NE face, Sierra Blanca Peak
Sierra Blanca Peak is the high point of the Sierra Blanca, or White Mountains, in southeast New Mexico. The range is topographically continuous to the south as the Sacramento Mountains, home of resort town Cloucroft and subject of another recent post. The Sacramento Mountains are mostly limestone and sedimentary rocks. The Sierra Blanca, although generally lumped as part of the same range, are different, and at least the high country is made up largely of Tertiary intrusive rocks.
Sierra Blanca Peak itself stands at 11,981'. It carries several honors, including being the highest southernmost peak in the United States. I remember in grad school at UA in Tucson looking at a map and being amazed there were such high mountains in a corner of the world I considered to be flat wasteland (I must have been thinking of West Texas). The peak has been on my climb list for some time, but I always pass it on the way to other things, usually northern NM or Colorado. Now that I'm located in Midland, TX, Sierra Blanca is right in the neighborhood; only five hours away.
Drove out on Friday night to Bottomless Lakes State Park, NM. From Midland I went north, finally turning west at Plains, TX. Driving due west toward Roswell, one drops over two significant escarpments down into the Pecos River Valley near Roswell. The first drop is off the "caprock" that forms the highlands of the Llano Estacado. Midland-Odessa are near the southern end of the Llano Estacado, and the dunes of Monahans nestle up against the edge of the Caprock escarpment one can observe on I-20 about 30 miles west of Odessa, TX. The escarpment near Caprock, TX, is equally non-dramatic but does mark a significant topographic change for such a flat country.
The next escarpment is the cutback of the Pecos River. The Pecos is a mighty and hugely historical stream. Not mighty in terms of current flow, but of geographic and geologic import. The river defines the region and flows through or near the major towns of SE New Mexico (Roswell, Carlsbad). It cuts west Texas in two ("West of the Pecos") and defines a geologic region (Trans-Pecos). The river has headwaters in the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico, where Sabkha and I hiked several years ago. The Pecos joins the Rio Grande just above Lake Amistad, near Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas.
Bottomless Lakes SP is located on the low side of the Pecos River cutbank. We pitched camp in the dark. I was vaguely aware of the presence of some dark low areas nearby which I took to be the "bottomless" lakes. In daytime I saw I was right. The lakes were creepy. They are apparently sinkholes (collapsed caves) caused by dissolution of gypsum and other evaporites in the Permian-aged Artesia Group rocks. We weren't here to see the sinkholes, but BLSP, about three hours from Midland, makes a good stop on the way to the Ruidoso area, and we will undoubtedly be back.
Roswell is a neat and tidy town that I've always liked, in spite of the Alien-themed shops along the main drag. There are a few "high-rise" buildings and lots of green. West of Roswell you begin to climb up toward the Sierra Blanca, mostly on Quaternary gravels, but the hills hint at other geology just below the surface (future post subject). At right angles to the N-S trending Sierra Blanca is the out-of-place seeming Capitan Mountains (up to 10,000'), the eastern part of which can be seen from Roswell. At the north of of the Sierra Blanca you can pass between these ranges and Tucson Mountain and the remarkably prominent Carizozo Mountain to the desolute and run-down town of Carizozo, at the north end of the Tularosa Basin. To the south of Carizozo, flanking the Sierra Blanca/Sacramento Moutnains to the west, this broad basin is home to White Sands National Monument. Closer to Carizozo is the extensive and fresh Carizozo Malpais lava flow, which you can camp next to and hike on at the BLM campground (Valley of Fires recreation area) just west of Carizozo town. The flow is Holocene, and dated around 5,200 years old.
But none of that was on the agenda for this trip. We went through Ruidoso, which is a funky resort town built on forested foothills of the Sierra Blanca. We continued up the very windy (as in curvy) road to the Ski Apache ski area, about 15 miles up the mountain from Ruidoso. Set off on our hike into the pretty high country here, and bumped into a number of hikers. It was first day of elk season! Continued up the trail uneventfully. Sabkha had her new doggie packs on, but at 1/2 mile in she rolled in some animal droppings which got on her bags. I think she was trying to tell me something. I took them off and stashed them behind a log, marking the trail with some rocks and sticks. Now unencumbered, Sab bounded up the trail and I tried to keep up. Clearly I'm still not in the shape I was when I lived in Tucson. Up, up, up we went through the forest and meadow, soon catching views of the top end of the ski runs. We looped around over a small stream and walked across some snow fields at the top of the runs. Some of the snow looked artificial (it was underneath snow-making sprayers). On the ridge, the wind hit us like a hurricane. We stopped to rest and Sabkha, strangely, begged for the wasabi green peas I was eating.
