At 13,161 feet above sea level, Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain in New Mexico, which ranks as the 8th state in order of elevation. Located in the Sangre De Cristo
(Blood of Christ) range, it stands guard over the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, inviting all to enjoy its status.
It is not known who made the first ascent of Wheeler, probably the Indians of the Taos Pueblo. But, it is named for U.S. Army Major George M. Wheeler who surveyed much of New Mexico in the late 1870s. For years, the Truchas Peaks, located south of Wheeler Peak, were considered the New Mexico highpoint. In 1948, a survey was conducted by Harold D. Walker which confirmed Wheeler Peak is the highest point in the state. A sub-peak, north of Wheeler Peak, is named for Walker and is often mistaken for Wheeler.
Whether backpacking or dayhiking, Wheeler Peak offers a spectacular outdoor experience. Big horn sheep are abundant but are wary of visitors. There are two main routes to the summit, the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail, and the Williams Lake Trail. The Bull-of-the-Woods trail (also called the Wheeler Peak Trail) is 16 miles round trip and is a well-marked class 1 trail, The Williams Lake trail to the summit is approximately seven miles round trip and is a steep class 2 trail, with the final 1000 ft being a rocky scree slope.
The Sangre de Cristo mountain range is a spectacular collection of peaks which stretches 250 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Salida, Colorado. Please note the left side bar which features all the mountains in the Sangre de Cristos, both in Colorado and New Mexico.
From Taos, New Mexico, drive four miles north on New Mexico (NM) state road 522. At about four miles, and at the first traffic light out of town, turn right (east) on NM 150 and drive for 15 miles until reaching the Taos Ski Valley ski area. As you arrive at the ski resort a huge "Taos Ski Valley" sign will greet you. Here the road forks. Stay left.
Continue left after the fork and head into the upper parking lot for about 50 yards until reaching a gravel parking lot marked "RVs Only" (which does not apply in summer). There are big trailhead signs in view from here.
The Williams Lake Trail. Although not very scenic, this route is a quick way to get to the summit of Wheeler Peak. This is typically a summer route. It can easily be completed before noon if you get a sunrise start. Expect crowds on the trail in summer. In winter, beware of extreme avalanche danger both on the trail to Williams Lake and on the slope to the Wheeler Peak ridge.
The key is to get to the Phoenix Grill (Bavarian) restaurant about a 1000 ft higher than the entrance to the ski area.
Follow signs to "The Bavarian" restaurant and "Williams Lake Trail." Before reaching The Bavarian (or the Phoenix grill) follow signs to a large hiker's parking lot on the right.
From the parking lot, follow the road (pedestrian only) next to the kiosk south past The Bavarian and then past the Phoenix Grill (ski season only) and onward up the road, which is now well marked with signage.
From the Phoenix (or Bavarian), head directly up the dirt road toward the Kachina 4 ski lift. Hike under the chair lifts and reach the wilderness boundry sign where the trail begins. Remember that you are on private property until reaching the wilderness sign.
Hike through the spruce forest about two miles until nearing Williams Lake. The trail splits before reaching the lake and there is a sign at the intersection. (If you reach the lake, you've gone too far.)
Follow the trail left towards Wheeler Peak as it rapidly climbs through a series of switchbacks. The trail flattens out a bit in a small, rocky meadow just above treeline. The Forest Service built a new section of switchbacks in 2011 that leads up the final ridge, over the talus field, and to the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Mt Walter.
It's almost a 2000 ft climb from Williams Lake to the ridge. Once on the ridge, go right (south) for a short hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak. Descend the same route.
Wheeler Peak is located in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area in the Questa Ranger District of the Carson National Forest. No fees or permits are required to hike, climb, or camp. There is a 14 day camping limit in the Carson National Forest. The wilderness area begins on the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail between Bull-of-the-Woods mountain and Frazer mountain. On the Williams Lake Trail, the wilderness area begins about two miles into your hike after climbing through the ski area. The first two miles of the Williams Lake Trail, and the first three miles of the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail, is on private property so please respect this. No camping is allowed at Williams Lake. All wilderness rules apply including no mountain bikes, ATVs, or other vehicles.
Backcountry camping is allowed without a permit in the wilderness area except within 100 yards of Williams Lake. La Cal Basin is a good place to camp if hiking the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail as an overnighter.
There are several Forest Service Campgrounds available on NM 150 before getting to the Taos Ski Valley. These include Lower Hondo, Cuchillo De Medio, Cuchillo, Italianos, and Twining. Most can accommodate trailers and tents, and have water and toilets. Twining campground is located at the Bull-of-the-Woods trailhead.