Sierra Blanca – Summit Hike – New Mexico

Last Labor Day weekend a friend and I decided to head out to south-central New Mexico to summit Sierra Blanca. Sierra Blanca rises 11,973 feet (some sources say 12,003 feet) above sea level and about 8,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor making her the most prominent peak in New Mexico. The peak is owned by the Mascalero Apache Indian Tribe and is considered the sacred place where “the creator gave us life.”

Sierra Blanca New Mexico

We decided to make to most of the long weekend and camp a couple of nights near Ice Spring in the Lincoln National Forest Just three miles from the summit. Early Friday morning we arrived at the Scenic trail head adjacent to the entrance of Ski Apache. There was plenty of parking and only a couple of other cars present giving us hope of a secluded hike. We loaded up our packs and headed up trail # 15 0.6 miles to its intersection with the Crest Trail #25. Crest Trail continues to the right and left. We followed the Crest Trail to the right. A little after a mile from the trail-head we came into a large open area with a small wooden sign that reads “Trail no 25”. (located at:  33°24’7.44″N 105°48’15.73″W)  It is difficult to see which direction the trail goes as it seems to disappear in the open grassy field. Turn left at the sign and look for where the trail reenters the trees.

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From there we continued another 1.5 miles to the intersection with Lookout Trail #78 near Ice Spring. We checked to make sure we had enough water for the night before continuing up the Crest Trail to the ridge. We spent a little time trying to find a good place to set up camp and eventually decided the flattest ground was right next to the trail. We pitched the tent and then hiked about 100 yards to a nameless summit to cook dinner and watch the sun set.

 Starting Out at the Scenic Trail-head.
Trail sign where Scenic trail #15 meets Crest trail #25 (go left toward Lookout Trail)
Aspen
The Crest Trail runs adjacent Ski Apache for most of this hike.
More views of the ski area from the Crest Trail.
Crest Trail near our Campsite.
The view of Sierra Blanca from our dinner spot.
Our camp site on the Crest Trail

Early the next morning we left most of our gear at our campsite hoping for light packs for the summit. We hiked back down the Crest Trail to Ice Spring to filter some water for the day. We then continued down Lookout Trail #78 toward Lookout Mountain. Both ice spring and Lookout trail, although on National Forest land, lie within the ski area boundary of Ski Apache. Lookout trail takes you along different ski runs eventually reaching the summit of Lookout Mountain (11,580 feet). Lookout Mountain is Sierra Blanca’s northern neighbor and is a worthy summit in its own right. For this trip Lookout was only a stopping point for us to eat breakfast.

 Ice Spring (Purify any water you intend to drink)
Hiking on one of the ski runs
White Sands New Mexico as viewed from just below Lookout Mountain

At the Summit of Lookout Mountain the National Forest service has built a circular stone seating area with concrete bench seats and metal plaques pointing out interesting facts about the surrounding topography. It appeared that two of the plaques where missing (Both the Southwest and Southeast plaques were gone.). But The other plaques pointed out the location of the first A-bomb detonation to the Northwest in the Malpais Lava Beds, and the birthplace of Smoky Bear in the Northeast Capitain mountain range.

 Site of the first A-bomb explosion as viewed from Lookout Mountain
Capitan Gap: Birthplace of Smoky Bear as viewed from Lookout Mountain.

We cooked some freeze-dried eggs and fried a little summer sausage for breakfast before continuing. From the top of Lookout we walked along the ski area’s jeep service road before eventually leaving the ski area boundary. The saddle just north of Sierra Blanca is aproxamently 600 feet below Lookout Mountain and close to 1,000 feet below Sierra Blanca’s Summit. From this vantage point Sierra Blanca looked very intimidating.

 Breakfast on the summit of Lookout Mountain. Sierra Blanca can be seen in the distance.
Yum…freeze-dried eggs and fried summer sausage.
The path to the Summit passes through Ski Apache.
Sierra Blanca and the ski area’s jeep service road.

Past the ski area there is no trail. Here and there you find various remnants of trails other hikers have taken to the summit. For the most part we made our own path zig zaging up the steep grassy ridge. The next 500 yards climb steeply at about a 32% grade before leveling off at 11,672 feet. We then followed a rocky exposed ridge 200 yards before the final push to the summit. The last 250 yards is a rock scramble up a 42% grade. At the top there is plenty of room and majestic views in every direction.

 Starting up Sierra Blanca’s North Face before it got real steep.
Our path up to the summit began to look very intimidating.
An exposed ridge along the path to the summit.
Looking down from the exposed ridge.
 The steep path up to the summit with some fellow hikers slightly above us.

As we made our way up the summit we began to run into several other parties doing the same thing. As it turns out Sierra Blanca is a very popular destination on Labor Day weekend. We saw at least 3 other hikers who had their dogs along with them and began to joke that literally “everyone and their dog” had come out to summit. All and all we spent about 30 minutes on the summit resting and taking in the abundant views. We signed the summit log and took a few group pictures for other groups when a thunderstorm started to threaten the summit. We took this as our cue to go and headed back down the northern ridge.

