever taken. You begin in Ponderosa forest, with oak. pinon and chaparral on southfacing slopes. We both remarked on how many exceptionally big, healthy. beautifully developed Ponderosas we passed. The pines dropped out at the 9,600' saddle west of point 9657', and the last mile or so is through an open Douglas fir/aspen forest so beautiful that I turned to George and commented, "I think we've walked right into Heaven!". Huge fir trunks cast shadows on. glowingly green, lush grass that carpeted the ground; the aspen were still almost entirely green despite the September 24 date. In Colorado, they would have been at the height of their color. (I've noticed a real upward shift in life zones in New Mexico; 12,409'Lake Peak at the extreme southern end of the Rockies near Santa Fe has trees almost to the top on its south side, surely the highest timberline in the United States.)

The summit is gentle and verdant; it's the site of an abandoned fire lookout tower and the lookout's rustic old cabin, which, amazingly, was not only unlocked but quite well outfitted. You have to go a few hundred feet north of the summit for the view to open up, west far across the vast black forests of the Gila Wilderness; north along the axis of the range to the remote high point, 10,300' West Blue Mountain. Just like the Mogollons, the San Mateos are rough and cliffy in their lower reaches, but lush and mellow up top -- a lot more like the Great Smokies than say, the Panamints! Compounding our pleasure in this place, we found raspberry bushes with some late fruit still on the vine. Once again, I had that out-of-the-way New Mexico feeling of being in an untrampled part of the "real West". We paused on the way down to enjoy the enormous views to the southeast, across the Rio Grande to the Jornada del Muerto and the Sierra Oscura in the White Sands Missile Range; somewhere over there we were looking at the Trinity Site where the nuclear age began. Ancient wilderness and modem horrors.

Next day, we jogged north to the Manzano Mountains, a narrow north-south fault block on the east side of the Rift. The Manzanos are the southward continuation of the Sandias, the huge flat-topped mountain that is Albuquerque's eastern backdrop. A stem Inyo Mountains-like escarpment faces west; we accessed the range on its gentler eastern side, from Mountainair on US 60. 13 miles north on State Hwy 55 is the old Spanish settlement of Manzano, where an excellent gravel road leads 5 miles SW from town past Red Canyon campground to the Ox. Canyon trailhead. We were going by the "Manzano Mountains, Wilderness map offered on tearproof plastic by the Cibola National Forest; unfortunately, the trailheads have completely changed since this map was issued in 1991. The little-used trail traverses lovely forest and is a delightful hike, but it's far longer than it would appear from the topo; on the top end, the trail makes many long flat switchbacks which become rather exasperating as you begin to wonder if you will ever join the Crest Trail. This latter trail was little-used in its first mile; in meadowy areas, it had completely disappeared and only caims marked the route. We thought this amazing, considering the proximity to Albuquerque. After we joined the Kayser Mill trail, the last mile to the peak was in better shape. Weld cut the time a little short on this peak, and had too little time to drink in the enormous view of central New Mexico from the summit, from Mt. Taylor in the northwest to Sierra Blanca in the southeast. To the east, it almost seemed you could see all the way to Texas. I had that same feeling I get on a peak in the Colorado Front Range of being in the last mountains on the eastern edge of the (for me) habitable part of the country, my eastward gaze dissipating into the endless void of the Great Plains, And, in fact, east of the Manzanos, the Basin and Range yields to the High Plains across a mildly uplifted transition zone called the Pedemal Hills; incredibly, in this one part of New Mexico; Nevada meets Nebraska!

On our descent, we met a young couple from Albuquerque about a half-mile from the top, and they told us that NOBODY hikes Ox Canyon any more; Kayser Mill Trail was the route. Again, this was good news considering our tight schedule before sundown. At the bottom of this trail, we encountered a poor dirt road as soon as we hit the baJada, much higher than we were expecting from our map. Then, a trudge in the gathering gloom up to the Ox Canyon trailhead; the couple we had met on the peak drove by and offered a welcome ride.

A visit the next day to two new National Monuments -Petroglyph and El Malpais - rounded out a near-perfect trip of fun hiking and peakbagging in (for us) brand new, gorgeous, uncrowded mountains, meeting friendly, saltof-the-earth people, eating red and green chile that cannot be quite duplicated outside the state boundaries. From the perspective of one looking at the DPS List in the rearview mirror of life, it's so cool to explore whole new mountain ranges where you've never set foot and look out on even more unknown territory. We love it! (Ed's note : Bob, now you understand why I enjoyed the AZ range highpoints list so much and am well through the CA list and have started the NV list too - "never stop exploring"!) We're already planning next year's trip; 11,973' Sierra Blanca down by Ruidoso (southernmost peak in the U.S. with evidence of Ice Age glaciation) awaits.

DPS Archives Index | Desert Peaks Section