The Highest Mountain in New Mexico: Hiking Wheeler Peak

Miraculously the mountains still had not had a significant snow by the third week in October. As Callahan and I began to consider the possibilities a local volunteer named John told me he had just hiked Wheeler Peak a few days before with his hiking group – and it had been virtually snow-free. Could it be true? A chance to hike the highest peak in New Mexico before early next summer? We instantly agreed we’d give it a go.

I had previously looked up information on the Bull-of-the-Woods approach to Wheeler Peak, but John told us about the much shorter hike via Williams Lake which had the benefits of a pretty lake and an offset for the longer drive to Taos. The trailhead for the Williams Lake approach was just below 10,200 and was already looking very alpine-y when we arrived. Gleefully we set off through the fir and spruce, leaving the ski area behind and hiking up the glacial valley over talus fields and past avalanche chutes. We were pretty ecstatic at this point, even before we made it to either of our destinations. We had decided to go to the lake first before ascending the peak and so after 2 miles and roughly 1,000 feet we arrived at the glacial bowl in which Williams Lake sits. The sun was directly behind the lake as we crested the last rise but after making our way down to the shore we were able to see more detail of the cirque walls, the pockets of tall trees, and the shallow, glistening water.

Leaving the lake we doubled back a quarter mile and rejoined the trail that would ascend the peak. After another 800 feet in elevation gain we emerged above the treeline, and had the first of many sweeping views down the ski valley; soon after we caught our first glimpses of the jewel-toned Williams Lake nestled in the basin below. Above us, beyond us, we had endless tundra and fields of scree. We trudged upward past 12,000 feet, then 13,000 feet, pausing as often for air as for the views. Finally we emerged on the ridge below Wheeler with only a quarter mile of gradual uphill left to the peak. Abby found a bit of snow to play in while Callahan and I gawked at the peaks and valleys below.

Another hiking party that we’d passed earlier was coming up behind us as we walked towards the peak; we decided to let them have it to themselves for a bit and walked past the high point and down the south side (read: sunny side) to find a place to sit and have an apple. While we were soaking up the sunshine and vistas their dog came around to play with Abby a couple times which was also entertaining. Though the group was resting at the top for about 25 minutes we were in no hurry to leave our spot after finishing our apples and alternately took photos and talked about where we’d like to explore on a future hike. After being cold and out of breath for much of the morning we were happy to sit and bask under the sun with such incredible views.

Seeing when they were about to move off we walked back up the hill and ended up offering to exchange pictures; the photo they took of of Callahan and I has both the dogs milling around which made it better than what we expected. Then they left. We had a few moments of our own at the top, me watching Abby gaze over the valleys, Callahan signing the register, and both of us taking more pictures – and then it was time to descend.

Wheeler Peak, at 13,162 feet is easily the highest elevation I’ve hiked at but it also easily cracks my all-time top 10 hikes. I have been continually surprised and incredulous at the exquisite alpine environment of the northern New Mexico mountains above12,000 feet, but this hike was really something special – and as I write this almost 3 months later I’m still so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it.