Complete Guide to the Wheeler Peak Hike: Highest Point in New Mexico (2022)


I have always loved the staggering amount of variety and uniqueness that can be found in New Mexico, and the Wheeler Peak hike absolutely excels at highlighting everything that is great about the hiking found here in northern New Mexico! The towering pines, thick forest canopy, solitude and seclusion, water features, stunningly expansive views, lush pastures and vivid wildflowers, rock scrambles, wildlife, and last but not least the claim to the highest point in New Mexico, all make the Wheeler Peak Trail one of the best hiking trails near Taos! As physically challenging as it was beautiful, Wheeler Peak New Mexico is definitely a trek to add to your bucket list!

Complete Guide to the Wheeler Peak Hike: Highest Point in New Mexico (1)

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Guide to Hiking the Highest Point in New Mexico

This guide will cover all the details for hiking Wheeler Peak, from a full trail report, to gear recommendations for successfully summiting the highest point in New Mexico!

Know Before You Go

The Wheeler Peak hike is a prime way to experience the some of the best hiking trails in Taos, if not the whole state or the entire Southwest! This hike to the highest point in New Mexico will expose you to a kaleidoscope of outdoor offerings, from towering forests, to serene lakes, to peaceful pastures and challenging switchbacks and rocky scree fields! This is not a beginners hike, and you should have some experience with long, high elevation day hikes. A few additional pieces of information on hiking Wheeler Peak New Mexico:

Quick Facts on the Wheeler Peak Hike:

Length: 7.9 miles point to point

Rating: Difficult – this is a challenging hike that exposes visitors to steep, multiple switchbacks, craggy, uneven rock fields, and extended hiking time above treeline.

Elevation: 13,159 feet

Elevation Gain:2,979 feet

Red Tape: None – there is no fee to access the trail head for the Wheeler Peak hike, and a permit is not required.

Best Time to Hike: Summer is going to be the most user-friendly time to hike. In the winter months, snow accumulation would definitely add a completely other element of challenge to this hike. Just arriving at the trail head might be tricky in the winter, as it would be necessary to navigate some dicey mountain roads. Shoulder months of spring and fall are doable, though you may still face the possibility of environmental conditions including snow.

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Getting to the Highest Point in New Mexico

In an area of New Mexico with no shortage of trails and peaks, you really cannot go wrong with any of the options of hiking trails near Taos, but I can see why the Wheeler Peak hike is a favorite among the locals, and now also with this native Texan! The Wheeler Peak trail is just shy of an 8 mile trek, nestled almost inconspicuously in the Taos Ski Valley. In order to reach the trail head, you actually drive through the narrow road passing by residences, restaurants, hotels, and various ski lift related structures in the ski village.

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Location of the Wheeler Peak Hike and the Highest Point in New Mexico

Wheeler Peak is located outside Taos, in north central New Mexico. It is only a few hours drive from other notable active travel destinations in New Mexico, including Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The trail head for the Wheeler Peak hike, initially called the Williams Lake trail head at the beginning, can be found within the Taos Ski Valley. There is a designated parking area and facilities located at the Williams Lake trailhead, which later splits off into the Wheeler Peak trail.

Wheeler Peak via Williams Lake Trailhead

The trail head for the Wheeler Peak hike actually begins on the Williams Lake Trail and trail head, found within Taos Ski Valley, and then later splits off for the Wheeler Peak trail two miles in. The first two miles of this hike initially take you into a deep forest canopy, with towering pines and dappled sunlight peeking through the foliage. There are several spots where the trail opens up into more open expanses of meadows, lush ground cover, and immense spillways of green-tinted, moss covered boulders piled on top of each other.

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At the two mile mark, you will see signposts directing you to continue straight to Williams Lake, or turn left to continue up to Wheeler Peak and its lofty summit! At the time of our hike, my sister and I decided to visit Williams Lake on our descent. It should be noted that even if you are not planning on hiking all the way to Wheeler Peak, the two mile trek to Williams Lake is a great day hike in and of itself!

Continuing on from the split, the Wheeler Peak trail begins to steadily incline as you make your way towards the highest point in New Mexico. At this stage, the grade is not terribly steep, just consistent. This is the spot to truly appreciate the seclusion of this trail, hidden among the heavy shade and overwhelming silence. Another half a mile or so, the treeline begins to thin and more rocky and open terrain eases its way in.

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At this point along the Wheeler Peak Trail, there is no shade left, but for the first time you can truly appreciate the panoramic views that are completely un-obscured and breathtaking. Looking down from above the treeline, you can view the rest of the mountain range and also the shrinking views of Williams Lake below, which from this vantage point, begins to look more and more like Williams “puddle”.

