Cookes Peak stands out in southern New Mexico. It has a bare rock peak shaped like a tiger shark tooth. I was surprised when I saw that the hike was listed as moderate in most of my guides. Still, with the distance given as nine miles, I thought it was something that needed to wait until my son was a lot older and we were experienced with overnight camping. But after we tackled Cox Peak in April, I realized that he had become a strong hiker. So, I revisited the idea and found that the actual hike to the peak is several miles shorter if you have four-wheel-drive, which I have.
This time the drive was much easier, or at least the initial approach was. We drove out I-10 west and got off at Deming. A sound like a minor artillery barrage on my windshield made me think it was hailing until a quick glance at the sky revealed zero cloud cover. Grasshoppers were exploding like little bloody firecrackers as we drove into what must have been a swarm. I hope I spared some village from being eaten alive.
The turnoff for the trailhead was across 26 from a derelict pile of farm equipment that must have been used as a Breaking Bad location. In other words, it was a perfect site for making New Mexico look depopulated and borderline post-apocalyptic. There were two miles of reasonable gravel road before All Trails suggested that I pull over and walk. Instead, we pushed on through a series of rolling dips into dried out creek beds. I watched as the tenths of miles ticked off, doubling each one and subtracting from how far we would have to walk. I know hiking is the whole point of these adventures, but I don’t relish the trudge along a dirt road to get to the good part. Before I knew it, we had cut the hike down to a completely manageable five miles.
I missed the trailhead on the first pass and had to double back. The “trail” here was a rocky rut. With a jeep it still might have been passable, but I thought we had done well enough and could walk it. As we were unloading and strapping on camel packs, a rickety VW bus came the other way, jouncing its aging hippie drivers as they came down from somewhere farther into the outback. I couldn’t imagine how they were making it, and that gave me a boost of confidence about my own wisdom in driving this far.
It was hot but manageable as we trudged along the rocky ravine. Cookes Peak still towered over us in intimidating fashion. I always have trouble judging mountains from below, but it looked like there was no way we could climb it in one day. Still, the pedometer doesn’t lie. We were two and a half miles from the summit, so we went for it. Spring flowers dotted the sides of the trail which clung to the north rim of what began to grow into a fairly deep canyon. It narrowed, and the trail began to have trouble making up its mind which rim it should follow. We splashed across pools and carefully leapt over mossy, flat boulders of granite. These crossings were fun, but we did get a little wet.
On one particularly steep portion of the ravine, both my son and I heard a scrambling through the rocks on the opposite rim and just caught the flash of a striped, furry tail as a ringtail scurried away from us. We watched for a while hoping he would come back out, but there must have been a hole dug into the bushes where he disappeared. That’s certainly the first time I’ve seen a ringtail, and it was exciting.
Further on, despite my care in watching out for snakes on point, my son let out a yelp as a gopher snake slithered out in front of him. It took me a second to make sure it wasn’t a rattler. He let out a little hiss to make it harder to tell and I think that’s defensive mimicry. The snake was aggressive, moving quickly right at me when I came back to help my son get by without hurting it. Sometimes the smallest creatures show a bravery that’s breathtaking. I can’t imagine a creature that would outweigh me to that extent that I outweigh a small gopher snake, but if it existed, I sure as hell wouldn’t run at it. (Actually, I just did the math and that would be about 18 tons. So, bigger than any living land animal, bigger than a T-Rex, and somewhere around the size of a modest sauropod. Yeah, I don’t think charging would be my first response if I met one.)
We gave the gopher snake a wide berth and continued on. With less than a mile to the peak according to our steps, the trail finally began to switchback, climbing up and to the south of the summit. The elevation was deceptively low, and as we climbed the flatter eastern ridges, the trail was still was flanked by thick stands of juniper and mesquite. We never did see the trees transition to pine. Instead, the vegetation gave out completely for the last quarter mile of the approach. We wound around the first outcrop of bare rock and saw the dramatic rise of the shark tooth-shaped peak from up close. It reminded me somehow of the Scottish Highlands, just a stark tower of granite jutting like the spines on a Stegosaurus.
The last hundred feet were a true climb, nothing difficult, but needing the use of hands and feet to move upward. I hung close to my son as he went and I was impressed when he managed the whole thing on his own. The top of the mountain was all bare rock, not because we were anywhere near the timberline, but because of what I think must be severe winds. The peak stands out as the tallest thing for a hundred miles in either direction. In fact, we saw a few straggling monarch butterflies. I don’t know if this is true, but I imagine them choosing Cookes as a landmark as they fly south.
We found a hiking log in a pile of broken rocks and signed it with our usual note about hiking in the time of Covid. My favorite things on the mountain top though were two plaques left by the United States Geological Survey. They dated back to the thirties and listed an address in DC where we could write with questions. Just the mention of Washington made my nostalgic and a bit homesick. I thought of the Smithsonian and Nationals Park sitting empty. The plaques were worn, but still clearly legible after nearly a century. I imagined someone placing them like a time capsule and someone else climbing up here in the twenty-third century and finding them looking not much different. Will that person call themselves an American?
We poked around the summit for a few minutes, pounded some Snickers, sucked down half our water, and then started back down. We had a few hours left before sundown, but I had to think about the drive too. I didn’t want to negotiate those arroyos in the dark. We didn’t have any trouble though. Aside from the first climbing bit, which we did have to take carefully, the trail was much easier on the way down. That sounds obvious, but if a trail is too steep, I find that going down is just as hard on the knees as going up is on the quads. This was the perfect grade to make the return trip an unequivocal joy. We made it back to the car in just over an hour. Overall, I would highly recommend Cookes Peak. The views up top are well worth the effort, and if you don’t have high clearance, just leave yourself an extra two hours to hike the jeep road approach. Go for it!