Looking back down on our path up.

 A crowded summit on labor day weekend.
Looking West from the summit.
Looking North from the summit
Looking East from the summit as a thunderstorm began to roll in.
Survey marker pointing toward the summit marker.
Survey Marker
An abused Summit Marker
Summit Log
Some well earned rest on the summit
Standing on the Summit
Last view before heading down.

We arrived at our campsite stopping once more at Ice Spring to fill up on water. The thunderstorm never hit us and for that we were thankful. In the morning we loaded up our gear and headed back down to the parking lot. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.

Resources: 
I highly recommend the Map and Guide book featured below. The map is published by the Lincoln National Forest Service for the White Mountain Wilderness. I use it extensively when hiking in the Lincoln National Forest. Purchase it through this link and help support MyLifeOutdoors.


The Hike:
Miles: 4.37
Starting Elevation: 9,600 feet
Ending Elevation: 11,973 feet
Elevation Gain: 2,373 feet
Map: USGS Topographic Quadrangle cropped to 8.5×11
Map: Lincoln National Forest Trail Map

Getting There:
Trail-Head: 33°23’59.23″N 105°47’22.29″W
Trail #15 meets Trail #25 (go left): 33°24’1.12″N 105°47’36.19″W
Ice Spring: 33°23’56.01″N 105°48’55.02″W
Our Campsite: 33°23’57.26″N 105°49’6.59″W
Lookout Mountain Summit: 33°23’26.85″N 105°48’42.70″W
Sierra Blanca Summit: 33°22’26.55″N 105°48’32.65″W

Remember that just past Lookout Mountain you are crossing into the Mascalero Apache Indian Reservation. According to their website a permit is required to hike on their land. Such a permit is hard to obtain and may not even exist. Call Vincent Hubbard the Tribal Administrator at (575) 464-4494 for inquiries about a permit. No one we saw on the summit that day had obtained a permit and judging by the number of names in the summit log I suspect most people just take their chances. Use your best judgment.





11 thoughts on “Sierra Blanca – Summit Hike – New Mexico”

  1. What a great journal of your hike. I have hiked near there, starting out at South Fork campground and hiking the Crest trail. I sure enjoyed your post and have written it down as a future hike for me. Thanks.

  2. Hello Steven,
    I was just traveling through New Mexico so I was very interested in this hike. Our purpose on this trip was the Balloon Festival, so we didn't hit any trails. However, your photos are awe-inspiring. What great wilderness scenes!

  3. Great website — I will be hiking this as I go up to Ruidoso to perform a wedding (I'm a pastor) next weekend. I'm hoping the area will be open — I understand the national forests are closed because of dry conditions. It looks like a great hike. I can hardly wait.

  4. Is the hike from Lookout to Sierra Blanca pretty straightforward? I'm not familiar with the area and didn't want to bite off more than I could chew.

  5. The path is straightforward even though its not clearly marked, just follow the north ridge all the way to the top. it is a difficult, steep climb, but non technical. if you have any previous hiking experience, and in good physical condition, you should do fine.

  6. Would love to do this hike but am just getting into hiking and only have day hiking gear, can you suggest essential gear for this type of hike? Or essentail skills ?

  7. I hiked this trail yesterday and I went right at the intersection of T15 and T25 per your instructions.

    "We loaded up our packs and headed up trail # 15 0.6 miles to its
    intersection with the Crest Trail #25. Crest Trail continues to the
    right and left. We followed the Crest Trail to the right."

    I see now your third picture down says to " (go left toward Lookout Trail)"..but that area of the sign is now gone and your written directions say take a right at that sign and I think that's wrong.

    Going right, or North, took me to a fire lookout dirt road and I don't think it ever reconnects to the Lookout Mt. trail that leads to the top of Ski Apache. So I think you mean to write "We followed the Crest Trail to the Left" But I could be wrong since there might be a way to go north and then come back south…I'd recommend clarifying that part. I hiked from the trailhead to the dirt road going to Monjeau Lookout peak, then turned around, and backtracked to the intersection and kept going to the Ski Apache Lookout peak, then turned around and hiked back to the trailhead, then woke up the next morning and hiked Sierra Blanca peak. Fire definitely devastated a lot of the pine stands but there are plenty of trees left.

    I hiked up Ski Apache Sierra Blanca Trail because I knew that would get me to the top. 2 hours to Lookout peak. Then about 2 more hours to Sierra Blanca Peak. The altitude is what affected me the most. It's about 600 ft of hiking above 11,000 after hiking from 9500 at the base of Ski Apache. I was winded the entire uphill part of the hike. About 2 hours down and my calves are now killing me.

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