Originally Published: August 5, 2012 6:59 p.m.
Wheeler Peak, the highest peak in New Mexico at 13,161 feet may be approached from a number of directions. I recommend Trail 91 from the northeast, just out of the town of Red River. This approach involves a 10-mile hike to the summit through forests, meadows, and alpine ridges with incredible views. You'll hike past several streams and lakes, with plenty of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep frolicking about. There are several camping options such as around Lost Lake or Horseshoe Lake depending on how close you want to be when you go for the summit. This route is a great training hike for more serious summits like Mt. Whitney. Three days are recommended.
Day one gets you to a base camp where you can fish, relax, and get adjusted to the altitude. Day two is your summit push. Start early to minimize exposure to summer storms. I started for the summit in late summer at sunrise and ran into a brief snow storm, which soon cleared but the threat of afternoon thunder storms soon replaced the snow. Needless to say, the amount of time spent on alpine summits is surprisingly short under such circumstances. Day three is the hike out and return home. No rush. Plenty of time for seeing the sights, enjoying the experience: the best alpine backpacking experience in the Southwest.
More than likely, seeing so many Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep sealed the deal for me. I generally focus on the flowers, but once the sheep came into view, I noticed the plants less and the animals more. I can't, of course, predict what you may see or experience on Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, but I know it is a "not to be missed summit" in this region.
Additionally, shorter hikes from the west are frequently used. So, if your time is limited, you have options. However, the solitude, wildlife, and pristine conditions on the east side of the peak make for an overall, incredible wilderness experience. Taking time to "take it all in" means you'll have a better chance to enjoy the flora, beginning with the two woody plants and two herbs I have selected as showcase representatives when hiking to the "Top of New Mexico." It's all beautiful. You'll want to come back as often as you can, with or without our alien friends.
Water Birch, Betula occidentalis (Birch Family)
Not considered much of a tree, Water Birch grows in thickets along streams. It is helpful in controlling erosion and beavers prefer its stems in the construction of their dams, further reducing erosion. The bark is reddish and the leaves are simple with coarse teeth, actually a double set of teeth set along their margins. The flowers are separated according to the sexes, males and females occur on the same plant but in different places, hence these shrubs are monoecious. Considered by some to be a useful landscape tree, interested persons should remember that these wind pollinated species contribute to the suffering of folks with respiratory ailments such as asthma. Spring time is when they bloom, timed to maximize seed dispersal which is aided by the wind. The fruits are called samaras, which are dry with a wing. This wing catches the wind, sending the seed into flight where it will hopefully find a suitable spot to germinate and begin the process all over again.
Parry's Primrose, Primula parryi (Primrose Family)
According to the Flora of North America: Primula parryi is the largest and most showy plant of the native North American primroses, growing to almost 50 centimeters in protected sites. It is common on subalpine streamsides and occurs on the alpine tundra in wet areas near snowmelt seeps. The strong skunky odor of this species is unique in the North American primroses, often lingering even on dried herbarium specimens. It is the most common species of the genus in the western United States. It is nothing short of stunning, with its bright pink flowers arranged in loose clusters at the end of its stems. The individual flowers are bell-shaped, with five petals open wide. The throat of the bell is yellow and the tip of each petal is slightly notched, typical of primroses. The large green leaves, shaped like a rabbit's ears are crowded at the base of the plant. They may reach a length of 40 cm. Since this flower is not appreciated for its aroma, enjoy it from afar as you creep toward the alpine summits of the Sangre de Cristo Range in New Mexico and beyond.
Whortleberry, Vaccinium myrtillus (Heath Family)
According to Francis Elmore in Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands, early Americans were not botanists so they transferred foreign names to the unknown plants that they encountered, such as with wort - whort - whortle - whortleberry. Likewise, hurt became hurtle - hurtleberry and eventually huckleberry. That's why it's best to utilize the official scientific name if you can, which eliminates confusion, at least most of the time. No matter what you call it, the blueberries from this species of woody shrub are well known for their culinary qualities. They have also garnered quite a reputation for their antioxidant qualities in the ongoing fight against cancer. Whortleberry (Blueberry) is a low, sprawling shrub with deciduous leaves. It grows in the understory of coniferous forests across North America, reaching an average height of one-third of a meter. The leaves are thick, like a myrtle. The flowers are spittoon-shaped like others in the Heath Family. Consider yourself fortunate indeed if you come across this plant in the wild at the right season - the season to feast on the fruit.
Mountain deathcamas, Zigadenus elegans (Lily Family)
These lovely white flowers grow from bulbs and may reach a height of nearly a meter. The flowers are loosely arranged toward the end of a naked stem. Like many flowers in the Lily Family, the sepals and petals are indistinguishable, being the same size and color, three of each, reaching two cm across the open, star-shaped flower face. They flower throughout the summer and prefer moist places like lake shores or stream sides. In the Wheeler Peak area, the higher lakes around 10,000-feet-plus are good places to look for these poisonous plants. They aren't called Deathcamas for nothing. According to Kathy Loyd of the Montana Native Plant Society: Deathcamas got its name for a reason and the toxic alkaloid zygadenine is certainly capable of causing death, in animals and humans. However, most cases of poisoning seem to be from a related species, Zigadenus venenosus, which is common in meadows and grazing lands. Sheep seem to be the most susceptible to poisoning and numerous deaths have been attributed to Deathcamas. Cattle and horses can also be poisoned, but pigs seem to be immune. Poisoning occurs when animals eat the fresh leaves, stems and flowers. The symptoms of poisoning include excess salivation and nausea followed by vomiting and a lowered body temperature. The animal may appear weak and have difficulty breathing. A coma may follow, leading to death. Among native tribes, the literature describes a broad knowledge of the poisonous principles in mountain Deathcamas. Several tribes used the plant externally as an athletic rubdown and muscle strengthener and the Navajo used it for mad coyote bites. It was used as an analgesic by creating a salve from the baked root and applying the paste to sore feet or backs. According to the Encyclopedia of Life: the root is considered strong medicine for a sore heart. A small piece of root is eaten raw or boiled and one tsp. of juice extract is taken. Have a sore heart? See your heart doctor. Federalized medicine has its problems, but Deathcamas is even more risky. Look but don't touch.
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