How happy I was just to stop climbing, just to be here, to breathe without that gulp for the next breath. It was only after a few minutes of this realization that I was able to look at where I was – to notice the deep, deep blue of the sky, feel the gentle caress of a cool breeze on my face, and take in the panoramic view across this extraordinarily beautiful valley. We are on top, the summit of Wheeler Peak, looking down at the Taos valley.
The southern Rockies are glorious, and I’m happy to be here. And now I’m noticing a quizzical look on my boyfriend’s face, a fumbling, unusually so, in his movements. My niece Jessica is here too, and she’s got a secret little smile on her pretty face. But, to really explain what we’re doing up here and why I’ll need to go back a bit.
Darrel, my husband, and I had separately relocated from Virginia to New Mexico a few years before and were captivated by the canyons, mountains, and desert landscapes “out here” – “out west.” Bedazzled “flatlanders” from the east, we met on the trail and became fast friends, both ready and willing students of the American West. We had also come to the same conclusion. The best way to experience the amazing geological features, diverse landscapes, wildlife, and rugged beauty of our new world was to hike, climb, travel, and camp.
Hiking Across New Mexico (and Colorado)
Our hiking adventures started close to home in southern New Mexico near the Sacramento Mountains.
But, before long, we became traveling partners, detouring down obscure back roads, exploring ancient dwelling sites, remote canyons, and otherworldly geological features of the west. We hiked and snowshoed around hoodoos, across mesas, along the clifftop benches around volcanoes, and then soaked in natural hot springs whenever possible.
Here are a few of our favorites.
Dog Canyon Trail, Oliver Lee Memorial State Park
Set against the Sacramento Mountains in Otero County, New Mexico, this out-and-back 5.5-mile trail traverses up from the desert through the Lincoln National Forest. It reaches elevations in excess of 2,000 feet above its starting point.
We have often hiked up and back this New Mexico mountain trail for a total of 11 miles, but many hikers arrange to be picked up at the top of the trail. Rocky and at times quite steep, this hike offers fantastic views along the way – most notably the 180-degree panoramic vista across the Tularosa Basin. You can also camp here and enjoy some of the most amazing sunrises and sunsets in the US.
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is rich in history. Settlers began homesteading here as early as 1885. The original orchard walls, watering system, stone fencing, and home of Francios Rochas are still much in evidence. With knowledgeable park rangers, you can tour Oliver Lee’s 1893 ranch house, corrals, barns, and cattle enclosures. But long before these settlers arrived, Apache Mescalero peoples lived here as far back as 1402. Apaches used Dog Canyon Trail as a roadway in their battle to keep settlers off their land.
WILD WILD WEST: Oliver Milton Lee (1865-1941) was a US marshall, rancher, and gunslinger accused in 1895 of cattle rustling. In 1896 his accuser “disappeared” and was presumed dead, leading famed old west lawman Pat Garret to pursue and capture Lee. Later Lee was elected to the state legislature.
Pine Tree Trail, Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument
This 4.5-mile loop trail near Las Cruces, New Mexico, features stunning views of the rough and rugged Organ Mountains, wonderful wildflowers, and a nearby colossal ocean of spring poppies along San Augustine Pass. First documented in 1598, Spanish explorers thought these mountains looked like a pipe organ. Aguirre Springs campground is the best place to wake up while exploring OMDP National Monument.
MOVIE MAGIC: The mountains visible outside the wicked witch’s window in The Wizard of Oz is a painting of the Organ Mountains. Viewed from Las Cruces, OZ is said to be on the other side of this mountain.
Quandary Peak, Summit County, CO
Located 6 miles southwest of beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado, this was our first “14er” (so named for its summit reaching above 14,000′ elevation). The highest summit of the Tenmile Range of the Rocky Mountains, at 14,265 feet elevation, Quandary is an exceptional destination for snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and hikers.
Though quite a challenging hike, Quandary Peak may be one of the most doable of Colorado’s 58 “14ers”. Its parking lot is on the corner of Hwy 9 and McCullough Gulch road. Download the printable recreation quicksheet for directions, maps, and all pertinent information. Camping is limited to dispersed sites locally, but any excuse to spend time in nearby Breckenridge, Colorado, is welcome.
WHAT’S IN A NAME? In the 1860s, miners discovered a metal they could not identify. So, in a “quandary” over what this sample was, they named this mountain Quandary Peak. This metamorphic rock, green and white quartzite, can be seen along the summit ridge.
Wheeler Peak, New Mexico
Darrel suggested we go hiking to the highest mountain peak in New Mexico. So he and I and our niece Jessica set sights on Wheeler Peak, just 2 miles southeast of the Taos Ski Valley.
In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain peak in New Mexico, at an elevation of 13,161 feet. We hiked the Williams Lake trail, an 8.5-mile round trip, half of which was 4 miles up up up, with an elevation gain of 2,972 feet.
DESTINATION ENGAGEMENT: We stayed at the Historic Taos Inn, had a terrific dinner in the courtyard, then hit the trail at 7 am, many fellow hikers ahead and behind. As far as I could tell, everyone made it to the tippy top of Wheeler Peak. Jess is rummaging around in her backpack, and Darrel is pulling something from his pocket. She’s got a bottle of champagne. He’s got a diamond engagement ring!
Now we’re sipping champagne atop the highest peak in the Land of Enchantment. What a perfectly wonderful proposal of marriage. So totally “us”!
Any Time of Year: Outdoor at Taos Pueblo
It’s been nearly two years since we married, and of course, we’ve continued our travels and explorations. Taos, New Mexico, is still one of our favorite getaways, particularly because it is a four-season all-star destination. There are countless types of outdoor activities plus fascinating cultural and enriching opportunities.
One mile north of the city, this National Historic Landmark is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Bring your camera because the adobe structures, views, and community members make lovely pictures. Be prepared to pay a $6.00 camera fee.
AT 9,300’, Taos Ski Valley is a cool escape from the summer heat. Endless possibilities! Mountain biking, hiking New Mexico mountains, white water rafting, hot air ballooning, golf, and horseback riding. Or take a llama trek with Wild Earth Llama Adventures.
All summer long, the town offers open-air markets on the plaza, musical performances, and educational programs. Tours of Kit Carson’s home and the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan are interesting. The galleries and the art museums of Taos are world-class.
Check out Red River, NM, and take an exhilarating bicycle ride at Angel Fire Bike Park. Ride a chair lift up the mountain, then bike down! Or take a zipline tour. Spring fishing is a popular sport. Both the Red River and Town Ponds are stocked for the season.
In addition to most of the above activities, take a leaf-peeping road trip along the Enchanted Circle. This 85-mile loop connects Taos, Questa, Red River, Eagles Nest, and Angel Fire and is said to be home to the most colorful of New Mexico’s Scenic Byways each autumn. Allow extra time for Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and the first Vietnam Memorial in the United States.
What are some of your favorite hiking trails across New Mexico mountains? What’s your engagement story? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.