Wildlife Along the Williams Peak Trail

Our first encounter with some of the local wildlife occurred just above treeline, where we ran into a family of energetic and vocal marmots. These little guys made multiple appearances from here on up, shrilly announcing our presence and chaperoning our ascent to the top, whether we wanted them to or not! Hopefully you will get lucky and spot a baby marmot, easily a top ten candidate on the list of adorable, chubby-cheeked baby critters! Another resident you might run into are the bighorn sheep, of which we saw several males and multiple females trekking their way precariously across the steep slopes, showing no apparent fear of humans.

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Once above treeline, it is easy to make out the rock field spewing down the face of the mountain. Some of these sections of rocky scrambles are mild, others involve actually heaving yourself over small boulders and carefully dodging crags and chasms as the Wheeler Peak trail winds through these uneven slopes. This more precarious terrain, coupled with high altitude and switchbacks that begin to steadily increase in steepness, make this last mile or so a truly challenging feat.

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The Final Mile to the Summit of the Wheeler Peak Hike

The final mile took almost an hour for me to traverse, mostly because I found it necessary to take the switchbacks slowly and stop to catch my breath and hydrate almost every minute or so. On a side note, this turned out to be the most challenging section of the Wheeler Peak trail for my pup also, as I got the impression that the rocks began to make her feet sore, and the sun became more intense and unrelenting as you ascend. So if you are hiking with your pup, make sure that their feet have been exposed to this type of terrain and maybe even a little toughened up before attempting this hike with them. I would not recommend that this be a pup’s first hike, this is a good one to work up to with a few easier dog friendly hikes!

At this point on the Wheeler Peak trail, hydration also becomes even more vital, and sun protection is key! The temperature may not feel hot and therefore you may not have as many red flags actively going off, but the altitude, sun strength, and physical exertion will catch up to you if you do not properly protect and pace yourself!

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The final few switchbacks towards the highest point in New Mexico are killers, and then you reach what feels like the top, but is actually a false summit! Take a few minutes to appreciate the nearly 360 degree views from this point, and then continue on to the right for a few more minutes to the actual Wheeler Peak summit!

From this vantage point, you finally get to take in the incredible panoramic views of Carson National Forest, the southernmost range of the Rockies, Taos Ski Valley, the stark blue sky, and literally everything else in northern New Mexico! A literal large reminder of what makes this one of the best hiking trails near Taos, and one of the best summits in the state of New Mexico!

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The summit contains a small marker indicating you have arrived at the highest point in New Mexico, along with a tube in which there is a journal you can sign to record your accomplishment. The wind was surprisingly calm here, whereas on neighboring state high point Guadalupe Peak’s summit, I felt it necessary to descend after several short minutes due to the wind and cold. Here I found the summit to be a very calm and welcoming spot to stop and take a hydration and snack break.

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My girl Middy pup even fell asleep, that’s how peaceful this summit is! There were several other hikers who arrived at the summit within a few minutes as us, but overall this trail did not feel overly crowded or trafficked. The few fellow hikers we did pass were extremely friendly and increased the sense of camaraderie for us!

The Descent of the Wheeler Peak Hike

After an extended break at the top, the descent down the Wheeler Peak trail began. The switchbacks and rock scrambles require careful pacing even on the way down, as the jutting edges and deceptive crags still pose a challenge even when not heaving yourself over them. I think the knees and feet take most of their beating here as you make your way down that exposed mile or so of rocky switchbacks, so again, take your time.

After logging around five miles in, you will begin to enter back into the welcoming shade and soft dirt underfoot of the treeline. At mile six, hikers will reach the turnoff for Williams Lake. When I hiked the Wheeler Peak trail, it was here that I decided it would be a good time to go cool off in Williams Lake’s waters.

Williams Lake is very open with no shade, and its water is shallow throughout. There were several campers, and a handful of other hikers who were there for the same purpose as us. Although there is not much else to do in the immediate vicinity of the Williams Lake shoreline, it is a great and welcoming spot to stop before the final push down. My sister and Middy pup both took some time to play in the shallow water, while I took a moment to take in the fact that the peak that now loomed above us we were so shortly before standing atop!

After nearly four miles of sun and incline, the final two miles from Williams Lake were a welcoming respite of shade, and a chance to let our legs begin to cool down. Enjoy the last few minutes of this trail as it winds along a small stream back into Taos Ski Valley.

Recommendations for Hiking the Highest Point in New Mexico

If you are planning to tackle the highest point in New Mexico, plan ahead with a few of my personal recommendations:

