Sunday, April 3, 2016

Climbing Mt. Taylor

My plan is to take a little stroll on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) north from Grants towards Mt. Taylor.  Even since arriving to New Mexico three months ago, I’ve been drawn to Mt. Taylor, a large composite volcano (similar geologically to Mt. St. Helens).  It’s a massive presence in this region, dominating the skyline. 

For three months I’ve watched sunsets glowing off Mt. Taylor’s snowy peak.  I’ve used it as a directional reference point on hikes in the El Malpais.  I keep the Forest Service map/ brochure on my bedside table along with the phone number of the ranger station that I call periodically to check on road conditions to the trailhead.  I keep waiting, but time is running out and I’m leaving soon.

The road up to the higher trailhead is still too muddy and snowy for my little car, so I must use the lower trailhead. I’ve just got this one day devoted to Mt Taylor, so backpacking is out. Even though I know the summit is too far away for a dayhike, at least I will see the lower stretches. I’m looking forward to watching the plant communities change as I climb.
Starting out amidst cactus during the shadows-creeping hour of morning.

I begin from what the Guthook’s Guide app calls the Mt. Taylor trailhead (the signs say Continental Divide Trailhead), just a couple miles north of Grants (elevation 6874’).  After climbing over loose rocks for two miles, the trail flattens, spanning open grasslands.  It’s real trail too, with actual tread.  Only two sets of footprints have passed this way before me (besides coyote and mountain lion tracks).  Otherwise this trail is soft and un-compacted.  Can the CDT really be so flat and gentle on the feet? Or am I in some dream world?
Mt. Taylor looks impossibly small.
Look a gate!  The gates here are real opening and closing portals to the other side of the barbed wire fence.  What wonders of modern technology!
I relax into my 12-hour pace, that comfortable walk all day stride.  Stopping for snack breaks every two hours, or whenever a beautiful ponderosa calls out for me come rest against it.  After all this is just a stroll— no destination, just the journey, etc.
Ponderosa reaching up into blue puffy cloud skies.
Getting higher and higher.
After 4 hours, FS #193 appears marking the start of the Mt. Taylor Summit Alternate.  Guthook says I’ve come 10.5 miles but that can’t be right.  I’m not at all halfway tired.  So I decide to follow the road towards the higher trailhead.  
Definitely my little car is not making it up this road.  Hiking was much easier.
I waiver at the turn off for Gooseberry Springs Trail #77.  Light flurries are falling.  Weather forecast shows a wind advisory with gusts of 45 mph.  I haven’t seen anyone all day (and I won’t for the rest of the day either). Should I keep climbing?  The best way to make a decision is sit and take stock.  I try to figure out how many miles I’ve gone, but I get confused with the alternate on my Guthooks app and give up. My paper FS map says three miles to the summit.  Do I have enough time?  What if I end up hiking after dark?  An inventory of my pack confirms I have my headlamp, SPOT, and enough food and warm gear to even spend the night if it comes to that.  Ever cautious, I decide to keep going only if: (1) the trail isn’t sketchy, (2) my legs don’t complain, and (3) the altitude doesn’t bother me.
Aspen are gorgeous, so I keep climbing.
The snow is slightly soft and covers the trail. Somehow I can tell where to go anyway by playing the “If I Were The Trail Where Would I Go” game.  Not sketchy!
Up above the aspen, the grass waves in the fierce wind, so I keep climbing
I keep expecting to turn around at any moment.  I am a turn-around kind of person.  What would it feel like to not turn around for once? 

I am very aware of the feeling of being up here by myself at this high elevation, with the strong wind gusts nearly knocking me off my feet.  I keep waiting for my legs to get tired, or to get dizzy from the altitude.  But as the climbing gets steeper, my legs fly with increasing determination.  Arms pumping my poles into jet propulsion mode.  Oh the climbing, how I love it— the way the thin air feels as it fills my lungs and I relax into the rhythm of high elevation climbing mode.
Through a lovely spruce/ pine forest glen, then around the shoulder and oh the views of a winter's worth of hikes.
I'll just make it to that switchback and turn around.  But then... the rocks were so colorful with lichen, and I think oh just one more switchback.
The wind burns my skin and threatens to knock me down.  Snot drips down my face and seems to freeze on my face- is that even possible?  I brace myself against the wind with my poles and adopt a wider stable crouching stance.  Half my fingers go numb from cold despite three layers of gloves, but I clutch my poles tight with the remaining fingers, and it is enough.
At the highest point on the CDT in New Mexico.
I can’t believe I’m up here.  Why did I not turn around?  Maybe I’m a keep going kind of person, after all.

I love this mountain.  So this is what it looks like, after months of gazing from afar and dreaming of what it’s like up here, this vastness, the grass, the wind, the rocks.  This is the terrain that I live for. 

