The Toughest Hikes in New Mexico

By: Tag Christof

August 4, 2014

Entire volumes have been written about the trails of New Mexico. And much like each of its Four Corners neighbours, the state’s vast territory is endowed with a spectrum of dramatically different terrain. From the Chihuahuan Desert in the extreme south along the Mexican border, through lofty and heavily forested peaks in the northern counties, there’s certainly no shortage of variety in the toughest hikes in New Mexico.

Jamez | Toughest Hikes in New Mexico

The forboding red-tinged hills of Jamez © Dave Patrick/Flickr

The state’s three major cities, Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, all prove ideal hiking bases, with the respective mountain ranges of Sandía, Organ and Sangre de Cristo each close at hand. Other areas rich with mountain-type hiking include Red River and Taos, the softer southerly peaks near Ruidoso and Cloudcroft, the red-tinged and hot spring filled hills around Jemez, and the wooded montes off “31 Mile Road” north of Santa Fe – rich with excellent edible mushrooms for a fleeting few weeks in autumn. For desert-type hiking, look primarily towards the Gila Wilderness and El Malpaís.

Another view of Big Hatchet | Toughest Hikes in New Mexico

Big Hatchet is the highest mountain in its vicinity, so pacing yourself is vital © Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

In any case, even the state’s capital city, Santa Fe, sits at 7,199ft (2134m) elevation – much higher than the famous “Mile High” of Denver – which means that altitude sickness can be a real danger. Most mountain hikes in New Mexico ascend much higher, so be sure to pace yourself, watch for signs of exhaustion, and hike with a partner. Beware of sneaky cactus and rattlesnakes in dry areas, and always carry plenty of water and supplies.

Here are four of our favourite tough hikes in New Mexico:

Continental Divide Trail

El Malpais NCA-Bureau of Land

For mesmerising views head into the heart of El Malpais © Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

While New Mexico certainly can’t take all the credit for this one, it has become the traditional starting point for the Continental Divide Trail, which extends from New Mexico to Montana. Starting at the Mexican border, in the southwestern county of Hidalgo, the New Mexican portion of the trail spans nearly 800 miles and passes from the Big Hatchet Mountains, through the stunningly remote Gila Wilderness and into the heart of El Malpaís badlands.

Wheeler Peak

Wheeler Park | Toughest Hikes in New Mexico

Hiking the loft ascent to Wheeler Peak is a test of your stamina © Samat Jain/Flickr

Of course, no “Toughest Hikes” list would be complete without a climb to the highest summit around – in New Mexico that honour goes to Wheeler Peak, in Taos County. While several summits in neighbouring Colorado exceed 14,000ft, Wheeler is certainly no slouch at a lofty elevation of 13,167ft (4,013m). The trail leading to the peak near Taos Ski Valley is just over two miles long from end to end and easily accessible by car, but an elevation gain of around 3000 feet over its short course makes for a true exercise of stamina.

Kachina Peak

Kachina Peak | Toughest Hikes in New Mexico

The awe-inspiring vistas of Kachina Peak is well worth hiking for © David Herrera/Flickr

This winter, Taos Ski Valley will at last open a chairlift to the highest peak within its boundaries. Formerly accessible only by snowmobile, helicopter or muscle power, Kachina has become legendary both for its inaccessibility as well as the formidable angle of its incline. Until the new lift opens, however, there’s still time to ascend Kachina on foot by riding a lift to its base (or hiking up from the resort’s base if you’re feeling particularly energetic) and scaling the remainder – you’ll be rewarded with a stunning 360-degree view and a well-earned sense of pride for being one of the very last to do it the old-fashioned way.

Ski Rio

For a bit of an oddball tough hike, try an abandoned ski hill. Near the tiny hamlet of Costilla, about 30 miles north of the town of Questa, the former Ski Rio resort offered plentiful snow and nearly as many skiable acres as renowned Taos Ski Valley in its short 1990s heyday. Its remoteness made for fantastically crowd-free skiing, but also led to its demise, as it never achieved financial viability. Its clapboard lodge and antiquated chairlifts were junked about a decade ago, but the former trails and much of their peeling old signage remains, making for a haunting labyrinthine mountain hike in any season.

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Have you tried any of these hikes in New Mexico? Which do you think is the toughest? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Tag Christof


Tag Christof

Tag Christof is a native New Mexican and graduate of Central Saint Martins in London. He has lived in four countries, but has recently taken up residence out on the American road with a classic car, a bag full of cameras and few hundred rolls of film.

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