This week I added a long coveted summit: Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet, the highest point in New Mexico! I’ve been wanting to climb Wheeler for years, but for some reason, I thought the climb required an overnight stay along the 16-mile Bull of the Woods trail.
Turns out, the park service blazed a new route to the summit in 2011 called the Williams Lake trail, an 8-mile out and back past William’s Lake up the saddle between Wheeler and neighboring Mount Walter. The trail was built by a Forest Service trail crew of 8 people from the Gallatin National Forest. Working 12 hour days using only hand tools, they built 4 miles of switchbacks to the top in 14 days. It’s a fantastic, scenic trail. Summit Post (one of my favorite mountain resources) calls the trek a Class 2 climb, but except for a couple of short rocky sections, I’d call this Class 1 all the way.
En route, we saw a dozen big horn sheep, including several fluffy white babies and a huge male with epic horns. When he ran across the slope below us, the whole mountain seemed to shake under his hooves. We also saw and heard countless marmots and pika in the rocks above tree line. Thanks to an early alpine start, we were the first on the summit, but we passed several dozen people on the way back down the trail. The William’s Lake route was news to me, but it seems like it’s no secret in northern New Mexico!
The summit plaque says: Named in honor of Major George Montague Wheeler (1842–1905) who for ten years led a party of surveyors and naturalists collecting geologic, biologic, planimetric and topographic data in New Mexico and six other southwestern states.