This last weekend we decided to try something new for us and hike in the snow! Coming from Arkansas snow hiking wasn’t really an option so we haven’t ever done it before. Pair that with a recent set of snow storms that swept through New Mexico and we figured it was an opportunity to try something new, the only question that remained was what trail. When we hiked Mount Taylor via the Gooseberry trail back in late October we ran into another hiker, Mac, who told us about a trail that runs along the north side of Mount Taylor which he strongly recommended. When I looked at the forecast I figured we were in for an interesting day with several inches of snow and temperatures anywhere from the low 20’s up to freezing.
We left Albuquerque around 7:45am after our obligatory coffee stop and headed towards Grants, New Mexico which is about an hour away. After leaving Grants we drove up into the Cibola National Forest and the highway turned to snow covered dirt road. Then it was down Forest Service Road 453 to the trailhead. The route I found on AllTrails.com recommended one location but we ran into some hikers at the trailhead who inquired about our route. After telling them where we were heading they said our original route was doable but about 2 miles longer for no reason and gave us directions to the “normal” trailhead for our route which was about another mile up the forest service road. So we headed up there and found a nice trailhead with a picnic area and a vault toilet.
When we set off our on hike the Jeep said the temperature was 28 degrees! The trail had about 3-4” of snow at that point. Surprisingly, we actually got hot really quickly. Cold weather hiking is new to us but we were both expecting to deal with cold temperatures however it wasn’t an issue at all. We hadn’t been going for more than 20 minutes before we were both down to only our thermal base layers. The first mile or so was a consistent but very manageable uphill through the pine and aspen forest. We were able to get some really great pictures of the winter weather. Around the mile mark the trail opened up into a huge meadow that had phenomenal views back out over the plains to the west of the mountain.
Around this point the amount of snow had started to increase to 4-6” and the incline stayed a consistent uphill so we went ahead and threw on our Hillsound Trial Crampons for some extra traction. Over the course of our hike I was really impressed with the trail crampons. As long as they continue to hold up well they will be a great piece of gear. Around mile two the trail intersects with Forest Service Road 453E but not before a nice steep little section that really gets the heart rate going. Our route continued to the east down FR 453E for another mile until it intersects the Gooseberry Trail. This section of the trail was completely untouched and although it was beautiful it was tiring work to break trail through six or so inches of untouched snow. FR 453E continues east from that intersection to hit FR 453 which goes up to La Mosca Overlook. Originally heading to the top of La Mosca along with Mount Taylor had been part of our plan but we were moving rather slower than we had anticipated so we decided Mount Taylor was enough.
We took Gooseberry trail back towards the southwest and the summit of Mount Taylor. The route hugs the edge of the mountain for a half mile and feels very much like an alpine climb, just hugging onto the edge with a big drop off. After that half mile Gooseberry again intersects FR 453E but the summit route continued uphill. We found out later that the route is called Heartbreak Hill and I can definitely understand why. The switchbacks to the summit are relentlessly uphill and the snow definitely didn’t make it any easier. But we made it up the summit at 11,301 feet and got to enjoy some stunning views that were only improved by the snow. I don’t know why but mountains, especially snow capped mountains, have always fascinated me.
After 10 minutes at the summit to take some pictures we headed off down the west ridge. AllTrails showed a trail that led down the ridge and linked up with the Continental Divide Trail and some forest service roads to make a loop back to our trailhead. However, after half a mile of hiking in 12-18” snow drifts we couldn’t locate any sign of the trail. Obviously, the trail was completely obscured but we saw no mounds that could have been cairns or any blazes. So after we ran into FR 453E we decided to change plans and follow it back to Trail 02421. I had really been looking forward to hiking on the CDT as I have done a short day hike on the Appalachian Trail before. But we figured without being able to locate the actual trail and how long we had already been out it was more prudent to take the more direct route back to the car. Plus I was getting tired of breaking trail and someone had already snowshoed down FR453E so the going was noticeably easier.
We made great time on the way back down Trail 02421. It was actually crazy to see how much snow had melted just since we had started our hike. Most of the trees below the meadow had sloughed off their snow and on the trail it was starting to compact which made it much easier. Funny enough we actually ran into Mac, the hiker who had recommended the trail to us a month earlier. He was heading up Trail 02421 to Mount Taylor and remembered giving us the recommendation. We thanked him again for recommending the trail and he seemed pretty happy that we had taken his advice.
A short while later we made it back to the car. According to Strava on my Apple Watch we covered 7.77 miles in a moving time of 3:39 which comes out to an average speed of 2.1mph. We were definitely slower than expected in the snow but to be fair there was a lot more snow than we had anticipated. I had expected four or so inches. But we consistently were in 4-6” and broke trails through sections that were well over 12”. In hindsight some snowshoes would have been really helpful especially on the sections on FR 453E and down the west ridge of Mount Taylor. All in all it was a great trip and we got some great pictures. It was also really cool to be the first people to summit Mount Taylor in the snow for 2019.
We definitely found the temperatures much easier to handle than expected. When we started the car read 28 degrees and when we finished it was 33. I really have no clue what it was on the hike or at higher elevations. It was a phenomenal weather day though with a clear sky and almost no wind at all. I really need to get my hands on a small thermometer to take hiking. It is good to know going forward that temperature won’t really be the limiting factor this winter but instead it will be snow conditions and wind. We definitely still have a lot of learning to do this winter about how the conditions will be throughout the season but we aren’t to keen to just kick up our shoes for the next 3-4 months. If anyone has some advice for great winter hikes in New Mexico please let us know!