View of Sierra Blanca Pk from Ski Apache
After our break we walked down from the ski lift along the wooden snow wall. I stashed by backpack behind a tree a little off the trail and we hopped the fence onto what I guess is the reservation. There were no signs or other indications. Sierra Blanca Peak was straight ahead, and looking decievingly close. I knew better, but I wanted to believe. All I had was a camera in my pocket. I was wearing a T-shirt with a Marmot windblocker fleece over it. The wind was brutal; at times I couldn't breathe. It was also frididly cold. The views to the west into Tularosa Basin were nice, but marred by dust and poor visibility. We could make out the Carizozo Malpais and some whiteness at White Sands to the south.
The route took us along a rocky ridge, into a saddle and up a steep, rock hillside. We stayed on the east side where some trees grew, in an attempt to keep out of the wind. I'm an experienced hiker, but at this point I started to think this was more serious than I expected. Mounting the first high point, we were faced with the snow-patched and cliffy east face of Sierra Blanca Peak. In Colorado, maybe this peak would hardly rank, but in SE New Mexico, I felt very much like I was in Colorado. We took a route down and to the west side of the next saddle. The hillside was steep and rocky, with many dip-slope slabs of rock. The wind continued to howl and made the scrambling treacherous. The gusts were so strong they would blow me off course as I was placing my foot for each step. At times the wind gusted so strong I had to stop and wait for it to calm before I could continue. At this point I thought about how I didn't have my cell phone; even if I did it wouldn't work; and a twisted ankle might mean a long night on the mountain, trying to crawl back down to the ski area and to the lift. Even there I might not find help. The nearness of the mountain to the ski area, and the relative low height compared with 14-ers, made me lower my guard. I now felt unsafe, far away from anyone and any help. And I realized that is what I like, and that is what I look for in an adenture. If I don't feel "out there", like I could really be lost or killed, I don't get what I need out of my weekend.
We continued along the western, slopey side of Sierra Blanca. Looking up, I could see the ridgeline a few hundred feet above, but I couldn't pick out my destination. Finally we angled up the hillside, zig-zagging up natural routes, and popped onto the ridge right at the peak! There was a mailbox wedged between some rocks at the tippy top, and judging by the flag, there was mail waiting to go out.
View from the top, more or less west into Tularosa Valley
Sabkha does her posing
On the trip back down, we got all the gear I'd stashed along the way. We saw a hunter that shooed us away, and one has to ask... if you're hunting, why pick a spot along a major hiking trail?
Capitan Mts viewed from Sierra Blanca Mts
We drove up and down the mountain in the late evening, days getting shorter now, and finally found the tidy and pretty little camproug of Oak Grove. I scavenged some wood from other sites. The camp was entirely vacant and felt deserted, a surprise for the first day of elk season.
I got the fire going and popped open some chicken 'n dumplings in a can. Yum, yum, yum. Sabkha went wild dog and starting bringing various bones into camp. Clearly there was an animal carcass nearby. After dinner and tea the wind began to pick up, right as I was attempting to pitch the new 4-man, 2-pole tent. Inexplicably, Sabkha went into the wildly flapping tent and helped to hold it down. With her help and the weight of a bunch of rocks, I finally got the tent under control, the fly on and all the stakes in the ground. Then the real wind hit. It wasn't so much the strength of the wind as the weakness of the tent. The gusts flattened the thing nearly to the ground. Sparks and embers from the fire were now flying everywhere. I used up the last of my precious water to thoroughly douse the fire, then I pulled down the tent and tossed it into the car. We camped elsewhere, down in the valley, away from the worst of the wind.
Sunday we pointed north to the Capitan Mountains, which have fascinated me for years. They are remote; not part of the Sierra Blanca. There is no significant town nearby. They range up to 10,000', but their highest point is unnamed. In Capitan, NM, surrounded by the hillsides of brilliant golden grass south of the range, I learned these mountains are the home of the original Smokey Bear, or "Hotfoot Teddy", who was saved from a forest fire here in 1950, only to spend his life in captivity in Washington, D.C. We took the paved NM 246 north out of town and into what may be the most beautiful landscape I've ever seen. To the left, the northern extension of the Sierra Blanca diving down below the surface. Ahead was a huge landscape of soft hills covered with a sea of golden grass. There is nothing out there to the north. If you look at a map of this area you can see there is a huge triangle of land were there is nothing for nearly 100 miles in a triangle to the north.
Turning east on the deserted 246, we paralleled the Capitan Mountains, looking for access roads into the National Forest that covers the entire range. The desolation of this area was remarkable. Really a forgotten corner of the world... but you see a lot of this in central New Mexico. We finally chose FR 163 and drove up it 7 or 8 miles to near the foot of the range. Finally the road got just a bit too rocky so I parked the Subaru and we walked up the road about an hour, where the road tapers down into a cow trail. Following the cow trail led us to flowing water in a little creek. All the trees are burned off in this area. It must have been quite a different place before this most recent fire.
Large insect observed along the road
A nice creek
The Capitan Mts appear to be a large plutonic complex, tilted a bit to the west. Apparently there are some roof pendants of limestone country rock preserved along the top of the range. And a hiking trail along the high ridge. This is now well up on my list for future backpacking trips. Something about this odd, deserted range calls my name.