Tidbits: Highest point in New Mexico
Summitted, September 24, 2006
Time Zone: GMT -7 hours
When to go:
Best to go between June and early October.
There are 2 primary routes to the summit. The first is the Wheeler Peak Trail which goes through the Bull-of-the-woods pasture. It is a 14 mile (roundtrip) route with 4,000' of elevation gain. The second is the Williams Lake Trail. It is only a 6.2 mile (roundtrip) route with 3,250 feet of elevation gain, but the majority of the gain is in the last 3/4 mile.
Hotel and Climb Reservation:
No guide, permit, or trail reservations are required.
It can snow any day of the of the year, so pack accordingly. When I went in late September, there was snow drifts up to 3 feet deep and the trail was both snowy and a little icy. The temperature at dawn, above Williams Lake, was about 10 degrees.
Take State Route 522 north from Taos to State Route 150 (right turn). Follow the signs for Taos Ski Valley, which is about 15 miles down Route 150. You will end in the parking area. It is a little confusing, but at the end of the parking area, make a left into the end of the lot (going east) and there will be a small gravel road (Twining Road). Follow this road for about 1/2 mile and make a left onto the unmarked Phoenix Switchback. At the top of the switchback, make a right and follow this road uphill for about 1 1/2 miles. There is a parking area to the right. I believe there were signs along the route for the Bavarian Restaurant...if you arrive at the restaurant you went about 100 yards too far.
I stayed the previous night in Taos and I arrived at the trailhead just before sunrise and was the only car in the parking area (which can easily hold 50 cars). The trail starts at the far end of the parking lot and proceeds slightly down the hill past a restaurant (on the left). The starting elevation is about 10,000'. The trail comes to a "T" intersection and you should veer to the right past the Kachina Chair lift (the trail signage is very poor in this area). Walk a few hundred yards and on the left is the trail to Williams Lake.
The first part of the trail is about 2 miles long and gains about 1,000 in elevation through a conifer forest. You will suddenly arrive at Williams Lake with BREATHTAKING views of the mountains. Wheeler Peak will be toward your left. There is a poorly marked "trail", which is basically a slightly cleared area that goes straight up from the lake. If you start walking around the lake you missed the turnoff for the trail The steepness of the trail at this point is unrelenting and if not properly acclimated to the altitude is a really, really tough slog. I had flown in the night before and this was really difficult for me.
The ground was covered with snow, which made the going slower and more dangerous, although there were no precipices. The weather was bitterly cold and the flannel gloves I brought (it was only September) were not adequate to keep out the cold. Things improved as the weather warmed with the rising sun and about 4 hours after I began I arrived at the saddle at the top of the mountain. Wheeler Peak is to the right, about 500 yards up the scree slope. There is a rock monument at the summit and a pipe which I assume held a summit log, but was tightly rusted shut. Because of the slippery conditions, it took me the better part of 3 hours to descend.
Williams Lake where steep trail ascent begins
Snow on trail at lower elevation
Above Treeline, screen trail
Summit area view