By Johnny Hughes - Elite Outfitters
The Nogal Canyon Trailhead accesses the northern portion of the White Mountain Wilderness Area. Many of the trails are remote and rarely used. The lack of use makes route-finding a factor due to perils such as disappearing trails and dead fall infestations. This area is best suited for intermediate to extreme hiking and not for novices.
Much of the terrain in the northern Wilderness is covered in dense stands of Gambel oak. Most of the Gambel oak stands are 15 to 30 feet tall. The Gambel oak is a pioneer species, which means it is one the first trees to reoccupy an area after a forest fire. The aspen is another example of a pioneer species. In this area, aspens dominate above 10,000 feet and Gambel oaks dominate below 10,000 feet. Conifers will eventually take over the pioneer species given 75 to 100 years.
The elevation of the Trailhead is approximately 8,400 feet.
To reach the Nogal Trailhead, take Hwy 48 north out of Ruidoso approximately 5 miles past the Ruidoso Village limits to the intersection with Hwy 37. Turn left onto Hwy 37 and go approximately 9 miles to the intersection with Nogal Canyon Road (Forest Road 400) just before the village of Nogal. Turn left onto Forest Road 400 and go approximately 8 miles to the Trailhead located at the upper end of Nogal Canyon. The trailhead is located just above the intersection of Forest Roads 400 and 108, in the bottom of Nogal Canyon. Forest Road 400 is a good County-maintained dirt road for the first 4 miles but deteriorates over the last 4 miles. The road is marginally passable by car. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
Nogal Trail (#48)
Tortolita Trail (#54)
Pennsylvania Trail (#51)
Norman Trail (#34)
Gaylord Trail (#52)
Suggested Loop Hikes
Trail Distance - 1½ miles
Net Elevation Change - 600 feet
Highest Elevation - 9,000 feet
Nogal Trail (#48) is a pleasant hike for anyone. The moderately-used trail gently climbs 600 feet over 1½ miles to a saddle at the base of Nogal Peak. Great views abound.
The Nogal Trail ends where it intersects Tortolita Trail (#54) on the ridge top. It is the starting point for more adventure than you can imagine.
Camping locations are limited to nonexistent along the Nogal Trail. A few marginal spots could be considered on top of the ridge.
A little water usually always flows in the stream along the lower mile of the trail.
Trail Distance - 9 miles
Net Elevation Change - 3,960 feet
Highest Elevation - 9,200 feet
Tortolita Trail (#54) begins at the intersection with Crest Trail (#25), just southwest of Nogal Peak. The trail immediately follows along the steep, west-facing slope of Nogal Peak toward the head of Nogal Canyon. Tortolita Trail (#54) then descends into Tortolita Canyon and follows the entire length of the canyon bottom. Near the eastern boundary of the Wilderness, the trail climbs onto a ridge above Dry Gulch and extends to an old Trailhead in Nogal Canyon. The old Trailhead is no longer used as it crosses private land. As a result, the easternmost 2 miles of trail are rarely used.
Tortolita Trail is not well used and not maintained. It is followable, but has lots of dead fall over the trail. Tortolita Trail is intersected by 2 trails in the bottom of Tortolita Canyon. Norman Trail (#34) and Gaylord Trail (#52) provide loop opportunities with the Tortolita Trail. Both these trail intersections are marked with a sign.
Below Norman Canyon, the Tortolita Trail proceeds through a small piece of private land. Below the private land, the trail follows a road that is used to access the private land. Yes, a road is present within the boundaries of the Wilderness Area and it is used by vehicles accessing the private property. Makes a lot of sense doesn’t it?
Camping locations are abundant along the Tortolita Trail within the confines of Tortolita Canyon. Abundant level ground can be found almost anywhere in the canyon.
Water is another issue. Tortolita Spring has an old galvanized pipe sticking out of the ground that once had water flowing out of it. The pipe has since rusted out and water no longer flows out of it. As a result, there is no water anymore at Tortolita Spring. Water flows in Tortolita Canyon only during wet seasons. Occasionally, small amounts of water remain along the canyon bottom but are extremely intermittent. A spring near the mouth of Norman Canyon usually always has water.
