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 and scree fields, 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 and one of the top trails in the entire state! In fact, as someone who has now nearly completed hiking all 50 state high points in the U.S., the Wheeler Peak hike is still one of my top all time favorites of them all! As physically challenging as it is beautiful, Wheeler Peak New Mexico is definitely a trek to add to your bucket list!
Disclosure: Below are some affiliate links-these are all products I highly recommend. I won’t make any recommendations on this page that I haven’t tested or personally used! Enjoy this guide to the Wheeler Peak hike in New Mexico!
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!
- What to Know Before You Go
- Location and Logistics
- Quick Trail Overview
Full Trail Report
- Gear Recommendations for the Wheeler Peak Trail
Know Before You Go to Wheeler Peak
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:
Location: Northeast New Mexico, in the Taos Ski Valley in Taos (Google Map). The trailhead for the Wheeler Peak Trail is also known as the Williams Lake Trailhead.
Fees: it is FREE to hike Wheeler Peak
Hours: The Wheeler Peak Trail is open daily
Best Time of Year to Hike Wheeler Peak: Summer
Parking: there is a large parking lot at the Wheeler Peak Trailhead
Facilities: there are restrooms and a restaurant at the Wheeler Peak Trailhead
Pet Friendly: Leashed pets are welcome on the Wheeler Peak Trail, but make sure they are acclimated to the challenge
Quick Facts on the Wheeler Peak Hike:
- Length: 7.9 miles point to point roundtrip
- Rating: Difficult – this is a challenging hike that exposes visitors to steep, multiple switchbacks, craggy, uneven rock fields, and extended hiking time above treeline at high altitude. It is a Class 1 hike however, and is non-technical. The trail is well marked. The Wheeler Peak Trail can be summed up like this: there are 3 main portions of the trail. The first part is shaded and in the trees, on dirt trail. The second part is emerging from treeline, and becoming exposed to the elements like wind and full sun. The third part is still exposed, but the final part of the trail changes from dirt trail to scree field.
- 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. Parking is free.
- Best Time to Hike: Summer is going to be the most user-friendly time to hike, specifically June through September. In the winter months, snow accumulation and/or ice 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. When it comes to Wheeler Peak, always check the mountain forecast HERE before attempting your hike. Keep in mind that afternoon showers are common in summer and early fall, so be sure to aim to be off the summit and making your way back into treeline by noon.
- How Long Does It Take to Hike Wheeler Peak? An average of around 6 hours
- Always check updates from the Carson National Forest website, in case of closures. Occasionally it happens, such as due to wildfires.
Beginning of the Wheeler Peak trail
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 roundtrip trek, nestled almost inconspicuously in the Taos Ski Valley. In order to reach the trailhead, you actually drive through the narrow road passing by residences, restaurants, hotels, and various ski lift related structures in the ski village.
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 trailhead for the Wheeler Peak hike, initially called the Williams Lake Trailhead at the beginning, can be found within the Taos Ski Valley. The parking area will show up on Google Maps as “Williams Lake Trail – Upper Parking“. There is no fee to park here.
This designated parking area has bathroom facilities located at the Williams Lake Trailhead, which later splits off into the Wheeler Peak Trail 2 miles in. There are also a couple restaurants located in Taos Ski Village very close to the trailhead, which can be a pleasant treat after finishing the Wheeler Peak hike! “The Bavarian” comes highly recommended!
Wheeler Peak New Mexico and the surrounding area
Full Report on the Wheeler Peak Trail via Williams Lake Trailhead
Route of the Wheeler Peak Trail
Williams Lake Trailhead: Mile 0
The trailhead for the Wheeler Peak hike actually begins on the Williams Lake Trailhead, found within Taos Ski Valley, and then later splits off for the Wheeler Peak Trail 2 miles in. The first 2 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.
Trail Split: Mile 2
At the 2 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! I would personally opt to visit Williams Lake on the descent, as it makes for a nice post hike relaxing spot. It should be noted that even if you are not planning on hiking all the way to Wheeler Peak, the 2 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.
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 Wheeler Peak Trail
First encounters with some of the local wildlife may likely occur just above treeline, where you may run into a family of energetic and vocal marmots. These little guys make multiple appearances from here on up, shrilly announcing any visitor’s presence and chaperoning their ascents to the top, whether you want 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 I have seen several males and multiple females trekking their way precariously across the steep slopes, showing no apparent fear of humans.
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. Pace yourself and take your time here.
The Final Mile to the Summit of the Wheeler Peak Hike
The final mile can easily take almost an hour to traverse, mostly because, if you are like me, you may find it necessary to take the switchbacks slowly and stop to catch your breath and hydrate every few minutes or so. You may also be feeling the altitude at this point as you continue uphill.
On a side note, this turned out to be the most challenging section of the Wheeler Peak trail for my pup also when she came along, as I got the impression that the rocks began to become more challenging, 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, hydrate, and pace yourself!
