Distance: 11.1 miles (13 miles with road walk)
Season: Summer and Fall
Trail Conditions: Good to Excellent
At 13,161 feet above sea level, Wheeler Peak is not only New Mexico’s tallest mountain, but it is an essential hike. Along with amazing views from the ridges approaching the peak, the hike ends at German pub, The Bavarian, in the Taos Ski Valley. Hard to beat that!
The hike starts from the upper parking lot of Taos Ski Valley.
The hike begins on the east side of the main parking lot of the Taos Ski Valley. The Wheeler Peak Trail – Trail #90 climbs steeply, paralleling a small creek. There are a few other trails that cross the main trail, but remain along the creek climbing upstream on its west side. The trail switchbacks at a signed turn and then crosses over the creek to the east side.
Fairly soon, you’ll reach a trail junction with the Long Canyon Trail – Trail #63. This trail will take you toward Gold Hill, but for this hike, remain on the Trail #90. At this point, you will be on an old forest road that continues to climb steeply. A meadow will emerge on the right until you eventually reach an open area at another trail junction.
Turn right here to remain on the 2-track forest road and continue to climb along the road as it wraps around the west side of Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain.
After a little while, the trail becomes single trail again as it slowly climbs, contouring around westside of the ridge until it crosses over just below the peak of Fraser Mountain. From here, the trail enters the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area and descends to a creek in La Cal Basin, the last water source until Williams Lake.
Enjoy the protection of the trees before resuming your ascent up the large, open western face of the basin. The switchbacks make the climb easier, but you will likely start to feel the elevation. Look and listen for the chirping of marmots that are common along this section.
NOTE: Be extremely careful of the weather, especially during the summer monsoon season. From the bottom of La Cal Basin to Williams Lake, there are no trees or other cover. This is about 4 miles, which gives a storm plenty of time to roll in.
From this point on, the views are fantastic as you hike the final mile to Wheeler Peak. Wheeler Peak is not all that dramatic as a mountain by itself, but the ridge it sits upon is fantastic.
About a half mile from the peak, you will pass another trail junction that descends the ridge on the west side. Note that this will be your return trail. If the weather permits, enjoy the summit on Wheeler for as long as possible before descending.
Returning to the junction with Wheeler Peak Summit Trail – Trail #67, follow the steep, tight switchbacks as they descend the large tallus slope. Be careful here, as the trail is extremely steep and some of the footing can be loose. As you pass dozens of people on their way up, appreciate the fact that you are going down and that your uphill route was far less treacherous.
Shortly before reaching the junction with the Williams Lake Trail – Trail #62, you’ll reenter the trees. Williams Lake is roughly 1/10 of mile to the left once you reach the junction. Unless you are in a hurry, this is a worthy detour.
To return to the Taos Valley Ski Area, turn right. The trail is easy to follow. It crosses some scree slopes, but mostly stays in the forest before popping out on to an old road in the last 1/2 mile.
Perhaps the best, and most novel, part of the hike is the finish as the trail dumps you onto the porch of the Bavarian, a German style pub, that the ski area keeps open in the summer time. Enjoy a sausage and some beer. After 11 miles, you have certainly earned.
If you dropped a car in this upper parking lot, it is a short walk from the Bavarian. If you did not drop a car, you will have a 2 mile road walk to return to the main parking lot. While not an ideal way to end such a magnificent hike, take in the unique architecture as you go.