Distance: 10.3 miles (loop)
Water: No reliable water
Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Trail Condition: Good to Poor
At 10,098 feet, Manzano Peak is the tallest mountain in the Manzanos, southeast of Albuquerque. This narrow, island range runs north-south and is dominated by a single ridgeline that runs the length of the mountain range. As the range’s highest peak, Manzano Peak offers great views to the east, west and south despite being little more than a prominent bump along the ridge.
The best route to the peak starts on the Kayser Mill Trail – Trail #80, which can be accessed on Forest Road 422 on the east side of the range.
However, I wanted to do this hike as a loop, so I started a view miles south on the Cottonwood Trail – Trail #73, which is a few miles south from the Kayser Mill Trailhead, also on Forest Road 422.
From the large turnout and parking area, the trail starts steeply uphill on the opposite side of the road. The first section of this trail is in older forest, but after a half-mile it enters an area that burned in the 2008 Trigo Fire.
Because the Cottonwood Trail is seldom used, the beginning was difficult to navigate and I lost the trail fairly quickly, even before I reached the burn area. The trail runs for about 1.5 miles to the signed junction with the Kayser Mill Trail. For much of this length, I was effectively off-trail, but was able to find the trail again in the last 1/4 mile before the junction. When I did find the trail again, it was in good condition, despite the severity of the burn.
From the junction with Kayser Mill, the route turns left on a two-track road. After a short ways in this open, flat burn area, the trail enters the Manzano Mountain Wilderness, the trail becomes a single track, and begins climbing at a steeper clip.
The trail contours to the north as it climbs toward the Manzano Crest Trail – Trail #170. This section reenters more older growth forest, and typical of the Manzanos, features plenty of short, scrubby Gambel oak. In the last quarter mile before the crest, the trail switcbacks to the left and makes the final push.
As is typical in the Manzano’s the junction with the Crest Trail is in a small grassy saddle, a brief respite from the forest that quick resumes as the trail climbs to the south (left) from the junction. This section of trail is in good condition and is easy to follow.
The steepest climbing is just past the junction and eases as the peak nears. A tenth of a mile before the peak, the trail forks with the Pine Shadow Trail – Trail #170A going to the right and the Crest Trail continuing the left to the Peak.
The views from the top of the mountain offer a unique perspective of central New Mexico. To the west is the Rio Grande Valley and the dry plains on the east side of the river. To the west, you will see the more forested slopes that flow away from the Rio Grande towards communities like Mountainair.
As I would learn, the best option would have been to return via the same trails, but for anyone who is a glutten for punishment and wants to make the loop, return to the junction at the base of the final climb and follow the Pine Shadow Trail south along the ridge.
The beginning of this trail is pleasant as it follows the ridge of the Manzanos as it slowly descends to the valley bottom. The first part of the trail is in fairly good condition and easy to follow. Unfortunately, my legs took a beating from the low, scrubby oaks that choked the overgrown trail.
After a little more than a mile, the trail drops off the ridge to the west and completely disappears temporarily. From my map, I could see that it switchbacks a few times before wrapping around to the east side of the ridge, so instead of looking for the trail, I headed straight down hill through the thinly forested slope, and after a couple minutes I found the trail again about 100-200 vertical feet below the ridge.
From here on out, the trail remained easy to follow although it was overgrown in many parts.
From here, the surrounding terrain also takes on a much different character. While much of the range is in a coniferous forest, desert characteristics dominated this southern most part of the range. There were few large trees to provide shade, the terrain was rocky and cactus and yucca became increasingly common. As the trail gets closer to the road, pinyon and juniper emerge, but before then, there are few trees to obscure the views across the burned over canyon the trail traverses.
Once back to the trailhead, where there is a seasonal spring, turn left to complete the 1 mile road walk back to the Cottonwood Spring trailhead.