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!
Wheeler Peak Summit: Mile 4
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!
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.
Though this is a popular trail, overall this trail does not feel overly crowded or trafficked. The fellow hikers you do pass are guaranteed to be extremely friendly and increase the sense of camaraderie!
The Descent of the Wheeler Peak Hike
After a break at the top, the descent down the Wheeler Peak trail begins. 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. You may find a pair of trekking poles, like these Black Diamonds that I use for my mountain descents, helpful at this point. I love this particular model because of the cork handles that absorb sweat and prevent slippage and blisters, like some rubber handled poles.
Don’t assume that the descent down the scree field will go faster than the ascent. It may end up taking the same amount of time, which can be different from descents from “smoother” mountain trails. Again, ensure that you start the Wheeler Peak hike early, so that you can follow the mountain hiking rule “101” of being off the summit before noon to avoid potential afternoon storms.
Trail Split: Mile 6
After logging around 5miles in, you will begin to enter back into the welcoming shade and soft dirt underfoot of the treeline. At mile 6, hikers will once again reach the turnoff for Williams Lake. Here is a good time to decide whether to go cool off in Williams Lake’s waters before completing the hike.
Williams Lake is very open with no shade, and its water is shallow throughout. You may find a handful of campers or other hikers there for the same purpose of cooling off post hike. 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 for a break, possibly rehydrate and snack, before the final push down. If you do make a pit stop at Williams Lake, be sure to take a moment to soak in the fact that the peak that now looms above you, you were just standing atop earlier!
After nearly 4 total miles of sun exposure and incline on the ascent and descent above treeline of this hike, the final 2 miles from Williams Lake are a welcoming respite of shade and tree cover once again, and a chance to let your 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
Recommended Gear Quick Links:
- Black Diamond Trekking Poles
- Outdoor Research Helium II Lightweight Waterproof Jacket
- Columbia Hiking Pants
- IceBreaker Merino Wool Base Layer
- Pocketed Legging Shorts
- Columbia Hiking Shorts
- Vasque Breeze GTX Waterproof Hiking Boot
- HOKA One One Speedgoat Trail Runners
- Hilly Twin Skin Socks
- Platypus Water Hydration Bladder
- Camelbak Helena 20 Daypack
- Squeezable Peanut Butter Packets
- Applesauce Pouches
- Tuna Packets
- Honey Stinger Waffles
- GU Energy Gels
If you are planning to tackle the highest point in New Mexico, plan ahead with a few of my personal recommendations:
Layers – In the summer, a jacket will probably not be necessary for most of the hike in terms of warmth, except for maybe the last 1,000 feet as you approach the higher altitude summit. You may, however, want to plan on wearing a warmer midlayer for the last part of the ascent, or the first part if it is a particularly early morning start. I prefer merino wool mid and base layers for this purpose.
Once on the summit, you may also 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’ve hiked in both traditional hiking boots and trail runners, and it is a personal preference what you prefer for the Wheeler Peak Trail, as either are suitable for different reasons. Hiking boots are great for the support during the screen field, trail runners are great for being lightweight which helps on an all day long hiking endeavor. When I’ve used my Vasque Breeze III GTX boots, my feet felt supported during the rocky, uphill parts. Trail runners are also perfectly suitable for the Wheeler Peak Trail, if you like your feet feeling lighter and like to move quicker, 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 U.S. 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, even on grueling all day hikes like the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim hike!
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 plenty of good hiking snacks, 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 packets, beef jerky, Honey Stinger waffles, trail mix, and GU energy gel packets.
Water, water, water – I typically go through 2 liters of water on the Wheeler Peak hike, but I always still hike with 3 liters. 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 are 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! And always avoid making these 5 common hiking mistakes!
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!
This was U.S. state high point #2 for me when I first hiked the Wheeler Peak Trail (now I only have a couple left to hit all 50!), after climbing Guadalupe 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, more physically exerting than Guadalupe Peak for me personally, 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!
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 Taos to add on to your ventures on Wheeler Peak!
Travel a little further in this intriguing state and discover:
- National Parks like Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- White Sands National Park, home to some amazing hikes, including one of my all time favorite backcountry hikes, the sand dune covered Alkali Flat Trail!
- 8 Awesome Outdoor Adventures in the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico (besides the Caverns)!
***Looking to see how Wheeler Peak stacks up against another nearby neighbor states’ “highest peak”? Then take a read over these other southwestern state high point hikes:
- Guadalupe Peak in Texas
- Humphrey’s Peak in northern Arizona
- King’s Peak in Utah
- Colorado’s majestic Mount Elbert
- and the very southern end of the Rockies – Black Mesa in Oklahoma!
Read More: no matter where your next hike takes you, from the highest point in New Mexico to the lowest valleys, be sure to check out these five mistakes NOT to make when hiking!
***What About the Other 49 U.S. State High Points?
PIN for LATER!