Organ Peak Trail

A deep plunge into the Organ Mountains.

All my life I have wanted to live near a national park, to be close enough to look at the map and not have to prioritize, to just say, “I am going to walk every inch of every trail, visit in every season, and glimpse every creature.” In Las Cruces I am blessed to have that kind of access to Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks National Monument. No, it isn’t a full-fledged park, but in my humble opinion it is more deserving than the recently upgraded White Sands. White Sands is starting to feel like the “To Fly” of southern New Mexico. The first visit was wonderful, but now it’s just a thing to get through when people come to visit. There isn’t terribly much to do there. I will never get tired of the Organs.

So when I have a day, I load up my camel pack and head east. It was a productive week, other than the fact that my revised first chapter got deleted, so I thought I’d earned it. Winter is the perfect time for hiking in New Mexico. You can hike in the summer if you wake up before dawn and hit the trail at first light, but I am psychologically and constitutionally uninterested in that. Winter is the time to linger over breakfast and hit the trailhead at about noon, just as the midday sun warms things to the sixties, perfect hiking weather.

My first plan was to hit Achenbach Canyon and the high dale my son and I call Juniper Valley. I love to clamber over the tuff boulders there and explore their crags.

Instead, I opted for a hike I’ve started and abandoned at least twice, both times for fear I wouldn’t get back before sunset. Above Fillmore Canyon and the old Modoc Mine, a narrow trail wends into the rhyolite peaks, overshadowed by the massive spire of The Organ Needles. I followed that trail. The first approach was steep, but still I was surprised by how hard I was breathing. I considered old age, lack of fitness, and Covid before I realized my problem. I had decided to start a Jolly Rancher and couldn’t take big breaths around it.

As in Juniper Valley, the most impressive features along Fillmore Canyon are tuff, a volcanic deposit that is so light that it readily erodes into castles, parapets, and caves. New Mexico is dotted with tuff because if its violent trip through the Cenozoic. Here in the Organs, a massive supervolcano (like the one in Yellowstone) erupted three times creating massive calderas and leaving a complicated series of igneous rocks that I can’t quite understand. What I do understand is that you wouldn’t have wanted to be in Doña Ana County 36 million years ago.

Of course it would have been fascinating to visit anywhere in North America at that time. The dates vary, but by any geologist’s watch that was the end of the Eocene epoch, a time when the global climate was transitioning from an all time Thermal Maximum to the cooler climate of today. From the jungle landscape I remember in the Smithsonian Eocene mural, the world changed. Antarctica developed its ice caps (a sad story where a whole unique continental fauna slowly froze to death) and the global temperature dropped as much as six degrees. My vote for favorite mammal of the time is Megalagus because I translate it as “big bunny”, but I would love to see a Hyaenodon (from far away) or a Mesohippus, the poor, forgotten middle child from those textbook progressions of horse evolution.

I imagined being stalked by a prehistoric creodont as I moved on past the section of the trail I’d hiked before. High grasses and bracken of some kind surrounded me on all sides, redolent of the scene in Jurassic Park 2 and the pack of hunting raptors.

The trail led through a winding arroyo as I climbed. Not I was glad to have my bear spray when I spotted mountain lion scat on the trail. It’s not a great weapon for cougars considering that by the time you know your being attacked you have fangs lodged in your skull, but it felt better than having nothing. I watched a video where a hiker startled a mother with two cubs and I bet he would have liked some spray. There was snow at that altitude, only in a few shady places, but it was there.

Just as the trail began to peter out and I started thinking about turning back, an older couple came down the trail. There were the only people I’d seen in hours so I said hello and asked how far I had to go. The woman assured me it would only be 45 minutes. Surprisingly, that would turn out to be accurate, which is very contrary to my experience of getting trail advice. I pushed on into an extremely steep stretch, climbing dry waterfalls and eventually just putting one foot in front of the other for 300 nearly vertical feet.

But I got to the top. The views were spectacular. I could see down past El Paso into Chihuahua, west to Cookes Peak, east to White Sands and Alamogordo, and far enough north I couldn’t name the mountains. I climbed along the ridge toward the named peak, surprised to be clambering over limestone that had somehow been lifted up here. But it was too late to make the climb at a safe speed, so I settled for the saddle. Just as I was about to head down, I spotted a landmark I’d forgotten about. A few hundred yards down the ridge was the dome of an abandoned observatory. According to what I could find, the observatory dates back to the sixties. Next time I do this hike I’ll definitely explore it.

But I only had ninety minutes until sunset and four miles of rough terrain to cover, so I gingerly made my way down the slope, as fearful of damaging my forty year old knees as I was of falling. I marched at a good clip and only stopped long enough to get pictures of a supposed plane wreck I passed. A bit of internet research turned up B-25 crash fifty years ago near here, so that could be it, but who knows. I rolled on and made it back to my car just as dark was falling. Luckily sunset comes slower on the western slopes. In the parking lot I found rangers looking over several remaining cars. All I could tell them was that nobody was on the Organ Peak Trail. I hadn’t seen a soul.

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