My twelve-year-old son and I started the summer with a failed attempt to hike Wheeler Peak—the highest point in New Mexico at 13,161 feet. The loss was due to poor planning on my part. I didn’t realize that most of the trail was still covered in deep snow in June. Nor did I realize that the trail we took was, though the shortest, also the hardest. By the time we reached the top of the ridge that leads to the peak, the afternoon lightning already started, so we were forced down before summiting.
July and August each brought an opportunity to hike to the top of Mount Elbert—Colorado’s highest point. And again, I failed. Both times. Poor planning the first time, and weather the second.
If it sounds like I’m an inexperienced mountaineer and a poor planner, it should. But while I lack wisdom, I have no shortage of stubbornness.
On the Friday before Labor Day, I left Eastland, Texas at 6:00 A.M. to make the 582-mile drive to Red River, New Mexico. My plan was to hike to Wheeler Peak on the 16-mile out and back East Fork Red River trail, and I was going to do it alone.
I reached Red River around 3:00 P.M. and a very rough 1.5 mile drive down an unpaved road brought me to the trailhead. There, I strapped on my 40-pound pack and began.
The East Fork trail is shady, gentle, and beautiful. I could already feel the elevation, but I knew from experience that I’d gradually get used to it.
After two miles, the sun dropped below the surrounding mountains, so when I reached the first campsite, I thought it would be a good place to stop. I set up my tent near a stream. After a snack for dinner, I brushed my teeth and climbed in my sleeping bag to the calming sound of rushing water.
The next morning, I woke up at 4:00 and took my time breaking camp while also looking for lurking bears. The forest was oppressively dark. Armed with a headlamp, a small flashlight, and hiking poles, I was back on the trail before 5:30.
The path remained a gentle climb through the forest, taking me along steep ridges, over rushing streams, and past picturesque waterfalls. After a few miles I came to the junction for Horseshoe Lake Trail, which was my next destination.
The trail to horseshoe lake was a bit more of a climb, but still gentle enough to enjoy the surrounding beauty. Just before leaving the tree line I saw a lone deer.
Horseshoe Lake itself is worth the hike. Its beautiful, clear green water with Wheeler Peak in the background is awe inspiring. There, I dropped my pack, filled up my water bottles (and added water treatment tablets), grabbed my smaller day pack, and started on Wheeler Peak Trail.
The trail we took last June from Taos, though only eight miles round trip, was very steep. It had continuous switchbacks across rocky scree and snow fields, forcing us to stop to catch our breath every 50 feet. The trail I was on this weekend was the opposite. Once I rounded the edge of the first mountain, I could see almost the entire trail. It had, until the very end, only a mild incline, but it looked like it went on forever.
At well over 12,000 feet, the air was thin, but the trail itself was easy, and I could soon see people on the peak above me.
After a long, nice walk with amazing scenery and a short push to the top, I was on Wheeler Peak. The view of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and Taos Ski Valley below, was amazing. Since it was still early and there were no threatening clouds above, I was in no hurry to leave and took my time taking pictures, snacking, and talking to other hikers who came up from Taos via the Williams Lake Trail (which was no longer covered in snow). I also talked to a friendly chipmunk who pretended to be interested but didn’t have much to say.
It took no time to get back to Horseshoe Lake where I again filled my water bottles and hoisted my heavy pack. I’d drove and hiked all that way for one purpose. Now, my only purpose was to get back to the pickup. As the day went on and on, the trailhead only seemed to get further and further. After thinking I’d surely perish, I finally reached it at 3:30, 24 hours from when I’d set off.
Rather than taking advantage of the long weekend and being in my favorite mountains, I set off for Texas. My judgement was clouded by hunger, thirst, and tiredness or I would have stayed and hiked another peak the next day. Instead, I ended up sleeping in my pickup at a roadside park in Channing, Texas, waking up at 3:30 A.M., filling up with coffee in Amarillo, and finishing the drive home, already missing the mountains, but grateful for another beautiful, and this time more successful, adventure.