On Sunday October 6, I walked solo up Wheeler Peak. It is the highest peak in New Mexico at 13,161 feet (4011 meters). There are two trails to take to the peak: The Bull or the Woods Trail and the Williams Lake Trail. Through a bit of serendipity, I took the trail less traveled. I was very happy that I did.
|A View from Wheeler Peak looking toward Mount Walter|
The Bull of the Woods Trail is the trail less traveled. I took this trail because it started from the parking lot of the Alpine Village Suites in the Taos Ski Valley where I was staying. It is the longer of the two trails by about 2 miles and start about 800 feet lower in elevation. On the day of my walk, everyone else decided to use the Williams Lake Trail.
There was a point about three-quarters ways up the mountain that I realized that I was the only person on this trail today. I was walking on a series of switchbacks up to the ridge that would lead to the peak. It provided a wide open vista. I could look back and see the entire area I had been walking through all morning. I could look forward and see the ridgeline to Wheeler Peak.
|The View Looking Back|
I was alone in this spectacular wilderness. It was dead quiet. The wind was calm. There was not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine was filling me with warmth on this chilly day. I felt serene and peaceful. I had a sense of euphoria knowing I had this beautiful place to myself. It was a spiritual experience. It is not often one gets away from everything and can just enjoy being in the moment in nature.
The Bull of the Woods Trails offered other gifts. It is the more scenic of the two trails by far. During my first rest stop an hour into my walk a pair of Gray Jays flew and dance around me before they landed on the opposite end of the log I on which I was sitting. Near the half way point, I came across a flock of long horn sheep on a sloping field. They were about 300 yards from the trail. I got a good view with my binoculars. About a half mile further, a coyote crossed my trail about 200 yards in front of me.
I was a bit bewildered as to why there was no one else on this trail on such a beautiful day. It was only when I reached the summit that I would learn the answer about the trail less traveled.
At the end of my walk I had a euphoria that lasted weeks. I also had a pint of Oktoberfest beer at the Bavarian Lodge. A perfect day!
My walk started at 6am, an hour before sunrise. My first 30 minutes were in darkness. It was like walking through a tunnel made by the forest. Only the light from my headlamp provided illumination. I was alone in a void. I was a bit anxious,
By 6:30am the first twilight was visible. The void was changing into a forest. 10 minutes later I could turn off my headlamp. Sunrise was at 7am.
At 7:15 I took my first rest stop on a log. I was no longer alone. A pair of Gray Jays danced around me. They landed on opposite side of the log I was on. I was able to take their picture. The morning started out dark and cold, 26F degrees, but with the daylight and the company of the gray jays I was starting to feel warm and happy.
I was still in the shade of the forest and the mountains. It would be another hour before sunshine would touch my face. It really hadn’t been too cold in the area yet this fall. The small pond I came across had just a glaze of ice on it. This was at the Bull of the Woods pasture. The ice would probably be gone later in the day.
Past the pond I climbed a hill that lead to a ridgeline. On the ridgeline I had a view of the Red River Valley on the left and the Taos Ski Area on the right. This was also the first point on my walk where the sunshine shone upon me.
Past the ridgeline I came to more woods. On the other side of the woods there was an open sloping field. On the far end of the field was a flock of big horn sheep grazing. Unfortunately they were too far away to get a good picture. I just sat in the field for a few minutes to watch the sheep. I took out my binoculars for a better look. I was in full sunshine and the suns warmth felt good.
I continued on. The trail then went over a hill (Frazer Mountain) and down the other side. At this point it started descending into La Cal Basin. Near the beginning of my descent I saw a coyote cross the field about 200 yards in front of me. He seemed oblivious to me which suited me just fine. I watched him for several minutes until he went out of site. He looked like a magnificent animal with his golden coat and easy gait.
Going down to La Cal Basin took me back below the tree line and along a stream. Going downhill was not what I wanted to do since I was past the halfway point to the peak. I also had thought I somehow took a wrong turn. It was however a good change of pace and it wasn’t long before I started climbing again and above the tree line.
I now found myself in the wide open area going back and forth on switchbacks that would take me to the final ridge going to Mount Walter and onto Wheeler Peak. It was at this point looking across wide open country that I realized how alone I was. I could see a long way back. There was no one else on the trail. It was such a beautiful without a cloud in the sky. I thought surely there would be someone else on the trail.
Being alone in such a beautiful place also gave me a feeling of freedom and serenity. I had escaped the world and its problems. I could just enjoy the moment looking out at the world’s beauty. It is transcending moments like this that make going into the wilderness a joy and provides refreshment for the soul.
I pressed on. I passed a mountain lake. I came across 100 yards of trail with snow on it. I finally came around a turn where I could see Wheeler Peak in the distance and the last push up the trail to Mount Walter.
On Mount Walter I finally saw other people coming up the Williams Lake Trail and then turning away from Mount Walter to make the final climb to Wheeler Peak. After being on the trail for 4.5 hours by myself, it was good to see other people and my final goal in sight. I walked down the trail into the saddle between the two peaks, past a large cairn where the Williams Lake Trail intersects and onto the final climb to Wheeler Peak.
I met many people on the peak. I spent about thirty minutes up there. I took some pictures. I had someone take a picture of me. I took some pictures of others. After a snack and some water, I started back down. I decided to take the Williams Lake Trail back. It was the trail everyone else took. It was shorter and more direct: the reason everyone selected the Williams Lake Trail to get to the peak. As a bonus, the Bavarian Lodge was near the trail head.
The Williams Lake Trail descended directly into the Taos Ski Valley. There were mountains on both sides. It didn’t have the wide open vistas like the Bull of the Woods Trail. It was much rockier. There were many people to see and talk to. It was a far different experience than the Bull of the Woods Trail.
About 2/3 of the way down, the trail goes near Williams Lake. I took the 5 minute side trip to see the lake. It was worth it. From the lake one can see Wheeler Peak and people going along the Williams Lake Trail.
From the lake it was a little over 2 miles through the woods to the Bavarian Lodge. When the lodge came into sight I had sense of accomplish and a warm feeling one only gets from a day in the wilderness. I rewarded myself with a pint of Oktoberfest at the lodge. It was a great day and still early enough to do something else. Total time of my trip was 8 hours and a distance of 14 miles.