Wheeler Peak Wilderness

Photo of Sign at Wheeler PeakThe Wheeler Peak Wilderness includes almost 20,000 acres. Lying along the top of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range, The designated wilderness area is characterized by high rugged terrain. Elevations range from a low of 7,650 feet to a high of 13,161 feet at Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the State of New Mexico.

Wheeler Peak Wildlife
Quite a few locals hang out in these parts. Marmots, pikas, elk, mule deer and golden eagles all share the same home. Marmot on Summit Trail 67 from Williams Lake

Marmots, also known as whistling pigs, are the fat furry critters that crawl around the tallus slopes. The whistling call heard most frequently is a warning to other Marmots. Marmots are true hibernators, sleeping a full 8 months of the year. Only in the short 4-month summer are they active, feeding on grasses and forbs which poke up through the rocks.

If you sit very quietly, you may be fortunate enough to see a pika. Pikas look like little rabbits without tails, but are quite skittish. They are members of the rabbit family. Pikas spend the summer feeding and gathering "hay". They clip vegetation, let it dry, and store it under the rocks to eat during the long snow covered winter. Unlike marmots they do not hibernate.

Golden eagles can sometimes be seen circling the high country. They are ever so graceful to watch as they circle in search of their favorite prey-- rodents. Some rocky mountain elk and mule deer also call Wheeler Peak Wilderness their summer home. The higher elevation is cooler and often lush with grass and new aspen growth, choice foods for elk and deer.

Once native to the Wheeler Peak area, Bighorn Sheep were re-introduced in 1993 and are thriving in the alpine meadow habitat. Bighorn 's are year-round residents of the Wheeler peak area. Winters are particularly difficult for the sheep as they must depend upon windblown slopes to find forage. Enjoy viewing the Bighorns, but please do not approach or try to feed them.

Where are the Fish?
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish stocks Horseshoe and Lost lakes with native cutthroat fry, by helicopter, every few years. They also stock Middle Fork Lake and the Rio Hondo, below the Ski Valley, with rainbow trout in early July. Above Taos Ski Valley, the Rio Hondo has a natural population of cutthroat trout as does Sawmill Creek. The Department also stocks the East Fork of the Red River with rainbows. A license is required for fishing, along with a trout stamp. If you would like more information, contact the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish in Raton at (575) 445-2311. There are no fish in Williams Lake because it is to shallow to provide sufficient fish habitat in the winter.

Trees, Flowers and Chirping Birds
From the cottonwoods along the Rio Hondo to the Bristlecone pines guarding the peaks, Wheeler Peak Wilderness has almost all of the trees native to Northern New mexico. Englemann spruce and sub-alpine fir are the predominant tree species.

Because Wheeler Peak is so high, it is one of the only places in the State to see a true alpine "mat" as opposed to grasses that grow in other high alpine locales. The "mat" produces beautiful brilliantly colored flowers.

Those burnt orange patches covering the talus rocks are called lichens (pronounced "likens"). The Forest Service uses lichens as an indicator of air quality and acid rain. If the lichens were to begin drying out and crumbling, one would suspect damage due to acid rain.

Songbirds can be seen almost anywhere. Magpies, Canada jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, and numerous other birds can be spotted throughout the wilderness.

Typical Wheeler Weather
The average annual precipitation is 34-40 inches, about half the total comes from summer rains and half from winter snows. Average annual temperatures range between 80 degrees in the summer to 20 degrees below zero in the winter.

Most people visit Wheeler Peak Wilderness between July 4 and Labor Day. In late June or early September, there are fewer people and the weather is usually crisp and clear.

July and August are rainy months with almost daily afternoon showers. Be prepared. Visitors should carry rain gear and a tent if staying overnight. Daytime temperatures in the summer are often in the 60's but can drop dramatically when a storm moves in. Nights are cold, occasionally below freezing. Snowfall usually begins in early October. The wilderness is open to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Beware, avalanche danger is significant.

Be Prepared!!
Beware of lightning on the ridges. Since you will probably be the highest point around, get off the ridge if thunderclouds are overhead. If you are trying to get to Wheeler Peak in one day, leave early in the morning in order to avoid the early afternoon thunder shower.

Be sure to take proper clothing. Temperatures can drop suddenly. Wet clothing can chill the body quickly. Wool is best for heat even when wet; cotton next to the skin will keep the body damp and will actually wick heat away. Dress in layers which can be added or removed as temperature change.

Wheeler Peak Trails