Coming up this mountain seems like saying goodbye to my winter in New Mexico.  It is my way of saying thank you to these lava flows and volcanos and sandstone and all the amazing things that I’ve seen while I’ve been here.  How I will miss it here!  Everything is so fleeting.

I don’t last long in the bitter winds of the summit.  Down down down, flying down switchbacks, glissading over the snow.  Down past the gate, past the mountain lion scratches, past the flowers, past the views.  Finally, to the trailhead.
Back to my lonely car at trailhead before dark.
Why does the climbing sometimes seem so easy?  How can it be so easy to come to love a place in just a few months?  Why does the saying goodbye part have to come so soon?

I finally calculate the mileage.  15.2 miles each way = 30.4 miles total.  That can’t be right.  I’m not that tired.  I’ve never hiked more than 28 miles in a day, and that was when I was in thru hiker shape.  Guthook’s app must be wrong. 

In the morning I wake up and still don’t feel that sore.  It must not have been 30 miles.  I call the ranger station and ask how long it is.  The ranger confirms ~30 miles.  It’s the most I’ve ever hiked in one day.  And I didn’t even realize it.  Or maybe I finally hiked 30 miles precisely because I never would have hiked that far if I’d known.  Maybe it’s the power of this mountain.  Maybe I’m stronger than I think.
Getting ready to open.  It's nearly spring.
More information

Date hiked:  March  26

Contact: The Mt. Taylor Ranger District on Lobo Canyon Road north of Grants, NM.  They are only open during weekdays, but are located just a few miles south of the trailhead.

Trailhead: I parked at the Continental Divide Trailhead, just a couple miles north of Grants on paved Lobo Canyon Road (elevation 6874’). Guthook’s Guide app calls it the Mt. Taylor trailhead (mile 541.4)

Take the CDT north for 10.5 miles to Forest Road #193.  Follow the sign to the right and roadwalk on 193 to the Gooseberry Springs Trail #77.  There is an excellent trifold for the Gooseberry Spring Trail put out by the Mt. Taylor Ranger District with geological and botanical information, and a nice little topo map.

There is a 4431 foot elevation difference between the trailhead and the summit, but with all the ups and downs, no idea really how much climbing this involves.  Does it really matter?


  1. I've been eyeing Mt. Taylor too!! BTW, have you visited the Sandstone Bluffs at El Malpais? It's another otherworldly place. Went there last weekend.

    Also, if you still have time while in NM, the CDT south from FR 151 (parking at Skull Bridge) in the Chama River Wilderness near Abiquiu is amazing, absolutely gorgeous. Did a quick overnight there a couple of weeks ago.

    1. Sandstone Bluffs was one of my favorites too! Went there twice, even. So cool how many arches there were out there, and hidden places.

      I'll put that CDT section on the list for next time I'm in NM (fingers crossed there will be a next time!) I'd been wondering how the snow was up that way, but didn't get a chance this season. So many incredible places in NM!

    2. Yes, El Malpais is such a treasure! Looking forward to exploring more there.

      When I was on the Chama River section of the CDT it was clear of snow but obvious that quite recently (perhaps a week earlier) there had been A LOT of mud (it was lovely & dry when I was there). The mud's the kind that cakes & sticks onto your shoes, adding pounds very quickly. So I'd say don't go before mid-March. Farther south the elevation does go up & snow lingers into June.

      Farther south on the CDT from there the San Pedro Parks Wilderness is another one you would love -- lots of wildflowers and green and just gorgeous. Best done late summer, early fall as it's the wettest place in NM & also high elevation (9500 ft+), so snow lingers well into June. Just the wet isn't horrible, but there are free range cattle & it can be fairly disgusting tromping through water mixed with cow poo. My shoes went straight into the washing machine after a July trip there lol.

      Hope you make it back to NM -- there is lots more here to explore! :-)


  2. Exciting, thrilling, the motivation of why we hike . . . what's around the next corner, over the next hill (or in this case mountain) . . . some days just feel like forever. CONGRATS!

    1. Thanks, Jan! :) Curiosity is a bigger modivator than any mileage goal for me.

  3. Congratulations on a great hike and a new personal best in distance. Nice writeup!

  4. I think I'm liking the CDT more than the PCT!!

    Can't wait to see where you are going next!

    1. The CDT definitely has a different character-- I think you'd like it.

  5. A 30 mile day and a summit you'd been longing for?! Oh, Joan, you are livin the dream!! Had such a longing for Ponderosa pines seeing that pic.... 🏞

    1. Yes, this was a sweet spot to spend the winter-- with all the ecosystems you could dream of, including ponderosa savanahs, groves of aspen and high-elevation alpine habitats too. It was worth taking the leap of faith and getting throught the scary what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life self-doubt process to get here.