We bagged our 40th state high point this past weekend: New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet.
We had planned to do this one last spring when we were living and working here, but the trail was snow-covered through May. With that in mind, we didn’t want to wait too long this fall, as winter could hit the mountains at any time. So even though we knew it would be crowded, Labor Day weekend seemed like the best fit.
Long holiday weekend aside, Wheeler Peak is always a popular hike that draw in the crowds, especially given the trailhead’s location right at the Taos Ski Valley.
New Mexico only has 5 mountains over 13,000 feet, with this being the tallest. There are 2 routes up Wheeler: Bull of the Woods and Williams Lake. It used to be that the Williams Lake route was treacherous without an established trail. But that has changed in recent years and now there is a very well trodden path of switchbacks leading to the peak.
We chose the Williams Lake route because it makes for a very nice–albeit short–overnight backpacking trip into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness of the Carson National Forest. I wanted to backpack so we could camp at 11,000 feet to give me a little more acclimatization, but also because alpine lakes are just so awesome. Williams Lake sits in a beautiful cirque nestled at the foot of Wheeler.
The Williams Lake trailhead is only 2 miles uphill from the Bull of the Woods trailhead, but we parked at the Bull of the Woods trailhead in the lower lot of the ski valley and walked the extra 2 miles on the road to save The Wanderer from climbing any more steep and hairpin hills. Even from the Bull of the Woods parking area, our total roundtrip mileage for the trip was still only 9 miles!
From Williams Lake on Sunday morning, our summit day was just about 5 miles roundtrip. We left early to avoid the typical afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains. Lightening was not a problem though; the wind was. As we climbed higher and higher, it got blustery. Our estimate was gusts up to 40 mph! I had to put every layer on me.
Also, roaming bighorn sheep and tremendous 360-degree views are supposed to be synonymous with Wheeler. You can see the Rio Grand canyon to the west, Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range to the north and so on. All we saw was the inside of a ping pong ball! There might have been a bighorn sheep next to me, but I wouldn’t have known.
Still, it was a successful summit. Though it was 13,161 feet, my lungs did fine. I’m guessing living at 8,000 feet, acclimating by sleeping at Williams Lake and the fact that the hike itself was relatively easy contributed to my success, but I just think the effects of altitude are erratic. I never know what I am going to get.