Trail Distance - 5 miles
Net Elevation Change - 1,900 feet
Highest Elevation - 9,380 feet
Pennsylvania Trail (#51) intersects Tortolita Trail (#54) about 200 yards east of the intersection of Nogal Trail (#48) and the Tortolita Trail. The Pennsylvania Trail follows along the divide between Tortolita and Nogal Canyons and ultimately terminates at private land. Norman Trail (#34) and Gaylord Trail (#52) intersect with the Pennsylvania Trail. Both intersections are marked with a sign.
The Pennsylvania Trail sees moderate use and is the easiest trail in this area to follow. It offers superb views. The trail does not have a lot of elevation change like most of the other trails in this area. The majority of the elevation change occurs on the east end of the trail as it descends toward Pennsylvania Canyon.
Camping along the Pennsylvania Trail is practically nonexistent, The narrowness of the ridge top limits level ground options.
Water is also nonexistent along the Pennsylvania Trail. Bring what you need, because no other option is available.
Trail Distance - 2½ miles
Net Elevation Change - 1,700 feet
Highest Elevation - 9,300 feet
Norman Trail (#54) begins at the intersection with Pennsylvania Trail (#51) on the south end and at the intersection with Tortolita Trail (#54) on the north end.
The trail is only 2½ miles long but changes 1,700 vertical feet over that distance, making it a challenging hike. The trail is seldom used and disappears completely in places. It is very poorly defined along the upper reaches. It takes some navigational and map skills to follow it into the canyon bottom. It does follow the location shown on the Wilderness map, closely, so try and follow the map. The Norman Trail is easier to follow in the lower canyon bottom, although faint due to a lack of use.
A few camping locations can be found along the ridge top, but you are exposed to the elements. Small campsites are abundant in the canyon bottom. However, water is nonexistent along the entire trail.
Trail Distance - 2 miles
Net Elevation Change - 1,350 feet
Highest Elevation - 8,500 feet
Gaylord Trail (#52), like Norman Trail, begins at the intersection with Pennsylvania Trail (#51) on the south end and at the intersection with Tortolita Trail (#54) on the north end.
There are near dozens of old mine workings of some magnitude within this drainage. Few are still visible and those that are have been hidden by the oak brush and are difficult to locate.
The trail descends 1,350 feet from the Pennsylvania Trail ridge to Tortolita Canyon in just under 2 miles. The upper section of trail plummets straight down a ridge toward the Gaylord Canyon bottom. This stretch of trail is faint, steep, rocky, overgrown in oak brush and tough hiking, whether going up or down.
The slope grade lessens once the canyon bottom is reached. The Gaylord Trail follows the Gaylord Canyon bottom thereafter. The trail sees little use. It is faint and covered in dead fall, but followable.
Camping locations are limited in Gaylord Canyon. The Canyon is thick with trees and very little level ground exists. Water can be found at Gaylord and Hatfield Springs. Gaylord Spring seeps into a carved-out log which hold water. However, the water has a high iron content and a bad taste. Hatfield Spring is a seep during normal seasons but dry during drought periods. Neither spring is a good source of water.
The problem with making loop hikes from the Nogal Canyon Trailhead is the only loop opportunities are rated as extremely difficult due to route-finding issues and lots of vertical feet. Don’t take these hikes unless you are in very good physical condition, and a good route finder.
Very Difficult - Nogal Trail (#48) to Tortolita Trail (#54) to Norman Trail (#34) to Pennsylvania Trail (#51) to Nogal Trail (#48)
Trail Distance - 8 miles
Net Elevation Change - 5,800 feet. (2,900 feet up, 2,900 feet down)
Highest Elevation - 9,300 feet
Extremely Difficult - Nogal Trail (#48) to Tortolita Trail (#54) to Gaylord Trail (#52) to Pennsylvania Trail (#51) to Nogal Trail (#48)
Trail Distance - 12 miles
Net Elevation Change - 6,500 feet. (3,250 feet up, 3,250 feet down)
Highest Elevation - 9,300 feet