  • In the summer, a jacket will probably not be necessary for most of the hike, except for maybe the last 1,000 feet as you approach the higher altitude summit. Here you can experience more cold and wind, and a greater risk of getting caught in notoriously surprising high altitude summer showers. A great outer shell jacket option is Outdoor Research’s Helium II jacket. The reason I LOVE this jacket is that it is the perfect marriage between weight and protection. It is hard to find a fully waterproof and windproof outer shell jacket that is also lightweight and easy to pack. This jacket literally weighs a couple ounces, but is fully waterproof and windproof. When you don’t need to be wearing it, it is easy to pack and not heavy to carry! In addition, I wore my go to hiking pants, Columbia Anytime Outdoor Boot Cut pants – super lightweight yet insulated, stretchy, and moisture resistant! When choosing the clothes to hike the Wheeler Peak Trail in, AVOID COTTON and think moisture wicking, breathable, and quick drying materials, like Merino wool or fleece. My favorite active travel material is Merino wool, which is why the Merino wool brand Icebreaker is my go to brand for all things base layers, mid layers, and outer layers.
  • Good hiking boots or trail runners will definitely be a plus, especially over the uphill sections and over the rocky scree fields. I used my Vasque Breeze III GTX boots, and my feet felt supported during and relaxed after. I also feel that trail runners are perfectly suitable for the Wheeler Peak Trail, and hands down the best pair of trail runners you can invest in are HOKA One One Speedgoats. They have the best cushion and reliable grip! I have worn them on many of my other state high point hikes, and it really is a personal preference whether you choose to go with a traditional hiking boot or a trail runner. Just make sure that you invest in the best!
  • Hiking socks – your footwear is only as good as the hiking socks you pair with them. Blisters are one of the most typical ways a day hike can be derailed. I used to be extremely blister prone until I discovered the amazing Hilly Twin Skin socks! The reason these socks work so great for long distance hikes and trail runs, is that they are lined, and this lining helps combat the friction that causes blisters. Haven’t had a blister since using these socks!
  • Trekking poles – these will help on the scree field, and on the descent. I only trust one brand of trekking poles, Black Diamonds. I personally use Black Diamond Cork trekking poles. Instead of rubber or plastic handles that can slip when your hands get sweaty, this Black Diamond model uses cork on the handles, which absorb the sweat and prevent slippage, thus giving you a more reliable hiking experience!
  • Bring an appropriate snack, especially after cresting the summit, as the rock climbing and high altitude can really zap your energy. When you are preparing for a day hike, always keep weight in mind. This pertains to food as well. The foods you bring for fuel should be easy to pack, lightweight, high energy, and easily digestible. Some of my favorite hiking snacks are applesauce pouches, tuna packets, peanut butter, beef jerky, Honey Stinger waffles, trail mix, and GU energy gel packets.
  • Water, water, water – Middy and I went through two liters just by ourselves during our hike up the Wheeler Peak trail. I use a Platypus 3 liter wide mouth hydration bladder in my Camelback Helena women’s day pack for long day hikes like the Wheeler Peak hike. I love hydration bladders, because they are super convenient and easy to use, and I love being able to stay hydrated on the go and not have to stop and fish water bottles out of a backpack. This Platypus model is wide mouthed, making it easy to fill, empty, clean, and dry!
  • You may be thinking this hike is “low risk” because it is located near a popular tourist town, or because it is a day hike. Nevertheless, Carson National Forest and the Wheeler Peak Wilderness is a true wilderness, and this area and this summit should not be underestimated, and require careful and intentional planning and preparation. Always hike with all your day hiking essentials, including emergency gear!
  • If you are sensitive to the sun, bring sun protection, as the temperature may not feel hot, but the strength of the sun is increased at this altitude. This ranges from sunscreen to sunglasses to a head covering.
  • Do not be afraid to pace yourself, and do not compare yourself to other hikers! We had just started the final mile to the summit when we ran into some hikers on their descent, who told us that this final mile, with its tough switchbacks, took them about an hour. I remember thinking I could do a mile quicker than that, but quickly realized that taking time to stop and catch my breath and hydrate was an absolute necessity. It did end up taking about an hour, but embrace that there is no shame in that!

This was state high point number two for me, after climbingGuadalupe Peak in Texas prior. Having hiked both neighboring state high points of Guadalupe Peak and Wheeler Peak, I believe that this is definitely a category “hard” trail, considerably more physically exerting than Guadalupe, but one that truly does have everything! A double edged sword that is both beautiful and rewarding, but equally challenging!

Once again, I was thrilled to discover yet another gem in the Land of Enchantment! This southwestern state has never failed to impress me. If you are a native New Mexican, than congratulations on a trail you should be proud of! If you are not a native, then this is definitely a challenging peak with amazing payoff worth traveling for!

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More of the Best Hiking Trails Near Taos

Interested in seeing what else New Mexico has to offer its outdoor enthusiasts in terms of some of the best hiking trails near Taos? Check out some of the other best hikes near Taosto add on to your ventures on Wheeler Peak!

***Looking to see how Wheeler Peak stacks up against another nearby state’s “highest peak”? Then take a read over my Guadalupe Peak in Texas post,my Humphrey’s Peak post from Arizona, or my King’s Peak in Utah post!

Read More: no matter where your next hike takes you, from the highest points to the lowest valleys, be sure to check out these five mistakes NOT to make when hiking!

***What About the Other 49 State High Points?

Learn about Each One with this FREE State High Points of the U.S. gift!


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