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Wheeler Peak: New Mexico’s Highest Mountain

Facts About Wheeler Peak

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The trail to the summit heads up slopes above Williams Lake.

Wheeler Peak rises above Williams Lake in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in northern New Mexico.

Photograph © Bob D'Antonio
Elevation: 13,167 feet (4,013 meters)
Prominence: 3,409 feet (1,039 meters) Most Prominent Mountain in New Mexico.
Location: Taos Mountains, Sangre de Cristo Range; Taos County; New Mexico.
Coordinates: 36.556855136° N / 105.416947028° W
First Ascent: First ascent by Native Americans.

Fast Facts:

Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain in New Mexico; the highest point in the Taos Mountains, a sub-range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost range in the Rocky Mountains; and the high point of Taos County. The peak is in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in Carson National Forest. Wheeler Peak lies about 15 miles northeast of the old town of Taos.

Sub-Peak Mount Walter is Unranked Summit

Mount Walter, a 13,141-foot (4,005-meter) sub-peak of Wheeler Peak, is the second highest summit in New Mexico. It is, however, an unranked peak since it has only 80 feet (24 meters) of prominence.

Wheeler Peak Geology

Wheeler Peak and the surrounding peaks in the Taos Mountains are composed of Precambrian rocks that are mostly metamorphic crystalline rocks, including gneiss, schist, and quartzite, that were later intruded by pink and gray granites. The upper parts of the range also have isolated exposures of limestone that date from the Devonian and Mississippian ages.

Named for Major Wheeler

Wheeler Peak is named for Major George Montague Wheeler (1842-1905), a soldier, cartographer, explorer, and leader of the Wheeler Survey, one of the great U.S. government surveys in the late 19th century, from 1872 to 1879. The Wheeler Survey documented and mapped parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Idaho for possible future roads and railroads as well as recorded the locations and populations of Indian tribes. Other western places named for him are 13,065-foot (3,982-meter) Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park in Nevada and Wheeler Geologic Area in southern Colorado.

Blue Lake is Sacred to Taos Pueblo

Blue Lake, called Ba Whyea by the Taos Pueblo Indians, is a shimmering sub-alpine lake tucked into a valley at 11,312 feet on the southeast flank of 13,113-foot Old Mike Peak, an unranked sub-peak of Wheeler Peak to the south. The lake, fed by snowmelt, is the headwaters of the Rio Pueblo de Taos and a sacred place to the Pueblo Indians living at Taos Pueblo below the mountains. For over 800 years, the Pueblos practiced their religious ceremonies at Blue Lake until the U.S. Government appropriated 48,000 acres of their land, including sacred Blue Lake and Taos Mountain, for a national forest in 1906.

Blue Lake Taken from Taos Pueblo in 1906

The Indians at Taos Pueblo believe that their tribe was created from the sacred clear waters of Blue Lake. Their right to the lake and the surrounding lands was recognized by both Spanish and Mexican governments that ruled this part of New Mexico until the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 at the end of the war also affirmed the sovereignty of Taos Pueblo and their aboriginal lands. The growing settlement of northern New Mexico, however, eventually led to Blue Lake and its watershed being stripped from Taos Pueblo. The area was then designated for "multiple use," including logging, mining, and recreation and administered by the U.S. Forest Service. In 1924 the government gave compensation to the tribe for the land, but they wanted title to it returned.

Blue Lake Returned to Taos Pueblo After 64 Years

After 64 years of protests and appeals, Taos Pueblo was able to reacquire their ancestral lands. One of the Taos elders testified before Congress in 1969: "We are probably the only citizens of the United States who are required to practice our religion under a permit from the government. This is not religious freedom as it is guaranteed by the Constitution." In 1969, the Blue Lake Bill appeared before Congress. President Nixon endorsed the bill and 48,000 acres of land were returned to Taos Pueblo in 1970, along with the exclusive use of 1,640 acres around the lake for members of the tribe only. The Blue Lake area on the Wheeler Peak massif remains closed to all outsiders.

Two Climbing Routes up Wheeler Peak

There are two routes up Wheeler Peak. Both begin from Taos Ski Valley north of the town of Taos. The most popular route is up a trail that was built in 2011 by the U.S. Forest Service in a mere 14 days. The eight-person trail crew worked 12 hours a day, building four trail miles from Williams Lake to the summit using hand tools. Alternatively, you can hike up the standard route, which basically follows Wheeler's north ridge and passes over Mount Walter to the high point. This is the best winter route since it has almost no avalanche danger.

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